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The Poisoned Meal

Wilkie Collins

  The Poisoned Meal

  By Wilkie Collins

  © 2007 by


  This case takes us across the Channel to Normandy; and introduces us to a young French girl, named Marie-Françoise-Victoire Salmon.

  Her father was a poor Norman labourer. Her mother died while she was a child. From an early age Marie had learnt to get her own living by going out to service. Three different mistresses tried her while she was a very young girl, and found every reason to be satisfied with her conduct. She entered her fourth place, in the family of one Monsieur Dumesnil, when she was twenty years of age. This was the turning-point in her career; and here the strange story of her life properly begins.

  Among the persons who often visited Monsieur Dumesnil and his wife, was a certain Monsieur Revel, a relation of Madame Dumesnil’s. He was a man of some note in his part of the country, holding a responsible legal appointment at the town of Caen in Normandy; and he honoured Marie, when he first saw her at her master’s house, with his special attention and approval. She had an innocent face, and a winning manner; and Monsieur Revel became almost oppressively anxious, in a strictly paternal way, that she should better her condition, by seeking service at Caen, where places were plentiful and wages higher than in the country; and where, it is also necessary to remember, Monsieur Revel himself happened to live.

  Marie’s own idea, however, of the best means of improving her condition was a little at variance with the idea of her disinterested adviser. Her ambition was to gain her living independently, if she could, by being a sempstress. She left the service of Monsieur Dumesnil of her own accord, without so much as the shadow of a stain on her character, and went to the old town of Bayeux to try what she could do by taking in needlework. As a means of subsistence, needlework soon proved itself to be insufficient; and she found herself thrown back again on the old resource of going out to service. Most unfortunately, as events afterwards turned out, she now called to mind Monsieur Revel’s paternal advice, and resolved to seek employment as a maid-of-all-work at Caen.

  She left Bayeux with the little bundle of clothes which represented all the property she had in the world, on the first of August, seventeen hundred and eighty-one. It will be well to notice this date particularly, and to remember—in case some of the events of Marie’s story should seem almost incredible—that it marks the period which immediately preceded the first outbreak of the French Revolution.

  Among the few articles of the maid’s apparel which the bundle contained, and to which it is necessary to direct attention at the outset, were two pairs of pockets, one of them being still in an unfinished condition. She had a third pair which she wore on her journey.

  In the last century, a country girl’s pockets were an important and prominent part of her costume. They hung on each side of her, ready to her hand. They were sometimes very prettily embroidered, and they were almost always large and of a bright colour.

  On the first of August, seventeen hundred and eighty-one, Marie left Bayeux, and early on the same day she reached Caen. Her good manners, her excellent character, and the

  modesty of her demands in the matter of wages, rendered it easy for her to find a situation. On the very evening of her arrival she was suited with a place; and her first night at Caen was passed under the roof of her new employers.

  The family consisted of Marie’s master and mistress, Monsieur and Madame Huet Duparc (both highly respectable people); of two sons, aged respectively twenty-one and eleven years; of their sister, aged seventeen years; and of Monsieur and Madame de Beaulieu, the father and mother of Madame Duparc, one eighty-eight years old, the other eighty-six.

  Madame Duparc explained to Marie the various duties which she was expected to perform, on the evening when she entered the house. She was to begin the day by fetching some milk—that being one of the ingredients used in preparing the hasty-pudding which formed the favourite morning meal of the old gentleman, Monsieur de Beaulieu. The hasty-pudding was always to be got ready by seven o’clock exactly. When this had been done, Marie was next required to take the infirm old lady, Madame de Beaulieu, every morning to mass. She was then to go to market, and get all the provisions that were wanted for the daily use of the family; and she was, finally, to look to the cooking of the food, and to make herself additionally useful (with some occasional assistance from Madame Duparc and her daughter) in every remaining branch of household work. The yearly wages she was to receive for performing all these conflicting duties, amounted to precisely two pounds sterling of English money.

  She had entered her new place on a Wednesday. On Thursday she took her first lesson in preparing the old gentleman’s morning meal. One point which her mistress then particularly impressed on her was, that she was not to put any salt in the hasty-pudding.

  On the Saturday following, when she went out to buy milk, she made a little purchase on her own account. Of course the purchase was an article of dress—a piece of fine bright orange-coloured stuff, for which she paid nearly the whole price on the spot, out of her small savings. The sum of two sous six deniers (about a penny English) was all that Marie took credit for. On her return to the house she showed the piece of stuff to Madame Duparc, and asked to be advised whether she should make an apron or a jacket of it.

  The next day being Sunday, Marie marked the occasion by putting on all the little finery she had. Her pair of festive pockets, striped with blue and white, came out of her bundle along with other things. When she had put them on, she hung the old work-a-day pockets which she had worn on leaving Bayeux, to the back of a chair in her bed-chamber. This was a little room on the ground-floor, situated close to the dining-room, and perfectly easy of access to every one in the house. Long afterwards, Marie remembered how pleasantly and quietly that Sunday passed. It was the last day of happiness the poor creature was to enjoy in the house of Madame Duparc.

  On the Monday morning, she went to fetch the milk as usual. But the milkwoman was not in the shop to serve her. After returning to the house, she proposed making a second attempt; but her mistress stopped her, saying that the milk would doubtless be sent before long. This turned out to be the case, and Marie, having cleaned the saucepan for Monsieur de Beaulieu’s hasty-pudding, received from the hands of Madame Duparc, the earthen vessel containing the meal used in the house. She mixed this flour and put into the saucepan in the presence of Madame Duparc and her daughter.

  She had just set the saucepan on the fire, when her mistress said, with a very remarkable abruptness:

  ‘Have you put any salt in it?’

  ‘Certainly not, ma’am,’ answered Marie, amazed by the question. ‘You told me yourself that I was never to put salt in it.’

  Upon this, Madame Duparc snatched up the saucepan without saying another word, turned to the dresser, stretched out her hand towards one of four salt-cellars which always stood there, and sprinkled salt into the saucepan—or (to speak with extreme correctness, the matter being important), if not salt something which she took for salt.

  The hasty-pudding made, Marie poured it from the saucepan into a soup-plate which her mistress held. Madame Duparc herself then took it to Monsieur de Beaulieu. She and her daughter, and one of her sons remained with the old man, while he was eating his breakfast. Marie, left in the kitchen, prepared to clean the saucepan; but, before she could do so, she was suddenly called in two different directions, by Madame de Beaulieu, and Madame Duparc. The old lady wished to be taken to mass; and her mistress wanted to send her on a number of errands. Marie did not stop even to pour some clean water, as usual, into the saucepan. She went at once to get her instructions from Madame Duparc, and to attend on Madame de Beaulieu. Taking the old lady to church, and the
n running on her mistress’s errands, kept her so long away from the house, that it was half-past eleven in the forenoon, before she got back to the kitchen.

  The first news that met her on her return was that Monsieur de Beaulieu had been suffering, ever since nine o’clock, from a violent attack of vomiting and colic. Madame Duparc ordered her to help the old man to bed immediately; and inquired, when these directions had been followed, whether Marie felt capable of looking after him herself; or whether she would prefer that a nurse should be sent for. Being a kind-hearted, willing girl, always anxious to make herself useful, Marie replied that she would gladly undertake the nursing of the old man; and, thereupon, her bed was moved at once into Monsieur de Beaulieu’s room.

  Meanwhile, Madame Duparc fetched from a neighbouring apothecary’s, one of the apprentices of the shop, to see her father. The lad was quite unfit to meet the emergency of the case, which was certainly serious enough to require the attention of his master, if not of a regularly qualified physician. Instead of applying any internal remedies, the apprentice stupidly tried blistering. This course of treatment proved utterly useless; but no better advice was called in. After he had suffered for hours without relief; Monsieur de Beaulieu began to sink rapidly towards the afternoon. At half-past five o’clock he had ceased to exist.

  This shocking catastrophe, startling and suspicious as it was, did not appear to discompose the nerves of Madame Duparc. While her eldest son immediately left the house to inform his father (who had been absent in the country all day) of what had happened, she lost no time in sending for the nearest nurse to lay out the corpse of Monsieur de Beaulieu. On entering the chamber of death, the nurse found Marie there alone, praying by the old man’s bedside.

  ‘He died suddenly, did he not?’ said the nurse.

  ‘Very suddenly,’ answered Marie. ‘He was walking about only yesterday, in perfect health.’

  Soon afterwards the time came when it was customary to prepare supper. Marie went into the kitchen, mechanically, to get the meal ready. Madame Duparc, her daughter, and

  her youngest son, sat down to it as usual. Madame de Beaulieu, overwhelmed by the dreadful death of her husband, was incapable of joining them.

  When supper was over, Marie assisted the old lady to bed. Then, worn out though she was with fatigue, she went back to the nurse to keep her company in watching by the dead body. Monsieur de Beaulieu had been kind to Marie, and had spoken gratefully of the little attentions she had shown him. She remembered this tenderly now that he was no more; and she could not find it in her heart to leave a hired mourner to be the only watcher by his death-bed. All that night she remained in the room, entirely ignorant of what was passing the while in every other part of the house—her own little bed-room included, as a matter of course.

  About seven o’clock the next morning, after sitting up all night, she went back again wearily to the kitchen to begin her day’s work. Her mistress joined her there, and saluted her instantly with a scolding.

  ‘You are the most careless, slovenly girl I ever met with,’ said Madame Duparc. ‘Look at your dress; How can you expect to be decent on a Sunday, if you wear your best pair of pockets on week-days?’

  Surely Madame Duparc’s grief for the loss of her father must have been slight enough, if it did not prevent her from paying the strictest attention to her servant’s pockets!

  Although Marie had only known the old man for a few days, she had been too deeply impressed by his illness and its fatal end, to be able to think of such a trifle as the condition of her dress. And now, of all the people in the world, it was Monsieur de Beaulieu’s daughter who reminded her that she had never thought of changing her pockets, only the day after the old man’s dreadful death.

  ‘Put on your old pockets, directly, you untidy girl!’ said Madame Duparc. The old pockets were of course hanging where Marie had left them, at the back of the chair in her own room—the room which was open to any one who chose to go into it—the room which she herself had not entered during the past night. She left the kitchen to obey her mistress; and taking the old pair of pockets off the chair, tied them on as quickly as possible. From that fatal moment the friendless maid-of-all-work was a ruined girl.


  On returning to the kitchen to go on with her work, the exhaustion against which Marie had hitherto fought successfully, overpowered her the moment she sat down; her heavy head drooped, her eyes closed in spite of her, and she fell into a broken, uneasy slumber.

  Madame Duparc and her daughter, seeing the condition she was in, undertook the preparation of the day’s dinner themselves. Among the dishes which they got ready, and which they salted from the cellars on the dresser, were two different kinds of soup—one kind for themselves, made from fresh ‘stock’—the other, for Marie and the nurse, made from the old ‘stock.’ They were engaged over their cookery, when Monsieur Duparc arrived from the country; and Marie was awakened to take the horse he had ridden to the stables, to unsaddle the animal, and to give him his feed of corn.

  While she was thus engaged, Madame Duparc and her daughter remained alone in the kitchen. When she left the stable it was time for her to lay the cloth. She was told to put plates for seven persons. Only six, however, sat down to dinner. Those six were, Madame de Beaulieu, Monsieur and Madame Duparc, the youngest of their two sons, Madame

  Beauguillot (sister of Madame Duparc), and Monsieur Beauguillot (her son).

  Mademoiselle Duparc remained in the kitchen to help Marie in serving up the dinner, and only took her place at table after the soup had been put on. Her elder brother, after summoning his father home, had not returned to the house.

  After the soup had been taken away, and while Marie was waiting at table during the eating of the second course, young Duparc complained that he felt something gritty between his teeth. His mother made precisely the same remark. Nobody else, however, agreed with them, and the subject was allowed to drop. When the second course was done with, the dessert followed, consisting of a plate of cherries. With the dessert there arrived a visitor, Monsieur Fergant, a relation of Madame Duparc’s. This gentleman placed himself at table with the rest of the company.

  Meanwhile, the nurse and Marie were making their dinner in the kitchen off the soup which had been specially provided for them—Marie having previously placed the dirty plates and the empty soup-tureen from the dining-room, in the scullery, as usual, to be washed at the proper time. While she and her companion were still engaged over their soup, young Duparc and his mother suddenly burst into the kitchen, followed by the other persons who had partaken of dinner.

  ‘We are all poisoned!’ cried Madame Duparc, in the greatest terror. ‘Good heavens! I smell burnt arsenic in the kitchen!’

  Monsieur Fergant, the visitor, hearing these last words, politely stepped forward to echo them.

  ‘Burnt arsenic, beyond a doubt,’ said Monsieur Fergant. When this gentleman was subsequently questioned on the subject, it may not be amiss to mention, that he was quite unable to say what burnt arsenic smelt like. Neither is it altogether out of place to inquire how Madame Duparc happened to be so amazingly apt at discovering the smell of burnt arsenic? The answer to the question does not seem easy to discover.

  Having settled that they were all poisoned, and having even found out (thanks to those two intelligent amateur chemists, Madame Duparc and Monsieur Fergant) the very nature of the deadly drug that had been used to destroy them, the next thing the company naturally thought of was the necessity of summoning medical help. Young Monsieur Beauguillot obligingly ran off (it was apparently a very mild case of poisoning, so far as he was concerned) to the apothecary’s shop, and fetched, not the apprentice this time, but the master. The master, Monsieur Thierry, arrived in great haste, and found the dinner-eaters all complaining of nausea and pains in the stomach. He naturally asked what they had eaten. The reply was, that they had eaten nothing but soup.

  This was, to say the least of it, rather an unaccountable a
nswer. The company had had for dinner, besides soup, a second course of boiled meat and ragout of beef; and a dessert of cherries. Why was this plain fact concealed? Why was the apothecary’s attention to be fixed exclusively on the soup? Was it because the tureen was empty, and because the alleged smell of burnt arsenic might be accounted for on the theory that the remains of the soup brought from the dining-room had been thrown on the kitchen fire? But no remains of soup came down—it had been all consumed by the guests. And what is still more remarkable, the only person in the kitchen (excepting Marie and the nurse) who could not discover the smell of burnt arsenic, was the person of all others who was professionally qualified to find it out first—the apothecary himself.

  After examining the tureen and the plates, and stirring up the wood ashes on the fire, and making no sort of discovery, Monsieur Thierry turned to Marie, and asked if she could account for what had happened. She simply replied, that she knew nothing at all about it; and, thereupon, her mistress and the rest of the persons present all overwhelmed her together with a perfect torrent of questions. The poor girl, terrified by the hubbub, worn out by a sleepless night and by the hard work and agitation of the day preceding it, burst into an hysterical fit of tears, and was ordered out of the kitchen to lie down and recover herself. The only person who showed her the least pity and offered her the slightest attention, was a servant-girl like herself; who lived next door, and who stole up to the room in which she was weeping alone, with a cup of warm milk and water to comfort her.

  Meanwhile, the report had spread in the town that the old man, Monsieur de Beaulieu, and the whole Duparc family, had been poisoned by their servant. Madame Duparc did her best to give the rumour the widest possible circulation. Entirely forgetting, as it would seem, that she was on her own showing a poisoned woman, she roamed excitably all over the house with an audience of agitated female friends at her heels; telling the burnt-arsenic story over and over again to every fresh detachment of visitors that arrived to hear it; and finally leading the whole troop of women into the room where Marie was trying to recover herself The poor girl was surrounded in a moment; angry faces and shrill voices met her on every side; the most insolent questions, the most extravagant accusations, assailed her; and not one word that she could say in her own defence was listened to for an instant. She had sprung up in the bed, on her knees, and was frantically entreating for permission to speak in her own defence, when a new personage appeared on the scene, and stilled the clamour by his presence. This individual was a surgeon named Hébert, a friend of Madame Duparc’s, who announced that he had arrived to give the family the benefit of his assistance, and who proposed to commence operations, by searching the servant’s pockets without farther delay.