La Belle Tambourine

THE authorities being extremely anxious that Durand should be recaptured, were good enough to appoint me one of the agents for hunting him down. Two veteran gendarmes, Marin and Cremieux, whose coolness and resolution had been often proved, were associated with me. As I knew Durand personally, and was thought to have more head than my two selected comrades, the direction of the hunt was confided to me, which, after all, was but my right. How, like true sleuth-hounds, we tracked Durand, and the final issue of the exciting chase, will be given in a subsequent paper. At present, I have only to say that the trail, a false one, had led us, by the 28th of September, to Angers, chef-lieu and assize town of the department of the Maine and Loire. The town was full, and great excitement prevailed; the cause of which we found to be that the ordinary attractions of St. Michael’s Fair, to be held on the morrow, would be greatly enhanced by the exciting spectacle of the guillotine in action, a great moral lesson, which authority had decided could not, upon this occasion, have too large an audience.
 
I and my comrades listened with interest to the slightly varying versions of the crime, with its attendant circumstances, for which the doomed felon was to suffer, and, as we had for the moment lost scent of Durand, we might, without neglect of our own proper duty, share in whatever benefit might be derived from the great moral lesson.

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An immense mass of people is gathered round the scaffold, and amongst that eager surging crowd the name of Jean Gosset Laboudie is bandied about in every variety of emphasis and tone, expressive of scorn, indignation, loathing, abhorrence. Presently, he appears in the cart, with a priest by his side, and a yell of execration bursts forth, so fierce, so terrible, that the doomed wretch—whose pallid face and wildly gleaming eyes seemed to be calming into hopeful resignation beneath the influence of the priest’s prayers and promises, is actually smitten down by the overwhelming anathema, falling on his face with a loud cry of despair, as if, suggests a near bystander, as if recognising that this unanimous judgment of his fellow men is prophetic of the swiftly-coming doom of God!

The cart moves on the while; the irredeemable moments pass; then, suddenly, another shout, more intense, more terrible than that which struck down Laboudie, rings through the air. This hurricane outcry, commencing at the upper corner of the Place, communicates itself with electric rapidity to the whole of the vast assemblage, swaying them to and fro in billowy eddies; and so confused, so deafening is the multitudinous roar of voices, that it is some moments before you make out that they are shouting, screaming— “Stop! Stop! It is murder! It is she! Thunder of heaven! It is Cécile! It is his child! Break down the scaffold!” and the like frantic outcries. Not only is the crowd in the Place thus furiously agitated, but superior functionaries, and others of the élite of Angers, elegantly attired ladies amongst them, seated at the windows of the Prefecture, whence a capital view of the grim and ghastly guillotine is obtained, display equal commotion. More especially excited is the venerable, white-haired President of the Cour d’ Assizes, which condemned Laboudie to death; and although his words are inaudible, you see that he is gesticulating like a madman to the busy officials on the scaffold.

The apparent cause of the frenzy which has seized the people is a fair young girl, tall of her age, which cannot be more than eighteen, attired with picturesque fantasy, in a bright coloured dress, and holding a tambourine in her hand, who is standing up by the side of the driver of a lofty, gaily-painted, wood-roofed wagon, which has just come into view at the upper corner of the Place. She gazes from her conspicuous standing-place with wondering curiosity at the excited crowd and the grim scaffold, with which, or with what is passing there, the gestures and vituperations, by which one is stunned and stupified, seem to connect her in some inexplicable manner.

“What may all this mean?” she is asking herself. “Why do they cry ‘Murder!’ and keep shouting ‘It is Cécile—it is Cécile herself?’”
 
The only reply to that fearful interrogation, which would be intelligible to the reader, I can only supply by a summary, brief as I can make it, of the previous history of the condemned man on the scaffold, and the fair girl gazing with bewildered astonishment upon the tumultuous scene, in presence of which she suddenly finds herself. I write it upon the authority of judicial records, the testimony of persons who knew them both well, and my own observation, supplimented by details furnished by Cécile herself, who, it will be found, I met with in after years under curious circumstances.

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[Jean] Gosst Laboudie, a man, by his own account, of little more than forty years of age, but judged by appearances, fifty at least, was a discharged soldier, who had served in Algeria, had been dismissed the army at the end of his period of service, and refused admission to the Invalides, although severely wounded in the head by the sabre-cut of an Arab horseman—a hurt, which when his blood was inflamed with drink or passion, manifested itself by paroxysms of rage approaching to positive insanity. He had been long known in the neighbourhood of Angers, Beaufort, Jumelles, and the adjacent hamlets, as a strolling musician—he, himself, playing the Turkish cymbals and Pandean reeds, to which his daughter Cécile, a charming blonde with bright blue eyes, sparkling with vivacity and intelligence, sang and danced, assisting her father’s instrumentation with the tambourine. Cécile was fondly beloved by Laboudie, and if anything could have weaned him from a vagabond life, and the debasing habits which had probably sunk him to the miry depths of such an existence, and continued to bind him thereto, it would have been his solicitude to assure her a happier, worthier future, than that for which he himself cared.

But not even that strong love could lift him up from the abyss into which he had fallen. Jean Gosset Laboudie was a confirmed drunkard and reckless gambler, mean, in a positive sense, as were the stakes he could venture, save when under the pressure of necessity, or the fitful stimulus derived from his love of Cécile, he broke away for a few days, sometimes weeks, from the degrading routine of his daily pursuits, only to fall back therein more hopelessly engulphed than ever.
At such times glimpses of a former and better life, of careful educational culture, manifested themselves, and efforts were made by worthy persons to win him back to honest, if humble respectability.

It was pious labour thrown away. Habits of vagabond-idleness are rarely vanquished in mature life, and except during those brief, remorseful intervals, Laboudie remained constant to his peripatetic vocation, which became more and more profitable with the development of Cécile’s talent, and propositions were made to him that they should join a regular troupe of itinerant performers. All such offers were angrily rejected by Laboudie, who could not bear the thought of Cécile’s association with men of his own calling, though of considerably higher grade.
 
Thus dreaming, sinning, repenting, Laboudie continued to squander life and health till his daughter attained her seventeenth year, at which time it was noticed that a great change had come over her. Her fine spirits had vanished with the bright bloom of her cheeks, and were succeeded by chagrin and lassitude. They had been absent from that part of France during the previous winter and spring, and the change, consequently, struck the admirers of La belle Tambourine, about Angers, the more forcibly. Laboudie was questioned, over and over again, as to the cause of so ominous a change, and his answers were as petulant and fierce as they were unsatisfactory.

“He knew nothing of the cause of Cécil’s mégrims. How, in the name of all the devils, should he? It was the girl’s waywardness and caprice. All girls, it is passably well known, are wayward and capricious. Cécile will be gay enough again before long. If not,” he once added at Le Coq, a cabaret (public house), near Beaufort, in terrible tones, “I would prefer seeing her in her grave to—.” He did not finish the sentence, checking himself by a strong effort, and almost immediately left the cabaret.

This occurred on the 19th of August, and at about eleven o’clock on the evening of that day, six hours only after Laboudie left Le Coq, two lads, Jacques Broussard and Simon Vesset, both between thirteen and fourteen years of age, were met by a party of gardes champetres (rural police), as they, the lads, were hastening to warn the authorities of a tragical event that had just before occurred at a place about half-a-league from the place where they met the gardes.

The boys had a terrible story to divulge. They were swineherds in the employ of a cultivator named Perron, and now that oak and beech mast were beginning to fall, passed the night, alternately with two other lads, in the woods bordering the Loire, between Jumelles and Beaufort, in charge of their master’s pigs. The locality to which they were restricted was solitary and dismal enough in the daytime, and of course more so at night, fine as the nights were at that season, and the boys usually kept as much as possible together for companionship. They were so at between nine and ten that evening, in one of the wattled huts constructed to shelter them in case of foul weather, when they heard footsteps approaching, and the sound of voices pitched in a loud and angry key. Peeping forth at the unglazed aperture which admitted light and air into the hut, they perceived that the steps and voices were those of Laboudie and La Belle Tambourine.
Father and daughter passed close by the hut, and the boys observed that Cécile was crying bitterly, an emotion excited by the angry abuse of Laboudie, who seemed desperately enraged by the girl’s refusal, as the lads gathered from the few sentences they heard distinctly, to give him a sum of money she had earned that day by assisting at a marriage festival.

Cécile carried her tambourine as usual, and Laboudie his cymbals. They were going to a hamlet, a long way off, where their services would be required early next day at another nuptial fȇte.

Curiosity induced the boys to follow the wandering minstrels, the grassy, winding path, leading through the wood, enabling them to do so very closely without much risk of being heard or seen.
 
The rage of Laboudie continued to increase in violence, and the lads were soon quite sure that it was excited by Cécile’s refusal to part with the money she had recently earned, as he frequently broke off in what he was saying, which, for the most part, they could not comprehend, from his rapid, passionate way of speaking, to exclaim, half-pausing in his pace, as he did so, and shaking the cymbal in his right hand fiercely at the girl, “Donne moi l’ argent, ou Je t’assome”  (Give me the money, or I’ll knock thee down). Cécile would not give him the money, and on they went, till close by a rocky turn, about a quarter of a league from the Vallée des Vaux, which led precipitately down to the edge of the Loire, obliging the traveller to take a narrow path on the right hand.

At that spot Laboudie halted, exclaiming, in a voice yet fiercer than before, “Donne moi l’ argent, Je te dis; si non” (Give me the money, I tell thee; if not—).

The girl interrupting said something inaudible to the lads, which had the effect of instantly throwing Laboudie into a fit of ungovernable rage, and accompanying the cruel deed with a wild, savage imprecation, he struck her a violent blow on the head with the edge of a cymbal, and Cécile fell to the ground—dead—murdered!

“Dead! murdered! How do you know that?” exclaimed one of the gardes.

“We know it too well,” replied Broussard, the most intelligent of the boys. “Laboudie had no sooner committed the deed, than he seemed to stiffen with horror; but presently recovering himself, he threw himself on his knees beside Cécile, down whose face the blood was streaming, and wildly called upon her to speak, to forgive him,—he feeling her wrists and heart the while, to discover if she still breathed. Convinced a last that she was dead, he sprang to his feet, and raged, cursed, gnashed his teeth like a furious madman, as no doubt he for the time was.”
 
Soon, according to the boys, a sense of his own peril flashed upon him. He glanced eagerly about on all sides, as if fearful that the bloody deed might have had witnesses. That fear calmed, he snatched up the corpse, and hurried off with it down the precipitous ravine to the river, which in that part of its course is very swift and deep, and vanished from the view of the boys, who stood gazing at each other, and trembling with mute dismay. Laboudie soon reappeared, looked searchingly about as before, and went rapidly off in the direction of Ponçereau. Full ten minutes must have passed, Broussard thought, before he and his companion, fearing the furious man’s return, found courage to venture forth from their hiding place, and creep down the ravine. The body of the unfortunate Cécile was nowhere to be seen. It had, no doubt, been thrown by the unnatural assassin into the Loire. The boys had hardly regained the concealment of the wood, when they saw Laboudie hurrying back, and they themselves at once set off to apprise Justice of what had occurred.
 
It is of course well understood that whilst the foregoing revelation was being made, the gardes and their boy-informants were hastening to the spot where the frightful crime was alleged to have been perpetrated. It was hardly finished when they reached it, and it was no longer possible to doubt that the wretched father had destroyed his child.

Laboudie was still there, and the officers contrived to approach within half a dozen yards of him unobserved. He had his daughter’s tambourine in his hands, which he would one moment kiss and apostrophise with frenzied tenderness, as if addressing his child: the next he burst into hideous laughter, said she was condemned to death, and it was no use shrieking or praying, or words in that sense; then suddenly bethinking himself, he hastened to finish his work of fastening a heavy stone to the inside of the tambourine by means of his braces, which he had fastened across the instrument through the bell-apertures. The instant he had satisfied himself that the stone could not slip away, he hurried with the instrument towards the river, with the evident intention of throwing it in, the idea prompting to do so, being, of course, that the finding of the tambourine, or his own possession of it, when Cécile was away, would suggest fatal enquiries concerning her. He gained the edge of the river, poised the tambourine with both hands, exclaiming, “Va, suis ta malheureuse maitresse,” (“Go, follow thy unhappy mistress,) when he was seized by the gardes. His glaring eyes rested for a moment, as if fascinated by fear, upon the agents of justice, and then shrieking out, “Ha! ha! the assassin is caught,” fainted.

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The Cour d’Assizes for the Department of the Maine et Loire, commenced its next trimestrial session on the 12th of September, at Angers, under the presidence of M. Ponthieu, a magistrate of high character and great experience.

Laboudie’s trial was appointed for the 14th, and five minutes after the doors were opened the tribunes, pretoire, every nook and cranny of the court, where sitting, or standing room could be obtained, were filled by an excited auditory, anxious to witness, and as it were, participate in the righteous condemnation to death of a monster who had slain his own child for the purpose of possessing himself of her poor earnings.

Upon the appearance of the prisoner he was received with a general murmur, which the commands of the President with difficulty prevented from swelling into shouts of execration. Laboudie shrank back from the scrutiny of so many angry eyes, but silence and order being at length enforced, his self-possession returned, and in reply to the president, said his name was Jean Gosset Laboudie; that he was born at Clermont-Ferrand, Puy-de-Dôme; was a widower; had served as a Chasseur d’ Afrique; was a musician by profession, and in his forty-first year. He pleaded not guilty.
 
Messieurs les Jures,* were called and sworn, and that ceremony over, the acte d’ accusation, or indictment was read by the Greffier, as also the proces-verbeaux in the case, (minutes of preliminary evidence taken by a justice or commissary of police.) M. Begnard appeared for the prisoner. [*In France the accused cannot object to, or as you say, challenge, one juryman.]
 
As soon as the Greffier had finished reading the various pieces, the procureur-général was about to call witnesses to sustain the averments of the indictment by viva-voce testimony, when the prisoner interfered.
 
“One moment, if you please, Monsieur le President. There is an error, an involuntary one I admit, in the proces verbal drawn up by the commisary of police, Tascher. The garde champetre has deposed that he heard me apostrophising, in imagination, of course—the—the unfortunate, who, I have always acknowledged, came by her death at my hands. Perhaps Monsieur le Greffier will have the complaisance to again read the passage.”
 
“That Jean Gosset Laboudie exclaimed as if addressing his victim, ‘that she was condemned to death, and it was of no use shrieking or praying.’”

“That is the passage. Well, Monsieur le President et Messieurs, that is a misapprehension. I now remember every circumstance pertaining to that fatal night. My memory, after scenes of violence and passion, becomes clear and exact, slowly but completely. I was merely repeating to myself, in my utter despair, the fine verses with which Monsieur le President and Messieurs are of course well acquainted:—

“La Mort a des rigueurs a nulles autre pareilles,
Nous avons-beau prier;
La Cruelle qu’elle est bouches ses Oreilles
Et nous laisse crier.” *

[*These lines may be thus freely rendered: “The rigours and pains inflicted by Death surpass all others. It is vain to pray. The Tyrant stops his ears, and mocks our shrieking.”]

“It may be as you say, Laboudie,” remarked the president of the court; “but the correction you supply is only of consequence as showing that you have not the excuse of want of education for your misdeeds.”
 
“Be it so,” rejoined the accused; “it is none the less the exact verity. As to the rest, the depositions are correct. I did cause the death of Cécile, but not,” he added, with sobbing emotion, “not as Thou knowest, O God of justice and mercy—not with intention—not with intention! I would have freely given my own life a thousand times for hers.”
 
“You believe in God then, Laboudie?” said the president. “You forgot him on the night of the 19th of August.”

“Yes—yes,” said the accused, mournfully. “It is true. The demon possessed me wholly then. He often did; after his agent and forerunner, brandy, water of death, not life (eau- de-vie) it should be called, had prepared the way for him.”

The hearing of the witnesses was next proceeded with, and that over, the duel between the President of the Court and the accused, which I have found so utterly scandalises Englishmen, commenced.

“According to your own story, Laboudie,” said the presiding magistrate, “you, after striking Cécile to the earth with a cymbal, carried her to the brink of the river, in order to try the effect of cold water in restoring her senses. Failing in that, you hurried off towards Ponçereau in quest of medical aid; but after traversing less than a fourth of the distance, the thought occurred that help so tardy would be of no avail. You retraced your steps, and upon reaching the spot where you had left the body of your daughter, found it had disappeared. A kerchief, that had hung loose upon her neck, was floating upon the water, and you thence concluded, either that Cécile, upon partially recovering consciousness, had fallen accidentally into the river, upon the slippery, precipitous brink of which you had left her; or, that in a paroxysm of grief and despair, excited by your brutality, she had wilfully drowned herself. That is, I think, a fair summary of your version of the affair.”

“Thanks, Monsieur le President. It is reproduced with the exactest fidelity.”

“How do you reconcile that statement with the exclamatory confession which escaped you when surprised by the Gardes Chumpêtres: ‘The assassin is caught, then.’”
 
“I accused myself at that terrible moment, and I now accuse myself of having been the involuntary destroyer of the unfortunate Cécile.”

“Why, if innocent in intention, did you endeavour to destroy all traces of the deceased by sinking her tambourine?”
 
“Ah, Monsieur le President, the love of life, of mere existence, beats strongly in the breasts of the most fallen, the most wretched of mankind. I feared, and justly it has proved, to be misinterpreted. Besides, the dreadful catastrophe brought on an access of insanity. I knew not what I said, or did.”
 
“You have admitted that the immediate cause of quarrel was the refusal of your daughter to give up a sum of money she had received from the Cocquard family.”
 
“Yes, the apparent cause—the cause on the surface of the quarrel, not the real one. I wished to obtain the money, because I knew that by it Cécile would be enabled to carry out a purpose which I would have given my life to frustrate.”
 
“What purpose was that?”

The accused hesitated for a few moments, and then said, in a low, agitated voice, “To state that could avail nothing. I have unwittingly slain my child, but I will cast no stain upon her memory.”

A burst of indignation from the audience followed this supposedly hypocritical declaration. It was suppressed by the President, who, however, himself gave the sentiment articulate utterance in his rejoinder.
 
“This is excellent, Laboudie. You, not only a confirmed vagabond and drunkard, but who not long since attempted to steal a silver flagon from a tavern keeper at Beaufort, seem, forsooth, to shelter yourself under a plea of delicacy!”

The sallow face of the accused had the hue and heat of flame, as he replied:—

“Vagabond! drunkard! yes! But thief, never! The concealment of the cup was a villainous trick played me by a drunken comrade. It was found, and Meudon, the tavern-keeper, has since openly acquitted me of all blame in the matter.”
 
As soon as these interpellations were concluded, the Attorney-General for the Department sustained the accusation in an able and elaborate address. M. Begnard made an impassioned speech in defence, in the course of which he questioned the legal soundness of the Procureur-Général’s conclusion, that the corpus delicti had been sufficiently established by the evidence of the boys, and the partial confession or admission of the accused.
 
The Avocat-Général replied, insisting upon the sufficiency of the corpus delicti, as established in evidence—clearly the weak point of the case. The corpse had no doubt been carried away by the river, or so weighted by the assassin that it had sunk deep into its soft, muddy bed. “A by no means uncommon occurrence,” he observed, and cited an instance in support of that assertion.

M. Begnard rejoined, strongly urging that at all events, if a verdict of guilty should be returned, it ought be accompanied by the qualification of extenuating circumstances.

M. le President summed up, as you say in England, resumoit les debats, is the French phrase; and MM. les Jurés, after a few minutes deliberation, pronounced a simple verdict of “Guilty.” The procureur-général thereupon drew his conclusions, that Jean Gosset Laboudie be condemned to death and the costs of the proceedings. The court acquiesced, and the chief magistrate pronounced sentence accordingly.
 
Laboudie obstinately refused to appeal upon one or more technical points to the Court of Cassation. He was weary of life, he said, and should lay it down without regret. It was consequently ordered that the execution should take place on the first day of Saint Michael’s Fair, “in order that the punishment of the assassin might be as public as his crime was unnatural, horrible!”

I have now brought down this sad story to the moment of the appearance of the supposedly murdered Cécile in the place d’ Angers, with the exception of relating how it happened that she had not perished as everybody, her father included, believed she had. That will be told in a few words. The cause of quarrel on the night of the 19th of August was her expressed determination to join a troupe of strollers, to one of whom, Etienne Lafont, she had become, during her and Laboudie’s last absence from the neighbourhood of Angers, strongly attached. The money she had received, added to a small private hoard, would enable her to proceed. Some words that escaped her during the altercation, revealed to her father the extent to which her intimacy with Lafont had been carried, and the furious blow by which it was instantly followed, prevented him from learning that that intimacy had been sanctioned by marriage. The stroke of the cymbal, though severe, had inflicted but a flesh wound. Cécil[e] had been stunned only, and upon regaining consciousness found herself alone at the edge of the river. Divining the motive of her father’s absence, she, agile, and surefooted as a goat, clambered round a rugged, projecting point, and hastened away at her best speed, travelling all that night and the next day, by little frequented roads, and ultimately reached her husband’s troupe, just about to leave for a distant part of France. She, of course, accompanied him, and the more readily that they were to return to Angers at St. Michael’s Fair, when she knew that a reconciliation with her father would be of easy accomplishment.

One only inquiry remains to be answered. Did the fierce outcries of the sightseeing mob, and the frenzied gestures of Monsieur le President arrest in time the mechanical action of the guillotine? Enough to say, that in everyone of the churches in Angers, Beaufort, Jumelles, a priest, on every recurring Sunday, within the octave of St. Michael’s Day, addressing the hushed congregation, says, “The prayers of the Faithful are requested for the repose of the soul of Jean Gosset Laboudie, the anniversary of whose death occurs at about this time.”
 

From Experiences of a French Detective Officer by William Russell. New York: Dick & Fitgerald, 1864. 67-86.

This collection was originally published in England in 1861 under the pseudonym of Thomas Waters and claimed to be an adaptation from a manuscript by Théodore Duhamel, yet another pseudonym.