The action takes place in Paris during the reign of King Louis XIV of France. The city is under siege by what is presumed to be an organized band of thieves whose members rob citizens of costly jewelry in their homes or on the street. Some of the street victims are simply rendered unconscious by a blow to the head, but most are killed instantly by a deliberate dagger thrust to the heart. The murder victims are mostly wealthy lovers who are on their way to meet their mistresses with gifts of fine jewelry.
These are not the only terrible crimes plaguing Paris (a series of bizarre poisonings is described in detail), and to combat them the King establishes a special court, the Chambre ardente, whose sole purpose is to investigate them and punish their perpetrators. The president of the Chambre, La Régnie, however, is consistently thwarted in his attempts to stop the evildoing, and in his blind zeal and frustration he is seduced to commit acts of terror and brutality. Because of his failures and cruelty, he quickly earns the hatred of those he was appointed to protect.
In a poem exalting the King, the lovers of Paris exhort him to do something for their safety. Mademoiselle de Scudéri (the historical Madeleine de Scudéry), who is present when this appeal is presented, counters jokingly with the following verse:
Un amant, qui craint les voleurs,
N'est point digne d'amour.
[A lover who is afraid of thieves
Is not worthy of love.]
The elderly de Scudéri is a well-known poetess who lives in a modest house in Paris on the rue Saint Honoré by the grace of King Louis and his lover, the Marquise de Maintenon (the historical Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon). One night, a young man bangs on the door of de Scudéri's house and pleads urgently with her maid to be granted entrance. The maid finally lets him in but denies him access to her mistress, whose life she fears is in danger. The young man eventually flees at the sound of the approach of the mounted police, but leaves behind, a small jewelry box, which he begs the maid to deliver to the Mademoiselle. The next morning, de Scudéri opens the box and finds exquisite jewelry and a note in which the band of jewel thieves thanks her for her support in the form of the verse quoted above.
Mademoiselle de Scudéri is distraught by the contents of the jewelry box and seeks the advice of her friend de Maintenon. The Marquise immediately recognizes the jewelry as the work of the goldsmith René Cardillac. Cardillac is known not only in Paris but around the world as the best artist in his field. He is also famous, however, for a strange attribute: he creates the most beautiful pieces of jewelry but then does not want to part with them. Only after much delay does he finally deliver a piece to the customer who commissioned it, and then only under (sometimes violent) protest.
Several months later, Mademoiselle de Scudéri is riding in a glass coach over the Pont Neuf when a young man forces his way through the crowd and throws a letter into the coach. The letter adjures the Mademoiselle to find whatever pretense necessary but to return the jewelry to Cardillac at once. If she does not, the letter warns, her life is in danger. She is overcome by feelings that she is surrounded by "strange events and dark mysteries" but decides to heed the letter writer's appeal.
Two days later, she travels to the goldsmith's house, only to arrive just as his corpse is being carried away. Cardillac has been murdered, and Olivier Brusson, Cardillac's assistant, has been arrested for the crime. Cardillac's daughter Madelon, who is betrothed to Olivier, protests his innocence. Because of Madelon's suffering and utter despair, Mademoiselle de Scudéri takes pity on her and takes her to her house to look after her.
Touched by and believing Madelon's avowals of Olivier's innocence, the Mademoiselle tries to intercede on his behalf with La Régnie. He receives her graciously but is unmoved and presents her with circumstantial evidence that in his view proves that Olivier is the murderer. The Mademoiselle hears the evidence but cannot convince herself of the young man's guilt. La Régnie grants her permission to speak with Olivier, but when she meets him in prison she recognizes the young man who had thrown the warning letter into her coach and falls to the ground unconscious. She now is uncertain of Olivier's innocence and is torn inwardly. She curses the destiny that had made her believe in truth and virtue but now has destroyed the beautiful image she had made for her life.
In the hope that Olivier will confess, Desgrais, de Scudéri's friend and an officer in the mounted police, offers to arrange for a meeting with Olivier in her house. The mademoiselle is filled with foreboding but nevertheless decides to obey the higher powers that had marked her for the solution of some terrible mystery. Olivier is brought to her house, and while guards wait outside he falls on his knees and tells her his story:
Olivier tells the mademoiselle that he is the son of the impoverished young woman, Anne, whom de Scudéri had lovingly raised as her own daughter and from whom she has not heard since she married an industrious and skilled young watchmaker who took her and Olivier to Geneva to seek their fortune. Because of the jealousy of others in his profession, Olivier relates, his father was not able to establish himself in Geneva, and both he and his wife later died there in poverty. Olivier, who had apprenticed himself to a goldsmith, eventually became so skilled in his profession that he was hired as an assistant by René Cardillac in Paris.
All went well, Olivier tells the Mademoiselle, until Cardillac threw him out of the house because he and Cardillac's daughter, Madelon, had fallen in love. In his desperation and longing, Olivier went one night to Cardillac's house in the hope of catching a glimpse of his beloved. Instead, he saw Cardillac slip out of the house through a secret entrance and not far away attack and kill a man by thrusting a dagger into his heart. Cardillac, who knows that Olivier has seen the murder, invites him to return to his workshop and offers him his daughter in marriage. Olivier's silence had been bought, he confesses to de Scudéri, but he relates how from then on he lived with intense pangs of guilt.
One evening, Olivier tells de Scudéri, Cardillac told Olivier his own story. (The plot here becomes a story within a story within a story.) Cardillac tells Olivier how an experience involving a sumptuous diamond necklace (the necklace was worn by a Spanish actor with whom she later had an adulterous affair) that his mother had while she was pregnant with him had marked him for life with a love of fine jewelry. This love caused him to steal jewelry as a child and later led him to become a goldsmith. An "inborn drive," Cardillac told Olivier, forced him to create his renowned works but led him also again and again to take them back from his customers in thefts that often involved murder. Olivier tells de Scudéri that Cardillac stored the retrieved pieces, which were labeled with the names of their rightful owners, in a secret, locked chamber in his house.
Eventually, Olivier informs the mademoiselle, Cardillac decided to give Mademoiselle de Scudéri some of his best work in thanks for the verse that she had quoted to the King in response to the appeal from the threatened lovers. He asked Olivier to present the gift, and Olivier saw in the request a chance to re-establish contact with the woman who had loved and cared for him when he was a child and to reveal to her his unfortunate situation. He was able to deliver the jewel box but was not able to meet with the Mademoiselle.
Some time later, Cardillac again was overcome by his evil star, and it is clear to Olivier that he wanted to retrieve by force the jewelry that he had given to the Mademoiselle. To prevent this, Olivier relates, he threw the letter into de Scudéri's coach, imploring her to return the jewelry as soon as possible. Two days later, because he was afraid that his master was about to attack Mademoiselle de Scudéri, Olivier secretly followed him when he left the house under cover of darkness. Instead of the mademoiselle, Cardillac attacked an officer, who stabbed Cardillac with his dagger and then fled. Olivier brought Cardillac and the murder weapon back to his house, where the master died of his injuries. Olivier was arrested and charged with the murder. His intention, he states, is to die for the murder if he must in order to spare his beloved Madelon the sorrow of learning the truth about her father. With this, Olivier ends his story and is returned to prison. Because he continues to refuse to confess, an order for his torture is issued.
Mademoiselle de Scudéri makes a number of attempts to save Olivier, including writing a letter to La Régnie, but she is unsuccessful. She even wants to plead his case before the King himself, but a famous lawyer by the name of d'Andilly, whom she has consulted, convinces her that at this stage in his case this would not be in the young man's best interest.
Unexpectedly, an officer in the King's Guard by the name of Miossens visits her and reveals that he is the person who, in self-defense, stabbed and killed Cardillac. The astonished Mademoiselle says to him "And you have said nothing? You have not made a statement to the authorities regarding what happened?" Miossens defends himself by stating "Allow me to remark that such a statement, even if it did not cause my ruin, would at least involve me in a most loathsome trial. Would La Régnie, who scents crime everywhere, immediately believe me if I accused the honest Cardillac, the very embodiment of complete piety and virtue, of attempted murderer?" Miossens refuses to consider Olivier innocent, accusing him instead of being Cardillac's accomplice.
Under a pledge of secrecy, Miossens repeats his testimony to d'Andilly, and with this information the lawyer is able to have Olivier's torture postponed. Subsequently, de Scudéri is successful in getting the King to review the case once again. After a month of uncertainty, he reveals to the Mademoiselle that Olivier has been freed, that he will be allowed to marry his beloved Madelon, and that he will receive 1,000 louis d'or as a dowery under the condition that they leave Paris. Olivier and Madelon move to Geneva, where they live happily. The jewelry stolen by Cardillac is returned to the rightful owners who still are living. The rest becomes the property of the Church of St. Eustace.
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