On this date in 1838, in The Count of Monte Cristo, the title character witnesses two men brought to the scaffold for public execution in Rome.
In Alexandre Dumas‘ classic, the count is really Edmond Dantes, wrongly imprisoned years before, who has escaped and enriched himself with a discovered treasure, purchasing thereafter his ennoblement. This date’s execution occurs shortly after Dantes has surfaced publicly as the count. He witnesses it with two young friends — goading one of the reluctant youths by remarking, “when you travel, it is to see everything. Think what a figure you will make when you are asked, ‘How do they execute at Rome?’ and you reply, ‘I do not know’!” — and the naked brutality with which the Count greets a scene horrifying to his more genteel companions prefigures the pitiless revenge he will soon visit on his onetime persecutors.
The scene is laid on the first day of Carnival — the concealed identities among the crowd and the tension between its celebratory state of mind and the public butchery played out before it both serving the novel’s themes.
The prisoners are: a murderer, executed by the unique (and error-prone) Roman method of mazzolatura, in which the prisoner is incapacitated with a blow from a mallet before being finished off with a knife; and, a young man wrongly condemned to the guillotine for banditry, who will be reprieved thanks to the protagonist’s intervention further to the latter’s designs of vengeance.
It was the first time Franz had ever seen a guillotine, — we say guillotine, because the Roman mandaia is formed on almost the same model as the French instrument. The knife, which is shaped like a crescent, that cuts with the convex side, falls from a less height, and that is all the difference. Two men, seated on the movable plank on which the victim is laid, were eating their breakfasts, while waiting for the criminal. Their repast consisted apparently of bread and sausages. One of them lifted the plank, took out a flask of wine, drank some, and then passed it to his companion. These two men were the executioner’s assistants. At this sight Franz felt the perspiration start forth upon his brow. The prisoners, transported the previous evening from the Carcere Nuovo to the little church of Santa Maria del Popolo, had passed the night, each accompanied by two priests, in a chapel closed by a grating, before which were two sentinels, who were relieved at intervals. A double line of carbineers, placed on each side of the door of the church, reached to the scaffold, and formed a circle around it, leaving a path about ten feet wide, and around the guillotine a space of nearly a hundred feet. All the rest of the square was paved with heads. Many women held their infants on their shoulders, and thus the children had the best view. The Monte Pincio seemed a vast amphitheatre filled with spectators; the balconies of the two churches at the corner of the Via del Babuino and the Via di Ripetta were crammed; the steps even seemed a parti-colored sea, that was impelled towards the portico; every niche in the wall held its living statue. What the count said was true — the most curious spectacle in life is that of death. And yet, instead of the silence and the solemnity demanded by the occasion, laughter and jests arose from the crowd. It was evident that the execution was, in the eyes of the people, only the commencement of the Carnival. Suddenly the tumult ceased, as if by magic, and the doors of the church opened. A brotherhood of penitents, clothed from head to foot in robes of gray sackcloth, with holes for the eyes, and holding in their hands lighted tapers, appeared first; the chief marched at the head. Behind the penitents came a man of vast stature and proportions. He was naked, with the exception of cloth drawers at the left side of which hung a large knife in a sheath, and he bore on his right shoulder a heavy iron sledge-hammer. This man was the executioner. He had, moreover, sandals bound on his feet by cords. Behind the executioner came, in the order in which they were to die, first Peppino and then Andrea. Each was accompanied by two priests. Neither had his eyes bandaged. Peppino walked with a firm step, doubtless aware of what awaited him. [i.e., a pardon] Andrea was supported by two priests. Each of them, from time to time, kissed the crucifix a confessor held out to them. At this sight alone Franz felt his legs tremble under him. He looked at Albert — he was as white as his shirt, and mechanically cast away his cigar, although he had not half smoked it. The count alone seemed unmoved — nay, more, a slight color seemed striving to rise in his pale cheeks. His nostrils dilated like those of a wild beast that scents its prey, and his lips, half opened, disclosed his white teeth, small and sharp like those of a jackal. And yet his features wore an expression of smiling tenderness, such as Franz had never before witnessed in them; his black eyes especially were full of kindness and pity. However, the two culprits advanced, and as they approached their faces became visible. Peppino was a handsome young man of four or five and twenty, bronzed by the sun; he carried his head erect, and seemed on the watch to see on which side his liberator would appear. Andrea was short and fat; his visage, marked with brutal cruelty, did not indicate age; he might be thirty. In prison he had suffered his beard to grow; his head fell on his shoulder, his legs bent beneath him, and his movements were apparently automatic and unconscious.
“I thought,” said Franz to the count, “that you told me there would be but one execution.”
“I told you true,” replied he coldly.
“And yet here are two culprits.”
“Yes; but only one of these two is about to die; the other has many years to live.”
“If the pardon is to come, there is no time to lose.”
“And see, here it is,” said the count. At the moment when Peppino reached the foot of the mandaia, a priest arrived in some haste, forced his way through the soldiers, and, advancing to the chief of the brotherhood, gave him a folded paper. The piercing eye of Peppino had noticed all. The chief took the paper, unfolded it, and, raising his hand, “Heaven be praised, and his holiness also,” said he in a loud voice; “here is a pardon for one of the prisoners!”
“A pardon!” cried the people with one voice — “a pardon!” At this cry Andrea raised his head. “Pardon for whom?” cried he.
Peppino remained breathless. “A pardon for Peppino, called Rocca Priori,” said the principal friar. And he passed the paper to the officer commanding the carbineers, who read and returned it to him.
“For Peppino!” cried Andrea, who seemed roused from the torpor in which he had been plunged. “Why for him and not for me? We ought to die together. I was promised he should die with me. You have no right to put me to death alone. I will not die alone — I will not!” And he broke from the priests struggling and raving like a wild beast, and striving desperately to break the cords that bound his hands. The executioner made a sign, and his two assistants leaped from the scaffold and seized him. “What is going on?” asked Franz of the count; for, as all the talk was in the Roman dialect, he had not perfectly understood it. “Do you not see?” returned the count, “that this human creature who is about to die is furious that his fellow-sufferer does not perish with him? and, were he able, he would rather tear him to pieces with his teeth and nails than let him enjoy the life he himself is about to be deprived of. Oh, man, man — race of crocodiles,” cried the count, extending his clinched hands towards the crowd, “how well do I recognize you there, and that at all times you are worthy of yourselves!” Meanwhile Andrea and the two executioners were struggling on the ground, and he kept exclaiming, “He ought to die! — he shall die! — I will not die alone!”
“Look, look,” cried the count, seizing the young men’s hands — “look, for on my soul it is curious. Here is a man who had resigned himself to his fate, who was going to the scaffold to die — like a coward, it is true, but he was about to die without resistance. Do you know what gave him strength? — do you know what consoled him? It was, that another partook of his punishment — that another partook of his anguish — that another was to die before him. Lead two sheep to the butcher’s, two oxen to the slaughterhouse, and make one of them understand that his companion will not die; the sheep will bleat for pleasure, the ox will bellow with joy. But man — man, whom God created in his own image — man, upon whom God has laid his first, his sole commandment, to love his neighbor — man, to whom God has given a voice to express his thoughts — what is his first cry when he hears his fellow-man is saved? A blasphemy. Honor to man, this masterpiece of nature, this king of the creation!” And the count burst into a laugh; a terrible laugh, that showed he must have suffered horribly to be able thus to laugh. However, the struggle still continued, and it was dreadful to witness. The people all took part against Andrea, and twenty thousand voices cried, “Put him to death! put him to death!” Franz sprang back, but the count seized his arm, and held him before the window. “What are you doing?” said he. “Do you pity him? If you heard the cry of `Mad dog!’ you would take your gun — you would unhesitatingly shoot the poor beast, who, after all, was only guilty of having been bitten by another dog. And yet you pity a man who, without being bitten by one of his race, has yet murdered his benefactor; and who, now unable to kill any one, because his hands are bound, wishes to see his companion in captivity perish. No, no — look, look!”
The command was needless. Franz was fascinated by the horrible spectacle. The two assistants had borne Andrea to the scaffold, and there, in spite of his struggles, his bites, and his cries, had forced him to his knees. During this time the executioner* had raised his mace, and signed to them to get out of the way; the criminal strove to rise, but, ere he had time, the mace fell on his left temple. A dull and heavy sound was heard, and the man dropped like an ox on his face, and then turned over on his back. The executioner let fall his mace, drew his knife, and with one stroke opened his throat, and mounting on his stomach, stamped violently on it with his feet. At every stroke a jet of blood sprang from the wound.
This time Franz could contain himself no longer, but sank, half fainting, into a seat. Albert, with his eyes closed, was standing grasping the window-curtains. The count was erect and triumphant, like the Avenging Angel!
The Count of Monte Cristo is available free at Project Gutenberg. This day’s scene occurs in chapter 35. (An announcement in chapter 34 establishes the date.)
* The executioner plays no part in the novel, but presumably it would be the prolific Mastro Titta.