It is a horror coming upon a horror which breaks a man’s spirit. I could not reason, I could not pray; I could only sit like a frozen image, and glare at the dark figure which was coming down the great room. And then it moved out into the white lane of moonlight, and I breathed once more. It was Dacre, and his face showed that he was as frightened as myself.
“Was that you? For God’s sake what’s the matter?” he asked in a husky voice.
“Oh, Dacre, I am glad to see you! I have been down into hell. It was dreadful.”
“Then it was you who screamed?”
“I dare say it was.”
“It rang through the house. The servants are all terrified.” He struck a match and lit the lamp. “I think we may get the fire to burn up again,” he added, throwing some logs upon the embers. “Good God, my dear chap, how white you are! You look as if you had seen a ghost.”
“So I have—several ghosts.”
“The leather funnel has acted, then?”
“I wouldn’t sleep near the infernal thing again for all the money you could offer me.”
“I expected that you would have a lively night of it,” said he. “You took it out of me in return, for that scream of yours wasn’t a very pleasant sound at two in the morning. I suppose from what you say that you have seen the whole dreadful business.”
“What dreadful business?”
“The torture of the water—the ‘Extraordinary Question,’ as it was called in the genial days of ‘Le Roi Soleil.’ Did you stand it out to the end?”
“No, thank God, I awoke before it really began.”
“Ah! it is just as well for you. I held out till the third bucket. Well, it is an old story, and they are all in their graves now, anyhow, so what does it matter how they got there? I suppose that you have no idea what it was that you have seen?”
“The torture of some criminal. She must have been a terrible malefactor indeed if her crimes are in proportion to her penalty.”
“Well, we have that small consolation,” said Dacre, wrapping his dressing-gown round him and crouching closer to the fire. “They WERE in proportion to her penalty. That is to say, if I am correct in the lady’s identity.”
“How could you possibly know her identity?”
For answer Dacre took down an old vellum-covered volume from the shelf.
“Just listen to this,” said he; “it is in the French of the seventeenth century, but I will give a rough translation as I go. You will judge for yourself whether I have solved the riddle or not.
“‘The prisoner was brought before the Grand Chambers and Tournelles of Parliament, sitting as a court of justice, charged with the murder of Master Dreux d’Aubray, her father, and of her two brothers, MM. d’Aubray, one being civil lieutenant, and the other a counsellor of Parliament. In person it seemed hard to believe that she had really done such wicked deeds, for she was of a mild appearance, and of short stature, with a fair skin and blue eyes. Yet the Court, having found her guilty, condemned her to the ordinary and to the extraordinary question in order that she might be forced to name her accomplices, after which she should be carried in a cart to the Place de Greve, there to have her head cut off, her body being afterwards burned and her ashes scattered to the winds.’
“The date of this entry is July 16, 1676.”
“It is interesting,” said I, “but not convincing. How do you prove the two women to be the same?”
“I am coming to that. The narrative goes on to tell of the woman’s behaviour when questioned. ‘When the executioner approached her she recognized him by the cords which he held in his hands, and she at once held out her own hands to him, looking at him from head to foot without uttering a word.’ How’s that?”
“Yes, it was so.”
“‘She gazed without wincing upon the wooden horse and rings which had twisted so many limbs and caused so many shrieks of agony. When her eyes fell upon the three pails of water, which were all ready for her, she said with a smile, “All that water must have been brought here for the purpose of drowning me, Monsieur. You have no idea, I trust, of making a person of my small stature swallow it all.”‘ Shall I read the details of the torture?”
“No, for Heaven’s sake, don’t.”
“Here is a sentence which must surely show you that what is here recorded is the very scene which you have gazed upon tonight: ‘The good Abbe Pirot, unable to contemplate the agonies which were suffered by his penitent, had hurried from the room.’ Does that convince you?”
“It does entirely. There can be no question that it is indeed the same event. But who, then, is this lady whose appearance was so attractive and whose end was so horrible?”
For answer Dacre came across to me, and placed the small lamp upon the table which stood by my bed. Lifting up the ill-omened filler, he turned the brass rim so that the light fell full upon it. Seen in this way the engraving seemed clearer than on the night before.
“We have already agreed that this is the badge of a marquis or of a marquise,” said he. “We have also settled that the last letter is B.”
“It is undoubtedly so.”
“I now suggest to you that the other letters from left to right are, M, M, a small d, A, a small d, and then the final B.”
“Yes, I am sure that you are right. I can make out the two small d’s quite plainly.”
“What I have read to you tonight,” said Dacre, “is the official record of the trial of Marie Madeleine d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, one of the most famous poisoners and murderers of all time.”
I sat in silence, overwhelmed at the extraordinary nature of the incident, and at the completeness of the proof with which Dacre had exposed its real meaning. In a vague way I remembered some details of the woman’s career, her unbridled debauchery, the cold-blooded and protracted torture of her sick father, the murder of her brothers for motives of petty gain. I recollected also that the bravery of her end had done something to atone for the horror of her life, and that all Paris had sympathized with her last moments, and blessed her as a martyr within a few days of the time when they had cursed her as a murderess. One objection, and one only, occurred to my mind.
“How came her initials and her badge of rank upon the filler? Surely they did not carry their mediaeval homage to the nobility to the point of decorating instruments of torture with their titles?”
“I was puzzled with the same point,” said Dacre, “but it admits of a simple explanation. The case excited extraordinary interest at the time, and nothing could be more natural than that La Reynie, the head of the police, should retain this filler as a grim souvenir. It was not often that a marchioness of France underwent the extraordinary question. That he should engrave her initials upon it for the information of others was surely a very ordinary proceeding upon his part.”
“And this?” I asked, pointing to the marks upon the leathern neck.
“She was a cruel tigress,” said Dacre, as he turned away. “I think it is evident that like other tigresses her teeth were both strong and sharp.”