Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Tragedy or farce?
TRAGEDY OR FARCE?
Great and popular authors have much to answer for. Who, on reading “As You Like It,” has not longed to throw aside his ledger, brief, or stethoscope and note-book, and go and lead a merry life in the forest? I should have taken a through ticket to Paris, and so to Ardennes, long ago, but that, being a nervous man, I have a constitutional dread of lions and lionesses (with udders all drawn dry, the latter are too much for me altogether), and no amount of gilding would ever reconcile me to a snake. Werter, they say, was the cause of many suicides; and Mr. Carlyle has had to enter into an argument to show that Schiller’s “Robbers” did not drive a German nobleman to imitate the extremely questionable feats of its hero.
But for the strange behaviour of Mademoiselle Angélique Delaporte, we sadly fear that Mrs. Radcliffe, or some kindred genius, must be held answerable. The story we are about to relate of the eccentricities of this young lady is so very like those thrilling romances, No. 2 of which (in a highly ornamented cover) is presented gratis with No. 1, that it may be as well to assure our readers that we are going to narrate an actual occurrence.
One fine morning in October, 1811, a little party set out for an excursion to the suburbs of Paris, from the Rue de Bondy. It consisted of Madame Morin, a widow of about forty, buxom, weak-headed, active, always engaged in some speculation or another; a girl of about sixteen, with her head full of romances, Angélique Delaporte, the daughter of Madame Morin by her first husband, from whom she had been divorced; and lastly, Mr. Ragouleau, a shrewd, hard lawyer, whose numerous dealings with the widow in her house speculations had by no means turned out ill for him.
Ragouleau had had an invitation to breakfast from the widow for some time past; it had been put off, but now here he was. Strangely enough, however, he refuses breakfast, but the widow insists on his going with her and her daughter to see a country-house she is thinking of buying, and of which she wants his opinion. The man of business consents; a cab is called, and they all three get in. “By the barrier of Rochechouart, coachman!” says the widow. What on earth makes Ragouleau start and turn uneasily in his seat? Muttering something about the road being up, he tells the coachman that he can’t go that way; he must go by the barrier De la Villette. Off they start, Angélique, whom we may suppose to be the life of the little party, declaiming perhaps, as she was always doing, some theatrical scene in which her admirers declared she had no rival on the stage, or describing to her admiring mother some dreadful scene in the “Mysteries of Udolpho,” or some of the novels of that kind, which the girl always had in her hands. The barrier is reached, but a man just looks inside and then gives a word to three others who are standing ready; the coach is stopped, and Ragouleau being left to himself, the two women are arrested. The four men, who are agents of police, push them into the octroi building, and without the least compunction begin to search them. They find nothing, but Angélique asks what it is all about. “We were going,” she says, “with M. Ragouleau to see a house that my mother thought of buying.” The commissionnaire turns round, notices that she carries in her hand a handkerchief that does not look quite right, and makes a snatch at it, when out falls a little roll of paper. On examination this roll was found to contain fifteen drafts payable to order, but without name of drawer or payee, fourteen of them for 20,000 francs each, and the fifteenth for 10,000 francs, all on stamped paper, and dated the 30th of April last; another draft on unstamped paper, which seemed to have served as a copy for the others; three letters in Ragouleau’s handwriting; and a paper contained in an envelope, on which was written “Unseal and read.” This direction was obeyed by the police, who found the following composition in the handwriting of Angélique, like all the rest: “‘If ever in my life a day of justice come for me, you shall be the first to whom I will render it.’ This is what you said to me in the Louvre, when we met there, three days before I consented to give up to you voluntarily that which your crimes took from me by force, in the sight of every one who knows you. ’Twere useless to enter into the details of horrors which even yet cause me to shudder. How could nature vomit such a monster as are you? Here, then, it is settled shall be your day of justice—or my day of vengeance. Ah! what a luxury for the oppressed! In my power my address has placed you. Choose: death—or return to me that which is mine, and thank my children for the choice I give you. If I only existed, I would let my rage burst forth with all the ferocity required by the horrible monstrosities directed by you against me! Two hundred thousand francs is the amount of the drafts that you will sign. You will write on each draft, ‘Good for the sum of 20,000 francs value received in cash,’ and you will sign. I shall compare your writing, and take care that I find it like. I give you a quarter of an hour to choose. If you prefer my vengeance, on the instant I myself will execute it. You conceive that it can only be the affair of half a second: prudence so ordains. Ah! could I without fear prolong the pleasure—here would be a case in which to employ every kind of barbarity which imagination could suggest.”
On the arrest of the women, the police had sent off to a house at Clignancourt, which the widow had taken on lease, saying that she intended to establish a dairy. It was a small house in the middle of a large garden. Here, assisted by two servants, a man and woman whom they had hired for the purpose, the two women began the preparations which were necessary before the presentation of the above address to Ragouleau. Belonging to the house were two small cellars and one large one; these were lighted from the gardens above by two large openings. The first step was to have these openings completely blocked up. Here then was secured the subterranean vault, without which no melodrama of that day was complete. A stout post was next fixed firmly into the ground at the further end of the cellars. To this was fastened a chair, and to this again a padlocked chain. Before all was placed a table, on which were arranged writing materials. The light from above was replaced by two candles in iron candlesticks.
The widow and her daughter had bought a pair of second-hand pistols, and the man-servant was now charged to give lessons in shooting to Angélique, while the anxious mother listened up above in the garden to ascertain whether any noise made in the cellar could be heard. Not a sound; screams, cries, and shooting all passed unheard. Everything being thus prepared, a full rehearsal took place; but, as Ragouleau’s appearance could not be looked for under the circumstances, Lefebvre, the manservant, took his part. The widow, her daughter, and the female servant seized him, and bound him in the chair, then Angélique advanced with the pistols in her hands, and with a menacing gesture showed the bound man the document we have given above.
And it was to fill this part that Ragouleau had been invited to the country excursion. The police, who had gone to the house, found that everything was prepared for the final representation. Lefebvre and Jacotin, the two servants, were on the look-out for the arrival of the party. Post, table, chair, chain, and pistols—all were there; the candles had been kept alight constantly for three days past. Whilst the police were interrogating the servants, the mother and daughter were brought in. They confessed that all these preparations were for Ragouleau, who had swindled them, they declared, but in such a way that he could not be laid hold of; and that their object was to compel by force a restitution which the law would not order. Drafts for so large an amount (290,000 francs) had been prepared, that they might reject those which should seem to have been signed under constraint; they had no intention of doing more than frightening him into signing the drafts.
A noose of silk cord had been found in the cellar.
“What did you want that for?” they were asked; “the pistols were enough to frighten him.”
“If he had thought that the noise of the pistols would stop us,” said Angélique, “the noose would have shown him another danger.”
“And suppose Ragouleau had resisted?”
“Oh, then,” she said, “it would not have been a murder, but a duel.”
All four, mother, daughter, and servants, were committed to prison.
But how had the police got knowledge of the attempt to be made on Ragouleau’s life or purse? This is not the least singular part of the affair. Towards the end of September, Ragouleau had gone to the police with a little invitation addressed to him by the widow. “You know,” she said, “that you always keep your word, and I require you to give me a mark of your friendship by choosing five dishes that you like best. If you don’t do it, I shall send to order ten of the best that I can get.” There seemed nothing very dreadful in this; but the lawyer declared that this was a plan arranged long ago by the women to get him into their power. A woman named Jonard had warned him that, a long time back they had sworn this, and that the day of the breakfast was the one chosen for the execution of an attempt against him. Jonard was examined by the police, and declared that what Ragouleau had stated was quite true. Madame Morin had asked her to hire for her two gamblers down on their luck and ready for anything, or two escaped convicts who would undertake Ragouleau’s settlement for a consideration. She had refused, and the widow had afterwards found Lefebvre and Jacotin herself. They were to frighten Ragouleau with the pistols, and when he had signed the drafts, they were to strangle him with the noose, and then to put his body in a sack and throw it by night into the Seine.
The acquaintance of the widow with Jonard had come about in this way:—
Every one of our readers who has been to Paris must have noticed the large Hôtel de Saint-Phar, on the Boulevard Poissonnière. In 1806 there was for sale a large house occupying this same site and known by the same name. The widow determined to buy it, intending to furnish it and let it out. Ragouleau happened to be after the house himself; but, knowing that the widow’s resources were insufficient for the purchase, and foreseeing an advantage to himself, he withdrew from competition, and offered her a loan, which she at once accepted, giving in payment an annuity contingent on the lives of Ragouleau, his wife, and their two children. There is no need to follow the steps by which Madame Morin got deeper and deeper into the debt of the shrewd lawyer, into whose hands the property of course fell after awhile. It was in April, 1811, that with a sorrowful heart the widow gave up the keys to Ragouleau. Through all her pecuniary troubles one hope had sustained her. Her chief difficulty was to pay the annuity to Ragouleau; but she was reassured by Jonard, whom she had consulted at the time of the purchase. This woman, hiding her real calling by some ostensible trade, told fortunes, and was winked at by the police in consideration of her giving them any news that she thought might be of use to them. To her Madame Morin had had recourse, and Jonard, after cutting the cards, had declared that Ragouleau and his family would all surely die within the year. There was no resisting this, and the widow signed the contract, and, although her hopes were deceived, her faith in the fortune-teller was not shaken; she consulted her till, as we have seen, when the game was getting dangerous, Jonard thought it would be prudent to acquire the gratitude of the capitalist and the protection of the police, by revealing the criminal designs of her client.
On the 10th January, 1812, the four prisoners were brought to trial. The mother and daughter were charged with a joint attempt at extortion of signatures by violence, and an attempted homicide; the servants were charged as accomplices. The attention of the audience was concentrated on Angélique: her youth, and the singular part she had played in the affair, making her an object of popular interest. Ragouleau’s position was not a pleasant one: he had published a justification of his dealings with the widow, and now tried hard to make it appear that he did not in any way take advantage of her necessity to enrich himself. The way, too, in which he had played into the hands of the police was one that he tried very hard to excuse; but, from the examination of Jonard, it was clear that the two women—the mother, by all accounts, weak, foolish, and looking up to her daughter as a goddess; the daughter a silly, sentimental, novel-reading girl—had been led on by the fortune-teller as long as she could extract money for her witchcraft without danger to herself. The counsel, in their defence, acknowledged a criminal intention; but could it have been carried out if the women had been let alone? Ragouleau knew of their intended crime, but makes himself an accomplice at the instigation of the police. Fearing to give them time for reflection, he hurries them off, knowing that the police are waiting in ambush for them. So long as the act remained undone, who could say that it would have taken place? The whole gravity of the case was in the evidence of Jonard, a wretch in the pay of the police, and utterly unworthy of credit. Angélique reads her own defence—composed for her, no doubt, but put in her mouth that her talent for declamation and her youth might have due weight with the jury. She declared that Jonard had worked upon her affection for her mother whom she saw in difficulties, the cause of which she already knew. Jonard had suggested to her the idea of killing Ragouleau—an idea she had always refused to entertain; she had only sought to terrify him, and had obtained her mother’s consent to her plan only by prayers and tears. Supposing Ragouleau had refused to sign, why have killed him? All traces of the attempt would have been destroyed, and his accusation would not have been capable of proof; and why kill him if he signed? To do so would be certain ruin. The drafts would be traced if put in circulation; the handwriting on them, the same on all, would be recognised, their origin would be known; it would be asked how persons so recently his debtors became his creditors for so large an amount, and the crime would infallibly be discovered. Whereas, if Ragouleau had been set at liberty, as was intended, either he would have remained silent, knowing that he had done no more than was just (his fear of exposure would have besides prevented him from making complaints), or, if he did this, it would only be necessary to destroy the drafts. The defence concluded by declaring that already, before the arrival of Ragouleau, they had begun to be frightened at their own actions, and by imploring the mercy of the jury for the mother.
Mother and daughter were, however, found guilty of an attempted extortion; the question as to homicide was negatived. Their sentence was, we cannot help thinking, as the public did at that time, one of needless severity. They were condemned to twenty years of hard labour and to public exposure before the Palais de Justice, and this sentence was rigorously carried out. They were confined in the prison of Saint Lazare, and bore their punishment with exemplary resignation.
Lefebvre and Jacotin were at first found to be accomplices of the attempt, but without having begun the execution of the crime—a distinction of great weight in the French law. On appeal, the case was sent for fresh trial, when they were condemned to five years of hard labour.
Thus the attempt of a foolish girl and a still more foolish woman to act a chapter out of a sensationalist novel ended in a trial which illustrates a knotty question in French law—where does the commencement of execution of a premeditated crime of this kind actually take place?