The following scene transpired in a brilliantly lit salon draped entirely in red. Rodolphe, dressed in a long dressing gown of black velvet, which further augmented his paleness, was seated before a large table covered with a rug. On that table were two portfolios, the one stolen from Tom by the Schoolmaster in La Cité, and the one that belonged to the murderer, the Owl’s chain of fake gold from which was suspended the small, lapis-lazuli Holy Spirit, the still bloody knife that had wounded Murph, the iron pry bar that had been used to jimmy the door, and the five thousand-franc notes that Chourineur had brought back from the adjacent room. The doctor was seated on one side of the table, Chourineur on the other. The Schoolmaster, firmly secured and unable to move, was propped up in a large chair on wheels in the center of the room. The men who had brought him in withdrew. Rodolphe, the doctor, Chourineur, and the murderer were alone. Rodolphe’s anger had passed; now he was calm, sorrowful and withdrawn. He was about to complete an undertaking both solemn and difficult. The doctor remained pensive. Chourineur experienced a kind of vague unease and was unable to take his eyes off Rodolphe. The Schoolmaster was white with fear.
A legal arrest would have been less intimidating, for his courage would not have abandoned him before an ordinary court. Here, everything he saw surprised and terrified him. He was in Rodolphe’s power, a man he considered to be merely an artisan capable of betrayal or equivocation when the moment of truth arrived, the man he tried to sacrifice to these suspicions so he might take sole advantage of the theft. But at that moment, Rodolphe appeared as terrible and imposing as justice itself. Nothing could be heard from without but a profound silence. Nothing other than the sound of the rain as it fell from the roof to the pavement. Rodolphe addressed the Schoolmaster:
“You, Anselme Duresnel, escaped from the Rochefort prison, where you were imprisoned for life for forgery, theft, and murder.”
“That’s a lie! You can’t prove it!” shouted the Schoolmaster in a hesitant voice, tossing his head from side to side with a wild and anxious look in his eyes.
“How’s that,” cried Chourineur, “weren’t we both at Rochefort at the same time?”
Rodolphe made a sign to Chourineur, who remained silent. He continued:
“You are Anselme Duresnel—you will admit it later. You murdered and robbed a drover on the road to Poissy.”
“That’s a lie!”
“You will it admit it later.”
The criminal looked at Rodolphe with surprise.
“This evening, you broke into this apartment to commit robbery. You stabbed the master of the house.”
“You were the one who suggested it,” replied the Schoolmaster, with a bit more self-assurance. “I was attacked and I defended myself.”
“The man you stabbed did not attack you, he was defenseless. It’s true I suggested the robbery. I will tell you why soon enough. Last night, after robbing a man and a woman in La Cité and taking their portfolio, which you see here, you told them you would murder me for a thousand francs.”
“I heard him!” Chourineur shouted. The Schoolmaster stared at him with a fierce hatred.
Rodolphe resumed, “You see, you had no need of me to be lured into crime.”
“You’re not a judge, I refuse to say another word.”
“I’ll tell you why I suggested the robbery. I knew you had escaped from jail. You knew the parents of a poor child whose misfortunes were caused almost entirely by your accomplice, the Owl. I wished to draw you here using as bait the possibility of a robbery, the only thing capable of attracting your interest. Once in my power, I gave you the choice of surrendering to the authorities, who would have made you pay with your head for the drover’s murder . . .”
“That’s a lie! It wasn’t me.”
“Or to be removed from France, on my orders, to a place of permanet isolation, but on condition that you would give me the information I desired. You were condemned for life, you broke your oath. By capturing you, by making it impossible for you to do further harm, I am serving society. And your avowals have allowed me to find the means of providing a family for a poor creature whose misfortunes far exceed her guilt. That was my initial plan. It wasn’t legal, of course, but as a result of your escape and your recent crimes, you have become an outlaw. Yesterday, through a fortunate coincidence, I discovered your real name.”
“That’s a lie! My name is not Duresnel.”
From the table, Rodolphe took the Owl’s chain and, holding the small, lapis-lazuli pendant before the Schoolmaster:
“Sacrilege!” Rodolphe cried in a threatening voice. “You sold this holy relic to an odious creature. Thrice holy, for your child inherited this pious gift from his mother and her mother before her!”
Stupefied by this discovery, the Schoolmaster lowered his head without responding.
“Yesterday, I discovered that fifteen years ago you abducted your son from his mother, and you alone held the secret of his existence. This new crime was one more reason to apprehend you, in addition to my own personal motives. But that is not why I seek revenge. This evening you again caused blood to flow without provocation. The man you murdered came before you in confidence, unaware of your bloodthirsty rage. He asked you what you wanted. ‘Your money or your life!’ And you stabbed him.”
“Murph told me as much when I came to his aid,” said the doctor.
“That’s not true. He lied.”
“Murph never lies,” Rodolphe responded coldly. “Such crimes as yours demand an exemplary punishment. While armed, you broke into this garden and stabbed a man for the purpose of robbing him. That is yet another murder. Here you shall die. But out of consideration for your wife and child, you shall be spared the shame of the scaffold. It will be reported that you were killed during an armed robbery. Prepare yourself. The weapons are loaded.”
Rodolphe’s features were implacable. The Schoolmaster had noted, in another room, two men armed with rifles. His name was known. He believed they wanted to be rid of him in order to bury his most recent crimes in darkness and spare his family this new shame. Like other criminals the man’s cowardice was equal to his viciousness. Believing his final hour to be upon him, he trembled convulsively; his lips turned white and in a strangled voice, he cried out: “Mercy!”
“There is no mercy for you,” Rodolphe replied. “If we don’t blow your brains out here, the scaffold awaits.”
“I prefer the scaffold. I will survive at least another two or three months. What difference does it make to you, for in the end I shall be punished. Have pity on me. Have pity!”
“And what of your wife and son? They bear your name.”
“My name is already dishonored. If I could have but a week to live. Mercy!”
“You lack even the contempt for life one sometimes finds in the greatest criminals,” said Rodolphe with disgust.
“You cannot take the law into your own hands,” resumed the Schoolmaster with assurance.
“The law! The law!” cried Rodolphe. “You dare invoke the law, when for twenty years you have lived in open rebellion against society?”
The criminal lowered his head without answering, then in a quiet voice:
“At least let me live. Have pity.”
“Will you tell me where your son is?”
“I’ll tell you everything I know.”
“Will you tell me the names of the parents of that young girl whose childhood the Owl destroyed?”
“There, in my portfolio, are papers that will help you locate them. It appears her mother is an important woman.”
“Where is your son?”
“Will you let me live?”
“But once you find out,” answered the Schoolmaster hesitantly.
“You killed him!”
“No, no! I turned him over to one of my accomplices, who managed to escape when I was arrested.”
“What did he do with him?”
“He raised the boy. He gave him the knowledge needed to go into business, so he might help us. But I won’t say another word unless I have your word you won’t kill me.”
“Conditions, you wretch!”
“No. No. Have mercy! Have me arrested for today’s crime if you must, but don’t mention the other. Give me a chance to save my skin.”
“So you wish to live?”
“Yes, yes! Who knows what might happen?” the Schoolmaster replied, already contemplating his escape.
“You wish to live at any price then?”
“But to live when you’re attached to a chain! For a month, a week. Oh! I don’t want to die now.”
“Confess your crimes and you shall live.”
“I’ll live? Is it true? I’ll live?”
“Listen to me. Out of pity for your wife and child, I’m going to give you some good advice: die today, die.”
“No! No! You can’t go back on your promise. I want to live. The most miserable existence, the most terrible, is nothing compared to death.”
“Is that your wish?”
“Is that your wish?”
“I’ll never say another word.”
“And your son? What did you do with him?”
“That friend I told you about sent him to school to learn bookkeeping so he might find employment with a bank. That way he could supply us with certain information. That was our agreement. When I was in Rochefort, waiting for an opportunity to escape, I worked on the plan. We used a code to correspond.”
“This man horrifies me,” Rodolphe cried with a shudder. “These are crimes I was never even aware of. But tell me, why did you want your son to work in a bank?”
“I’m sure you can understand. Working with us, without giving the appearance of doing so, he would gain the banker’s confidence and . . .”
“Good God! Her son! Her son!” Rodolphe interjected with melancholy horror, burying his head in his hands.
“But we were only talking about forgery!” cried the criminal. “And when we explained to him what he was supposed to do, the boy grew indignant. After a violent scene with the man who had prepared him to be our confederate, he disappeared. That was eighteen months ago. I haven’t heard from him since. There, in my portfolio, you’ll find some papers that describe our efforts to find him, for we feared he would betray us. However, we lost his trace in Paris. The last place he lived in was number 14, Rue du Temple, under the name of François Germain. The address is there with my papers. You see, I’ve told you everything. Now, keep your promise and turn me in for tonight’s robbery.”
“What about the drover in Poissy?”
“They’ll never find out about that, there’s no proof. I’ll admit it to you, so you know I’m telling the truth; but I’ll never admit it in court.”
“So you do admit it?”
“I had no money, I didn’t know how I was going to get by. It was the Owl’s idea. Now, I regret it. There, I’ve admitted it. If you agree not to turn me over to the police, I give you my word of honor that I’ll stay out of trouble from now on.”
“You’ll live. I won’t turn you over to the police.”
“Do you forgive me then?” cried the Schoolmaster, not believing his ears.
“I judge you—and I shall punish you!” Rodolphe cried in a thunderous voice. “I’ll never turn you over to the police because you would go to prison or the scaffold, and that cannot happen. It must not happen. In prison, through your strength and villainy, you would dominate its vermin to satisfy your instinct for brutal despotism. Thus you would be hated and feared by all. For crime too has its pride and you rejoice in your monstrosity. Prison? No. Your hardened body would laugh at forced labor and the guard’s batons. Chains break, walls can be pierced, ramparts scaled, and one day or another you will ignore your sentence to hurl yourself upon society once more like a savage and angry beast, leaving murder and plunder in your wake. For there will be no refuge from your power and your blade. And that must not be! Must never be! So what can be done to preserve society from your fury? Turn you over to the hangman?”
“Then you want my death,” cried the murderer, “my death!”
“Death! There is no hope for you there. You are a coward. You fear death so much that you believe it will never touch you. In your stubborn desire to live, you hope to escape the anguish of its sinister arrival. Stupid, senseless hope of little consequence that would merely veil the expiatory horror of your suffering. Only when touched by the hangman’s claw would you believe. And then, stupefied with terror, you would be no more than an inert, unfeeling mass, a sacrifice to the ghosts of your victims. That cannot be. You would believe in your salvation until the last. Hope? From a monster such as you? Never! Hope suspend its gentle and consoling dreams from the walls of your cell until death has dulled the gleam in your eye? Come, come, old Satan would laugh heartily. Unless you repent, hope shall never again be yours in this life.”
“But what have I done to this man? Who is he? What does he want of me? Where am I?” cried the Schoolmaster in his confusion.
Rodolphe continued: “If, on the contrary, you were to brazenly confront death, there would be no further need for your suffering. The scaffold would be your blood-drenched stage. There, like so many others, you would make a show of your brutality, and, heedless of a wretched existence, you would damn your soul in one final act of blasphemy. That too must not be. It is wrong that the populace should witness the condemned banter with the blade, taunt the hangman, and with a laugh blow out the divine spark the Creator has placed within us. The soul’s salvation is sacred. The Savior said that any crime can be forgiven, but only where atonement and repentance are genuine. From the court to the scaffold, the road is too short. Such cannot be your fate.”
The Schoolmaster sat stunned. For the first time in his life, there was something he feared more than death. And that vague fear terrified him. The doctor and Chourineur looked at Rodolphe anxiously. And as they heard him speak, they shuddered, for his voice was deep and trenchant, and as unforgiving as a steel blade. The two men felt a pang in their chest.
Rodolphe continued, “Anselme Duresnel, you shall not go to prison nor shall you die.”
“But what do you want with me? You have been sent from hell then.”
“Listen to me,” Rodolphe replied, rising solemnly and adding to his gesture a threatening authority. “You have abused your strength for criminal purposes. I shall paralyze that strength. The most vigorous men trembled before you. You shall tremble before the weakest. Assassin! You have cast God’s creatures into eternal night. The shadows of eternity shall begin for you in this life—today—at once. Your punishment shall equal your crimes. However,” Rodolphe added with a kind of melancholy pity, “this terrible punishment, terrible as it is, will at least allow you the unending prospect of repentance. I would be as much a criminal as you if I were merely to satisfy my revenge, no matter how well justified. Far from being sterile like death, your punishment must be fecund; far from damning you, it may redeem you. I shall render you harmless and rob you forever of the splendors of creation. I shall cast you into impenetrable darkness, alone with the memory of your deeds. But I do it so that you may contemplate their enormity for all eternity. Isolated forever from the outside world, you shall be forced to look within, and your forehead, darkened with infamy, shall blush with shame. Your soul, hardened by savagery, corroded by crime, shall soften through pity. Your every word is blasphemous; from now on each word you utter shall be a prayer. You are bold and cruel because you are strong, you shall be gentle and humble because you are weak. Your heart is closed to repentance, but one day you shall weep for your victims. You have debased the intellect God has given you, have reduced it to an instinct for plunder and murder. Though a man, you became a savage beast. One day your reason shall be cleansed by remorse, shall raise itself up through penance. You lack the qualities even the wild animal possesses—respect for its mate and her young. After a long life devoted to redeeming your crimes, with your dying words you shall beg the Almighty to grant you the unexpected joy of dying in the presence of your wife and son.”
Sadness colored Rodolphe’s voice as he uttered these last words. The Schoolmaster’s terror had vanished almost entirely. He believed that Rodolphe wanted only to scare him before arriving at his homiletic conclusion. Reassured by the note of kindness evinced by his judge, the criminal, whose insolence grew as his fear diminished, said with a jeer, “So, are we playing charades or is this a catechism lesson?”
The doctor looked at Rodolphe anxiously, expecting an outburst of fury from him, but he remained calm. Rodolphe shook his head with an ineffable expression of sorrow and said to the doctor, “Proceed, David. May God punish me if I am mistaken!” And he hid his face in his hands. With those words the doctor rang a bell. Two men dressed in black entered. A sign from the doctor indicated the door of a room off to the side. The two men rolled the armchair to which the Schoolmaster was firmly bound into the room. His head was tied to the back of the chair with a scarf that wound around his neck and shoulders.
“Bind his forehead to the chair with a handkerchief and gag him,” said David without entering the room.
“You want to cut my throat now? Have mercy,” cried the Schoolmaster. “Mercy!”
Nothing more was heard but a confused murmur. The two men reappeared. The doctor made a sign and they left.
“Your Highness?” said the doctor to Rodolphe one last time, with a questioning look.
“Do it,” Rodolphe replied without turning his head. David made his way slowly to the other room.
“Monsieur Rodolphe,” I’m afraid,” said a now pale Chourineur in a trembling voice. “Monsieur, say something. I’m afraid. Is this a dream? What’s the doctor doing to the Schoolmaster? Monsieur, this silence is terrifying.”
When David returned, his lips were pale. He rang the bell and the two men reappeared.
“Bring in the chair.”
They brought the Schoolmaster in.
“Remove his gag.”
“Why did you prick my eyes like that?” shouted the Schoolmaster more in anger than in pain. “Is it to torment me further that you’ve cast this room as well into darkness?”
There was a moment of terrifying silence.
“It can’t be true! It’s not possible! You have brought darkness into the world,” shouted the criminal struggling violently in his chair.
“Remove his cords, so he may rise and walk,” ordered Rodolphe.
The two men unbound the Schoolmaster. He rose with a start, took a step with his hands held before him, then fell back into the chair, lifting his arms heavenward.
“David, give him this portfolio,” said Rodolphe.
The doctor placed a small portfolio in the Schoolmaster’s trembling hands.
“In this portfolio you’ll find sufficient money for lodging and food for the remainder of your life. Now you are free. Go from here and repent, for the Lord is merciful.”
“I’m blind!” cried the Schoolmaster, unthinkingly clutching the portfolio in his hand.
“Open the doors so he may leave,” said Rodolphe.
The doors opened with a loud noise.
“Blind! I’m blind!” he repeated. “My God, it’s true, then!”
“You are free. You have money. Get out!”
“But I can’t go. What do you want me to do? I can’t see any more,” he shouted in despair. “You have taken advantage of your power over me to commit a horrible crime.”
“A crime to take advantage of my power!” Rodolphe repeated, interrupting him in a solemn voice. “And you, what did you do with the power that was yours?”
“You are right, I would have preferred death,” exclaimed the Schoolmaster. “To be at the mercy of the world, to fear all! A child could overcome me now. What shall I do? My God! My God, what shall I do?”
“You have money.”
“They’ll steal it from me!”
“They’ll steal it from you! Listen to what you’re saying. You, a thief, are afraid of being robbed. Get out!”
“For the love of God,” said the Schoolmaster with a supplicating voice, “let someone guide me. How can I find my way in the streets? Oh, kill me! Come, kill me! I’m begging you. Have pity and kill me!”
“No. One day you shall repent.”
“Never! I shall never repent,” the Schoolmaster shouted with rage. “I shall have my revenge! You’ll see, I shall have my revenge!”
His face twisted with rage, he jumped up from the armchair, his fists closed and menacing. With his first step, he stumbled.
“No, no. I cannot, and yet I am strong. I am right to complain. Yet who shall pity me? Who?”
The Schoolmaster began to weep. It is impossible to describe Chourineur’s fear and shock upon witnessing this terrible scene. His wild and rough-hewn features expressed compassion. He approached Rodolphe and said to him in a low voice:
“Monsieur Rodolphe, being that he was such a miserable villain, maybe he got what he deserved. Not so long ago he tried to kill me too but now he is blind. He is weeping. I feel sorry for the man. He doesn’t know what to do. Why, he could be run over in the street. Shall I take him where he can be safe?”
“Very well,” said Rodolphe, moved by the man’s generosity. Taking Chourineur’s hand, “Very well, off with you.”
Chourineur approached the Schoolmaster and placed a hand on his shoulder. The man shuddered.
“Who’s hand is that?” he said in hollow voice.
“Who are you?”
“So, you want your revenge as well, do you?”
“You don’t even know where the door is. Take my arm. I’ll lead you.”
“Yes, it pains me to see you like this. Come.”
“Is this some kind of trap?”
“Only a coward would take advantage of your condition. Come, let’s go. The sun is up.”
“The sun! Never will I see the sun again. Never!” cried the Schoolmaster.
Rodolphe could bear the scene no longer and rushed inside, followed by David, indicating to the two servants to leave them alone. Chourineur and the Schoolmaster remained alone.
“Is it true there is money in the portfolio I was given?” the Schoolmaster asked following a lengthy silence.
“Yes. I put five thousand francs inside. You can use it to pay for your room and board somewhere outside the city. You have enough to last for the remainder of your life. Or should I take you to the Abbess?”
“No, she would steal it.”
“He would lock me up first and then steal it.”
“Where shall I take you, then?”
“I don’t know. You’re no thief, Chourineur. Hide the portfolio somewhere in my waistcoat so the Owl doesn’t see it. She would take it all.”
“The Owl? They took her to the hospice of Beaujon. When we were fighting that night, I fractured her leg.”
“But what am I going to do? My God, what am I going to do with this black curtain always before me? And if, upon that curtain, I were to see the pale, dead faces of those . . .” He shuddered and said to Chourineur in a hollow voice, “That man from last night, is he dead?”
The criminal remained silent for some time, then suddenly cried out in fury, “You’re the one who did this to me! Villain. Without you I would have killed the man and taken the money. It’s your fault that I’m blind, your fault.”
“Don’t think like that, it’s unhealthy for you. Are you coming, yes or no? I’m tired and want to get some sleep. I’ve had enough for one night. Tomorrow I’m going back to floating logs on the river. I’ll take you wherever you want to go and then I’m going to bed.”
“But I don’t know where to go. I don’t dare go back to my place.”
“Well, listen. Do you want to stay with me for a day or two? Maybe I can find someone who doesn’t know who you are and can provide you with room and board. I know a man from Port Saint-Nicolas whose mother lives in Saint-Mandé—a good woman, but unhappy. Maybe she can take you in. Are you coming? Yes or no?”
“At least I can trust you, Chourineur. I’ll stay at your place. My money will be safe with you. You’re a good man, a kind man.”
“Enough of that. No more obituaries.”
“I appreciate your efforts to help me, Chourineur. You’re not bitter or angry,” said the criminal with humility, “you’re better than me.”
“You’re damn right! Monsieur Rodolphe said that I had a big heart.”
“But who is this Rodolphe? He’s not a man,” cried the Schoolmaster with a renewed outburst of desperate fury. “He’s a monster! A murderer.”
Chourineur shrugged his shoulders. “Are we going?”
“We’re going to your place, right Chourineur?”
“You swear you’re not angry with me for what happened?”
“Are you quite certain the man’s not dead?”
In a hollow voice the Schoolmaster said, “That will be one less then.” And leaning on Chourineur’s arm, he stepped from the house in the Allée des Veuves.
END PART 1