Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
The famous night of the fire at Valpinson had been a godsend to the good people of Sauveterre. They had henceforth an inexhaustible topic of discussion, ever new and ever rich in unexpected conjectures,–the Boiscoran case. When people met in the streets, they simply asked,–
“What are they doing now?”
Whenever, therefore, M. Galpin went from the court-house to the prison, or came striding up National Street with his stiff, slow step, twenty good housewives peeped from behind their curtains to read in his face some of the secrets of the trial. They saw, however, nothing there but traces of intense anxiety, and a pallor which became daily more marked. They said to each other,–
“You will see poor M. Galpin will catch the jaundice from it.”
The expression was commonplace; but it conveyed exactly the feelings of the ambitious lawyer. This Boiscoran case had become like a festering wound to him, which irritated him incessantly and intolerably.
“I have lost my sleep by it,” he told the commonwealth attorney. Excellent M. Daubigeon, who had great trouble in moderating his zeal, did not pity him particularly. He would say in reply,–
“Whose fault is it? But you want to rise in the world; and increasing fortune is always followed by increasing care.
“Ah!” said the magistrate. “I have only done my duty, and, if I had to begin again, I would do just the same.”
Still every day he saw more clearly that he was in a false position. Public opinion, strongly arrayed against M. de Boiscoran, was not, on that account, very favorable to him. Everybody believed Jacques guilty, and wanted him to be punished with all the rigor of the law; but, on the other hand, everybody was astonished that M. Galpin should choose to act as magistrate in such a case. There was a touch of treachery in this proceeding against a former friend, in looking everywhere for evidence against him, in driving him into court, that is to say, towards the galleys or the scaffold; and this revolted people’s consciences.
The very way in which people returned his greeting, or avoided him altogether, made the magistrate aware of the feelings they entertained for him. This only increased his wrath against Jacques, and, with it his trouble. He had been congratulated, it is true, by the attorney- general; but there is no certainty in a trial, as long as the accused refuses to confess. The charges against Jacques, to be sure, were so overwhelming, that his being sent before the court was out of question. But by the side of the court there is still the jury.
“And in fine, my dear,” said the commonwealth attorney, “you have not a single eye-witness. And from time immemorial an eye-witness has been looked upon as worth a hundred hearsays.”
“I have Cocoleu,” said M. Galpin, who was rather impatient of all these objections.
“Have the doctors decided that he is not an idiot?”
“No: Dr. Seignebos alone maintains that doctrine.”
“Well, at least Cocoleu is willing to repeat his evidence?”
“Why, then you have virtually no witness!”
Yes, M. Galpin understood it but too well, and hence his anxiety. The more he studied /his/ accused, the more he found him in an enigmatic and threatening position, which was ominous of evil.
“Can he have an /alibi/?” he thought. “Or does he hold in reserve one of those unforeseen revelations, which at the last moment destroy the whole edifice of the prosecution, and cover the prosecuting attorney with ridicule?”
Whenever these thoughts occurred to him, they made big drops of perspiration run down his temples; and then he treated his poor clerk Mechinet like a slave. And that was not all. Although he lived more retired than ever, since this case had begun, many a report reached him from the Chandore family.
To be sure, he was a thousand miles from imagining that they had actually opened communications with the prisoner, and, what is more, that this intercourse was carried on by Mechinet, his own clerk. He would have laughed if one had come and told him that Dionysia had spent a night in prison, and paid Jacques a visit. But he heard continually of the hopes and the plans of the friends and relations of his prisoner; and he remembered, not without secret fear and trembling that they were rich and powerful, supported by relations in high places, beloved and esteemed by everybody. He knew that Dionysia was surrounded by devoted and intelligent men, by M. de Chandore, M. Seneschal, Dr. Seignebos, M. Magloire, and, finally, that advocate whom the Marchioness de Boiscoran had brought down with her from Paris, M. Folgat.
“And Heaven knows what they would not try,” he thought, “to rescue the guilty man from the hands of justice!”
It may well be said, therefore, that never was prosecution carried on with as much passionate zeal or as much minute assiduity. Every one of the points upon which the prosecution relied became, for M. Galpin, a subject of special study. In less than a fortnight he examined sixty- seven witnesses in his office. He summoned the fourth part of the population of Brechy. He would have summoned the whole country, if he had dared.
But all his efforts were fruitless. After weeks of furious investigations, the inquiry was still at the same point, the mystery was still impenetrable. The prisoner had not refuted any of the charges made against him; but the magistrate had, also, not obtained a single additional piece of evidence after those he had secured on the first day.
There must be an end of this, however.
One warm afternoon in July, the good ladies in National Street thought they noticed that M. Galpin looked even more anxious than usual. They were right. After a long conference with the commonwealth attorney and the presiding judge, the magistrate had made up his mind. When he reached the prison, he went to Jacques’s cell and there, concealing his embarrassment under the greatest stiffness, he said,–
“My painful duty draws to an end, sir: the inquiry with which I have been charged will be closed. To-morrow the papers, with a list of the objects to be used as evidence, will be sent to the attorney-general, to be submitted to the court.”
Jacques de Boiscoran did not move.
“Well,” he said simply.
“Have you nothing to add, sir?” asked M. Galpin.
“Nothing, except that I am innocent.”
M. Galpin found it difficult to repress his impatience. He said,–
“Well, then, prove it. Refute the charges which have been brought against you, which overwhelm you, which induce me, the court, and everybody else, to consider you guilty. Speak, and explain your conduct.”
Jacques kept obstinately silent.
“Your resolution is fixed,” said the magistrate once more, “you refuse to say any thing?”
“I am innocent.”
M. Galpin saw clearly that it was useless to insist any longer.
“From this moment,” he said, “you are no longer in close confinement. You can receive the visits of your family in the prison parlor. The advocate whom you will choose will be admitted to your cell to consult with you.”
“At last!” exclaimed Jacques with explosive delight; and then he added,–
“Am I at liberty to write to M. de Chandore?”
“Yes,” replied M. Galpin, “and, if you choose to write at once, my clerk will be happy to carry your letter this evening to its destination.”
Jacques de Boiscoran availed himself on the spot of this permission; and he had done very soon, for the note which he wrote, and handed to M. Mechinet, contained only the few words,–
“I shall expect M. Magloire to-morrow morning at nine.
Ever since the day on which they had come to the conclusion that a false step might have the most fatal consequences, Jacques de Boiscoran’s friends had abstained from doing anything. Besides, what would have been the use of any efforts? Dr. Seignebos’s request, though unsupported, had been at least partially granted; and the court had summoned a physician from Paris, a great authority on insanity, to determine Cocoleu’s mental condition. It was on a Saturday that Dr. Seignebos came triumphantly to announce the good news. It was the following Tuesday that he had to report his discomfiture. In a furious passion he said,–
“There are asses in Paris as well as elsewhere! Or, rather, in these days of trembling egotism and eager servility, an independent man is as difficult to find in Paris as in the provinces. I was looking for a /savant/ who would be inaccessible to petty considerations; and they send me a trifling fellow, who does not dare to be disagreeable to the gentlemen of the bar. Ah, it was a cruel disappointment!”
And all the time worrying his spectacles, he went on,–
“I had been informed of the arrival of my learned brother; and I went to receive him myself at the railway station. The train comes in; and at once I make out my man in the crowd: a fine head, well set in grizzly hair, a noble eye, eloquent lips. ’There he is!’ I say to myself. ’Hm!’ He looked rather dandyish, to be sure, a lot of decorations in his buttonhole, whiskers trimmed as carefully as the box in my garden, and, instead of honest spectacles, a pair of eye- glasses. But no man is perfect. I go up to him, I give him my name, we shake hands, I ask him to breakfast, he accepts; and here we are at table, he doing justice to my Bordeaux, and I explaining to him the case systematically. When we have done, he wishes to see Cocoleu. We go to the hospital; and there, after merely glancing at the creature, he says, ’That man is simply the most complete idiot I have ever seen in my life!’ I was a little taken aback, and tried to explain the matter to him; but he refuses to listen to me. I beseech him to see Cocoleu once more: he laughs at me. I feel hurt, and ask him how he explains the evidence which this idiot gave on the night of the fire. He laughs again, and replies that he does not explain it. I begin to discuss the question; and he marches off to court. And do you know where he dined that day? At the hotel with my other learned brother of the commission; and there they drew up a report which makes of Cocoleu the most perfect imbecile that was ever dreamed of.”
He was walking up and down in the room with long strides, and, unwilling to listen, he went on,–
“But Master Galpin need not think of crowing over us yet. The end is not yet; they will not get rid of Dr. Seignebos so easily. I have said that Cocoleu was a wretched cheat, a miserable impostor, a false witness, and I shall prove it. Boiscoran can count upon me.”
He broke off here, and, placing himself before M. Folgat, he added,–
“And I say M. de Boiscoran may count upon me, because I have my reasons. I have formed very singular suspicions, sir,–very singular.”
M. Folgat, Dionysia, and the marchioness urged him to explain; but he declared that the moment had not come yet, that he was not perfectly sure yet.
And he left again, vowing that he was overworked, that he had forsaken his patients for forty-eight hours, and that the Countess Claudieuse was waiting for him, as her husband was getting worse and worse.
“What can the old man suspect?” Grandpapa Chandore asked again, an hour after the doctor had left.
M. Folgat might have replied that these probable suspicions were no doubt his own suspicions, only better founded, and more fully developed. But why should he say so, since all inquiry was prohibited, and a single imprudent word might ruin every thing? Why, also, should he excite new hopes, when they must needs wait patiently till it should seem good to M. Galpin to make an end to this melancholy suspense?
They heard very little nowadays of Jacques de Boiscoran. The examinations took place only at long intervals; and it was sometimes four or five days before Mechinet brought another letter.
“This is intolerable agony,” repeated the marchioness over and over again.
The end was, however, approaching.
Dionysia was alone one afternoon in the sitting-room, when she thought she heard the clerk’s voice in the hall. She went out at once and found him there.
“Ah!” she cried, “the investigation is ended!” For she knew very well that nothing less would have emboldened Mechinet to show himself openly at their house.
“Yes, indeed, madam!” replied the good man; “and upon M. Galpin’s own order I bring you this letter from M. de Boiscoran.”
She took it, read it at a single glance, and forgetting every thing, half delirious with joy, she ran to her grandfather and M. Folgat, calling upon a servant at the same time to run and fetch M. Magloire.
In less than an hour, the eminent advocate of Sauveterre arrived; and when Jacques’s letter had been handed to him, he said with some embarrassment,–
“I have promised M. de Boiscoran my assistance, and he shall certainly have it. I shall be at the prison to-morrow morning as soon as the doors open, and I will tell you the result of our interview.”
He would say nothing more. It was very evident that he did not believe in the innocence of his client, and, as soon as he had left, M. de Chandore exclaimed,–
“Jacques is mad to intrust his defence to a man who doubts him.”
“M. Magloire is an honorable man, papa,” said Dionysia; “and, if he thought he could compromise Jacques, he would resign.”
Yes, indeed, M. Magloire was an honorable man, and quite accessible to tender sentiments; for he felt very reluctant to go and see the prisoner, charged as he was with an odious crime, and, as he thought, justly charged,–a man who had been his friend, and whom, in spite of all, he could not help loving still.
He could not sleep for it that night; and noticed his anxious air as he crossed the street next morning on his way to the jail. Blangin the keeper was on the lookout for him, and cried,–
“Ah, come quick, sir! The accused is devoured with impatience.”
Slowly, and his heart beating furiously, the famous advocate went up the narrow stairs. He crossed the long passage; Blangin opened a door; he was in Jacques de Boiscoran’s cell.
“At last you are coming,” exclaimed the unhappy young man, throwing himself on the lawyer’s neck. “At last I see an honest face, and hold a trusty hand. Ah! I have suffered cruelly, so cruelly, that I am surprised my mind has not given way. But now you are here, you are by my side, I am safe.”
The lawyer could not speak. He was terrified by the havoc which grief had made of the noble and intelligent face of his friend. He was shocked at the distortion of his features, the unnatural brilliancy of his eyes, and the convulsive laugh on his lips.
“Poor man!” he murmured at last.
Jacques misunderstood him: he stepped back, as white as the walls of his cell.
“You do not think me guilty?” he exclaimed.
An inexpressibly sad expression convulsed his features.
“To be sure,” he went on with his terrible convulsive laughter, “the charges must be overwhelming indeed, if they have convinced my best friends. Alas! why did I refuse to speak that first day? My honor!– what a phantom! And still, victimized as I am by an infamous conspiracy, I should still refuse to speak, if my life alone were at stake. But my honor is at stake. Dionysia’s honor, the honor of the Boiscorans. I shall speak. You, M. Magloire, shall know the truth, you shall see my innocence in a word.”
And, seizing M. Magloire’s hand, he pressed it almost painfully, as he added in a hoarse voice,–
“One word will explain the whole thing to you: I was the lover of the Countess Claudieuse!”