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On the afternoon of Saturday, April 30, 1695, the attempted regicide Vautry arrived at the Place de Gréve to play his part in the ritual of justice. To signify his atonement he was dressed only in a long shirt, and held a torch in his right hand; the cart he stood in had conveyed him from the great doors of the Church of Paris, where he had performed the amende honorable before God and the assembled crowd. All of those present had followed, to witness what would come next. The execution of Ravaillac had taken place more than seventy years earlier, and few, if any, living Parisians had seen such a punishment with their own eyes.

If there were any present who did remember Ravaillac—old men whose boyhood had been marked by the sight—they would have searched in vain for any memento of Henry IV’s assassin in the man before them. Absent were that fanatic’s religious ravings, or righteous fury; in Vautry, the crowds found a man silent, pale, even melancholy in aspect. It was not what anyone expected of a sorcerer and would-be murderer, much less the ultimate would-be murderer, an attempted regicide. Already the rumor had spread that when the officers removed him from his cell, the Prince’s former astrologer had said to them only, “La journée sera rude”—the day will be hard—and every word he’d spoken since had been spoken, apparently, to himself.

But his words were not what anyone was here for. As new as the experience was to all of Paris, all had a part to play in it—and how Vautry would play his part was the question on every mind. Little thought was given the avenging Prince himself, seated in one of the galleries overlooking the square; had his face been visible to the crowd, they knew it would have betrayed as little emotion as on a feast-day. For like his festal gladness, the vengeance of the Prince was impersonal, ceremonial: he was merely the instrument of God, in putting earthly matters right. All crime, as everyone knew, was an act against God, realized on Earth in a violation of the person of the Prince; and so it was the duty of the Prince to counterbalance it with the tenfold force of his divine appointment.

*     *    *

The day was gray as marble, the air still and cold. In the center of the Place de Gréve stood a platoon of guards, symbol and agent of the Prince’s might, armed with halberds and stationed in a wide square. Before them, the carpenters had erected wooden railings to hold back the surging crowds, whose din of talk and laughter echoed in the afternoon air. Along the outer edges of the rabble, detachments of archers strolled within the Place’s greater square, regarding the commoners around them with detached vigilance.

At the center of the square, within the perimeter formed by the guards and flanked by four priests and the ordering magistrate, stood the saltire: a sturdy wooden table in the shape of an X, with iron rings at each end. On the ground at one end of this table, a large fire had been kindled, over which a cauldron had been kept boiling since earlier that afternoon. A little further from the table at the other end stood a great pile of brush and kindling, arranged in a neat square; next to this waited two equally neat pyramids of firewood. 

Soon a new group of officers arrived to part the crowd in preparation for the prisoner’s arrival, and the cart conveying Vautry and his attendants was drawn through to a mixed cacophony of jeers and blessings. When they had pulled up before the saltire, the two executioners, large men with black hoods over their heads, stepped forward and fastened a shackle to Vautry’s right wrist, which they then attached to a long iron bar, seemingly to lead him by. Many a man present expected the prisoner to struggle at the sight of what waited for him. Yet Vautry did not hesitate, but approached the saltire deliberately. The two executioners, not expecting this resolve, stumbled a bit for position with the leading-bar, arousing laughter among those at the front of the crowd.

There was a moment then when Vautry stood before the table, regarding it as the Pope might regard an altar; and in this unexpected pause the rest of the square stood still—executioners, priests, magistrates, officers, and all—and the Place de Gréve fell silent. Indeed, so contagious was the astrologer’s strange concentration in that moment, that there was no man present who did not feel his attention drawn, as Vautry’s was, to the space at the center of the saltire—the crossing of the dark oaken planks, where the marriage of spirit and flesh, consecrated by God, would in the following moments be teased apart and dissevered by the diligent hands of men. Did Vautry see, as many present imagined they saw, his lifeblood coursing along the woodgrain? Or did his sorcerer’s eyes descry a more mystic meaning in the center of that crossing?

Then Vautry looked up, his eyes widening like a stage-magician’s, and at his gaze the raucous crowd struck up its strains again. So nervously did they resume their bantering clamor that the magistrate could barely be heard in pronouncing sentence. But Vautry’s punishment had been announced three days earlier, and any child present could have catalogued with trembling voice the agonies prescribed for him.

Then the magistrate, sword upraised, gave the sign to begin, and the executioners brought Vautry to the cauldron, filled with its boiling prescription of molten lead, oil, resin, wax, and sulfur. Vautry stared at the bubbling surface with a similar absorption to that with which he had regarded the saltire, but this time the executioners’ resolve overmatched his spell; swinging with sudden roughness the iron bar to which he was shackled, they plunged his right hand up to the forearm into the boiling mixture. At Vautry’s first piercing cry of agony, the crowd again grew silent for an instant, then roused to life again with a hubbub of murmured imprecations, sympathetic coos and grimaces, and even a few nervous-sounding laughs. Vautry screamed twice again, the second cry grinding out to a long growl between his clenched teeth as he sagged in the arms of the two burly executioners, who grappled to keep the prisoner standing and his hand submerged. After what seemed an eternity, Vautry was pulled back from the cauldron, half-unconscious, and the executioners took advantage of his state to hoist him bodily upon the saltire and shackle him spread-eagled to its waiting surface. The right hand curled convulsively in its restraints, a tarry ruin in which only the closest spectators could differentiate flesh from the metallic mixture that invested it.

A few minutes were allowed for the prisoner to recover consciousness, during which a priest applied cold water to his forehead and the executioners talked with an almost genteel quiet as they equipped themselves for their next task. Before Vautry’s eyes opened his lips could be seen moving, and the priest daubing at his forehead leaned closer to listen; this was apparently an unintentional gesture on the priest’s part, and no sooner had he heard a word or two of Vautry’s whispered litany but he pulled back again, nodding to the magistrate with unconcealed urgency.

At this sign the executioners approached the saltire again. From the flames below the cauldron one of them had taken a pair of long-handled iron pincers, their chisel tips white-hot; and as the other held down the left leg of the still-rousing Vautry, he applied them to the prisoner’s thigh, taking hold of an ambitious portion of flesh and twisting with all his strength. There came a bright crackling sound, and again a cry was wrenched from Vautry, but this time he mastered it quickly, the scream dissipating into hissed words that everyone present could hear, but none could understand. Such words, some recalled, were what Vautry had been observed speaking over the Prince in his sleep when he was apprehended, and made an important part of his discovery and conviction as a sorcerer. In hearing them now, the most God-fearing in the crowd brought their hands to their ears in holy dread. How fortunate the Prince had been to escape the intended effect of those strange utterances!

The executioner now repositioned his hands for better purchase on the smoking pincers, and twisted again in the other direction, bending his considerable strength to the labor. After a few of these movements, through which the crowd remained quiet enough for Vautry’s hissed absurdities and the executioner’s strained grunts to produce a sort of lover’s chorus, the executioner succeeded in tearing away a small piece of flesh, about the size of a crown piece. The other executioner then took the pincers as the first took hold of the prisoner, and the laborious effort was repeated—first upon Vautry’s right calf, then to each of his upper arms in turn. During all of this, Vautry’s speech intensified, only here and there breaking through into a scream before returning quickly to its strange course. His eyes darted among the clouds, perhaps reading some portent there; the priest who had shrunk from him approached once more, presenting a crucifix to the sorcerer’s lips to kiss, but this was ignored, and the priest, his face red, did not approach again.

Finally, Vautry’s shirt was opened and the hot pincers were applied to his chest. This took much more wrenching on the part of the executioners than before, and the piece of flesh they took away was substantially smaller; yet Vautry had done now with screaming altogether, and seeming also to have reached the end of his odd recital, he raised his head to look down at himself. Quite a sight he made: his shirt was now drenched with blood, his limbs and chest torn and smoking. Yet he did not utter any sound, but only looked around with shining eyes at his executioners as they dipped long-handled spoons into the cauldron, then brought them over to pour the boiling mixture into his wounds. Vautry’s eyes squeezed shut, and tears flowed from them, but he uttered not a word; and when each of his wounds had been anointed without rousing a cry from him, a man in the crowd shouted, “La parfaite valeur!” and the crowd around him broke into a cheer.

Now the executioners, the magistrate, and the priests gathered close around the saltire, and Vautry was for the moment nearly hidden from view. The priests read from their Bibles over his head and the magistrate stood at his foot, his hands upon either corner of the saltire and his mantle spread over his arms; in this way the work of the executioners was visible only to those closest in the crowd, though many of those present would later say they saw it clearly. It was, perhaps, only the work of a moment: the bloodied shirt was raised, a significant look exchanged, and then one executioner—none had known which one of them would do it—made a swift motion with his knife, and seemingly carrying on the same motion, the other hurried to the fire to drop something into it, which hissed and smoked in the flames. And again a hush dropped over the crowd, for the scream they all expected to issue from the lips of the man Vautry at this most excruciating insult, did not come.

The priests drew back from him again. The magistrate gripped the corners of the saltire tightly, then turned away too. The executioner who had moved the knife retreated as the other returned with his steaming ladle, seemingly oblivious to the strange silence of the prisoner in his hurry to perform the necessary cautery. All thought Vautry had fainted, or even passed away. But his eyes were still open, and his breath came steady—as if, for the moment, his spirit had simply deserted his body.

And when the ladle was emptied over the bleeding void, a startling change took place.

The sublime composure of the sorcerer, la parfaite valeur, vanished in an instant. His eyes shot open, and in their pain and confusion they seemed the eyes of a calf led to slaughter. All at once his limbs shook, and he struggled against his restraints; at once the magistrate unhanded the saltire and backed away, clutching his shirtsleeves, as the prisoner’s bowels loosed over the cold earth. Yet no one laughed, for the shriek that issued from the prisoner at that moment was of the sort to chill the blood: at once pitiably childlike and mad with agony and fear. Nor did it cease, but when another breath was given to it, it continued into an idiot’s raving, an uncertain mixture of firm command and pathetic pleading before man and God.

Again the crowd went silent, but this time it was in disgust. Here was not the bold and unrepentant sorcerer who had honored them with his brave suffering a moment earlier; with the last terrible torment he had lost his composure utterly, and become suddenly a study in misery, a stage-figure of confusion and terror. No wonder this man had failed in his murderous attempt; who was this pathetic transgressor who had presumed upon his Prince’s life?

Seemingly possessed of the same distaste, the magistrate motioned for the executioners to bring their performance to its final act, and the screams and commands of the sorcerer subsided into a panicked blubbering. Oddly, mixed amid these rants were calls to the Prince’s confessor—a name no one who recognized it would have expected the sorcerer to invoke. The prisoner’s shackles were loosened, thick ropes were fastened around his wrists and ankles, and the draft-horses which had drawn the cart were led into the square once more to be fastened to them. As this was done, the priests made no effort to be heard above the prisoner’s roaring gibberish, but completed their benedictions coolly and quickly. The magistrate asked Vautry if he had any last words, to which the sorcerer only babbled more quickly and incoherently than before. With a sigh of disinterest, the magistrate nodded, and the horses were whipped forward.

The crowd fell completely silent now, in expectation of the final moment. The horses strained against their ropes for five minutes, then ten, then fifteen; but though the prisoner’s screams lapsed into a frightful choking, he remained whole over the crossing of the saltire. Then the magistrate had the horses pull in different directions, and the loud snapping of joints was heard; Vautry’s voice faltered completely now, and he seemed to be plunged into shock. Yet still the sentence was not carried out. The two executioners asked the magistrate whether the prisoner’s limbs should be cut; and this being assented to, they drew their knives and cut the flesh at Vautry’s arms and thighs nearly to the bone, at which the sorcerer made barely a whimper of complaint. When again the horses pulled, their efforts met with quick success. The confessors then stepped forward, and though no sound was heard, those in the front of the crowd could see the prisoner’s jaw moving from side to side, as though he was speaking, and his eyes rolled this way and that.

The limbs and trunk were then placed on the pyre of brush and kindling, stacked around with firewood, and burned. Having seen what they’d come to see, the crowd dispersed into the gloaming, bearing their accounts of the spectacle of justice to those at home who’d had no stomach for it. The pyre burned long into the night, with officers stationed to ensure no lingering enthusiasts came forth to pinch relics from the flames; and by the morning, the remains of the sorcerer Vautry, deserted of God and king, were reduced to ashes.

*     *     *

April 30, 1695

My dear Valerie,

I write this from the chambers which are now mine, dressed in the night-robes which are now mine; if I am honest, they sit rather roughly on my skin. Too many times to count, this evening, I have looked down in amazement to see these robes not speckled with my blood; and yet that has long since ceased to be mine; now it is no one’s, a mere dampness of the earth.

You will read in the uncertainty of this hand, now mine too, the sign of my victory. Tonight my closest attendants undressed me, and did not recognize the change in the man they undressed. Man, did I say? O no—not man alone, but Prince: demigod among men, divine dispenser of the balance of justice. And balance will be struck among the men here—this hand that is now mine will see to that.

Learn from this, Valerie, my apprentice and love: so much of our art is unknown to cowards, for it requires the utmost of suffering to attain to it—such suffering as only death can follow. To the coward, such art cannot be practiced nor dared: one misstep in the preparations, one faulty word at the moment of release, and all that suffering is for naught. But to those who will practice or dare it, who will succeed—O my love, it was the most instantaneous switch, the completest relief possible! And how you would have laughed, could you been there, to see him assume my place on the saltire: the look in his eyes, through which I’d looked my last when they had been mine only a moment before; or the sound in his voice, as his position became apparent to him!

I only hope you can love me in this form as you loved me in the other; only—if you do not—pretend well, my dear Valerie, for you know whom I have become.

O judgment of Maat! Judgment of Jupiter! We have succeeded, and justice is ours!