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Pierre Mille


Sentenced to Death

by Pierre Mille

More Stories by Pierre Mille


            Landru's exploits made a deep impression at the penal settlement in Cayenne. If you stop to think a minute you will realize that it could not be otherwise: when, after having taken one's neighbor's life, one has escaped death by a hair's breadth; when, after having taken all possible precautions that prudence could suggest in order to avoid the consequences of a crime, one finds oneself notwithstanding arrested by the police, adroitly questioned by a judge, condemned by a jury this time implacable, every new scheme evolved for escaping the supreme penalty, allowing a doubt to creep in, if one is caught, which will save one's life by getting rid of the fatal proof —down there, in Guyane, three thousand thoughtful convicts know how to appreciate one's work at its true value; in their own way they are artists, they know by experience how rare is originality and how difficult it is even to perfect the old methods.

            "And to think," objected Sicougnot, a cultured man of the world, who had received a life-sentence for poisoning his wife, "to think that if he had stopped, if he had known how to stop at his eleventh fiancee, he would never even have been discovered! But there you are, genius knows no limits, and the story of Landru is merely the story of Napoleon!"

            "That is all very well," said Maltrat, another "lifer," "but he has got a good chance of not having it cut off, and coming here. That's something! And we will give him a warm welcome. He deserves it. A man of that type is an honor to the company."

            But Pietr' Athanasi, a Corsican, sentenced after twelve murders, who prided himself on never thinking like anybody else, announced suddenly:

            "There is somebody here even more wonderful than Landru! You have never noticed him; you have not done him justice."

            "We despise justice," replied Sicougnot, the man of the world, "and believe we have the right to do so, but we always honor fair-play. We are always ready to render homage to talent; but really, after looking carefully round for the person to whom you allude, I can find nobody worthy of such praise."

            "It is Cardevaque," interjected Athanasi in a firm voice.

            A mocking laugh followed this remark. Every one knew Cardevaque — a fat insignificant looking man of a prying and meddlesome disposition who assisted the priest at Mass; and the latter, by way of reward, had made him orderly at the hospital. At the penitentiary those who know how to win favors are not popular.

            "Cardevaque is a commuted death sentence," replied Pietr' Athanasi, "and if you had asked him about the trick by which he got it commuted you would salute him when you meet him. Or rather you would be jealous, for you would never have had, the whole lot of you together, brains enough to think of it."

            Such a scathing indictment could not fail to anger Sicougnot. He laughed disdainfully. But the others, who had little sympathy for this "gentleman," agreed to inquire into the case, and it was decided to question Cardevaque himself.

            Athanasi went in search of him. He arrived with modest mien, as was right and proper before such a notable gathering; but, when requested to tell his story he did not wait to be asked twice.

            "Like Landru," he said, "I was a choir-boy in my childhood…."

            "Ha, ha!" murmured Sicougnot.

            On one hand he professed to hate priests, but at the same time he considered them capable of instilling far-reaching and brilliant ideas into the minds of their pupils.

            "Oh, it's not what you think," confessed Cardevaque very softly. "There was nothing particularly clever about my deed. Quite otherwise: I killed a woman with a fire-iron; I took no trouble to hide either my responsibility, my guilt or the fact that it was premeditated. The journalists labeled me as a rough and brutal criminal; I was condemned unanimously by the jury, and my petition for mercy rejected."

            "But you were commuted. . . !" protested Sicougnot.

            "Don't interrupt," said Athanasi, "wait and see, we are just coming to the best part of the story."

            "I was sentenced in March," continued Cardevaque, "and that year Easter fell in April. When reading 'The Pictoresque Magazine' (Le Magasin pittoresque) and 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers), and while playing cards with my warders, I was thinking all the time: 'Please God, they don't take my life before Holy Week! Please God, they don't think of it; and that afterwards they act quickly!' "

            "What could that matter to you? Before it would be tiresome, but afterwards meant so much time gained!" said Sicougnot.

            Athanasi chuckled.

            "Your reasoning is as good as a peacock's."

            Sicougnot looked at him sideways. But, silencing them with a gesture, Cardevaque continued.

            "I had luck, great luck. Tuesday and Wednesday before Easter passed — nothing! They let me sleep peacefully. On Holy Thursday, at daybreak, according to custom, the door of my cell opened and I saw entering the Public Prosecutor, the Chief of Police, old man Paris, his assistants, my counsel and the priest. I scrutinized the face of the priest, and how embarrassed he was looking! He was trembling in every limb.

            " 'Good,' said I to myself, 'you will tremble a great deal more very soon.'

            "But why?" interrupted Sicougnot.

            "You will see. It all began as usual. The Public Prosecutor said to me, 'Courage! Your petition has been refused.' I replied, 'I have courage.' I lit a cigarette, and then addressed myself politely to the priest, 'Father, I want to confess.' He consented of course, it was his business, but I could see he had cold feet, and I added immediately, '. . . and also hear mass.'

            "Then he paled, spluttered, and turning towards the big-wigs standing around, he cried, 'I told you so! I told you so! My God! My God!' And the big-wigs cried in their turn, 'But it is absurd. Padre, it's absurd. There must be some way? . . .' But he shook his head, whilst I, inwardly shaking with laughter, stood with my hands joined together and the air of a penitent.

            " 'I warned you,' said the priest. 'If this man — I was going to say unfortunately, but I haven't the right — asks me to celebrate mass for him, it will be impossible, impossible! Mass is never performed on Holy Thursday, The rules of the Church authorizes only one celebration that day which takes place in each parish at a, certain set mass. I cannot celebrate mass! I cannot!'

            " 'Well,' declared the Public Prosecutor in a very bad temper, 'if you can't the condemned man must do without it.'

            " 'I have not the right to celebrate mass,' said the priest, 'but you have not the right to send this unfortunate man into the next world without hearing it, if it is his desire to do so. It is a sacred custom which has always been respected. You may take the body but you cannot damn the soul. I solemnly protest against it.'

            " 'Well,' said the Public Prosecutor, 'to-morrow, Friday. It is contrary to custom to execute a condemned man twenty-four hours after he has been warned, but what else can one do!'

            " 'I can still less celebrate mass on Good Friday than on Holy Thursday,' replied the priest with tears in his eyes. 'And Holy Saturday is like Thursday and Friday.'

            " 'Sunday, then,' suggested the Chief of Police timidly, for he considered that it was already very late.

            " 'Sir,' said old man Paris to the Chief of Police, 'Sunday is a holiday; executions cannot take place on holidays.'

            " 'But, damn it all,' groaned the Public Prosecutor, 'Easter Monday is a holiday too, legally. Oh, hell!'

            "He was swearing in order to intimidate the priest, but there was no need of that.

            " 'Listen, Cardevaque,' said the Public Prosecutor, turning towards me, 'do you really need to hear mass? It is a natural idea, and quite touching on your part, but come! Do you look upon it as absolutely indispensable?'

            " 'Sir,' I replied, 'that is my feeling about it.'

            " 'That's a bright idea of yours,' fumed the magistrate, and he swore again, thoroughly exasperated. 'A rogue, an assassin, who has not even the courage to die as he has lived. An avowed anticlerical, — for I know your record, and you can't deny it, — who goes back on the convictions of his whole life at the hour of his death. One can't depend on anything nowadays, nobody stands by their convictions, and justice is no longer possible. Look here, Cardevaque, be a sport! It will be in the newspapers that you died as an honest unbeliever, refusing the aid of religion.'

            " 'Sir,' I answered, 'I should be glad to do you this favor, but it would pain my mother too much.'

            " 'Oh, well, till Tuesday then, as there is no other way out of it,' concluded the Public Prosecutor disgustedly.

            " 'You are putting it off until Tuesday,' said my lawyer, who had been silent up till then. 'But I shall present a second appeal for mercy to the President of the Republic. Who in the world, even if he had the heart of a tiger, still less our venerated and benevolent Chief of State, would be capable of such ferocious cruelty as to sign the death warrant of a man who for five days in his cell would have to endure the pangs of such terrible torture. I wish you good day. Sir, and I shall not meet you here on Tuesday morning, of that I am positive.'

            "And he was right. I was reprieved, as he had foreseen."

            "That's the best ever!" declared Maltrat. And Sicougnot, although very jealous, could not deny it.