It was seven o’clock in the morning, and a noisy crowd was waiting in the squares, the streets, and on the quays. At six o’clock a tumbril, the same in which after their duel the two friends had been conveyed half dead to the Louvre, had started from Vincennes and slowly crossed the Rue Saint Antoine. Along its route the spectators, so huddled together that they crushed one another, seemed like statues with fixed eyes and open mouths.
This day there was to be a heartrending spectacle offered by the queen mother to the people of Paris.
On some straw in the tumbril, we have mentioned, which was making its way through the streets, were two young men, bareheaded, and entirely clothed in black, leaning against each other. Coconnas supported on his knees La Mole, whose head hung over the sides of the tumbril, and whose eyes wandered vaguely here and there.
The crowd, eager to see even the bottom of the vehicle, crowded forward, lifted itself up, stood on tiptoe, mounted posts, clung to the angles of the walls, and appeared satisfied only when it had succeeded in seeing every detail of the two bodies which were going from the torture to death.
It had been rumored that La Mole was dying without having confessed one of the charges imputed to him; while, on the contrary, Coconnas, it was asserted, could not endure the torture, and had revealed everything.
So there were cries on all sides:
“See the red-haired one! It was he who confessed! It was he who told everything! He is a coward, and is the cause of the other’s death! The other is a brave fellow, and confessed nothing.”
The two young men heard perfectly, the one the praises, the other the reproaches, which accompanied their funeral march; and while La Mole pressed the hands of his friend a sublime expression of scorn lighted up the face of the Piedmontese, who from the foul tumbril gazed upon the stupid mob as if he were looking down from a triumphal car.
Misfortune had done its heavenly work, and had ennobled the face of Coconnas, as death was about to render divine his soul.
“Are we nearly there?” asked La Mole. “I can stand no more, my friend. I feel as if I were going to faint.”
“Wait! wait! La Mole, we are passing by the Rue Tizon and the Rue Cloche Percée; look! look!”
“Oh! raise me, raise me, that I may once more gaze on that happy abode.”
Coconnas raised his hand and touched the shoulder of the executioner, who sat at the front of the tumbril driving.
“Maître,” said he, “do us the kindness to stop a moment opposite the Rue Tizon.”
Caboche nodded in assent, and drew rein at the place indicated.
Aided by Coconnas, La Mole raised himself with an effort, and with eyes blinded by tears gazed at the small house, silent and mute, deserted as a tomb. A groan burst from him, and in a low voice he murmured:
“Adieu, adieu, youth, love, life!”
And his head fell forward on his breast.
“Courage,” said Coconnas; “we may perhaps find all this above.”
“Do you think so?” murmured La Mole.
“I think so, because the priest said so; and above all, because I hope so. But do not faint, my friend, or these staring wretches will laugh at us.”
Caboche heard the last words and whipping his horse with one hand he extended the other, unseen by any one, to Coconnas. It contained a small sponge saturated with a powerful stimulant, and La Mole, after smelling it and rubbing his forehead with it, felt himself revived and reanimated.
“Ah!” said La Mole, “I am better,” and he kissed the reliquary, which he wore around his neck.
As they turned a corner of the quay and reached the small edifice built by Henry II. they saw the scaffold rising bare and bloody on its platform above the heads of the crowd.
“Dear friend,” said La Mole, “I wish I might be the first to die.”
Coconnas again touched the hangman’s shoulder.
“What is it, my gentleman?” said the latter, turning around.
“My good fellow,” said Coconnas, “you will do what you can for me, will you not? You said you would.”
“Yes, and I repeat it.”
“My friend has suffered more than I and consequently has less strength”—
“Well, he says that it would cause him too much pain to see me die first. Besides, if I were to die before him he would have no one to support him on the scaffold.”
“Very well,” said Caboche, wiping away a tear with the back of his hand; “be easy, it shall be as you wish.”
“And with one blow, eh?” said the Piedmontese in a low tone.
“With one blow.”
“That is well. If you have to make up for it, make up on me.”
The tumbril stopped. They had arrived. Coconnas put on his hat.
A murmur like that of the waves at sea reached the ears of La Mole. He strove to rise, but strength failed him. Caboche and Coconnas supported him under the arms.
The place was paved with heads; the steps of the Hôtel de Ville seemed an amphitheatre peopled with spectators. Each window was filled with animated faces, the eyes of which seemed on fire.
When they saw the handsome young man, no longer able to support himself on his bruised legs, make a last effort to reach the scaffold, a great shout rose like a cry of universal desolation. Men groaned and women uttered plaintive shrieks.
“He was one of the greatest courtiers!” said the men; “and he should not have to die at Saint Jean en Grève, but at the Pré aux Clercs.”
“How handsome he is! How pale!” said the women; “he is the one who would not confess.”
“Dearest friend,” said La Mole, “I cannot stand. Carry me!”
“Wait,” said Coconnas.
He signed to the executioner, who stepped aside; then, stooping, he lifted La Mole in his arms as if he were a child, and without faltering carried his burden up the steps of the scaffold, where he put him down, amid the frantic shouting and applause of the multitude. Coconnas raised his hat and bowed. Then he threw the hat on the scaffold beside him.
“Look round,” said La Mole, “do you not see them somewhere?”
Coconnas slowly glanced around the place, and, having reached a certain point, without removing his eyes from it he laid his hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“Look,” said he, “look at the window of that small tower!”
With his other hand he pointed out to La Mole the little building which still stands at the corner of the Rue de la Vannerie and the Rue Mouton — a reminder of past ages.
Somewhat back from the window two women dressed in black were leaning against each other.
“Ah!” said La Mole, “I feared only one thing, and that was to die without seeing her again. I have seen her; now I can go.”
And with his eyes riveted on the small window he raised the reliquary to his lips and covered it with kisses.
Coconnas saluted the two women with as much grace as if he were in a drawing-room. In response to this they waved their handkerchiefs bathed in tears.
Caboche now touched Coconnas on the shoulder, and looked at him significantly.
“Yes, yes,” said the Piedmontese. Then turning to La Mole:
“Embrace me,” said he, “and die like a man. This will not be hard for you, my friend; you are so brave!”
“Ah!” said La Mole, “there will be no merit in my dying bravely, suffering as I do.”
The priest approached and held the crucifix before La Mole, who smiled and pointed to the reliquary in his hand.
“Never mind,” said the priest, “ask strength from Him who suffered what you are about to suffer.”
La Mole kissed the feet of the Christ.
“Commend me to the prayers of the nuns of the Avens Sainte Vierge.”
“Make haste, La Mole,” said Coconnas, “you cause me such suffering that I feel myself growing weak.”
“I am ready,” said La Mole.
“Can you keep your head steady?” inquired Caboche, holding his sword behind La Mole, who was on his knees.
“I hope so,” said the latter.
“Then all will go well.”
“But,” said La Mole, “you will not forget what I asked of you? This reliquary will open the doors to you.”
“Be easy. Now try to keep your head straight.”
La Mole raised his head and turned his eyes towards the little tower.
“Adieu, Marguerite,” said he; “bless”—
He never finished. With one blow of his sword, as swift as a stroke of lightning, Caboche severed the head, which rolled to the feet of Coconnas.
The body fell back gently as if going to rest.
A great cry rose from thousands of voices, and, among them, it seemed to Coconnas that he heard a shriek more piercing than all the rest.
“Thank you, my good friend,” said Coconnas, and a third time he extended his hand to the hangman.
“My son,” said the priest, “have you nothing to confess to God?”
“Faith no, father,” said the Piedmontese; “all that I had to say I said to you yesterday.”
Then turning to Caboche:
“Now, executioner, my last friend, one more favor!”
Before kneeling down he turned on the crowd a glance so calm and serene that a murmur of admiration rose, which soothed his ear and flattered his pride. Then, raising the head of his friend and pressing a kiss on the purple lips, he gave a last look toward the little tower, and kneeling down, still holding the well-loved head in his hand, he said:
Scarcely had he uttered the word before Caboche had cut off his head.
This done, the poor hangman began to tremble.
“It was time it was over,” said he. “Poor fellow!”
And with difficulty he drew from the clinched fingers of La Mole the reliquary of gold. Then he threw his cloak over the sad remains which the tumbril was to convey to his own abode.
The spectacle over, the crowd dispersed.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49