Annals of Public Justice
The Brothers of Dijon
The President of the Parliament of Dijon and the Bishop of Beauvais disputed one evening on the strange and desperate actions frequently committed by men of characters long approved and generally exemplary. “I have thought of this inconsistency,” said the President, “till I have almost convinced myself that we have two souls; one which directs or attends only the mechanical and every-day business of our bodies, and a superior one which never acts unless excited by some peculiar things addressed to our feelings or passions. You and I must remember, that we have often wrote, read aloud, drawn, ate, talked, and dressed ourselves, without any consciousness or idea; and these operations appear to me directed by what I fancifully call the soul of our bodies, while the soul of our minds is otherwise employed. If the notion or name of two souls displeases you, we will call them habit and impulse; but I conceive the last to be the result of our thoughts and feelings, the other of mere mechanical instinct. And I conceive this impulse or soul of our thoughts to be as capable of suddenly inciting actions contrary to our general habits, as those habits are often practised without the assent and presence of our thoughts.”
The Bishop was offended by this metaphysical subtlety. “Do you mean to tell me,” said he, “that the natural impulses of men are wicked, whatever may be their general habits, and that such impulses are beyond controul?”
“I mean,” continued the President, “that the sudden actions of men proceed from the general bent of their thoughts, not of their common conduct; therefore I judge by such actions of a man’s real temper, rather than by his every-day duties and behaviour. And knowing that we are too apt to give our secret thoughts full licence, provided our actions are well regulated, I am not surprised when sudden temptation produces violent and scandalous acts in those whose ordinary conduct is decent, because premeditated or mere method.”
The Prelate shook his head. “Perhaps,” he replied, “I ascribe too much influence to reason, and you too little to temptation. We may both see and experience occasions when temptation creates thoughts never felt or indulged before, and when opportunity steps before judgment. I humbly trust to right habits as the best preservative from wrong impulses, and I leave you to determine your belief by facts: though it is my my belief, no less than yours, that no man’s habits will be consistently and constantly good, whose thoughts are wandering and unregulated.”
Soon after this conversation the Bishop left his brother, and returned to his hotel, or temporary residence, in Dijon. On the threshold, under the light of a few straggling lamps, he saw a stranger of mean appearance, who put a small billet into his hand, and waited respectfully while he looked into it. It was badly spelt and written, but purported to be from a dying woman in great need of spiritual help, and specially desirous to communicate with him at the corner house of the rue St. Madelaine. The Bishop knew this street to be situated at no great distance, in an honest though poor suburb, and the requested visit could be attended by no danger. Even if it had, the prelate had enough of benevolent courage to hazard something in his professional duty, and he desired the stranger to conduct his coachman. Alighting at the entrance of the narrow lane which led to the rue St. Madelaine, and was too narrow to admit his equipage, the Bishop desired his servants to await him there; for though he had too much charitable delicacy to desire parade in his visits of bounty, he also felt that his official station as a public instructor required him to shun all mysterious or questionable acts. Therefore directing his guide to take a flambeau from his lacquey, he followed him to the appointed door, and more particularly noticing the house, observed that its back wall overlooked the garden of a mansion occupied by a family he knew; the family, in short, from which his brother had selected his future wife, Therese Deshoulieres, a woman of noted beauty and high pretension. Perhaps this circumstance diverted his ideas so far as to prevent him from remarking the disappearance of his guide when he had unlocked a door, which the Bishop entering, found himself in a room very dimly lighted, and without furniture, except a bench on which a woman was sitting. She was muffled in a veil which she drew still closer to her face, but he immediately recognised the air and figure of Therese Deshoulieres. She appeared no less dismayed and confounded, though she found courage to accost him—“Ah, my lord!—do not believe that I meet you intentionally; the man who just now brought you, decoyed me here by this forgery”—and she put into his hand a billet which seemed the counterpart of that he had received. It was in the same hand-writing, and nearly the same words; but the confusion in the Bishop’s ideas made him return it in silence. “My servant accompanied me,” continued the lady, “and is waiting in the house—surely, my lord, you have not devised this scene to afflict me!—The people I expected to see were sick and in distress, and I came because I feared nothing from honest poverty.”—“Therese,” said the Bishop sorrowfully, “if you had not once feared honest poverty, we need not have feared to meet each other now.”—The lady wept; and though he began to doubt whether the whole was not the finesse of some feminine purpose, her tears were not without effect. But he did not misplace his confidence in the influence of right habits against sudden impulse; for his thoughts of Therese Deshoulieres had been so long governed and corrected, that this unexpected test did not disorder them. “I have nothing,” he added, “to say to my brother’s betrothed wife in fear and in secret;—nor any thing to desire from her, except that ring which she accepted once for a different purpose, and ought not to wear with her husband’s.” And, as he spoke, he approached to draw the ring from her finger on which he saw it glistening. A dimness came over Therese’s eyes; and when it vanished, the Bishop was gone, but had not taken the ring from the hand she held out to him. She sat down on the only bench in the room, and wept a long time bitterly and trembling. In a few moments more, she remembered that her servant had been ordered to wait till the clock struck seven before he enquired for her. Her repeater sounded that hour, but Mitand did not appear. She dared not open the door to go alone into the street, but the casement was unbarred, and it looked into her father’s garden. She climbed out, and by the help of a few shrubs clinging to the wall, descended in safety, and made haste to the house, hoping her absence was undiscovered. But Mitand had already reached it, and alarmed her family by saying that he had expected to find his young mistress returned. Therese answered her father’s angry questions by stating the simple truth—that she had been induced to visit the poor gardener’s widow by a billet begging her immediate presence for a charitable purpose, and had found the little lodge empty of all furniture: but a young man who called himself her grandson, had requested Therese to wait a few moments while the widow came from her bed in an upper room. Mitand informed his master that he had waited at the door till a man in a gardener’s habit bade him return home, as his lady would go by a back way through her father’s garden. M. Deshoulieres blamed his old servant’s careless simplicity, and asked his daughter if no other person had appeared. Therese faltering, and with a failing heart, replied, that a man had entered and demanded her ring; but being informed that her servant was stationed within hearing, had departed without further outrage. This prevarication, so near the truth, yet so fatally untrue, was the impulse of the moment. Therese had never before uttered a falsehood on an important occasion, but her thoughts had been long familiar with the petty finesses of female coquetry; and the step from small equivocations to direct untruth only required a spur.
To colour her evasion, Therese had concealed her ring among the garden shrubs; and professing that she had willingly yielded it to the thief as a bribe for his quiet departure, she entreated her father not to make such a trifle the subject of serious investigation. M. Deshoulieres, seeing no reason to doubt her sincerity, and fearing that an appeal to the police might compromise her reputation, agreed to suppress the matter. But he communicated it to his intended son-in-law, the President of the provincial Parliament, who looked very gravely at the forged billet, and asked a particular description of the ring. Then, as he gallantly said, to atone for her loss, he sent Therese a splendid casket of jewellery, which, with some gratified vanity, she added to the celebrated set she inherited from her mother. And a few days after, she accompanied him to the church of St. Madelaine, where the Bishop, who had visited Dijon for that purpose, performed the nuptial ceremony.
One of the most splendid fêtes ever seen in that province distinguished the bridal evening. The President, high in public esteem and flourishing in fortune, was attended, according to the custom of his country on such occasions, by the principal persons of his own class, and by all his kindred and friends in the neighbourhood. The Bishop remained in the circle till a later hour than usual, and perhaps with a more than usual effort, because he was aware a few persons in that circle knew the attachment of his youth to Therese Deshoulieres. But even his brother did not know that, being a younger son, he had been induced, for the benefit of his family, to enter the church, and renounce a woman whose pretensions were far above his honest poverty. Therefore on this occasion he affected, with some little pride, an air of perfect serenity; and though he had felt his forehead burn and freeze by turns, he knew his voice had never faltered while he pronounced a benediction on the marriage. He was pledging his brother after supper, when cries of fire were heard in the house. The great profusion of gauze ornaments and slight erections for the ball made the flames rapid beyond all help. Even the croud of assistants prevented any successful aid; for the number of timid women covered with combustible finery, and men unfitted by wine for personal exertion, disturbed those who came to be useful. “Is Therese safe?” was every body’s cry, and every body believed she was, till the outline of a woman seen among the flames and smoke at her chamber-window made the spectators redouble their shrieks. The bridegroom would have plunged again into the burning ruins, if his brother had not held him desperately in his arms; but the valet Miland, who had lived with M. Deshoulieres from his daughter’s infancy, ran up the remains of the staircase and disappeared. In another instant the roof fell in, and Miland was seen leaping from a burnt beam alone. He was wrapped in a large blanket which had saved his person, but his neck, hands, and head, were hideously scorched. When surrounded, and questioned whether he had seen his mistress, he wrung his hands, and shook his head in despair. They understood from his dumb anguish that he had seen her perish, and he remained obstinately sitting and gazing on the ruins till dragged away. The despair of the President was beyond words, and his brother’s utmost influence could hardly restrain him from acts of madness. When the unfortunate bride’s father deplored the festival which had probably caused its own dismal end, the President declared, with a fearful oath, that he knew and would expose the author. From that moment his lamentations changed into a sullen kind of fierceness, and he seemed to have found a clue which his whole soul was bent on. It was soon unfolded by the arrest of a young man named Arnaud, whose conveyance to prison was followed by his citation before the parliament of Dijon as an incendiary and a robber. M. Deshoulieres gave private evidence to support these charges; but a day or two preceding that appointed for a public examination, the President went to the intendant of the province and solemnly resigned his chair in the judicial court. “It is not fitting,” said he, “that I should be a judge in my own cause, and I only entreat that I may not be summoned as a witness.”
“No,” added the President, as he returned with his hrother, “it is not fit that I should be called upon to identify that man, lest his real name should be deemed enough to convict him of any guilt. It is sufficient for me to know him: we will not prejudice his judges.”
The Parliament of Dijon assembled with its usual formality, and the Intendant-general of the province was commissioned to act as President on this occasion. The Bishop and his brother sat in a curtained gallery where their persons might not fix or affect the attention of the court: the bereaved father was supported in a chair as prosecutor, and the prisoner stood with his arms coolly folded, and his eyes turned towards his judges.
The first question addressed to him was the customary one for his name. “You call me,” said the prisoner, “and I answer to the name.”
“Is it your real name?”
“Have I ever been known by any other?”
“Your true appellation is Felix Lamotte,” said the Procureur-general—“and I crave permission of the court to remind it that you stood here ten years ago on an occasion not much more honourable.”
The ci devant President handed a paper to the Procureur, requesting that nothing irrelevant to the present charge might be revived against the prisoner.
“Messieurs,” said the Public Accuser, addressing himself to the judges, “I humbly venture to assert, that what I shall detail is not irrelevant, as it may exhibit the character of the accused, and give a clue to his present conduct. Felix Lamotte is the nephew of a financier well remembered in Dijon, and his prodigality gave such offence that his uncle threatened to disinherit him, and leave his great wealth to his most intimate friend, the President of this court. But he, after repeated intercessions and excuses for this young man, prevailed on the elder Lamotte to forgive him. When the nephew heard his uncle’s will read, he found the President distinguished by only a legacy of ten thousand livres, and himself residuary legatee. You expect, messieurs, to hear that Felix Lamotte was grateful to his mediating friend, and careful of his unexpected wealth. He appeared to be grateful until he became poor again by his prodigality. Then, finding a flaw in his uncle’s will, he came before this tribunal to dispossess his friend of the small legacy he enjoyed, believing that, as heir at law, he might grasp the whole. The President, who had not then reached his present station among our judges, appeared as a defendant at this bar with a will of later date, which he had generously concealed, because the testator therein gave him all, charged only with a weekly stipend to his prodigal nephew. These are the facts which the President desired to conceal, because the ungrateful are never pardoned by their fellow-creatures, nor judged without rigour. We shall see presently how the accused shewed his repentance.”
“Stop, sir!” said Felix Lamotte, haughtily waving his hand to command silence, “I never did repent. The President created my error by concealing the truth. If, instead of permitting me to rely on a will which had been superseded, he had shewn me the last effectual deed of gift, I should have known the narrowness of my rights, and the value of whatever bounty he had extended. He wished to try my wisdom by temptation, and I have mended his by shewing him that temptation is always dangerous.”
“What you admit, is truth,” rejoined another Advocate—“though more modesty would have been graceful. But the bent of your thoughts must have been to meet the temptation.”
The prisoner answered coldly, “It may be so; and as that accords with the President’s metaphysics, let him thank me for the demonstration.”
“Where,” said the Intendant-general, “have you spent the last ten years?”
“Ask the President,” retorted Felix Lamotte—“he knows the verdict he obtained made me a beggar, and a beggar who reasons metaphysically will soon be tempted to become an adventurer. I have been what this honourable court made me, and I love to reason like the president.”
Mitand, M. Deshoulieres’ old servant, was called into the court, and asked if he had ever seen Lamotte. He was hardly recovered from the injuries he had received in the fire, but he took his oath, and answered in the affirmative distinctly. Being desired to say where, he said, “In a gardener’s dress, at a house in the suburb of St. Madelaine, and on the night of the marriage.”
The Accuser’s Advocate now related all the circumstances of Mademoiselle Deshoulieres’ visit to a house without inhabitants, where she had been robbed of a valuable diamond. A pawnbroker appeared to testify that he had received from Felix Lamotte the ring identified as Therese’s, and several witnesses proved the billet to be his hand-writing.
“You should also remember,” added Lamotte, looking sternly at the pawnbroker, “what account I gave you of that ring. I told you I had found it among the shrubs under the wall of an empty hut adjoining Deshoulieres’ garden. My necessity forced me to sell it for bread. Had you been honest, and able to resist a tempting bargain, you would have carried it back to the owner.”
“Notwithstanding this undaunted tone,” said the Procureur, “the prisoner’s motive and purpose are evident. Vengeance was the incitement—plunder was to have been the end. To unite both, he has fabricated letters, outraged an unprotected lady, and introduced devastation and death into the house of his benefactor, in hopes to seize some part of the rich paraphernalia prepared for his bride. He hated his benefactor, because undeserved favors are wounds: he injured him, because he could not endure to be forgiven and forgotten.”
“I have no defence to make,” resumed Lamotte, “for the faults of my youth have risen against me. You would not believe me if I should swear that I did not rob Therese, that I wrote no billets to decoy her, that I came into the vestibule of her father’s house only to be a spectator of her bridal fête. I lodged in the hut of the gardener’s widow, and unhappily complied when she solicited me to write petitions for the aid of the Bishop of Beauvais and M. Deshoulieres’ daughter. This woman and her family removed suddenly, and I am the victim.”
“Man,” said M. Deshoulieres, stretching out his arms with the rage of agony, “this is most false. The treacherous billet was written and brought by thy own hand, and here is another charging me to watch and witness my daughter’s visit!”
“Well!” returned the prisoner coldly, “and what was my crime? If I thought the marriage ill-suited, and without love on the lady’s part, was I to blame if I gave her an interview with her first lover? The Bishop of Beauvais can tell us whether such interviews are dangerous.”
“Let him be silenced!” interposed the Intendant-general; “this scandal is sacrilege both to the living and the dead. If we had any doubt of his guilt, his malignity has subdued it.”
The votes of the judges were collected without farther hearing, and their sentence was almost unanimous. Felix was pronounced guilty, and condemned to perpetual labour in the gallies: a decree which the President heard without regret, but his brother with secret horror when he remembered that Therese might not have spoken truth to her father—Yet he respected her memory fondly; and fear to wound it, more than his own honour, had induced him to give no public evidence. But he had satisfied his conscience by revealing all that concerned himself to the Intendant-general, who saw too much baseness in Lamotte’s character, to consider it any extenuation of his guilt. Lamotte was led to the gallies, a victim to his revengeful spirit, and the President was invited by his sovereign to resume that seat in the Parliament of Dijon which he had vacated so nobly.
Fifteen years passed after this tragical event, and its traces had begun to fade. The father of Therese was dead, and his faithful servant lived in the gardener’s house on an ample annuity given to him for his zeal in attempting to save her life. The President, weary of considering himself a widower, chose another bride, and prevailed on his brother to emerge from his retirement and bless his marriage. Another fête was prepared almost equal to the last, but perhaps a kind of superstitious fear was felt by all who remembered the preceding. The Bishop retired to his chamber very early, and the bridal party were seated in whispering solemnity, when the door opened slowly, and a figure clothed in white walked into the centre. Its soundless steps, glazed eyes, and deadly paleness, suited a supernatural visitor; and when, approaching the bride, it drew the ring from her finger, her shriek was echoed by half the spectators. At that shriek the ghostly intruder started, dropped the ring, and would have fallen, if the President’s arms had not opened to prevent it. He saw his brother’s sleep had been so powerfully agitated as to cause this unconscious entry among his guests; and conducting him back to his chamber, waited till his faculties were collected. “Brother,” said the Bishop, “it seems as if Providence rebuked my secresy, and my vain attempt to believe that opportunity and temptation cannot prevail over long habits of good, and be dangerous to the firmest.” Then, after a painful pause, he told the President his secret interview with Therese, his resolution to take back the ring, and the failure of his resolution. He explained how long and deeply this scene had dwelt on his imagination, how keenly it had heightened his interest in the trial of Lamotte; and, finally, with how much force it had been revived by the second marriage-day of his brother. “And now,” added the Bishop, “I may tell you that its hold on my dreaming fancy may have been lately strengthened by an event which I wished to suppress till after this day, lest it should damp the present by renewing your regret for the past. Only a few hours since, I was summoned once more to that fatal house in the suburb to see a dying sinner. I found old Miland on his death-bed. He told me that he could no longer endure the horrible recollections which your wedding-day brought. He reminded me of his attempt to reach Therese’s room when full of flames. At that moment no thought but her preservation had entered his mind; but he found her on the brink of the burning staircase with her casket of jewels in her hand. Miserable Therese! she had thought too fondly of the baubles; and he, swayed by a sudden, an undistinguishing, and insane impulse, seized the casket, not the hand that held it, and she sank. In the same instant his better self returned—all his habits of fidelity to his master, of love to his young mistress—but they came too late. He had thrust his dreadful prize under his woollen wrapper—it remained there undiscovered, while shame, horror, and remorse, prevented him from confessing his guilt. He buried it under the threshold of the garden-house, which his master gave him with a mistaken gratitude which heaped coals of fire on his head. There it has remained with the locks untouched fifteen years, and from thence he wishes you to remove it when you can resolve to speak peace to a penitent.”
Mitand died before morning, and the President’s first act was to place this awful evidence of human frailty on the records of the Parliament. Their decree against Felix Lamotte was not revoked, as its justice remained unquestionable in the chief points of his guilt: but the fatal influence of temptation over Mitand and the Bishop of Beauvais was a warning more tremendous than his punishment.