Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
During the last twenty-four hours, Mechinet had changed so much, that his sisters recognized him no longer. Immediately after Dionysia’s departure, they had come to him, hoping to hear at last what was meant by that mysterious interview; but at the first word he had cried out with a tone of voice which frightened his sisters to death,–
“That is none of your business! That is nobody’s business!” and he had remained alone, quite overcome by his adventure, and dreaming of the means to make good his promise without ruining himself. That was no easy matter.
When the decisive moment arrived, he discovered that he would never be able to get the note into M. de Boiscoran’s hands, without being caught by that lynx-eyed M. Galpin: as the letter was burning in his pocket, he saw himself compelled, after long hesitation, to appeal for help to the man who waited on Jacques,–to Trumence, in fine. The latter was, after all, a good enough fellow; his only besetting sin being unconquerable laziness, and his only crime in the eyes of the law perpetual vagrancy. He was attached to Mechinet, who upon former occasions, when he was in jail, had given him some tobacco, or a little money to buy a glass of wine. He made therefore no objection, when the clerk asked him to give a letter to M. de Boiscoran, and to bring back an answer. He acquitted himself, moreover, faithfully and honestly of his commission. But, because every thing had gone well once, it did not follow that Mechinet felt quite at peace. Besides being tormented by the thought that he had betrayed his duty, he felt wretched in being at the mercy of an accomplice. How easily might he not be betrayed! A slight indiscretion, an awkward blunder, an unlucky accident, might do it. What would become of him then?
He would lose his place and all his other employments, one by one. He would lose confidence and consideration. Farewell to all ambitious dreams, all hopes of wealth, all dreams of an advantageous marriage. And still, by an odd contradiction, Mechinet did not repent what he had done, and felt quite ready to do it over again. He was in this state of mind when the old nurse brought him Dionysia’s letter.
“What, again?” he exclaimed.
And when he had read the few lines, he replied,–
“Tell your mistress I will be there!” But in his heart he thought some untoward event must have happened.
The little garden-gate was half-open: he had only to push it to enter. There was no moon; but the night was clear, and at a short distance from him, under the trees, he recognized Dionysia, and went towards her.
“Pardon me, sir,” she said, “for having dared to send for you.”
Mechinet’s anxiety vanished instantly. He thought no longer of his strange position. His vanity was flattered by the confidence which this young lady put in him, whom he knew very well as the noblest, the most beautiful, and the richest heiress in the whole country.
“You were quite right to send for me, madam,” he replied, “if I can be of any service to you.”
In a few words she had told him all; and, when she asked his advice, he replied,–
“I am entirely of M. Folgat’s opinion, and think that grief and isolation begin to have their effect upon M. de Boiscoran’s mind.”
“Oh, that thought is maddening!” murmured the poor girl.
“I think, as M. Magloire does, that M. de Boiscoran, by his silence, only makes his situation much worse. I have a proof of that. M. Galpin, who, at first, was all doubt and anxiety, is now quite reassured. The attorney-general has written him a letter, in which he compliments his energy.”
“Then we must induce M. de Boiscoran to speak. I know very well that he is firmly resolved not to speak; but if you were to write to him, since you can write to him"–
“A letter would be useless.”
“Useless, I tell you. But I know a means.”
“You must use it promptly, madam: don’t lose a moment. There is no time.”
The night was clear, but not clear enough for the clerk to see how very pale Dionysia was.
“Well, then, I must see M. de Boiscoran: I must speak to him.”
She expected the clerk to start, to cry out, to protest. Far from it: he said in the quietest tone,–
“To be sure; but how?”
“Blangin the keeper, and his wife, keep their places only because they give them a support. Why might I not offer them, in return for an interview with M. de Boiscoran, the means to go and live in the country?”
“Why not?” said the clerk.
And in a lower voice, replying to the voice of his conscience, he went on,–
“The jail in Sauveterre is not at all like the police-stations and prisons of larger towns. The prisoners are few in number; they are hardly guarded. When the doors are shut, Blangin is master within.”
“I will go and see him to-morrow,” declared Dionysia.
There are certain slopes on which you must glide down. Having once yielded to Dionysia’s suggestions, Mechinet had, unconsciously, bound himself to her forever.
“No: do not go there, madam,” he said. “You could not make Blangin believe that he runs no danger; nor could you sufficiently arouse his cupidity. I will speak to him myself.”
“O sir!” exclaimed Dionysia, “how can I ever?"–
“How much may I offer him?” asked the clerk.
“Whatever you think proper–any thing.”
“Then, madam, I will bring you an answer to-morrow, here, and at the same hour.”
And he went away, leaving Dionysia so buoyed up by hope, that all the evening, and the next day, the two aunts and the marchioness, neither of whom was in the secret, asked each other incessantly,–
“What is the matter with the child?”
She was thinking, that, if the answer was favorable, ere twenty-four hours had gone by, she would see Jacques; and she kept saying to herself,–
“If only Mechinet is punctual!”
He was so. At ten o’clock precisely, he pushed open the little gate, just as the night before, and said at once,–
“It is all right!”
Dionysia was so terribly excited, that she had to lean against a tree.
“Blangin agrees,” the clerk went on. “I promised him sixteen thousand francs. Perhaps that is rather much?”
“It is very little.”
“He insists upon having them in gold.”
“He shall have it.”
“Finally, he makes certain conditions with regard to the interview, which will appear rather hard to you.”
The young girl had quite recovered by this time.
“What are they?”
“Blangin is taking all possible precautions against detection, although he is quite prepared for the worst. He has arranged it this way: To-morrow evening, at six o’clock, you will pass by the jail. The door will stand open, and Blangin’s wife, whom you know very well, as she has formerly been in your service, will be standing in the door. If she does not speak to you, you keep on: something has happened. If she does speak to you, go up to her, you, quite alone, and she will show you into a small room which adjoins her own. There you will stay till Blangin, perhaps at a late hour, thinks he can safely take you to M. de Boiscoran’s cell. When the interview is over, you come back into the little room, where a bed will be ready for you, and you spend the night there; for this is the hardest part of it: you cannot leave the prison till next day.”
This was certainly terrible; still, after a moment’s reflection, Dionysia said,–
“Never mind! I accept. Tell Blangin, M. Mechinet, that it is all right.”
That Dionysia should accept all the conditions of Blangin the jailer was perfectly natural; but to obtain M. de Chandore’s consent was a much more difficult task. The poor girl understood this so well, that, for the first time in her life, she felt embarrassed in her grandfather’s presence. She hesitated, she prepared her little speech, and she selected carefully her words. But in spite of all her skill, in spite of all the art with which she managed to present her strange request, M. de Chandore had no sooner understood her project than he exclaimed,–
“Never, never, never!”
Perhaps in his whole life the old gentleman had never expressed himself in so positive a manner. His brow had never looked so dark. Usually, when his granddaughter had a petition, his lips might say, “No;” but his eyes always said, “Yes.”
“Impossible!” he repeated, and in a tone of voice which seemed to admit of no reply.
Surely, in all these painful events, he had not spared himself, and he had so far done for Dionysia all that she could possibly expect of him. Her will had been his will. As she had prompted, he had said, “Yes,” or “No.” What more could he have said or done?
Without telling him what she was going to do with it, Dionysia had asked him for twenty thousand francs, and he had given them to her, however big the sum might be everywhere, however immense in a small town like Sauveterre. He was quite ready to give her as much again, or twice as much, without asking any more questions.
But for Dionysia to leave her home one evening at six o’clock, and not to return to it till the next morning–
“That I cannot permit,” he repeated.
But for Dionysia to spend a night in the Sauveterre jail, in order to have an interview with her betrothed, who was accused of incendiarism and murder; to remain there all night, alone, absolutely at the mercy of the jailer, a hard, coarse, covetous man–
“That I will never permit,” exclaimed the old gentleman once more.
Dionysia remained calm, and let the storm pass. When her grandfather became silent, she said,–
“But if I must?”
M. de Chandore shrugged his shoulders. She repeated in a louder tone,–
“If I must, in order to decide Jacques to abandon this system that will ruin him, to induce him to speak before the investigation is completed?”
“That is not your business, my child,” said the old gentleman.
“That is the business of his mother, the Marchioness of Boiscoran. Whatever Blangin agrees to venture for your sake, he will do as well for her sake. Let the marchioness go and spend the night at the jail. I agree to that. Let her see her son. That is her duty.”
“But surely she will never shake Jacques’s resolution.”
“And you think you have more influence over him than his mother?”
“It is not the same thing, dear papa.”
This “never mind” of Grandpapa Chandore was as positive as his “impossible;” but he had begun to discuss the question, and to discuss means to listen to arguments on the other side.
“Do not insist, my dear child,” he said again. “My mind is made up; and I assure you"–
“Don’t say so, papa,” said the young girl.
And her attitude was so determined, and her voice so firm, that the old gentleman was quite overwhelmed for a moment.
“But, if I am not willing,” he said.
“You will consent, dear papa, you will certainly not force your little granddaughter, who loves you so dearly, to the painful necessity of disobeying you for the first time in her life.”
“Because, for the first time in her life I am not doing what my granddaughter wants me to do?”
“Dear papa, let me tell you.”
“Rather listen to me, poor child, and let me show you to what dangers, to what misfortunes, you expose yourself. To go and spend a night at this prison would be risking, understand me well, your honor,–that tender, delicate honor which is tarnished by a breath, which involves the happiness and the peace of your whole life.”
“But Jacques’s honor and life are at stake.”
“Poor imprudent girl! How do you know but he would be the very first to blame you cruelly for such a step?”
“Men are made so: the most perfect devotion irritates them at times.”
“Be it so. I would rather endure Jacques’s unjust reproaches than the idea of not having done my duty.”
M. de Chandore began to despair.
“And if I were to beg you, Dionysia, instead of commanding. If your old grandfather were to beseech you on his knees to abandon your fatal project.”
“You would cause me fearful pain, dear papa: but it would be all in vain; for I must resist your prayers, as I must resist your orders.”
“Inexorable!” cried the old gentleman. “She is immovable!” And suddenly changing his tone, he cried,–
“But, after all, I am master here.”
“Dear papa, pray!”
“And since nothing can move you, I will speak to Mechinet, I will let Blangin know my will.”
Dionysia, turning as pale as death, but with burning eyes, drew back a step, and said,–
“If you do that, grandpapa, if you destroy my last hope"–
“I swear to you by the sacred memory of my mother, I will be in a convent to-morrow, and you will never see me again in your life, not even if I should die, which would certainly soon"–
M. de Chandore, raising his hands to heaven, and with an accent of genuine despair, exclaimed,–
“Ah, my God! Are these our children? And is this what is in store for us old people? We have spent a lifetime in watching over them; we have submissively gratified all their fancies; they have been our greatest anxiety, and our sweetest hope; we have given them our life day by day, and we would not hesitate to give them our life’s blood drop by drop; they are every thing to us, and we imagine they love us–poor fools that we are! One fine day, a man goes by, a careless, thoughtless man, with a bright eye and a ready tongue, and it is all over. Our child is no longer our own; our child no longer knows us. Go, old man, and die in your corner.”
Overwhelmed by his grief, the old man staggered and sank into a chair, as an old oak, cut by the woodman’s axe, trembles and falls.
“Ah, this is fearful!” murmured Dionysia. “What you say, grandpapa, is too fearful. How can you doubt me?”
She had knelt down. She was weeping; and her hot tears fell upon the old gentleman’s hands. He started up as he felt them on his icy-cold hand; and, making one more effort, he said,–
“Poor, poor child! And suppose Jacques is guilty, and, when he sees you, confesses his crime, what then?”
Dionysia shook her head.
“That is impossible,” she said; “and still, even if it were so, I ought to be punished as much as he is; for I know, if he had asked me, I should have acted in concert with him.”
“She is mad!” exclaimed M. de Chandore, falling back into his chair. “She is mad!”
But he was overcome; and the next day, at five in the afternoon, his heart torn by unspeakable grief, he went down the steep street with his daughter on his arm. Dionysia had chosen her simplest and plainest dress; and the little bag she carried on her arm contained not sixteen but twenty thousand francs. As a matter of course, it had been necessary to take the marchioness into their confidence; but neither she, nor the Misses Lavarande, nor M. Folgat, had raised an objection. Down to the prison, grandfather and grandchild had not exchanged a word; but, when they reached it, Dionysia said,–
“I see Mrs. Blangin at the door: let us be careful.”
They came nearer. Mrs. Blangin saluted them.
“Come, it is time,” said the young girl. “Till to-morrow, dear papa! Go home quickly, and be not troubled about me.”
Then joining the keeper’s wife, she disappeared inside the prison.