“This is the sword of justice,” Jean-Baptiste told him, lifting it from its long, straw-lined crate. “It first belonged to your great-grandfather.”
Great-grandfather—the first Charles Sanson in the profession, the first to hold the Paris title, Master of High Works for the City and Provostry of Paris and Versailles. His sword was a family heirloom, of sorts, Charles knew, but the kind you didn’t boast about.
Engraved near the two-handed hilt, the single word Iustitia—Justice—glinted in the light. The gentle spring sunshine spilled through the door into the shadows of the windowless shed, giving murky outlines to other, less graceful objects: coils of rope, oaken planks, leather whips, a brazier, an iron cudgel, a cart wheel.
The sword was three and a half feet long, with a fine, narrow blade kept oiled and gleaming. It was a beautiful thing, if you could manage to forget what it was meant for.
“Go on, take it,” his father said. Charles guessed what he’d left unspoken: You’ll have to lift it one day.
“It has to be. You’ve been looking through the Treatise on the Human Skeleton—don’t you remember what neck bones look like? Slicing through them isn’t easy.”
“No, Father.” He balanced the sword in his hands, the point upward, wondering how much it weighed and if his forefathers had found it as intimidating as he did. He would far rather have been back in Jean-Baptiste’s library, leafing through the medical and scientific books that his father, his grandfather Charles Sanson the Second, and great-grandfather Charles Sanson the First had collected over the past sixty or seventy years.
“Charles, have you any idea how one beheads a man with a sword?”
The question, almost matter-of-fact, quietly asked, jerked him back to the present. He glanced up at his father, who gazed at him, unsmiling as always.
“You’re fourteen now, old enough. You’ll have to learn.”
“I…” Occasionally—before his stepmother hurried him away—he caught sight of Jean-Baptiste practicing with a sword, or a facsimile of one, in a yard well away from the house, beyond the stable where he kept the horses and cart that transported criminals to execution at the Place de Grève. But his father was merely aiming at a standing post or at bundles of straw, a harmless enough pastime, you’d think.
“I suppose you lift it up in the air,” he said, groping for words, “and—and chop down—like chopping firewood.”
“No,” Jean-Baptiste said, taking back the weapon, which Charles willingly relinquished to him. “That’s not how it’s done. Chopping with an axe on a block—that’s a clumsy method. Crude.”
No doubt his father expected him to show some respectful, though not unseemly, curiosity about the family profession.
“How do you do it, then?”
“You have to swing it sideways.”
“Like this.” Jean-Baptiste gripped the long hilt in both hands, raised the sword almost to shoulder height and parallel to the ground, and slowly described a wide, horizontal arc at arm’s length. The steel glittered, flashing in Charles’s eyes, as it swept past.
“The patient kneels in front of you, upright, with his back to you.”
Charles stifled an uneasy giggle at the euphemism. Patient—as though the executioner were a doctor. The final cure for all ills.
Abruptly he imagined himself the executioner’s victim (patient, Charles), kneeling in a pile of straw, neck bared, awaiting the blow, and the breath seemed to freeze in his lungs.
“You swing the sword about, from high above,” his father continued: “like this, high above your shoulder, to get up the speed, and then you must aim just right—”
Awaiting the blow, he thought, blindfolded, hands tied behind you…your heart would race and your breath would come quick and shallow, wouldn’t it?
With an effort Charles balled his fists, closed his eyes for an instant, and turned to face his father, who continued in his usual composed, distant tones.
“—so it passes straight through his neck. It requires strength, control, a keen eye, and steady nerves. You need to know how to do it, and you’re strong enough now, I’d judge, to begin practicing with a blade. Only practice will make you skilled at it.”
Charles swallowed, glancing covertly at this stranger who was talking so dispassionately about instruments of judicial death and how to use them, this sudden stranger who had once been his father. “I couldn’t do that.”
“I couldn’t ever cut somebody’s head off.”
“I thought so, too, when I was fourteen.” Jean-Baptiste laid the sword back in its crate. He rested a hand, for an instant, on Charles’s shoulder. Providence had been kind to him, he went on; in all his career, he'd been ordered to behead a man only once.
“But should such an unhappy occasion arise, I’m prepared, both in body—to strike a clean blow—and spiritually, as the law’s most terrible servant, to take another’s life in the name of the law. Fortunately,” he added, “we live in a civilized age; the gentry rarely commit capital offenses.”
“Only people of noble birth are allowed to be beheaded,” Jean-Baptiste reminded him, as he shut the crate and secured it with a small padlock wrought—incongruously enough—into an ornate heart. “Always be sure the swords are locked away. I have two here—this one and a spare. The Parlement gave them to my grandfather, sixty years ago, when he assumed the Paris title. They cost six hundred livres each, back in his day, and I hate to think what it would cost now to replace them.”
Charles nodded, impressed. Six hundred livres was more than the average workman earned in a year.
Jean-Baptiste gestured him out to the sunshine of the stableyard, muddy from the spring rain. “Only nobles may be beheaded,” he repeated, as he fished out his keys, “and you must know how to do it yourself, because they have the privilege of being executed by someone of equivalent rank.”
Charles frowned. What was he missing? “Another nobleman?”
“If you find studying the criminal law as tedious as I did when I was your age,” Jean-Baptiste said dryly, “you should at least read your history.” He locked the shed and joined Charles. “Not another nobleman, no, but nearly so. Only the master executioner may behead an aristocrat.”
Only the master executioner, he went on, an indispensable functionary of the high court, who held the royal office and title from the Parlement of Paris—grandly, Maître des Hautes Œuvres, Master of High Works—could carry out such a solemn duty; he couldn’t delegate it to his lackeys as they did with plebeian hangings.
“And you, as my eldest son, will someday hold the Paris title and you may, one day, like me, have to put someone to death with your own hands, so—”
“Father? Why are nobles beheaded while ordinary people are hanged?”
“Decapitation is a privilege, Charles. It illustrates the distinction between the high-born and the common masses. It’s an honorable way to die, suitable for a gentleman or gentlewoman.”
“Even one who’s committed a crime?”
Assault, murder, rebellion, treason, even those?
“Yes, even one who’s gone astray and committed some act that’s worthy of death. The young gentleman I had to behead had murdered his mistress in a fit of passion. Noble birth implies a tradition of duty and honor, just like our own—and so it’s a gentleman’s duty, when condemned to die, to hold himself up courageously and maintain the honor of his family name by awaiting the blow without flinching. Ordinary criminals wouldn’t have the nerve for it. The dregs of the streets and the slums, they have no noble name or family honor to uphold.
“Imagine,” Jean-Baptiste continued, “a common housebreaker, a cutpurse, a brigand, outlaws and cowards all, having the native courage to hold himself still on the scaffold even for a moment or two, while the executioner concentrates on his aim! He’d most likely struggle, or tremble, or even collapse. And that, of course, would spoil the headsman’s aim and lead to frightful accidents. It’s really to their benefit that the riffraff are hanged.”
Charles looked away, feeling a little sick to his stomach, as he usually did when he had to pass the local abattoir on the way to Mass at Saint-Laurent. Its pervasive ooze of filth and stinking stale blood invariably slimed the cobbles and his shoes. If he disliked the thought of innocent animals being slaughtered and butchered nearby for his family’s table, how much more repugnant was the prospect of putting human beings to death?
Since his twelfth birthday he’d witnessed at least a dozen executions at Jean-Baptiste’s side. To learn your business, his father had said. Hanging was humiliating for the victim and Charles had found it unpleasant to watch, but it was reliable, predictable, and passably quick; it was supposed, Jean-Baptiste told him, to snap the neck at once and finish the culprit. If he or she instead strangled to death at the end of the rope, slowly choking while evacuating bladder and bowels, to the mingled amusement, disgust, and indignation of the watching crowds, the executioner’s lackeys hadn’t done their job properly.
The spring sun was warm on his face. He drew a deep breath, glad to get away from the shed—the one kept locked, where his father kept the tools of his profession, where the children were strictly forbidden to venture—and resolved to light a candle to the Blessed Virgin and pray that he would never have to behead anyone.
“It’s a fine afternoon,” Jean-Baptiste said. He glanced up at the cloudless sky. “Perhaps we should begin today. You’ll start with the dummy sword and get your arms used to supporting the weight at the proper—”
“I’d rather learn about your laboratory,” Charles said hastily, eager to examine the rows of dusty bottles and vials, and trying not to think about the executioner’s sword at all. “I’d like to learn about medicine and—and curing people.” Despite his profession that was both the honor and the curse of the Sanson family, Jean-Baptiste was well known in their outlying parish as a skilled healer, like his father and grandfather before him, with as much expertise in doctoring as many physicians with university degrees.
Jean-Baptiste eyed him for a moment. “How are you getting along with your studies?”
Charles could predict to a hair’s breadth that Père Grisel, his tutor, had reported that young Monsieur Sanson had quite a thirst for knowledge, but was an abysmal speller, wrote a poor hand, and had faulty Latin.
“I try my best at Latin. And I know I can’t spell. But I like to read anything I can. Natural philosophy, herbalism, anatomy—”
“You’re not to spend all your time with those at the expense of history and law.”
Jean-Baptiste’s tone was stern, but Charles could tell from a fraction of a smile on his father’s lips that he was not altogether displeased with his son’s love of learning, whatever branches of knowledge he might be overlooking.
“But I do want to read your scientific books, and learn about medicine.”
Jean-Baptiste slipped the key to the shed into his pocket and extracted another. “I see you won’t be dissuaded. Very well; the laboratory now, then the wooden sword this afternoon, and no arguments.”
Charles grinned and followed him, barely concealing his excitement. Beneath the broad skylight the laboratory was full of mysteries and wonders: a cupboard that held dozens of bottles and small ceramic pots, full of tinctures, syrups, ointments; a shelf of unfamiliar books on botany and anatomy; a brazier for simmering mixtures; and enough mortars and jars of dried herbs to fill an apothecary’s shop. Jean-Baptiste pointed at the various articles, explaining, as Charles stared.
A question he’d longed to ask for some years, but had never dared to bring up, hovered at the edge of his memory. Naturally the executioner had frequent contact with corpses. And Jérôme, Jean-Baptiste’s chief assistant, a veteran of thirty-five years or more in the profession, had sworn many times that the salve his master prepared would cure anything.
He would ask him, for once and for all, when they completed the tour of the outbuilding.
“Father, Jérôme says you know how to make a magic ointment out of hanged men’s fat.”
He half expected a box on the ear to curb his inquisitiveness, but Jean-Baptiste merely frowned. “Do you believe all the tall tales the servants tell you?”
“Remember, they’re not of our class and they haven’t had your education.”
“It’s not true, then?”
It was an ancient superstition, Jean-Baptiste patiently explained, hundreds of years old, that the executioner could mix a magical salve from dead men’s fat. Perhaps Sanson the First and his predecessors in the profession, back in less scientific and enlightened centuries, had indeed concocted such a mixture. But he, Jean-Baptiste Sanson, let the men believe such foolishness only because all ignorant people believed it, and wouldn’t be convinced otherwise.
“This is the eighteenth century, not the fourteenth, and I won’t have you swallowing such nonsense. It’s no different from the old wives’ tale about a piece of hangman’s rope, or a hanged man’s bone, bringing good luck. Pagan superstition, not reason.”
“But is there a salve—”
“Yes, I prepare one that soothes skin afflictions and small wounds. They all ask me for it, as I’m sure they asked your grandfather and great-grandfather in their time; they believe it’ll cure anything ailing them.” He retrieved a ceramic jar from a shelf and pulled out the stopper. “But the salve is made from lard mixed with thyme, myrtle, and a few other medicinal herbs: nothing more.”
Charles wrinkled his nose at the pungent odor of bitter herbs mingled with pig fat, worse than the rancid reek of cheap tallow candles that smelled like a soap boiler’s back alley, and Jean-Baptiste gave him another of his rare smiles. “It does stink to high heaven.”
“So you don’t take hanged men’s fat?”
“Listen to me.” He turned Charles around with a firm grip on his shoulder, so that they were face-to-face. “I would never take the fat of a man for such a thing. Never. It’s against God’s laws to tamper with a human body.”
“But don’t you dissect bodies?”
“Yes,” Jean-Baptiste admitted, “I look inside criminals’ dead bodies to see how God created us, so I can understand better how to heal people. So did your grandfather and great-grandfather. But cooking human flesh to render fat for a charm would be much more repugnant to Him. I wouldn’t use even a criminal’s body for such a purpose; I’m a man of science, not superstition.
“Though a physician from the university,” he added, a trace of scorn in his voice, “wouldn’t think of touching a corpse himself, even to instruct his students.” In the medical schools, he’d been told, the lecturer stood no nearer to the dissection table than necessary to demonstrate with a long pointer, while some grimy-handed minion in a leather apron did the cutting and the pinning.
He left it unsaid, but Charles understood: The executioner could indulge in no such fastidious snobbery.
“The body of the man we hanged on Tuesday is still here. He has a malformed arm. Would you like to see?”
They would have to send him off for burial soon, if the weather stayed warm. Charles nodded. Fresh corpses weren’t particularly dreadful; he’d seen them often enough at the gallows. Though religious law forbade dissection of human corpses, the bodies of the executed were an exception; by their crimes they had forfeited the privilege and blessing that all good, law-abiding Christians could claim, burial in consecrated ground. The executioner had the right to the body, clothes, and effects of his victim—patient—for his own profit, and could sell cadavers to the medical school if he pleased, or examine them himself.
Jean-Baptiste unlocked a further door at the rear of the laboratory, which led to a room with another north-facing skylight. Something lay covered on a table in the center. He pulled away the sheet. “See here?”
He had already begun to dissect the man’s arm; Charles could see how the muscles were laid out and how the bones beneath were crooked. “I expect he broke his arm when he was a child, and it wasn’t set properly,” Jean-Baptiste continued.
It wasn’t horrid at all, but fascinating. Jean-Baptiste knew how to set bones, among many other useful skills more appropriate to a doctor than an executioner.
I’d like to be able to do that, to be like him, Charles thought; and hastily thrust away the image of his father’s sword, the headsman’s sword that had belonged to three generations of Sansons and someday would belong to him as it had to his forefathers, forever and ever, time without end, amen.
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