The Pont-Neuf: or, Mr Pickwick Attends an Execution

Written by George W.M. Reynolds

Transcribed by Jessica Elizabeth Thomas

[Of all the evil associations of the vice of drinking, gambling is one of the most constant and the most pernicious.  To warn our readers against the terrible results of gambling, we have extracted the following episodical tale from “PICKWICK ABROAD.”  It is supposed to be narrated to Mr. Pickwick, by a Gendarme of the name of Dumont.]

*

The night was dark and stormy – the rain fell in torrents – and as I occasionally looked over the high parapet of the Pont Neuf, or New Bridge, I could catch a glimpse of the rapid waters of the Seine flashing as they passed through the wide arches, even in the midst of gloom and obscurity.  Ever and anon the moon made a feeble essay to pierce through the clouds that veiled her; and then the tall towers of Notre Dame were faintly visible, their black and threatening appearance adding fresh gloom to the scene.

I drew my cloak closely around me, and walked at a quick pace up and down the bridge.  A murder, under circumstances peculiarly horrible and revolting, had been committed there the night before; and information had been received at the Prefecture, that a gang of desperate characters intended to haunt that quarter, in order to intercept any individuals who might be obliged to traverse the bridge in the dead of night.  To prevent the commission of farther atrocities, a Gendarme was ordered to patrol the Pont Neuf and that part of the Island which lies in its immediate vicinity, until some clue should be discovered to track the assassins. 

This was in the year 1827; and it was the first time I had been appointed to a dangerous service.  I had only been incorporated amongst the body about six weeks – and hitherto my duties had not compromised my safety.  Now every thing was to be dreaded at the hands of the midnight murderers whose motions I was appointed to watch; and the utmost circumspection, keenness, and courage were necessary.

The hour of midnight struck at the College of Four Nations; and, as if it had waited for that gloomy hour to commence its rage, the storm, that had been for some time gathering, burst forth with appalling violence.  The lightning glared in frequent flashes; and while its vivid rays illuminated the atmosphere, the towers of Notre Dame, the domes of the University, the Sorbonne, the Pantheon, and the Hospital of Invalids, although each so far apart from the others, all distinctly met my view as I cast a hasty glance around.

It was nearly one o’clock, and the storm continued with unabated violence.  Being in the month of September, the night was cold in the extreme; and my thick cloak was but a feeble protection against the intemperance of the weather. During the momentary silence that ensued immediately after a loud clap of thunder, hasty footsteps fell upon my ear, and a momentary struggle – as if it were between two or three men – took place at a little distance.  I ran to the spot whence I fancied the noise proceeded – a sudden flash of lightning aided my steps – and at the moment when I laid my hand upon the arm of an individual against whom I ran, the splash of a heavy body falling into the waters below convinced me that a foul deed had been accomplished, and I had arrived too late.

Without losing my presence of mind for one moment, I detained the person, whom I had secured, in a firm grasp, and called loudly for assistance.  The sound of retreating footsteps instantly fell upon my ears, and I knew that one of the accomplices had escaped.  Engaged as I was in holding an individual who struggled violently and with a considerable degree of strength, it was impossible to pursue, or even attempt to secure a fugitive.

 “Release me!” cried the voice of an evidently young man, in deepest agony – it was the voice of him whom I had arrested – “release me, and ample shall be your reward!”

 “Not for worlds – not for all the treasures of France and Navarre!” cried I, having entirely mastered his resistance, and effectively made him my prisoner.

 “O think of my disgrace – of my ruin – of the infamy that will accrue to a noble house!” he continued, his voice almost choked with inward emotion.

 “Who are you?” said I, as I led him across the bridge towards the Island of the City.

 “Oh! if I only thought that the revelation of my name – of my rank – and the certainty of a liberal reward from my poor old father – who, God knows! is ignorant of the vicious courses pursued by his son, his only son – his heir – Oh! I would tell you all!”

 “Monsieur,” said I in a determined tone of voice, “communicate nothing to me that you would not have repeated to my superiors: for to the guard – house you must go!”

No sooner had I uttered these words, than by a sudden and desperate effort of skill more than of strength., he released himself from my grasp, sprung upon the parapet of the bridge, and was about to join the person whom he had a few minutes before consigned to a watery grave, when I, fortunately for the ends of justice – though unhappily as it regarded himself – caught the skirt of his coat, and again made him my prisoner.  In a few moments he was carefully secured in the guard-house on the Quai des Orfevres.

On the following morning I attended at the offices of a Commissary of Police of the arrondissemont, and made my deposition.  The accused was immediately sent for, and when he was taken into the presence of the magistrate, he was instantly recognised by that gentleman as a Monsieur St. Leon, the only son of a Count of the same name.  His father was one of the richest and most respected noblemen in the Faubourg Saint – Germain; by the accused, his son, was one of the most dissipated young men, and one of the most notorious gamblers, in Paris.  On being requested to give an account of himself, and explain the extraordinary circumstances that had occurred on the Pont Neuf, as related above, he obstinately denied the fact of a murder having been committed, persisting in declaring that the sound of no splash in the water had met his ears, and that he was as unjustly suspected as he had been shamefully detained.

At this stage of the examination, an individual, whom I recognised to be the concierge or porter of the Morgue, entered the office, and requested to speak to the Commissary of Police.  An audience was accordingly granted in a private room; and when the magistrate re-entered the cabinet, his cheek was pale, and his countenance indicated extreme horror.  A spectacle so unusual in a public functionary of the police produced an immediate and singular sensation within me.  Meantime the Commissary seated himself once more – reflected for some minutes – and then, suddenly turning to the prisoner, said in an impressive tone of voice,

“Unhappy young man!  I can scarcely believe the tale I have just heard: – and yet, if it be true, you must have mistaken one for another – for another, perhaps, whom you had previously met at the gaming – table, and whose pockets were filled with the produce of an iniquitous passion!  It is not for me to judge you, young man – God grant you may be innocent!  Suspicions of a serious nature rest against you – a higher tribunal must decide upon their validity.  In the meantime, let me tell you that fate – destiny – or, rather, your own vices have probably prepared for you an awful doom – and a terrible tale remains for you to hear!”

St. Leon’s knees trembled – his cheek became very pale – his eyes rolled wildly – and his whole frame became suddenly enervated.  The Commissary noticed the effect he had produced upon the accused – and, probably satisfied with the result of his exordium, he proceeded as follows:—

“Young man, a deadly deed was committed last night—a mangled corpse lies at the Morgue, exposed to public view at this moment – the features are disfigured, most probably by a concussion against the projecting stones of one of the pillars of the bridge – but a letter in the pockets of the deceased – a letter addressed to him – proved his identity with – listen, young man, and tremble – that mangled corpse, with those lacerated features – this corpse is all that remains of your father!”

“O horror, horror! A parricide!” cried St. Leon – and he sank senseless on the floor, whence he was raised, and immediately conveyed to the prison of the Conciergerie adjoining the Palace of Justice.

            *                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

“What o’clock is it now?” enquired St. Leon in an almost inaudible tone of voice.

“Half past six,” was my reply.

“And they come at seven – do they not?” he added convulsively.

“At seven precisely,” I answered.

“Not a minute later -not even one single, paltry minute!” cried he, his tongue barely giving utterance to the words in which he thus expressed his wish to procrastinate the fatal moment as long as possible.

“Not a minute later,” – said I, unwilling to hold out delusive hopes to the wretched man.

 “In another half – hour, then, they will be here!” exclaimed St. Leon, sitting up in his bed, and clasping his hands together, as he spoke.  “Oh! in half an hour they will be here -to -to lead me to – the- scaffold!”

“Pray, compose yourself, Monsieur,” I began, sensibly affected myself.

“Compose myself! What – when the very knife of the guillotine is trembling over my head – when hell is yawning to receive me – when my murdered father’s curses pursue the parricide, his son – oh! how can I compose a mind hashed by the scourges of ten thousand demons?  Compose myself!” he continued in a tone where bitter irony and agonised feelings were expressively blended together – “compose myself! And already the instrument of death is erected – the cold steel glitters in the rays of the morning – already thousands have congregated to witness my last moments – and already have the devils begun to stir up unquenchable fires to punish me for my crimes!”

I shuddered as he spoke, but did not venture an observation.  I nevertheless inwardly hoped that it would not often come to my turn to keep my vigils by the bed – side of a condemned malefactor during the last night he had to live.

“Is it possible,” said he, after a long pause, “is it possible that vicious predilections can have led me to commit so horrid a crime?  Oh! no – it is impossible – thank God, it is a dream! – it is a dream – a fearful dream!  Dumont,” said he, in a more tranquil tone.

“Yes,” was my answer; “what can I do for you?”

“Dumont,” he continued, “I had murdered my own father – my good, my excellent father, with his white locks, and his kind smile, and his mild blue eye that always beamed tenderly on me – that I did not respect those hoary locks – but that I was a parricide!  Oh! all this I dreamt.  Dumont – and it was a long, a very long dream!  And then I fancied I was in the Conciergerie – in a dungeon, and watched by a Gendarme – but it is all a dream – oh! a most horrible dream! – and you are my friend.  Dumont, and not a Gendarme!  And then I thought that my last hour was come – “

As he spoke the clock struck seven.

“—And that I heard footsteps in the corridor leading to my cell—“

At that very moment the heavy tramp of approaching feet, drawing nearer and nearer to the door, fell upon my ears.

“Then,” he continued the unhappy malefactor, “I dreamt that the clanking sounds of heavy keys were heard—”

And the keys clanked in the door as he uttered these words.

“—And, lastly, that the myrmidons of justice came to take me to the guillotine!  But thank God, it is all a dream!”

He ceased – the door flew open – and a couple of Gendarmes, with dark lanterns in their hands, entered the cell.  Although it was perfectly light in the open air, within the condemned dungeons all was gloom and obscurity.  St. Leon gazed for one moment upon the military forms that stood before him, and then gave one loud, long, piercing shriek, which echoed far around, and which will ring in my ears till the last day of existence.  At the same time he exclaimed,

“O God! O horror! – it is not then a dream!”

In a state bordering upon the most listless apathy, into which he relapsed almost immediately after this terrible expression of the deep – deep anguish of his mind, he was led to a room below, where he was forced to swallow a cup of coffee.  Another malefactor was to be executed with him – he was already there, and was engaged in smoking his pipe with the utmost coolness.  In ten minutes the Gendarme proceeded to shave the hair away from the backs of the criminals’ necks – their coat – collars were cut off – and everything that might impede the fatal blow of the knife was carefully removed.

St. Leon was condemned to suffer the penalty due to the crime of parricide – namely, to walk to the place of execution with a black veil thrown over his person.  The preliminaries being completed, the solemn procession towards the scaffold began.  An hour was required for the cart, in which the prisoners were conveyed, to reach the fatal spot where the guillotine was erected: for in those times executions took place at the Place du Tone.  Once – and once only – during the awfully impressive journey, did St. Leon rise his head was when he ascended the steps leading up to the platform of the guillotine.  He cast one glance upwards – his whole frame trembled convulsively – his cheek became deadly pale – and a half-smothered cry escaped his lips.  The other criminal exhibited as much courage as St. Leon did pusillanimity.  He as the first to suffer, and he died like a hero, if such hardihood deserve so distinguished an epithet.  His crime had also been murder.

St. Leon was then tied to the fatal plank, which was then perpendicular – his head hung almost upon his breast – he seemed unconscious of all that was going on: till when the plank was lowered to a horizontal position, and then his lips faintly breathed these two words – “My father!” I stood near him on the scaffold – I saw the executioner apply his hand to the cord – the knife, already reeking with blood, fell – and the gory head of the parricide rolled into a basket beneath!

*

Original citation: G.W.M. Reynolds, “The Pont Neuf. – A Tale” The Teetotaler, 15 August 1840, 59

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