Victor Hugo

The Works of Victor Hugo, One Volume Edition. Roslyn, NY: Black's Readers Service Co., 1928, pages 459-466.

[459] May 31, 1846.

The Court of Peers is summoned to try the case of another attempt upon the person of the king.

On the 16th of April last the king went for a drive in the forest of Fontainebleau, in a char à bancs. At his side was M. de Montalivet, and behind him were the queen and several of their children. They were returning home towards six o'clock, and were passing by the walls of the Avon enclosure, when two gunshots were fired from the left. No one was hit. Rangers, gendarmes, officers of hussars who escorted the king, all sprang forward. A groom climbed over the wall and seized a man whose face was half masked with a neckerchief. He was an ex-Ranger general of the forests of the Crown, who had been dismissed from his post eighteen months before for a grave dereliction of duty.

June 1, midday.

The orator's tribune and the president's chair have been removed. The accused is seated on the spot where the tribune usually stands, and is placed with his back to a green baize curtain, placed there for the trial, between four gendarmes with grenadier's hats, yellow shoulder-straps, and red plumes. In front of him are five barristers, with white bands at their necks and black robes. The one in the centre has the Cross of the Legion of Honour and grey hair. It is Maitre Duvergier, the bâtonnier. Behind the prisoner red benches, occupied by spectators, cover the semicircle where the chancellor usually presides.

[460] The prisoner is forty-eight years of age; he does not appear to be more than about thirty-six. He has nothing in his appearance which would suggest the deed which he has done. It is one of those calm and almost insignificant countenances, which impress rather favourably than otherwise. General Voirol, who sits beside me, says to me, "He looks a good-natured fellow." However, a dark look gradually overspreads the face, which is somewhat handsome, although of a vulgar type, and he looks like an ill-natured fellow. From the seat which I occupy his hair and moustache appear black. He has a long face with ruddy cheeks. He casts his eyes almost continually downward; when he raises them, every now and then, he looks right up at the ceiling; if he were a fanatic, I should say up to heaven. He has a black cravat, a white shirt, and an old black frockcoat, with a single row of buttons, and wears no ribbon, although belonging to the Legion of Honour.

General Berthuzène leans forward towards me, and tells me that Lecomte yesterday remained quiet all day, but that he became furious when he was refused a new black frock-coat which he had asked for to appear in before the High Court. This is a trait of character.

While the names of the Peers were being called over his eyes wandered here and there. To the preliminary questions of the chancellor he replied in a low tone of voice. Some of the Peers called out, "Speak up!" The chancellor told him to look towards the Court.

The witnesses were brought in, among whom were one-or two women, very stylishly dressed, and some peasant women. They are on my right, in the lobby on the left of the tribune. M. Decazes walks about among the witnesses. M. de Montalivet, the first witness, is called. He wears a red ribbon, together with two stars, one of a foreign order. He comes in limping, on account of his gout. A footman in a russet livery with a red collar assists him.

I have examined the articles brought forward in support of the indictment, which are in the right-hand passage. The gun is double-barrelled, with twisted barrels, the breech ornamented with arabesques in the style of the Renaissance; it is almost a fancy weapon. The blouse worn by the assassin is blue, tolerably well worn. The neckerchief with which he hid his face is a cotton neckerchief, coffee-coloured, with white stripes. On these articles is hung a small card bearing the signatures of the prosecuting officials and the signature of "Pierre Lecomte."

June 5.

During an interval in the sitting I observed the man from a short distance. He looks his age. He has the tanned skin of a huntsman and the faded skin of a prisoner. When he speaks, when he becomes animated, when he stands upright, his appearance becomes strange His gesture is abrupt, his attitude fierce. His right eyebrow rises towards the corner of his forehead and gives him an indescribably wild and diabolical appearance. He speaks in a muffled but firm tone.

At one point, explaining his crime, he said, [461] "I stopped on the 15th of April at the Place du Carrousel. It was raining. I stood under a projecting roof and looked mechanically at some engravings. There was a conversation going on in the shop at the side, where there were three men and a woman. I listened mechanically also. I felt sad. Suddenly I heard the name of the king; they were talking of the king. I looked at these men. I recognized them as servants at the Castle. They said that the king would go the next day to Fontainebleau. At that instant my idea appeared. It appeared to me plainly, dreadfully. It left off raining. I stretched out my hand from beneath the projection of the roof. I found that it no longer rained, and I went away. I returned home to my room, to my little room, bare of furniture and wretched. I remained there alone for three hours. I mused, I pondered, I was very unhappy. My project continually recurred. And then the rain began to come down again. The weather was gloomy; a strong wind was blowing; the sky was nearly black. I felt like a madman. Suddenly I got up. It was settled. I had made up my mind. That is how the idea came into my head."

At another moment, when the chancellor said that the crime was without a motive, he said,--

"How so? I wrote to the king once, twice, three times. The king did not reply. Oh, then--"

He did not finish what he had to say, but his fist clutched the rail fiercely. At this moment he was terrific. He was a veritable wild man. He sits down. .He is now composed; calm and fierce.

While the procurator-general spoke, he moved about like a wolf, and appeared furious. When his counsel (Duvergier) spoke, tears came into his eyes. They ran down his cheeks, heavy and perceptible.

June 6.

This is how it takes place. On his name being called in a loud voice by the clerk of the Court, each Peer rises and pronounces sentence also in a loud voice.

The thirty-two Peers who have voted before me have all declared for the parricide's penalty. One or two have mitigated this to capital punishment.

When my turn came, I rose and said,--

"Considering the enormity of the crime and the smallness of the motive, it is impossible for me to believe that the delinquent acted in the full possession of his moral liberty, of his will. I do not think he is a human creature having an exact perception of his ideas and a clear consciousness of his actions. I cannot sentence this man to any other punishment but imprisonment for life."

I said these words in very loud tones. At the first words all the Peers turned round and listened to me in the midst of a silence which seemed to invite me to continue. I stopped short there, however, and sat down again.

The calling of the names continued.

The Marquis de Boissy said,--

"We have heard these solemn words. Viscount Victor Hugo has given utterance to an opinion which deeply impresses me, and to which I give my adhesion. I think, with him, that the [462] delinquent is not in full possession of his reason. I declare for imprisonment for life."

The calling of the names continues with the lugubriously monotonous rejoinder: "Capital punishment, parricide's penalty."

Proceeding by seniority, according to the dates at which the members of the House have taken their seats, the list comes down to the names of the oldest Peers. Viscount Dubouchage being called in his turn, said,--

"Being already uneasy in my mind during the trial, owing to the manner of the accused, but fully convinced by the observations of M. Victor Hugo, I declare that, in my opinion, the delinquent is not of sound mind. Viscount Hugo gave the reasons for this opinion in a few words, but in a way which appears to me conclusive. I support him in his vote, and I declare, like himself, for imprisonment for life."

The other Peers, of whom a very small number remained, all voted for the parricide's penalty.

The chancellor, being called on last, rose and said,--

"I declare for the parricide's penalty. Now a second vote will be taken. The first vote is only provisional, the second alone is final. All are, therefore, at liberty to retract or confirm their votes. An opinion worthy of profound consideration in itself, not less worthy of consideration owing to the quarter whence it emanates, has been put forward with authority, although supported by a very small minority, during the progress of the voting. I think it right to declare here that during the continuance of the long inquiry preceding the prosecution, during seven weeks, I saw the accused every day; I examined him, pressed him, questioned him, and, as old Parliamentarians say, 'turned him around' in every direction. Never for a single moment was his calmness of perception obscured. I always found that he reasoned correctly according to the frightful logic of his deed, but without mental derangement, as also without repentance. He is not a madman: he is a man who knows what he wanted to do, and who admits what he has done. Let him suffer the consequences."

The second call has begun. The number of Peers voting for the parricide's penalty has increased. On my name being called I rose. I said,--

"The Court will appreciate the scruples of one in whose conscience such formidable questions are suddenly agitated for the first time. This moment, my lords, is a solemn one for all, for no one more than for myself. For eighteen years past I have had fixed and definite ideas upon the subject of irreparable penalties. Those ideas you are acquainted with. As a mere author I have published them; as a politician, with God's help I will apply them. As a general rule, irreparable penalties are repugnant to me; in no particular instance do I approve of them. I have listened attentively to the observations of the chancellor. They are weighty from so eminent a mind. I am struck by the imposing unanimity of this imposing assembly. But while the opinion of the chancellor and the unanimity of the Court are much, from the point of view of discussion, they are nothing in face of one's conscience. Before the speeches began I read, reread, [463] studied all the documents of the trial; during the pleadings I studied the attitude, the looks, the gestures, I scrutinized the soul of the accused. Well, I tell this Court, composed as it is of just men, and I tell the chancellor, whose opinion has so much weight, that I persist in my vote. The accused has led a solitary life. Solitude is good for great, and bad for little minds. Solitude disorders those minds which it does not enlighten. Pierre Lecomte, a solitary man with a small mind, was necessarily destined to become a savage man with a disordered mind. The attempt upon the king, the attempt on a father, at such a time, when he was surrounded by his family; the attempt upon a small crowd of women and children, death dealt out haphazard, twenty possible crimes inextricably added to a crime determined upon,--there is the deed. It is monstrous. Now, let us examine the motive. Here it is: A deduction of twenty francs out of an annual allowance, a resignation accepted, three letters remaining unanswered. How can one fail to be struck by such a reconciliation and such an abyss? I repeat, in conclusion, in the presence of these two extremes, the most monstrous crime, the most insignificant motive, it is evident to me that the thing is absurd, that the mind which has made such a reconciliation and crossed such an abyss is an illogical mind, and that this delinquent, this assassin, this wild and solitary man, this fierce, savage being, ia a madman. To a doctor, perhaps, he is not a madman; to a moralist he certainly is. I will add that policy is here in harmony with justice, and that it is always well to deny human reason to a crime which revolts against nature, and shakes society in its foundations. I adhere to my vote."

The Peers listened to me with profound and sympathetic attention. M. de Boissy and M. Dubouchage remained firm, as I did.

There were two hundred and thirty-two voters. This is how the votes 3sere distributed:--

196 for the parricide's penalty;

33 for capital punishment;

3 for imprisonment for life.

The entire House of Peers may be said to have been displeased at the execution of Lecomte. He had been condemned in order that he might be pardoned. It was an opportunity for mercy held out to the king. The king eagerly seized such opportunities, and the House knew this. When it learned that the execution had actually taken place it was surprised, almost hurt.

Immediately after the condemnation, the chancellor and Chief President Franck-Carré, were summoned by the king. M. Franck-Cart6 was the Peer who had been delegated to draw up the case. They went to the king in the chancellor's carriage. M. Franck-Carré, although he voted for the parricide's penalty, was open in favour of a pardon. The chancellor also leaned in this direction, although he would not declare himself on the subject. On the way he said to President Franck-Carré: "I directed the inquiry, I directed the prosecution, I directed the trial, I had some influence over the vote. I will not give my opinion on the subject of a pardon. I have enough responsibility as it is. They will do what they like."

[464] In the cabinet of the king he respectfully adopted the same tone. He declined to commit himself to a definite opinion on the subject of a pardon. President Franck-Carré was explicit. The king saw what was the real opinion of the chancellor.

Maître Duvergier had conceived an affection for his client, as a barrister always does for the client he has to defend. It is a common result. The public prosecutor ends by hating the accused, and the counsel for the defence by loving him. Lecomte was sentenced on a Friday. On the Saturday M. Duvergier went to see the king. The king received him in a friendly manner, but said, "I will see about it; I will consider it. The matter is a grave one. My danger is the danger of all. My life is of consequence to-France, so that I must defend it. However, I will think the matter over. You know that I detest capital punishment. Every time ! have to sign the dismissal of an appeal for a pardon I am the first to suffer. All my inclinations, all my instincts, all my convictions are on the other side. However, I am a constitutional king; I have ministers who decide. And then naturally I must think a little of myself too."

M. Duvergier was dreadfully grieved. He saw that the king would not grant a pardon.

The Council of Ministers was unanimously in favour of the execution of the sentence of the Court of Peers.

On the following day, Sunday, M. Duvergier received by express a letter from the Keeper of the Seals, Martin du Nord, announcing to him that "the king thought it right to decide that the law should take its course." He was still under the influence of the first shock of hope definitively shattered when a fresh express arrived. Another letter. The Keeper of the Seals informed the bâtonnier that the king, wishing to accord to the condemned man, Pierre Lecomte, a further token of his good-will, had decided that the yearly allowance of the said Lecomte should revert to his sister for her lifetime, and that his Majesty had placed an immediate sum of three thousand francs at the disposal of the sister for her assistance. "I thought, M. le Bâtonnier," said the Keeper of the Seals, in conclusion, "that it would be agreeable to you to communicate yourself to the unhappy woman this evidence of the royal favour."

M. Duvergier thought he had made some mistake in reading the first letter. "A further token," he said to one of his friends, who was present. "I was mistaken, then. The king grants the pardon." But he re-read the letter, and saw that he had read it only too correctly. A further token remained inexplicable to him. He refused to accept the commission which the Keeper of Seals asked him to undertake.

As to the sister of Lecomte, she refused the three thousand francs and the pension; she refused them with something of scorn and also of dignity. "Tell the king," she said, "that I thank him. I should have thanked him better for something else. Tell him that I do not forget my brother so quickly as to take his spoils. This is not the boon that I expected of the king. I want nothing. I am very unhappy and miserable, I am nearly starving of hunger, [465] but it pleases me to die like this, since my brother died like that. He who causes the death of the brother has no right to support the sister."

M. Marilhac plays throughout this affair a lugubriously active part. He was a member of the Commission of the Peers during the preliminaries to the trial. He wanted to omit from the brief for the prosecution the letter of Dr. Gallois, in which he spoke of Lecomte as a madman. It was at one moment proposed to suppress the letter.

Lecomte displayed some courage. At the last moment, however, on the night preceding the execution, he asked, towards two o'clock, to see the procurator-general, M. Hébert; and M. Hébert, on leaving him after an interview of a quarter of an hour, said, "He has completely collapsed; the mind is gone."

June 12.

I dined yesterday at the house of M. Decazes with Lord Palmerston and Lord Lansdowne.

Lord Palmerston is a stout, short, fair man, who is said to be a good talker. His face is full, round, broad, red, merry, and shrewd, slightly vulgar. He wore a red ribbon and a star, which I think is that of the Bath.

The Marquis of Lansdowne affords a striking contrast to Lord Palmerston. He is tall, dark, spare, grave, and courteous, with an air of breeding, a gentleman. He had a star upon his coat, and round his neck a dark-blue ribbon, to which hung a gold-enamelled decoration, round-shaped, and surmounted by the Irish harp.

M. Decazes brought these two gentlemen to meet me. We spoke for some minutes of Ireland, of bread-stuffs, and of the potato disease.

"Ireland's disease is graver still," I said to Lord Palmerston.

"Yes," he replied; "the Irish peasants are very wretched. Now, your country folk are happy. Ah, you are favoured by the skies! What a climate is that of France !"

"Yes, my lord," I rejoined; "but you are favoured by the sea. What a citadel is England !"

Lady Palmerston is graceful and talks well. She must have been charming at one time. She is no longer young. Lord Palmerston married her four years ago, after a mutual passion which had lasted for thirty years. I conclude from this that Lord Palmerston belongs a little to history and a great deal to romance.

At table I was between M. de Mantalivet and Alexandre Dumas. M. de Montalivet wore the cross of the Legion of Honour, and Alexandre Dumas the cross of an order which he told me was that of St. John, and which I believe te be Piedmontese.

I led up in conversation with M. de Montalivet to the event of the 16th of April. He was, it is well known, in the char à bancs by the king's side.

"What were you conversing with the king about at the moment of the report?" I said.

"I cannot remember," he replied. "I took the liberty of questioning the king upon this subject. He could not recall it either. The bullet of Lecomte destroyed something in our memory. All I know is that while our conversation was not important, we were very intent upon it. If it had not absorbed our [466] attention we should certainly have perceived Lecomte when he stood up above us to fire; the king, at all events, would have done so, for I myself was turning my back somewhat to speak to the king. All that I remember is that I was gesticulating very much at the moment. When the first shot was fired, some one in the suite cried, 'It is a huntsman unloading his gun.' I said to the king, 'A strange kind of huntsman to fire the remains of his powder at kings.' As I finished speaking the second shot went off. I cried, 'It is an assassin!' 'Oh!' said the king, 'not so fast; do not let us judge too hastily. Wait, we shall see what it means.' You see in that the character of the king, do you not? Calm and serene in the presence of the man who has just fired at him; almost kindly. At this moment the queen touched me gently on the shoulder; I turned round. She showed me, without uttering a word, the wadding of the gun which had fallen upon her lap, and which she had just picked up. There was a certain calmness in this silence which was solemn and touching.

"The queen, when the carriage leans over a little, trembles for fear she will be upset; she makes the sign of the cross when it thunders; she is afraid of a display of fireworks; she alights when a bridge has to be crossed. When the king is fired upon in her presence she is calm."