Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
M. Seneschal’s horse was perhaps one of the very best in the whole province; but M. de Chandore’s was still better. In less than fifty minutes they had driven the whole distance to Boiscoran; and during this time M. de Chandore and M. Folgat had not exchanged fifty words.
When they reached Boiscoran, the courtyard was silent and deserted. Doors and windows were hermetically closed. On the steps of the porch sat a stout young peasant, who, at the sight of the newcomers, rose, and carried his hand to his cap.
“Where is Anthony?” asked M. de Chandore.
“Up stairs, sir.”
The old gentleman tried to open the door: it resisted.
“O sir! Anthony has barricaded the door from the inside.”
“A curious idea,” said M. de Chandore, knocking with the butt-end of his whip.
He was knocking fiercer and fiercer, when at last Anthony’s voice was heard from within,–
“Who is there?”
“It is I, Baron Chandore.”
The bars were removed instantly, and the old valet showed himself in the door. He looked pale and undone. The disordered condition of his beard, his hair, and his dress, showed that he had not been to bed. And this disorder was full of meaning in a man who ordinarily prided himself upon appearing always in the dress of an English gentleman.
M. de Chandore was so struck by this, that he asked, first of all,–
“What is the matter with you, my good Anthony?”
Instead of replying, Anthony drew the baron and his companion inside; and, when he had fastened the door again, he crossed his arms, and said,–
“The matter is–well, I am afraid.”
The old gentleman and the lawyer looked at each other. They evidently both thought the poor man had lost his mind. Anthony saw it, and said quickly,–
“No, I am not mad, although, certainly, there are things passing here which could make one doubtful of one’s own senses. If I am afraid, it is for good reasons.”
“You do not doubt your master?” asked M. Folgat.
The servant cast such fierce, threatening glances at the lawyer, that M. de Chandore hastened to interfere.
“My dear Anthony,” he said, “this gentleman is a friend of mine, a lawyer, who has come down from Paris with the marchioness to defend Jacques. You need not mistrust him, nay, more than that, you must tell him all you know, even if"–
The trusty old servant’s face brightened up, and he exclaimed,–
“Ah! If the gentleman is a lawyer. Welcome, sir. Now I can say all that weighs on my heart. No, most assuredly I do not think Master Jacques guilty. It is impossible he should be so: it is absurd to think of it. But what I believe, what I am sure of, is this,–there is a plot to charge him with all the horrors of Valpinson.”
“A plot?” broke in M. Folgat, “whose? how? and what for?”
“Ah! that is more than I know. But I am not mistaken; and you would think so too, if you had been present at the examination, as I was. It was fearful, gentlemen, it was unbearable, so that even I was stupefied for a moment, and thought my master was guilty, and advised him to flee. The like has never been heard of before, I am sure. Every thing went against him. Every answer he made sounded like a confession. A crime had been committed at Valpinson; he had been seen going there and coming back by side paths. A fire had been kindled; his hands bore traces of charcoal. Shots had been fired; they found one of his cartridge-cases close to the spot where Count Claudieuse had been wounded. There it was I saw the plot. How could all these circumstances have agreed so precisely if they had not been pre- arranged, and calculated beforehand? Our poor M. Daubigeon had tears in his eyes; and even that meddlesome fellow, Mechinet, the clerk, was quite overcome. M. Galpin was the only one who looked pleased; but then he was the magistrate, and he put the questions. He, my master’s friend!–a man who was constantly coming here, who ate our bread, slept in our beds, and shot our game. Then it was, ’My dear Jacques,’ and ’My dear Boiscoran’ always, and no end of compliments and caresses; so that I often thought one of these days I should find him blackening my master’s boots. Ah! he took his revenge yesterday; and you ought to have seen with what an air he said to master, ’We are friends no longer.’ The rascal! No, we are friends no longer; and, if God was just, you ought to have all the shot in your body that has wounded Count Claudieuse.”
M. de Chandore was growing more and more impatient. As soon, therefore, as Anthony’s breath gave out a moment, he said,–
“Why did you not come and tell me all that immediately?”
The old servant ventured to shrug his shoulders slightly, and replied,–
“How could I? When the examination was over, that man, Galpin, put the seals everywhere,–strips of linen, fastened on with sealing-wax, as they do with dead people. He put one on every opening, and on some of them two. He put three on the outer door. Then he told me that he appointed me keeper of the house, that I would be paid for it, but that I would be sent to the galleys if any one touched the seals with the tip of the finger. When he had handed master over to the gendarmes, that man, Galpin, went away, leaving me here alone, dumfounded, like a man who has been knocked in the head. Nevertheless, I should have come to you, sir, but I had an idea, and that gave me the shivers.”
Grandpapa Chandore stamped his foot, and said,–
“Come to the point, to the point!”
“It was this: you must know, gentlemen, that, in the examination, that breech-loading gun played a prominent part. That man, Galpin looked at it carefully, and asked master when he had last fired it off. Master said, ’About five days ago. You hear, I say, five days.’ Thereupon, that man, Galpin, puts the gun down, without looking at the barrels.”
“Well?” asked M. Folgat.
“Well, sir, I–Anthony–I had the evening before–I say the evening before–cleaned the gun, washed it, and"–
“Upon my word,” cried M. de Chandore, “why did you not say so at once? If the barrels are clean, that is an absolute proof that Jacques is innocent.”
The old servant shook his head, and said,–
“To be sure, sir. But are they clean?”
“Master may have been mistaken as to the time when he last fired the gun, and then the barrels would be soiled; and, instead of helping him, my evidence might ruin him definitely. Before I say any thing, I ought to be sure.”
“Yes,” said Folgat, approvingly, “and you have done well to keep silence, my good man, and I cannot urge you too earnestly not to say a word of it to any one. That fact may become a decisive argument for the /defence/.”
“Oh! I can keep my tongue, sir. Only you may imagine how impatient it has made me to see these accursed seals which prevent me from going to look at the gun. Oh, if I had dared to break one of them!”
“I thought of doing it; but I checked myself. Then it occurred to me that other people might think of the same thing. The rascals who have formed this abominable plot against Master Jacques are capable of any thing, don’t you think so? Why might not they come some night, and break the seals? I put the steward on guard in the garden, beneath the windows. I put his son as a sentinel into the courtyard; and I have myself stood watch before the seals with arms in my hands all the time. Let the rascals come on; they will find somebody to receive them.”
In spite of all that is said, lawyers are better than their reputation. Lawyers, accused of being sceptics above all men, are, on the contrary, credulous and simple-minded. Their enthusiasm is sincere; and, when we think they play a part, they are in earnest. In the majority of cases, they fancy their own side the just one, even though they should be beaten. Hour by hour, ever since his arrival at Sauveterre, M. Folgat’s faith in Jacques’s innocence had steadily increased. Old Anthony’s tale was not made to shake his growing conviction. He did not admit the existence of a plot, however; but he was not disinclined to believe in the cunning calculations of some rascal, who, availing himself of circumstances known to him alone, tried to let all suspicion fall upon M. de Boiscoran, instead of himself.
But there were many more questions to be asked; and Anthony was in such a state of feverish excitement, that it was difficult to induce him to answer. For it is not so easy to examine a man, however inclined he may be to answer. It requires no small self-possession, much care, and an imperturbable method, without which the most important facts are apt to be overlooked. M. Folgat began, therefore, after a moment’s pause, once more, saying,–
“My good Anthony, I cannot praise your conduct in this matter too highly. However, we have not done with it yet. But as I have eaten nothing since I left Paris last night, and as I hear the bell strike twelve o’clock"–
M. de Chandore seemed to be heartily ashamed, and broke in,–
“Ah, forgetful old man that I am! Why did I not think of it? But you will pardon me, I am sure. I am so completely upset. Anthony, what can you let us have?”
“The housekeeper has eggs, potted fowl, ham"–
“Whatever can be made ready first will be the best,” said the young lawyer.
“In a quarter of an hour the table shall be set,” replied the servant.
He hurried away, while M. de Chandore invited M. Folgat into the sitting-room. The poor grandfather summoned all his energy to keep up appearances.
“This fact about the gun will save him, won’t it?” he asked.
“Perhaps so,” replied the famous advocate.
And they were silent,–the grandfather thinking of the grief of his grandchild, and cursing the day on which he had opened his house to Jacques, and with him to such heart-rending anguish; the lawyer arranging in his mind the facts he had learned, and preparing the questions he was going to ask. They were both so fully absorbed by their thoughts, that they started when Anthony reappeared, and said,–
“Gentlemen, breakfast is ready!”
The table had been set in the dining-room; and, when the two gentlemen had taken their seats, old Anthony placed himself, his napkin over his arm, behind them; but M. de Chandore called him, saying,–
“Put another plate, Anthony, and breakfast with us.”
“Oh, sir,” protested the old servant,–"sir"–
“Sit down,” repeated the baron: “if you eat after us, you will make us lose time, and an old servant like you is a member of the family.”
Anthony obeyed, quite overcome, but blushing with delight at the honor that was done him; for the Baron de Chandore did not usually distinguish himself to familiarity. When the ham and eggs of the housekeeper had been disposed of, M. Folgat said,–
“Now let us go back to business. Keep cool, my dear Anthony, and remember, that, unless we get the court to say that there is no case, your answers may become the basis of our defence. What were M. de Boiscoran’s habits when he was here?”
“When he was here, sir, he had, so to say, no habits. We came here very rarely, and only for a short time.”
“Never mind: what was he doing here?”
“He used to rise late; he walked about a good deal; he sometimes went out hunting; he sketched; he read, for master is a great reader, and is as fond of his books as the marquis, his father, is of his porcelains.”
“Who came here to see him?”
“M. Galpin most frequently, Dr. Seignebos, the priest from Brechy, M. Seneschal, M. Daubigeon.”
“How did he spend his evenings?”
“At M. de Chandore’s, who can tell you all about it.”
“He had no other relatives in this country?”
“You do not know that he had any lady friend?”
Anthony looked as if he would have blushed.
“Oh, sir!” he said, “you do not know, I presume, that master is engaged to Miss Dionysia?”
The Baron de Chandore was not a baby, as he liked to call it. Deeply interested as he was, he got up, and said,–
“I want to take a little fresh air.”
And he went out, understanding very well that his being Dionysia’s grandfather might keep Anthony from telling the truth.
“That is a sensible man,” thought M. Folgat.
Then he added aloud,–
“Now we are alone, my dear Anthony, you can speak frankly. Did M. de Boiscoran keep a mistress?”
“Did he ever have one?”
“Never. They will tell you, perhaps, that once upon a time he was rather pleased with a great, big red-haired woman, the daughter of a miller in the neighborhood, and that the gypsy of a woman came more frequently to the chateau than was needful,–now on one pretext, and now on another. But that was mere childishness. Besides, that was five years ago, and the woman has been married these three years to a basket-maker at Marennes.”
“You are quite sure of what you say?”
“As sure as I am of myself. And you would be as sure of it yourself, if you knew the country as I know it, and the abominable tongues the people have. There is no concealing any thing from them. I defy a man to talk three times to a woman without their finding it out, and making a story of it. I say nothing of Paris"–
M. Folgat listened attentively. He asked,–
“Ah! was there any thing of the kind in Paris?”
Anthony hesitated; at last he said,–
“You see, master’s secrets are not my secrets, and, after the oath I have sworn,"–
“It may be, however, that his safety depends upon your frankness in telling me all,” said the lawyer. “You may be sure he will not blame you for having spoken.”
For several seconds the old servant remained undecided; then he said,–
“Master, they say, has had a great love-affair.”
“I do not know when. That was before I entered his service. All I know is, that, for the purpose of meeting the person, master had bought at Passy, at the end of Vine Street, a beautiful house, in the centre of a large garden, which he had furnished magnificently.”
“That is a secret, which, of course, neither master’s father nor his mother knows to this day; and I only know it, because one day master fell down the steps, and dislocated his foot, so that he had to send for me to nurse him. He may have bought the house under his own name; but he was not known by it there. He passed for an Englishmen, a Mr. Burnett; and he had an English maid-servant.”
“And the person?”
“Ah, sir! I not only do not know who she is, but I cannot even guess it, she took such extraordinary precautions! Now that I mean to tell you every thing, I will confess to you that I had the curiosity to question the English maid. She told me that she was no farther than I was, that she knew, to be sure, a lady was coming there from time to time; but that she had never seen even the end of her nose. Master always arranged it so well, that the girl was invariably out on some errand or other when the lady came and when she went away. While she was in the house, master waited upon her himself. And when they wanted to walk in the garden, they sent the servant away, on some fool’s errand, to Versailles or to Fontainebleau; and she was mad, I tell you.”
M. Folgat began to twist his mustache, as he was in the habit of doing when he was specially interested. For a moment, he thought he saw the woman–that inevitable woman who is always at the bottom of every great event in man’s life; and just then she vanished from his sight; for he tortured his mind in vain to discover a possible if not probable connection between the mysterious visitor in Vine Street and the events that had happened at Valpinson. He could not see a trace. Rather discouraged, he asked once more,–
“After all, my dear Anthony, this great love-affair of your master’s has come to an end?”
“It seems so, sir, since Master Jacques was going to marry Miss Dionysia.”
That reason was perhaps not quite as conclusive as the good old servant imagined; but the young advocate made no remark.
“And when do you think it came to an end?”
“During the war, master and the lady must have been parted; for master did not stay in Paris. He commanded a volunteer company; and he was even wounded in the head, which procured him the cross.”
“Does he still own the house in Vine Street?”
“I believe so.”
“Because, some time ago, when master and I went to Paris for a week, he said to me one day, ’The War and the commune have cost me dear. My cottage has had more than twenty shells, and it has been in turn occupied by /Francs-tireurs/, Communists and Regulars. The walls are broken; and there is not a piece of furniture uninjured. My architect tells me, that all in all, the repairs will cost me some ten thousand dollars.’ “
“What? Repairs? Then he thought of going back there?”
“At that time, sir, master’s marriage had not been settled. Yet"–
“Still that would go to prove that he had at that time met the mysterious lady once more, and that the war had not broken off their relations.”
“That may be.”
“And has he never mentioned the lady again?”
At this moment M. de Chandore’s cough was heard in the hall,–that cough which men affect when they wish to announce their coming. Immediately afterwards he reappeared; and M. Folgat said to him, to show that his presence was no longer inconvenient,–
“Upon my word, sir, I was just on the point of going in search of you, for fear that you felt really unwell.”
“Thank you,” replied the old gentleman, “the fresh air has done me good.”
He sat down; and the young advocate turned again to Anthony, saying,–
“Well, let us go on. How was he the day before the fire?”
“Just as usual.”
“What did he do before he went out?”
“He dined as usual with a good appetite; then he went up stairs and remained there for an hour. When he came down, he had a letter in his hand, which he gave to Michael, our tenant’s son, and told him to carry it to Sauveterre, to Miss Chandore.”
“Yes. In that letter, M. de Boiscoran told Miss Dionysia that he was retained here by a matter of great importance.”
“Have you any idea what that could have been?”
“Not at all, sir, I assure you.”
“Still let us see. M. de Boiscoran must have had powerful reasons to deprive himself of the pleasure of spending the evening with Miss Dionysia?”
“He must also have had his reasons for taking to the marshes, on his way out, instead of going by the turnpike, and for coming back through the woods.”
Old Anthony was literally tearing his hair, as he exclaimed,–
“Ah, sir! These are the very words M. Galpin said.”
“Unfortunately every man in his senses will say so.”
“I know, sir: I know it but too well. And Master Jacques himself knew it so well that at first he tried to find some pretext; but he has never told a falsehood. And he who is such a clever man could not find a pretext that had any sense in it. He said he had gone to Brechy to see his wood-merchant"–
“And why should he not?”
Anthony shook his head, and said,–
“Because the wood-merchant at Brechy is a thief, and everybody knows that master has kicked him out of the house some three years ago. We sell all our wood at Sauveterre.”
M. Folgat had taken out a note-book, and wrote down some of Anthony’s statements, preparing thus the outline of his defence. This being done, he commenced again,–
“Now we come to Cocoleu.”
“Ah the wretch!” cried Anthony.
“You know him?”
“How could I help knowing him, when I lived all my life here at Boiscoran in the service of master’s uncle?”
“Then what kind of a man is he?”
“An idiot, sir or, as they here call it, an innocent, who has Saint Vitus dance into the bargain, and epilepsy moreover.”
“Then it is perfectly notorious that he is imbecile?”
“Yes, sir, although I have heard people insist that he is not quite so stupid as he looks, and that, as they say here, he plays the ass in order to get his oats"–
M. de Chandore interrupted him, and said,–
“On this subject Dr. Seignebos can give you all the information you may want: he kept Cocoleu for nearly two years at his own house.”
“I mean to see the doctor,” replied M. Folgat. “But first of all we must find this unfortunate idiot.”
“You heard what M. Seneschal said: he has put the gendarmes on his track.”
Anthony made a face, and said,–
“If the gendarmes should take Cocoleu, Cocoleu must have given himself up voluntarily.”
“Because, gentlemen, there is no one who knows all the by-ways and out-of-the-way corners of the country so well as that idiot; for he has been hiding all his life like a savage in all the holes and hiding-places that are about here; and, as he can live perfectly well on roots and berries, he may stay away three months without being seen by any one.”
“Is it possible?” exclaimed M. Folgat angrily.
“I know only one man,” continued Anthony, “who could find out Cocoleu, and that is our tenant’s son Michael,–the young man you saw down stairs.”
“Send for him,” said M. de Chandore.
Michael appeared promptly, and, when he had heard what he was expected to do, he replied,–
“The thing can be done, certainly; but it is not very easy. Cocoleu has not the sense of a man; but he has all the instincts of a brute. However, I’ll try.”
There was nothing to keep either M. de Chandore or M. Folgat any longer at Boiscoran; hence, after having warned Anthony to watch the seals well, and get a glimpse, if possible, of Jacques’s gun, when the officers should come for the different articles, they left the chateau. It was five o’clock when they drove into town again. Dionysia was waiting for them in the sitting-room. She rose as they entered, looking quite pale, with dry, brilliant eyes.
“What? You are alone here!” said M. de Chandore. “Why have they left you alone?”
“Don’t be angry, grandpapa. I have just prevailed on the marchioness, who was exhausted with fatigue to lie down for an hour or so before dinner.”
“And your aunts?”
“They have gone out, grandpapa. They are probably, by this time at M. Galpin’s.”
M. Folgat started, and said,–
“But that is foolish in them!” exclaimed the old gentleman.
The young girl closed his lips by a single word. She said,–
“I asked them to go.”