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The Blind Man of Argenteuil by Unknown

A NORMAN TRADITION OF THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY.

At Rouen, in the antique-looking library of a vast and gloomy hotel, sat a venerable old man, seemingly engrossed in meditation and study. He was Laurence Bigot of Thibermesnil, king's counsel to the parliament of Normandy, a wise magistrate, and a learned and virtuous man. At five in the morning he was wont to commence his daily employment, and after giving sage and just advice to the parliament, the indefatigable old man would devote himself, as now, to other toils, which seemed to him like amusement; namely, laying the foundation of a rich collection of books and manuscripts, which afterwards became celebrated, and, though now dispersed, is not forgotten. Bigot was employed in examining an ancient manuscript which he had lately obtained. His son, Emerie Bigot, and a young companion, Etienne Pasquier, were reading Horace at another part of the library.

The studies of all three were interrupted by the sudden entrance of a magistrate—at least his costume bespoke him so; but at this moment his extreme paleness, changed features, and humiliated manner, made the lieutenant of Rouen appear like one of the criminals that daily trembled before him; for he was a severe and upright judge.

'I have been foiled, I confess it,' cried he to Laurence Bigot. 'I am guilty, but do not condemn me unheard.'

The king's advocate listened calmly, while the young men, with the curiosity of their age, paid eager attention to the lieutenant's recital, which was as follows:

'A citizen of Lucca, named Zambelli, went on business to England, where he settled. His affairs prospered greatly. At fifty years old, having made his fortune, he felt a desire to end his days at Lucca, near a brother whom he tenderly loved. He wrote to his family, who were delighted at the news. Soon another letter, dated Rouen, announced his arrival there from England, and that he should reach Lucca in about two months. This space of time was requisite for the transaction of his business at Paris, and his journey onward. He was daily expected at Lucca; but two, three, six months passed by, and he arrived not; nor, what was stranger still, did any other letter from him reach his family, whose anxiety was extreme. Cornelius, his brother, went to Paris in search of him. He visited all the houses whither Zambelli's commerce was likely to lead him. Many persons had seen, or believed they had seen, Zambelli. An individual bearing that name had claimed the payment due to bonds of a considerable amount: the merchants showed the signature "Zambelli" at the bottom of the receipts. "All these signatures are forged," cried Cornelius. "Describe the person of the forger, so that I may bring him to justice." But it was in vain; for no one could recollect precisely the appearance of a man who had been seen so short a time.

'It was plain that an audacious robbery had been committed—perhaps a murder. Cornelius went from Paris to Rouen, where he visited successively all the hotels in the place. At one of them Zambelli had been seen. He had left it for Paris, accompanied by a valet. This valet had been little noticed: besides, six or eight months had passed since the departure of Zambelli; and how could one domestic excite attention among the numbers who had inhabited this hotel, the most frequented in Rouen?

'It was at this time,' continued the lieutenant of police, 'that Cornelius brought his complaint before me. Like him, I felt assured that a great crime had been committed between Rouen and Paris; but how could it be proved? How could the criminal be discovered? At last a sudden thought struck me. Six or seven months since, a goldsmith, named Martel, had opened a shop at Rouen, where he was entirely unknown. There was something strange in his manner, and the expression of his face: he said nothing of his parents or family; and those who hazarded questions on the subject, received from him evasive answers, given with ill-disguised embarrassment. Struck with his business being the same as Zambelli's, and acting under an involuntary presentiment, I sent a person, who, under pretence of making purchases, entered into conversation with Martel, in which, as if by chance, he introduced the name of Zambelli. At this name Martel grew pale, and showed signs of inquietude, looking anxiously at his questioner. This strengthened my suspicions: I resolved to satisfy myself; but here, I confess, the excess of my zeal led me into error.

'By my orders a sergeant went to Martel to demand payment of a bond for four hundred crowns, which I had fabricated under a false name. Martel, when he saw the bond, cried out that it was feigned, and refused to pay it. When taken to prison by the sergeant, Martel, following his first impulse, accompanied him with the security of a man who is certain he owes nothing; but soon, stopping suddenly in great agitation, he said: "I am quite easy as to the bond; it is entirely false, and I can prove it. But is there nothing else against me? Have you heard of anything?" The sergeant having feigned astonishment, and protested that he knew nothing, Martel became calm, and followed him with a firmer step to the jail, where his name was registered among the list of prisoners. An hour afterwards, he was brought before me. "It is now no time for pretence," said I in an imperative tone. "Yes, the bond is false; but as you have betrayed fear, I must tell you that there are other things against you. A citizen of Lucca, named Zambelli, is dead, and you are his murderer. Deny it not. I have proofs—certain proofs. But calm your fears: Zambelli was a stranger; no one here cares to avenge his death. With some sacrifices on your part, we can hush up this sad affair; only you must confess all with sincerity—your life is the price of it."

'Petrified by the assurance with which I spoke, and glad to purchase with gold the life which hung on a thread, Martel cried out: "I see—I see it is Heaven's doing, since that which no eye witnessed, save my own, is revealed. I will confess all: let my fortune save my life!" He was about to begin, when the appearance of the notary, whom I had sent for to take down his confession, roused him as out of a dream. He perceived the snare, and when I commanded him to begin, he said firmly: "No, I have nothing to tell; I am innocent."

'All my efforts to induce him to confess were vain. I sent him to prison. But now he protests against his incarceration, declares the falseness of the bond, and accuses publicly the sergeant and myself.

'This is my error. You, my lord, cannot doubt the purity of my motives; but what will the parliament say—always so severe towards inferior officers. Must the services of thirty years be blotted out, because I was carried away by excess of zeal? My lord advocate, you know all; now judge me as you will,'

'Be encouraged!' said Laurence Bigot. 'The parliament is acquainted with all, and pardons you. The Chamber assembled to-day to judge this matter. I have spoken for you with the warmth of a man who esteems and respects you; but your thirty years of service and integrity have pleaded more eloquently than I could do. The proceedings which Martel dared to commence against you have been stayed for three months: the suit relative to the murder of Zambelli is brought before parliament, and Martel is transferred to the Conciergerie. Every search shall be made to discover the body of the murdered man; for though I firmly believe that you have discovered the assassin, yet there are no proofs. For you, lieutenant, though pardoned, you are not guiltless. Listen!' said the old man, turning to his son and to Etienne Pasquier, 'you are both destined to wear the toga of justice—you, Emerie, perhaps to succeed me; and you, Etienne Pasquier, probably to distinguish yourself in the judgment-seat at Paris, or some foreign court. Remember that none may do evil that good may come! Above all, a judge should not seek to discover the truth by means of a lie, and do himself what he punishes in others. Such means are unworthy of a magistrate.'

Three weeks from that time there was great excitement in the village of Argenteuil. The inhabitants had suspended their labours, quitted their houses, and gathered together about the door of the Hotel du Heaume. By their earnest conversation among themselves, and their eager questioning of those who came out of the hotel, it was clear that something unwonted was going forward there. In short, the large room of the hotel was for this day transformed into a justice-chamber, where Laurence Bigot, assisted by the magistrate of Argenteuil, questioned numerous witnesses about the murder of Zambelli.

How many efforts had this zealous judge made since he quitted Rouen on his search for the traces of the crime! He visited many villages, questioned numerous officers of police; but all in vain. When he was about to return, in despair of accomplishing his object, he was informed that, some months before, a corpse had been discovered hid in a vineyard near Argenteuil. Bigot hastened thither, and the state of preservation of the remains enabled him, on viewing the body, to decide clearly that it was that of Zambelli, according as he had been described by Cornelius his brother.

The magistrate began to read the evidence aloud, when he was interrupted by a piercing cry; and a blind man, whom no one had as yet perceived, presented himself before the assembly. It was old Gervais, a wandering beggar, born in the neighbourhood, well known, and much liked. When his way led through Argenteuil, he was always admitted to the hotel, and having arrived that day, he had seated himself unnoticed, in his usual place in the chimney-corner. He had sprung forward with a loud cry when, in listening as the magistrate read, he heard of a corpse being discovered among the vines. But what could a blind man, and one so long absent from Argenteuil, have to communicate? Laurence Bigot regarded with a kind of respect the serene and venerable countenance of the old beggar.

'Unfortunate man,' said he, 'what can you have to tell us?'

But after his first involuntary movement, the blind man. Appeared embarrassed and undecided. 'Ah, my lord,' said he, 'may I speak without danger of my life?' and he turned his white head on every side with a terrified air.

'Speak freely,' said Bigot; 'fear nothing.' Then the old man related how, many months since, he was leaving Argenteuil on his usual pilgrimage, and had gained the high ground beyond the village, when the violent barking of his dog caused him to listen attentively. A man's voice, feeble and suppliant, was distinctly heard. 'Monster!' it said; 'thy master, thy benefactor—mercy! Must I die so far from my country and my brother! Mercy, mercy!'

Then the blind man heard a fearful cry, like that of a dying man in his last agony, and all was silence. After a time he distinguished the steps of one who seemed staggering under a heavy burden. 'Influenced by a sudden impulse,' said Gervais, 'I went forward, asking what was the matter, and who had been moaning so.'

"Nothing, nothing," said a voice in an agitated tone; "only a sick man who is being carried home, and has fainted on the way." And the voice added, in a lower and menacing tone: "You may thank God that you are blind, or I would have done the same to you." I knew then that a horrible crime had been committed, and was seized with terror. All things conspired to overwhelm me with fear; for immediately a dreadful storm arose, and the loud thunder seemed to pursue the murderer. I thought the world was at an end. Trembling, I continued my journey, resolving never to reveal what I had heard; for the criminal may belong to these parts, and the life of a poor old blind man is at the mercy of every one. But when the judge spoke of a corpse being found so near to the place where I heard the voice, I could not avoid a sudden exclamation. I have now told all; God grant that no evil comes to me from it!'

During this relation Laurence Bigot appeared absorbed in a deep reverie, which lasted long after the blind man ceased to speak. Then addressing Gervais: 'Old man,' said he, 'I wish to ask you a question; reflect well before answering it. Do you remember exactly the voice that you heard that day on the hill, which replied to your questions and threatened you? Do you think that you could recognise it again—recognise it so as not to confound it with any other?'

'Yes, my lord advocate,' cried Gervais immediately: 'yes! even as I should recognise the voice of my mother, if she were living still, poor woman!'

'But,' said the judge, 'have you considered that eight or nine months have passed since then?'

'It seems but a few hours ago,' answered the blind man. 'My terror was so great, that even now I seem always to hear the voice that cried for mercy, and that which spoke to me, and the awful thunder.' And when Bigot still doubted, Gervais, lifting his hands to heaven, said: 'God is good, and forsakes not the poor blind. Since I lost my sight, I can hear wonderfully. Call the people of Argenteuil; they will tell you how they amuse themselves with embarrassing me, and saying, in counterfeited tones, "Who speaks to thee?" Ask them if they have ever succeeded in deceiving me!' The people cried out that all that the blind man said was true; his knowledge of voices was wonderful. Some hours after, Laurence Bigot departed for Rouen, and everything went on as usual in the village of Argenteuil. Bigot conveyed Gervais with him to Rouen.

In the sixteenth century, the great hall of audience of the Norman parliament was renowned for its beauty. The ceiling was of ebony, studded with graceful arabesques in gold, azure, and vermilion. The tapestry worked in fleurs-de-lis, the immense fireplace, the gilded wainscot, the violet-coloured dais, and, above all, the immense picture in which were represented Louis XII., the father of his people, and his virtuous minister and friend, the good Cardinal d'Amboise—all united to give the great hall an aspect at once beautiful and imposing. The effect was increased when, on days of judicial solemnity, a hundred and twenty magistrates were seated in judgment there, with their long white beards and scarlet robes, having at their head the presidents, attired in ermine mantles, above whom was a painting depicting the legislator Moses and the four evangelists.

It was in this magnificent hall that the parliament assembled, by a special convocation, on Christmas-eve, in the year 16—. But this time they were attired in black robes, and their serious countenances showed they had a rigorous office to perform. This secret meeting of parliament excited great curiosity throughout the whole town. The murder of the merchant of Lucca, the arrest of the presumed criminal, the discovery of the body of his supposed victim, the unhoped-for testimony given by a blind man at Argenteuil, furnished an inexhaustible subject of discussion for the crowd that thronged the avenues of the palace. Every one agreed that the day was come which would liberate an innocent man, or dismiss a murderer to the scaffold.

The parliament, after many long debates, had decided that the blind man of Argenteuil should be heard. Gervais appeared before them. His frank and circumstantial deposition made a deep impression; but some doubt still remained. It was a fearful thing to place a man's life at the mercy of the fugitive reminiscences of a blind man, who could only trust to his hearing. It seemed almost impossible that Gervais should recognise faithfully a voice which he had heard but once only. The parliament determined to prove him, and to bring before him successively all the prisoners of the Conciergerie, Martel among the rest. If, after having heard them speak, the blind man spontaneously, and without once hesitating, should recognise the voice which had struck him so powerfully, this evidence, united to others, should be held conclusive. It was not without design that Christmas-eve was chosen for this strange trial, unheard-of in the annals of justice. To have brought up the prisoners together on an ordinary day, would have awakened their suspicions, perhaps suggested to them various stratagems, and thus left the success of this novel experiment to chance. On Christmas-eve the order excited no surprise, as it was customary on the eve of high festivals to bring all the prisoners of the Conciergerie before the parliament, who sometimes, out of respect to the day, liberated those criminals who had been imprisoned for trifling offences.

Above all, as it was necessary to make the blind man understand the almost sacred importance of the judgment with which Heaven had invested him, a solemn oath was administered by the president of the assembly. The old man took the oath in a truthful, earnest manner, which left no doubt of his sincerity, and the trial commenced. Eighteen prisoners were brought up, and answered the questions proposed to them, but the old man never moved; and they, on their part, on perceiving the unknown man, evinced no sign of alarm. At last the nineteenth prisoner was introduced. Who shall paint his horror and stupefaction at the sight of Gervais! His features grew contracted, his hair rose up, and a sudden faintness overpowered him, so that the turnkeys were obliged to lead him to a seat. When he recovered a little, his involuntary and convulsive movements seemed to show the poignant remorse of a guilty and tortured soul, or perhaps the horrible regret of not having committed a second crime, and finished his work.

The presidents and judges anxiously awaited the result. At the first words that Martel uttered, in reply to the president's questions, the blind man, who, ignorant of his presence, had hitherto remained quiet and immovable, suddenly bent forward, listening intently; then shrinking back with horror and fear, cried out: 'It is he!—it is the voice that I heard on the heights of Argenteuil!'

The jailer led away Martel more dead than alive, obeying in this the president's order, who in a loud tone had desired him to bring out another prisoner. But this command was accompanied by a sign which the jailer understood, and some minutes after, he again introduced Martel, who was interrogated under a false name. Fresh questions elicited fresh replies; but the blind man, shaking his head with an air of incredulity, immediately cried out: 'No, no; it is all a feint; that is the voice which conversed with me on the heights of Argenteuil.'

At last the horrible mystery was cleared up. The wretched, criminal, trembling, despairing, stammered out a confession, which was now almost needless, since the magistrates were fully convinced of the truth which had been wonderfully elicited by the sole witness who could declare the crime.

But a few hours passed, and Martel lay in a gloomy dungeon of the Conciergerie, whilst in a public place, not far from the prison, were made the preparations for execution; for at this period the scaffold followed the sentence so rapidly, that a condemned man never beheld the morrow's sun. Ere nightfall all was over. The wretched man died penitent, confessing his crime, and denouncing the cupidity and thirst of gold which had led him on to murder.

In fifty years from this period, Laurence Bigot had been long dead. Emerie his son had succeeded him in his office. Etienne Pasquier had become a learned and reverend old man, with silver hair. He was then composing his curious and interesting Recherches sur la France, and there related the almost miraculous discovery of a murder long since committed—of which discovery he had in his youth been an eye-witness. It is from his statement that this history is taken.