Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
We cannot do violence to our natural feelings without paying for it. The marchioness had nearly fainted when she could at last take refuge in the carriage: she was utterly overcome by the great effort she had made to present to the curious people of Sauveterre a smiling face and calm features.
“What a horrible comedy!” she murmured, as she sank back on the cushions.
“Admit, at least, madam,” said the lawyer, “that it was necessary. You have won over, perhaps, a hundred persons to your son’s side.”
She made no reply. Her tears stifled her. What would she not have given for a few moments’ solitude, to give way to all the grief of her heart, to all the anxiety of a mother! The time till she reached the house seemed to her an eternity; and, although the horse was driven at a furious rate, she felt as if they were making no progress. At last the carriage stopped.
The little servant had jumped down, and opened the door, saying,–
“Here we are.”
The marchioness got out with M. Folgat’s assistance; and her foot was hardly on the ground, when the house-door opened, and Dionysia threw herself into her arms, too deeply moved to speak. At last she broke forth,–
“Oh, my mother, my mother! what a terrible misfortune!”
In the passage M. de Chandore was coming forward. He had not been able to follow his granddaughter’s rapid steps.
“Let us go in,” he said to the two ladies: “don’t stand there!”
For at all the windows curious eyes were peeping through the blinds.
He drew them into the sitting-room. Poor M. Folgat was sorely embarrassed what to do with himself. No one seemed to be aware of his existence. He followed them, however. He entered the room, and standing by the door, sharing the general excitement, he was watching by turns, Dionysia, M. de Chandore, and the two spinsters.
Dionysia was then twenty years old. It could not be said that she was uncommonly beautiful; but no one could ever forget her again who had once seen her. Small in form, she was grace personified; and all her movements betrayed a rare and exquisite perfection. Her black hair fell in marvellous masses over her head, and contrasted strangely with her blue eyes and her fair complexion. Her skin was of dazzling whiteness. Every thing in her features spoke of excessive timidity. And yet, from certain movements of her lips and her eyebrows, one might have suspected no lack of energy.
Grandpapa Chandore looked unusually tall by her side. His massive frame was imposing. He did not show his seventy-two years, but was as straight as ever, and seemed to be able to defy all the storms of life. What struck strangers most, perhaps, was his dark-red complexion, which gave him the appearance of an Indian chieftain, while his white beard and hair brought the crimson color still more prominently out. In spite of his herculean frame and his strange complexion, his face bore the expression of almost child-like goodness. But the first glance at his eyes proved that the gentle smile on his lips was not to be taken alone. There were flashes in his gray eyes which made people aware that a man who should dare, for instance, to offend Dionysia, would have to pay for it pretty dearly.
As to the two aunts, they were as tall and thin as a couple of willow- rods, pale, discreet, ultra-aristocratic in their reserve and their coldness; but they bore in their faces an expression of happy peace and sentimental tenderness, such as is often seen in old maids whose temper has not been soured by celibacy. They dressed absolutely alike, as they had done now for forty years, preferring neutral colors and modest fashions, such as suited their simple taste.
They were crying bitterly at that moment; and M. Folgat felt instinctively that there was no sacrifice of which they were not capable for their beloved niece’s sake.
“Poor Dionysia!” they whispered.
The girl heard them, however; and, drawing herself up, she said,–
“But we are behaving shamefully. What would Jacques say, if he could see us from his prison! Why should we be so sad? Is he not innocent?”
Her eyes shone with unusual brilliancy: her voice had a ring which moved Manuel Folgat deeply.
“I can at least, in justice to myself,” she went on saying, “assure you that I have never doubted him for a moment. And how should I ever have dared to doubt? The very night on which the fire broke out, Jacques wrote me a letter of four pages, which he sent me by one of his tenants, and which reached me at nine o’clock. I showed it to grandpapa. He read it, and then he said I was a thousand times right, because a man who had been meditating such a crime could never have written that letter.”
“I said so, and I still think so,” added M. de Chandore; “and every sensible man will think so too; but"–
His granddaughter did not let him finish.
“It is evident therefore, that Jacques is the victim of an abominable intrigue; and we must unravel it. We have cried enough: now let us act!”
Then, turning to the marchioness, she said,–
“And my dear mother, I sent for you, because we want you to help us in this great work.”
“And here I am,” replied the old lady, “not less certain of my son’s innocence than you are.”
Evidently M. de Chandore had been hoping for something more; for he interrupted her, asking,–
“And the marquis?”
“My husband remained in Paris.”
The old gentleman’s face assumed a curious expression.
“Ah, that is just like him,” he said. “Nothing can move him. His only son is wickedly accused of a crime, arrested, thrown into prison. They write to him; they hope he will come at once. By no means. Let his son get out of trouble as he can. He has his /faiences/ to attend to. Oh, if I had a son!”
“My husband,” pleaded the marchioness, “thinks he can be more useful to Jacques in Paris than here. There will be much to be done there.”
“Have we not the railway?”
“Moreover,” she went on, “he intrusted me to this gentleman.” She pointed out M. Folgat.
“M. Manuel Folgat, who has promised us the assistance of his experience, his talents, and his devotion.”
When thus formally introduced, M. Folgat bowed, and said,–
“I am all hope. But I think with Miss Chandore, that we must go to work without losing a second. Before I can decide, however, upon what is to be done, I must know all the facts.”
“Unfortunately we know nothing,” replied M. de Chandore,–"nothing, except that Jacques is kept in close confinement.”
“Well, then, we must try to find out. You know, no doubt, all the law officers of Sauveterre?”
“Very few. I know the commonwealth attorney.”
“And the magistrate before whom the matter has been brought.”
The older of the two Misses Lavarande rose, and exclaimed,–
“That man, M. Galpin, is a monster of hypocrisy and ingratitude. He called himself Jacques’s friend; and Jacques liked him well enough to induce us, my sister and myself, to give our consent to a marriage between him and one of our cousins, a Lavarande. Poor child. When she learned the sad truth, she cried, ’Great God! God be blessed that I escaped the disgrace of becoming the wife of such a man!’ “
“Yes,” added the other old lady, “if all Sauveterre thinks Jacques guilty, let them also say, ’His own friend has become his judge.’ “
M. Folgat shook his head, and said,–
“I must have more minute information. The marquis mentioned to me a M. Seneschal, mayor of Sauveterre.”
M. de Chandore looked at once for his hat, and said,–
“To be sure! He is a friend of ours; and, if any one is well informed, he is. Let us go to him. Come.”
M. Seneschal was indeed a friend of the Chandores, the Lavarandes, and also of the Boiscorans. Although he was a lawyer he had become attached to the people whose confidential adviser he had been for more than twenty years. Even after having retired from business, M. Seneschal had still retained the full confidence of his former clients. They never decided on any grave question, without consulting him first. His successor did the business for them; but M. Seneschal directed what was to be done.
Nor was the assistance all on one side. The example of great people like M. de Chandore and Jacques’s uncle had brought many a peasant on business into M. Seneschal’s office; and when he was, at a later period of his life, attacked by the fever of political ambition, and offered to “sacrifice himself for his country” by becoming mayor of Sauveterre, and a member of the general council, their support had been of great service to him.
Hence he was well-nigh overcome when he returned, on that fatal morning, to Sauveterre. He looked so pale and undone, that his wife was seriously troubled.
“Great God, Augustus! What has happened?” she asked.
“Something terrible has happened,” he replied in so tragic a manner, that his wife began to tremble.
To be sure, Mrs. Seneschal trembled very easily. She was a woman of forty-five or fifty years, very dark, short, and fat, trying hard to breathe in the corsets which were specially made for her by the Misses Mechinet, the clerk’s sisters. When she was young, she had been rather pretty: now she still kept the red cheeks of her younger days, a forest of jet black hair, and excellent teeth. But she was not happy. Her life had been spent in wishing for children, and she had none.
She consoled herself, it is true, by constantly referring to all the most delicate details on the subject, mentioning not to her intimate friends only, but to any one who would listen, her constant disappointments, the physicians she had consulted, the pilgrimages she had undertaken, and the quantities of fish she had eaten, although she abominated fish. All had been in vain, and as her hopes fled with her years, she had become resigned, and indulged now in a kind of romantic sentimentality, which she carefully kept alive by reading novels and poems without end. She had a tear ready for every unfortunate being, and some words of comfort for every grief. Her charity was well known. Never had a poor woman with children appealed to her in vain. In spite of all that, she was not easily taken in. She managed her household with her hand as well as with her eye; and no one surpassed her in the extent of her washings, or the excellence of her dinners.
She was quite ready, therefore, to sigh and to sob when her husband told her what had happened during the night. When he had ended, she said,–
“That poor Dionysia is capable of dying of it. In your place, I would go at once to M. de Chandore, and inform him in the most cautious manner of what has happened.”
“I shall take good care not to do so,” replied M. Seneschal; “and I tell you expressly not to go there yourself.”
For he was by no means a philosopher; and, if he had been his own master, he would have taken the first train, and gone off a hundred miles, so as not to see the grief of the Misses Lavarande and Grandpapa Chandore. He was exceedingly fond of Dionysia: he had been hard at work for years to settle and to add to her fortune, as if she had been his own daughter, and now to witness her grief! He shuddered at the idea. Besides, he really did not know what to believe, and influenced by M. Galpin’s assurance, misled by public opinion, he had come to ask himself if Jacques might not, after all, have committed the crimes with which he was charged.
Fortunately his duties were on that day so numerous and so troublesome, that he had no time to think. He had to provide for the recovery and the transportation of the remains of the two unfortunate victims of the fire; he had to receive the mother of one, and the widow and children of the other, and to listen to their complaints, and try to console them by promising the former a small pension, and the latter some help in the education of their children. Then he had to give directions to have the wounded men brought home; and, after that, he had gone out in search of a house for Count Claudieuse and his wife, which had given him much trouble. Finally, a large part of the afternoon had been taken up by an angry discussion with Dr. Seignebos. The doctor, in the name of outraged society, as he called it, and in the name of justice and humanity, demanded the immediate arrest of Cocoleu, that wretch whose unconscious statement formed the basis of the accusation. He demanded with a furious oath that the epileptic idiot should be sent to the hospital, and kept there so as to be professionally examined by experts. The mayor had for some time refused to grant the request, which seemed to him unreasonable; but he doctor had talked so loud and insisted so strongly, that at last he had sent two gendarmes to Brechy with orders to bring back Cocoleu.
They had returned several hours later with empty hands. The idiot had disappeared; and no one in the whole district had been able to give any information as to this whereabouts.
“And you think that is natural?” exclaimed Dr. Seignebos, whose eyes were glaring at the mayor from under his spectacles. “To me that looks like an absolute proof that a plot has been hatched to ruin M. de Boiscoran.”
“But can’t you be quiet?” M. Seneschal said angrily. “Do you think Cocoleu is lost? He will turn up again.”
The doctor had left him without insisting any longer; but before going home, he had dropped in at his club, and there, in the presence of twenty people he had declared that he had positive proof of a plot formed against M. de Boiscoran, whom the Monarchists had never forgiven for having left them; and that the Jesuits were certainly mixed up with the business.
This interference was more injurious than useful to Jacques; and the consequences were soon seen. That same evening, when M. Galpin crossed the New-Market Place, he was wantonly insulted. Very naturally he went, almost in a fury, to call upon the mayor, to hold him responsible for this insult offered to Justice in his person, and asking for energetic punishment. M. Seneschal promised to take the proper measures, and went to the commonwealth attorney to act in concert with him. There he learned what had happened at Boiscoran, and the terrible result of the examination.
So he had come home, quite sorrowful, distressed at Jacques’s situation, and very much disturbed by the political aspect which the matter was beginning to wear. He had spent a bad night, and in the morning had displayed such fearful temper, that his wife had hardly dared to say a word to him. But even that was not all. At two o’clock precisely, the funeral of Bolton and Guillebault was to take place; and he had promised Capt. Parenteau that he would be present in his official costume, and accompanied by the whole municipal council. He had already given orders to have his uniform gotten ready, when the servant announced visitors,–M. de Chandore and friend.
“That was all that was wanting!” he exclaimed
But, thinking it over, he added,–
“Well, it had to come sooner r later. Show them in!”
M. Seneschal was too good to be so troubled in advance, and to prepare himself for a heart-rending scene. He was amazed at the easy, almost cheerful manner with which M. de Chandore presented to him his companion.
“M. Manuel Folgat, my dear Seneschal, a famous lawyer from Paris, who has been kind enough to come down with the Marchioness de Boiscoran.”
“I am a stranger here, M. Seneschal,” said Folgat: “I do not know the manner of thinking, the customs, the interests, the prejudices, of this country; in fact, I am totally ignorant, and I know I would commit many a grievous blunder, unless I could secure the assistance of an able and experienced counsellor. M. de Boiscoran and M. de Chandore have both encouraged me to hope that I might find such a man in you.”
“Certainly, sir, and with all my heart,” replied M. Seneschal, bowing politely, and evidently flattered by this deference on the part of a great Paris lawyer.
He had offered his guests seats. He had sat down himself, and resting his elbow on the arm of his big office-chair, he rubbed his clean- shaven chin with his hand.
“This is a very serious matter, gentlemen,” he said at last.
“A criminal charge is always serious,” replied M. Folgat.
“Upon my word,” cried M. de Chandore, “you are not in doubt about Jacques’s innocence?”
M. Seneschal did not say, No. He was silent, thinking of the wise remarks made by his wife the evening before.
“How can we know,” he began at last, “what may be going on in young brains of twenty-five when they are set on fire by the remembrance of certain insults! Wrath is a dangerous counsellor.”
Grandpapa Chandore refused to hear any more.
“What! do you talk to me of wrath?” he broke in; “and what do you see of wrath in this Valpinson affair? I see nothing in it, for my part, but the very meanest crime, long prepared and coolly carried out.”
The mayor very seriously shook his head, and said,–
“You do not know all that has happened.”
“Sir,” added M. Folgat, “it is precisely for the purpose of hearing what has happened that we come to you.”
“Very well,” said M. Seneschal.
Thereupon he went to work to describe the events which he had witnessed at Valpinson, and those, which, as he had learned from the commonwealth attorney, had taken place at Boiscoran; and this he did with all the lucidity of an experienced old lawyer who is accustomed to unravel the mysteries of complicated suits. He wound up by saying,–
“Finally, do you know what Daubigeon said to me, whose evidence you will certainly know how to appreciate? He said in so many words, ’Galpin could not but order the arrest of M. de Boiscoran. Is he guilty? I do not know what to think of it. The accusation is overwhelming. He swears by all the gods that he is innocent; but he will not tell how he spent the night.’ “
M. de Chandore, in spite of his vigor, was near fainting, although his face remained as crimson as ever. Nothing on earth could make him turn pale.
“Great God!” he murmured, “what will Dionysia say?”
Then, turning to M. Folgat, he said aloud,–
“And yet Jacques had something in his mind for that evening.”
“Do you think so?”
“I am sure of it. But for that, he would certainly have come to the house, as he has done every evening for a month. Besides, he said so himself in the letter which he sent Dionysia by one of his tenants, and which she mentioned to you. He wrote, ’I curse from the bottom of my heart the business which prevents me from spending the evening with you; but I cannot possibly defer it any longer. To-morrow!’ “
“You see,” said M. Seneschal.
“The letter is of such a nature,” continued the old gentleman, “that I repeat, No man who premeditated such a hideous crime could possibly have written it. Nevertheless, I confess to you, that, when I heard the fatal news, this very allusion to some pressing business impressed me painfully.”
But the young lawyer seemed to be far from being convinced.
“It is evident,” he said, “that M. de Boiscoran will on no account let it be known where he went.”
“He told a falsehood, sir,” insisted M. Seneschal. “He commenced by denying that he had gone the way on which the witnesses met him.”
“Very naturally, since he desires to keep the place unknown to which he went.”
“He did not say any more when he was told that he was under arrest.”
“Because he hopes he will get out of this trouble without betraying his secret.”
“If that were so, it would be very strange.”
“Stranger things than that have happened.”
“To allow himself to be accused of incendiarism and murder when he is innocent!”
“To be innocent, and to allow one’s self to be condemned, is still stranger; and yet there are instances"–
The young lawyer spoke in that short, imperious tone which is, so to say, the privilege of his profession, and with such an accent of assurance, that M. de Chandore felt his hopes revive. M. Seneschal was sorely troubled.
“And what do you think, sir?” he asked.
“That M. de Boiscoran must be innocent,” replied the young advocate. And, without leaving time for objections, he continued,–
“That is the opinion of a man who is not influenced by any consideration. I come here without any preconceived notions. I do not know Count Claudieuse any more than M. de Boiscoran. A crime has been committed: I am told the circumstances; and I at once come to the conclusion that the reasons which led to the arrest of the accused would lead me to set him at liberty.”
“Let me explain. If M. de Boiscoran is guilty, he has shown, in the way in which he received M. Galpin at the house, a perfectly unheard- of self-control, and a matchless genius for comedy. Therefore, if he is guilty, he is immensely clever"–
“Allow me to finish. If he is guilty, he has in the examination shown a marvellous want of self-control, and, to be brief, a nameless stupidity: therefore, if he is guilty, he is immensely stupid"–
“Allow me to finish. Can one and the same person be at once so unusually clever and so unusually stupid? Judge yourself. But again: if M. de Boiscoran is guilty, he ought to be sent to the insane asylum, and not to prison; for any one else but a madman would have poured out the dirty water in which he had washed his blackened hands, and would have buried anywhere that famous breech-loader, of which the prosecution makes such good use.”
“Jacques is safe!” exclaimed M. de Chandore.
M. Seneschal was not so easily won over.
“That is specious pleading,” he said. “Unfortunately, we want something more than a logic conclusion to meet a jury with an abundance of witnesses on the other side.”
“We will find more on our side.”
“What do you propose to do?”
“I do not know. I have just told you my first impression. Now I must study the case, and examine the witnesses, beginning with old Anthony.”
M. de Chandore had risen. He said,–
“We can reach Boiscoran in an hour. Shall I send for my carriage?”
“As quickly as possible,” replied the young lawyer.
M. de Chandore’s servant was back in a quarter of an hour, and announced that the carriage was at the door. M. de Chandore and M. Folgat took their seats; and, while they were getting in, the mayor warned the young Paris lawyer,–
“Above all, be prudent and circumspect. The public mind is already but too much inflamed. Politics are mixed up with the case. I am afraid of some disturbance at the burial of the firemen; and they bring me word that Dr. Seignebos wants to make a speech at the graveyard. Good-by and good luck!”
The driver whipped the horse, and, as the carriage was going down through the suburbs, M. de Chandore said,–
“I cannot understand why Anthony did not come to me immediately after his master had been arrested. What can have happened to him?”