IN A LETTER TO EDWARD BRIEFLESS, ESQUIRE, OF PUMP COURT, TEMPLE.
PARIS, November, 1839.
MY DEAR BRIEFLESS — Two months since, when the act of accusation first appeared, containing the sum of the charges against Sebastian Peytel, all Paris was in a fervor on the subject. The man’s trial speedily followed, and kept for three days the public interest wound up to a painful point. He was found guilty of double murder at the beginning of September; and, since that time, what with Maroto’s disaffection and Turkish news, we have had leisure to forget Monsieur Peytel, and to occupy ourselves with [Greek text omitted]. Perhaps Monsieur de Balzac helped to smother what little sparks of interest might still have remained for the murderous notary. Balzac put forward a letter in his favor, so very long, so very dull, so very pompous, promising so much, and performing so little, that the Parisian public gave up Peytel and his case altogether; nor was it until today that some small feeling was raised concerning him, when the newspapers brought the account how Peytel’s head had been cut off at Bourg.
He had gone through the usual miserable ceremonies and delays which attend what is called, in this country, the march of justice. He had made his appeal to the Court of Cassation, which had taken time to consider the verdict of the Provincial Court, and had confirmed it. He had made his appeal for mercy; his poor sister coming up all the way from Bourg (a sad journey, poor thing!) to have an interview with the King, who had refused to see her. Last Monday morning, at nine o’clock, an hour before Peytel’s breakfast, the Greffier of Assize Court, in company with the Curé of Bourg, waited on him, and informed him that he had only three hours to live. At twelve o’clock, Peytel’s head was off his body: an executioner from Lyons had come over the night before, to assist the professional throat-cutter of Bourg.
I am not going to entertain you with any sentimental lamentations for this scoundrel’s fate, or to declare my belief in his innocence, as Monsieur de Balzac has done. As far as moral conviction can go, the man’s guilt is pretty clearly brought home to him. But any man who has read the “Causes Célèbres,” knows that men have been convicted and executed upon evidence ten times more powerful than that which was brought against Peytel. His own account of his horrible case may be true; there is nothing adduced in the evidence which is strong enough to overthrow it. It is a serious privilege, God knows, that society takes upon itself, at any time, to deprive one of God’s creatures of existence. But when the slightest doubt remains, what a tremendous risk does it incur! In England, thank heaven, the law is more wise and more merciful: an English jury would never have taken a man’s blood upon such testimony: an English judge and Crown advocate would never have acted as these Frenchmen have done; the latter inflaming the public mind by exaggerated appeals to their passions: the former seeking, in every way, to draw confessions from the prisoner, to perplex and confound him, to do away, by fierce cross-questioning and bitter remarks from the bench, with any effect that his testimony might have on the jury. I don’t mean to say that judges and lawyers have been more violent and inquisitorial against the unhappy Peytel than against any one else; it is the fashion of the country: a man is guilty until he proves himself to be innocent; and to batter down his defence, if he have any, there are the lawyers, with all their horrible ingenuity, and their captivating passionate eloquence. It is hard thus to set the skilful and tried champions of the law against men unused to this kind of combat; nay, give a man all the legal aid that he can purchase or procure, still, by this plan, you take him at a cruel, unmanly disadvantage; he has to fight against the law, clogged with the dreadful weight of his presupposed guilt. Thank God that, in England, things are not managed so.
However, I am not about to entertain you with ignorant disquisitions about the law. Peytel’s case may, nevertheless, interest you; for the tale is a very stirring and mysterious one; and you may see how easy a thing it is for a man’s life to be talked away in France, if ever he should happen to fall under the suspicion of a crime. The French “Acte d’accusation” begins in the following manner:—
“Of all the events which, in these latter times, have afflicted the department of the Ain, there is none which has caused a more profound and lively sensation than the tragical death of the lady, Félicité Alcazar, wife of Sebastian Benedict Peytel, notary, at Belley. At the end of October, 1838, Madame Peytel quitted that town, with her husband, and their servant Louis Rey, in order to pass a few days at Macon: at midnight, the inhabitants of Belley were suddenly awakened by the arrival of Monsieur Peytel, by his cries, and by the signs which he exhibited of the most lively agitation: he implored the succors of all the physicians in the town; knocked violently at their doors; rung at the bells of their houses with a sort of frenzy, and announced that his wife, stretched out, and dying, in his carriage, had just been shot, on the Lyons road, by his domestic, whose life Peytel himself had taken.
“At this recital a number of persons assembled, and what a spectacle was presented to their eyes.
“A young woman lay at the bottom of a carriage, deprived of life; her whole body was wet, and seemed as if it had just been plunged into the water. She appeared to be severely wounded in the face; and her garments, which were raised up, in spite of the cold and rainy weather, left the upper part of her knees almost entirely exposed. At the sight of this half-naked and inanimate body, all the spectators were affected. People said that the first duty to pay to a dying woman was, to preserve her from the cold, to cover her. A physician examined the body; he declared that all remedies were useless; that Madame Peytel was dead and cold.
“The entreaties of Peytel were redoubled; he demanded fresh succors, and, giving no heed to the fatal assurance which had just been given him, required that all the physicians in the place should be sent for. A scene so strange and so melancholy; the incoherent account given by Peytel of the murder of his wife; his extraordinary movements; and the avowal which he continued to make, that he had despatched the murderer, Rey, with strokes of his hammer, excited the attention of Lieutenant Wolf, commandant of gendarmes: that officer gave orders for the immediate arrest of Peytel; but the latter threw himself into the arms of a friend, who interceded for him, and begged the police not immediately to seize upon his person.
“The corpse of Madame Peytel was transported to her apartment; the bleeding body of the domestic was likewise brought from the road, where it lay; and Peytel, asked to explain the circumstance, did so.” . . . .
Now, as there is little reason to tell the reader, when an English counsel has to prosecute a prisoner on the part of the Crown for a capital offence, he produces the articles of his accusation in the most moderate terms, and especially warns the jury to give the accused person the benefit of every possible doubt that the evidence may give, or may leave. See how these things are managed in France, and how differently the French counsel for the Crown sets about his work.
He first prepares his act of accusation, the opening of which we have just read; it is published six days before the trial, so that an unimpassioned, unprejudiced jury has ample time to study it, and to form its opinions accordingly, and to go into court with a happy, just prepossession against the prisoner.
Read the first part of the Peytel act of accusation; it is as turgid and declamatory as a bad romance; and as inflated as a newspaper document, by an unlimited penny-a-liner:—“The department of the Ain is in a dreadful state of excitement; the inhabitants of Belley come trooping from their beds — and what a sight do they behold; — a young woman at the bottom of a carriage, toute ruisselante, just out of a river; her garments, in spite of the cold and rain, raised, so as to leave the upper part of her knees entirely exposed, at which all the beholders were affected, and cried, that the FIRST DUTY was to cover her from the cold.” This settles the case at once; the first duty of a man is to cover the legs of the sufferer; the second to call for help. The eloquent “Substitut du Procureur du Roi” has prejudged the case, in the course of a few sentences. He is putting his readers, among whom his future jury is to be found, into a proper state of mind; he works on them with pathetic description, just as a romance-writer would: the rain pours in torrents; it is a dreary evening in November; the young creature’s situation is neatly described; the distrust which entered into the breast of the keen old officer of gendarmes strongly painted, the suspicions which might, or might not, have been entertained by the inhabitants, eloquently argued. How did the advocate know that the people had such? did all the bystanders say aloud, “I suspect that this is a case of murder by Monsieur Peytel, and that his story about the domestic is all deception?” or did they go off to the mayor, and register their suspicion? or was the advocate there to hear them? Not he; but he paints you the whole scene, as though it had existed, and gives full accounts of suspicions, as if they had been facts, positive, patent, staring, that everybody could see and swear to.
Having thus primed his audience, and prepared them for the testimony of the accused party, “Now,” says he, with a fine show of justice, “let us hear Monsieur Peytel;” and that worthy’s narrative is given as follows:—
“He said that he had left Macon on the 31st October, at eleven o’clock in the morning, in order to return to Belley, with his wife and servant. The latter drove, or led, an open car; he himself was driving his wife in a four-wheeled carriage, drawn by one horse: they reached Bourg at five o’clock in the evening; left it at seven, to sleep at Pont d’Ain, where they did not arrive before midnight. During the journey, Peytel thought he remarked that Rey had slackened his horse’s pace. When they alighted at the inn, Peytel bade him deposit in his chamber 7,500 francs, which he carried with him; but the domestic refused to do so, saying that the inn gates were secure, and there was no danger. Peytel was, therefore, obliged to carry his money up stairs himself. The next day, the 1st November, they set out on their journey again, at nine o’clock in the morning; Louis did not come, according to custom, to take his master’s orders. They arrived at Tenay about three, stopped there a couple of hours to dine, and it was eight o’clock when they reached the bourg of Rossillon, where they waited half an hour to bait the horses.
“As they left Rossillon, the weather became bad, and the rain began to fall: Peytel told his domestic to get a covering for the articles in the open chariot; but Rey refused to do so, adding, in an ironical tone, that the weather was fine. For some days past, Peytel had remarked that his servant was gloomy, and scarcely spoke at all.
“After they had gone about 500 paces beyond the bridge of Andert, that crosses the river Furans, and ascended to the least steep part of the hill of Darde, Peytel cried out to his servant, who was seated in the car, to come down from it, and finish the ascent on foot.
“At this moment a violent wind was blowing from the south, and the rain was falling heavily: Peytel was seated back in the right corner of the carriage, and his wife, who was close to him, was asleep, with her head on his left shoulder. All of a sudden he heard the report of a fire-arm (he had seen the light of it at some paces’ distance), and Madame Peytel cried out, ‘My poor husband, take your pistols;’ the horse was frightened, and began to trot. Peytel immediately drew the pistol, and fired, from the interior of the carriage, upon an individual whom he saw running by the side of the road.
“Not knowing, as yet, that his wife had been hit, he jumped out on one side of the carriage, while Madame Peytel descended from the other; and he fired a second pistol at his domestic, Louis Rey, whom he had just recognized. Redoubling his pace, he came up with Rey, and struck him, from behind, a blow with the hammer. Rey turned at this, and raised up his arm to strike his master with the pistol which he had just discharged at him; but Peytel, more quick than he, gave the domestic a blow with the hammer, which felled him to the ground (he fell his face forwards), and then Peytel, bestriding the body, despatched him, although the brigand asked for mercy.
“He now began to think of his wife and ran back, calling out her name repeatedly, and seeking for her, in vain, on both sides of the road. Arrived at the bridge of Andert, he recognized his wife, stretched in a field, covered with water, which bordered the Furans. This horrible discovery had so much the more astonished him, because he had no idea, until now, that his wife had been wounded: he endeavored to draw her from the water; and it was only after considerable exertions that he was enabled to do so, and to place her, with her face towards the ground, on the side of the road. Supposing that, here, she would be sheltered from any farther danger, and believing, as yet, that she was only wounded, he determined to ask for help at a lone house, situated on the road towards Rossillon; and at this instant he perceived, without at all being able to explain how, that his horse had followed him back to the spot, having turned back of its own accord, from the road to Belley.
“The house at which he knocked was inhabited by two men, of the name of Thannet, father and son, who opened the door to him, and whom he entreated to come to his aid, saying that his wife had just been assassinated by his servant. The elder Thannet approached to, and examined the body, and told Peytel that it was quite dead; he and his son took up the corpse, and placed it in the bottom of the carriage, which they all mounted themselves, and pursued their route to Belley. In order to do so, they had to pass by Rey’s body, on the road, which Peytel wished to crush under the wheels of his carriage. It was to rob him of 7,500 francs, said Peytel, that the attack had been made.”
Our friend, the Procureur’s Substitut, has dropped, here, the eloquent and pathetic style altogether, and only gives the unlucky prisoner’s narrative in the baldest and most unimaginative style. How is a jury to listen to such a fellow? they ought to condemn him, if but for making such an uninteresting statement. Why not have helped poor Peytel with some of those rhetorical graces which have been so plentifully bestowed in the opening part of the act of accusation? He might have said:—
“Monsieur Peytel is an eminent notary at Belley; he is a man distinguished for his literary and scientific acquirements; he has lived long in the best society of the capital; he had been but a few months married to that young and unfortunate lady, whose loss has plunged her bereaved husband into despair — almost into madness. Some early differences had marked, it is true, the commencement of their union; but these, which, as can be proved by evidence, were almost all the unhappy lady’s fault — had happily ceased, to give place to sentiments far more delightful and tender. Gentlemen, Madame Peytel bore in her bosom a sweet pledge of future concord between herself and her husband: in three brief months she was to become a mother.
“In the exercise of his honorable profession — in which, to succeed, a man must not only have high talents, but undoubted probity — and, gentlemen, Monsieur Peytel DID succeed — DID inspire respect and confidence, as you, his neighbors, well know; — in the exercise, I say, of his high calling, Monsieur Peytel, towards the end of October last, had occasion to make a journey in the neighborhood, and visit some of his many clients.
“He travelled in his own carriage, his young wife beside him. Does this look like want of affection, gentlemen? or is it not a mark of love — of love and paternal care on his part towards the being with whom his lot in life was linked — the mother of his coming child — the young girl, who had everything to gain from the union with a man of his attainments of intellect, his kind temper, his great experience, and his high position? In this manner they travelled, side by side, lovingly together. Monsieur Peytel was not a lawyer merely, but a man of letters and varied learning; of the noble and sublime science of geology he was, especially, an ardent devotee.”
(Suppose, here, a short panegyric upon geology. Allude to the creation of this mighty world, and then, naturally, to the Creator. Fancy the conversations which Peytel, a religious man,9 might have with his young wife upon the subject.)
9 He always went to mass; it is in the evidence.
“Monsieur Peytel had lately taken into his service a man named Louis Rey. Rey was a foundling, and had passed many years in a regiment — a school, gentlemen, where much besides bravery, alas! is taught; nay, where the spirit which familiarizes one with notions of battle and death, I fear, may familiarize one with ideas, too, of murder. Rey, a dashing reckless fellow, from the army, had lately entered Peytel’s service, was treated by him with the most singular kindness; accompanied him (having charge of another vehicle) upon the journey before alluded to; and KNEW THAT HIS MASTER CARRIED WITH HIM A CONSIDERABLE SUM OF MONEY; for a man like Rey an enormous sum, 7,500 francs. At midnight on the 1st of November, as Madame Peytel and her husband were returning home, an attack was made upon their carriage. Remember, gentlemen, the hour at which the attack was made; remember the sum of money that was in the carriage; and remember that the Savoy frontier IS WITHIN A LEAGUE OF THE SPOT where the desperate deed was done.”
Now, my dear Briefless, ought not Monsieur Procureur, in common justice to Peytel, after he had so eloquently proclaimed, not the facts, but the suspicions, which weighed against that worthy, to have given a similar florid account of the prisoner’s case? Instead of this, you will remark, that it is the advocate’s endeavor to make Peytel’s statements as uninteresting in style as possible; and then he demolishes them in the following way:—
“Scarcely was Peytel’s statement known, when the common sense of the public rose against it. Peytel had commenced his story upon the bridge of Andert, over the cold body of his wife. On the 2nd November he had developed it in detail, in the presence of the physicians, in the presence of the assembled neighbors — of the persons who, on the day previous only, were his friends. Finally, he had completed it in his interrogatories, his conversations, his writings, and letters to the magistrates and everywhere these words, repeated so often, were only received with a painful incredulity. The fact was that, besides the singular character which Peytel’s appearance, attitude, and talk had worn ever since the event, there was in his narrative an inexplicable enigma; its contradictions and impossibilities were such, that calm persons were revolted at it, and that even friendship itself refused to believe it.”
Thus Mr. Attorney speaks, not for himself alone, but for the whole French public; whose opinions, of course, he knows. Peytel’s statement is discredited EVERYWHERE; the statement which he had made over the cold body of his wife — the monster! It is not enough simply to prove that the man committed the murder, but to make the jury violently angry against him, and cause them to shudder in the jury-box, as he exposes the horrid details of the crime.
“Justice,” goes on Mr. Substitute (who answers for the feelings of everybody), “DISTURBED BY THE PRE-OCCUPATIONS OF PUBLIC OPINION, commenced, without delay, the most active researches. The bodies of the victims were submitted to the investigations of men of art; the wounds and projectiles were examined; the place where the event took place explored with care. The morality of the author of this frightful scene became the object of rigorous examination; the exigeances of the prisoner, the forms affected by him, his calculating silence, and his answers, coldly insulting, were feeble obstacles; and justice at length arrived, by its prudence, and by the discoveries it made, to the most cruel point of certainty.”
You see that a man’s demeanor is here made a crime against him; and that Mr. Substitute wishes to consider him guilty, because he has actually the audacity to hold his tongue. Now follows a touching description of the domestic, Louis Rey:—
“Louis Rey, a child of the Hospital at Lyons, was confided, at a very early age, to some honest country people, with whom he stayed until he entered the army. At their house, and during this long period of time, his conduct, his intelligence, and the sweetness of his manners were such, that the family of his guardians became to him as an adopted family; and his departure caused them the most sincere affliction. When Louis quitted the army, he returned to his benefactors, and was received as a son. They found him just as they had ever known him” (I acknowledge that this pathos beats my humble defence of Peytel entirely), “except that he had learned to read and write; and the certificates of his commanders proved him to be a good and gallant soldier.
“The necessity of creating some resources for himself, obliged him to quit his friends, and to enter the service of Monsieur de Montrichard, a lieutenant of gendarmerie, from whom he received fresh testimonials of regard. Louis, it is true, might have a fondness for wine and a passion for women; but he had been a soldier, and these faults were, according to the witnesses, amply compensated for by his activity, his intelligence, and the agreeable manner in which he performed his service. In the month of July, 1839, Rey quitted, voluntarily, the service of M. de Montrichard; and Peytel, about this period, meeting him at Lyons, did not hesitate to attach him to his service. Whatever may be the prisoner’s present language, it is certain that up to the day of Louis’s death, he served Peytel with diligence and fidelity.
“More than once his master and mistress spoke well of him. EVERYBODY who has worked, or been at the house of Madame Peytel, has spoken in praise of his character; and, indeed, it may be said, that these testimonials were general.
“On the very night of the 1st of November, and immediately after the catastrophe, we remark how Peytel begins to make insinuations against his servant; and how artfully, in order to render them more sure, he disseminates them through the different parts of his narrative. But, in the course of the proceeding, these charges have met with a most complete denial. Thus we find the disobedient servant who, at Pont d’Ain, refused to carry the money-chest to his master’s room, under the pretext that the gates of the inn were closed securely, occupied with tending the horses after their long journey: meanwhile Peytel was standing by, and neither master nor servant exchanged a word, and the witnesses who beheld them both have borne testimony to the zeal and care of the domestic.
“In like manner, we find that the servant, who was so remiss in the morning as to neglect to go to his master for orders, was ready for departure before seven o’clock, and had eagerly informed himself whether Monsieur and Madame Peytel were awake; learning from the maid of the inn, that they had ordered nothing for their breakfast. This man, who refused to carry with him a covering for the car, was, on the contrary, ready to take off his own cloak, and with it shelter articles of small value; this man, who had been for many days so silent and gloomy, gave, on the contrary, many proofs of his gayety — almost of his indiscretion, speaking, at all the inns, in terms of praise of his master and mistress. The waiter at the inn at Dauphin, says he was a tall young fellow, mild and good-natured; ‘we talked for some time about horses, and such things; he seemed to be perfectly natural, and not pre-occupied at all.’ At Pont d’Ain, he talked of his being a foundling; of the place where he had been brought up, and where he had served; and finally, at Rossillon, an hour before his death, he conversed familiarly with the master of the port, and spoke on indifferent subjects.
“All Peytel’s insinuations against his servant had no other end than to show, in every point of Rey’s conduct, the behavior of a man who was premeditating attack. Of what, in fact, does he accuse him? Of wishing to rob him of 7,500 francs, and of having had recourse to assassination, in order to effect the robbery. But, for a premeditated crime, consider what singular improvidence the person showed who had determined on committing it; what folly and what weakness there is in the execution of it.
“How many insurmountable obstacles are there in the way of committing and profiting by crime! On leaving Belley, Louis Rey, according to Peytel’s statement, knowing that his master would return with money, provided himself with a holster pistol, which Madame Peytel had once before perceived among his effects. In Peytel’s cabinet there were some balls; four of these were found in Rey’s trunk, on the 6th of November. And, in order to commit the crime, this domestic had brought away with him a pistol, and no ammunition; for Peytel has informed us that Rey, an hour before his departure from Macon, purchased six balls at a gunsmith’s. To gain his point, the assassin must immolate his victims; for this, he has only one pistol, knowing, perfectly well, that Peytel, in all his travels, had two on his person; knowing that, at a late hour of the night, his shot might fail of effect; and that, in this case, he would be left to the mercy of his opponent.
“The execution of the crime is, according to Peytel’s account, still more singular. Louis does not get off the carriage, until Peytel tells him to descend. He does not think of taking his master’s life until he is sure that the latter has his eyes open. It is dark, and the pair are covered in one cloak; and Rey only fires at them at six paces’ distance: he fires at hazard, without disquieting himself as to the choice of his victim; and the soldier, who was bold enough to undertake this double murder, has not force nor courage to consummate it. He flies, carrying in his hand a useless whip, with a heavy mantle on his shoulders, in spite of the detonation of two pistols at his ears, and the rapid steps of an angry master in pursuit, which ought to have set him upon some better means of escape. And we find this man, full of youth and vigor, lying with his face to the ground, in the midst of a public road, falling without a struggle, or resistance, under the blows of a hammer!
“And suppose the murderer had succeeded in his criminal projects, what fruit could he have drawn from them? — Leaving, on the road, the two bleeding bodies; obliged to lead two carriages at a time, for fear of discovery; not able to return himself, after all the pains he had taken to speak, at every place at which they had stopped, of the money which his master was carrying with him; too prudent to appear alone at Belley; arrested at the frontier, by the excise officers, who would present an impassable barrier to him till morning, what could he do, or hope to do? The examination of the car has shown that Rey, at the moment of the crime, had neither linen, nor clothes, nor effects of any kind. There was found in his pockets, when the body was examined, no passport, nor certificate; one of his pockets contained a ball, of large calibre, which he had shown, in play, to a girl, at the inn at Macon, a little horn-handled knife, a snuff-box, a little packet of gunpowder, and a purse, containing only a halfpenny and some string. Here is all the baggage, with which, after the execution of his homicidal plan, Louis Rey intended to take refuge in a foreign country.10 Beside these absurd contradictions, there is another remarkable fact, which must not be passed over; it is this:— the pistol found by Rey is of antique form, and the original owner of it has been found. He is a curiosity-merchant at Lyons; and, though he cannot affirm that Peytel was the person who bought this pistol of him, he perfectly recognizes Peytel as having been a frequent customer at his shop!
10 This sentence is taken from another part of the “Acte d’accusation.”
“No, we may fearlessly affirm that Louis Rey was not guilty of the crime which Peytel lays to his charge. If, to those who knew him, his mild and open disposition, his military career, modest and without a stain, the touching regrets of his employers, are sufficient proofs of his innocence — the calm and candid observer, who considers how the crime was conceived, was executed, and what consequences would have resulted from it, will likewise acquit him, and free him of the odious imputation which Peytel endeavors to cast upon his memory.
“But justice has removed the veil, with which an impious hand endeavored to cover itself. Already, on the night of the 1st of November, suspicion was awakened by the extraordinary agitation of Peytel; by those excessive attentions towards his wife, which came so late; by that excessive and noisy grief, and by those calculated bursts of sorrow, which are such as Nature does not exhibit. The criminal, whom the public conscience had fixed upon; the man whose frightful combinations have been laid bare, and whose falsehoods, step by step, have been exposed, during the proceedings previous to the trial; the murderer, at whose hands a heart-stricken family, and society at large, demands an account of the blood of a wife; — that murderer is Peytel.”
When, my dear Briefless, you are a judge (as I make no doubt you will be, when you have left off the club all night, cigar-smoking of mornings, and reading novels in bed), will you ever find it in your heart to order a fellow-sinner’s head off upon such evidence as this? Because a romantic Substitut du Procureur de Roi chooses to compose and recite a little drama, and draw tears from juries, let us hope that severe Rhadamanthine judges are not to be melted by such trumpery. One wants but the description of the characters to render the piece complete, as thus:—
SEBASTIAN PEYTAL Meurtrier Habillement complet de notaire
perfide: figure pâle, barbe
noire, cheveux noirs.
LOUIS REY Soldat rétiré, bon, Costume ordinaire; il porte sur
brave, franc, jovial ses épaules une couverture de
aimant le vin, les cheval.
femmes, la gaieté,
ses maîtres surtout;
vrai Français, enfin
WOLF Lieutenant de gendarmerie.
FÉLICITÉ D’ALCAZAR Femme et victime de Peytel.
Médecins, Villageois, Filles d’Auberge, Garçons d’Ecurie, &c. &c.
La scène se passe sur le pont d’Andert, entre Macon et Belley. Il est minuit. La pluie tombe: les tonnerres grondent. Le ciel est convert de nuages, et sillonné d’éclairs.
All these personages are brought into play in the Procureur’s drama; the villagers come in with their chorus; the old lieutenant of gendarmes with his suspicions; Rey’s frankness and gayety, the romantic circumstances of his birth, his gallantry and fidelity, are all introduced, in order to form a contrast with Peytel, and to call down the jury’s indignation against the latter. But are these proofs? or anything like proofs? And the suspicions, that are to serve instead of proofs, what are they?
“My servant, Louis Rey, was very sombre and reserved,” says Peytel; “he refused to call me in the morning, to carry my money-chest to my room, to cover the open car when it rained.” The Prosecutor disproves this by stating that Rey talked with the inn maids and servants, asked if his master was up, and stood in the inn-yard, grooming the horses, with his master by his side, neither speaking to the other. Might he not have talked to the maids, and yet been sombre when speaking to his master? Might he not have neglected to call his master, and yet have asked whether he was awake? Might he not have said that the inn-gates were safe, out of hearing of the ostler witness? Mr. Substitute’s answers to Peytel’s statements are no answer at all. Every word Peytel said might be true, and yet Louis Rey might not have committed the murder; or every word might have been false, and yet Louis Rey might have committed the murder.
“Then,” says Mr. Substitute, “how many obstacles are there to the commission of the crime? And these are —
“1. Rey provided himself with ONE holster pistol, to kill two people, knowing well that one of them had always a brace of pistols about him.
“2. He does not think of firing until his master’s eyes are open: fires at six paces, not caring at whom he fires, and then runs away.
“3. He could not have intended to kill his master, because he had no passport in his pocket, and no clothes; and because he must have been detained at the frontier until morning; and because he would have had to drive two carriages, in order to avoid suspicion.
“4. And, a most singular circumstance, the very pistol which was found by his side had been bought at the shop of a man at Lyons, who perfectly recognized Peytel as one of his customers, though he could not say he had sold that particular weapon to Peytel.”
Does it follow, from this, that Louis Rey is not the murderer, much more, that Peytel is? Look at argument No. 1. Rey had no need to kill two people: he wanted the money, and not the blood. Suppose he had killed Peytel, would he not have mastered Madame Peytel easily? — a weak woman, in an excessively delicate situation, incapable of much energy, at the best of times.
2. “He does not fire till he knows his master’s eyes are open.” Why, on a stormy night, does a man driving a carriage go to sleep? Was Rey to wait until his master snored? “He fires at six paces, not caring whom he hits;"— and might not this happen too? The night is not so dark but that he can see his master, in HIS USUAL PLACE, driving. He fires and hits — whom? Madame Peytel, who had left her place, AND WAS WRAPPED UP WITH PEYTEL IN HIS CLOAK. She screams out, “Husband, take your pistols.” Rey knows that his master has a brace, thinks that he has hit the wrong person, and, as Peytel fires on him, runs away. Peytel follows, hammer in hand; as he comes up with the fugitive, he deals him a blow on the back of the head, and Rey falls — his face to the ground. Is there anything unnatural in this story? — anything so monstrously unnatural, that is, that it might not be true?
3. These objections are absurd. Why need a man have change of linen? If he had taken none for the journey, why should he want any for the escape? Why need he drive two carriages? — He might have driven both into the river, and Mrs. Peytel in one. Why is he to go to the douane, and thrust himself into the very jaws of danger? Are there not a thousand ways for a man to pass a frontier? Do smugglers, when they have to pass from one country to another, choose exactly those spots where a police is placed?
And, finally, the gunsmith of Lyons, who knows Peytel quite well, cannot say that he sold the pistol to him; that is, he did NOT sell the pistol to him; for you have only one man’s word, in this case (Peytel’s), to the contrary; and the testimony, as far as it goes, is in his favor. I say, my lud, and gentlemen of the jury, that these objections of my learned friend, who is engaged for the Crown, are absurd, frivolous, monstrous; that to SUSPECT away the life of a man upon such suppositions as these, is wicked, illegal, and inhuman; and, what is more, that Louis Rey, if he wanted to commit the crime — if he wanted to possess himself of a large sum of money, chose the best time and spot for so doing; and, no doubt, would have succeeded, if Fate had not, in a wonderful manner, caused Madame Peytel TO TAKE HER HUSBAND’S PLACE, and receive the ball intended for him in her own head.
But whether these suspicions are absurd or not, hit or miss, it is the advocate’s duty, as it appears, to urge them. He wants to make as unfavorable an impression as possible with regard to Peytel’s character; he, therefore, must, for contrast’s sake, give all sorts of praise to his victim, and awaken every sympathy in the poor fellow’s favor. Having done this, as far as lies in his power, having exaggerated every circumstance that can be unfavorable to Peytel, and given his own tale in the baldest manner possible — having declared that Peytel is the murderer of his wife and servant, the Crown now proceeds to back this assertion, by showing what interested motives he had, and by relating, after its own fashion, the circumstances of his marriage.
They may be told briefly here. Peytel was of a good family, of Macon, and entitled, at his mother’s death, to a considerable property. He had been educated as a notary, and had lately purchased a business, in that line, in Belley, for which he had paid a large sum of money; part of the sum, 15,000 francs, for which he had given bills, was still due.
Near Belley, Peytel first met Félicité Alcazar, who was residing with her brother-inlaw, Monsieur de Montrichard; and, knowing that the young lady’s fortune was considerable, he made an offer of marriage to the brother-inlaw, who thought the match advantageous, and communicated on the subject with Félicité‘s mother, Madame Alcazar, at Paris. After a time Peytel went to Paris, to press his suit, and was accepted. There seems to have been no affectation of love on his side; and some little repugnance on the part of the lady, who yielded, however, to the wishes of her parents, and was married. The parties began to quarrel on the very day of the marriage, and continued their disputes almost to the close of the unhappy connection. Félicité was half blind, passionate, sarcastic, clumsy in her person and manners, and ill educated; Peytel, a man of considerable intellect and pretensions, who had lived for some time at Paris, where he had mingled with good literary society. The lady was, in fact, as disagreeable a person as could well be, and the evidence describes some scenes which took place between her and her husband, showing how deeply she must have mortified and enraged him.
A charge very clearly made out against Peytel, is that of dishonesty; he procured from the notary of whom he bought his place an acquittance in full, whereas there were 15,000 francs owing, as we have seen. He also, in the contract of marriage, which was to have resembled, in all respects, that between Monsieur Broussais and another Demoiselle Alcazar, caused an alteration to be made in his favor, which gave him command over his wife’s funded property, without furnishing the guarantees by which the other son-inlaw was bound. And, almost immediately after his marriage, Peytel sold out of the funds a sum of 50,000 francs, that belonged to his wife, and used it for his own purposes.
About two months after his marriage, PEYTEL PRESSED HIS WIFE TO MAKE HER WILL. He had made his, he said, leaving everything to her, in case of his death: after some parley, the poor thing consented.11 This is a cruel suspicion against him; and Mr. Substitute has no need to enlarge upon it. As for the previous fact, the dishonest statement about the 15,000 francs, there is nothing murderous in that — nothing which a man very eager to make a good marriage might not do. The same may be said of the suppression, in Peytel’s marriage contract, of the clause to be found in Broussais’s, placing restrictions upon the use of the wife’s money. Mademoiselle d’Alcazar’s friends read the contract before they signed it, and might have refused it, had they so pleased.
11 “Peytel,” says the act of accusation, “did not fail to see the danger which would menace him, if this will (which had escaped the magistrates in their search of Peytel’s papers) was discovered. He, therefore, instructed his agent to take possession of it, which he did, and the fact was not mentioned for several months afterwards. Peytel and his agent were called upon to explain the circumstance, but refused, and their silence for a long time interrupted the ‘instruction’” (getting up of the evidence). “All that could be obtained from them was an avowal, that such a will existed, constituting Peytel his wife’s sole legatee; and a promise, on their parts, to produce it before the court gave its sentence.” But why keep the will secret? The anxiety about it was surely absurd and unnecessary: the whole of Madame Peytel’s family knew that such a will was made. She had consulted her sister concerning it, who said —“If there is no other way of satisfying him, make the will;” and the mother, when she heard of it, cried out —“Does he intend to poison her?”
After some disputes, which took place between Peytel and his wife (there were continual quarrels, and continual letters passing between them from room to room), the latter was induced to write him a couple of exaggerated letters, swearing “by the ashes of her father” that she would be an obedient wife to him, and entreating him to counsel and direct her. These letters were seen by members of the lady’s family, who, in the quarrels between the couple, always took the husband’s part. They were found in Peytel’s cabinet, after he had been arrested for the murder, and after he had had full access to all his papers, of which he destroyed or left as many as he pleased. The accusation makes it a matter of suspicion against Peytel, that he should have left these letters of his wife’s in a conspicuous situation.
“All these circumstances,” says the accusation, “throw a frightful light upon Peytel’s plans. The letters and will of Madame Peytel are in the hands of her husband. Three months pass away, and this poor woman is brought to her home, in the middle of the night, with two balls in her head, stretched at the bottom of her carriage, by the side of a peasant.”
“What other than Sebastian Peytel could have committed this murder? — whom could it profit? — who but himself had an odious chain to break, and an inheritance to receive? Why speak of the servant’s projected robbery? The pistols found by the side of Louis’s body, the balls bought by him at Macon, and those discovered at Belley among his effects, were only the result of a perfidious combination. The pistol, indeed, which was found on the hill of Darde, on the night of the 1st of November, could only have belonged to Peytel, and must have been thrown by him, near the body of his domestic, with the paper which had before enveloped it. Who had seen this pistol in the hands of Louis? Among all the gendarmes, work-women, domestics, employed by Peytel and his brother-inlaw, is there one single witness who had seen this weapon in Louis’s possession? It is true that Madame Peytel did, on one occasion, speak to M. de Montrichard of a pistol; which had nothing to do, however, with that found near Louis Rey.”
Is this justice, or good reason? Just reverse the argument, and apply it to Rey. “Who but Rey could have committed this murder? — who but Rey had a large sum of money to seize upon? — a pistol is found by his side, balls and powder in his pocket, other balls in his trunks at home. The pistol found near his body could not, indeed, have belonged to Peytel: did any man ever see it in his possession? The very gunsmith who sold it, and who knew Peytel, would he not have known that he had sold him this pistol? At his own house, Peytel has a collection of weapons of all kinds; everybody has seen them — a man who makes such collections is anxious to display them. Did any one ever see this weapon? — Not one. And Madame Peytel did, in her lifetime, remark a pistol in the valet’s possession. She was short-sighted, and could not particularize what kind of pistol it was; but she spoke of it to her husband and her brother-inlaw.” This is not satisfactory, if you please; but, at least, it is as satisfactory as the other set of suppositions. It is the very chain of argument which would have been brought against Louis Rey by this very same compiler of the act of accusation, had Rey survived, instead of Peytel, and had he, as most undoubtedly would have been the case, been tried for the murder.
This argument was shortly put by Peytel’s counsel:—“if Peytel had been killed by Rey in the struggle, would you not have found Rey guilty of the murder of his master and mistress?” It is such a dreadful dilemma, that I wonder how judges and lawyers could have dared to persecute Peytel in the manner which they did.
After the act of accusation, which lays down all the suppositions against Peytel as facts, which will not admit the truth of one of the prisoner’s allegations in his own defence, comes the trial. The judge is quite as impartial as the preparer of the indictment, as will be seen by the following specimens of his interrogatories:—
Judge. “The act of accusation finds in your statement contradictions, improbabilities, impossibilities. Thus your domestic, who had determined to assassinate you, in order to rob you, and who MUST HAVE CALCULATED UPON THE CONSEQUENCE OF A FAILURE, had neither passport nor money upon him. This is very unlikely; because he could not have gone far with only a single halfpenny, which was all he had.”
Prisoner. “My servant was known, and often passed the frontier without a passport.”
Judge. “YOUR DOMESTIC HAD TO ASSASSINATE TWO PERSONS, and had no weapon but a single pistol. He had no dagger; and the only thing found on him was a knife.”
Prisoner. “In the car there were several turner’s implements, which he might have used.”
Judge. “But he had not those arms upon him, because you pursued him immediately. He had, according to you, only this old pistol.”
Prisoner. “I have nothing to say.”
Judge. “Your domestic, instead of flying into woods, which skirt the road, ran straight forward on the road itself: THIS, AGAIN, IS VERY UNLIKELY.”
Prisoner. “This is a conjecture I could answer by another conjecture; I can only reason on the facts.”
Judge. “How far did you pursue him?”
Prisoner. “I don’t know exactly.”
Judge. “You said ‘two hundred paces.’”
No answer from the prisoner.
Judge. “Your domestic was young, active, robust, and tall. He was ahead of you. You were in a carriage, from which you had to descend: you had to take your pistols from a cushion, and THEN your hammer; — how are we to believe that you could have caught him, if he ran? It is IMPOSSIBLE.”
Prisoner. “I can’t explain it: I think that Rey had some defect in one leg. I, for my part, run tolerably fast.”
Judge. “At what distance from him did you fire your first shot?”
Prisoner. “I can’t tell.”
Judge. “Perhaps he was not running when you fired.”
Prisoner. “I saw him running.”
Judge. “In what position was your wife?”
Prisoner. “She was leaning on my left arm, and the man was on the right side of the carriage.”
Judge. “The shot must have been fired à bout portant, because it burned the eyebrows and lashes entirely. The assassin must have passed his pistol across your breast.”
Prisoner. “The shot was not fired so close; I am convinced of it: professional gentlemen will prove it.”
Judge. “That is what you pretend, because you understand perfectly the consequences of admitting the fact. Your wife was hit with two balls — one striking downwards, to the right, by the nose, the other going horizontally through the cheek, to the left.”
Prisoner. “The contrary will be shown by the witnesses called for the purpose.”
Judge. “IT IS A VERY UNLUCKY COMBINATION FOR YOU that these balls, which went, you say, from the same pistol, should have taken two different directions.”
Prisoner. “I can’t dispute about the various combinations of fire-arms — professional persons will be heard.”
Judge. “According to your statement, your wife said to you, ‘My poor husband, take your pistols.’”
Prisoner. “She did.”
Judge. “In a manner quite distinct.”
Judge. “So distinct that you did not fancy she was hit?”
Prisoner. “Yes; that is the fact.”
Judge. “HERE, AGAIN, IS AN IMPOSSIBILITY; and nothing is more precise than the declaration of the medical men. They affirm that your wife could not have spoken — their report is unanimous.”
Prisoner. “I can only oppose to it quite contrary opinions from professional men, also: you must hear them.”
Judge. “What did your wife do next?”
. . . . . .
Judge. “You deny the statements of the witnesses:” (they related to Peytel’s demeanor and behavior, which the judge wishes to show were very unusual; — and what if they were?) “Here, however, are some mute witnesses, whose testimony, you will not perhaps refuse. Near Louis Rey’s body was found a horse-cloth, a pistol, and a whip. . . . . Your domestic must have had this cloth upon him when he went to assassinate you: it was wet and heavy. An assassin disencumbers himself of anything that is likely to impede him, especially when he is going to struggle with a man as young as himself.”
Prisoner. “My servant had, I believe, this covering on his body; it might be useful to him to keep the priming of his pistol dry.”
The president caused the cloth to be opened, and showed that there was no hook, or tie, by which it could be held together; and that Rey must have held it with one hand, and, in the other, his whip, and the pistol with which he intended to commit the crime; which was impossible.
Prisoner. “These are only conjectures.”
And what conjectures, my God! upon which to take away the life of a man. Jeffreys, or Fouquier Tinville, could scarcely have dared to make such. Such prejudice, such bitter persecution, such priming of the jury, such monstrous assumptions and unreason — fancy them coming from an impartial judge! The man is worse than the public accuser.
“Rey,” says the Judge, “could not have committed the murder, BECAUSE HE HAD NO MONEY IN HIS POCKET, TO FLY, IN CASE OF FAILURE.” And what is the precise sum that his lordship thinks necessary for a gentleman to have, before he makes such an attempt? Are the men who murder for money, usually in possession of a certain independence before they begin? How much money was Rey, a servant, who loved wine and women, had been stopping at a score of inns on the road, and had, probably, an annual income of 400 francs — how much money was Rey likely to have?
“Your servant had to assassinate two persons.” This I have mentioned before. Why had he to assassinate two persons,12 when one was enough? If he had killed Peytel, could he not have seized and gagged his wife immediately?
12 M. Balzac’s theory of the case is, that Rey had intrigued with Madame Peytel; having known her previous to her marriage, when she was staying in the house of her brother-inlaw, Monsieur de Montrichard, where Rey had been a servant.
“Your domestic ran straight forward, instead of taking to the woods, by the side of the rood: this is very unlikely.” How does his worship know? Can any judge, however enlightened, tell the exact road that a man will take, who has just missed a coup of murder, and is pursued by a man who is firing pistols at him? And has a judge a right to instruct a jury in this way, as to what they shall, or shall not, believe?
“You have to run after an active man, who has the start of you: to jump out of a carriage; to take your pistols; and THEN, your hammer. THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE.” By heavens! does it not make a man’s blood boil, to read such blundering, blood-seeking sophistry? This man, when it suits him, shows that Rey would be slow in his motions; and when it suits him, declares that Rey ought to be quick; declares ex cathedrâ, what pace Rey should go, and what direction he should take; shows, in a breath, that he must have run faster than Peytel; and then, that he could not run fast, because the cloak clogged him; settles how he is to be dressed when he commits a murder, and what money he is to have in his pocket; gives these impossible suppositions to the jury, and tells them that the previous statements are impossible; and, finally, informs them of the precise manner in which Rey must have stood holding his horse-cloth in one hand, his whip and pistol in the other, when he made the supposed attempt at murder. Now, what is the size of a horse-cloth? Is it as big as a pocket-handkerchief? Is there no possibility that it might hang over one shoulder; that the whip should be held under that very arm? Did you never see a carter so carry it, his hands in his pockets all the while? Is it monstrous, abhorrent to nature, that a man should fire a pistol from under a cloak on a rainy day? — that he should, after firing the shot, be frightened, and run; run straight before him, with the cloak on his shoulders, and the weapon in his hand? Peytel’s story is possible, and very possible; it is almost probable. Allow that Rey had the cloth on, and you allow that he must have been clogged in his motions; that Peytel may have come up with him — felled him with a blow of the hammer; the doctors say that he would have so fallen by one blow — he would have fallen on his face, as he was found: the paper might have been thrust into his breast, and tumbled out as he fell. Circumstances far more impossible have occurred ere this; and men have been hanged for them, who were as innocent of the crime laid to their charge as the judge on the bench, who convicted them.
In like manner, Peytel may not have committed the crime charged to him; and Mr. Judge, with his arguments as to possibilities and impossibilities — Mr. Public Prosecutor, with his romantic narrative and inflammatory harangues to the jury — may have used all these powers to bring to death an innocent man. From the animus with which the case had been conducted from beginning to end, it was easy to see the result. Here it is, in the words of the provincial paper:—
BOURG, 28 October, 1839.
“The condemned Peytel has just undergone his punishment, which took place four days before the anniversary of his crime. The terrible drama of the bridge of Andert, which cost the life of two persons, has just terminated on the scaffold. Mid-day had just sounded on the clock of the Palais: the same clock tolled midnight when, on the 30th of August, his sentence was pronounced.
“Since the rejection of his appeal in Cassation, on which his principal hopes were founded, Peytel spoke little of his petition to the King. The notion of transportation was that which he seemed to cherish most. However, he made several inquiries from the gaoler of the prison, when he saw him at meal-time, with regard to the place of execution, the usual hour, and other details on the subject. From that period, the words ‘Champ de Foire’ (the fair-field, where the execution was to be held), were frequently used by him in conversation.
“Yesterday, the idea that the time had arrived seemed to be more strongly than ever impressed upon him; especially after the departure of the curé, who latterly has been with him every day. The documents connected with the trial had arrived in the morning. He was ignorant of this circumstance, but sought to discover from his guardians what they tried to hide from him; and to find out whether his petition was rejected, and when he was to die.
“Yesterday, also, he had written to demand the presence of his counsel, M. Margerand, in order that he might have some conversation with him, and regulate his affairs, before he ——; he did not write down the word, but left in its place a few points of the pen.
“In the evening, whilst he was at supper, he begged earnestly to be allowed a little wax-candle, to finish what he was writing: otherwise, he said, TIME MIGHT FAIL. This was a new, indirect manner of repeating his ordinary question. As light, up to that evening, had been refused him, it was thought best to deny him in this, as in former instances; otherwise his suspicions might have been confirmed. The keeper refused his demand.
“This morning, Monday, at nine o’clock, the Greffier of the Assize Court, in fulfilment of the painful duty which the law imposes upon him, came to the prison, in company with the curé of Bourg, and announced to the convict that his petition was rejected, and that he had only three hours to live. He received this fatal news with a great deal of calmness, and showed himself to be no more affected than he had been on the trial. ‘I am ready; but I wish they had given me four-and-twenty hours’ notice,’— were all the words he used.
“The Greffier now retired, leaving Peytel alone with the curé, who did not thenceforth quit him. Peytel breakfasted at ten o’clock.
“At eleven, a piquet of mounted gendarmerie and infantry took their station upon the place before the prison, where a great concourse of people had already assembled. An open car was at the door. Before he went out Peytel asked the gaoler for a looking-glass; and having examined his face for a moment, said, ‘At least, the inhabitants of Bourg will see that I have not grown thin.’
“As twelve o’clock sounded, the prison gates opened, an aide appeared, followed by Peytel, leaning on the arm of the curé. Peytel’s face was pale, he had a long black beard, a blue cap on his head, and his great-coat flung over his shoulders, and buttoned at the neck.
“He looked about at the place and the crowd; he asked if the carriage would go at a trot; and on being told that that would be difficult, he said he would prefer walking, and asked what the road was. He immediately set out, walking at a firm and rapid pace. He was not bound at all.
“An immense crowd of people encumbered the two streets through which he had to pass to the place of execution. He cast his eyes alternately upon them and upon the guillotine, which was before him.
“Arrived at the foot of the scaffold, Peytel embraced the curé, and bade him adieu. He then embraced him again; perhaps, for his mother and sister. He then mounted the steps rapidly, and gave himself into the hands of the executioner, who removed his coat and cap. He asked how he was to place himself, and on a sign being made, he flung himself briskly on the plank, and stretched his neck. In another moment he was no more.
“The crowd, which had been quite silent, retired, profoundly moved by the sight it had witnessed. As at all executions, there was a very great number of women present.
“Under the scaffold there had been, ever since the morning, a coffin. The family had asked for his remains, and had them immediately buried, privately: and thus the unfortunate man’s head escaped the modellers in wax, several of whom had arrived to take an impression of it.”
Down goes the axe; the poor wretch’s head rolls gasping into the basket; the spectators go home, pondering; and Mr. Executioner and his aides have, in half an hour, removed all traces of the august sacrifice, and of the altar on which it had been performed. Say, Mr. Briefless, do you think that any single person, meditating murder, would be deterred therefrom by beholding this — nay, a thousand more executions? It is not for moral improvement, as I take it, nor for opportunity to make appropriate remarks upon the punishment of crime, that people make a holiday of a killing-day, and leave their homes and occupations, to flock and witness the cutting off of a head. Do we crowd to see Mr. Macready in the new tragedy, or Mademoiselle Ellssler in her last new ballet and flesh-colored stockinnet pantaloons, out of a pure love of abstract poetry and beauty; or from a strong notion that we shall be excited, in different ways, by the actor and the dancer? And so, as we go to have a meal of fictitious terror at the tragedy, of something more questionable in the ballet, we go for a glut of blood to the execution. The lust is in every man’s nature, more or less. Did you ever witness a wrestling or boxing match? The first clatter of the kick on the shins, or the first drawing of blood, makes the stranger shudder a little; but soon the blood is his chief enjoyment, and he thirsts for it with a fierce delight. It is a fine grim pleasure that we have in seeing a man killed; and I make no doubt that the organs of destructiveness must begin to throb and swell as we witness the delightful savage spectacle.
Three or four years back, when Fieschi and Lacenaire were executed, I made attempts to see the execution of both; but was disappointed in both cases. In the first instance, the day for Fieschi’s death was, purposely, kept secret; and he was, if I remember rightly, executed at some remote quarter of the town. But it would have done a philanthropist good, to witness the scene which we saw on the morning when his execution did NOT take place.
It was carnival time, and the rumor had pretty generally been carried abroad that he was to die on that morning. A friend, who accompanied me, came many miles, through the mud and dark, in order to be in at the death. We set out before light, floundering through the muddy Champs Elysées; where, besides, were many other persons floundering, and all bent upon the same errand. We passed by the Concert of Musard, then held in the Rue St. Honoré; and round this, in the wet, a number of coaches were collected. The ball was just up, and a crowd of people in hideous masquerade, drunk, tired, dirty, dressed in horrible old frippery, and daubed with filthy rouge, were trooping out of the place: tipsy women and men, shrieking, jabbering, gesticulating, as French will do; parties swaggering, staggering forwards, arm in arm, reeling to and fro across the street, and yelling songs in chorus: hundreds of these were bound for the show, and we thought ourselves lucky in finding a vehicle to the execution place, at the Barrière d’Enfer. As we crossed the river and entered the Enfer Street, crowds of students, black workmen, and more drunken devils from more carnival balls, were filling it; and on the grand place there were thousands of these assembled, looking out for Fiaschi and his cortège. We waited and waited; but alas! no fun for us that morning: no throat-cutting; no august spectacle of satisfied justice; and the eager spectators were obliged to return, disappointed of their expected breakfast of blood. It would have been a fine scene, that execution, could it but have taken place in the midst of the mad mountebanks and tipsy strumpets who had flocked so far to witness it, wishing to wind up the delights of their carnival by a bonnebouche of a murder.
The other attempt was equally unfortunate. We arrived too late on the ground to be present at the execution of Lacenaire and his co-mate in murder, Avril. But as we came to the ground (a gloomy round space, within the barrier — three roads lead to it; and, outside, you see the wine-shops and restaurateurs’ of the barrier looking gay and inviting,)— as we came to the ground, we only found, in the midst of it, a little pool of ice, just partially tinged with red. Two or three idle street-boys were dancing and stamping about this pool; and when I asked one of them whether the execution had taken place, he began dancing more madly than ever, and shrieked out with a loud fantastical, theatrical voice, “Venez tous Messieurs et Dames, voyez ici le sang du monstre Lacenaire, et de son compagnon he traître Avril,” or words to that effect; and straightway all the other gamins screamed out the words in chorus, and took hands and danced round the little puddle.
O august Justice, your meal was followed by a pretty appropriate grace! Was any man, who saw the show, deterred, or frightened, or moralized in any way? He had gratified his appetite for blood, and this was all. There is something singularly pleasing, both in the amusement of execution-seeing, and in the results. You are not only delightfully excited at the time, but most pleasingly relaxed afterwards; the mind, which has been wound up painfully until now, becomes quite complacent and easy. There is something agreeable in the misfortunes of others, as the philosopher has told us. Remark what a good breakfast you eat after an execution; how pleasant it is to cut jokes after it, and upon it. This merry, pleasant mood is brought on by the blood tonic.
But, for God’s sake, if we are to enjoy this, let us do so in moderation; and let us, at least, be sure of a man’s guilt before we murder him. To kill him, even with the full assurance that he is guilty is hazardous enough. Who gave you the right to do so? — you, who cry out against suicides, as impious and contrary to Christian law? What use is there in killing him? You deter no one else from committing the crime by so doing: you give us, to be sure, half an hour’s pleasant entertainment; but it is a great question whether we derive much moral profit from the sight. If you want to keep a murderer from farther inroads upon society, are there not plenty of hulks and prisons, God wot; treadmills, galleys, and houses of correction? Above all, as in the case of Sebastian Peytel and his family, there have been two deaths already; was a third death absolutely necessary? and, taking the fallibility of judges and lawyers into his heart, and remembering the thousand instances of unmerited punishment that have been suffered, upon similar and stronger evidence before, can any man declare, positively and upon his oath, that Peytel was guilty, and that this was not THE THIRD MURDER IN THE FAMILY?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00