It was nearly eight o'clock in the evening when the cart, which we left on the road, entered the porte-cochère of the Hotel de la Poste in Arras; the man whom we have been following up to this moment alighted from it, responded with an abstracted air to the attentions of the people of the inn, sent back the extra horse, and with his own hands led the little white horse to the stable; then he opened the door of a billiard-room which was situated on the ground floor, sat down there, and leaned his elbows on a table; he had taken fourteen hours for the journey which he had counted on making in six; he did himself the justice to acknowledge that it was not his fault, but at bottom, he was not sorry.
The landlady of the hotel entered.
"Does Monsieur wish a bed? Does Monsieur require supper?"
He made a sign of the head in the negative.
"The stableman says that Monsieur's horse is extremely fatigued."
Here he broke his silence.
"Will not the horse be in a condition to set out again to-morrow morning?"
"Oh, Monsieur! he must rest for two days at least."
"Is not the posting-station located here?"
The hostess conducted him to the office; he showed his passport, and inquired whether there was any way of returning that same night to M. sur M. by the mail-wagon; the seat beside the post-boy chanced to be vacant; he engaged it and paid for it. "Monsieur," said the clerk, "do not fail to be here ready to start at precisely one o'clock in the morning."
This done, he left the hotel and began to wander about the town.
He was not acquainted with Arras; the streets were dark, and he walked on at random; but he seemed bent upon not asking the way of the passers-by. He crossed the little river Crinchon, and found himself in a labyrinth of narrow alleys where he lost his way. A citizen was passing along with a lantern. After some hesitation, he decided to apply to this man, not without having first glanced behind and in front of him, as though he feared lest some one should hear the question which he was about to put.
"Monsieur," said he, "where is the court-house, if you please."
"You do not belong in town, sir?" replied the bourgeois, who was an oldish man; "well, follow me. I happen to be going in the direction of the court-house, that is to say, in the direction of the hotel of the prefecture; for the court-house is undergoing repairs just at this moment, and the courts are holding their sittings provisionally in the prefecture."
"Is it there that the Assizes are held?" he asked.
"Certainly, sir; you see, the prefecture of to-day was the bishop's palace before the Revolution. M. de Conzié, who was bishop in '82, built a grand hall there. It is in this grand hall that the court is held."
On the way, the bourgeois said to him:—
"If Monsieur desires to witness a case, it is rather late. The sittings generally close at six o'clock."
When they arrived on the grand square, however, the man pointed out to him four long windows all lighted up, in the front of a vast and gloomy building.
"Upon my word, sir, you are in luck; you have arrived in season. Do you see those four windows? That is the Court of Assizes. There is light there, so they are not through. The matter must have been greatly protracted, and they are holding an evening session. Do you take an interest in this affair? Is it a criminal case? Are you a witness?"
"I have not come on any business; I only wish to speak to one of the lawyers."
"That is different," said the bourgeois. "Stop, sir; here is the door where the sentry stands. You have only to ascend the grand staircase."
He conformed to the bourgeois's directions, and a few minutes later he was in a hall containing many people, and where groups, intermingled with lawyers in their gowns, were whispering together here and there.
It is always a heart-breaking thing to see these congregations of men robed in black, murmuring together in low voices, on the threshold of the halls of justice. It is rare that charity and pity are the outcome of these words. Condemnations pronounced in advance are more likely to be the result. All these groups seem to the passing and thoughtful observer so many sombre hives where buzzing spirits construct in concert all sorts of dark edifices.
This spacious hall, illuminated by a single lamp, was the old hall of the episcopal palace, and served as the large hall of the palace of justice. A double-leaved door, which was closed at that moment, separated it from the large apartment where the court was sitting.
The obscurity was such that he did not fear to accost the first lawyer whom he met.
"What stage have they reached, sir?" he asked.
"It is finished," said the lawyer.
This word was repeated in such accents that the lawyer turned round.
"Excuse me sir; perhaps you are a relative?"
"No; I know no one here. Has judgment been pronounced?"
"Of course. Nothing else was possible."
"To penal servitude?"
He continued, in a voice so weak that it was barely audible:—
"Then his identity was established?"
"What identity?" replied the lawyer. "There was no identity to be established. The matter was very simple. The woman had murdered her child; the infanticide was proved; the jury threw out the question of premeditation, and she was condemned for life."
"So it was a woman?" said he.
"Why, certainly. The Limosin woman. Of what are you speaking?"
"Nothing. But since it is all over, how comes it that the hall is still lighted?"
"For another case, which was begun about two hours ago."
"What other case?"
"Oh! this one is a clear case also. It is about a sort of blackguard; a man arrested for a second offence; a convict who has been guilty of theft. I don't know his name exactly. There's a bandit's phiz for you! I'd send him to the galleys on the strength of his face alone."
"Is there any way of getting into the court-room, sir?" said he.
"I really think that there is not. There is a great crowd. However, the hearing has been suspended. Some people have gone out, and when the hearing is resumed, you might make an effort."
"Where is the entrance?"
"Through yonder large door."
The lawyer left him. In the course of a few moments he had experienced, almost simultaneously, almost intermingled with each other, all possible emotions. The words of this indifferent spectator had, in turn, pierced his heart like needles of ice and like blades of fire. When he saw that nothing was settled, he breathed freely once more; but he could not have told whether what he felt was pain or pleasure.
He drew near to many groups and listened to what they were saying. The docket of the session was very heavy; the president had appointed for the same day two short and simple cases. They had begun with the infanticide, and now they had reached the convict, the old offender, the "return horse." This man had stolen apples, but that did not appear to be entirely proved; what had been proved was, that he had already been in the galleys at Toulon. It was that which lent a bad aspect to his case. However, the man's examination and the depositions of the witnesses had been completed, but the lawyer's plea, and the speech of the public prosecutor were still to come; it could not be finished before midnight. The man would probably be condemned; the attorney-general was very clever, and never missed his culprits; he was a brilliant fellow who wrote verses.
An usher stood at the door communicating with the hall of the Assizes. He inquired of this usher:—
"Will the door be opened soon, sir?"
"It will not be opened at all," replied the usher.
"What! It will not be opened when the hearing is resumed? Is not the hearing suspended?"
"The hearing has just been begun again," replied the usher, "but the door will not be opened again."
"Because the hall is full."
"What! There is not room for one more?"
"Not another one. The door is closed. No one can enter now."
The usher added after a pause: "There are, to tell the truth, two or three extra places behind Monsieur le Président, but Monsieur le Président only admits public functionaries to them."
So saying, the usher turned his back.
He retired with bowed head, traversed the antechamber, and slowly descended the stairs, as though hesitating at every step. It is probable that he was holding counsel with himself. The violent conflict which had been going on within him since the preceding evening was not yet ended; and every moment he encountered some new phase of it. On reaching the landing-place, he leaned his back against the balusters and folded his arms. All at once he opened his coat, drew out his pocket-book, took from it a pencil, tore out a leaf, and upon that leaf he wrote rapidly, by the light of the street lantern, this line: M. Madeleine, Mayor of M. sur M.; then he ascended the stairs once more with great strides, made his way through the crowd, walked straight up to the usher, handed him the paper, and said in an authoritative manner:—
"Take this to Monsieur le Président."
The usher took the paper, cast a glance upon it, and obeyed.