Imagens das páginas

illustration of contemporary opinion. The trial was, of course, unlike the contemporary English method. The prisoner here would not have been herself examined, and the whole business would have been got over in a day. Mme. de Brinvilliers had to undergo twenty-two examinations. She contradicted all the witnesses haughtily, and treated her judges with the dignity of an equal. For five hours one day and thirteen another she was confronted with one of her dependents, and taunted him as a 'besotted lackey,' who had been bundled out of the house for disorderly conduct. She insulted him for his mean spirit in weeping over the death of one of her brothers. Her advocate made a speech which is said to have brought public opinion to her side. She had previously, in a moment of weakness, made a written confession, as he allowed, but it ought not to have been admitted as evidence. This beautiful and sensitive woman, he urged, had been roughly arrested, and even prevented from hearing mass. Moreover the death of her brothers had been already sufficiently expiated by the punishment of her agent; and surviving relations ought to be anxious to avoid any further stain upon the honour of the family. The judges were not convinced, but were deeply moved by this eloquence and by the prisoner's courage. They tried to move her heart, and told her that her worst crime was not the poisoning of her father and brothers, but an attempt to commit suicide. The first president' wept bitterly and all the judges shed tears.' They had to condemn her to death; but at least they could try to save her soul. For this purpose they sent to her the Abbé Pirot, who possessed an 'ardent and sensitive heart.' It was hoped that his gentle and soul-stirring words would move her and produce a confession. The Abbé accordingly spent the last day with her and recorded. all her conversation. They dined together and drank each other's health. Next day she was to be tortured and then beheaded. Her heart of brass, it is said, became like wax under the influence of Pirot's sympathy. She had still some weaknesses, indeed. She wrote a dignified letter to her husband (to whom she had behaved abominably), and declared that she was to 'die an honourable death, brought upon her by her enemies.' The Abbé pointed out that this was not quite a correct sentiment, and exhorted her to imitate more completely the examples of David and the Magdalene. He went away in some distress at some such questionable symptoms, and passed a sleepless night. The lady slept like a



child, but was in a better mood next morning. She admitted that she could not fairly expect to avoid some time in purgatory; and inquired how she was to know whether she was in purgatory or hell. 'Pirot reassured her,' it does not appear how, and before her torture she at last consented to make a full confession. The torture aroused her to fury and to make false accusations against some of the witnesses. She was then taken in a cart with Pirot to the place of execution. The sight of the crowd again roused her to fury. Her brows knitted, her eyes flashed, her mouth was distorted. Pirot, however, anxiously defends this touching penitent against the charge that she was 'too fond of wine' and kept up her spirits by drinking at the last. appears to have been the one vice from which she was free. behaviour became 'perfect, and would have become a Christian martyr.' On the scaffold she was 'absolutely without fear; gentle, courteous, steadfast, and self-respectful.' At the last her face had an expression of hope and joy, of serene faith and love, mingled with the exaltation of the penitent.' Pirot declares that he should remember this edifying look as long as he lived. All who could see her were equally moved. When her body was burnt, they struggled to collect fragments of the bones, and went away declaring that the dead woman was a saint. The good Abbé, one may suppose, was a little flattered by the testimony to his eloquence. In a single day the moral monster had been transformed into a saint. He did not inquire too curiously into the completeness of the change, or ask how long she would have kept up the character had she been allowed to live. The judges and spectators may be accused of a certain inconsistency. They admired equally the audacity which made her refuse to confess in spite of the clearest proof and the touching humility of the first confession. They thought, we must suppose, that it is admirable to fight to the last gasp and then to give in with dignity. When there was no longer a chance of escaping the executioner, she could not be condemned for saving her soul; and the high spirit manifested in the trial only raised the merit of the effort required for the final humiliation. So daring a sinner must be sincere when she resolved to admit that her crimes required penitence. And yet it would seem that the horror of the murders-they had been committed some years before-must have been a little forgotten. French delight in a dramatic spectacle, and readiness to sympathise with a sentimental demonstration, may account for something.

Perhaps a Protestant English mob would have been better pleased if the lady had simply died game' and defied her confessor.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Another famous set of trials suggests that murder just then did not excite the same feeling as it would at the present day. M. Brentano has thrown some new light upon the proceedings of the famous Chambre Ardente which was appointed by Louis XIV. shortly afterwards to investigate the horrors which had been suddenly revealed. This commission tried some four hundred persons, of whom thirty-six were condemned to death. A great many more would have had the same fate, if the course of justice had not been interrupted by a singular catastrophe. Belief in witchcraft, it is generally said, expired during the seventeenth century. But sorcery still flourished in Paris combined with less imaginary crimes. An enchanted potion, as Voltaire remarked, may be very effective if it is mixed with arsenic. The sorcerers were partly simple jugglers and partly believers in their own art, and combined attempts to discover the philosopher's stone with more efficacious practice in poisoning. They drove a prosperous trade. Human life,' declared the magistrate who began the investigation, 'is publicly trafficked in; death is almost the only remedy employed in family embarrassments; impieties and sacrileges are common practices in Paris and the provinces.' The most famous practitioner was the notorious La Voisin. She had set up in the business in order to maintain a ruined husband and her family. Till her arrest she had supported her old mother in comfort. She started as a fortune-teller and was a shrewd enough physiognomist, we are told, to make good guesses at her customers' secrets. When, however, women came to her who wanted to get rid of husbands, she found it desirable not only to divine but to arrange the future. She had as accomplices certain sorcerers, one of whom was the Abbé Guibourg-a squint-eyed old priest with bloated face and a network of blue veins on it. This wretch used to perform a black mass,' a caricature of the proper rite in which the chalice was placed upon the body of the woman desiring help. An infant was killed at the moment of consecration, its blood was poured into the chalice, and mixed with such ingredients as were used by the witches in Macbeth.' The result was either a love-philtre or a poison, according to circumstances. The sacrifice of infants was a part of other such performances; and one strange circumstance was that La Voisin was very insistent' that the children should be duly baptized before they VOL. X.-NO. 59, N.S.


were murdered. By carrying on this business, La Voisin made as much as from 2,000l. to 4,000l. a year. She wore a cloak of crimson velvet, studded with 205 eagles of fine gold and lined with costly furs. The dressmaker's bill is still preserved. She was also much interested, we are told, in scientific and industrial progress, but unfortunately fell into the hands of sharpers, who swindled her out of her money. She practised medicine, too, and among her papers was a prescription for the 'quintessence of hellebore, which kept the Dean of Westminster alive for 166 years,' though his name is not preserved in the Fasti of the Church of England.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

La Voisin's clients were of the class of which Mme. de Brinvilliers was an ornament, and were able to pay handsomely for the arrangement of their little affairs. The most conspicuous among many was Louis XIV.'s magnificent mistress Mme. de Montespan. Her first visit to La Voisin was made in 1666, when she was first attracting the King's notice. She then came for 'love-powders,' which were to be administered to the King. The 'black mass' was performed in order to make them efficacious. In the following years, she attended other mock services where she recited 'exorcisms,' praying that the King might be alienated from the Queen and from her rival, the gentle Mlle. de la Vallière. The enchantments succeeded, or at least the desired results followed; and, on other various later occasions, when her relations to her royal lover became strained, she returned to the sorceress. In 1673 the black mass' was performed three times, . an infant was killed, and she invoked Ashtoreth and Asmodeus, princes of affection,' to accept the sacrifice and keep her in favour. An illness of Louis at the time is supposed to have been connected with the potions thus prepared which were administered to him. At last, when the King was attracted by Mlle. de Fontanges, Mme. de Montespan became desperate. She resolved, with the help of La Voisin and two artists in poison,' to make an end both of the King and her rival. A petition was prepared, steeped in powders and passed under the chalice. It was to be given into the King's own hands and was expected to produce fatal results. Two other agents were told off to poison Mlle. de Fontanges, and La Voisin went to St. Germains to see the King, but was not allowed to deliver the petition personally. Directly afterwards she was arrested, in consequence of the revelations of some of her other crimes. The commission in the course of its investigations brought out confessions of the persons employed by Mme. de

Montespan. The King was startled by the discovery that his mistress had been engaged in these monstrous performances. She was the mother of the favourite children whom he legitimised and the most splendid lady of the time. When shocked by the first discovery of the practices, he had ordered a thorough investigation. Now, he began to think investigations might go too far. Nobody could foresee what scandals might be the result of a thorough exposure, or what political catastrophes might follow; and he ordered the court to suspend its sitting. The magistrate, La Reynie, who was charged with the prosecution insisted that the high criminals ought to be punished, even though the exposure should bring discredit upon the nation abroad. The great ministers, Colbert and Louvois, however, were interested on the other side; and public opinion was beginning to turn. The commission, it was thought, was officiously stirring up awkward matters, and perhaps the accusations against great people had been invented by the criminals in order to save themselves. Ultimately, the court was directed to continue proceedings against some minor criminals, several of whom were executed. But all the papers tending to implicate Mme. de Montespan were kept secret and were ultimately burnt by the King himself. Their purport is known from the notes preserved by La Reynie. Meanwhile, all the surviving persons, who had been employed on Mme. de Montespan's proceedings, and who could in any way throw light upon them, were sent to various fortresses by lettres de cachet, and confined for life. They were chained to the wall and the governors were told that they were guilty of infamous calumnies against Mme. de Montespan, and that any of them who tried to speak on the subject was to be soundly flogged. Some survived for forty years.

Mme. de Montespan herself retired with a splendid pension to the convent of St. Joseph, and lived for many years in edifying penitence. She gave away large sums, wore the coarsest linen. under her ordinary dress, and was constantly praying. She was so tortured by fear of death, according to St.-Simon, that she paid several women to watch her day and night. She had candles lighted at night, and when she woke desired to find her attendants chatting or playing cards. She certainly may have had good reasons for finding solitary reflections unpleasant.

This strange story might suggest a good many morals. It is hardly surprising that one should find much degrading vice and

« AnteriorContinuar »