A Book of the Cevennes/L’Auberge De Peyrabeille
L'AUBERGE DE PEYRABEILLE
THE story of the Tavern of Peyrabeille is, perhaps, the most ghastly in the annals of crime, but I give it here partly because it has been so overladen and altered by fiction that the facts have disappeared in a cloud of fable; mainly because that story reveals, in a manner nothing else could, some of the characteristics of the Cevenol peasant.
The facts have been gathered from the archives of the Court of Justice at Privas, and published there by M. Paul d'Albigny. But the book is very scarce, long out of print, and I had great difficulty in procuring a copy. It is a book of 495 pages, and I shall have to compress the contents into one chapter.In the valley of the Ardèche, above Aubenas, at Pont de la Baume, is a Roman milestone now bearing a cross on its summit. Above the road tower the ruins of the castle of Ventadour commanding the valley.
The Tavern of Peyrabeille
The great road came down from Clermont to Le Puy, passed over the tableland to near the source of the Ardèche, and followed down that river to Aubenas and thence into the Rhone valley. At almost the highest point, 3,850 feet above the sea, in a bleak spot away from other human habitations, stood a hostelry, Peyrabeille, at which travellers were almost bound to halt to refresh or to pass the night. Faujas de Saint Fond, who was almost the first man to draw attention to the volcanic phenomena of the district, visited Peyrabeille in or about 1770, and he wrote: "There is no habitation so isolated as this inn; and not a year passes that solitary travellers do not find their safety in this shelter." If he had lived seventy years later he would not have used the same flattering language about it, for after that the family of Martin-Blanc took the tavern; for twenty-five years it became a murderous den, in which the travellers who lodged there were robbed and sent to their long rest. It was never known how many were there murdered, but it was believed that some sixty had become the victims of Pierre Martin, his wife, and his serving-man, and with what was taken from them the taverner bought up land and extended his possessions on all sides. Not till 1833 was this murderous band convicted and guillotined beside the inn, the scene of their crimes.
Pierre Martin, called also Blanc, with his wife Marie, came first of all as tenant farmer to a man named Beyraud, in a small habitation near the inn, in or about 1802. They had two daughters, Jeanne, born in 1800, and Marguerite, born after they came to this farm, in 1805. Martin and his wife did well there, by what means we do not know, but he speedily grew so easy in his circumstances that he purchased a site and land of Beyraud, and built a new inn which was completed in 1808.
This building still stands, very slightly altered. It is a long, low structure of granite and lava, with a huge stable, coachhouse, and loft over it adjoining. The front door from the road gave access to the kitchen, dimly lighted by one small hole of a window. In this kitchen was a large fireplace, beside which was the staircase leading to the upper floor, where were the principal bedrooms. On the left a door gave access to the salle-à-manger, lighted by two small windows. Beyond this was a washhouse, within it a huge oven in which Martin and his wife cremated the bodies of their victims. It must have been contrived for this purpose when the house was built, for it could serve no other, and since their time it has been destroyed. There was and is still an oven for domestic purposes in the kitchen. Behind this range of apartments was the bedroom of the Martins, husband and wife, adjoining it that of the two daughters and the servant-man Jean Rochette, and in rear of the washhouse a cellar. From the kitchen access was obtained by a door to the coachhouse. The vast stable had a door on to the road, and another at the further end. Above the stable the hayloft was reached by a sloping ascent from the ground. In the upper story of the dwelling-house were four bedrooms opening out of a wide passage in which was a fold-up cupboard bed, and from which a doorway led into the hayloft.
Pierre Martin, towards the end of his life, had an appearance somewhat patriarchal, with long flowing hair almost white. He had a high colour in his cheeks, and was a short, thick-set man. His forehead was retreating, his mouth firm. In manner he was unctuous, and he affected to be gracious.
His wife Marie, or Marion as commonly called, was a woman of avaricious, violent character, with a strength of will and decision capable of urging on her husband and servant to the worst deeds. Their servant, Jean Rochette, was born in 1785; he was a strongly built man, with auburn hair, large bright eyes, and a face at variance with the ferocity of his character; he was aged forty-eight when executed.
The new inn at Peyrabeille (the Old Stone) was much frequented, lying on the main road from Clermont and Le Puy to Aubenas and Viviers, consequently linked with the Rhone valley as also with Langonne, the great cattle market for the farmers and cattle-breeders of the Margeride; merchants, dealers, colporteurs passed and repassed it, and as habitations were few and inns still fewer, and such as there were of the most wretched description, Peyrabeille could not be gone by without some refreshment being taken there, and in stormy and cold weather the blazing fire kept up in the kitchen out of wood from the forest of Bauzon lured travellers to stay.
Baron Haussmann, in his Memoirs, relates a visit made to this inn in 1832. He was thenof Yssingeaux:—
"It was six o'clock at night. We decided reluctantly to stay anywhere for the night, dine, and rest our horses. We halted at a lonely inn at the crossing of two roads on a bleak plateau of most melancholy appearance. Darkness settled down, and the stars did not suffice to show the way. We were reluctantly induced to spend the night there. But it was stifling in the kitchen, which served also as salle-à-manger and as salon, and to take a breath of air we had opened the door, which the host had already barricaded. A light appeared between the mountains, and we soon became aware that the moon was about to rise. The prospect of escaping from beds of doubtful cleanliness to go elsewhere to rest where less suspicious, made us, late as it was, determine to proceed. We ordered our horses to be saddled, turning a deaf ear to the solicitations of our hosts, whom we urged to draw up our bill. Midnight struck when we arrived, greatly exhausted, at Le Puy."
Eight months later the papers rang with news of the arrest of the host and hostess and servant of the inn for repeated murders of their guests, whose bodies they burned in an oven. Among those who had disappeared was a stout cattle-dealer whom Haussmann and his companion had that night met in the tavern, and with whom they had held discussion.
It is doubtful whether the Martins would have ventured to assassinate two men so well known as Haussmann and his comrade, M. Dumoulin. Possibly, had they stayed the night, it would have saved the life of the cattle-dealer.
The Martins were cautious to treat well and leave unmolested persons of some condition, whose disappearance would rouse inquiry. Moreover, they did not always assassinate their victims in the house, but waylaid them at a distance, and disposed of the bodies in lava chasms or snow-drifts.
Only a fraction of their misdeeds came to light. At their trial such cases alone were brought up against them of which evidence was procurable to convict. Indubitably other persons were involved, sending information of intending lodgers well furnished with money, in advance of the arrival of the guests. Furthermore, André Martin, the nephew, aged thirty-five, was acquitted, although no doubt whatever existed that he had assisted in some of the murders. I will give a summary of the cases proved against the Martins and their man.
In 1808 Europe was the theatre of considerable wars, there was the continental blockade, the war in Spain and Portugal. The difficulties with Rome obliged Napoleon to raise 270,000 conscripts, torn from their families to lay their bones on foreign battlefields. The dislike to conscription caused many young men to retire into hiding away from their homes, and others to desert after enrolment. These were the object of incessant research by the imperial gendarmerie. Among such was a young fellow of twenty called Claude Béraud, son of well-to-do parents near Le Puy, who had already lost one son at Jena, and another was with the army of occupation of Naples, but had not been heard of for long. His parents furnished Claude with money sewn into a leather belt he was to wear next his skin, and bade him hide till the search was over. One winter night, in 1808, this unfortunate young man came to the inn at Peyrabeille and asked to be taken in. Snow was falling, and a storm raging. He was received, and incautiously told his hosts what he was and that he was well supplied with money. They made up for him a roaring fire, and gave him hot spiced wine as he sat over it. The change from the cold without to the heat within made him drowsy, and as he nodded, Pierre Martin struck the leg of his chair and upset the youth, about whose neck Rochette at once slipped a thong and strangled him. The body was searched, the belt taken off, and the pockets emptied. From the belt 350 francs were taken; from the pockets a peculiarly ornamented knife, which Jean Rochette appropriated, and a watch from which hung a piece of cornelian in the form of a disc. It was by identifying these latter articles twenty-five years later that the parents of Claude first learned his fate.
When he was dead, Pierre Martin and the serving-man carried the body to a distance, leaving a little loose silver in the pocket, and threw it into a snowdrift that filled a ditch. Not till late in the spring was the corpse found, and then it was so disfigured by wolves that identification was impossible, and the money in the pocket led the police to suppose that the death was due to accident.
In the month of July, 1812, Jean Rochette received news through a wagoner who halted at the inn that a stranger, presumedly a merchant and well-to-do, was on his way thither, and might or might not spend the night at Peyrabeille. He was riding on an apple-grey horse with a long tail, and had holsters to his saddle with pistols in them.
At six o'clock in the evening this man arrived, looked at the tavern, and not relishing its appearance was pushing on, when Jeanne, then aged fourteen, ran out, and standing before the horse, entreated the man to make proof of her mother's kitchen; at the same time Rochette came out and joined in persuading him to alight. The traveller was on his way, he said, to Pradelles, and could not reach it till well on in the night. The merchant allowed himself to be persuaded, and surrendered the horse to the servant, who took it to the stables and at once removed the pistols from their cases. The stranger, whose name never transpired, remained in the inn and dined there; he did not leave till eight o'clock, when night was falling. He had not observed that whilst he was at his meal the two men, Martin and his servant, had disappeared.
After departing, he had gone some way on the road to Pradelles, when from a coppice the host and Rochette leaped out on him, and Martin dealt him a blow with a cudgel on the back of his head which sent him from his horse. Martin then laid hold of the bridle and bade his man finish the stranger. So soon as the traveller was dead he was robbed, despoiled of most of his clothes, and then the body flung across the saddle, the horse led to a great distance, and the corpse thrown into a cleft in the rock, and pieces of granite heaped upon it.
Some days later a couple of poachers after a fox pursued the animal till it took refuge in this very cleft, and in removing the stones to reach it discovered the dead man. The tidings of what had been found was buzzed about, but the police acted in such leisurely fashion that they did not go to the spot till three days after its discovery, and then—the body had disappeared. Pierre Martin had removed and cremated it in his oven. He took the horse, after having docked its tail, to Le Puy to sell it at a fair, but a dealer there seemed to recognise it, and asked inconvenient questions, so Martin hastily left, and he and Rochette killed the beast and buried it.
In the same year a farmer named Brisac, living at no great distance, having sold some hay to Pierre Martin, went one morning very early, as dawn was breaking, to claim his money. On reaching Peyrabeille his surprise was great to see a strong light gleaming from the crevices of the door and the curtained window. He knocked with his stick, but only after some delay did a voice from within ask who he was and what he wanted. He stated his business; the woman Martin opened, and seemed to be somewhat disconcerted and in a very bad temper. The morning was raw, and Brisac went to the hearth, where he saw it piled up into faggots, making a huge blaze about a cauldron suspended in the flames, and the ebullition was so great that the lid of the cauldron was in constant agitation to emit the steam. At the same time, whatever was boiling sent forth a peculiar and disagreeable odour, as from something decayed.
Pierre Martin and his wife were obviously impatient to be rid of their creditor, and Pierre left the room to fetch the money that was due. Brisac seized the opportunity as Marie Martin's back was turned to lift the lid of the cauldron, and to his horror beheld a human hand. As he dropped the lid Pierre re-entered, observed what he had done, and fixing his eyes on Brisac, said to him sternly: "Here is your money. Be off, and take care that not a word as to what you have seen here passes your lips. If you forget my warning, you are a lost man."
Brisac took the money and fled the house, and never again set foot across its threshold. Such, however, is the cowardice of the peasant, his fear of compromising himself, his shyness of having anything to do with the police, that it was not till the Martins were in prison that he ventured to relate what he had seen, and he appeared in court with his evidence only when it was certain that they could do him no harm. The next case illustrates this timidity even more clearly. I will quote the deposition of the witness textually. It is that of Vincent Boyer, tinner, aged twenty-nine.
"One day, in the winter of 1824, I was going to my family at Aubenas, when I was surprised by the bad weather (the land was covered with snow), and I was forced to stay at the Martins' inn at Peyrabeille. I saw several persons there, notably an old man also delayed by the bad weather and forced to pass the night there. Martin's wife having invited me to draw near to the fire, entered into conversation with me, and questioned me on my gains in my trade, and as to how much money I had with me. She told me that there was a band of robbers in the neighbourhood, and she asked me what I would do if attacked by them. 'I would give up to them the thirty sous I have with me and be off.' 'But,' said she, 'supposing that they were disposed to kill another man and let you alone, what would you do?' 'I would defend him at the peril of my life if I saw there was a chance of saving him. If not, I would let be.' 'Are you a heavy sleeper? ' 'Very. When once asleep you might remove the house without awaking me.'
"This strange questioning frightened me; I saw clearly enough into what company I had got. However, I did my best to disguise my suspicions. After having catechised me, the woman Martin went to the old man and asked him the cause of his journey. He replied without mistrust that he had sold a cow and was taking the money back with him. This lack of reticence further alarmed me.
"Bed-time arrived. The people of the house told us plainly enough to go to our respective chambers aloft. Then only did some suspicion cross the mind of the old man, and he asked to share the same room with me, but this was peremptorily refused.
"They led us to our separate bedrooms at some little distance apart. I heard the old man make some demur as to his, and a voice replied: 'Manage as you will. There is no other room for you.' Then I heard the door of his chamber shut, and whoever had led him to his room descended. One of the girls had conducted me to my chamber, and she recommended me not to leave my door open, speaking in a tone that expressed an order.
"As soon as the girl Martin had left I examined my bed, and was horrified to find on the bolster splashes of blood as big as the bottom of a pail. I went to bed more dead than alive. At the end of about an hour some one entered my room, thinking that I was aleep—I made good pretence that I was so—and searched my pockets, and finding in them no more than the thirty sous, left them there and descended again.
"Two or three hours later I heard strokes at the old man's door, and a voice call, 'Get up, it is time.' There was, however, no response. Then those who had made this noise went back below, but returned in half an hour. They knocked again at the door, repeating the words as before. But seeing that the stranger persisted in refusing to reply, they burst in the door. Immediately I heard cries of 'Help! Help!' But soon the victim uttered no more articulate cries, but such as I can only liken to the squeals of a pig that is being killed. During the accomplishment of the crime—that is to say, whilst the unhappy man was uttering these cries of distress—the two Martin girls, aged twenty-eight and thirty, were keeping guard at my door, laughing in fits and singing. I could compare them only to demons from hell.
"Next morning I rose late, to give the scoundrels time to conceal their crime, and by this means make it safer for myself. The woman Martin asked me how I had slept and if I had heard anything. I said that I had been sound asleep all night. I was so frightened, that when I had got a hundred paces from the house I ran the rest of my way as hard as my legs could carry me."
This self-revelation of abject cowardice and meanness in a young man drew from the judges no comment. It was in the nature of the peasant to be such, and comment would be useless. Only they remarked on Boyer having said nothing of what had occurred to the police or any one else for fourteen years. But this also was characteristic.
By means of repeated crimes Pierre Martin had amassed a good deal of money. He bought more land to round off his property, also another house, at a few paces from his own. He was also able to announce that he would give a handsome dot with each of his daughters. This brought a suitor, Philemon Pertuis, son of a well-to-do farmer, above the Martins in position, to ask the hand of Marguerite. They were married, and installed in the house that Pierre had bought. Young Pertuis was a mild, inoffensive man. There is no evidence that he took any part in the crimes, but he became aware of them, and cautioned his father-in-law to be more circumspect; and finally, in 1830, four years after his marriage, quitted the house and went to a distance so as to avoid implication in the misdeeds of the old man and his wife. He also said nothing to the police or to any one else of what he knew or suspected.
In 1826, just two months after the marriage, another crime was attempted, that came to light later.
A farmer, named Michel Hugon, was at the fair at Jaujac, where he sold a drove of young bullocks. He was annoyed at being followed and watched by a little hunchback named Pannard, who endeavoured to get into conversation with him and learn where he intended to pass the night on his way home to Pradelles. He curtly informed him that he would sleep at the house of a friend at Mayres.
Hugon was on his way home when he was passed by Pannard riding a mountain pony, and going the same way as himself. In fact, the hunchback was on theroad to Peyrabeille to announce to the Martins that some good game was coming to their net. After sleeping at Mayres, Hugon pursued his journey on the following morning, and halted at the inn of the Martins to breakfast, but saw none there save the women. When about to leave, Marie Martin strongly advised him to take a short cut which she pointed out, and which would save him over a mile. Without suspicion he followed her directions, and had gone some way, when out of the bushes leaped Pierre Martin and Jean Rochette, armed with picks; and the former with his weapon dealt a blow at Hugon that cut his head open and wounded his back, but happily failed to stun him or split his skull. The farmer at once whirled his cudgel and struck Martin under the knee with such force as to bring him to the ground. Rochette, who was behind, yelled to his master, "Strike on! strike on!" But Pierre was unable to rise for a moment, and Hugon took to his heels and ran before Jean could deal him another blow. Pierre got up now, and he and Rochette pursued the farmer, who fled and did not draw breath till he reached the high road on which were passengers, and where he felt himself safe. He also breathed not a word of his adventure and escape till the Martins were under lock and key. Not long after this Pannard was arrested on a
The attempt on Hugon was in May. In June of the same year a pedlar-woman, named Catherine Vercasson, on a very hot day, came to the inn and showed her wares to the Martin girls and their mother, in the hopes that they would purchase. They bought a few trifles, and then Catherine locked her box with a key that she carried suspended to her belt. As she was hot and tired, she asked leave to lie down on a bed for a rest. This was readily accorded. She was given a tumbler of drugged wine, and led to one of the upper rooms, where she was soon fast asleep. As she lay unconscious Jeanne Martin possessed herself of the key, opened the box, and took from it several articles of jewellery, and the mother relieved the pedlar's purse of some of its contents.
Catherine Vercasson woke after a long sleep and unsuspiciously went on her way, but had not gone far before she sat down to count her money, when to her alarm she found that she had been robbed of two louis d'or. She went into the nearest village to sell more of her goods, and, on opening her box, found that that also had been rifled. She was now positive that she had been pillaged at Peyrabeille. She confided her distress to the innkeeper at Lanarce, the village where she was. He shrugged his shoulders and bade her put a good face on it, and not venture back to reclaim the money and goods. But Catherine was not disposed to accept her losses so easily, and with great difficulty she induced two young men to accompany her to Peyrabeille. They went with her, but no persuasion would induce them to enter the house. The determined woman went in and charged the mother and daughters with the theft, which they stoutly denied. "I will not leave till I receive my money and goods," said she. The women exchanged glances, and the mother bade one of her daughters go out and fetch Pierre and the servant. The girl returned in haste to say that two men were watching the house, but hiding their faces so as not to be recognised. Under these circumstances the three women deemed it expedient to restore the major part of what they had taken, and to pretend that the whole was a practical joke. The story got wind, and increased the suspicion with which the Martins were regarded.
In 1831, the eldest of the daughters was married to a man named Deleyrolles, he also occupying a better social position than the Martins; he was drawn to ask for her by the rich dot that went with her, and he took his wife with him to Vans.
One would have supposed that now all reason for amassing money by crime was taken away. The Martins had no more children for whom to save, and they were very comfortably off themselves. But avarice is insatiable.
Other crimes and attempted crimes I will pass over, to come to the last which led to the arrest of the Martins and their man.
In October, 1831, an old man of seventy-two, named Anjolras, a relative of Pierre Martin, had sold to him a cow at the fair at S. Cirgues, and as he wanted his money asked Martin to pay for it at once. The taverner said he had not the sum by him, but invited Anjolras to accompany him to Peyrabeille, where he would give him what was owed. The old man consented, and went with his kinsman to the fatal inn, which they reached at nightfall.
There were in the house at the time André, the nephew of Pierre Martin, and a girl named Marie Arnaud, the betrothed of André, engaged there at needlework, a pale, serious-faced girl, whose part in what follows is difficult to discover. There was also in the house at the time a beggar named Laurent Chaze, who had asked to be taken in for the night. Pierre Martin, as soon as he entered, demanded roughly what this fellow wanted, and when Chaze stated his requirements he was bidden be off, there was no bed at his disposal. Chaze went forth into the dark, walked some way along the road, then bethought himself of the hayloft, stole back, and finding the loft door unbarred went in and concealed himself in a corner beneath the hay. When bedtime arrived, under some excuse the host induced Anjolras to sleep in the loft and not in one of the bedrooms, and the beggar heard Martin bring his kinsman in and point out a place where he could lie, near the door of communication with the house. About an hour later Chaze saw Jean Rochette with a lamp enter and examine Anjolras to ascertain if he were asleep. Then he descended, but returned with Marie Martin, she carrying a large iron ladle full of scalding soup. Having satisfied themselves that the old man was sound, she said to Jean Rochette, "Strike!" and he brought a hammer down on the sleeper's head. As Anjolras started and opened his mouth she threw the scalding contents of the ladle into it. The old man fell. "Strike again," said the woman, "he is not dead yet." Jean obeyed till the skull was beaten in.
Before dawn the beggar had fled the scene.
The disappearance of Anjolras caused a commotion, and search was made for him in all directions. It was heard that he had been last seen along with Pierre Martin on his way to Payrabeille.
The murder had been committed on the night of the 12th October. On the 25th, thirteen days after, the authorities began to bestir themselves, and as every trace pointed to the inn, the Mayor of Lanarce, accompanied by a party of young men, went to Peyrabeille to institute inquiries. On entering the kitchen, Marie Martin informed him that the Juge de Paix of Coucouron was already there in the parlour, and would speak with him. No one knew what passed between these magistrates, but presently the mayor came out and said to his attendants: "Gentlemen, you may depart, there is nothing to be done"; and, in fact, nothing was done. No search was made; some politenesses passed between the two officials and the hostess, and they retired with bows. Yet the corpse, all the while, was within a few yards of the house. It was discovered in a startling manner.
Philemon Pertuis, son-in-law of the Martins, who had left the house in which he had been for a few years at Peyrabeille, had retained the little farm about it, and employed the sheds and stable and cellars for his crops, etc.
One day he sent his servant, Jean Testud, with a tumbril to fetch away his potatoes that were in the cellar. Testud went in with a lamp and saw in a corner a barrel of bran. He was aware of an unpleasant smell in the cellar, which he could not explain. On one of his journeys the lamp went out, and he returned to grope for it. In so doing he put his hand into the barrel and encountered the cold remains of a human body. Frozen with horror, he staggered to the inn, sank in a chair, and said he was ill, and must go home to his parents at Banne.
Pierre Martin and his wife were uneasy. They went to the cellar and found there the lamp of Testud, and at once saw that the corpse must be removed. This was done during the night on the back of a mule, and was conveyed to a precipice at Lesperon and flung over it, so as to give an idea that Anjolras had fallen accidentally.
The body was discovered on October 26th, was identified and examined, and it was soon seen that this was no case of an accidental fall, but of murder. On November 1st, Martin and his wife and his nephew André, and after that Jean Rochette, were arrested, but were not brought to trial for three years, as the prosecution met with extraordinary difficulty in getting together evidence against them, so timorous were the peasants, so afraid of appearing in court and being subjected to cross-questioning, and of incurring the resentment of the relatives of the Martins, who were numerous. The two daughters were not arrested. Nothing could be wrung from the girl Marie Arnaud, who preserved throughout remarkable self-possession and self-restraint. André, as already said, was acquitted, but Pierre and his wife and Jean Rochette were guillotined close to the inn on October 2nd, 1833.
Pierre Martin affected to be penitent, made loud professions of remorse. Rochette was sullenly penitent, but Marion literally kicked the prison chaplain out of the cart in which he purposed attending her to the gallows, was resentful and hardened to the last, and when, on the scaffold, another priest held up the crucifix before her eyes as she was being bound to be placed under the fatal knife, she turned away her face from it with a scowl.
Vast crowds attended the execution, and when the bloody scene was over and the scaffold removed, the crowd spent the rest of the day till late into the night dancing over the spot where the blood had flowed, to the strains of a piper, whilst the old folks got fuddled over the liquor from the cellar of the inn, sold to them by the nearest relatives of the Martins, who had inherited it through the execution a few hours previously. To Peyrabeille may be applied the words of Jules Claretie, relative to Paris after the Terror: ""
A Group of Lacemakers