Poison: The Rise and Fall of Madame de Brinvilliers

 

CHAPTER 1

Paris: March 1676                                           

   "Did you hear about the man who murdered his family?" asked Madame de Lionne, who was sitting in front of the mirror in her dressing room whilst a maid attended to her toilet.

  "Yes, madame."

  The de Lionne mansion – Madame de Lionne was the widow of the Secretary of State, Hugues de Lionne - was situated on the Rue de Rivoli within sight of the Tuilleries Gardens, a brisk walk from the Palace de Cardinal Richelieu, which had, in earlier times, been home to Louis XIV. Her residence was large and spacious and renowned for its fine views of the Seine and the cathedral of Notre Dame. Less agreeably, it also looked out onto some of the poorer quartiers of the city.

  At an open window a curtain rose and fell with a soft plop and a breath of Paris at evening time entered the room: wood smoke, burnt animal horn, smells of the river and the stench of distant tanneries.

  "Well, what else did you hear?" Madame de Lionne continued a little impatiently

  The maid, who suddenly realised that she was expected to supply more details, quickly gathered her thoughts.

  "The baker says he was a miserable ribbon‑maker of the Faubourge Saint‑Marcel who killed four of his children and then attempted to kill his wife, but she got away."

  "Really?"

  "Yes, madame. The world has gone quite mad."


  "But why would he do such a thing?"

  "The baker says his fit of madness happened after members of his union demanded the payment of dues that he couldn't afford."

  "Then he should have killed them not his family!" Madame de Lionne observed with commendable logic.

  The maid agreed. "Celeste, who was at the market this morning, told me that the fishmonger said no such demand was ever made."

  "So the man simply went off his head?"

  "Yes, madame. The egg seller said it was sun stroke."

  That was certainly a possibility given the heatwave that had unexpectedly plagued the city for the previous two days.

  "Do you know where the murderer is now?"

  "He has been arrested. I hear he has been taken to the Palace of Justice and is to be executed tomorrow at the Place de Grève."

  There came suddenly a rumble of distant thunder and Madame de Lionne looked through the window to where some dark clouds were gathering on the horizon.

  "It looks like rain," she said, then brought a hand to her face when something falling from above brushed against her cheek.

  "Do you know what time he is to be beheaded?" she continued.

  Receiving no answer she looked back into the mirror. The maid was staring open‑mouthed at her shoulder where a maggot, yellow and bloated and eyeless, was wriggling furiously.


  "Oh, vile," Madame de Lionne gasped with a shiver of revulsion, sweeping it onto the carpet.

  A second maggot fell amongst the bottles and jars on the dressing‑table and then, an instant later, a third. When a fourth maggot landed in Madame de Lionne's lap she gave a cry of terror and pushed herself back from the table. Directly above where she had been sitting there was a small dark stain on the ceiling and at its centre was a tiny hole through which the worms were emerging.

  "Oh, madame, they're horrible!" the maid squealed.

  It took Madame de Lionne a few moments to gather her wits. "Fetch a manservant, you stupid girl!" she shouted. "Fetch a manservant NOW!"

 

  The coach carrying Guillaume Varenne, Chief Investigator of Police for the city of Paris and his assistant, François Desgrez, clattered over the Pont‑Neuf, one of the bridges that connected the Ministry of Justice on the Ile de la Cité ‑ a small island in middle of the Seine ‑ with the rest of Paris and then set off at a gallop in the direction of Madame de Lionne's mansion.

  The city, with its open sewers, mounds of excrement and pigs foraging in the rubbish, boasted a population of half a million souls and was divided into seventeen quartiers. The aristocracy and the rich bourgeois lived in private hôtels, built of stone and the poorer classes in wood‑and‑plaster hovels densely packed, sometimes four or five storeys high and pressed so closely together and with streets so narrow that you could hardly see the sky from ground level.

  During the day the streets of Paris were full of carts and carriages, but at night the city was hazardous with purse-snatchers, rapscallions, cut‑throats and robbers and for this reason the streets were almost deserted since no prudent citizen would venture out alone and unescorted.

  "Do you mind telling me what this hurry is all about, Guillaume?" Desgrez asked.


  Desgrez was a married man and the father of seven girls ‑ three of whom survived. He was twenty-nine years of age. Small and terrier‑like in manner he was, as always, impeccably attired though his appearance and manner of dress tended to be somewhat dandified. On this occasion, for example, his wig was of the cavalier style, long and full of curls. In addition, he wore a burgundy top coat with gold buttons, pink knee breeches above English silk stockings and buckled shoes, hand‑made, the heels of which were so high that when he stood up he seemed to be walking on stilts.

  Five years before, Varenne had plucked Desgrez from his cell in the Bastille where he had been wrongly imprisoned for embezzlement. This was after his accuser - the real embezzler who was also the husband of a woman Desgrez had seduced and impregnated - had fled the city. Following this somewhat inauspicious beginning Desgrez had gone to work for the Ministry of Justice. Over the years he had proved to be Varenne’s most able investigator.

  In contrast to his resplendent companion, Varenne who was thirty wore only a ragged sheepskin coat over white shirt and dark breeches tucked into high‑laced boots with turned-down tops. He was a tall, handsome man with dark, intelligent eyes, though his face was somewhat pale and drawn, like a person recovering from illness. His hair, which was thick and well-grown, nearing shoulder-length, was hidden on this occasion beneath a wide-brimmed black hat swept up at the front and plumed with a white cockrell’s feather. Despite a proud and noble profile, however, he still looked more swarthy ruffian than gentleman.

  As the coach lurched through the darkness, the warm evening air and sound of the horses’ hooves on the cobbles took Varenne back almost ten years to the summer of 1666. On that night he had been close to France's north‑western border leading a squadron of cavalry into the United Provinces when his column had been ambushed by Dutch irregulars. The skirmish had been brief and brutal and the attackers driven off, but a musket ball in the thigh had left him with a permanent limp and curtailed a military career that had shown considerable promise.


  His premature retirement had been the culmination of a series of unhappy events that had begun with the death of his father two years earlier. In the same month that his father had passed away, his wife Anne and new‑born daughter had also both succumbed to the complications of childbirth. Following these tragic events he had begun volunteering for a number of hazardous missions, miraculously escaping injury and earning in the process a reputation for reckless bravery.

  After a long and agonizing recovery from the gunshot wound during which he had developed an unhealthy fondness for laudanum, Varenne had returned to Paris where Nicolas de la Reynie, the Lieutenant General of Police of Paris, had appointed him Chief Investigator. It had not been a position he had coveted: he had never thought of himself as an officer of the law.

  Varenne glanced to his companion. "Madame de Lionne has found a head in her attic.”

  He spoke softly, like the educated man that he was. He had studied law at the University of Paris and still read the philosophers, Descartes in particular, and even on occasion the works of de Fermat, the celebrated mathematician. Desgrez’s wife claimed that he had ‘the Gift of Silence’, by which she meant the ability to compel and convince through reason rather than by remonstrance or cajole. He also possessed ‑ at least according to Desgrez himself ‑ a dark and brooding aspect to his character.

  "A head?" Desgrez repeated restlessly. "A dog's head? A sheep's head? What?"

  "A man's head."

  Staring out of the carriage window Desgrez contemplated this new snippet of information.

  "Interesting," he said finally.

 

  A manservant escorted the two men into the house where Madame de Lionne impatiently awaited them in the grand entrance hall. A brilliant array of candles had turned it into a place of flickering gold and marble: on the walls were tall mirrors in gilt frames and the windows were hung with curtains of flame‑coloured velvet.

  The dowager, a large woman of imposing appearance enveloped in a blue silk dressing gown, her hair piled up into an elaborate fontange capped by a lace coif, regarded the new arrivals with a look of some distaste.

  "It took you long enough to get here, Monsieur Varenne," she snapped, her sallow cheeks, over powdered and over-rouged, quivering with annoyance.

  Madame de Lionne’s cool reception came as no surprise to the Chief Investigator. He had long since realised that as an official of the Ministry of Justice he was inevitably regarded with some suspicion by members of the nobility.

  “We came as swiftly as we could, madame,” Varenne replied though she was clearly not mollified.

  “I want this…object out of my house, sir,” she barked, then pursued by a swarm of servants led the way upstairs.

  Eventually the small procession arrived at a narrow stairway high up in a remote part of the house where the paint had long since faded on the walls: it was clearly a place rarely visited, even by the servants.

  "I am told the thing is up there," she said, indicating a steep flight of stairs that led up to a small access door.

  “I shall investigate, madame,” Varenne said.

  “I could not care less what you do, Monsieur Varenne,” she answered before abruptly turning on her heel and departing.

  Muttering respectfully, the crowd of servants stepped sharply out of her way, though evidently not sharply enough. "Move, you idiots!" she shouted peevishly then a moment later was gone.

  "Who found the head?" Varenne inquired, turning his attention to the assembled throng.

  One man stepped forward and stood smartly to attention.

  "I did, my lord."

  "And you are?"

  Varenne spoke kindly, like someone's uncle.

  "Joseph Le Bon. I am employed as a footman. I was called first to madame's apartments then made a search of the roof space above her dressing‑room. That was when I made the discovery. Afterwards she ordered that you be summoned."

   "Ah! Did you go into the roof alone?”

  "Jacques, the gardener accompanied me."

  At the mention of his name, Jacques, a short pot-bellied man wearing an enormous periwig made from horse hair and shaped like a beehive, also stepped forward, though somewhat reluctantly.


  "The ceiling space is very large, my lord," Joseph explained. "We thought that four eyes would be better than two."

  Desgrez, who had already made his way to the top of the stairway and opened the door, was holding up a flickering candle and peering intently into the darkness. Shaking his head and exuding at the same time a cloud of periwig powder, he said, "Mother of God, it's as black as hell in here!"

                                                                            

  Running the entire length of the main building was a large windowless attic space divided into more or less equal sections by the interior supporting walls of the house. A narrow walkway, flanked on either side by the exposed ribs of the ceiling supports and carrying the weight of the sloping tiles, ran down the centre.

  The roof was cool and dry and airless permeated by the faint but unmistakable reek of rotting meat. Joseph carried one candle and led Varenne and a clip-clopping Desgrez through five ‘rooms’ while Jacques brought up the rear with another. For a time no one spoke, though their footfalls – Desgrez’s in particular - echoed loudly in the silence. Half hidden in the shadows along the way they passed the haphazard shapes of chests and packing cases mouldering under a thick layer of dust.

  "The roof is used for storage," Joseph remarked.

  Near the far end of the building he halted and pointed over to one side where the shadows were deepest. "It's over there," he said.


  Around the feet of the four men small clouds of dust drifted up from the floor.

  Varenne took the candle from him, holding it high in the air in an effort to see more clearly.  Almost at the point where the sloping roof and the ceiling boards met, a leather bag lay on its side half open. Inside, the top of a man's head ‑ a small bald patch surrounded by tufts of greying hair ‑ was partially visible. Scuff lines in the dust and a dark stain on the ceiling boards beyond showed where the bag had been dragged a metre or so from its hiding place to the position where it now rested.

  “I take it that that is what we have come to see,” Varenne remarked quietly.

  Despite a calm exterior his composure was shaken.

  "We had to move a lot of other stuff out of the way," the gardener explained, pushing back his periwig which had slipped forward almost to the level of his eyebrows and indicating at the same time an assortment of boxes stacked to one side. "When we saw what was inside the bag we went straight to Madame de Lionne. She was not happy, my lord."

  Joseph confirmed this unpleasant fact by vigorously nodding his head. Varenne had the impression that for these two men at least, finding a dismembered head was a relatively small matter when compared to facing an angry Madame de Lionne.

  "Is that all you did?" he asked. "Had a look at the bag, I mean, then called your mistress?"

  "Yes, my lord."

  "And did anyone else come up here?"

  Joseph moved his weight uncomfortably from one foot to another. "Henri, the coachman insisted on looking too, my lord."

  Varenne could imagine the stir of excitement such a gruesome find would have caused amongst the servants.

  "So that was three of you." He counted off the witnesses on his fingers: "Henri, the coachman, Jacques here, and yourself?"

  "Yes, my lord."

  "And no one else?"

  "That's right, sir. No one else."

  "When was the last time either of you were up here before tonight?"


  "Months," blurted out Joseph, answering for them both.

  "And the other servants?"

  The two men look at each other then shrugged. Neither of them knew.

  "Would you have noticed if the things up here had been moved about?" Desgrez interjected.

  There was a moment of silence. The footman pressed his lips together, made a show of giving the question careful thought then shook his head. "No, I don’t think so."

  His companion shook his head. "Not up here," he said, touching a hand once more to his periwig, which this time had tilted to the side. "No one ever comes up here, you see."

  Frowning, Varenne turned to look at the bag. "Ah, but it seems that someone did," he remarked in that soft voice again.

 

  To get closer to the evidence Varenne and Desgrez had to crawl awkwardly on their hands and knees beneath the roof trusses. Eventually, they took their places on either side of the bag. Up close the cloying smell of decomposing flesh was almost overpowering. To add to his discomfort Varenne was suddenly breathless and his heart was racing. He felt in his pocket for the small bottle of laudanum he usually carried with him, only to discover he had left it behind. He shuddered.

  Muttering to himself, Desgrez was taking a moment to wipe some of the filth from his hands on the sharp edge of a roof support before reaching out for the head.

  "Not yet," Varenne gasped. He lifted up the candle he had brought with him and spent some moments peering off into the darkness.

  "What are you looking for?"

  "Clues."

  Desgrez squinted at Varenne out of the corner of his eye. "Ah, yes, of course, clues!" he said dubiously.


  "I don’t think the head was cut from the body up here," Varenne remarked.

  Unlike the impetuous Desgrez, Varenne was by nature a slow and methodical investigator. Experience had taught him that it sometimes helped to give substance to one’s thoughts, even if that meant stating the obvious.

  Desgrez also stared off into the roof spaces. "Yes, you’re right. Not much room to do the chopping. No signs of blood either." - For a moment he sounded almost disappointed - "But what I don’t understand is why anyone would want to hide a head in somebody’s roof - especially this one. It can't have been up here for more than a few days, can it?"

  Varenne ran a finger along a floorboard, cutting a trail through the grime. Everything was covered by a thick coating of dust - including the head itself - but what did that mean? Clearly the thing had been up in the roof for some time. But how much time? A day? A week? It was impossible to tell. Already it was a situation far beyond his experience.

  "I don’t know."

  When Desgrez looked down again he saw that there were scuff marks on his stockings which he tried to clean with a finger then cursed quietly when he realised that he was only making the problem worse. "Can we get on with this before my entire wardrobe is ruined, please, Guillaume?” he implored

  “Yes, my friend,” Varenne replied quietly.

  When Desgrez rubbed his hands together in preparation for drawing the head from the bag there was a murmur of horror from the servants who had remained standing nearby.

  "Has anyone looked for the rest of the body?" Varenne demanded looking around.

  Hearing the other’s sharp tone, Desgrez looked up at him in surprise then felt a measure of alarm when he saw that all the colour had drained from the Chief Investigator’s face.

  Once again, Joseph was nodding like a donkey. "Yes. It's not up here. Not if it's in one part," he added then paled suddenly at the thought.


  "Go and have another look!" Varenne ordered.

  Muttering unhappily, the two men went off to search the attic.

 

  Grimacing, Desgrez wriggled his hands into the bag, pressed his palms against the dead man’s cheeks and then with a little grunt of effort slid the head free.

  Maggots had eaten through the bottom of the bag and small colonies were still at work at the ragged flesh beginning to turn greenish around the severed neck and on the dead man's face, though the features remained surprisingly intact.

  Although Varenne was no stranger to violence and suffering he felt his stomach lurch. He had seen soldiers with arms and legs dismembered by cannon shot and had walked into houses splashed with blood up the walls; had come upon shallow graves where hands, feet and skulls lay exposed to the air; had even burned a great many bodies both friend and foe alike, their bones now piles of ash above the ground, but, strangely, never a face so brutally marked by the rictus of violent death.

  Desgrez meanwhile was holding up the evidence, shaking off the maggots, examining the dead man's skull with a kind of rapt fascination.

  "He’s about thirty, maybe forty. Possibly about your age," he said then added with a grin, "though to my mind he looks a touch healthier."

  Gallows humour. Desgrez’s stock in trade; he was never one to be touched by life’s little cruelties. To Varenne, however, this was yet another disquieting image to disturb his dreams, to add to the collection he kept closeted in his brain.

  "Yes, he probably feels better, too."

  Suddenly he felt a numbness sweep over him and began to sweat, took twenty heart beats to calm himself enough to give a thin smile.

  Desgrez was aware of his companion’s discomfort, but pretended not to notice. "He's got a broken nose," he said.

  Varenne, pleased with the distraction, took a moment to study the feature in question more closely.

  "It’s not a recent injury," he said finally.

  Desgrez looked unconvinced. "If you say so," he answered.


  At that moment a glint of metal in the shadows caught the Chief Investigator’s eye.

  "Hold the light over here," he ordered then passing the candle to his companion moved awkwardly onto his stomach. Stretching out his arm he reached forward to pluck from the wriggling nest of worms where the bag had originally lain, a small looped earring.

  With a candlestick in one hand and a dismembered head in the other, Desgrez was grinning madly. In the flickering half‑light, his teeth stood out whitely against the dark planes in his face.

  "Ah! More of your clues," he grunted.

 

  By the time the two servants had completed their fruitless search for a body, the two investigators had dragged the disintegrating leather bag out into the open. While Varenne flexed and massaged his aching leg Desgrez attempted unsuccessfully to remove some black marks from his jacket.

  "Does this belong to either of you two?" the Chief Investigator asked finally, holding up the earring.

  Both men shook their heads.

  "Could it belong to one of the other servants?"

  "I don’t think so," the gardener said, but Joseph took a moment to examine the earring more closely. "No," he said finally.

  "Thank you."

   Varenne returned it to his pocket then sent the two men down into the house to find a sheet in which to wrap the head.

  "Why would one of the servants hide such a thing in the attic?" Desgrez asked when they were alone once more.


  "Why does it have to be one of the servants?"

  "Well, I hardly think it was Madame de Lionne herself so who else could it be?"

  Varenne had to agree that that was certainly the most logical assumption. In all likelihood, someone in the house would identify the victim and connect him to a member of the staff. There would be an arrest then a brief trial followed by a public execution. Short and sweet. Case closed. The only thing that troubled him was that in his experience the work of a detective was rarely that simple.

  "Yes, I suppose you’re right," he said, but Desgrez had already returned his attention to his jacket. "I think this could be ruined," he complained unhappily.

 

  They carried the head wrapped in a sheet down into the kitchen where they propped it up on a table in the centre of the room and then when the stage was set they called in the servants. One by one they entered nervously. There was considerable commotion and two faintings but none of them recognised the victim. Finally, Madame de Lionne herself was summoned to the room.

  For a long time she remained standing in the doorway, ashen‑faced. For once her composure was shaken.

  "I have no idea who it is," she said finally. "Does anyone else, Monsieur Varenne?"

  "No."

  "This house has been in my family for generations," she said angrily. "Generations! And now this! How dare someone leave such a vile thing here! It is most inconsiderate."

  "It is also murder, Madame de Lionne," Varenne quietly reminded her.

 


  Just as it was beginning to rain an hour later, the carriage carrying Varenne and Desgrez pulled up outside the house of Doctor Theophile Chernier in the Rue St Martin. In this part of the city the streets were quiet and well-maintained and the houses were brick-built and prosperous-looking with fine sash windows and beautifully carved doorposts.

  Chernier, a widower, was an old family friend of Varenne and a physician of some repute. In the manner of the illustrious Danish surgeon, Thomas Bartholinus, he had instituted, ten years before, a system of making careful notes of what could be seen with the naked eye during post‑mortem examinations. Now, despite considerable opposition from his more conservative colleagues, he was slowly bringing a measure of academic respectability to what had previously been a despised aspect of medical science. In the course of his career he had conducted over five hundred autopsies and had in the process, even devised a simple but effective 'scientific' method of determining if an infant had been born alive or dead: he would drop the child's lungs into water. If they floated, air was present, meaning the child had breathed ‑ for a time at least.

  The doctor, wearing a brocade dressing gown, was reading by the light of a candelabrum when a servant ushered his two visitors into the parlour. He was a tall, lanky man of fifty years with a permanently blotchy face and a shiny bald head covered with an indoors cap, tied beneath his chin. As always, he was pleased to see Varenne.

  "How good of you to call, Guillaume," he said springing to his feet. "And Monsieur Desgrez too! Can I offer you both some cherry brandy?"

  "That would be most welcome, Theo."

  "Of course...of course...!" With a wave of his hand the doctor sent his servant away to the wine cellar. "I see you have brought me a gift of some sort," he continued staring pointedly at the bundle Varenne carried under his arm.


  "I have a head for you to look at."

  Chernier's eyebrows shot to the top of his head.

  "A head! Really? Human or animal?"

  "Human."

  "And the rest of the body?"

  "Missing."

  "Missing? How interesting! And may I enquire where you made this fascinating discovery?"

  Before Varenne had the chance to reply an inner door to the parlour opened and Chernier's daughter entered the room.

  Athénaïs Chernier, a slender dark-eyed beauty with a straight nose, a narrow waist and fine ankles, was as renowned for her cutting tongue as she was for her looks. Even in a plain house dress and with her black hair constrained within a coif she still managed to look ravishing.

  The whole of Paris buzzed with stories about her. There was the story of the aging perfume‑maker who had thrown away his entire fortune in a futile effort to court her. There was the story of the handsome English merchant who had crossed the Channel month after month until finally losing his life in a violent storm at sea. There were rumours that she had been pursued by a high‑born lord from the court of King Louis XIV himself, but that this suitor also she had indifferently cast aside. Even Varenne himself had on one occasion made a clumsy, if somewhat half-hearted attempt to woo her, but had been summarily rejected.

  "You are too melancholy for me, sir," she had said, casually brushing aside his advances. Since that day there had been a distance between them, which, it seemed, the young woman was only too happy to maintain.


  But for all this, she was the apple of her father's eye and also his despair. Why, he wondered was she so capricious? Why was she not more demure? Why was she so damned individualist?

  Nevertheless, seeing his daughter, the old man's eyes lit up. "Look, Athénaïs, our friend Guillaume has brought me a present!"

  Desgrez leered at her and she threw him a venomous glance.

  "At this time of night, father? What sort of present?"

  "A head."

  "A head," she repeated with obvious distaste.

  "Yes, that's right," the doctor continued eagerly. "A human head. Male or female, Guillaume?"

  "Male."

  "You see, Athénaïs, Guillaume has brought me a man's head to look at. He was just about to tell me where he got it when you came in."

  "It was discovered in the roof of Madame de Lionne's apartments."

  Varenne had hoped that this snippet of information would elicit a spark of interest in Athénaïs, but as always where she was concerned, he was mistaken.

  "Then perhaps he should have left it there until morning, father," the young woman retorted.

  At this remark the dull pain that had been hovering at the back of Varenne’s skull blossomed instantly into a blinding headache.

  "Now, now, my dear!" Chernier chided gently. "Remember Guillaume is only doing his job."

  "That's right, father - his job, not yours!"

  The old man sighed. "But Athénaïs, don't you think it’s very generous of him to share such a remarkable find with me?"


  "No, father, I don't. Is Monsieur Varenne also going to share this ‘remarkable find’ with Madame Nazelles?" she asked.

  "That is none of your business, mademoiselle," Varenne replied sternly.

  Recently, Varenne had been seeing Charlotte Nazelles, a pretty (and in Athénaïs' declared opinion, empty‑headed) young widow who held the position of Maid‑in‑Waiting to the Princess Palatine at the palace of Versailles. There was no doubt that when compared to the famously beautiful Athénaïs Chernier, Charlotte Nazelles was as drab as cabbage. On the other hand, however, she also lacked Athénaïs’s ability to bring out the temper in him.

  The truth was that since his return from the war Varenne had been in a state of limbo, his emotions out of kilter. There had been one or two women during the intervening years, but very little romance and certainly no passion. In this regard his affaire - if that was the right word - with Madame Nazelles was really no different.

  “This is not your house, sir!” Athénaïs retorted.

  Her look was condescending, her voice harsh with intolerance.

  “Actually, this is my house, Athénaïs,” her father gently reminded her, then seeing the red spots of anger that had sprung suddenly to his daughter’s cheeks and knowing the danger signs only too well, he flapped his hands at her. "That is enough now! Go and see what Georges is doing with the beverage and have it brought to the surgery." Then, after she had departed scowling, "Come, gentlemen, we have work to do," and picking up the candelabrum, led the way towards the back of the house.

 

  Dr Chernier's surgery consisted of a large room attached to the scullery and there was about the place the stink of death that no amount of scrubbing could remove.


  In the centre of this charnel house was a massive dissecting table with a runnel in the centre like a butcher's chopping block. A leather slop bucket rested on the flagstones at one end and the knives and instruments of the doctor's unwholesome trade were displayed on brackets around the walls.

  After Chernier had removed his dressing gown and donned a leather apron he lit some candlesticks around the room then unwrapped the head and positioned it carefully in the centre of the dissecting table. Eventually satisfied, he took a pace back, the better to examine the specimen.

  "To be truthful, Guillaume, if you must bring me a little gift when you visit I would prefer a bottle of claret," he remarked.

  "This is not of my choosing, Theo."

  "Then why have you brought it to me?"

  “What else was I supposed to do with it?”

  The doctor was moving around the table, studying the head from varying perspectives. "Yes, I see your point," he replied distractedly. Then, after another lengthy pause, "Oh, and how is Madame de Lionne, by the way?"

  "Less than pleased."

  "A pain in the arse," Desgrez offered.

  Like most members of the Third Estate, Desgrez had little but contempt for the aristocracy. He had already suggested throwing the head in the Seine and forgetting they ever saw the thing, which Varenne had admitted wasn’t such a bad idea. On the other hand, the discovery was as intriguing as it was bizarre. That was why the investigator in him had finally won the day. Nevertheless, he couldn’t get over an uncomfortable feeling that he was going to regret his involvement in the affair.

  The doctor gave Desgrez’s remark a moment’s thought then said in a stage whisper, "Yes, I gather she always is, François."

   "As I was saying," Varenne interrupted, "a man's head has been found in what I can only describe as suspicious circumstances and an investigation is now in progress. I thought you may be able to shed some light on the mystery."

  The doctor did not seem to hear him, so deep was he in his reverie.

  "You say this was found in the roof of Madame de Lionne's house?" he remarked a little while later in rather a loud voice.

  "The maggots gave it away,” Desgrez said. “Some of them fell on the lady herself." He was grinning.

  The doctor opened his mouth to respond but a knock at the door forestalled him.

  "That will be Athénaïs with the wine. Nowadays she refuses to come into this room," he said.

  At one time, Varenne knew, Athénaïs had shown an interest in her father’s profession and by the age of twelve Theo had once told him proudly, she could describe from the book-learning he had exposed her to, all the internal organs of the body that his post-mortem knife would reveal. Then had come the real thing itself. On one occasion when she was fifteen, he had dissected a body before her in the quiet secrecy of his cutting room. Only once, never again. The surgeon’s skill, she had told him afterwards still grimacing and white-faced from the ordeal, was not something she coveted, which was fortunate in its way since as a woman it was not something she could anyway pursue. No, he could keep his cutting and she would keep her herbs and roots. Of late, her father now claimed her skills and her knowledge in the measuring and the mixing and distillation thereof far surpassed even his own.

  After Varenne had collected the tray at the door and received in the process a resentful look, Chernier asked: "What exactly is it you want from me, Guillaume?"

  "I want you to tell me how long he has been dead and what killed him."

  "You'd also like a name and address of the person who put his head in Madame de Lionne’s attic too, I suppose?"


  Varenne made a show of giving the question serious thought. "That would be helpful, Theo, yes."

  "Sometimes you are very tiresome, Guillaume, you know that don't you?" the doctor retorted. He was not amused. “By the way,” he added, “you don’t look well. Are you still taking laudanum? It’s bad for you, you know.”

  Varenned stiffened like he had suddenly heard bad news, but by the time he had thought of a response, the doctor had already moved on.

  Before continuing his formal examination Chernier first made a number of amazingly lifelike sketches of the head from different angles, two of which he rolled into a tube and handed to Desgrez. "That may help with your investigation, François" he said, then sat Varenne at a nearby desk.

  "For this evening’s performance you must be my assistant and take notes," he said, putting before him quill, ink and paper. "You see it is essential that we record our impressions while the matter is fresh in our minds. Tomorrow will be too late. First put the time and date of the examination," he instructed, pointing at the paper. And then, after he had assured himself that this had been done to his liking, "Now we can begin..."

  Again the doctor began moving daintily around the table, once more studying the skull from various sides with what was clearly professional interest.

  "The skull in question is that of a man, as you have observed," he said eventually. "Decomposition has begun, but is not well advanced. In other words it has only been occurring for two or three days, which is why the features are still fairly distinct. Tell me," he asked, "What are conditions like where the head was found?"

  Desgrez made a theatre of clearing his throat. "Dry and dusty," he coughed.

  "So there was no draught of any sort? No air circulating?"

  "It was dirty too. Look what I did to this jacket," Desgrez added holding up the hem which was black with grime from the ceiling boards. From his forlorn expression it appeared he expected a measure of sympathy from the doctor.


  Varenne said. "The place would be hot in summer, cold in winter, Theo.”

  The doctor sighed. "That's a pity. You see, Guillaume, the greenish tint to the skin means that decomposition has already begun. Decomposition usually sets in about twenty-four to thirty-six hours after death under normal circumstances, following the disappearance of rigor‑mortis, that is, but temperature and humidity can affect the rate of decomposition quite considerably. Also, until a few days ago Paris was experiencing exceptionally cold weather for this time of year. Cold weather can slow down and even halt the decomposition process completely."

  "I don't understand what you're saying, Theo," Varenne said.

  "What I'm saying is that the decomposition process has been in progress for a couple of days, but that still doesn't tell us how long the victim has been dead."

  "But surely decomposition begins immediately after death?"

  "Yes and no. What I'm telling you is that if it's very dry or cold then the decomposition process slows down."

  "Are you saying that the head may have been lying up in the roof of Madame de Lionne's house for more than a couple of days?"

  "Possibly. If you recall, Guillaume, we've had the longest, coldest winter on record."

  That much at least was true. For the first three months of the year the River Seine had been frozen over for virtually the entire time and some people had even held bonfire parties on the river, until someone had fallen through the ice and drowned, of course.


  "The roof space in Madame de Lionne's house would have been extremely cold if not freezing during most of that time. Putrefaction needs warmth and moisture to proceed. According to what you’ve just told me the place where the head was located would have been cold and dry for the past three months at least."

  Varenne was confused. "You're not suggesting that that thing could have been up in the roof for three months, are you, Theo?" he asked.

  In answer to this question the doctor gravely inclined his head. "Possibly. Maybe even longer. We also had a long, cold spell before Christmas, too, if I recall correctly."

  Varenne stared at him. "My God!" he muttered.

  Even Desgrez appeared shocked by this revelation. "That can’t be right, doctor," he said.

  "François, the head started to rot a few days ago. Any idiot can tell you that. What they can't tell you is when it was first removed from the body."

  Varenne hesitated for a moment and looked around the room. He held the doctor in high regard, but surely in this he was mistaken? He had initially imagined that the investigation could be concluded within a day or two, but now, as he feared, the whole thing was becoming infinitely more complicated.

  "Can you tell me what killed him?" he asked.

  This time the doctor was more obliging. "Now that is the one question to which I have a definite answer," he replied. Then, leaning forward over the table he placed a finger on the crown of the skull and pressed gently. "Now pay attention,” he said. “See here, the skin is broken. And the bone beneath is shattered. This man has suffered an extremely fierce blow to the top of the head. That is what killed him."

  "He’s also got a broken nose," Desgrez helpfully pointed out.

  "That’s an old injury, François, though it might help you to identify him."

  Varenne, meanwhile, had begun to organise his thoughts. Given the new facts in the case he realised that it was necessary to proceed both systematically and with considerable caution: Madame de Lionne was, after all, a member of the nobility and where the landed classes were concerned it was always best to be wise before the event.

  "Have you any idea how the head was removed from the body, Theo?" he asked.

  "Yes, I think I do. Look," – The doctor, now in his element, pointed to some frayed skin around the neck - "see how jagged that is. A sharp knife would have done a much better job. The vertebrae are also chipped and scarred. My guess is that whoever killed him hit him over the head then decapitated him with something blunt and heavy."

  Desgrez, who had come to lean over the cutting table for a better look at the site in question, said, “Not an axe then?”

  "Possibly, though even a blunt axe would likely make a cleaner cut in my experience. But what I would really like to know, François,” the doctor added, whispering not-so-quietly into his ear, "is why anyone would want to remove this person’s head in the first place?"

  "To prevent identification," Varenne answered.

  Chernier considered this statement for a moment. "Yes, you could be right, Guillaume," he said finally, though without much conviction. "But what about the rest of his body?"

  "Who knows? Buried. Tossed in the Seine. Burnt."

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