The lawyer had presented a plea of insanity. How could anyone explain this strange crime otherwise?
One morning, in the grass near Chatou, two bodies had been found, a man and a woman, well known, rich, no longer young and married since the preceding year, the woman having been a widow for three years before.
They were not known to have enemies; they had not been robbed. They seemed to have been thrown from the roadside into the river, after having been struck, one after the other, with a long iron spike.
The investigation revealed nothing. The boatmen, who had been questioned, knew nothing. The matter was about to be given up, when a young carpenter from a neighboring village, Georges Louis, nicknamed “the Bourgeois,” gave himself up.
To all questions he only answered this:
“I had known the man for two years, the woman for six months. They often had me repair old furniture for them because I am a clever workman.”
And when he was asked:
“Why did you kill them?”
He would obstinately answer:
“I killed them because I wanted to kill them.”
They could get nothing more out of him.
This man was undoubtedly an illegitimate child, put out to nurse and then abandoned. He had no other name than Georges Louis, but as on growing up he became particularly intelligent, with the good taste and native refinement which his acquaintances did not have, he was nicknamed “the Bourgeois,” and he was never called otherwise. He had become remarkably clever in the trade of a carpenter, which he had taken up. He was also said to be a socialist fanatic, a believer in communistic and nihilistic doctrines, a great reader of bloodthirsty novels, an influential political agitator and a clever orator in the public meetings of workmen or of farmers.
His lawyer had pleaded insanity.
Indeed, how could one imagine that this workman should kill his best customers, rich and generous (as he knew), who in two years had enabled him to earn three thousand francs (his books showed it)? Only one explanation could be offered: insanity, the fixed idea of the unclassed individual who reeks vengeance on two bourgeois, on all, the bourgeoisie, and the lawyer made a clever allusion to this nickname of “The Bourgeois,” given throughout the neighborhood to this poor wretch. He exclaimed:
“Is this irony not enough to unbalance the mind of this poor wretch, who has neither father nor mother? He is an ardent republican. What am I saying? He even belongs to the same political party, the members of which, formerly shot or exiled by the government, it now welcomes with open arms this party to which arson is a principle and murder an ordinary occurrence.”
“These gloomy doctrines, now applauded in public meetings, have ruined this man. He has heard republicans even women, yes, women ask for the blood of M. Gambetta, the blood of M. Grevy; his weakened mind gave way; he wanted blood, the blood of a bourgeois!”
“It is not he whom you should condemn, gentlemen; it is the Commune!”
Everywhere could be heard murmurs of assent. Everyone felt that the lawyer had won his case. The prosecuting attorney did not oppose him.
Then the presiding judge asked the accused the customary question:
“Prisoner, is there anything that you wish to add to your defense?”
The man stood up.
He was a short, flaxen blond, with calm, clear, gray eyes. A strong, frank, sonorous voice came from this frail-looking boy and, at the first words, quickly changed the opinion which had been formed of him.
He spoke loud in a declamatory manner, but so distinctly that every word could be understood in the farthest corners of the big hall:
“Your honor, as I do not wish to go to an insane asylum, and as I even prefer death to that, I will tell everything.”
“I killed this man and this woman because they were my parents.”
“Now, listen, and judge me.”
“A woman, having given birth to a boy, sent him out, somewhere, to a nurse. Did she even know where her accomplice carried this innocent little being, condemned to eternal misery, to the shame of an illegitimate birth; to more than that to death, since he was abandoned and the nurse, no longer receiving the monthly pension, might, as they often do, let him die of hunger and neglect!”
“The woman who nursed me was honest, better, more noble, more of a mother than my own mother. She brought me up. She did wrong in doing her duty. It is more humane to let them die, these little wretches who are cast away in suburban villages just as garbage is thrown away.”
“I grew up with the indistinct impression that I was carrying some burden of shame. One day the other children called me a ‘b’. They did not know the meaning of this word, which one of them had heard at home. I was also ignorant of its meaning, but I felt the sting all the same.”
“I was, I may say, one of the cleverest boys in the school. I would have been a good man, your honor, perhaps a man of superior intellect if my parents had not committed the crime of abandoning me.”
“This crime was committed against me. I was the victim, they were the guilty ones. I was defenseless, they were pitiless. Their duty was to love me, they rejected me.”
“I owed them life but is life a boon? To me, at any rate, it was a misfortune. After their shameful desertion, I owed them only vengeance. They committed against me the most inhuman, the most infamous, the most monstrous crime which can be committed against a human creature.”
“A man who has been insulted strikes; a man who has been robbed, takes back his own by force. A man who has been deceived, played upon, tortured, kills; a man who has been slapped, kills; a man who has been dishonored, kills. I have been robbed, deceived, tortured, morally slapped, dishonored, all this to a greater degree than those whose anger you excuse.”
“I revenged myself, I killed. It was my legitimate right. I took their happy life in exchange for the terrible one which they had forced on me.”
“You will call me parricide! Were these people my parents, for whom I was an abominable burden, a terror, an infamous shame; for whom my birth was a calamity and my life a threat of disgrace? They sought selfish pleasure; they got an unexpected child. They suppressed the child. My turn came to do the same for them.”
“And yet, up to quite recently, I was ready to love them.”
“As I have said, this man, my father, came to me for the first time two years ago. I suspected nothing. He ordered two pieces of furniture. I found out, later on, that, under the seal of secrecy, naturally, he had sought information from the priest.”
“He returned often. He gave me a lot of work and paid me well. Sometimes he would even talk to me of one thing or another. I felt a growing affection for him.”
“At the beginning of this year, he brought with him his wife, my mother. When she entered she was trembling so that I thought her to be suffering from some nervous disease. Then she asked for a seat and a glass of water. She said nothing; she looked around abstractedly at my work and only answered ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ at random, to all the questions which he asked her. When she had left I thought her a little unbalanced.”
The following month they returned. She was calm, self-controlled. That day they chattered for a long time, and they left me a rather large order. I saw her three more times, without suspecting anything. But one day she began to talk to me of my life, of my childhood, of my parents. I answered: ‘Madame, my parents were wretches who deserted me.’ Then she clutched at her heart and fell, unconscious. I immediately thought: ‘She is my mother!’ but I took care not to let her notice anything. I wished to observe her.
“I, in turn, sought out information about them. I learned that they had been married since last July, my mother having been a widow for only three years. There had been rumors that they had loved each other during the lifetime of the first husband, but there was no proof of it. I was the proof the proof which they had at first hidden and then hoped to destroy.”
“I waited. She returned one evening, escorted as usual by my father. That day she seemed deeply moved, I don’t know why. Then, as she was leaving,” she said to me: “I wish you success because you seem to me to be honest and a hard worker; someday you will undoubtedly think of getting married. I have come to help you to choose freely the woman who may suit you. I was married against my inclination once and I know what suffering it causes. Now I am rich, childless, free, mistress of my fortune. Here is your dowry.”
“She held out to me a large, sealed envelope. I looked her straight in the eyes” and then said: “Are you, my mother?”
“She drew back a few steps and hid her face in her hands so as not to see me. He, the man, my father, supported her in his arms” and cried out to me: “You must be crazy!”
I answered: “Not in the least. I know that you are my parents. I cannot be thus deceived. Admit it and I will keep the secret; I will bear you no ill will; I will remain what I am, a carpenter.”
“He retreated towards the door, still supporting his wife who was beginning to sob. Quickly I locked the door, put the key in my pocket” and continued: “Look at her and dare to deny that she is my mother.”
Then he flew into a passion, very pale, terrified at the thought that the scandal, which had so far been avoided, might suddenly break out; that their position, their good name, their honor might all at once be lost. He stammered out: “You are a rascal, you wish to get money from us! That’s the thanks we get for trying to help such common people!”
My mother, bewildered, kept repeating: “Let’s get out of here, let’s get out!”
Then, when he found the door locked, he exclaimed: “If you do not open this door immediately, I will have you thrown into prison for blackmail and assault!”
“I had remained calm; I opened the door and saw them disappear in the darkness.”
“Then I seemed to have been suddenly orphaned, deserted, pushed to the wall. I was seized with an overwhelming sadness, mingled with anger, hatred, disgust; my whole being seemed to rise up in revolt against the injustice, the meanness, the dishonor, the rejected love. I began to run, in order to overtake them along the Seine, which they had to follow in order to reach the station of Chaton.”
“I soon caught up with them. It was now pitch dark. I was creeping up behind them softly, that they might not hear me.” My mother was still crying. My father was saying: “It’s all your own fault. Why did you wish to see him? It was absurd in our position. We could have helped him from afar, without showing ourselves. Of what use are these dangerous visits since we can’t recognize him?”
“Then I rushed up to them, beseeching.” I cried: “You see! You are my parents. You have already rejected me once; would you repulse me again?”
Then, your honor, he struck me. I swear it on my honor, before the law and my country. He struck me, and as I seized him by the collar, he drew from his pocket a revolver.
The blood rushed to my head, I no longer knew what I was doing, I had my compass in my pocket; I struck him with it as often as I could.
Then she began to cry: “Help! Murder!” and to pull my beard. It seems that I killed her also. How do I know what I did then?
Then, when I saw them both lying on the ground, without thinking, I threw them into the Seine.
“That’s all. Now sentence me.”
The prisoner sat down. After this revelation, the case was carried over to the following session. It comes up very soon. If we were jurymen, what would we do with this parricide?
Written by Guy de Maupassant