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The accusation hanging over the head of Maitre Quennebert was a very serious one, threatening his life, if proved. But he was not uneasy; he knew himself in possession of facts which would enable him to refute it triumphantly.
The platonic love of Angelique de Guerchi for the handsome Chevalier de Moranges had resulted, as we have seen, in no practical wrong to the Duc de Vitry. After her reconciliation with her lover, brought about by the eminently satisfactory explanations she was able to give of her conduct, which we have already laid before our readers, she did not consider it advisable to shut her heart to his pleadings much longer, and the consequence was that at the end of a year she found herself in a condition which it was necessary to conceal from everyone. To Angelique herself, it is true, the position was not new, and she felt neither grief nor shame, regarding the coming event as a means of making her future more secure by forging a new link in the chain which bound the duke to her. But he, sure that but for himself Angelique would never have strayed from virtue's path, could not endure the thought of her losing her reputation and becoming an object for scandal to point her finger at; so that Angelique, who could not well seem less careful of her good name than he, was obliged to turn his song of woe into a duet, and consent to certain measures being taken.
One evening, therefore, shortly before Maitre Quennebert's marriage, the fair lady set out, ostensibly on a journey which was to last a fortnight or three weeks. In reality she only made a circle in a post-chaise round Paris, which she re-entered at one of the barriers, where the duke awaited her with a sedan-chair. In this she was carried to the very house to which de Jars had brought his pretended nephew after the duel. Angelique, who had to pay dearly for her errors, remained there only twenty-four hours, and then left in her coffin, which was hidden in a cellar under the palace of the Prince de Conde, the body being covered with quicklime. Two days after this dreadful death, Commander de Jars presented himself at the fatal house, and engaged a room in which he installed the chevalier.
This house, which we are about to ask the reader to enter with us, stood at the corner of the rue de la Tixeranderie and the rue Deux-Portes. There was nothing in the exterior of it to distinguish it from any other, unless perhaps two brass plates, one of which bore the words MARIE LEROUX-CONSTANTIN, WIDOW, CERTIFIED MIDWIFE, and the other CLAUDE PERREGAUD, SURGEON. These plates were affixed to the blank wall in the rue de la Tixeranderie, the windows of the rooms on that side looking into the courtyard. The house door, which opened directly on the first steps of a narrow winding stair, was on the other side, just beyond the low arcade under whose vaulted roof access was gained to that end of the rue des Deux-Portes. This house, though dirty, mean, and out of repair, received many wealthy visitors, whose brilliant equipages waited for them in the neighbouring streets. Often in the night great ladies crossed its threshold under assumed names and remained there for several days, during which La Constantin and Claude Perregaud, by an infamous use of their professional knowledge, restored their clients to an outward appearance of honour, and enabled them to maintain their reputation for virtue. The first and second floors contained a dozen rooms in which these abominable mysteries were practised. The large apartment, which served as waiting and consultation room, was oddly furnished, being crowded with objects of strange and unfamiliar form. It resembled at once the operating-room of a surgeon, the laboratory of a chemist and alchemist, and the den of a sorcerer. There, mixed up together in the greatest confusion, lay instruments of all sorts, caldrons and retorts, as well as books containing the most absurd ravings of the human mind. There were the twenty folio volumes of Albertus Magnus; the works of his disciple, Thomas de Cantopre, of Alchindus, of Averroes, of Avicenna, of Alchabitius, of David de Plaine-Campy, called L'Edelphe, surgeon to Louis XIII and author of the celebrated book The Morbific Hydra Exterminated by the Chemical Hercules. Beside a bronze head, such as the monk Roger Bacon possessed, which answered all the questions that were addressed to it and foretold the future by means of a magic mirror and the combination of the rules of perspective, lay an eggshell, the same which had been used by Caret, as d'Aubigne tells us, when making men out of germs, mandrakes, and crimson silk, over a slow fire. In the presses, which had sliding-doors fastening with secret springs, stood Jars filled with noxious drugs, the power of which was but too efficacious; in prominent positions, facing each other, hung two portraits, one representing Hierophilos, a Greek physician, and the other Agnodice his pupil, the first Athenian midwife.
For several years already La Constantin and Claude Perregaud had carried on their criminal practices without interference. A number of persons were of course in the secret, but their interests kept them silent, and the two accomplices had at last persuaded themselves that they were perfectly safe. One evening, however, Perregaud came home, his face distorted by terror and trembling in every limb. He had been warned while out that the suspicions of the authorities had been aroused in regard to him and La Constantin. It seemed that some little time ago, the Vicars-General had sent a deputation to the president of the chief court of justice, having heard from their priests that in one year alone six hundred women had avowed in the confessional that they had taken drugs to prevent their having children. This had been sufficient to arouse the vigilance of the police, who had set a watch on Perregaud's house, with the result that that very night a raid was to be made on it. The two criminals took hasty counsel together, but, as usual under such circumstances, arrived at no practical conclusions. It was only when the danger was upon them that they recovered their presence of mind. In the dead of night loud knocking at the street door was heard, followed by the command to open in the name of the king.
"We can yet save ourselves!" exclaimed surgeon, with a sudden flash of inspiration.
Rushing into the room where the pretended chevalier was lying, he called out--
"The police are coming up! If they discover your sex you are lost, and so am I. Do as I tell you."
At a sign from him, La Constantin went down and opened the door. While the rooms on the first floor were being searched, Perregaud made with a lancet a superficial incision in the chevalier's right arm, which gave very little pain, and bore a close resemblance to a sword-cut. Surgery and medicine were at that time so inextricably involved, required such apparatus, and bristled with such scientific absurdities, that no astonishment was excited by the extraordinary collection of instruments which loaded the tables and covered the floors below: even the titles of certain treatises which there had been no time to destroy, awoke no suspicion.
Fortunately for the surgeon and his accomplice, they had only one patient--the chevalier--in their house when the descent was made. When the chevalier's room was reached, the first thing which the officers of the law remarked were the hat, spurred boots, and sword of the patient. Claude Perregaud hardly looked up as the room was invaded; he only made a sign to those--who came in to be quiet, and went on dressing the wound. Completely taken in, the officer in command merely asked the name of the patient and the cause of the wound. La Constantin replied that it' was the young Chevalier de Moranges, nephew of Commander de Jars, who had had an affair of honour that same night, and being sightly wounded had been brought thither by his uncle hardly an hour before. These questions and the apparently trustworthy replies elicited by them being duly taken down, the uninvited visitors retired, having discovered nothing to justify their visit.
All might have been well had there been nothing the matter but the wound on the chevalier's sword-arm. But at the moment when Perregaud gave it to him the poisonous nostrums employed by La Constantin were already working in his blood. Violent fever ensued, and in three days the chevalier was dead. It was his funeral which had met Quennebert's wedding party at the church door.
Everything turned out as Quennebert had anticipated. Madame Quennebert, furious at the deceit which had been practised on her, refused to listen to her husband's justification, and Trumeau, not letting the grass grow under his feet, hastened the next day to launch an accusation of bigamy against the notary; for the paper which had been found in the nuptial camber was nothing less than an attested copy of a contract of marriage concluded between Quennebert and Josephine-Charlotte Boullenois. It was by the merest chance that Trumeau had come on the record of the marriage, and he now challenged his rival to produce a certificate of the death of his first wife. Charlotte Boullenois, after two years of marriage, had demanded a deed of separation, which demand Quennebert had opposed. While the case was going on she had retired to the convent of La Raquette, where her intrigue with de Jars began. The commander easily induced her to let herself be carried off by force. He then concealed his conquest by causing her to adopt male attire, a mode of dress which accorded marvellously well with her peculiar tastes and rather masculine frame. At first Quennebert had instituted an active but fruitless search for his missing wife, but soon became habituated to his state of enforced single blessedness, enjoying to the full the liberty it brought with it. But his business had thereby suffered, and once having made the acquaintance of Madame Rapally, he cultivated it assiduously, knowing her fortune would be sufficient to set him straight again with the world, though he was obliged to exercise the utmost caution and reserve in has intercourse with her, as she on her side displayed none of these qualities. At last, however, matters came to such a pass that he must either go to prison or run the risk of a second marriage. So he reluctantly named a day for the ceremony, resolving to leave Paris with Madame Rapally as soon as he had settled with his creditors.
In the short interval which ensued, and while Trumeau was hugging the knowledge of the discovery he had made, a stroke of luck had brought the pretended chevalier to La Constantin. As Quennebert had kept an eye on de Jars and was acquainted with all his movements, he was aware of everything that happened at Perregaud's, and as Charlotte's death preceded his second marriage by one day, he knew that no serious consequences would ensue from the legal proceedings taken against him. He produced the declarations made by Mademoiselle de Guerchi and the commander, and had the body exhumed. Extraordinary and improbable as his defence appeared at first to be, the exhumation proved the truth of his assertions. These revelations, however, drew the eye of justice again on Perregaud and his partner in crime, and this time their guilt was brought home to them. They were condemned by parliamentary decree to "be hanged by the neck till they were dead, on a gallows erected for that purpose at the cross roads of the Croix-du-Trahoir; their bodies to remain there for twenty-four hours, then to be cut down and brought back to Paris, where they were to be exposed an a gibbet," etc., etc.
It was proved that they had amassed immense fortunes in the exercise of their infamous calling. The entries in the books seized at their house, though sparse, would have led, if made public, to scandals, involving many in high places; it was therefore judged best to limit the accusation to the two deaths by blood-poisoning of Angelique de Querchi and Charlotte Boullenois.
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