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- Mysteries of Paris, V3 - 70/89 -
"Coward, I say!"
At this moment a tramp of footsteps was heard in the corridor. The veteran looked at his watch, and stood up. The rising sun, dazzling and radiant, shot suddenly a golden beam of light through the grated window of the corridor opposite the door of the dungeon. This door was thrown open, and two keepers appeared, bringing two chairs; then the jailer came, and said to the widow, in an agitated voice, "Madame, it is time."
The widow stood up, impassible; Calabash uttered piercing screams. Four men entered. Three of them, roughly clad, held in their hands small coils of very fine but strong cord. The tallest of these four men, neatly dressed in black, wearing a round hat and a white cravat, handed a paper to the jailer. This man was the executioner. The paper was a receipt for two women fit to be guillotined. The executioner took possession of these two of God's creatures; from that time he was answerable.
To the frightful despair of Calabash had succeeded a helpless torpor. Two of the assistants were obliged to seat her on her bed, and to sustain her. Her jaws, clinched by convulsions, hardly allowed her to utter some unmeaning words; she rolled around in vacancy her dull and almost sightless eyes; her chin fell upon her breast, and without the assistance of the two deputies, her body would have sunk to the ground like an inert mass. Martial (after having for a long time embraced this unfortunate being) alarmed, not daring nor able to move a step, and as if fascinated by the scene, remained immovable. The brazen hardihood of the widow did not forsake her; with her head erect and thrown back, she assisted to take off the waistcoat, which impeded her movements. It fell to the ground, and she remained in her old dress of black woolen.
"Where must I place myself?" she asked in a firm voice.
"Have the kindness to seat yourself in one of these two chairs," said the executioner, pointing to them.
The door being left open, several of the keepers, the governor of the prison, and some privileged persons, were seen standing in the corridor. The widow walked with a firm and bold step to the place indicated, passing near her daughter, when she stopped, and said in a voice slightly broken:
"Daughter, kiss me!"
At the voice, Calabash was aroused from her apathy, drew up on her seat, and with a gesture of malediction, she cried, "If there is eternal fire, descend into it, accursed."
"My child, embrace me!" said the widow again, making a step toward her daughter.
"Do not approach me! you have ruined me!" murmured the unfortunate, throwing out her hands as if to repulse her mother.
"No, no!" said Calabash, in a convulsed voice; and this effort having exhausted her strength, she fell back, almost without consciousness, into the arms of the assistants.
A shade passed over the impassible face of the widow; for a moment her dry and burning eyes became moistened. At this instant she met the eyes of her son. After a moment's hesitation, and as if she yielded to the effect of an inward struggle, she said to him, "And you?"
Martial threw himself sobbing into the arms of his mother.
"Enough!" said the widow, overcoming her emotion, and disengaging herself from the embraces of her son. "He is waiting," she added, pointing to the executioner.
Then she walked rapidly toward the chair, where she resolutely seated herself. The spark of maternal sensibility, which had for a moment lighted up the dark recesses of this corrupted heart, was extinguished forever.
"Sir," said the veteran to Martial, approaching him with interest, "do not remain here. Come, come."
Martial, stupefied, with horror and alarm, mechanically followed the soldier. Two of the assistants had carried the wretched Calabash to the other chair; one of them sustained the almost lifeless body, while the other, by means of whip-cord, exceedingly fine but very strong, tied her hands behind her back, and also fastened her feet together by the ankles, allowing slack enough to enable her walk slowly. The executioner and his other assistant performed the same operation on the widow, whose features underwent no alteration; only from time to time she coughed slightly. When the condemned were thus prevented from offering any resistance, the executioner, drawing from his pocket a long pair of scissors, said to her with marked politeness, "Have the goodness to bend your head."
The widow obeyed, saying: "We are good customers; you have had my husband; now here are his wife and daughter."
Without replying, the executioner gathered in his left hand the long gray hair of the condemned, and commenced cutting it short--very short, particularly about the neck.
"This makes the third time that I have had my hair dressed in my lifetime," said the widow, with a horrible laugh: "the day of my first communion, when they put on my veil; the day of my marriage, when they put on my orange blossoms; and now to-day--the head-dress of death."
The executioner remained silent. The hair of the condemned being thick and coarse, the operation was so long in being performed, that Calabash's lay strewed upon the ground before her mother's was half finished.
"You do not know of what I am thinking?" said the widow, after having looked at her daughter again.
The executioner continued to keep silent. Nothing could be heard but the snipping of the scissors and the kind of rattling which from time to time escaped from the throat of Calabash. At this moment was seen in the corridor a priest of venerable appearance, who approached the governor, and spoke a few words to him in a low tone. The chaplain came to make a last effort to soften the heart of the widow.
"I think," resumed the widow at the end of some moments, and seeing that the executioner did not reply, "I think that at five years old, my daughter, whose head is to be cut off, was the handsomest child that I ever saw. She had flaxen hair and rosy cheeks. Then, who would have told me that,--" After a pause, she cried, with a burst of laughter, and an expression impossible to be described, "What a comedy is fate!"
At this moment the last locks of the condemned fell upon her shoulders.
"It is finished, madame,' said the executioner, politely.
"Thank you. I recommend to you my son Nicholas," said the widow; "you will dress his hair some of these days." A keeper came and whispered a few words to her.
"No; I have already said no," answered she, roughly. The priest heard these words, raised his eyes toward heaven, clasped his hands, and disappeared.
"Madame, we are going to set out; will you take something?" said the executioner, obsequiously.
"Thank you; to-night I will take a drink of sawdust."
And the widow after this new sarcasm stood up erect. Although her step was firm and resolute, the executioner obligingly wished to assist her; she made a gesture of impatience and said, in a harsh and imperious tone:
"Do not touch me; I have a firm step and a good eye. On the scaffold you will see I have a good voice, and if I speak words of repentance."
And the widow, leaving the dungeon, escorted by the executioner and an assistant, entered the corridor. The two other assistants were obliged to carry Calabash in a chair; she was dying. After having traversed the whole length of the corridor, the funeral procession ascended the same staircase, which conducted to a court on the outside. The sun, with its warm and golden light, gilded the tops of the high white walls which surrounded the court, and strangely contrasted with the pure blue of the sky. The air was soft and balmy; never was a spring morning more smiling, more magnificent. In this court were seen a detachment of police, a cab, and a long, narrow vehicle, painted yellow, drawn by three post horses, which neighed gayly, shaking little bells on their harness. This vehicle was entered from behind like an omnibus. This was the cause of a last joke from the widow.
"The conductor will not say full?" said she, as she mounted the step as lightly as the cord which confined her ankles would allow.
Calabash, expiring, sustained by an assistant, was placed in the carriage opposite her mother, and the door was closed. The hackney-coachman had fallen asleep; the executioner shook him.
"Excuse me, citizen," said he, descending hastily from his seat; "but a night in Mid-Lent is rough. I had just taken to Vendanges de Bourgogne a load of maskers, who were singing, '_La mére Godichon_,' when you engaged me by the hour. I--"
"Enough. Follow this vehicle to the Boulevard St. Jacques."
"Excuse me, citizen. An hour ago I was going to the 'Vendanges;' now to the guillotine! That proves that, as the saying is, there are queer ups and downs in life!"
The two vehicles, preceded and followed by the gendarmes, left Bicetre and took the road to Paris.
* * * * *
We have presented the picture of the toilet of the condemned in all its frightful reality, because it seems to us that we can derive from it powerful arguments. Against punishment of death. Against the manner in which it is applied. Against the effects which must be expected from such an example given to the populace.
The toilet, although divested of that solemnity, at once imposing and religious, which ought, at least to surround all the acts of the highest punishment known to the laws, is the most impressive of all the ceremonies attending the execution of a criminal, and yet it is concealed from the multitude.
In Spain, on the contrary, the condemned remains exposed during three days in a "_chapelle ardente_;" his coffin is continually before his eyes; the priests say the prayers for the dying; the bells of the church night and day ring a funeral knell.
It will be conceived that this kind of initiation to death may alarm the most hardened criminals, and inspire with salutary terror the crowd which surrounds the "_chapelle mortuaire_."
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