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LESURQUES; OR, THE VICTIM OF JUDICIAL ERROR.
[Many as are the frightful cases of error recorded in the annals of every judiciary court, there are few more striking of the uncertainty of evidence respecting personal identity, and of the serious errors based upon it, than are to be read in the curious trial we are about to relate; and which has, for forty years, been the subject of parliamentary appeals in the country where it took place. The recent death of the widow of the unhappy sufferer excites a fresh interest in her wrongs, so strangely left unredressed by the very government that was the unwitting cause of them.]
I.—THE FOUR GUESTS.
On the 4th Floral of the 4th year of the Republic, one and indivisible, (23d April 1796,) four young men were seated at a splendid breakfast in the Rue des Boucheries at Paris. They were all dressed in the costume of the Incroyables of the period; their hair coiffs en cadenettes and en oreilles de chien, according to the fantastic custom of the day; they had all top-boots, with silver spurs, large eyeglasses, various watch-chains, and other articles of bijouterie; carrying also the little cane, of about a foot and a half in length, without which no dandy was complete. The breakfast was given by a M. Guesno, a van-proprietor of Douai, who was anxious to celebrate the arrival at Paris of his compatriot Lesurques, who had recently established himself with his family in the busy capital.
"Yes, mon cher Guesno," said Lesurques, "I have quitted for ever our good old town of Douai; or, if not for ever, at least until I have completed in Paris the education of my children. I am now thirty-three years of age. I have paid my debt to my country by serving in the regiment of Auvergne, with some distinction. On leaving the ranks I was fortunate enough to make my services of some slight use, by fulfilling, gratuitously, the functions of chef de bureau of the district. At present, thanks to my patrimony and the dowery of my wife, I have an income of fifteen thousand francs (L.600) a-year, am without ambition, have three children, and my only care is to educate them well. The few days that I have been at Paris have not been wasted; I have a pretty apartment, Rue Montmartre, where I expect to be furnished, and ready to receive you in my turn, with as much comfort as heartiness."
"Wisely conceived," interrupted one of the guests, who, till this moment, had maintained a profound silence; "but who can count upon the morrow in such times as these? May your projects of peace and retirement, Monsieur, be realized: if so, you will then be the happiest man in the Republic; for during the last five or six years, there has been no citoyen, high or low, who could predict what the next week would decide for him."
The speaker uttered this with a tone of bitterness and discouragement which contrasted strangely with the flaunting splendour of his toilet, and the appetite with which he had done honour to the breakfast. He was young, and would have been remarkably handsome, had not his dark eyes and shaggy brows given an expression of fierceness and dissimulation to his countenance, which he vainly endeavoured to hide, by never looking his interlocutor in the face. His name was Couriol. His presence at this breakfast was purely accidental. He had come to see M. Richard, (the proprietor of the house where M. Guesno alighted on his journey to Paris, and who was also one of the guests,) just as they were about to sit down to table, and was invited to join them without ceremony.
The breakfast passed off gaily, in spite of the sombre Couriol; and after two hours' conviviality, they adjourned to the Palais Royal, where, after taking their caf at the Rotonde du Caveau, they separated.
II.—THE FOUR HORSEMEN.
A few days afterwards, on the 8th Floral, four men mounted on dashing looking horses, which, however, bore the unequivocal signs of being hired for the day, rode gaily out of Paris by the barrier of Charenton; talking and laughing loudly, caracoling with great enjoyment, and apparently with nothing but the idea of passing as joyously as possible a day devoted to pleasure.
An attentive observer, however, who did not confine his examination to their careless exteriors, might have remarked that, beneath their long lvites, (a peculiar cloak then in fashion,) they carried each a sabre, suspended at the waist, the presence of which was betrayed from time to time by a slight clanking, as the horses stumbled or changed their paces. He might have further remarked a sinister pre-occupation and a brooding fierceness in the countenance of one, whose dark eyes peeped out furtively beneath two thick brows. He took but little share in the boisterous gaiety of the other three, and that little was forced; his laugh was hollow and convulsive. It was Couriol.
Between twelve and one, the four horsemen arrived at the pretty village of Mongeron, on the road to Melun. One of them had preceded them at a hand-gallop to order dinner at the Htel de la Poste, kept by the Sieur Evrard. After the dinner, to which they did all honour, they called for pipes and tobacco—(cigars were then almost unknown)—and two of them smoked. Having paid their bill, they proceeded to the Cassino, where they took their caf.
At three o'clock they remounted their horses, and following the road, shaded by stately elms, which leads from Mongeron to the forest of Lnart, they reached Lieursaint; where they again halted. One of their horses had cast a shoe, and one of the men had broken the little chain which then fastened the spur to the boot. The horseman to whom this accident had happened, stopped at the entrance of the village at Madame Chtelain's, a limonadire, whom he begged to serve him some caf, and at the same time to give him a needleful of strong thread to mend the chain of his spur. She did so, but observing the traveller to be rather awkward in his use of the needle, she called her servant, la femme Grossette, who fixed the chain for him, and helped him to place it on his boot. The other three travellers had, during this time, alighted at the inn kept by the Sieur Champeaux, where they drank some wine; while the landlord himself accompanied the traveller and his unshod horse to the farrier's, the Sieur Motteau. This finished, the four met at Madame Chtelain's, where they played at billiards. At half-past seven, after a parting cup with the Sieur Champeaux, whither they returned to re-saddle their horses, they set off again in the direction of Melun.
The landlord stood at his door watching the travellers till out of sight, and then turning into his house again, he saw on the table a sabre, which one of his guests had forgotten to fasten to his belt; he dispatched one of his stable-boys after them, but they were out of sight. It was not till an hour afterwards, that the traveller who had had his spur-chain mended, returned at full gallop to claim his sabre. He drank a glass of brandy, and having fastened his weapon securely, departed at furious speed in the direction taken by his comrades.
III.—THE ROBBERY AND MURDER.
At the same time that the horseman left Lieursaint for Paris, the Lyons mail arrived there from Paris, and changed horses. It was about half-past eight, and the night had been obscure for some time. The courier, having charged horses and taken a fresh postilion, set forth to traverse the long forest of Senart. The mail, at this epoch, was very different from what it is at present. It was a simple post-chaise, with a raised box behind, in which were placed the despatches. Only one place, by the side of the courier, was reserved for travellers, and that was obtained with difficulty. On the night in question this seat was occupied by a man of about thirty, who had that morning taken it for Lyons, under the name of Laborde, a silk-merchant; his real name was Durochat; his object may be guessed.
At nine o'clock, the carriage having descended a declivity with great speed, now slackened its course to mount a steep hill which faced it; at this moment four horsemen bounded into the road—two of them seizing the horses' heads, the two other attacked the postilion, who fell lifeless at their feet, his skull split open by a sabre-cut. At the same instant—before he had time to utter a word—the wretched courier was stabbed to the heart by the false Laborde, who sat beside him. They ransacked the mail of a sum of seventy-five thousand francs (L.3000) in money, assignats, and bank-notes. They then took the postilion's horse from the chaise, and Durochat mounting it, they galloped to Paris, which they entered between four and five in the morning by the Barrier de Rambouillet.
This double murder, committed with such audacity on the most frequented route of France, could not but produce an immense sensation, even at that epoch so fertile in brigandage of every sort, where the exploits of la Chouannerie, and the ferocious expeditions of the Chauffeurs, daily filled them with alarm. The police were at once in pursuit. The post-horse ridden by Durochat, and abandoned by him on the Boulevard, was found wandering about the Palais Royale. It was known that four horses covered with foam had been conducted at about five in the morning to the stables of a certain Muiron, Rue des Foss's, Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, by two men who had hired them the day before: these men were Bernard and Couriol; the former of whom was immediately arrested, the second had, with the other accomplices, taken flight.
 An atrocious gang of thieves, who adopted the unnecessary brutality of burning the unfortunate victims they intended to rob.
The research was pursued with great activity at Paris, as well as at the scene of the crime, and along the route which the assassins had twice travelled. The information obtained showed that there were five culprits. The description of the four horsemen who rode from Paris, stopping at Mongeron and Lieursaint, was furnished with as much precision as concordance by the various witnesses who had seen and spoken to them on the road, and in the inns and cafs. The description of the traveller, who, under the name of Laborde, had taken the seat beside the courier, was furnished with equal exactitude by the clerks, from whom he had retained the place, and by those who saw him mount. Couriol, recognized as having with Bernard conducted back the horses to Muiron, after the crime, had left Paris for Chteau-Thierry, where he was lodged in the house of Citoyen Bruer, where also Guesno had gone on some business. The police followed Couriol, and arrested him. They found upon him a sum in money and assignats, nearly equivalent to a fifth share of what the courier had been robbed. Guesno and Bruer were also arrested, and had their papers seized; but they so completely established their alibi, that they were at once dismissed on their arrival at Paris. At the epoch of which we write, the examination of judicial affairs followed a very different course from the one now traced by the French code. It was to the Citoyen Daubenton, justice of the peace of the division of Pont Neuf, and officer of the police judiciare, that the Central Bureau confided the examination of this affair. This magistrate having ordered the dismissal of Guesno, told him that he might present himself at his cabinet on the morrow, for the papers which had been seized at Chteau-Thierry; at the same time he ordered an officer, Hendon, to start at once for Mangeron and Lieursaint, and to bring back the witnesses, whose names he gave him, so that they might all be collected the next day at the Bureau for examination.
Guesno, desirous of having his papers as soon as possible, went out early, and directed his steps towards the Central Bureau, which he had just reached when he encountered his compatriot Lesurques; having explained to him the motive that called him to the Bureau, he proposed to him that they should go together. Lesurques accepted, and the Citizen Daubenton not having yet arrived, they sat down in the antechamber, in order to see him as he passed, and thus expedite the matter.
About ten o'clock the judge, who had entered his cabinet by a back door, was interrupted in his examination of the documents, previous to interrogating the witnesses, by the officer Hendon, who demanded leave to make an important communication. "Amongst the witnesses," said he, "now waiting in the antechamber, are two women—one, la femme Santon, servant to Evrard the innkeeper at Mongeron—the other, la fille Grossette, servant to Madame Chtelain the limonadire at Lieursaint, who assert in the most positive manner, that two of the assassins are there, waiting like them to be admitted. These women declare that they cannot deceive themselves, for one of them served the four travellers at Mongeron, and the other spoke to them at Lieursaint, and stayed an hour in the billiard-room while they were playing."
The judge could not admit the probability of two of the assassins thus voluntarily placing themselves within the grasp of the law, yet he ordered the women to be shown into his presence. On interrogation, they persisted in their statements, declaring that it was impossible they could deceive themselves. Guesno was then introduced to the judge's presence, the women being continued to examine him strictly before finally pronouncing as to his identity.
"What brings you to the Central Bureau?" demanded the judge.
"I come to receive my papers," replied Guesno, "as you promised me yesterday that I should have them on application."
"Are you alone?"
"I have a compatriot with me, one Joseph Lesurques, whom I met on the way here."
The judge then ordered the second individual designated by the women to be introduced. It was Lesurques. He spoke to Lesurques and to Guesno for a few minutes, and then begged them to return into the antechamber, where their papers would be sent to them. An order was given, however, to the officer, Hendon, not to lose sight of them.
On their leaving the room, M. Daubenton again demanded of the women, if they persisted in their declarations as to the identity of these men with the criminals they were in search of. They replied, without hesitation, that they were certain of it; that they could not be deceived. The magistrate was then forced to receive their depositions in writing, and to order the arrest of Guesno and Lesurques.
From the moment of their arrest, the examination proceeded with great rapidity. Guesno and Lesurques were confronted with the witnesses brought from Mongeron and Lieursaint, and were recognised by all of them!
La femme Santon deposed, that Lesurques was the one who, after the dinner at Mongeron, wanted to pay in assignats, but that the big dark man (Couriol) paid in money. She was positive as to Lesurques being the man.
Champeaux and his wife, who kept the inn at Lieursaint, were equally positive as to Lesurques being the one whose spur wanted mending, and who came back to fetch the sabre which he had forgotten. Lafolie, groom at Mongeron, and la femme Alfroy, also recognised him; and Laurent Charbaut, labourer, who dined in the same room with the four horsemen, recognised Lesurques as the one who had silver spurs fastened by little chains to his top-boots. This combination of testimony, respecting one whom they had seen but a few days before, was sufficient to leave little doubt in the mind of any one. The trial was therefore fixed on.
The day of his arrest, Lesurques wrote the following letter to one of his friends, which was intercepted, and joined to the documentary evidence to be examined on the trial:—
"My dear Friend,—I have met with nothing but unpleasantries since my arrival at Paris, but I did not—I could not anticipate the misfortune which has befallen me to-day. You know me—and you know whether I am capable of sullying myself with a crime—yet the most atrocious crime is imputed to me. The mere thought of it makes me tremble. I find myself implicated in the murder of the Lyons' courier. Three women and two men, whom I know not—whose residence I know not—(for you well know that I have not left Paris)—have had the impudence to swear that they recognise me, and that I was the first of the four who presented himself at their houses on horseback. You know, also, that I have not crossed a horse's back since my arrival in Paris. You may understand the importance of such an accusation, which tends at nothing less than my judicial assassination. Oblige me by lending me the assistance of your memory, and endeavour to recollect where I was and what persons I saw at Paris, on the day when they impudently assert they saw me out of Paris, (I believe it was the 7th or 8th,) in order that I may confound these infamous calumniators, and make them suffer the penalty of the law."
In a postscript he enumerates the persons he saw on that day: Citoyen Tixier, General Cambrai, 'Demoiselle Eugnie, Citoyen Hilaire Ledru, his wife's hairdresser, the workmen in his apartments, and the porter of the house.
V.—THE TRIAL, AND THE BLINDNESS OF ZEAL.
MM. Lesurques, Guesno, Couriol, Bernard, Richard, and Bruer, were summoned before the tribunal of justice; the three first as authors or accomplices of the murder and robbery—Bernard as having furnished the horses—Richard as having concealed at his house Couriol—and his mistress, Madelaine Breban, as having received and concealed part of the stolen goods—and Bruer as having given Couriol refuge at Chteau-Thierry.
The witnesses persisted in their declarations as to the identity of Guesno and Lesurques. But Guesno established beyond all doubt the fact of his alibi; and Bruer easily refuted every charge that concerned himself. Lesurques had cited fifteen witnesses—all respectable men—and presented himself at the bar with a calmness and confidence which produced a favourable impression. Against the positive testimony of the six witnesses who asserted him to have been at Mongeron and Lieursaint on the 8th Floral, he had brought a mass of testimony to prove an alibi.
Citoyen Legrand, a rich jeweller and goldsmith, compatriot of Lesurques, was first examined. He deposed, that on the 8th Floral—the day on which the crime had been committed—Lesurques had passed a portion of the morning with him.
Aldenof, a jeweller, Hilaire Ledru, and Chausfer, deposed, that on that day they dined with Lesurques in the Rue Montorgueil; that, after dinner, they went to a caf, took some liqueur, and went home with him.
Beudart, a painter, deposed that he was invited to the dinner, with Lesurques and his friends, but that, as one of the national guard, he was that day on service, and so was prevented attending; but that, he had gone to Lesurques that very evening in his uniform, and had seen him go to bed. In support of his deposition he produced his billet de garde, dated the 8th.
Finally, the workmen employed in the apartment that Lesurques was having fitted up, deposed that they saw him at various times during the 8th and 9th Floral.
No further doubt of his innocence now remained; the alibi was so distinctly proved, and on such unquestionable testimony, that the jury showed in their manner that they were ready to acquit him, when a fatal circumstance suddenly changed the whole face of the matter.
The jeweller Legrand, who had manifested such zeal in the establishment of his friend's innocence, had, with an anxiety to avail himself of every trifle, declared, that to prove the sincerity of his declaration, he would cite a fact which prevented his being mistaken. On the 8th Floral, he had made before dinner an exchange of jewellery with the witness, Aldenof. He proposed that his ledger should be sent for, as its entry there would serve to fix all recollections.
As a matter of form, the ledger was sent for. At the first glance, however, it was evident that the date of the transaction, mentioned by Legrand, had been altered! The exchange had taken place on the 9th, and an alteration, badly dissimulated by an erasure, had substituted the figure 8 for the original figure 9.
Murmurs of surprise and indignation followed this discovery, and the President, pressing Legrand with questions, and unable to obtain from him any satisfactory answer, ordered his arrest. Legrand then, trembling and terrified, retracted his former deposition, and declared that he was not certain he had seen Lesurques on the 8th Floral, but that he had altered his book in order to give more probability to the declaration he had determined to make in his friend's favour—of whose innocence he was so assured, that it was only the conviction that he was accused erroneously, which made him perjure himself to save that innocent head.
From this moment, the jury received the depositions in favour of Lesurques with extreme prejudice—those already heard seemed little better than connivance, and those yet to be heard were listened to with such suspicion as to have no effect. The conviction of his guilt was fixed in every mind. Lesurques, despairing to get over such fatal appearances, ceased his energetic denials, and awaited his sentence in gloomy silence. The jury retired.
At this moment a woman, agitated with the most violent emotions, demanded to speak to the President. She said that she was moved by the voice of conscience, and wished to save the criminal tribunal from a dreadful error. It was Madelaine Breban, the mistress of Couriol. Brought before the President, she declared that she knew positively Lesurques was innocent, and that the witnesses, deceived by an inexplicable resemblance, had confounded him with the real culprit, who was called Dubosq.
Prejudiced as they were against Lesurques, and suspicious of all testimony after the perjury they had already detected, the tribunal scarcely listened to Madelaine Breban; and the jury returned with their verdict, in consequence of which, Couriol, Lesurques, and Bernard were condemned to death; Richard to four-and-twenty years' imprisonment; Guesno and Bruer were acquitted.
No sooner was the sentence passed, than Lesurques rose calmly, and addressing the Judges, said, "I am innocent of the crime of which I am accused. Ah! citoyens, if it is horrible to murder on the high-road, it is not less so to murder by the law!"
Couriol, condemned to death, rose and said, "Yes, I am guilty—I avow it. But Lesurques is innocent, and Bernard did not participate in the murder."
Four times he reiterated this declaration; and, on entering his prison, he wrote to the judge a letter full of sorrow and repentance, in which he said, "I have never known Lesurques; my accomplices are Vidal, Rossi, Durochat, and Dubosq. The resemblance of Lesurques to Dubosq has deceived the witnesses."
To this declaration of Couriol was joined that of Madelaine Breban, who, after the judgment, returned to renew her protestation, accompanied by two individuals, who swore that, before the trial, she had told them Lesurques had never had any relations with the culprits; but that he was a victim of his fatal likeness to Dubosq. These testimonies threw doubt in the minds of the magistrates, who hastened to demand a reprieve from the Directory, which, terrified at the idea of seeing an innocent man perish through a judicial error, had recourse to the Corps Lgislatif; for every other resource was exhausted. The message of the Directory to the Five Hundred was pressing; its aim was to demand a reprieve, and a decision as to what course to pursue. It ended thus: "Must Lesurques perish on the scaffold because he resembles a villain?"
The Corps Lgislatif passed to the order of the day, as every condition had been legally fulfilled, that a particular case could not justify an infraction of decreed laws; and that, too, on such indications, to do away with a condemnation legally pronounced by a jury, would be to overset all ideas of justice and equality before the law.
The right of pardon had been abolished; and Lesurques had neither resources nor hope. He bore his fate with firmness and resignation, and wrote, on the day of his execution, this note to his wife:—
"Ma bonne Amie,—There is no eluding ones destiny, I was fated to be judicially murdered. I shall at least bear it with proper courage. I send you my locks of hair; when our children are grown up, you will divide it among them; it is the only heritage I can leave them."
He addressed also a letter to Dubosq through the newspapers. "You, in whose place I am about to perish, content yourself with the sacrifice of my life. Should you ever be brought to justice, remember my three children covered with opprobrium—remember my wife reduced to despair and do not longer prolong their misfortunes."
The 10th March 1797, Lesurques was led to the scaffold. He wished to be dressed completely in white, as a symbol of his innocence. He wore pantaloons and frock-coat of white cotton, and his shirt-collar turned down over his shoulders. It was the day before Good Friday, and he expressed regret that he had not to die on the morrow. In passing from the prison de la Conciergerie to the Place de la Grve, where the execution took place, Couriol, placed beside Lesurques in the cart, cried out to the people in a loud voice, "Citoyens, I am guilty! I am guilty! but Lesurques is innocent."
On arriving at the platform of the guillotine, already stained with the blood of Bernard, Lesurques exclaimed, "I pardon my judges; I pardon the witnesses through whose error I die; and I pardon Legrand, who has not a little contributed to my judicial assassination. I die protesting my innocence." In another instant he was no more.
Couriol continued his declarations of Lesurques's innocence to the foot of the scaffold; and, after a final appeal, he, too, delivered himself to the executioner. The drop fell on a guilty neck, having before been stained with the blood of two innocent men.
The crowd retired with a general conviction that Lesurques had perished guiltless; and several of the judges were seriously troubled by the doubts which this day had raised in their minds. Many of the jury began to repent having relied so on the affirmations of the witnesses from Mongeron and Lieursaint, precise as they had been. M. Daubenton, the magistrate who had first ordered the arrest, went home a thoughtful man, and determined to lose no opportunity of getting at the truth, which the arrest of the three accomplices mentioned by Couriol could alone bring to light.
Two years passed on without affording any clue to the conscientious magistrate. One day, however, he heard that a certain Durochat was arrested for a recent robbery, and was confined in the Sainte Pelagie; and remembering that Durochat was the name of the one designated by Couriol as having taken the place beside the courier, under the false name of Laborde. At the epoch of the trial of Lesurques, it came out that several persons, amongst them an inspector of the administration des postes, had seen the false Laborde at the moment that he was awaiting the mail, and had preserved a distinct recollection of his person.
M. Daubenton, on ascertaining the day of Durochat's approaching trial for robbery, went to the administration des postes, and obtained through the Chef the permission to send for the inspector who had seen the false Laborde, and who was no longer in Paris.
The juges du tribunal had also been warned of the suspicions which rested on Durochat. The day of trial arrived, and he was condemned to fourteen years' imprisonment, and was about being led from the court when the inspector arrived, and declared that Durochat was the man whom he had seen on the 8th Floral mount beside the courier under the false name of Laborde. Durochat only opposed feeble denials to this declaration, and was consequently taken to the Conciergerie.
On the morrow, Durochat was transferred to Versailles, where he was to be judged. Daubenton and a huissier departed with the prisoner and four gendarmes. As they reached the village of Grosbois he demanded some breakfast, for he had eaten nothing since the preceding day. They stopped at the first auberge, and there Durochat manifested a desire to speak to the magistrate in private.
Daubenton ordered the gendarmes to leave them together, and even the huissier, though he made him understand by a sign the danger of being alone with so desperate a villain, was begged to retire. A breakfast was ordered for the two. It was brought—but, by order of the huissier, only one knife was placed on the table. Daubenton took it up, and began carelessly to break an egg with it.
Durochat looked at him fixedly for a moment, and said,
"Monsieur le juge, you are afraid?"
"Afraid!" replied he calmly, "and of whom?"
"Of me," said Durochat.
"Folly!" continued the other, breaking his egg.
"You are. You arm yourself with a knife," said he sarcastically.
"Bah!" replied Daubenton, presenting him the knife, "cut me a piece of bread, and tell me what you have to communicate to me respecting the murder of the courier of Lyons."
There is something in the collected courage of a brave man more impressive than any menace; and courage is a thing which acts upon all natures, however vile. Strongly moved by the calm audacity of the magistrate the ruffian, who had seized the knife with menacing vivacity, now set it down upon the table, and with a faltering voice said, "Vous tes un brave, citoyen!" then after a pause, "I am a lost man—it's all up with me; but you shall know all."
He then detailed the circumstances of the crime, as we have related them above, and confirmed all Couriol's declarations, naming Couriol, Rossi, Vidal, and Dubosq, as his accomplices. Before the tribunal he repeated this account, adding, "that he had heard an individual named Lesurques had been condemned for the crime, but that he had neither seen him at the time of the deed, nor subsequently. He did not know him."
He added, that it was Dubosq whose spur had been broken, and was mended where they had dined; for he had heard them talk about it, and that he had lost it in the scuffle. He had seen the other spur in his hand, and heard him say that he intended throwing it in the river. He further gave a description of Dubosq's person, and added, that on that day he wore a flaxen peruke.
Towards the end of the year 8—four years after the murder of the courier of Lyons—Dubosq was arrested for robbery; and was transferred to Versailles, there to be judged by the Tribunal Correctionnel. The president ordered that he should wear a flaxen peruke, and be confronted with the witnesses from Mongeron and Lieursaint, who now unanimously declared that he was the man they had seen. This, coupled with the declarations of Couriol, Durochat, and Madelaine Breban, sufficed to prove the identity; and he did not deny his acquaintance with the other culprits. He was therefore condemned, and perished on the scaffold for the crime.
Vidal was also arrested and executed, though persisting in his innocence; and, finally, Rossi was shortly after discovered and condemned. He exhibited profound repentance, and demanded the succours of religion. To his confessor he left this declaration—"I assert that Lesurques is innocent; but this must only be made public six months after my death."
Thus ends this strange drama; thus were the proofs of Lesurques's innocence furnished beyond a shadow of doubt; and thus, we may add, were seven men executed for a crime committed by five men; two therefore were innocent—were victims of the law.
VIII.—THE WAY IN WHICH FRANCE RECTIFIES AN ERROR.
It is now forty years since the innocence of Lesurques has been established, and little has been done towards the rehabilitation of his memory, the protection of his children, and the restitution of his confiscated goods! Forty years, and his wretched widow has only recently died, having failed in the object of her life! Forty years has the government been silent.
M. Daubenton, who took so honourable and active a part in the detection of the real criminals, consecrated a great part of his life and fortune to the cause of the unfortunate widow and her children. The declaration he addressed to the Minister of Justice commenced thus:—
"The error, on which was founded the condemnation of Lesurques, arose neither with the judges nor the jury. The jury, convinced by the depositions of the witnesses, manifested that conviction judicially; and the judges, after the declaration of the jury, pronounced according to the law.
"The error of his condemnation arose from the mistake of the witnesses—from the fatal resemblance to one of the culprits not apprehended. Nothing gave reason to suspect at that time the cause of the error in which the witnesses had fallen."
We beg to observe that the whole trial was conducted in a slovenly and shameful manner. A man is condemned on the deposition of witnesses;—witnesses, be it observed, of such dulness of perception, and such confidence in their notions, that they persisted in declaring Guesno to be one of the culprits as well as Lesurques. Yet the alibi of Guesno was proved beyond a doubt. How, then, could the jury, with this instance of mistake before their eyes, and which they themselves had condemned as a mistake by acquitting Guesno—how could they place such firm reliance on those self-same testimonies when applied to Lesurques? If they could convict Lesurques upon such evidence, why not also convict Guesno on it? Guesno proved an alibi—so did Lesurques; but because one foolish friend perjured himself to serve Lesurques, the jury hastily set down all his friends as perjurers; they had no evidence of this; it was a mere indignant reaction of feeling, and, as such, a violation of their office. The case ought to have been sifted. It was shuffled over hastily. A verdict, passed in anger, was executed, though at the time a strong doubt existed in the minds of the judges as to its propriety!
Neither the Directory nor the Consulate, neither the Empire nor the Restoration, paid attention to the widow's supplications for a revision of the sentence, that her husband's name might be cleared, and his property restored. In vain did M. Salgues devote ten years to the defence of the injured family; in vain did M. Merilhou, in an important procs, warmly espouse the cause; the different governments believed themselves incapable of answering these solicitations.
Since 1830 the widow again supplicated the Tribune des Chambres. Few sessions have passed without some members, particularly from the dpartment du Nord, calling attention to the subject. All that has been obtained is a restitution of part of the property seized by the fisc at the period of the execution.
Madame Lesurques has died unsuccessful, because a judicial error cannot be acknowledged or rectified, owing to the insufficiency of the Code. A French journal announces that the son and daughter of Lesurques, still living, pledged themselves on the death-bed of their mother to continue the endeavour which had occupied her forty long years—an endeavour to make the law comprehend that nothing is more tyrannous than the strict fulfilment of its letter—an endeavour to make the world at large more keenly feel the questionable nature of evidence as to personal identity in cases where the witnesses are ignorant, and where the evidence against their testimony is presumptive.
* * * * *
"The companion of the wise shall be wise." A six months' residence with the religious and self-renouncing minister could not be without its effect on the character and disposition of the disciple, newly released from sin and care, and worldly calamity. The bright example of a good man is much—that of a good and beloved man is more. I was bound to Mr Clayton by every tie that can endear a man to man, and rivet the ready heart of youth in truthful and confiding love. I regarded my preserver with a higher feeling than a fond son may bear towards the mere author and maintainer of his existence. For Mr Clayton, whose smallest praise it was that he had restored to me my life, in addition to a filial love, I had all the reverence that surpassing virtue claims, and lowly piety constrains. Months passed over our head, and I was still without occupation, though still encouraged by my kind friend to look for a speedy termination to my state of dependence. Painful as the thought of separation had become to Mr Clayton, my situation was far from satisfactory to myself. I knew not another individual with whom I could have established myself under similar circumstances. The sense of obligation would have been oppressive, the conviction that I was doing wrong intolerable to sustain; but the simplicity, the truth, the affectionate warmth of my benevolent host, lightened my load day after day, until I became at last insensible to the burthen. At this period of my career, the character of Mr Clayton appeared to me bright and fixed as a spotless star. He seemed the pattern of a man, pure and perfect. The dazzling light of pious fervour consumed within him the little selfishness that nature, to stamp an angel with humanity, had of necessity implanted there. He was swallowed up in holiness—his thoughts were of heaven—his daily conduct tinged and illumined with a heavenly hue. Nothing could surpass the intense devotedness of the child of God, except perhaps the self-devotion, the self-renunciation, and the profound humility which distinguished him in the world, and in his conversation amongst men. "The companion of the wise shall be wise." I observed my benefactor, and listened to his eloquence; I pondered on his habitual piety, until, roused to enthusiasm by the contemplation of the matchless being, I burned to follow in his glorious course, to revolve in the same celestial orbit, the most distant and the meanest of his satellites. The hand of Providence was traceable in every act, which, in due course, and step by step, had brought me to the minister. It could not be without a lofty purpose that I had been plucked a brand, as it were, from the burning; it was not an aimless love that snatched me from death to life—from darkness to mid-day light—from the depths of despondency to the heights of serenity and joy. It was that I might glorify the hand that had been outstretched on my behalf, that I might carry His name abroad, proclaim His wondrous works, sing aloud His praises, and in the face of men, give honour to the everlasting Giver of all good. It was for this and these that I had been selected from mankind, and made the especial object of a Father's grace. I believed it in all the simplicity and ingenuousness of a mind awakened to a sense of religion and human responsibility. I could not do otherwise. From the moment that I was convinced of the obligation under which I had been brought, that I could feel the force of the silent compact which had been effected between the unseen Power and my own soul, it would have been as easy for me to annihilate thought, to prevent its miraculous presence in the mind, as to withstand the urgent prickings of my conscience. I believed in my divine summons, and I was at once ready, vehement, and impatient to obey it. Had I followed the dictates of my will, I would have walked through the land, and preached aloud the wonderful mercies of God, imploring my fellow-creatures to repentance, and directing them to the fount of all their blessings and all their happiness. I would have called upon men to turn from error and dangerous apathy, before their very strongholds. Powerful in the possession of truth, I would have thundered the saving words before their marketplaces and exchanges—at the very fortresses in which the world deems itself chiefly secure, with Mammon at its head, Satan's chief lieutenant. I would have called around me the neglected and the poor, and in the highways and in the fields disclosed to them the tenderness and loving-kindness that I had found, that they might feel, in all their fulness, if they would turn from sin, and place their trust in heaven. It was pain and anguish to be silent. Not for my own sake did I yearn to speak. Oh no! There was nothing less than a love of self in the panting desire that I felt to break the selfish silence. It was the love of souls that pressed me forward, and the confidence that the good news which it was my privilege to impart would find in every bosom a welcome as warm and ready as it would prove to be effectual. To walk abroad in silence, feeling myself to be the depositary of a celestial revelation, and believing that to communicate it to mankind would be to ensure their participation in its benefits, was hardly to be borne. There was not a man whom I encountered in the street, to whom I did not secretly wish to turn, and to pour into his ear the accents of peace and consolation; not one whom I did not regard as a witness against me on that great day of trial, when every man shall be judged according to his opportunities. I spoke to Mr Clayton. He encouraged the feeling by which I was actuated, but he dissuaded me from the manifestation of it in the form which I proposed.
"There was no doubt," he said, "that every place was consecrated where truth was spoken, and the Spirit made itself apparent. No one could deny it. Much fruit, he did believe, might follow the sowing of the seed, whose hand soever scattered it. Still there were other and nearer roads to the point I aimed at. There were the sick and the needy around us— many of his own congregation—with whom I might reciprocate sweet comfort, and at whose bedside I might administer the balm that should serve them in the hardest hour of their extremity. It should be his office to conduct me to their humble habitations: it would be unspeakable joy to him to behold me well and usefully employed."
And it was with eagerness that I accepted the touching invitation. I was not loth or slow to take advantage of it. To serve mankind, to evince my gratitude for mercies great and undeserved, was all I asked. To know that I had gratified my wish, was peace itself. Highly as I had estimated the character of Mr Clayton, I had yet to learn his real value. I had yet to behold him the dispenser of comfort and contentment in the hovels of the wretched and the stricken—to see the leaden eye of disease grow bright at his approach, and the scowl of discontent and envious repining dissolve into equanimity, or mould itself in smiles. I had yet to see him the kind and patient companion of the friendless and the slighted—slighted, because poor; the untired listener to long tales of misery—so miserable, that they who told them could not track their dim beginnings, or fix the time in distant childhood when wretchedness was not. I had yet to find him standing at the beggar's pallet, giving encouragement, inciting hope, and adding to the counsel of a guide the solid evidences of a brother's love. With what a zeal did I attempt to follow in my patron's steps—with what enthusiasm did I begin the course which his sanction had legalized and rendered holy—and how, without a doubt as to my title, or a reflection on the propriety of the step, impelled by religious fervour, did I assume the tone and authority of a teacher, and arrogate to myself the right of determining the designs of the Omnipotent, and of appointing the degree of holy warmth below which no believer could be sure of forgiveness and salvation!
In no transaction of my life have I ever been more sincere—have I acted with a more decided assurance of the justice and necessity of the task, than at this critical moment of my career. If Divine goodness had not been specially vouchsafed to me, it was not that the conviction of my appointment was not as clear and firm as the liveliest impressions of the inmost heart could make it. To labour for the souls of the poor—to teach them their obligations—to point out to them the way of safety—it was this view of my delegated office that raised me to ecstasy, and compelled from me the strangest ebullitions of passion. I pronounced the change in my habits of thought to be "the dawning of the day, and the sudden rising of the day-star in my heart;" and, dwelling with intensity on my future labours, I could exclaim, with trembling emotion,—"Oh the exceeding excellency and glory and sweetness of the work! The smile of heaven is upon it—the emphatic testimony of my own conscience approves and hallows it." I reflect at this moment with wonder upon the almost supernatural ardour and devotion by which I was elevated and abased when I first became thoroughly convinced of my mission, and declared aloud that my only business now upon earth was that of the lowest and readiest of servants, whose joy consists in the pleasure of their Master. The strangeness, the excitement that accompanied the adoption of my new character, had nearly overthrown me. Wild with gladness, before I visited a human being, I took a journey of some twenty miles from the metropolis. I do not remember now the name of the village at which I stopped, from which I hurried, and whose fields I scoured with the design of finding some covert, unfrequented spot, where I might unmolested and unobserved pour forth the prayers and hymns of praise with which my surcharged heart was teeming. Until nightfall I remained there, nor did I leave the place until calmly and deliberately I begged permission to devote myself to the glory and honour of Him, whose favoured child I was. I walked a few miles on my return homeward. I passed a church, that in the stillness of night reared its dark form, and seemed, solemnly and pensively, like a thing of life, to stand before me. The moon rose at its full over the venerable wall, and scattered its bright cool light across the tall and moss-grown windows. Oh! every thing in life that wondrous night stirred up my soul to pious resolutions, and gave a wing to thought that could not find repose but in the silent and eternal sky.
The impetuosity with which I entered upon my scheme of usefulness, forbade preparation of any kind, had I not believed that any previous qualification was not essential to my purpose; or if essential, had been miraculously implanted in me. I was soon called upon to make my first visitation. Never will it be forgotten. It was to the work-house. Mr Clayton had been called thither by an old communicant, of whom he had not heard before for years. "He was ill, and he desired to speak with his still beloved minister."
Such was the message which reached my friend at the moment of his quitting his abode, on an errand of still greater urgency. "Go, Caleb," said Mr Clayton, "visit and comfort the poor sufferer; and may grace accompany your first labour of love." I proceeded to the place, and, arriving there, was ushered into a small close room—to recoil at once from the scene of misery which was there presented. Lying, with his hat and clothes upon the bed, dying, was the man himself; his wife was busy in the room, cleaning it, quietly and indifferently, as though the sleep of healthy life had closed her partner's eye, and nothing worse. On the threshold was a girl, the daughter of them both, twenty years of age or more, an idiot, for she laughed outright when I approached her. I had come to the house with my heart full of precious counsel, and yearning to communicate the message with which I knew myself to be charged. But in a moment I was brought to earth, shocked by the sight which I beheld, wounded in my nature, and I had not a word to say. The hardened woman looked at me for a moment, and calling me to myself by the act, I mentioned the name of Mr Clayton, and was again silent.
"What! can't he come, sir?" asked the beldame. "Well, it don't much matter. It's all over with 'un, I fear. Come, Jessie, can't you speak to the gentleman? What can you make of her, sir?"
The daughter looked at me again, and sickened me with her unmeaning laughter. I remembered the object of my visit, and struggled for composure. Had I become a recreant so quickly? Had I not a word to say for my Master? Nothing to offer the needy creatures, perishing, perhaps, of spiritual want? Alarmed at my own apathy, and eager to throw it off, I turned to the poor girl, and spoke to her. I asked her many questions before I could command attention. She could only look at me wildly, blush, laugh, and make strange motions to her mother. At length I said—
"Tell me, Jesse, tell your friend, who came into the world to save sinners?"
"Him, him, him," she answered hastily, and gabbled as before.
"Ah," said the mother, "the poor cretur does sometimes talk about religion, but it's very seldom, and uncertain like, and I can't help her either."
"Let me read to you," said I.
"Lor' bless you, sir," she answered, "it wouldn't do me no good. I am too old for that. Now, get out of the way there—do, you simpleton," she added, turning to the idiot; "just let me pass—don't you see I am wanting to fetch up water."
She left the room immediately, and her daughter ran after her, screaming a wild and piercing note. I moved to the dying man. He was insensible to anything I could say. Fretted and ashamed of myself, I hurried from the house, and, returning home, rushed to my room, fell upon my knees, and implored my Father to inflict at once the punishment due to lukewarmness and apostasy. How vain had been all my previous desire to distinguish myself—how arrogant my pretensions—how inefficient my weak attempts! I was not worthy of the commission with which I had been invested, and I besought heaven to degrade the wretch who could not speak at the seasonable moment, and to bestow it upon one worthier of its love, and abler to perform his duty. I passed a miserable night of remorse, and bitter self-accusation, and in the morning was distracted by the battling feelings that were marshalled against each other in my soul. Now, a sense of my unworthiness was victorious over every other thought, and I resolved to resign my trust, and think of it no more; then the belief in my election, the animating thought that I was chosen, and must still go forward or stand condemned, hated by myself, rejected by my God;—this gained the mastery next, and I was torn by sore perplexity. I appealed to my benefactor. As usual, balm was on his lips, and I found encouragement and support.
"I was yet young in the faith," he said, "and the abundance of heavenly grace was not yet manifested. It would come in due time; and, in the mean while, I must persevere, and a blessing would unquestionably follow."
Much more he added, to reconcile me to the previous day's defeat, and to animate me to new trials. Never did I so much need incentive and upholding, never before had I esteemed the value of a spiritual counsellor and friend.
In a small cottage, distant about three miles from the residence of Mr Clayton, there lodged, at this time, an old man with his sister, a blind woman about seventy years of age. He had communicated with Mr Clayton's church for many years. He was now poor, and had retired from the metropolis, to the hut, for the advantage of purer air, and in the hope of prolonging the short span within which his earthly life had been brought. To this humble habitation I was directed by Mr Clayton.
"The woman," said the minister, "is without any comfortable hope; but the prospects of the brother are satisfactory and most cheering. Go to the benighted woman. Her's is a melancholy case. Satan has a secure footing in her heart, and defeats every effort and every motive that I have brought to bear against it. May you be more fortunate—may her self-deceived and hardened spirit melt before the force and earnestness of your appeals!"
I ventured for a second time on sacred and interdicted ground, and visited the cottage. The unhappy woman, to whom I had specially come, was smitten indeed. She was blind and paralyzed, and on the extreme verge of eternity. Yet, afflicted as she was, and as near to death as the living may be, she enjoyed the tranquillity and the gentleness of a child, ignorant of sin, and, in virtue of her infancy, confident of her inheritance. I could discover no evidence of a creature alarmed with a sense of guilt, loathing itself, conscious of its worthlessness. Her nature, in truth, seemed to have usurped a sweetness and placidity, the possession of which, as Mr Clayton afterwards observed, was justifiable only in those who could find nothing but vileness and depravity in every thought and purpose of their hearts.
It was a beautiful day in summer, and Margaret was sitting before the cottage porch, feeling the sun's benevolent warmth, and tempering, with the closed lid, the hot rays that were directed to her sightless orbs. She had no power to move, and was happy in the still enjoyment of the lingering and lovely day. She might have been a statue for her quietness—but there were curves and lines in the decrepit frame that art could never borrow. Little there seemed about her to induce a love of life, and yet a countenance more bright with cheerfulness and mild content I never met. The healthy and the young might read a lesson on her blanched and wrinkled cheek. Full of my errand, I did not hesitate at once to engage her mind on heavenly and holy topics. She did not, or she would not, understand me. I spoke to her of the degradation of humanity, our fallen nature, and the impossibility of thinking any thing but sin—and a stone could not be more senseless than the aged listener.
"Was I sure of it?" she asked. "Did my Bible say it? Much she doubted it, for she had sometimes, especially since her blindness, clear and beautiful thoughts of heaven that could not be sinful, they rendered her so happy, and took away from her all fear. It was so shocking, too," she thought, "to think so ill of men—our fellow-creatures, and the creatures of a perfect Father. She loved her brother—he was so simple-minded, and so kind to her, too; how could she call him wicked and depraved!"
"Do you feel no load upon your conscience?" I enquired.
"Bless the good man's heart!" she answered, "why, what cares have I? If I can hear his friendly voice, and know he is not heavy-burthened, I am happy. Brother is all to me. Though now and then I'm not well pleased if the young children keep away who play about me sometimes, as if they did not need a playfellow more gay than poor blind Margaret."
"Have you no fear of death?" said I.
"Why should I have?" she answered quietly; "I never injured another in my life."
"Can that take off the sting?" I asked.
"And I have tried," continued she, "as far as I was able, to please the God who made me."
"Did you never think yourself the vilest of the vile?"
"Bless you! never, sir. How could I? If I had been, you may be sure Mr Clayton and the visiting ladies would never have been so kind to me and Thomas as they have—and how could we expect it? I was only thinking, sir, before you came up, that if I had been wicked when I was young, I would never have been so easy under blindness. Now, it doesn't give me one unquiet hour."
"Margaret, I would you were more anxious."
"It wouldn't do, sir, for the blind to be anxious," she replied. "They must do nothing, sir, but wait with patience. Besides, Thomas and I need no anxiety at all. God gives us more than we require, and it would be very wicked to be restless and unquiet."
"Margaret," I said impressively, "there is heaven!"
"Yes," she answered quickly, "that I'm sure of. I read of it before I lost my eyes; and since my blindness I have seen it often. God is very good to the afflicted, and none but the afflicted know how He makes up for what He takes away. I have seen heaven, sir, though I have not sight enough to know your face. Do you play dominoes, Mr—what did you say your name was, sir?"
"You trifle, Margaret."
"Oh, no indeed, sir. But how wonderful and quick my touch has got, and how kind is heaven there, sir! I can see the dominoes with my fingers—touch is just as good as sight. Just think how many hours a poor blind creature has, that must be filled up some way or another! I like to keep to myself, and think, and think; but not always—and sometimes I want Thomas to read to me; and when that's over, I feel a want of something else. I'll tell you what it is—my eyes they want to open. When that's the case, I always play at dominoes, and then the feeling goes away. Thomas can tell you that, for he plays with me."
I continued the conversation for an hour, and with the same result. I grew annoyed and irritated—not with the deluded sinner, as I deemed her, but with myself, the feeble and unequal instrument. For a second time I had attempted to comply with the instructions of my master, and for a second time had I been foiled, and driven back in melancholy discomfiture. The imperturbability and easy replies of the woman harassed and tormented me in the extreme. I had been too recent a pupil to be thoroughly versed in all the subtleties and mysteries of my office. Silence was painful to me, and reply only accumulated difficulty and vexation. She seemed so happy, too; in the midst of all her heresy and error there existed an unaffected tranquillity and repose which I would have purchased at any cost or sacrifice. I blushed and grew ashamed, and for a moment forgot that the bereaved creature was unable to behold the confusion with which defeat and exposure had covered me. At length I spoke imperfectly, loosely, and at random. The woman detected me in an untenable position—checked me—and in her artless manner, laid bare the fallacy of an inconsiderate assertion. In an instant I was aware of my conviction, I retracted my expression, and involved myself immediately in fresh dilemma. Again, and as gently as before, she made the unsoundness of a principle evident and glaring. How I closed the argument—the conversation and the interview—and escaped from her, I know not. Burning with shame, despising myself, and desirous of burying both my disgrace and self deep in the earth, where both might be forgotten, I was sensible of hurrying homeward. I reached it in despair, satisfied that I had become a coward and a renegade, and that I was lost, hopelessly and utterly here upon earth, and eternally in heaven!
I had resolved, upon the day succeeding this adventure, to restore to my benefactor the credentials with which be had been pleased to entrust me. Satisfied of the truth of my commission, I could only deplore my inability to execute it faithfully. In spite of what had passed at the cottage-door, the doctrines which I had advocated there lost none of their character and influence upon my own mind. Falling from the lips of others, they dropped with conviction into my own soul. Nothing could shake my own unbounded reliance on their saving efficacy and heavenly origin. It was only when I spoke of them, when I attempted to expound and teach them, that clouds came over the celestial truths, and the sun's disk was dimmed and troubled. The moment that I ceased to speak, light unimpaired, and bright effulgence, were restored. It was enough that I could feel this. Grace and a miracle had made the startling fact palpable and evident. This assurance followed easily. No oral communication could have satisfied me more fully of the importance and necessity of an immediate resignation of my trust. It was a punishment for my presumption. I should have rested grateful for the interposition which had rescued me from the jaws of hell, and left to others, worthy of the transcendent honour, the glorious task of saving souls. What was I, steeped in sin, as I had been up to the very moment of my conversion—what was I, insolent, pretending worm, that I should raise my grovelling head, and presume upon the unmerited favour that had been showered so graciously upon me? It remained for those—purest and best of men, whose lives from childhood onward had been a lucid exposition of the word of truth—whose deeds had given to the world an assurance of their solemn embassy; it was for them to feel the strength the countenance, and support of heaven, and to behold with gratitude and joy their labours crowned with a triumphant issue and success. This was the new train of feeling suggested by new circumstances. I resigned myself to its operation as quickly as I had adopted my previous sentiments; and, a few days before, I was not more anxious to commence my sacred course than I was now miserable and uneasy until I turned from it once and for ever. Mr Clayton had placed in my hands a list of individuals whom he transferred to my care. It was oppressive to know that I possessed it, and my first step was to place it again at his disposal. The interview which I obtained for this purpose was an important one—important in itself—marvellous and astounding in its consequences.
Mr Clayton spent many hours daily in a small room, called a study. It was a chamber sacred to the occupation followed there. I had not access to it—nor had any stranger, with the exception of two ill-favoured men, whom I had found, for weeks together, constant attendants upon my benefactor. For a month at a time, not a single day elapsed during which they were not closeted for a considerable period with the divine. A three weeks' interval of absence would then take place; Mr Clayton prosecuted his studies alone and undisturbed, and no strange foot would cross the threshold until the ill-looking men returned, and passed some five weeks in the small sanctuary as before. Who could they be? I had never directly asked the question, curious as I had been to know their history and the purpose of their visits. Had I not learned from Mr Clayton the impropriety and sinfulness of judging humanity by its looks, I should have formed a most uncharitable opinion of their characters. They were hard-featured men, sallow of complexion, rigid in their looks. I knew that, attached to the church of Mr Clayton, were two missionaries—men of rare piety, and some of humble origin—small boot-makers, in fact; sometimes I believed that the visiters and they were the same individuals. Circumstances, however, unfavourable to this idea, arose, and I turned from one conjecture to another, until I reposed, at length, in the belief that they were sinners—sinners of the deepest dye—such as their ill-omened looks betrayed—and that they sought the kind and ever-ready minister to obtain his counsel, and to share his prayers. At all events, this was a subject upon which I received no enlightening from their confidant. Once I took occasion to make mention of it; but, in an instant, I perceived that my enquiry was not deemed proper to be answered. It was to this forbidden closet—the scene of so much mystery—that, to my great surprize, I found myself invited by my benefactor, when I implored him to release me from the obligation in which I had too hastily involved myself.
"Be seated, Caleb," said Mr Clayton, as we entered the room in company. "Be seated, and be tranquil. You are excited now."
I was, in truth, and not more so than deeply mortified and humbled.
"You alarm me, dear young friend," continued the good minister. "You alarm and grieve me. I tremble for you, when I behold your versatility. Tell me, how is this? Can you not trust yourself? Can I trust you?"
I did not answer.
"I have been careful in not thwarting your own good purposes. I have been most anxious to give your feelings their full bent. Has your conversion been too sudden to endure? Have you so soon regretted the abandonment of the great world and all its pleasures—such as they were to you? Has a life of usefulness and peace no charms? Alas! I had hoped otherwise."
I assured my friend that he had mistaken the motive which had compelled me to forsake, at least for the present, the intention that I had entertained honestly—though, I felt, erroneously—for the last few days. Nothing was further from my thoughts than a desire to mix again in a world of sinfulness and trouble. His precepts and bright example had won me from it; and I prayed only to be established in the principles, in the true knowledge of which I knew my happiness to consist. I was not equal to the task which I had proposed to myself, and he had kindly permitted me to assume. I wished to be his meanest disciple—to acquire wisdom from his tuition—and, by the labour of years, to prepare myself finally for that reward which he had so often announced to me as the peculiar inheritance of the faithful and the righteous. I ceased. My auditor did not answer me immediately. He sat for some minutes in silence, and closed his eyes as if absorbed in thought. At length, he said to me—
"You do not surprize me, Caleb. I am prepared for this. I perceived your difficulties from afar. It was inevitable. Self-confidence has placed you where you are. Be happy, and rejoice in your weakness—but turn now to the strong for strength. The work that has begun in your heart must be completed. It shall be so—do not doubt it."
The minister hesitated, looked hard at me, and endeavoured, as I imagined, to find, in the expression of my countenance, an index to my thoughts. I said nothing, and he proceeded.
"There are the appointed means. His way is in the sanctuary. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd. There is but one refuge for the outcast. I have but one alleviation to offer you. It is all and every thing. Are you prepared to accept it?"
"You are my friend, my guardian, and my father," I replied.
"You have wandered long in the wilderness," continued the minister. "You have fed with the swine and the goats. You have found no nourishment there. All was bleak, and barren, and desolate there. The living waters were dried up, and the bread of life was denied to the starving wayfarer."
"What must be done, sir?"
"You MUST ENTER THE FOLD—and have communion with the chosen people of the Lord. Are you content to do it?"
"Oh, am I worthy," I exclaimed, "to be reckoned in the number of those holy men?"
"I cannot doubt it; but your own spirit shall bear witness to your state. To-morrow is our next church-meeting. There, if it be your wish, I will propose you; messengers will be appointed to converse with you. They will come to you, and gather, from your experience, the evidences of your renewed, regenerated character."
"What shall I say, sir?" I asked in all simplicity.
"What says the drowning man to the hand that brings him to the shore? Your beating heart will be too ready to acknowledge the mighty work that has been already done on your behalf. Have you forgotten the way you have been led? Point it out to them. Have you been plucked as a brand from the burning? Acknowledge it to them in strains of liveliest gratitude. Does not your soul at this moment overflow at the vivid recollection of all the Lord has done for it and you? Will it not yearn to sing aloud His praise when strangers come to listen to the song? Then speak aloud to them. Do you not feel, have not a hundred circumstances all concurred to prove, that you exist a vessel chosen to show forth His praise? Show it to them, and let them carry back the certain proofs of your redemption—let them convey the sweet intelligence of a brother's safety—and let them bid the church prepare to welcome him with hymns of praise into her loving bosom."
Within a week of the above conversation, two respectable individuals called upon me at Mr Clayton's house—the accredited messengers of the church in which my eternal safety was about to be secured. One was a thickset man, with large black whiskers and corresponding eyebrows. His countenance had a stern expression—the eye especially, which lay couched like a tiger beneath its rugged overhanging brow. You did not like to look at it, and you could not meet it without unpleasantness and awe. The gentleman was very tall and sturdy—evidently a hairy person; he was unshaven, and looked muscular. Acting under the feeling which led him to despise all earthly grandeur and distinction, and which, no doubt influenced his conduct throughout life, he was remarkable for a carelessness and uncleanness of attire, as powerful and striking as the odour which exhaled from his broad person, and which explained the profession of the gentleman to be—a working blacksmith. His companion was thin, and neat, and dapper. There was an air about him that could not have been acquired, except by frequent intercourse with the polished and the rich. He was delicacy itself, incapable of a strong expression, and happier far when he could hint, and not express his sentiments. Had I been subject only to his examination, my ordeal would not have been severe. It was the blacksmith whom I found hard and unimpressible as his own anvil, dark as his forge, and as unpitying as its flames. The thin examiner held the high office of deacon of the church. Whether it was the particularly dirty face of his friend that set him off to such advantage, or whether he had inherent claims to my respect, I cannot tell; well I know, throughout the scrutiny that soon took place, many times I should have fallen beneath the blacksmith's hammer, but for the support and mild encouragement that I found in him. He was most becomingly dressed. He wore a white cravat, and no collar. He had light hair closely cut, and his face was as smooth as a woman's. His shirt was whiter than any shirt I have ever seen before or since, and it was made of very fine material. He carried an agreeable smirk upon his countenance, and he disinterred, now and then, some very long and extraordinary word from the dictionary, when he was particularly desirous either to make himself understood or conceal his meaning. I had almost omitted to add, that he was a ladies' haberdasher.
I received the deputation with a trembling and apprehensive heart. I knew my faith to be sincere, and I believed it to be correct, according to the views of the church of which my revered friend was the minister and organ. Still, I could not be insensible to the importance of the step which I was about to take, and to the high tone of piety which the true believers demanded from all who joined their ranks and partook of their exclusive privileges.
It will not be necessary to repeat in detail the course of my examination. At the close of two hours it was concluded, and I am at this moment willing to confess that it was, upon the whole, satisfactory. I mean to myself—for by my questioners, and by the little haberdasher more particularly, the conference was pronounced most gratifying and comforting in every way. I say upon the whole, for I could not, even at that early period of my initiation, and with all my excitement and enthusiasm, prevent the intrusion of some disturbing thoughts—some painful impressions that were not in harmony with the general tenor of my feelings. I had prepared myself to meet and deal with the appointed delegates of heaven, and I had encountered men, yes, and men not entitled to my reverence and regard, except as the chosen ambassadors of the church. One was low, ignorant, and vulgar. He took no pains to conceal the fact; he rather gloried in his native and offensive coarseness. The other was a smoother man, scarcely less destitute of knowledge, or worthier of respect. Looking back, at this distance of time, upon this strange interview, I am indeed shocked and grieved at the part which I then and there permitted myself to undertake. The scene has lost the colours which gave it a false and superficial lustre, and I gaze on the melancholy reality chidden, and, let me say, instructed by the sight. I can now better appreciate and understand the self-confident tone which pronounced upon my state in the eye of heaven—the canting expressions of brotherly love—the irreverent familiarity with which Scripture was quoted, garbled, and tortured to justify dissent, and render disobedience holy—the daring assumption of inquisitorial privileges, and the scorn, the illiberality and self-righteousness, with which my angry, bigoted, and vulgar questioners decided on the merits of every institution that eschewed their fanciful vagaries and most audacious claims. I do not wonder that, overtaken in a career of misery, the consequence of my own imprudence, I should have been arrested by the voice, and smitten by the eloquence, of Mr Clayton. I do not wonder that I listened to his arguments, and observed his conduct, until I was reduced to passiveness, and my mind was willing to be moulded to his purposes. But I do wonder and lament that any obscuration of my judgment, any luxuriance of feeling, should have permitted my youthful understanding for an instant to believe that to such men as my examiners the keys of heaven were entrusted, and that on them, and on their voice, depended the reception of a broken-hearted penitent at the mercy-seat of God.
A few words from the haberdasher-deacon, at the breaking up of the convocation, or whatever else it might be termed, were satisfactory, in so far as they showed that my temporal prospects were not entirely neglected by those who had become so deeply interested in my spiritual welfare. The blacksmith had hardly brought to a close a somewhat lengthy and very ungrammatical exhortation, that wound up the day's proceedings, when the dapper Jehu Tomkins, jumping at once from the carnival to the revel, shook me cordially by the hand, and most kindly suggested to me that, under the patronage of so important and religious a connexion as that into which I was about to enter, I could not fail to succeed, whatever might be the plan which I had laid down for my future support.
"I have heard all about you," added Jehu, "from our respected minister, and you'll soon get into something now. It's a good congregation, sir— wealthy and influential. I should say we have richer people in our connexion than in any about London. Mr Clayton is a very popular man, sir—very good, and speaks the truth."
"He is good indeed," I answered.
"Sir, grace is sure to follow you now. It is fifteen years since I first sat under Mr Clayton! Ah, I remember the night I was converted, as if it were yesterday. I always felt, up to that very time, the need of something better than I had got. Business had gone wrong ever since I opened shop, and my mind was quite unsettled. Satan tried very hard at me, but it wouldn't do. Sometimes, when my boy had gone home, and shop was shut up, the Tempter would whisper in my ears words like these—'Jehu, you're insured, over and over again, for your stock; let a spark fall on the shavings, and your fortune's made.' Well, sir, once or twice—will you believe it?—the Devil had nearly got it all his own way; but grace prevented, and I was saved. I owe it all to Mr Clayton. I was told by one or two of my customers to go and hear him, but somehow or other I never did. Satan kept me back. At last the gentleman as was the deacon—him as built the chapel—Mrs Jehu Tomkin's father—comes to my shop with his daughter, Mrs Jehu as is now, and spoke to me about the minister. Well, I heard the old gentleman was very rich and pious, and I went the next Sabbath-day as was, with his family, into his pew. I never went any where else after that. He seemed to hit the nail just on the head, and I was convinced—oh, quite wonderful!—all on a sudden. I was married to Mrs Jehu before that day twelvemonth. So you see grace followed me throughout, as it will you, my dear brother, if you only mind what you are about, and don't be a backslider."
"Mr Clayton," said I, "has kindly promised to procure employment for me."
"Ah! and he'll do it, if he says so," rejoined Mr Tomkins. "That's your man. You stick to him, and you won't hurt. He's a chosen vessel, if ever there was one. What do you say, brother Buster?"
Brother Buster simply groaned his assent, and scowled. He had been for some time anxious to depart, and he now took his leave without further ceremony.
"You wouldn't think that man was a saint to look at him, would you?" asked the deacon, as soon as his friend was gone. "He is though. He is riper in spiritual matters than any man I know. Ah! the Establishment would give something for a few like him. He'll be taken from us, I fear. We make a idol of him, and that's sure to be punished. It's wonderful what he knows; and how it has come to him we can't tell."
I received a pressing invitation from Mr Tomkins to visit his "small and 'appy family," as he was pleased to call it, on any evening after eight o'clock, which was his latest business hour. "Mrs Jehu," I was assured, "was just like her father, and his four small Jehus as exactly like their grandfather, and he wished to say no more for them. After business his family enjoyed invariably a little spiritual refreshment, and that and a hymn made the time pass very agreeably till supper-time at nine, when he had a 'ot collation, at which he should be most proud to see me."
To all the charges that have been at various times, with more or less virulence and disinterestedness, brought against the Church of England, that of assuming to itself the divine attribute of searching the secret heart of many has, I believe, never been superadded. It has remained for men very far advanced indeed in spiritual knowledge and perfection, to assert the bold prerogative, and to venture, unappalled, beneath the frown of heaven. The close scrutiny, on the part of Mr Buster, proper as it was as a step preliminary, was by no means sufficient to procure for me an easy and unquestioned admission into the church which the blacksmith had so ably represented. There was yet another trial to ensue, and another jury to pronounce upon the merits of the anxious candidate. He had yet to prove to the perfect satisfaction of the self-constituted junto, that styled itself a church, how God had mercifully dealt with him—to detail, with historic accuracy, the method and procedure of his regeneration, and to find evidence of a spiritual change, that carried on its front the proof of his conversion and his accepted state. All this was to be done before I could be entitled to the privileges which Messrs Buster, Tomkins, and the rest, had it in their power to bestow. The manner in which this delicate investigation was carried on, its indecorum and profaneness, I never can forget; nor can I, in truth, remember it without humiliation and deep sorrow. Against the indiscreet, illegal exhibition, I set off my ignorance, simplicity, and desire of serving heaven; and in these I place my hope of pardon for the share I had in such proceedings.
I received, in due form, a requisition to appear before the body of the church, at its general meeting. I appeared. The chapel was thronged, the majority of members being women. In the hands of nearly every third person was a printed paper. I was not then aware of its contents; if I had been, the ceremony would, in all probability, have concluded with my entrance. Will it be believed, that this paper contained a printed formula of the questions which were to test the quality of my faith, and to pronounce upon the vitality and worth of my spiritual pretensions! Any person present was at liberty to address me, and to form his own opinion of my case from the manner and the matter which their ingenuity elicited. At the suggestion of Mr Tomkins, who, in his capacity of deacon, was remarkably active on this occasion, it was deemed proper that I should enter upon my "experience" at once. My heart fluttered as I rose to comply with the demand, and the chapel was hushed. It will be sufficient to say, that I repeated my entire history, and secured the attention of my auditory until I had spoken my last word. There were parts of the narrative which I could, with a glance, perceive to be peculiarly piquant and acceptable. As these occurred, a rustling and a murmur expressed the subdued applause. When, for instance, I mentioned the disgust which I had conceived for the University upon losing the scholarship, and the uneasiness which I afterwards felt as long as I continued a member of that community, a few of the most acute looked at one another, and shrugged mysteriously, as who should say, "How wondrous are the ways of Providence!" and when I arrived at the point of my deliverance by the hand of their own minister, there would have been, I thought, no end to the gesticulations, expressions of gratitude and joy, that burst from the "church," in spite of the praiseworthy efforts of the minister to control and keep them down. When I had concluded, and whilst the half-suppressed rejoicing still buzzed in the chapel, the stern Buster rose, and presented to me the unmitigated force of his unpleasant eye. Silence prevailed immediately.
"Now, sir," said my old friend, "what makes you think yourself a child of grace? Speak out, if you please; I'm rather deaf."
"The loathing that I feel of what I was."
"Good!" said Jehu Tomkins, with strong emphasis, and loud enough to be heard by every one.
"When did you feel the fetters fust busting from your spirit?"
"Not till I heard the minister's kind voice," was the reply.
"Do you always feel as strong upon the subject? Do you feel your spirit always willing?"
"Oh, no," I answered; "there are dreadful fluctuations, and there is nothing so uncertain as self-dependence. I have dark and bitter moments, when I feel, in all its power, the melancholy truth—'When I would do good, evil is present with me.'"
"Capital sign!—capital sign!" exclaimed Jehu Tomkins again; "quite sufficient!—quite sufficient!"
Yes, it was so. A few questions were put to me by individuals, rather for the sake of gratifying an impertinent curiosity, than that of elucidating further proof of my proficiency, and the ceremony was finished by my formal reception into the body of the church. A prayer was offered, an address delivered, a hymn sung—the eyes of many ladies were turned with smiling interest upon me—and the meeting separated. Jehu Tomkins was the first to congratulate me upon the happy issue of my trial.
"You are a made man, sir, depend upon it," said he, with his first salutation. "You can't fail. There—do you see that fat man that's just going out—him as has got on the Indy 'ankycher?—I sold him that—he came on purpose to hear you, and if he found you up to the mark, he's going to provide for you. He belongs to all our societies, and just does what he pleases. His word's a law. We've a boiled leg of mutton at nine to-night. Suppose you come to us, and finish the day there? Bless me, what a full meeting we've had! Here's a squeezing!" There was certainly some difficulty in our egression. The people had gathered into a crowd at the small doorway, and men jostled and made their way without regard to others in their vicinity. Lost as I was in the indiscriminate host, a few observations fell upon my ear that were not, I presume, especially intended for it.
"Well," said a greasy youth, not many yards distant from me, "I doubt his having had a call. There wasn't life enough in it for me. I shouldn't be surprised if he's a black sheep after all. I wish I had put a question or two to him. I think I could have shown Satan in his heart pretty quick."
"Now you say it," replied the person addressed, "I did think him very backward and lukewarm. I didn't like his tone altogether. Ah! what a thing experimental religion is! You know what it is, and so do I; but I werry much fear that delooded young man is as carnal-minded as my mother was, that went to hell, though I say it, as contented and unconcerned as if she was going to the saints in glory."
The information conveyed to me by Mr Tomkins as we issued from the chapel was not unfounded. The very day subsequent to my admittance into the bosom of the church, I was requested to attend the minister in the sanctum already referred to. Upon reaching it, I discovered the fat gentleman of the preceding evening, dressed as he was on the previous occasion, and still adorned with Jehu's India handkerchief. Both he and Mr Clayton were seated at table, and writing materials were before them. The moment I entered the apartment, the fat gentleman held out his hand, and shook mine with much stateliness. My friend, however, addressed me.
"Caleb," said he, "we are at length able to fulfil our promise. It is my pleasure to announce to you that a situation is procured for you, suitable to your talents, and agreeable to your feelings. We are both of us indebted to this good gentleman. In your name I have already thanked him, and in your name I have accepted the office which he has been at some pains to obtain for you."
I looked towards the stout gentleman, and bowed in grateful acknowledgment.
"Tell him the duties, Clayton," requested my new-found influential friend.
"Mr Bombasty," proceeded the minister, "feels a warm interest in your welfare. The happy result of yesterday's trial has secured for you a friendship which it will be your duty and study to deserve. There is established, in connexion with our church, a Christian instruction society, of which Mr Bombasty is the esteemed and worthy president. The appointment of a travelling secretary rests with him, and he has this very day nominated you to that distinguished office. I have tendered your thanks. You can now repeat them."