« ForrigeFortsett »
who has perished in the streets or elsewhere, fighting against the aristocrats, are allowed to be transported to her native commune for funeral honors. Happily, just such a wretch, a certain Coralie Du-" the speaker's tongue glided with a contemptuous rapidity over the name, so that the young doctor did not catch it rightly-"à miserable tricoteuse de la guillotine, from our own commune, too, died precisely in this manner the day before yesterday, in a street fight near the Carrousel. Doctor, my daughter's body will pass for that of of this miserable she-wolf, with whose name I will not again defile my lips. The coffin will be protected by a certificate from the powerful person I have already mentioned, to the effect that it does truly contain the corpse of the monster destined for funeral honors. It will be accompanied in the cart by her supposed father; in reality an old and confidential servant of ours, who will know the particular point at which to strike off from the high road at nightfall, and a safe place to deposit the coffin and its contents, till such time as the holy priest can fulfil his dangerous mission."
In all this there had been as yet no information as to the precise service to be demanded from the hearer. “ What can they want of me, in such a matter ?” he asked of himself. And the idea suddenly occurred to him that he might have been summoned to embalm the corpse.
“What we want of you,” resumed the lady, as if directly answering his mental question, "may he explained in a very few words. Our protector, the member of the committee, has laid down one very reasonable condition before granting the 'permit,' on which everything depends. He requires, for his own safety, in case of anything going wrong, a paper, or certificat de décès, duly signed in form by an authorized medical man, to the effect that he has examined the dead body contained in the coffin, and certifies it to be the body of Coralie Du”, of the woman I have named to you—killed the day before yesterday on the Carrousel. He requires, in fact, no more than wbat the authorities demand—but you have not, I believe, yet practised your profession, and are perhaps unacquainted with these technical points) in an ordinary way, before giving permission for the interment of a deceased person."
The Doctor shifted uneasily in his chair. There was a long pause, .which the lady did not attempt to interrupt. “I see," said he at length; “in case of the fraud being discovered, you, Madame la Duchesse, even if detected, will not be very easily found. The powerful person you speak of will turn out to have been most atrociously deceived. The individual whose head will fall in the business, will be the Doctor, whose false certificate, with his name and address duly appended, will of course be produced. I should think that the leading physicians of Paris generally value their heads at something more than a hundred écus, and I don't wonder now at your having hunted up an obscure and poverty-stricken student for your purpose !
“The chances of detection are infinitely small. Besides, if the worst comes to the worst, the sum you will have gained will enable you to move to fresh quarters, and avoid search till the matter has blown over. Then, think of the good action you will have performed !"
, Madame,” said Heinrich Seeman, after a few more moments' reflection, “I consent As well risk five minutes with friend Samson, as perish under the strokes of that more merciless executioner, Want. I will fill up the required paper. By the way,” he added, “ not object to my first giving a hasty glance, for my own satisfaction, at your poor daughter's remains !"
The fire had by this time burnt very low, and by the feeble light be could scarcely make out the lady's features. He fancied, however, at
the moment, and recalled long afterwards, that an expression as of hesitation, mingled with distrust, revealed itself in a certain movement of her head. This he attributed, at the time, to an unwillingness on ber part to re-open the sources of her grief, and, perhaps, to an awakening suspicion of his own fidelity. Be that as it might, she did not speak a word, but, rising from her chair, walked slowly up to the red curtain and drew it aside.
Heinrich rose too, stirred the fire into a blaze, and, by its flaine lit a small taper which he happened to have upon him. The first ray of light which struggled from its wick guided his eyes into the recess. There, upon a rude wooden stand, lay outstretched what was evidently a human form, enveloped in a sheet. The feet rose at one end in a point, and, at the other, the features of the face made a clear, sharp outline in the thin covering, like a white mask.
He approached the head, still bearing his taper, and, reverently drawing down the sheet, exposed to view a woman's face. It was a comely face—some would have called it handsome-expressing some twenty years of actual life, as men compute life, but an old age in care and suffering. There were lines and furrows marked upon it, painfully suggestive of the heartaches which had left their trace there, long after the heart itself bad ceased to beat. The features were delicately chiselled, and bore that nameless air of refinement which even Death is not able wholly to efface. It struck the young Doctor as singular that they did not in the slightest particular resemble those of her mother. But the eyes, now closed for ever, might once have flashed with an expression like hers; and yet that was difficult to imagine, the general tone of the features being that of extreme and even more than feminine softness. The bead had once borne a profusion of golden hair, which had been cut short for the final sacrifice, and what remained had evidently been ruffled in the dreadful basket, and then imperfectly smoothed down ; so that it was left standing, in various places, fearfully dabbled with specks of gore adhering to sawdust. The complexion must always have been very pale, and was probably less changed by death than that of a ruddier person would have been. Undoing a thick silk kerchief, which reached up to the chin, the Doctor plainly noted the mark of the axe encircling the neck like a bright red collar. He took up the hand --the thin, cold, wasted hand that lay dead and heavy in his own. He held it so for a few seconds in silence, rather with the view of regaining his composure, than of making any further observation. The unhappy mother, in the meanwhile, had thrown herself upon her knees at the feet of the corpse, and, with her face bowed down on her bosom, appeared to be engaged in inward prayer.
Just at this moment, while his eyes still remained dreamily fixed upon the hand, a slight circumstance in connection with it attracted the young Doctor's attention, at first cursorily, then with increasing force; so that, at last, he looked intently at it, while a strange expression stole over his face. He glanced hastily aside at the mother, as if to make sure that her head was still averted. Seeing that it was, he shifted his position, so as to turn his back more completely upon her, and looked at the hand again. What he had noticed was that the little finger was broken, and, moreover, on the palm, there was a deep semicircular mark, caused plainly by a bite. There were similar marks about the wrist, and the lower part of the arm, which was swollen and discoloured. From between two of the knuckles the Doctor drew forth three or four hairs, which he now for the first time observed there. His first impression was that they might be part of a lock of her husband's or her lover's hair, which the unfortunate lady clasped in her fingers at the last fatal moment; but a nearer inspection showed that they were those of a woman, and that they had been violently torn out, the roots, indeed, plainly appearing. These circumstances at once restored his self-possession, and caused him to revert with closer scrutiny to the face. He now thought, or perhaps fancied, that it bore a livid appearance, which he believed to be unusual in the case of persons suddenly cut short by the axe. The body, too, was somewhat bent, and seemed to have grown rigid in one direction, as if leaning over under, the effect of continued pain. Under the pretence of re-adjusting the neckerchief, he contrived to look more narrowly at the supposed mark of the axe; he now saw, to his horror, that the head had not been taken off by one clean blow, but by the successive strokes of some sharp instrument, and certain appearances about the edges of the wound, and the slight effusion of blood which had resulted from it, led to the conclusion that decapitation had taken place after death. This idea was fearfully confirmed by various marks which he, for the first time, noticed upon the neck—-ınarks of human fingers deeply impressed there. All these things Heinrich Seeman observed in shorter time than has been taken to relate them, and he replaced the neckerchief, and drew back the sheet over the head, without having apparently excited the suspicions of the bystander. While he was so employed, a ring fell out of the folds of the inner garment, where it must have somehow remained engaged, and this, without being seen, he contrived to secrete. about him. Then, quietly drawing the curtain, and turning to the lady, who had by this time risen, he said :
“If you will prepare writing materials, I will sign the required paper, Madame la Duchesse. In the meanwhile, suffer me for a moment to recover myself in this chair; for even one far more accustomed than I am to painful spectacles, might be excused for being somewhat flurried at what we have just seen."
The young Alsatian, albeit a dreamer, in the absence of realities sufficiently strong to arouse him from his dreams, was just one of those natures who, on the occurrence of a terrible and unlooked-for reality, rise immediately to the level of the passing event. Like a drunken man plunged into water, their faculties become sobered and steadied by the cold spray of the world. So he meditated, with perfect composure, on the course to be pursued. He could scarcely doubt that a foul murder had been committed. There were, probably, reasons which made it difficult, or, perhaps, impossible, to get rid of the body secretly. Means had, therefore, been adopted after death ; an obscure doctor. summoned, and a plausible story related to him, in order to obtain a medical certificate, without which, no doubt (Heinrich, in truth, did not know the law of the case), the corpse could not be interred in the ordinary way. But what was he to do? Appearances led him to suspect that he was in the hands of powerful personages, and to reveal what he had observed would, in any case, most likely cost him his life. Then the hundred écus !
However conscientious, the young Doctor did not like to bid farewell to such an El Dorado as had gleamed, for an instant, before his eyes. Would not the best plan be: to sign the certificate without hesitation, and then, immediately on his. return home, to give information to the authorities ? When the certificate came to be used and it was impossible to understand why so much trouble should have been taken to obtain it if it were not intended to be used- the authorities of the quartier, forewarned, would arrest the bearer, and the whole circumstances would come out. Upon this course Heinrich, after a hasty review of his present position, finally determined, and prepared to write whatever the unknown lady might choose to dictate.
It was apparently a kind of printed form that she now placed on the table beside him, though she held it in such a manner-her fingers closing over the printed portions, as if to smooth down the paperthat he could see little else than the blank spaces which he was required to fill up. Nom. “Coralie—dear me, yes !—Coralie Dutertre." As soon as this name was put down by the Doctor, her fingers further encroached upon the writing, and covered it up, as though she were anxious that he should forget it. From this he was led to infer that Coralie Dutertre was really the name of the murdered person. Age. "Twenty-two." Demeure. “Paris will be sufficient,” replied the lady. Cause de décès. Heinrich looked up enquiringly. “Fever !"
“I thought she had died in the streets ?”
“Ah, the sans-culottes at the barrier will know nothing about that. It will save a good deal of trouble to represent the death as occurring from a natural cause."
This remark did not exactly tally with the plan before communicated to him, but, of course, Heinrich did not appear to notice the discrepancy. “So be it," said he. "Anything more?" “ Your name and address, and we have everything that we require. Monsieur le Docteur,” continued the lady, hastily. taking the paper from the table, and folding it up—“Receive, once for all, the thanks of a heart-broken mother, for whom you will have done all that a purely human being can do—all, that is to say, short of reviving her lost child ; and, as some earnest of my gratitude, take this rouleau, which you will find to contain the sum agreed upon, in gold pieces."
The young Doctor winced a little at the idea of accepting the money, but he accepted it, nevertheless. His poverty appeared to him an excuse for so doing; besides, a refusal on his part would naturally have excited suspicions. So he buttoned up the gold pieces, together with his conscience, in his pocket, and prepared to take his leave. The unknown rang a bell, and his former conductor made his appear
It was obvious that the same ceremonial was to be observed for bis departure as had attended his arrival at the mysterious house.
Bowing a last good bye to the handsome lady, and her cold grey eyes-how, for years after, the parting expression of those eyes glistened through his dreams !—the young man followed sadly in the footsteps of his guide. As they stood together on the landing, before descending the long flight of stairs, he cast a hurried glance around, with the faint hope of noticing some object by which hereafter to identify the place. He could see nothing but a bronze lamp standing in a recess, and which was modelled to represent an oriental figure, with a turban and flowing robes, holding a lighted torch in its hand. The