The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
It was in this year that Limoges witnessed a terrible event and the singular drama of the Tascheron trial, in which the young Vicomte de Grandville displayed the talents which afterwards made him procureur- general.
An old man living in a lonely house in the suburb of Saint-Etienne was murdered. A large fruit-garden lay between the road and the house, which was also separated from the adjoining fields by a pleasure- garden, at the farther end of which were several old and disused greenhouses. In front of the house a rapid slope to the river bank gave a view of the Vienne. The courtyard, which also sloped downward, ended at a little wall, from which small columns rose at equal distances united by a railing, more, however, for ornament than protection, for the bars of the railing were of painted wood.
The old man, named Pingret, noted for his avarice, lived with a single woman-servant, a country-girl who did all the work of the house. He himself took care of his espaliers, trimmed his trees, gathered his fruit, and sent it to Limoges for sale, together with early vegetables, in the raising of which he excelled.
The niece of this old man, and his sole heiress, married to a gentleman of small means living in Limoges, a Madame des Vanneaulx, had again and again urged her uncle to hire a man to protect the house, pointing out to him that he would thus obtain the profits of certain uncultivated ground where he now grew nothing but clover. But the old man steadily refused. More than once a discussion on the subject had cut into the whist-playing of Limoges. A few shrewd heads declared that the old miser buried his gold in that clover-field.
"If I were Madame des Vanneaulx," said a wit, "I shouldn't torment my uncle about it; if somebody murders him, why, let him be murdered! I should inherit the money."
Madame des Vanneaulx, however, wanted to keep her uncle, after the manner of the managers of the Italian Opera, who entreat their popular tenor to wrap up his throat, and give him their cloak if he happens to have forgotten his own. She had sent old Pingret a fine English mastiff, which Jeanne Malassis, the servant-woman brought back the next day saying:--
"Your uncle doesn't want another mouth to feed."
The result proved how well-founded were the niece's fears. Pingret was murdered on a dark night, in the middle of his clover-field, where he may have been adding a few coins to a buried pot of gold. The servant- woman, awakened by the struggle, had the courage to go to the assistance of the old miser, and the murderer was under the necessity of killing her to suppress her testimony. This necessity, which frequently causes murderers to increase the number of their victims, is an evil produced by the fear of the death penalty.
This double murder was attended by curious circumstances which told as much for the prosecution as for the defence. After the neighbors had missed seeing the little old Pingret and his maid for a whole morning and had gazed at his house through the wooden railings as they passed it, and seen that, contrary to custom, the doors and windows were still closed, an excitement began in the Faubourg Saint-Etienne which presently reached the rue de la Cloche, where Madame des Vanneaulx resided.
The niece was always in expectation of some such catastrophe, and she at once notified the officers of the law, who went to the house and broke in the gate. They soon discovered in a clover patch four holes, and near two of these holes lay the fragments of earthenware pots, which had doubtless been full of gold the night before. In the other two holes, scarcely covered up, were the bodies of old Pingret and Jeanne Malassis, who had been buried with their clothes on. The poor girl had run to her master's assistance in her night-gown, with bare feet.
While the procureur-du-roi, the commissary of police, and the examining magistrate were gathering all particulars for the basis of their action, the luckless des Vanneaulx picked up the broken pots and calculated from their capacity the sum lost. The magistrates admitted the correctness of their calculations and entered the sum stolen on their records as, in all probability, a thousand gold coins to each pot. But were these coins forty-eight or forty, twenty-four or twenty francs in value? All expectant heirs in Limoges sympathized with the des Vanneaulx. The Limousin imagination was greatly stirred by the spectacle of the broken pots. As for old Pingret, who often sold vegetables himself in the market, lived on bread and onions, never spent more than three hundred francs a year, obliged and disobliged no one, and had never done one atom of good in the suburb of Saint- Etienne where he lived, his death did not excite the slightest regret. Poor Jeanne Malassis' heroism, which the old miser, had she saved him, would certainly not have rewarded, was thought rash; the number of souls who admired it was small in comparison with those who said: "For my part, I should have stayed in my bed."
The police found neither pen nor ink wherewith to write their report in the bare, dilapidated, cold, and dismal house. Observing persons and the heir might then have noticed a curious inconsistency which may be seen in certain misers. The dread the little old man had of the slightest outlay showed itself in the non-repaired roof which opened its sides to the light and the rain and snow; in the cracks of the walls; in the rotten doors ready to fall at the slightest shock; in the windows, where the broken glass was replaced by paper not even oiled. All the windows were without curtains, the fireplaces without mirrors or andirons; the hearth was garnished with one log of wood and a few little sticks almost caked with the soot which had fallen down the chimney. There were two rickety chairs, two thin couches, a few cracked pots and mended plates, a one-armed armchair, a dilapidated bed, the curtains of which time had embroidered with a bold hand, a worm-eaten secretary where the miser kept his seeds, a pile of linen thickened by many darns, and a heap of ragged garments, which existed only by the will of their master; he being dead they dropped into shreds, powder, chemical dissolution, in fact I know not into what form of utter ruin, as soon as the heir or the officers of the law laid rough hands upon them; they disappeared as if afraid of being publicly sold.
The population at Limoges was much concerned for these worthy des Vanneaulx, who had two children; and yet, no sooner did the law lay hands upon the reputed doer of the crime than the guilty personage absorbed attention, became a hero, and the des Vanneaulx were relegated into a corner of the picture.
Toward the end of March Madame Graslin began to feel some of those pains which precede a first confinement and cannot be concealed. The inquiry as to the murder was then going on, but the murderer had not as yet been arrested.
Veronique now received her friends in her bedroom, where they played whist. For several days past Madame Graslin had not left the house, and she seemed to be tormented by several of those caprices attributed to women in her condition. Her mother came to see her almost every day, and the two women remained for hours in consultation.
It was nine o'clock, and the card tables were still without players, for every one was talking of the murder. Monsieur de Grandville entered the room.
"We have arrested the murderer of old Pingret," he said, joyfully.
"Who is it?" was asked on all sides.
"A porcelain workman; a man whose character has always been excellent, and who was in a fair way to make his fortune. He worked in your husband's old factory," added Monsieur de Grandville, turning to Madame Graslin.
"What is his name?" asked Veronique, in a weak voice.
"Unhappy man!" she answered. "Yes, I have often seen him; my poor father recommended him to my care as some one to be looked after."
"He left the factory before Sauviat's death," said her mother, "and went to that of Messrs. Philippart, who offered him higher wages-- But my daughter is scarcely well enough for this exciting conversation," she added, calling attention to Madame Graslin, whose face was as white as her sheets.
After that evening Mere Sauviat gave up her own home, and came, in spite of her sixty-six years, to stay with her daughter and nurse her through her confinement. She never left the room; Madame Graslin's friends found the old woman always at the bed's head busy with her eternal knitting,--brooding over Veronique as she did when the girl had the small-pox, answering questions for her and often refusing to admit visitors. The maternal and filial love of mother and daughter was so well known in Limoges that these actions of Madame Sauviat caused no comment.
A few days later, when the viscount, thinking to amuse the invalid, began to relate details which the whole town were eagerly demanding about Jean-Francois Tascheron, Madame Sauviat again stopped him hastily, declaring that he would give her daughter bad dreams. Veronique, however, looking fixedly at Monsieur de Grandville, asked him to finish what he was saying. Thus her friends, and she herself, were the first to know the results of the preliminary inquiry, which would soon be made public. The following is a brief epitome of the facts on which the indictment found against the prisoner was based.
Jean-Francois Tascheron was the son of a small farmer burdened with a family, who lived in the village of Montegnac.
Twenty years before this crime, which was famous throughout the Limousin, the canton of Montegnac was known for its evil ways. The saying was proverbial in Limoges that out of one hundred criminals in the department fifty belonged to the arrondissement of Montegnac. Since 1816, however, two years after a priest named Bonnet was sent there as rector, it had lost its bad reputation, and the inhabitants no longer sent their heavy contingent to the assizes. This change was widely attributed to the influence acquired by the rector, Monsieur Bonnet, over a community which had lately been a hotbed for evil- minded persons whose actions dishonored the whole region. The crime of Jean-Francois Tascheron brought back upon Montegnac its former ill- savor.
By a curious trick of chance, the Tascherons were almost the only family in this village community who had retained through its evil period the old rigid morals and religious habits which are noticed by the observers of to-day to be rapidly disappearing throughout the country districts. This family had therefore formed a point of reliance to the rector, who naturally bore it on his heart. The Tascherons, remarkable for their uprightness, their union, their love of work, had never given other than good examples to Jean-Francois. Induced by the praiseworthy ambition of earning his living by a trade, the lad had left his native village, to the regret of his parents and friends, who greatly loved him, and had come to Limoges. During his two years' apprenticeship in a porcelain factory, his conduct was worthy of all praise; no apparent ill-conduct had led up to the horrible crime which was now to end his life. On the contrary, Jean- Francois Tascheron had given the time which other workmen were in the habit of spending in wine-shops and debauchery to study and self- improvement.
The most searching and minute inquiry on the part of the provincial authorities (who have plenty of time on their hands) failed to throw any light on the secrets of the young man's life. When the mistress of the humble lodging-house in which he lived was questioned she said she had never had a lodger whose moral conduct was as blameless. He was naturally amiable and gentle, and sometimes gay. About a year before the commission of the crime, his habits changed: he slept away from home several times a month and often for consecutive nights; but where she did not know, though she thought, from the state of his shoes when he returned, that he must have been into the country. She noticed that although he appeared to have left the town, he never wore his heavy boots, but always a pair of light shoes. He shaved before starting, and put on clean linen. Hearing this, the police turned their attention to houses of ill-fame and questionable resorts; but Jean- Francois Tascheron was found to be wholly unknown among them. The authorities then made a search through the working-girl and grisette class; but none of these women had had relations with the accused.
A crime without a motive is unheard of, especially in a young man whose desire for education and whose laudable ambition gave him higher ideas and a superior judgment to that of other workmen. The police and the examining justice, finding themselves balked in the above directions, attributed the murder to a passion for gambling; but after the most searching inquiries it was proved that Tascheron never played cards.
At first Jean-Francois entrenched himself in a system of flat denials, which, of course, in presence of a jury, would fall before proof; they seemed to show the collusion of some person either well versed in law or gifted with an intelligent mind. The following are the chief proofs the prosecution were prepared to present, and they are, as is frequently the case in trials for murder, both important and trifling; to wit:--
The absence of Tascheron during the night of the crime, and his refusal to say where he was, for the accused did not offer to set up an alibi; a fragment of his blouse, torn off by the servant-woman in the struggle, found close by on a tree to which the wind had carried it; his presence that evening near Pingret's house, which was noticed by passers and by persons living in the neighborhood, though it might not have been remembered unless for the crime; a false key made by Tascheron which fitted the door opening to the fields; this key was found carefully buried two feet below one of the miser's holes, where Monsieur des Vanneaulx, digging deep to make sure there was not another layer of treasure-pots, chanced to find it; the police, after many researches, found the different persons who had furnished Tascheron with the iron, loaned him the vice, and given him the file, with which the key was presumably made.
The key was the first real clue. It put the police on the track of Tascheron, whom they arrested on the frontiers of the department, in a wood where he was awaiting the passage of a diligence. An hour later he would have started for America.
Besides all this, and in spite of the care with which certain footmarks in the ploughed field and on the mud of the road had been effaced and covered up, the searchers had found in several places the imprint of shoes, which they carefully measured and described, and which were afterwards found to correspond with the soles of Tascheron's shoes taken from his lodgings. This fatal proof confirmed the statement of the landlady. The authorities now attributed the crime to some foreign influence, and not to the man's personal intention; they believed he had accomplices, basing this idea on the impossibility of one man carrying away the buried money; for however strong he might be, no man could carry twenty-five thousand francs in gold to any distance. If each pot contained, as it was supposed to have done, about that sum, this would have required four trips to and from the clover-patch. Now, a singular circumstance went far to prove the hour at which the crime was committed. In the terror Jeanne Malassis must have felt on hearing her master's cries, she knocked over, as she rose, the table at her bedside, on which lay her watch, the only present the miser had given her in five years. The mainspring was broken by the shock, and the hands had stopped at two in the morning. By the middle of March (the date of the murder) daylight dawns between five and six o'clock. To whatever distance the gold had been carried, Tascheron could not possibly, under any apparent hypothesis, have transported it alone.
The care with which some of the footsteps were effaced, while others, to which Tascheron's shoes fitted, remained, certainly pointed to some mysterious assistant. Forced into hypotheses, the authorities once more attributed the crime to a desperate passion; not finding any trace of the object of such a passion in the lower classes, they began to look higher. Perhaps some bourgeoise, sure of the discretion of a man who had the face and bearing of a hero, had been drawn into a romance the outcome of which was crime.
This supposition was to some extent justified by the facts of the murder. The old man had been killed by blows with a spade; evidently, therefore, the murder was sudden, unpremeditated, fortuitous. The lovers might have planned the robbery, but not the murder. The lover and the miser, Tascheron and Pingret, each under the influence of his master passion, must have met by the buried hoards, both drawn thither by the gleaming of gold on the utter darkness of that fatal night.
In order to obtain, if possible, some light on this latter supposition, the authorities arrested and kept in solitary confinement a sister of Jean-Francois, to whom he was much attached, hoping to obtain through her some clue to the mystery of her brother's private life. Denise Tascheron took refuge in total denial of any knowledge whatever, which gave rise to a suspicion that she did know something of the causes of the crime, although in fact she knew nothing.
The accused himself showed points of character that were rare amongst the peasantry. He baffled the cleverest police-spies employed against him, without knowing their real character. To the leading minds of the magistracy his guilt seemed caused by the influence of passion, and not by necessity or greed, as in the case of ordinary murderers, who usually pass through stages of crime and punishment before they commit the supreme deed. Active and careful search was made in following up this idea; but the uniform discretion of the prisoner gave no clue whatever to his prosecutors. The plausible theory of his attachment to a woman of the upper classes having once been admitted, Jean-Francois was subjected to the most insidious examination upon it; but his caution triumphed over all the moral tortures the examining judge applied to him. When, making a final effort, that official told him that the person for whom he had committed the crime was discovered and arrested, his face did not change, and he replied ironically:--
"I should very much like to see him."
When the public were informed of these circumstances, many persons adopted the suspicions of the magistrates, which seemed to be confirmed by Tascheron's savage obstinacy in giving no account of himself. Increased interest was felt in a young man who was now a problem. It is easy to see how these elements kept public curiosity on the qui vive, and with what eager interest the trial would be followed. But in spite of every effort on the part of the police, the prosecution stopped short on the threshold of hypothesis; it did not venture to go farther into the mystery where all was obscurity and danger. In certain judicial cases half-certainties are not sufficient for the judges to proceed upon. Nevertheless the case was ordered for trial, in hopes that the truth would come to the surface when the case was brought into court, an ordeal under which many criminals contradict themselves.
Monsieur Graslin was one of the jury; so that either through her husband or through Monsieur de Grandville, the public prosecutor, Veronique knew all the details of the criminal trial which, for a fortnight, kept the department, and we may say all France, in a state of excitement. The attitude maintained by the accused seemed to justify the theory of the prosecution. More than once when the court opened, his eyes turned upon the brilliant assemblage of women who came to find emotions in a real drama, as though he sought for some one. Each time that the man's glance, clear, but impenetrable, swept along those elegant ranks, a movement was perceptible, a sort of shock, as though each woman feared she might appear his accomplice under the inquisitorial eyes of judge and prosecutor.
The hitherto useless efforts of the prosecution were now made public, also the precautions taken by the criminal to ensure the success of his crime. It was shown that Jean-Francois Tascheron had obtained a passport for North America some months before the crime was committed. Thus the plan of leaving France was fully formed; the object of his passion must therefore be a married woman; for he would have no reason to flee the country with a young girl. Possibly the crime had this one object in view, namely, to obtain sufficient means to support this unknown woman in comfort.
The prosecution had found no passport issued to a woman for North America. In case she had obtained one in Paris, the registers of that city were searched, also those of the towns contingent to Limoges, but without result. All the shrewdest minds in the community followed the case with deep attention. While the more virtuous dames of the department attributed the wearing of pumps on a muddy road (an inexplicable circumstance in the ordinary lives of such shoes) to the necessity of noiselessly watching old Pingret, the men pointed out that pumps were very useful in silently passing through a house--up stairways and along corridors--without discovery.
So Jean-Francois Tascheron and his mistress (by this time she was young, beautiful, romantic, for every one made a portrait of her) had evidently intended to escape with only one passport, to which they would forge the additional words, "and wife." The card tables were deserted at night in the various social salons, and malicious tongues discussed what women were known in March, 1829, to have gone to Paris, and what others could be making, openly or secretly, preparations for a journey. Limoges might be said to be enjoying its Fualdes trial, with an unknown and mysterious Madame Manson for an additional excitement. Never was any provincial town so stirred to its depths as Limoges after each day's session. Nothing was talked of but the trial, all the incidents of which increased the interest felt for the accused, whose able answers, learnedly taken up, turned and twisted and commented upon, gave rise to ample discussions. When one of the jurors asked Tascheron why he had taken a passport for America, the man replied that he had intended to establish a porcelain manufactory in that country. Thus, without committing himself to any line of defence, he covered his accomplice, leaving it to be supposed that the crime was committed, if at all, to obtain funds for this business venture.
In the midst of such excitement it was impossible for Veronique's friends to refrain from discussing in her presence the progress of the case and the reticence of the criminal. Her health was extremely feeble; but the doctor having advised her going out into the fresh air, she had on one occasion taken her mother's arm and walked as far as Madame Sauviat's house in the country, where she rested. On her return she endeavored to keep about until her husband came to his dinner, which she always served him herself. On this occasion Graslin, being detained in the court-room, did not come in till eight o'clock. She went into the dining-room as usual, and was present at a discussion which took place among a number of her friends who had assembled there.
"If my poor father were still living," she remarked to them, "we should know more about the matter; possibly this man might never have become a criminal. I think you have all taken a singular idea about the matter. You insist that love is at the bottom of the crime, and I agree with you there; but why do you think this unknown person is a married woman? He may have loved some young girl whose father and mother would not let her marry him."
"A young girl could, sooner or later, have married him legitimately," replied Monsieur de Grandville. "Tascheron has no lack of patience; he had time to make sufficient means to support her while awaiting the time when all girls are at liberty to marry against the wishes of their parents; he need not have committed a crime to obtain her."
"I did not know that a girl could marry in that way," said Madame Graslin; "but how is it that in a town like this, where all things are known, and where everybody sees everything that happens to his neighbor, not the slightest clue to this woman has been obtained? In order to love, persons must see each other and consequently be seen. What do you really think, you magistrates?" she added, plunging a fixed look into the eyes of the procureur-general.
"We think that the woman belongs to the bourgeois or the commercial class."
"I don't agree with you," said Madame Graslin. "A woman of that class does not have elevated sentiments."
This reply drew all eyes on Veronique, and the whole company waited for an explanation of so paradoxical a speech.
"During the hours I lie awake at night I have not been able to keep my mind from dwelling on this mysterious affair," she said slowly, "and I think I have fathomed Tascheron's motive. I believe the person he loves is a young girl, because a married woman has interests, if not feelings, which partly fill her heart and prevent her from yielding so completely to a great passion as to leave her home. There is such a thing as a love proceeding from passion which is half maternal, and to me it is evident that this man was loved by a woman who wished to be his prop, his Providence. She must have put into her passion something of the genius that inspires the work of artists and poets, the creative force which exists in woman under another form; for it is her mission to create men, not things. Our works are our children; our children are the pictures, books, and statues of our lives. Are we not artists in their earliest education? I say that this unknown woman, if she is not a young girl, has never been a mother but is filled with the maternal instinct; she has loved this man to form him, to develop him. It needs a feminine element in you men of law to detect these shades of motive, which too often escape you. If I had been your deputy," she said, looking straight at the procureur-general, "I should have found the guilty woman, if indeed there is any guilt about it. I agree with the Abbe Dutheil that these lovers meant to fly to America with the money of old Pingret. The theft led to the murder by the fatal logic which the punishment of death inspires. And so," she added with an appealing look at Monsieur de Grandville, "I think it would be merciful in you to abandon the theory of premeditation, for in so doing you would save the man's life. He is evidently a fine man in spite of his crime; he might, perhaps, repair that crime by a great repentance if you gave him time. The works of repentance ought to count for something in the judgment of the law. In these days is there nothing better for a human being to do than to give his life, or build, as in former times, a cathedral of Milan, to expiate his crimes?"
"Your ideas are noble, madame," said Monsieur de Grandville, "but, premeditation apart, Tascheron would still be liable to the penalty of death on account of the other serious and proved circumstances attending the crime,--such as forcible entrance and burglary at night."
"Then you think that he will certainly be found guilty?" she said, lowering her eyelids.
"I am certain of it," he said; "the prosecution has a strong case."
A slight tremor rustled Madame Graslin's dress.
"I feel cold," she said. Taking her mother's arm she went to bed.
"She seemed quite herself this evening," said her friends.
The next day Veronique was much worse and kept her bed. When her physician expressed surprise at her condition she said, smiling:--
"I told you that that walk would do me no good."
Ever since the opening of the trial Tascheron's demeanor had been equally devoid of hypocrisy or bravado. Veronique's physician, intending to divert his patient's mind, tried to explain this demeanor, which the man's defenders were making the most of. The prisoner was misled, said the doctor, by the talents of his lawyer, and was sure of acquittal; at times his face expressed a hope that was greater than that of merely escaping death. The antecedents of the man (who was only twenty-three years old) were so at variance with the crime now charged to him that his legal defenders claimed his present bearing to be a proof of innocence; besides, the overwhelming circumstantial proofs of the theory of the prosecution were made to appear so weak by his advocate that the man was buoyed up by the lawyer's arguments. To save his client's life the lawyer made the most of the evident want of premeditation; hypothetically he admitted the premeditation of the robbery but not of the murders, which were evidently (no matter who was the guilty party) the result of two unexpected struggles. Success, the doctor said, was really as doubtful for one side as for the other.
After this visit of her physician Veronique received that of the procureur-general, who was in the habit of coming in every morning on his way to the court-room.
"I have read the arguments of yesterday," she said to him, "and to-day, as I suppose, the evidence for the defence begins. I am so interested in that man that I should like to have him saved. Couldn't you for once in your life forego a triumph? Let his lawyer beat you. Come, make me a present of the man's life, and perhaps you shall have mine some day. The able presentation of the defence by Tascheron's lawyer really raises a strong doubt, and--"
"Why, you are quite agitated," said the viscount somewhat surprised.
"Do you know why?" she answered. "My husband has just remarked a most horrible coincidence, which is really enough in the present state of my nerves, to cause my death. If you condemn this man to death it will be on the very day when I shall give birth to my child."
"But I can't change the laws," said the lawyer.
"Ah! you don't know how to love," she retorted, closing her eyes; then she turned her head on the pillow and made him an imperative sign to leave the room.
Monsieur Graslin pleaded strongly but in vain with his fellow-jurymen for acquittal, giving a reason which some of them adopted; a reason suggested by his wife:--
"If we do not condemn this man to death, but allow him to live, the des Vanneaulx will in the end recover their property."
This weighty argument made a division of the jury, into five for condemnation against seven for acquittal, which necessitated an appeal to the court; but the judge sided with the minority. According to the legal system of that day this action led to a verdict of guilty. When sentence was passed upon him Tascheron flew into a fury which was natural enough in a man full of life and strength, but which the court and jury and lawyers and spectators had rarely witnessed in persons who were thought to be unjustly condemned.