The Count of Monte Cristo – Day 196 of 400

“By no means, madame; the fanciful exists no longer in the East. There, disguised under other names, and concealed under other costumes, are police agents, magistrates, attorneys-general, and bailiffs. They hang, behead, and impale their criminals in the most agreeable possible manner; but some of these, like clever rogues, have contrived to escape human justice, and succeed in their fraudulent enterprises by cunning stratagems. Amongst us a simpleton, possessed by the demon of hate or cupidity, who has an enemy to destroy, or some near relation to dispose of, goes straight to the grocer’s or druggist’s, gives a false name, which leads more easily to his detection than his real one, and under the pretext that the rats prevent him from sleeping, purchases five or six grammes of arsenic—if he is really a cunning fellow, he goes to five or six different druggists or grocers, and thereby becomes only five or six times more easily traced;—then, when he has acquired his specific, he administers duly to his enemy, or near kinsman, a dose of arsenic which would make a mammoth or mastodon burst, and which, without rhyme or reason, makes his victim utter groans which alarm the entire neighborhood. Then arrive a crowd of policemen and constables. They fetch a doctor, who opens the dead body, and collects from the entrails and stomach a quantity of arsenic in a spoon. Next day a hundred newspapers relate the fact, with the names of the victim and the murderer. The same evening the grocer or grocers, druggist or druggists, come and say, ‘It was I who sold the arsenic to the gentleman;’ and rather than not recognize the guilty purchaser, they will recognize twenty. Then the foolish criminal is taken, imprisoned, interrogated, confronted, confounded, condemned, and cut off by hemp or steel; or if she be a woman of any consideration, they lock her up for life. This is the way in which you Northerns understand chemistry, madame. Desrues was, however, I must confess, more skilful.”

“What would you have, sir?” said the lady, laughing; “we do what we can. All the world has not the secret of the Medicis or the Borgias.”

“Now,” replied the count, shrugging his shoulders, “shall I tell you the cause of all these stupidities? It is because, at your theatres, by what at least I could judge by reading the pieces they play, they see persons swallow the contents of a phial, or suck the button of a ring, and fall dead instantly. Five minutes afterwards the curtain falls, and the spectators depart. They are ignorant of the consequences of the murder; they see neither the police commissary with his badge of office, nor the corporal with his four men; and so the poor fools believe that the whole thing is as easy as lying. But go a little way from France—go either to Aleppo or Cairo, or only to Naples or Rome, and you will see people passing by you in the streets—people erect, smiling, and fresh-colored, of whom Asmodeus, if you were holding on by the skirt of his mantle, would say, ‘That man was poisoned three weeks ago; he will be a dead man in a month.'”

“Then,” remarked Madame de Villefort, “they have again discovered the secret of the famous aquatofana that they said was lost at Perugia.”

“Ah, but madame, does mankind ever lose anything? The arts change about and make a tour of the world; things take a different name, and the vulgar do not follow them—that is all; but there is always the same result. Poisons act particularly on some organ or another—one on the stomach, another on the brain, another on the intestines. Well, the poison brings on a cough, the cough an inflammation of the lungs, or some other complaint catalogued in the book of science, which, however, by no means precludes it from being decidedly mortal; and if it were not, would be sure to become so, thanks to the remedies applied by foolish doctors, who are generally bad chemists, and which will act in favor of or against the malady, as you please; and then there is a human being killed according to all the rules of art and skill, and of whom justice learns nothing, as was said by a terrible chemist of my acquaintance, the worthy Abbe Adelmonte of Taormina, in Sicily, who has studied these national phenomena very profoundly.”

“It is quite frightful, but deeply interesting,” said the young lady, motionless with attention. “I thought, I must confess, that these tales, were inventions of the Middle Ages.”

“Yes, no doubt, but improved upon by ours. What is the use of time, rewards of merit, medals, crosses, Monthyon prizes, if they do not lead society towards more complete perfection? Yet man will never be perfect until he learns to create and destroy; he does know how to destroy, and that is half the battle.”

“So,” added Madame de Villefort, constantly returning to her object, “the poisons of the Borgias, the Medicis, the Renes, the Ruggieris, and later, probably, that of Baron de Trenck, whose story has been so misused by modern drama and romance”—

“Were objects of art, madame, and nothing more,” replied the count. “Do you suppose that the real savant addresses himself stupidly to the mere individual? By no means. Science loves eccentricities, leaps and bounds, trials of strength, fancies, if I may be allowed so to term them. Thus, for instance, the excellent Abbe Adelmonte, of whom I spoke just now, made in this way some marvellous experiments.”


“Yes; I will mention one to you. He had a remarkably fine garden, full of vegetables, flowers, and fruit. From amongst these vegetables he selected the most simple—a cabbage, for instance. For three days he watered this cabbage with a distillation of arsenic; on the third, the cabbage began to droop and turn yellow. At that moment he cut it. In the eyes of everybody it seemed fit for table, and preserved its wholesome appearance. It was only poisoned to the Abbe Adelmonte. He then took the cabbage to the room where he had rabbits—for the Abbe Adelmonte had a collection of rabbits, cats, and guinea-pigs, fully as fine as his collection of vegetables, flowers, and fruit. Well, the Abbe Adelmonte took a rabbit, and made it eat a leaf of the cabbage. The rabbit died. What magistrate would find, or even venture to insinuate, anything against this? What procureur has ever ventured to draw up an accusation against M. Magendie or M. Flourens, in consequence of the rabbits, cats, and guinea-pigs they have killed?—not one. So, then, the rabbit dies, and justice takes no notice. This rabbit dead, the Abbe Adelmonte has its entrails taken out by his cook and thrown on the dunghill; on this dunghill is a hen, who, pecking these intestines, is in her turn taken ill, and dies next day. At the moment when she is struggling in the convulsions of death, a vulture is flying by (there are a good many vultures in Adelmonte’s country); this bird darts on the dead fowl, and carries it away to a rock, where it dines off its prey. Three days afterwards, this poor vulture, which has been very much indisposed since that dinner, suddenly feels very giddy while flying aloft in the clouds, and falls heavily into a fish-pond. The pike, eels, and carp eat greedily always, as everybody knows—well, they feast on the vulture. Now suppose that next day, one of these eels, or pike, or carp, poisoned at the fourth remove, is served up at your table. Well, then, your guest will be poisoned at the fifth remove, and die, at the end of eight or ten days, of pains in the intestines, sickness, or abscess of the pylorus. The doctors open the body and say with an air of profound learning, ‘The subject has died of a tumor on the liver, or of typhoid fever!'”

“But,” remarked Madame de Villefort, “all these circumstances which you link thus to one another may be broken by the least accident; the vulture may not see the fowl, or may fall a hundred yards from the fish-pond.”

“Ah, that is where the art comes in. To be a great chemist in the East, one must direct chance; and this is to be achieved.”—Madame de Villefort was in deep thought, yet listened attentively. “But,” she exclaimed, suddenly, “arsenic is indelible, indestructible; in whatsoever way it is absorbed, it will be found again in the body of the victim from the moment when it has been taken in sufficient quantity to cause death.”

“Precisely so,” cried Monte Cristo—“precisely so; and this is what I said to my worthy Adelmonte. He reflected, smiled, and replied to me by a Sicilian proverb, which I believe is also a French proverb, ‘My son, the world was not made in a day—but in seven. Return on Sunday.’ On the Sunday following I did return to him. Instead of having watered his cabbage with arsenic, he had watered it this time with a solution of salts, having their basis in strychnine, strychnos colubrina, as the learned term it. Now, the cabbage had not the slightest appearance of disease in the world, and the rabbit had not the smallest distrust; yet, five minutes afterwards, the rabbit was dead. The fowl pecked at the rabbit, and the next day was a dead hen. This time we were the vultures; so we opened the bird, and this time all special symptoms had disappeared, there were only general symptoms. There was no peculiar indication in any organ—an excitement of the nervous system—that was it; a case of cerebral congestion—nothing more. The fowl had not been poisoned—she had died of apoplexy. Apoplexy is a rare disease among fowls, I believe, but very common among men.” Madame de Villefort appeared more and more thoughtful.

“It is very fortunate,” she observed, “that such substances could only be prepared by chemists; otherwise, all the world would be poisoning each other.”

“By chemists and persons who have a taste for chemistry,” said Monte Cristo carelessly.

“And then,” said Madame de Villefort, endeavoring by a struggle, and with effort, to get away from her thoughts, “however skilfully it is prepared, crime is always crime, and if it avoid human scrutiny, it does not escape the eye of God. The Orientals are stronger than we are in cases of conscience, and, very prudently, have no hell—that is the point.”

“Really, madame, this is a scruple which naturally must occur to a pure mind like yours, but which would easily yield before sound reasoning. The bad side of human thought will always be defined by the paradox of Jean Jacques Rousseau,—you remember,—the mandarin who is killed five hundred leagues off by raising the tip of the finger. Man’s whole life passes in doing these things, and his intellect is exhausted by reflecting on them. You will find very few persons who will go and brutally thrust a knife in the heart of a fellow-creature, or will administer to him, in order to remove him from the surface of the globe on which we move with life and animation, that quantity of arsenic of which we just now talked. Such a thing is really out of rule—eccentric or stupid. To attain such a point, the blood must be heated to thirty-six degrees, the pulse be, at least, at ninety, and the feelings excited beyond the ordinary limit. But suppose one pass, as is permissible in philology, from the word itself to its softened synonym, then, instead of committing an ignoble assassination you make an ‘elimination;’ you merely and simply remove from your path the individual who is in your way, and that without shock or violence, without the display of the sufferings which, in the case of becoming a punishment, make a martyr of the victim, and a butcher, in every sense of the word, of him who inflicts them. Then there will be no blood, no groans, no convulsions, and above all, no consciousness of that horrid and compromising moment of accomplishing the act,—then one escapes the clutch of the human law, which says, ‘Do not disturb society!’ This is the mode in which they manage these things, and succeed in Eastern climes, where there are grave and phlegmatic persons who care very little for the questions of time in conjunctures of importance.”

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