Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
Although M. de Chandore was literally worshipping his grandchild on his knees, and had transferred all his hopes and his affections to her who alone survived of his large family, he had still had his thoughts when he went up stairs to take from his money-box so large a sum of money. As soon, therefore, as they were outside of the house, he said,–
“Now that we are alone, my dear child, will you tell me what you mean to do with all this money?”
“That is my secret,” she replied.
“And you have not confidence enough in your old grandfather to tell him what it is, darling?”
He stopped a moment; but she drew him on, saying,–
“You shall know it all, and in less than an hour. But, oh! You must not be angry, grandpapa. I have a plan, which is no doubt very foolish. If I told you, I am afraid you would stop me; and if you succeeded, and then something happened to Jacques, I should not survive the misery. And think of it, what you would feel, if you were to think afterwards, ’If I had only let her have her way!’ “
“Dionysia, you are cruel!”
“On the other hand, if you did not induce me to give up my project, you would certainly take away all my courage; and I need it all, I tell you, grandpapa, for what I am going to risk.”
“You see, my dear child, and you must pardon me for repeating it once more, twenty thousand francs are a big sum of money; and there are many excellent and clever people who work hard, and deny themselves every thing, a whole life long, without laying up that much.”
“Ah, so much the better!” cried the young girl. “So much the better. I do hope there will be enough so as to meet with no refusal!”
Grandpapa Chandore began to comprehend.
“After all,” he said, “you have not told me where we are going.”
“To my dressmakers.”
“To the Misses Mechinet?”
M. de Chandore was sure now.
“We shall not find them at home,” he said. “This is Sunday; and they are no doubt at church.”
“We shall find them, grandpapa; for they always take tea at half-past seven, for their brother’s, the clerk’s sake. But we must make haste.”
The old gentleman did make haste; but it is a long way from the New- Market Place to Hill Street; for the sisters Mechinet lived on the Square, and, if you please, in a house of their own,–a house which was to be the delight of their days, and which had become the trouble of their nights.
They bought the house the year before the war, upon their brother’s advice, and going halves with him, paying a sum of forty-seven thousand francs, every thing included. It was a capital bargain; for they rented out the basement and the first story to the first grocer in Sauveterre. The sisters did not think they were imprudent in paying down ten thousand francs in cash, and in binding themselves to pay the rest in three yearly instalments. The first year all went well; but then came the war and numerous disasters. The income of the sisters and of the brother was much reduced, and they had nothing to live upon but his pay as clerk; so that they had to use the utmost economy, and even contract some debts, in order to pay the second instalment. When peace came, their income increased again, and no one doubted in Sauveterre but that they would manage to get out of their difficulties, as the brother was one of the hardest working men, and the sisters were patronized by “the most distinguished” ladies of the whole country.
“Grandpapa, they are at home,” said Dionysia, when they reached the Square.
“Do you think so?”
“I am sure. I see light in their windows.”
M. de Chandore stopped.
“What am I to do next?” he asked.
“You are going to give me the bonds, grandpapa, and to wait for me here, walking up and down, whilst I am going to the Misses Mechinet. I would ask you to come up too; but they would be frightened at seeing you. Moreover, if my enterprise does not succeed, it would not matter much as long as it concerned only a little girl.”
The old gentleman’s last doubts began to vanish.
“You won’t succeed, my poor girl,” he said.
“O God!” she replied, checking her tears with difficulty, “why will you discourage me?”
He said nothing. Suppressing a sigh, he pulled the papers out of his pockets, and helped Dionysia to stuff them, as well as she could, into her pocket and a little bag she had in her hand. When she had done, she said,–
“Well, good-bye, grandpapa. I won’t be long.”
And lightly, like a bird, she crossed the street, and ran up to her dressmakers. The old ladies and their brother were just finishing their supper, which consisted of a small piece of port and a light salad, with an abundance of vinegar. At the unexpected entrance of Miss Chandore they all started up.
“You, miss,” cried the elder of the two,–"you!”
Dionysia understood perfectly well what that simple “you” meant. It meant, with the help of the tone of voice, “What? your betrothed is charged with an abominable crime; there is overwhelming evidence against him; he is in jail, in close confinement; everybody knows he will be tried at the assizes, and he will be condemned–and you are here?”
But Dionysia kept on smiling, as she had entered.
“Yes,” she replied, “it is I. I must have two dresses for next week; and I come to ask you to show me some samples.”
The Misses Mechinet, always acting upon their brother’s advice, had made an arrangement with a large house in Bordeaux, by which they received samples of all their goods, and were allowed a discount on whatever they sold.
“I will do so with pleasure,” said the older sister. “Just allow me to light a lamp. It is almost dark.”
While she was wiping the chimney, and trimming the wick, she asked her brother,–
“Are you not going to the Orpheon?”
“Not to-night,” he replied.
“Are you not expected to be there?”
“No: I sent them word I would not come. I have to lithograph two plates for the printer, and some very urgent copying to do for the court.”
While he was thus replying, he had folded up his napkin, and lighted a candle.
“Good-night!” he said to his sisters. “I won’t see you again to-night,” and, bowing deeply to Miss Chandore, he went out, his candle in his hand.
“Where is your brother going?” Dionysia asked eagerly.
“To his room, madam. His room is just opposite on the other side of the staircase.”
Dionysia was as red as fire. Was she thus to let her opportunity slip, –an opportunity such as she had never dared hope for? Gathering up all her courage, she said,–
“But, now I think of it, I want to say a few words to your brother, my dear ladies. Wait for me a moment. I shall be back in a moment.” And she rushed out, leaving the dressmakers stupefied, gazing after her with open mouths, and asking themselves if the grand calamity had bereft the poor lady of reason.
The clerk was still on the landing, fumbling in his pocket for the key of his room.
“I want to speak to you instantly,” said Dionysia.
Mechinet was so utterly amazed, that he could not utter a word. He made a movement as if he wanted to go back to his sisters; but the young girl said,–
“No, in your room. We must not be overheard. Open sir, please. Open, somebody might come.”
The fact is, he was so completely overcome, that it took him half a minute to find the keyhole, and put the key in. At last, when the door was opened, he moved aside to let Dionysia pass: but she said, “No, go in!”
He obeyed. She followed him, and, as soon as she was in the room, she shut the door again, pushing even a bolt which she had noticed. Mechinet the clerk was famous in Sauveterre for his coolness. Dionysia was timidity personified, and blushed for the smallest trifle, remaining speechless for some time. At this moment, however, it was certainly not the young girl who was embarrassed.
“Sit down, M. Mechinet,” she said, “and listen to me.”
He put his candlestick on a table, and sat down.
“You know me, don’t you?” asked Dionysia.
“Certainly I do, madam.”
“You have surely heard that I am to be married to M. de Boiscoran?”
The clerk started up, as if he had been moved by a spring, beat his forehead furiously with his hand, and said,–
“Ah, what a fool I was! Now I see.”
“Yes, you are right,” replied the girl. “I come to talk to you abut M. de Boiscoran, my betrothed, my husband.”
She paused; and for a minute Mechinet and the young girl remained there face to face, silent and immovable, looking at each other, he asking himself what she could want of him, and she trying to guess how far she might venture.
“You can no doubt imagine, M. Mechinet, what I have suffered, since M. de Boiscoran has been sent to prison, charged with the meanest of all crimes!”
“Oh, surely, I do!” replied Mechinet.
And, carried away by his emotion, he added,–
“But I can assure you, madam, that I, who have been present at all the examinations, and who have no small experience in criminal matters,– that I believe M. de Boiscoran innocent. I know M. Galpin does not think so, nor M. Daubigeon, nor any of the gentlemen of the bar, nor the town; but, nevertheless, that is my conviction. You see, I was there when they fell upon M. de Boiscoran, asleep in his bed. Well, the very tone of his voice, as he cried out, ’Oh, my dear Galpin!’ told me that the man is not guilty.”
“Oh, sir,” stammered Dionysia, “thanks, thanks!”
“There is nothing to thank me for, madam; for time has only confirmed my conviction. As if a guilty man ever bore himself as M. de Boiscoran does! You ought to have seen him just now, when we had gone to remove the seals, calm, dignified, answering coldly all the questions that were asked. I could not help telling M. Galpin what I thought. He said I was a fool. Well, I maintain, on the contrary, that he is. Ah! I beg your pardon, I mean that he is mistaken. The more I see of M. de Boiscoran, the more he gives me the impression that he has only a word to say to clear up the whole matter.”
Dionysia listened to him with such absorbing interest, that she well- nigh forgot why she had come.
“Then,” she asked, “you think M. de Boiscoran is not much overcome?”
“I should lie if I said he did not look sad, madam,” was the reply. “But he is not overcome. After the first astonishment, his presence of mind returned; and M. Galpin has in vain tried these three days by all his ingenuity and his cleverness"–
Here he stopped suddenly, like a drunken man who recovers his consciousness for a moment, and becomes aware that he has said too much in his cups. He exclaimed,–
“Great God! what am I talking about? For Heaven’s sake, madam, do not let anybody hear what I was led by my respectful sympathy to tell you just now.”
Dionysia felt that the decisive moment had come. She said,–
“If you knew me better, sir, you would know that you can rely upon my discretion. You need not regret having given me by your confidence some little comfort in my great sorrow. You need not; for"–
Her voice nearly failed her, and it was only with a great effort she could add,–
“For I come to ask you to do even more than that for me, oh! yes, much more.”
Mechinet had turned painfully pale. He broke in vehemently,–
“Not another word, madam: your hope already is an insult to me. You ought surely to know that by my profession, as well as by my oath, I am bound to be as silent as the very cell in which the prisoners are kept. If I, the clerk, were to betray the secret of a criminal prosecution"–
Dionysia trembled like an aspen-leaf; but her mind remained clear and decided. She said,–
“You would rather let an innocent man perish.”
“You would let an innocent man be condemned, when by a single word you could remove the mistake of which he is the victim? You would say to yourself, ’It is unlucky; but I have sworn not to speak’? And you would see him with quiet conscience mount the scaffold? No, I cannot believe that! No, that cannot be true!”
“I told you, madam, I believe in M. de Boiscoran’s innocence.”
“And you refuse to aid me in establishing his innocence? O God! what ideas men form of their duty! How can I move you? How can I convince you? Must I remind you of the torture this man suffers, whom they charge with being an assassin? Must I tell you what horrible anguish we suffer, we, his friends, his relatives?–how his mother weeps, how I weep, I, his betrothed! We know he is innocent; and yet we cannot establish his innocence for want of a friend who would aid us, who would pity us!”
In all his life the clerk had not heard such burning words. He was moved to the bottom of his heart. At last he asked, trembling,–
“What do you want me to do, madam?”
“Oh! very little, sir, very little,–just to send M. de Boiscoran ten lines, and to bring us his reply.”
The boldness of the request seemed to stun the clerk. He said,–
“You will not have pity?”
“I should forfeit my honor.”
“And, if you let an innocent one be condemned, what would that be?”
Mechinet was evidently suffering anguish. Amazed, overcome, he did not know what to say, what to do. At last he thought of one reason for refusing, and stammered out,–
“And if I were found out? I should lose my place, ruin my sisters, destroy my career for life.”
With trembling hands, Dionysia drew from her pocket the bonds which her grandfather had given her, and threw them in a heap on the table. She began,–
“There are twenty thousand francs.”
The clerk drew back frightened. He cried,–
“Money! You offer me money!”
“Oh, don’t be offended!” began the young girl again, with a voice that would have moved a stone. “How could I want to offend you, when I ask of you more than my life? There are services which can never be paid. But, if the enemies of M. de Boiscoran should find out that you have aided us, their rage might turn against you.”
Instinctively the clerk unloosed his cravat. The struggle within him, no doubt, was terrible. He was stifled.
“Twenty thousand francs!” he said in a hoarse voice.
“Is it not enough?” asked the young girl. “Yes, you are right: it is very little. But I have as much again for you, twice as much.”
With haggard eyes, Mechinet had approached the table, and was convulsively handling the pile of papers, while he repeated,–
“Twenty thousand francs! A thousand a year!”
“No, double that much, and moreover, our gratitude, our devoted friendship, all the influence of the two families of Boiscoran and Chandore; in a word, fortune, position, respect.”
But by this time, thanks to a supreme effort of will, the clerk had recovered his self-control.
“No more, madam, say no more!”
And with a determined, though still trembling voice, he went on,–
“Take your money back again, madam. If I were to do what you want me to do, if I were to betray my duty for money, I should be the meanest of men. If, on the other hand, I am actuated only by a sincere conviction and an interest in the truth, I may be looked upon as a fool; but I shall always be worthy of the esteem of honorable men. Take back that fortune, madam, which has made an honest man waver for a moment in his conscience. I will do what you ask, but for nothing.”
If grandpapa was getting tired of walking up and down in the Square, the sisters of Mechinet found time pass still more slowly in their workroom. They asked each other,–
“What can Miss Dionysia have to say to brother?”
At the end of ten minutes, their curiosity, stimulated by the most absurd suppositions, had become such martyrdom to them, that they made up their minds to knock at the clerk’s door.
“Ah, leave me alone!” he cried out, angry at being thus interrupted. But then he considered a moment, opened hastily, and said quite gently,–
“Go back to your room, my dear sisters, and, if you wish to spare me a very serious embarrassment, never tell anybody in this world that Miss Chandore has had a conversation with me.”
Trained to obey, the two sisters went back, but not so promptly that they should have not seen the bonds which Dionysia had thrown upon the table, and which were quite familiar in their appearance to them, as they had once owned some of them themselves. Their burning desire to know was thus combined with vague terror; and, when they got back to their room, the younger asked,–
“Did you see?”
“Yes, those bonds,” replied the other.
“There must have been five or six hundred.”
“Even more, perhaps.”
“That is to say, a very big sum of money.”
“An enormous one.”
“What can that mean, Holy Virgin! And what have we to expect?”
“And brother asking us to keep his secret!”
“He looked as pale as his shirt, and terribly distressed.”
“Miss Dionysia was crying like a Magdalen.”
It was so. Dionysia, as long as she had been uncertain of the result, had felt in her heart that Jacques’s safety depended on her courage and her presence of mind. But now, assured of success, she could no longer control her excitement; and, overcome by the effort, she had sunk down on a chair and burst out into tears.
The clerk shut the door, and looked at her for some time; then, having overcome his own emotions, he said to her,–
But, as she heard his voice, she jumped up, and taking his hands into hers, she broke out,–
“O sir! How can I thank you! How can I ever make you aware of the depth of my gratitude!”
“Don’t speak of that,” he said almost rudely, trying to conceal his deep feeling.
“I will say nothing more,” she replied very gently; “but I must tell you that none of us will ever forget the debt of gratitude which we owe you from this day. You say the great service which you are about to render us is not free from danger. Whatever may happen, you must remember, that, from this moment, you have in us devoted friends.”
The interruption caused by his sisters had had the good effect of restoring to Mechinet a good portion of his habitual self-possession. He said,–
“I hope no harm will come of it; and yet I cannot conceal from you, madam, that the service which I am going to try to render you presents more difficulties than I thought.”
“Great God!” murmured Dionysia.
“M. Galpin,” the clerk went on saying, “is, perhaps, not exactly a superior man; but he understands his profession; he is cunning, and exceedingly suspicious. Only yesterday he told me that he knew the Boiscoran family would try every thing in the world to save M. de Boiscoran from justice. Hence he is all the time on the watch, and takes all kinds of precautions. If he dared to it, he would have his bed put across his cell in the prison.”
“That man hates me, M. Mechinet!”
“Oh, no, madam! But he is ambitious: he thinks his success in his profession depends upon his success in this case; and he is afraid the accused might escape or be carried off.”
Mechinet was evidently in great perplexity, and scratched his ear. Then he added,–
“How am I to go about to let M. de Boiscoran have your note? If he knew beforehand, it would be easy. But he is unprepared. And then he is just as suspicious as M. Galpin. He is always afraid lest they prepare him a trap; and he is on the lookout. If I make him a sign, I fear he will not understand me; and, if I make him a sign, will not M. Galpin see it? That man is lynx-eyed.”
“Are you never alone with M. de Boiscoran?”
“Never for an instant, madam. I only go in with the magistrate, and I come out with him. You will say, perhaps, that in leaving, as I am behind, I might drop the note cleverly. But, when we leave, the jailer is there, and he has good eyes. I should have to dread, besides, M. de Boiscoran’s own suspicions. If he saw a letter coming to him in that way, from me, he is quite capable of handing it at once to M. Galpin.”
He paused, and after a moment’s meditation he went on,–
“The safest way would probably be to win the confidence of M. Blangin, the keeper of the jail, or of some prisoner, whose duty it is to wait on M. de Boiscoran, and to watch him.”
“Trumence!” exclaimed Dionysia.
The clerk’s face expressed the most startled surprise. He said,–
“What! You know his name?”
“Yes, I do; for Blangin mentioned him to me; and the name struck me the day when M. de Boiscoran’s mother and I went to the jail, not knowing what was meant by ’close confinement.’ “
The clerk was disappointed.
“Ah!” he said, “now I understand M. Galpin’s great trouble. He has, no doubt, heard of your visit, and imagined that you wanted to rob him of his prisoner.”
He murmured some words, which Dionysia could not hear; and then, coming to some decision, apparently, he said,–
“Well, never mind! I’ll see what can be done. Write your letter, madam: here are pens and ink.”
The young girl made no reply, but sat down at Mechinet’s table; but, at the moment when she was putting pen to paper she asked,–
“Has M. de Boiscoran any books in his prison?”
“Yes, madam. At his request M. Galpin himself went and selected, in M. Daubigeon’s library, some books of travels and some of Cooper’s novels for him.”
Dionysia uttered a cry of delight.
“O Jacques!” she said, “how glad I am you counted upon me!” and, without noticing how utterly Mechinet seemed to be surprised, she wrote,–
“We are sure of your innocence, Jacques, and still we are in despair. Your mother is here, with a Paris lawyer, a M. Folgat, who is devoted to your interests. What must we do? Give us your instructions. You can reply without fear, as you have /our/ book.
“Read this,” she said to the clerk, when she had finished. But he did not avail himself of the permission. He folded the paper, and slipped it into an envelope, which he sealed.
“Oh, you are very kind!” said the young girl, touched by his delicacy.
“Not at all, madam. I only try to do a dishonest thing in the most honest way. To-morrow, madam, you shall have your answer.”
“I will call for it.”
“Take care not to do so,” he said. “The good people of Sauveterre are too cunning not to know that just now you are not thinking much of dress; and your calls here would look suspicious. Leave it to me to see to it that you get M. de Boiscoran’s answer.”
While Dionysia was writing, the clerk had made a parcel of the bonds which she had brought. He handed it to her, and said,–
“Take it, madam. If I want money for Blangin, or for Trumence, I will ask you for it. And now you must go: you need not go in to my sisters. I will explain your visit to them.”