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The Cauldron of Oil: A Case Worth Looking At

Wilkie Collins

  The Cauldron of Oil

  By Wilkie Collins

  © 2007 by

  About one French league distant from the city of Toulouse, there is a village called Croix-Daurade. In the military history of England, this place is associated with a famous charge of the eighteenth hussars, which united two separated columns of the British army, on the day before the Duke of Wellington fought the battle of Toulouse. In the criminal history of France, the village is memorable as the scene of a daring crime, which was discovered and punished under circumstances sufficiently remarkable to merit preservation in the form of a plain narrative.


  In the year seventeen hundred, the resident priest of the village of Croix-Daurade was Monsieur Pierre-Célestin Chaubard. He was a man of no extraordinary energy or capacity, simple in his habits, and sociable in his disposition. His character was irreproachable; he was strictly conscientious in the performance of his duties; and he was universally respected and beloved by all his parishioners.

  Among the members of his flock, there was a family named Siadoux. The head of the household, Saturnin Siadoux, had been long established in business at Croix-Daurade as an oil-manufacturer. At the period of the events now to be narrated, he had attained the age of sixty, and was a widower. His family consisted of five children—three young men, who helped him in the business, and two daughters. His nearest living relative was his sister, the widow Mirailhe.

  The widow resided principally at Toulouse. Her time in that city was mainly occupied in winding up the business affairs of her deceased husband, which had remained unsettled for a considerable period after his death, through delays in realising certain sums of money owing to his representative. The widow had been left very well provided for—she was still a comely attractive woman—and more than one substantial citizen of Toulouse had shown himself anxious to persuade her into marrying for the second time. But the widow Mirailhe lived on terms of great intimacy and affection with her brother Siadoux and his family; she was sincerely attached to them, and sincerely unwilling, at her age, to deprive her nephews and nieces, by a second marriage, of the inheritance, or even of a portion of the inheritance, which would otherwise fall to them on her death. Animated by these motives, she closed her doors resolutely on all suitors who attempted to pay their court to her, with the one exception of a master-butcher of Toulouse, whose name was Cantegrel.

  This man was a neighbour of the widow’s, and had made himself useful by assisting her in the business complications which still hung about the realisation of her late husband’s estate. The preference which she showed for the master-butcher was, thus far, of the purely negative kind. She gave him no absolute encouragement; she would not for a moment admit that there was the slightest prospect of her ever marrying him—but, at the same time, she continued to receive his visits, and she showed no disposition to restrict the neighbourly intercourse between them, for the future, within purely formal

  bounds. Under these circumstances, Saturnin Siadoux began to be alarmed, and to think it time to bestir himself. He had no personal acquaintance with Cantegrel, who never visited the village; and Monsieur Chaubard (to whom he might otherwise have applied for advice) was not in a position to give an opinion: the priest and the master~butcher did not even know each other by sight. In this difficulty, Siadoux bethought himself of inquiring privately at Toulouse, in the hope of discovering some scandalous passages in Cantegrel’s early life, which might fatally degrade him in the estimation of the widow Mirailhe. The investigation, as usual in such cases, produced rumours and reports in plenty, the greater part of which dated back to a period of the butcher’s life when he had resided in the ancient town of Narbonne. One of these rumours, especially, was of’ so serious a nature, that Siadoux determined to test the truth or falsehood of it, personally, by travelling to Narbonne. He kept his intention a secret not only from his sister and his daughters, but also from his sons; they were young men, not over-patient in their tempers—and he doubted their discretion. Thus, nobody knew his real purpose but himself, when he left home.

  His safe arrival at Narbonne was notified in a letter to his family. The letter entered into no particulars relating to his secret errand: it merely informed his children of the day when they might expect him back, and of certain social arrangements which he wished to be made to welcome him on his return. He proposed, on his way home, to stay two days at Castelnaudry, for the purpose of paying a visit to an old friend who was settled there.

  According to this plan, his return to Croix-Daurade would be deferred until Tuesday, the twenty-sixth of April, when his family might expect to see him about sunset, in good time for supper. He further desired that a little party of friends might be invited to the meal, to celebrate the twenty-sixth of April (which was a feast-day in the village), as well as to celebrate his return. The guests whom he wished to be invited were, first, his sister; secondly, Monsieur Chaubard, whose pleasant disposition made him a welcome guest at all the village festivals; thirdly and fourthly, two neighbours, businessmen like himself; with whom he lived on terms of the friendliest intimacy. That was the party; and the family of Stadoux took especial pains, as the time approached, to provide a supper worthy of the guests, who had all shown the heartiest readiness in accepting their invitations.

  This was the domestic position, these were the family prospects, on the morning of the twenty-sixth of April—a memorable day, for years afterwards, in the village of Croix-Daurade


  Besides the curacy of the village church, good Monsieur Chaubard held some small ecclesiastical preferment in the cathedral church of St Stephen at Toulouse Early in the forenoon of the twenty-sixth, certain matters connected With this preferment took him from his village curacy to the city—a distance which has been already described as not greater than one French league, or between two and three English miles.

  After transacting his business, Monsieur Chaubard parted with his clerical brethren, who left him by himself in the sacristy (or vestry) of the church. Before he had quitted the room, in his turn, the beadle entered it, and inquired for the Abbé de Mariotte one of the officiating priests attached to the cathedral.

  ‘The Abbé has just gone out,’ replied Monsieur Chaubard. ‘Who wants him?’

  ‘A respectable-looking man,’ said the beadle. ‘I thought he seemed to be in some distress of mind, when he spoke to me.’

  ‘Did he mention his business with the Abbé?’

  ‘Yes, sir; he expressed himself as anxious to make his confession immediately.’

  ‘In that case,’ said Monsieur Chaubard, ‘I may be of use to him in the Abbé’s absence—for I have authority to act here as confessor. Let us go into the church, and see if this person feels disposed to accept my services.’

  When they went into the church, they found the man walking backwards and forwards in a restless, disordered manner. His looks were so strikingly suggestive of some serious mental perturbation, that Monsieur Chaubard found it no easy matter to preserve his composure, when he first addressed himself to the stranger.

  ‘I am sorry,’ he began, ‘that the Abbé de Mariotte is not here to offer you his services—‘I want to make my confession,’ said the man, looking about him vacantly, as if the priest’s words had not attracted his attention.

  ‘You can do so at once, if you please,’ said Monsieur Chaubard. ‘I am attached to this church, and I possess the necessary authority to receive confessions in it. Perhaps, however, you are personally acquainted with the Abbé de Mariotte? Perhaps you would prefer waiting—’

said the man, roughly. ‘I would as soon, or sooner, confess to a stranger.’

  ‘In that case,’ replied Monsieur Chaubard, ‘be so good as to follow me.’

  He led the way to the confessional. The beadle, whose curiosity was excited, waited a little, and looked after them. In a few minutes, he saw the curtains, which were sometimes used to conceal the face of the officiating priest, suddenly drawn. The penitent knelt with his back turned to the church. There was literally nothing to see—but the beadle waited nevertheless, in expectation of the end.

  After a long lapse of time, the curtain was withdrawn, and priest and penitent left the confessional.

  The change which the interval had worked in Monsieur Chaubard was so extraordinary, that the beadle’s attention was altogether withdrawn, in the interest of observing it, from the man who had made the confession. He did not remark by which door the stranger left the church—his eyes were fixed on Monsieur Chaubard. The priest’s naturally ruddy face was as white as if he had just risen from a long sickness—he looked straight before him, with a stare of terror—and he left the church as hurriedly as if he had been a man escaping from prison; left it without a parting word, or a farewell look, although he was noted for his courtesy to his inferiors on all ordinary occasions.

  ‘Good Monsieur Chaubard has heard more than he bargained for,’ said the beadle, wandering back to the empty confessional, with an interest which he had never felt in it till that moment.

  The day wore on as quietly as usual in the village of Croix-Daurade. At the appointed time, the supper-table was laid for the guests in the house of Saturnin Siadoux. The widow Mirailhe, and the two neighbours, arrived a little before sunset. Monsieur Chaubard, who was usually punctual, did not make his appearance with them; and when the daughters of Saturnin Siadoux looked out from the upper windows, they saw no signs on the high road of their father’s return.

  Sunset came—and still neither Siadoux nor the priest appeared. The little party sat waiting round the table, and waited in vain. Before long, a message was sent up from the

  kitchen, representing that the supper must be eaten forthwith, or be spoilt; and the company began to debate the two alternatives, of waiting, or not waiting, any longer.

  ‘It is my belief;’ said the widow Mirailhe, ‘that my brother is not coming home to-night. When Monsieur Chaubard joins us, we had better sit down to supper.’

  ‘Can any accident have happened to my father?’ asked one of the two daughters, anxiously.

  ‘God forbid!’ said the widow.

  ‘God forbid!’ repeated the two neighbours, looking expectantly at the empty supper-table.

  ‘It has been a wretched day for travelling,’ said Louis, the eldest son.

  ‘It rained in torrents, all yesterday,’ added Thomas, the second son.

  ‘And your father’s rheumatism makes him averse to travelling in wet weather,’

  suggested the widow, thoughtfully.

  ‘Very true!’ said the first of the two neighbours, shaking his head piteously at his passive knife and fork.

  Another message came up from the kitchen, and peremptorily forbade the company to wait any longer.

  ‘But where is Monsieur Chaubard?’ said the widow. ‘Has he been taking a journey too?

  Why is he absent? Has anybody seen him to-day?’

  ‘I have seen him to-day,’ said the youngest son, who had not spoken yet. This young man’s name was Jean; he was little given to talking, but he had proved himself; on various domestic occasions, to be the quickest and most observant member of the family.

  ‘Where did you see him?’ asked the widow.

  ‘I met him, this morning, on his way into Toulouse.’

  ‘He has not fallen ill, I hope? Did he look out of sorts when you met him?’

  ‘He was in excellent health and spirits,’ said Jean. ‘I never saw him look better—’

  ‘And I never saw him look worse,’ said the second of the neighbours, striking into the conversation with the aggressive fretfulness of a hungry man.

  ‘What! this morning?’ cried Jean, in astonishment.

  ‘No; this afternoon,’ said the neighbour. ‘I saw him going into our church here. He was as white as our plates will be—when they come up. And what is almost as extraordinary, he passed without taking the slightest notice of me.’

  Jean relapsed into his customary silence. It was getting dark; the clouds had gathered while.the company had been talking; and, at the first pause in the conversation, the rain, falling again in torrents, made itself drearily audible.

  ‘Dear, dear me!’ said the widow. ‘If it was not raining so hard, we might send somebody to inquire after good Monsieur Chaubard.’

  ‘I’ll go and inquire,’ said Thomas Siadoux. ‘It’s not five minutes’ wall.. Have up the supper; I’ll take a cloak with me; and if our excellent Monsieur Chaubard is out of his bed, I’ll bring him back, to answer for himself.’

  With those words he left the room. The supper was put on the table forthwith. The hungry neighbour disputed with nobody from that moment, and the melancholy neighbour recovered his spirits.

  On reaching the priest’s house, Thomas Siadoux found him sitting alone in his study.

  He started to his feet, with every appearance of the most violent alarm, when the young man entered the room.

  ‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ said Thomas; ‘I am afraid I have startled you.’

  ‘What do you want?’ asked Monsieur Chaubard, in a singularly abrupt, bewildered manner.

  ‘Have you forgotten, sir, that this is the night of our supper?’ remonstrated Thomas.

  ‘My father has not come back; and we can only suppose—’

  At those words the priest dropped into his chair again, and trembled from head to foot.

  Amazed to the last degree by this extraordinary reception of his remonstrance, Thomas Siadoux remembered, at the same time, that he had engaged to bring Monsieur Chaubard back with him; and he determined to finish his civil speech, as if nothing had happened.

  ‘We are all of opinion,’ he resumed, ‘that the weather has kept my father on the road.

  But that is no reason, sir, why the supper should be wasted, or why you should not make one of us, as you promised. Here is a good warm cloak—’

  ‘I can’t come,’ said the priest. ‘I’m ill; I’m in bad spirits; I’m not fit to go out.’ He sighed bitterly, and hid his face in his hands.

  ‘Don’t say that, sir,’ persisted Thomas. ‘If you are out of spirits, let us try to cheer you.

  And you, in your turn, will enliven us. They are all waiting for you at home. Don’t refuse, sir,’ pleaded the young man, ‘or we shall think we have offended you, in some way. You have always been a good friend to our family—’

  Monsieur Chaubard again rose from his chair, with a second change of manner, as extraordinary and as perplexing as the first. His eyes moistened as if the tears were rising in them; he took the hand of Thomas Siadoux, and pressed it long and warmly in his own.

  There was a curious mixed expression of pity and fear in the look which he now fixed on the young man.

  ‘Of all the days in the year,’ he said, very earnestly, ‘don’t doubt my friendship to-day.

  Ill as I am, I will make one of the supper-party, for your sake—’

  ‘And for my father’s sake?’ added Thomas, persuasively.

  ‘Let us go to the supper,’ said the priest.

  Thomas Siadoux wrapped the cloak round him, and they left the house.

  Every one at the table noticed the change in Monsieur Chaubard. He accounted for it by declaring, confusedly, that he was suffering from nervous illness; and then added that he would do his best, notwithstanding, to promote the social enjoyment of the evening. His talk was fragmentary, and his cheerfulness was sadly forced; but he contrived, with these drawbacks, to take his part in the conversation—except in the case when it happened to turn on the absent master of the house. Whenever the name of Saturnin Sia
doux was mentioned—either by the neighbours, who politely regretted that he was not present; or by the family, who naturally talked about the resting-place which he might have chosen for the night—Monsieur Chaubard either relapsed into blank silence, or abruptly changed the topic. Under these circumstances, the company, by whom he was respected and beloved, made the necessary allowances for his state of health; the only person among them, who showed no desire to cheer the priest’s spirits, and to humour him in his temporary fretfulness, being the silent younger son of Saturnin Siadoux.

  Both Louis and Thomas noticed that, from the moment when Monsieur Chaubard’s manner first betrayed his singular unwillingness to touch on the subject of their father’s absence, Jean fixed his eyes on the priest, with an expression of suspicious attention; and never looked away from him for the rest of the evening. The young man’s absolute silence at table did not surprise his brothers, for they were accustomed to his taciturn

  habits. But the sullen distrust betrayed in his close observation of the honoured guest and friend of the family, surprised and angered them. The priest himself seemed once or twice to be aware of the scrutiny to which he was subjected, and to feel uneasy and offended, as he naturally might. He abstained, however, from openly noticing Jean’s strange behaviour; and Louis and Thomas were bound, therefore, in common Politeness, to abstain from noticing it also.

  The inhabitants of Croix-Daurade kept early hours. Towards eleven o’clock, the company rose and separated for the night. Except the two neighbours, nobody had enjoyed the supper, and even the two neighbours, having eaten their fill, were as glad to get home as the rest. In the little confusion of parting, Monsieur Chaubard completed the astonishment of the guests at the extraordinary change in him, by slipping away alone, without waiting to bid anybody good night.

  The widow Mirailhe and her nieces withdrew to their bed-rooms, and left the three brothers by themselves in the parlour.

  ‘Jean,’ said Thomas Siadoux, ‘I have a word to say to you. You stared at our good Monsieur Chaubard in a very offensive manner all through the evening. What did you mean by it?’