Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
The prison of Sauveterre is in the castle at the upper end of town, in a poor and almost deserted suburb. This castle, once upon a time of great importance, had been dismantled at the time of the siege of Rochelle; and all that remains are a few badly-repaired ruins, ramparts with fosses that have been filled up, a gate surmounted by a small belfry, a chapel converted into a magazine, and finally two huge towers connected by an immense building, the lower rooms in which are vaulted.
Nothing can be more mournful than these ruins, enclosed within an ivy- covered wall; and nothing would indicate the use that is made of them, except the sentinel which stands day and night at the gate. Ancient elm-trees overshadow the vast courts; and on the old walls, as well as in every crevice, there grow and bloom enough flowers to rejoice a hundred prisoners. But this romantic prison is without prisoners.
“It is a cage without birds,” says the jailer often in his most melancholy voice.
He takes advantage of this to raise his vegetables all along the slopes; and the exposure is so excellent, that he is always the first in Sauveterre who had young peas. He has also taken advantage of this –with leave granted by the authorities–to fit up very comfortable lodgings for himself in one of the towers. He has two rooms below, and a chamber up stairs, which you reach by a narrow staircase in the thickness of the wall. It was to this chamber that the keeper’s wife took Dionysia with all the promptness of fear. The poor girl was out of breath. Her heart was beating violently; and, as soon as she was in the room, she sank into a chair.
“Great God!” cried the woman. “You are not sick, my dear young lady? Wait, I’ll run for some vinegar.”
“Never mind,” replied Dionysia in a feeble voice. “Stay here, my dear Colette: don’t go away!”
For Colette was her name, though she was as dark as gingerbread, nearly forty-five years old, and boasted of a decided mustache on her upper lip.
“Poor young lady!” she said. “You feel badly at being here.”
“Yes,” replied Dionysia. “But where is your husband?”
“Down stairs, on the lookout, madam. He will come up directly.” Very soon afterwards, a heavy step was heard on the stairs; and Blangin came in, looking pale and anxious, like a man who feels that he is running a great risk.
“Neither seen nor known,” he cried. “No one is aware of your presence here. I was only afraid of that dog of a sentinel; and, just as you came by, I had managed to get him round the corner, offering him a drop of something to drink. I begin to hope I shall not lose my place.”
Dionysia accepted these words as a summons to speak out.
“Ah!” she said, “don’t mind your place: don’t you know I have promised you a better one?”
And, with a gayety which was very far from being real, she opened her little bag, and put upon the table the rolls which it contained.
“Ah, that is gold!” said Blangin with eager eyes.
“Yes. Each one of these rolls contains a thousand francs; and here are sixteen.”
An irresistible temptation seized the jailer.
“May I see?” he asked.
“Certainly!” replied the young girl. “Look for yourself and count.”
She was mistaken. Blangin did not think of counting, not he. What he wanted was only to gratify his eye by the sight of the gold, to hear its sound, to handle it.
With feverish eagerness he tore open the wrappings, and let the pieces fall in cascades upon the table; and, as the heap increased, his lips turned white, and perspiration broke out on his temples.
“And all that is for me?” he said with a stupid laugh.
“Yes, it is yours,” replied Dionysia.
“I did not know how sixteen thousand francs would look. How beautiful gold is! Just look, wife.”
But Colette turned her head away. She was quite as covetous as her husband, and perhaps even more excited; but she was a woman, and she knew how to dissemble.
“Ah, my dear young lady!” she said, “never would my old man and myself have asked you for money, if we had only ourselves to think of. But we have children.”
“Your duty is to think of your children,” replied Dionysia.
“I know sixteen thousand francs is a big sum. Perhaps you will be sorry to give us so much money.”
“I am not sorry at all: I would even add to it willingly.” And she showed them one of the other four rolls in her bag.
“Then, to be sure, what do I care for my place!” cried Blangin. And, intoxicated by the sight and the touch of the gold, he added,–
“You are at home here, madam; and the jail and the jailer are at your disposal. What do you desire? Just speak. I have nine prisoners, not counting M. de Boiscoran and Trumence. Do you want me to set them all free?”
“Blangin!” said his wife reprovingly.
“What? Am I not free to let the prisoners go?”
“Before you play the master, wait, at least, till you have rendered our young lady the service which she expects from you.”
“Then go and conceal this money,” said the prudent woman; “or it might betray us.”
And, drawing from her cupboard a woollen stocking, she handed it to her husband, who slipped the sixteen thousand francs into it, retaining about a dozen gold-pieces, which he kept in his pocket so as always to have in his hands some tangible evidence of his new fortune. When this was done, and the stocking, full to overflowing, had been put back in the cupboard under a pile of linen, she ordered her husband,–
“Now, you go down. Somebody might be coming; and, if you were not there to open when they knock, that might look suspicious.”
Like a well-trained husband, Blangin obeyed without saying a word; and then his wife bethought herself how to entertain Dionysia. She hoped, she said, her dear young lady would do her the honor to take something. That would strengthen her, and, besides, help her to pass the time; for it was only seven o’clock, and Blangin could not take her to M. de Boiscoran’s cell before ten, without great danger.
“But I have dined,” Dionysia objected. “I do not want any thing.”
The woman insisted only the more. She remembered (God be thanked!) her dear young lady’s taste; and she had made her an admirable broth, and some beautiful dessert. And, while thus talking, she set the table, having made up her mind that Dionysia must eat at all hazards; at least, so says the tradition of the place.
The eager zeal of the woman had, at least, this advantage,–that it prevented Dionysia from giving way to her painful thoughts.
Night had come. It was nine o’clock; then it struck ten. At last, the watch came round to relieve the sentinels. A quarter of an hour after that, Blangin reappeared, holding a lantern and an enormous bunch of keys in his hands.
“I have seen Trumence to bed,” he said. “You can come now, madam.”
Dionysia was all ready.
“Let us go,” she said simply.
Then she followed the jailer along interminable passages, through a vast vaulted hall, in which their steps resounded as in a church, then through a long gallery. At last, pointing at a massive door, through the cracks of which the light was piercing, he said,–
“Here we are.”
But Dionysia seized his arm, and said in an almost inaudible voice,–
“Wait a moment.”
She was almost overcome by so many successive emotions. She felt her legs give way under her, and her eyes become dim. In her heart she preserved all her usual energy; but the flesh escaped from her will and failed her at the last moment.
“Are you sick?” asked the jailer. “What is the matter?”
She prayed to God for courage and strength: when her prayer was finished, she said,–
“Now, let us go in.”
And, making a great noise with the keys and the bolts, Blangin opened the door to Jacques de Boiscoran’s cell.
Jacques counted no longer the days, but the hours. He had been imprisoned on Friday morning, June 23, and this was Wednesday night, June 28, He had been a hundred and thirty-two hours, according to the graphic description of a great writer, “living, but struck from the roll of the living, and buried alive.”
Each one of these hundred and thirty-two hours had weighed upon him like a month. Seeing him pale and haggard, with his hair and beard in disorder, and his eyes shining brightly with fever, like half- extinguished coals, one would hardly have recognized in him the happy lord of Boiscoran, free from care and trouble, upon whom fortune had ever smiled,–that haughty sceptical young man, who from the height of the past defied the future.
The fact is, that society, obliged to defend itself against criminals, has invented no more fearful suffering than what is called “close confinement.” There is nothing that will sooner demoralize a man, crush his will, and utterly conquer the most powerful energy. There is no struggle more distressing than the struggle between an innocent man accused of some crime, and the magistrate,–a helpless being in the hands of a man armed with unlimited power.
If great sorrow was not sacred, to a certain degree, Dionysia might have heard all about Jacques. Nothing would have been easier. She would have been told by Blangin, who was watching M. de Boiscoran like a spy, and by his wife, who prepared his meals, through what anguish he had passed since his imprisonment.
Stunned at first, he had soon recovered; and on Friday and Saturday he had been quiet and confident, talkative, and almost cheerful. But Sunday had been a fatal day. Two gendarmes had carried him to Boiscoran to take off the seals; and on his way out he had been overwhelmed with insults and curses by the people who had recognized him. He had come back terribly distressed.
On Tuesday, he had received Dionysia’s letter, and answered it. This had excited him fearfully, and, during a part of the night, Trumence had seen him walk up and down in his cell with all the gestures and incoherent imprecations of a madman.
He had hoped for a letter on Wednesday. When none came, he had sunk into a kind of stupor, during which M. Galpin had been unable to draw a word from him. He had taken nothing all day long but a little broth and a cup of coffee. When the magistrate left him, he had sat down, leaning his head on his elbows, facing the window; and there he had remained, never moving, and so deeply absorbed in his reveries, that he had taken no notice when they brought him light. He was still in this state, when, a little after ten o’clock, he heard the grating of the bolts of his cell. He had become so well acquainted with the prison that he knew all its regulations. He knew at what hours his meals were brought, at what time Trumence came to clean up his room, and when he might expect the magistrate. After night, he knew he was his own master till next morning. So late a visit therefore, must needs bring him some unexpected news, his liberty, perhaps,–that visitor for whom all prisoners look so anxiously.
He started up. As soon as he distinguished in the darkness the jailer’s rugged face, he asked eagerly,–
“Who wants me?”
Blangin bowed. He was a polite jailer. Then he replied,–
“Sir, I bring you a visitor.”
And, moving aside, he made way for Dionysia, or, rather, he pushed her into the room; for she seemed to have lost all power to move.
“A visitor?” repeated M. de Boiscoran.
But the jailer had raised his lantern, and the poor man could recognize his betrothed.
“You,” he cried, “you here!”
And he drew back, afraid of being deceived by a dream, or one of those fearful hallucinations which announce the coming of insanity, and take hold of the brains of sick people in times of over-excitement.
“Dionysia!” he barely whispered, “Dionysia!”
If not her own life (for she cared nothing for that), but Jacques’s life, had at that moment depended on a single word, Dionysia could not have uttered it. Her throat was parched, and her lips refused to move. The jailer took it upon himself to answer,–
“Yes,” he said, “Miss Chandore.”
“At this hour, in my prison!”
“She had something important to communicate to you. She came to me"–
“O Dionysia!” stammered Jacques, “what a precious friend"–
“And I agreed,” said Blangin in a paternal tone of voice, “to bring her in secretly. It is a great sin I commit; and if it ever should become known– But one may be ever so much a jailer, one has a heart, after all. I tell you so merely because the young lady might not think of it. If the secret is not kept carefully, I should lose my place, and I am a poor man, with wife and children.”
“You are the best of men!” exclaimed M. de Boiscoran, far from suspecting the price that had been paid for Blangin’s sympathy, “and, on the day on which I regain my liberty, I will prove to you that we whom you have obliged are not ungrateful.”
“Quite at your service,” replied the jailer modestly.
Gradually, however, Dionysia had recovered her self-possession. She said gently to Blangin,–
“Leave us now, my good friend.”
As soon as he had disappeared, and without allowing M. de Boiscoran to say a word, she said, speaking very low,–
“Jacques, grandpapa has told me, that by coming thus to you at night, alone, and in secret, I run the risk of losing your affection, and of diminishing your respect.”
“Ah, you did not think so!”
“Grandpapa has more experience than I have, Jacques. Still I did not hesitate. Here I am; and I should have run much greater risks; for your honor is at stake, and your honor is my honor, as your life is my life. Your future is at stake, /our/ future, our happiness, all our hopes here below.”
Inexpressible joy had illumined the prisoner’s face.
“O God!” he cried, “one such moment pays for years of torture.”
But Dionysia had sworn to herself, as she came, that nothing should turn her aside from her purpose. So she went on,–
“By the sacred memory of my mother, I assure you, Jacques, that I have never for a moment doubted your innocence.”
The unhappy man looked distressed.
“You,” he said; “but the others? But M. de Chandore?”
“Do you think I would be here, if he thought you were guilty? My aunts and your mother are as sure of it as I am.”
“And my father? You said nothing about him in your letter.”
“Your father remained in Paris in case some influence in high quarters should have to be appealed to.”
Jacque shook his head, and said,–
“I am in prison at Sauveterre, accused of a fearful crime, and my father remains in Paris! It must be true that he never really loved me. And yet I have always been a good son to him down to this terrible catastrophe. He has never had to complain of me. No, my father does not love me.”
Dionysia could not allow him to go off in this way.
“Listen to me, Jacques,” she said: “let me tell you why I ran the risk of taking this serious step, that may cost me so dear. I come to you in the name of all your friends, in the name of M. Folgat, the great advocate whom your mother has brought down from Paris and in the name of M. Magloire, in whom you put so much confidence. They all agree you have adopted an abominable system. By refusing obstinately to speak, you rush voluntarily into the gravest danger. Listen well to what I tell you. If you wait till the examination is over, you are lost. If you are once handed over to the court, it is too late for you to speak. You will only, innocent as you are, make one more on the list of judicial murders.”
Jacques de Boiscoran had listened to Dionysia in silence, his head bowed to the ground, as if to conceal its pallor from her. As soon as she stopped, all out of breath, he murmured,–
“Alas! Every thing you tell me I have told myself more than once.”
“And you did not speak?”
“I did not.”
“Ah, Jacques, you are not aware of the danger you run! You do not know"–
“I know,” he said, interrupting her in a harsh, hoarse voice,–"I know that the scaffold, or the galleys, are at the end.”
Dionysia was petrified with horror.
Poor girl! She had imagined that she would only have to show herself to triumph over Jacques’s obstinacy, and that, as soon as she had heard what he had to say, she would feel reassured. And instead of that–
“What a misfortune!” she cried. “You have taken up these fearful notions, and you will not abandon them!”
“I must keep silent.”
“You cannot. You have not considered!–”
“Not considered,” he repeated.
And in a lower tone he added,–
“And what do you think I have been doing these hundred and thirty mortal hours since I have been alone in this prison,–alone to confront a terrible accusation, and a still more terrible emergency?”
“That is the difficulty, Jacques: you are the victim of your own imagination. And who could help it in your place? M. Folgat said so only yesterday. There is no man living, who, after four days’ close confinement, can keep his mind cool. Grief and solitude are bad counsellors. Jacques, come to yourself; listen to your dearest friends who speak to you through me. Jacques, your Dionysia beseeches you. Speak!”
She waited for some seconds; and, as he did not reply, she said, not without a slight accent of bitterness in her voice,–
“Is it not the first duty of an innocent man to establish his innocence?”
The prisoner, with a movement of despair, clasped his hands over his brow. Then bending over Dionysia, so that she felt his breath in her hair, he said,–
“And when he cannot, when he cannot, establish his innocence?”
She drew back, pale unto death, tottering so that she had to lean against the wall, and cast upon Jacques de Boiscoran glances in which the whole horror of her soul was clearly expressed.
“What do you say?” she stammered. “O God!”
He laughed, the wretched man! with that laugh which is the last utterance of despair. And then he replied,–
“I say that there are circumstances which upset our reason; unheard-of circumstances, which could make one doubt of one’s self. I say that every thing accuses me, that every thing overwhelms me, that every thing turns against me. I say, that if I were in M. Galpin’s place, and if he were in mine, I should act just as he does.”
“That is insanity!” cried Dionysia.
But Jacques de Boiscoran did not hear her. All the bitterness of the last days rose within him: he turned red, and became excited. At last, with gasping vice, he broke forth,–
“Establish my innocence! Ah! that is easily said. But how? No, I am not guilty: but a crime has been committed; and for this crime justice will have a culprit. If it is not I who fired at Count Claudieuse, and set Valpinson on fire, who is it? ’Where were you,’ they ask me, ’at the time of the murder?’ Where was I? Can I tell it? To clear myself is to accuse others. And if I should be mistaken? Or if, not being mistaken, I should be unable to prove the truthfulness of my accusation? The murderer and the incendiary, of course, took all possible precautions to escape detection, and to let the punishment fall upon me. I was warned beforehand. Ah, if we could always foresee, could know beforehand! How can I defend myself? On the first day I said, ’Such a charge cannot reach me: it is a cloud that a breath will scatter.’ Madman that I was! The cloud has become an avalanche, and I may be crushed. I am neither a child nor a coward; and I have always met phantoms face to face. I have measured the danger, and I know it is fearful.”
Dionysia shuddered. She cried,–
“What will become of us?”
This time M. de Boiscoran heard her, and was ashamed of his weakness. But, before he could master his feelings, the young girl went on, saying,–
“But never mind. These are idle thoughts. Truth soars invincible, unchangeable, high above all the ablest calculations and the most skilful combinations. Jacques, you must tell the truth, the whole truth, without subterfuge or concealment.”
“I can do so no longer,” murmured he.
“Is it such a terrible secret?”
“It is improbable.”
Dionysia looked at him almost with fear. She did not recognize his old face, nor his eye, nor the tone of his voice. She drew nearer to him, and taking his hand between her own small white hands, she said,–
“But you can tell it to me, your friend, your"–
He trembled, and, drawing back, he said,–
“To you less than anybody else.”
And, feeling how mortifying such an answer must be, he added,–
“Your mind is too pure for such wretched intrigues. I do not want your wedding-dress to be stained by a speck of that mud into which they have thrown me.”
Was she deceived? No; but she had the courage to seem to be deceived. She went on quietly,–
“Very well, then. But the truth will have to be told sooner or later.”
“Yes, to M. Magloire.”
“Well, then, Jacques, write down at once what you mean to tell him. Here are pen and ink: I will carry it to him faithfully.”
“There are things, Dionysia, which cannot be written.”
She felt she was beaten; she understood that nothing would ever bend that iron will, and yet she said once more,–
“But if I were to beseech you, Jacques, by our past and our future, by that great and eternal love which you have sworn?”
“Do you really wish to make my prison hours a thousand times harder than they are? Do you want to deprive me of my last remnant of strength and of courage? Have you really no confidence in me any longer? Could you not believe me a few days more?”
He paused. Somebody knocked at the door; and almost at the same time Blangin the jailer called out through the wicket,–
“Time is passing. I want to be down stairs when they relieve guard. I am running a great risk. I am a father of a family.”
“Go home now, Dionysia,” said Jacques eagerly, “go home. I cannot think of your being seen here.”
Dionysia had paid dear enough to know that she was quite safe; still she did not object. She offered her brow to Jacques, who touched it with his lips; and half dead, holding on to the walls, she went back to the jailer’s little room. They had made up a bed for her, and she threw herself on it, dressed as she was, and remained there, immovable, as if she had been dead, overcome by a kind of stupor which deprived her even of the faculty of suffering.
It was bright daylight, it was eight o’clock, when she felt somebody pulling her sleeve. The jailer’s wife said to her,–
“My dear young lady, this would be a good time for you to slip away. Perhaps they will wonder to see you alone in the street; but they will think you are coming home from seven o’clock mass.”
Without saying a word, Dionysia jumped down, and in a moment she had arranged her hair and her dress. Then Blangin came, rather troubled at not seeing her leave the house; and she said to him, giving him one of the thousand-franc rolls that were still in her bag,–
“This is for you: I want you to remember me, if I should need you again.”
And, dropping her veil over her face, she went away.