Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 10/M. le Comte de Pontis de Sainte-Hélène


Before the discovery by French novelists of the singular fact that the men who are the salt of the earth and the saviours of society are to be sought in convict prisons, to which they have been mistakenly condemned for robbery "with effraction," there existed another criminal type, which for a long time was greatly in vogue, alike with romance-writers and playwrights. Most of our readers must recollect how, in the dramas of a certain class, the hero and scoundrel was wont in the prologue to commit robbery and murder, say of a bank clerk, with his pocket-book full of notes; and how, when an interval of twenty years had been supposed to elapse, the villain reappeared in great splendour (generally as a marquis), having just returned to the scene of his former crimes with enormous wealth. How eagerly all watched his subtle machinations to entangle the poor but virtuous hero or heroine, who had discovered the secret of his life; and how all rejoiced when at last he was overwhelmed by the opportune appearance of three gendarmes in the doorway at the back of the stage! Whether Valjeans really exist it is not for us to say; but that the older scoundrel was to some extent "founded on facts," a little episode in the life of a distinguished nobleman of this class will prove.

One bright May morning in the year 1818 there was being held, in the Place Vendôme, a review of the troops in garrison at Paris. A crowd of spectators surrounded the soldiers, and gazed at the brilliant uniforms of the officers, who, as is their wont on such occasions, marched busily about without appearing to notice the admiration of the spectators. Had they only deigned to cast a pitying glance on the gaping "civilians" they must have remarked that one of their number, the lieutenant-colonel of the 72nd legion, was obstinately watched by a miserable tatterdemalion, who had managed to wriggle into the front ranks of the crowd. Squalid, half-starved seemingly, this pertinacious watcher might have been merely a beggar; but two minutes' examination of him would have convinced Vidocq, then at the head of the French police, that he was a convict at large. In fact Darius—so was our tattered friend called—if he were, as we might suppose from his name, a descendant of the royal house of the Achæmenidæ, had indeed fallen from his high estate; he had only just left Toulon after an imprisonment of twenty years for forgery. "It can't be," said Darius; "how could he be here, and in this company? Blazing with decorations, too—I'm mistaken." Yet still he watched the brilliant soldier as he walked proudly about. "Ah!" he said, presently, "I'm right after all; there's no mistaking the old nervous twitch. But what's he up to here?" Darius had no difficulty in learning from the bystanders all about the lieutenant-colonel; few men were better known in Paris than the Count de Sainte-Hélène.

In 1808 Marshal Soult had received orders from Napoleon to march into Spain, with which country France had recently become at war. Men with a knowledge of the country were wanted, and when the Count de Sainte-Hélène offered his services they were gladly accepted, for he had served as an officer in Spain, in party warfare, and with distinction, too, for he bore the decorations of Alcantara and of St. Vladimir, conferred on him for his bravery. He had, besides, shown to Soult papers on which he established his claim to his title, and which testified to his having seen service, not only in Spain, but also in America. Soult made him a major, and everywhere the respect due to their rank was paid to the count and countess—for the gallant soldier was married. He served well under Soult, and when the first restoration came he returned to France, and obtained a private audience of Louis XVIII. The king received with every mark of respect the last of an old and noble race; listened with sympathy to his account of his family and their misfortunes; and promised his lasting favour and protection. When Napoleon returned from Elba, the king retired to Gand, and among those who were faithful or discerning enough to follow him was the indefatigable count, whose devotion to the royal cause could as yet be paid only by promises of what should be done when the tyrant was once more driven out. At the end of the Hundred Days the king and his followers returned to Paris, and the count rejoined his wife, whom he had left in the capital. The king did not forget his promises; it was at his express desire that the count had been made lieutenant-colonel of the 72nd legion. He lived with his countess in grand style, and was received into the highest society; he increased in favour with his royal master; was made a member of the legion of honour, and, at the time of our story, it was asserted that he was about to be named aide-de-camp to the Duke of Angoulême, the king's nephew.

This was what Darius might have learnt, had he had leisure to make full inquiry; but keeping his eye constantly on the officer, he lost not a moment in following him on his return home at the end of the review. But the convict was not satisfied with merely learning the address of the officer; following him closely, he entered the house almost at the same time with him. "Do you recognise me?" said he, as he stood face to face with the count in his drawing-room. Recognise him! And the question asked, too, in a way that implied long familiarity! No wonder that the count replied by a counter-question, scarcely polite, indeed: "Who's this fellow?" "I'm Darius," said the convict; "and we were in the same chain at Toulon. Do you know me now?" "The Count de Sainte-Hélène has nothing to say to a scoundrel like you; get out of this directly, or I tell my footman to turn you out." "You're the scoundrel," says Darius. "Count, indeed! you're no more a count than I am. You're Peter Coignard—d'ye hear? Peter Coignard, I say, who got fourteen years for housebreaking!" Without further noticing Darius, the count rang a bell. "Mind what you're at," said Darius. "I don't want to hurt you, and I wouldn't have split. I'm hard up, and want a little help—that's all; but if you turn me out, you'll repent it." But a livery servant had entered, and on a sign from the count the tattered man with a royal name was bundled out of doors. Not at all disheartened with the result of his first attempt to enter polite society, Darius waits a few minutes to get himself together after his ejection, and then hastens off and asks to see the Minister of the Interior, on business of the greatest importance. His reception here was more polite; the minister listened aghast to the revelations of the convict; and, notwithstanding that he found, as men in office will sometimes find, that it was not in his department, he gave Darius an introduction to the governor of the military division, who in his turn heard the strange story, told with an earnestness which left no doubt of the good faith of the narrator. "What proofs have you?" at last asked the stern, upright old soldier, his face crimson with rage at the thought that a convict held high rank in his own honourable profession. "Keep me here, my general," replied Darius, "and fetch Coignard, and bring us face to face; but first of all, for Heaven's sake, give me something to eat. I haven't touched a morsel to-day." While Darius was despatching a hearty meal, under lock and key, an orderly was sent to the lieutenant-colonel with an invitation to betake himself to head-quarters.

"M. le Comte de Sainte-Hélène," said the wrathful general, when the accused officer stood before him, still in full uniform, and displaying all his decorations, "you can no longer abuse the Government and myself; I have learnt who you are—Coignard, an escaped convict!" Without in the least betraying himself, the count merely asked permission to return home, in order to fetch documents which would establish his identity. "One moment," said the general, and Darius was forthwith brought in. A slight embarrassment of manner betrayed the count's uneasiness at the turn things were taking, and when he began to load Darius with abuse, the general became convinced that the convict was right. Cutting short the warm dialogue which had begun, he ordered an officer to accompany the count to his house, and not to lose sight of him for a moment. When the house was reached the officer left his two gendarmes in the court-yard; and, thrown off his guard by his prisoner, who had had time to regain all his audacity, he was imprudent enough to let him visit alone a room in which he said that his papers were kept. He went out with the same footman, who a short while before had thrust out Darius; in a few minutes he had quitted the house, passing unquestioned by the gendarmes, who merely observed a man in livery leave the house. The officer, who had served in Spain, soon found a topic on which to carry on an interesting conversation with the pretty countess, in whose company he had been left; but thinking, at last, that it was high tune the count had found his papers, he opened, the door of the room into which he had gone—it was empty. "Where's your master?" he asked of the only servant he could find. "He went out an hour ago," was the answer, "and by now is far enough off." It was too true, and it was only some weeks afterwards that he was arrested in the company of some notorious scoundrels, to whom he had fled.

Was he really the Comte de Pontis de Sainte-Hélène, the noble émigré who had won back by his sword a position lost in troublous times, or was he the escaped convict that Darius asserted him to be? The question of his identity was quite set at rest by overwhelming proofs which were brought before the Court of Assizes of the Seine, and Coignard, together with Rosa Marcen, the ex-countess, and six accomplices, including his brother, the footman who had ejected Darius, were brought to trial.

An investigation of very many months had brought to light the past life of this extraordinary scoundrel. He was the son of a vine-dresser, and was himself brought up as a hatter, a trade which he had abandoned to enter the army of the Convention as a grenadier. His military career was, however, cut short by the discovery of several burglaries in which he had been engaged, and for which he was in 1800 sentenced to fourteen years' hard labour. Two years only of this time had passed when, in spite of every precaution, he managed to escape from Toulon. On the night following his escape he contrived to embark on a vessel bound to a Spanish port. He was set on shore, and at a town near the coast fell in with his future companion. This was a girl who had been in the service of the Count de Sainte-Hélène, the last of an ancient and noble family who had left France at an early stage of the Revolution and had entered the Spanish service, in which he had afterwards gone to South America. Here he greatly distinguished himself by his courage and thorough uprightness; but his health gave way, and he returned to Spain, which he reached only to die far from his country and friends, and bereft of nearly all save his name and his sword; uncared for except by a single female servant who watched him in his last moments. To this girl the dying count left in gratitude the little he still possessed. Slender enough were the means of existence of the girl thus left alone. One by one she sold the objects which made up the count's legacy, and at the time that Coignard fell in with her all had gone except a little box of old parchments, which the count had often told her in his last illness were the most precious things he had. Discussing the means of raising money, the pair found that nothing remained to them but this casket, which a Jew had long wanted to buy of the girl. Before selling it, Coignard thought it would be as well to look at the contents. They were the dead count's patents of nobility, and certificates of his having served honourably in Spain and America. The next day the pair left that part of Spain, assuming the names of the Count and Countess de Sainte-Hélène, and Coignard, as an exile with no dependence but his sword, soon found military employment in a country where a title possesses a sort of charm.

We know in part what was the subsequent life of this man, and have seen how he was in a fair way to reach the highest honours, when the revelations of an old fellow-convict toppled him down; but the most singular part, perhaps, of his career remains to be noticed. As far as could be learned, his conduct for a period of ten years after his escape from prison had been free from crime, except of course as regards the assumption of a borrowed title; but it was in Paris that his old course of guilt had been run, and on his return to Paris he renewed acquaintance with his former associates. His intelligence and boldness, and the high social position he occupied, placed him naturally at the head of an organised band, of which, next to himself, his countess and his brother were the most distinguished members. Coignard, accompanied perhaps by his lady, would pay a visit to some great man, and would take advantage of a momentary absence to get an impression of the locks of drawers in which he had reason to suspect that valuables were kept. A plan would then be arranged by the band; the absence of the master of the house would be known to Coignard, and by him notified to his associates, who in a twinkling would carry off all the plate in the house. On the morrow Coignard would call, sympathise, and offer his services in tracing the robbers. After a while he would declare to the police that he had made discoveries, and, having put them on a wrong scent, would be at liberty to plan a fresh enterprise. Others, again, had bitter reason to recollect visits of the countess, during which Alexander Coignard, the footman, would carefully study the weak points of the house, from which all the plate would disappear soon after.

On his trial Coignard persisted in claiming his assumed name. To the president, who addressed him as simple Peter Coignard, he replied: "I have already had the honour to inform M. le President that my name is De Pontis, and that I will not answer any questions addressed to Coignard; if death stared me in the face, I would say the same thing." The president was obliged to give way, and thenceforth addressed him as "first prisoner." No doubt whatever was left in the minds of the jury that they had before them Coignard the convict; he had in fact in an unguarded moment betrayed himself while in prison. It was, however, fully proved that his conduct and courage while serving in Spain had been deserving of the highest praise, testimony which he supported by baring his breast before the audience, and showing them the scars with which it was furrowed. It was to these facts, and to a certain dignity in his manner, that he owed the merciful consideration of the jury. He had shot at an agent of police who had tried to arrest him, but he was acquitted on the charge of attempted homicide, and after a trial of two days, was condemned to hard labour for life.

An immense crowd flocked to the Bicêtre to witness the departure of the chain in which was the felon whose daring fraud had brought him into the presence and favour of his sovereign, and in every town through which his road lay the same curiosity was excited. His arrival at Toulon, his old place of confinement, was hailed with enthusiasm by his old comrades. The ex-countess, who had been acquitted, followed him to Toulon that she might still be near him in his captivity, and there she remained till he died, at the end of a few years.

The previous dispersion of the old French nobility, and the unsettled state of affairs in France, go some way to explain the success of Coignard's fraud; but the social position which he reached, and the length of time during which he maintained it with perfect external propriety, place him perhaps at the head of all modern swindlers of this stamp.