Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
The railway which connects Sauveterre with the Orleans line enjoys a certain celebrity on account of a series of utterly useless curves, which defy all common sense, and which would undoubtedly be the source of countless accidents, if the trains were not prohibited from going faster than eight or ten miles an hour.
The depot has been built–no doubt for the greater convenience of travellers–at a distance of two miles from town, on a place where formerly the first banker of Sauveterre had his beautiful gardens. The pretty road which leads to it is lined on both sides with inns and taverns, on market-days full of peasants, who try to rob each other, glass in hand, and lips overflowing with protestations of honesty. On ordinary days even, the road is quite lively; for the walk to the railway has become a favorite promenade. People go out to see the trains start or come in, to examine the new arrivals, or to exchange confidences as to the reasons why Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so have made up their mind to travel.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when the train which brought the marchioness and Manuel Folgat at last reached Sauveterre. The former was overcome by fatigue and anxiety, having spent the whole night in discussing the chances for her son’s safety, and was all the more exhausted as the lawyer had taken care not to encourage her hopes.
For he also shared, in secret at least, M. Chapelain’s doubts. He, also, had said to himself, that a man like M. de Boiscoran is not apt to be arrested, unless there are strong reasons, and almost overwhelming proofs of his guilt in the hands of the authorities.
The train was slackening speed.
“If only Dionysia and her father,” sighed the marchioness, “have thought of sending a carriage to meet us.”
“Why so?” asked Manuel Folgat.
“Because I do not want all the world to see my grief and my tears.”
The young lawyer shook his head, and said,–
“You will certainly not do that, madame, if you are disposed to follow my advice.”
She looked at him quite amazed; but he insisted.
“I mean you must not look as if you wished not to be seen: that would be a great, almost irreparable mistake. What would they think if they saw you in tears and great distress? They would say you were sure of your son’s guilt; and the few who may still doubt will doubt no longer. You must control public opinion from the beginning; for it is absolute in these small communities, where everybody is under somebody else’s immediate influence. Public opinion is all powerful; and say what you will, it controls even the jurymen in their deliberations.”
“That is true,” said the marchioness: “that is but too true.”
“Therefore, madame, you must summon all your energy, conceal your maternal anxiety in your innermost heart, dry your tears, and show nothing but the most perfect confidence. Let everybody say, as he sees you, ’No mother could look so who thinks her son guilty.’ “
The marchioness straightened herself, and said,–
“You are right, sir; and I thank you. I must try to impress public opinion as you say; and, so far from wishing to find the station deserted, I shall be delighted to see it full of people. I will show you what a woman can do who thinks of her son’s life.”
The Marchioness of Boiscoran was a woman of rare power.
Drawing her comb from her dressing-case, she repaired the disorder of her coiffure; with a few skilful strokes she smoothed her dress; her features, by a supreme effort of will, resumed their usual serenity; she forced her lips to smile without betraying the effort it cost her; and then she said in a clear, firm voice,–
“Look at me, sir. Can I show myself now?”
The train stopped at the station. Manuel Folgat jumped out lightly; and, offering the marchioness his hand to assist her, he said,–
“You will be pleased with yourself, madam. Your courage will not be useless. All Sauveterre seems to be here.
This was more than half true. Ever since the night before, a report had been current,–no one knew how it had started,–that the “murderer’s mother,” as they charitably called her, would arrive by the nine o’clock train; and everybody had determined to happen to be at the station at that hour. In a place where gossip lives for three days upon the last new dress from Paris, such an opportunity for a little excitement was not to be neglected. No one thought for a moment of what the poor old lady would probably feel upon being compelled thus to face a whole town; for at Sauveterre curiosity has at least the merit, that it is not hypocritical. Everybody is openly indiscreet, and by no means ashamed of it. They place themselves right in front of you, and look at you, and try to find out the secret of your joy or your grief.
It must be borne in mind, however, that public opinion was running strongly against M. de Boiscoran. If there had been nothing against him but the fire at Valpinson, and the attempts upon Count Claudieuse, that would have been a small matter. But the fire had had terrible consequences. Two men had perished in it; and two others had been so severely wounded as to put their lives in jeopardy. Only the evening before, a sad procession had passed through the streets of Sauveterre. In a cart covered with a cloth, and followed by two priests, the almost carbonized remains of Bolton the drummer, and of poor Guillebault, had been brought home. The whole city had seen the widow go to the mayor’s office, holding in her arms her youngest child, while the four others clung to her dress.
All these misfortunes were traced back to Jacques, who was loaded with curses; and the people now thought of receiving his mother, the marchioness, with fierce hootings.
“There she is, there she is!” they said in the crowd, when she appeared in the station, leaning upon M. Folgat’s arm.
But they did not say another word, so great was their surprise at her appearance. Immediately two parties were formed. “She puts a bold face on it,” said some; while others declared, “She is quite sure of her son’s innocence.”
At all events, she had presence of mind enough to see what an impression she produced, and how well she had done to follow M. Folgat’s advice. It gave her additional strength. As she distinguished in the crowd some people whom she knew, she went up to them, and, smiling, said,–
“Well, you know what has happened to us. It is unheard of! Here is the liberty of a man like my son at the mercy of the first foolish notion that enters the head of a magistrate. I heard the news yesterday by telegram, and came down at once with this gentleman, a friend of ours, and one of the first lawyers of Paris.”
M. Folgat looked embarrassed: he would have liked more considerate words. Still he could not help supporting the marchioness in what she had said.
“These gentlemen of the court,” he said in measured tones, “will perhaps be sorry for what they have done.”
Fortunately a young man, whose whole livery consisted in a gold-laced cap, came up to them at this moment.
“M. de Chandore’s carriage is here,” he said.
“Very well,” replied the marchioness.
And bowing to the good people of Sauveterre, who were quite dumfounded by her assurance, she said,–
“Pardon me if I leave you so soon; but M. de Chandore expects us. I shall, however, be happy to call upon you soon, on my son’s arm.”
The house of the Chandore family stands on the other side of the New- Market Place, at the very top of the street, which is hardly more than a line of steps, which the mayor persistently calls upon the municipal council to grade, and which the latter as persistently refuse to improve. The building is quite new, massive but ugly, and has at the side a pretentious little tower with a peaked roof, which Dr. Seignebos calls a perpetual menace of the feudal system.
It is true the Chandores once upon a time were great feudal lords, and for a long time exhibited a profound contempt for all who could not boast of noble ancestors and a deep hatred of revolutionary ideas. But if they had ever been formidable, they had long since ceased to be so. Of the whole great family,–one of the most numerous and most powerful of the province,–only one member survived, the Baron de Chandore, and a girl, his granddaughter, betrothed to Jacques de Boiscoran. Dionysia was an orphan. She was barely three years old, when within five months, she lost her father, who fell in a duel, and her mother, who had not the strength to survive the man whom she had loved. This was certainly for the child a terrible misfortune; but she was not left uncared for nor unloved. Her grandfather bestowed all his affections upon her; and the two sisters of her mother, the Misses Lavarande, then already no longer young, determined never to marry, so as to devote themselves exclusively to their niece. From that day the two good ladies had wished to live in the baron’s house; but from the beginning he had utterly refused to listen to their propositions, asserting that he was perfectly able himself to watch over the child, and wanted to have her all to himself. All he would grant was, that the ladies might spend the day with Dionysia whenever they chose.
Hence arose a certain rivalry between the aunts and the grandfather, which led both parties to most amazing exaggerations. Each one did what could be done to engage the affections of the little girl; each one was willing to pay any price for the most trifling caress. At five years Dionysia had every toy that had ever been invented. At ten she was dressed like the first lady of the land, and had jewelry in abundance.
The grandfather, in the meantime, had been metamorphosed from head to foot. Rough, rigid, and severe, he had suddenly become a “love of a father.” The fierce look had vanished from his eyes, the scorn from his lips; and both had given way to soft glances and smooth words. He was seen daily trotting through the streets, and going from shop to shop on errands for his grandchild. He invited her little friends, arranged picnics for her, helped her drive her hoops, and if needs be, led in a cotillion.
If Dionysia looked displeased, he trembled. If she coughed, he turned pale. Once she was sick: she had the measles. He staid up for twelve nights in succession, and sent to Paris for doctors, who laughed in his face.
And yet the two old ladies found means to exceed his folly.
If Dionysia learned any thing at all, it was only because she herself insisted upon it: otherwise the writing-master and the music-master would have been sent away at the slightest sign of weariness.
Sauveterre saw it, and shrugged its shoulders.
“What a wretched education!” the ladies said. “Such weakness is absolutely unheard of. They tender the child a sorry service.”
There was no doubt that such almost incredible spoiling, such blind devotion, and perpetual worship, came very near making of Dionysia the most disagreeable little person that ever lived. But fortunately she had one of those happy dispositions which cannot be spoiled; and besides, she was perhaps saved from the danger by its very excess. As she grew older she would say with a laugh,–
“Grandpapa Chandore, my aunts Lavarande, and I, we do just what we choose.”
That was only a joke. Never did a young girl repay such sweet affection with rarer and nobler qualities.
She was thus leading a happy life, free from all care, and was just seventeen years old, when the great event of her life took place. M. de Chandore one morning met Jacques de Boiscoran, whose uncle had been a friend of his, and invited him to dinner. Jacques accepted the invitation, and came. Dionysia saw him, and loved him.
Now, for the first time in her life, she had a secret unknown to Grandpapa Chandore and to her aunts; and for two years the birds and the flowers were the only confidants of this love of hers, which grew up in her heart, sweet like a dream, idealized by absence, and fed by memory.
For Jacques’s eyes remained blind for two years.
But the day on which they were opened he felt that his fate was sealed. Nor did he hesitate a moment; and in less than a month after that, the Marquis de Boiscoran came down to Sauveterre, and in all form asked Dionysia’s hand for his son.
Ah! that was a heavy blow for Grandpapa Chandore.
He had, of course, often thought of the future marriage of his grandchild; he had even at times spoken of it, and told her that he was getting old, and should feel very much relieved when he should have found her a good husband. But he talked of it as a distant thing, very much as we speak of dying. M. de Boiscoran brought his true feelings out. He shuddered at the idea of giving up Dionysia, of seeing her prefer another man to himself, and of loving her children best of all. He was quite inclined to throw the ambassador out of the window.
Still he checked his feelings, and replied that he could give no reply till he had consulted his granddaughter.
Poor grandpapa! At the very first words he uttered, she exclaimed,–
“Oh, I am so happy! But I expected it.”
M. de Chandore bent his head to conceal a tear which burned in his eyes. Then he said very low,–
“Then the thing is settled.”
At once, rather comforted by the joy that was sparkling in his grandchild’s eyes, he began reproaching himself for his selfishness, and for being unhappy, when his Dionysia seemed to be so happy. Jacques had, of course, been allowed to visit the house as a lover; and the very day before the fire at Valpinson, after having long and carefully counted the days absolutely required for all the purchases of the trousseau, and all the formalities of the event, the wedding- day had been finally fixed.
Thus Dionysia was struck down in the very height of her happiness, when she heard, at the same time, of the terrible charges brought against M. de Boiscoran, and of his arrest.
At first, thunderstruck, she had lain nearly ten minutes unconscious in the arms of her aunts, who, like the grandfather, were themselves utterly overcome with terror. But, as soon as she came to, she exclaimed,–
“Am I mad to give way thus? Is it not evident that he is innocent?”
Then she had sent her telegram to the marquis, knowing well, that, before taking any measures, it was all important to come to an understanding with Jacques’s family. Then she had begged to be left alone; and she had spent the night in counting the minutes that must pass till the hour came when the train from Paris would bring her help.
At eight o’clock she had come down to give orders herself that a carriage should be sent to the station for the marchioness, adding that they must drive back as fast as they could. Then she had gone into the sitting-room to join her grandfather and her aunts. They talked to her; but her thoughts were elsewhere.
At last a carriage was heard coming up rapidly, and stopping before the house. She got up, rushed into the hall, and cried,–
“Here is Jacques’s mother!”