Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
If he had been less distressed, Jacques de Boiscoran would have seen how wisely had had acted in choosing for his defender the great advocate of Sauveterre. A stranger, M. Folgat, for instance, would have heard him silently, and would have seen in the revelation nothing but the fact without giving it a personal value. In M. Magloire, on the contrary, he saw what the whole country would feel. And M. Magloire, when he heard him declare that the Countess Claudieuse had been his mistress, looked indignant, and exclaimed,–
“That is impossible.”
At least Jacques was not surprised. He had been the first to say that they would refuse to believe him when he should speak; and this conviction had largely influenced him in keeping silence so long.
“It is impossible, I know,” he said; “and still it is so.”
“Give me proofs!” said M. Magloire.
“I have no proofs.”
The melancholy and sympathizing expression of the great lawyer changed instantly. He sternly glanced at the prisoner, and his eye spoke of amazement and indignation.
“There are things,” he said, “which it is rash to affirm when one is not able to support them with proof. Consider"–
“My situation forces me to tell all.”
“Why, then, did you wait so long?”
“I hoped I should be spared such a fearful extremity.”
“By the countess.”
M. Magloire’s face became darker and darker.
“I am not often accused of partiality,” he said. “Count Claudieuse is, perhaps, the only enemy I have in this country; but he is a bitter, fierce enemy. To keep me out of the chamber, and to prevent my obtaining many votes, he stooped to acts unworthy of a gentleman. I do not like him. But in justice I must say that I look upon the countess as the loftiest, the purest, and noblest type of the woman, the wife, and the mother.”
A bitter smile played on Jacques’s lips.
“And still I have been her lover,” he said.
“When? How? The countess lived at Valpinson: you lived in Paris.”
“Yes; but every year the countess came and spent the month of September in Paris; and I came occasionally to Boiscoran.”
“It is very singular that such an intrigue should never have been suspected even.”
“We managed to take our precautions.”
“And no one ever suspected any thing?”
But Jacques was at last becoming impatient at the attitude assumed by M. Magloire. He forgot that he had foreseen all the suspicions to which he found now he was exposed.
“Why do you ask all these questions?” he said. “You do not believe me. Well, be it so! Let me at least try to convince you. Will you listen to me?”
M. Magloire drew up a chair, and sitting down, not as usually, but across the chair, and resting his arms on the back, he said,–
Jacques de Boiscoran, who had been almost livid, became crimson with anger. His eyes flashed wrath. That he, he should be treated thus! Never had all the haughtiness of M. Galpin offended him half as much as this cool, disdainful condescension on the part of M. Magloire. It occurred to him to order him out of his room. But what then? He was condemned to drain the bitter cup to the very dregs: for he must save himself; he must get out of this abyss.
“You are cruel, Magloire,” he said in a voice of ill-suppressed indignation, “and you make me feel all the horrors of my situation to the full. Ah, do not apologize! It does not matter. Let me speak.”
He walked up and down a few times in his cell, passing his hand repeatedly over his brow, as if to recall his memory. Then he began, in a calmer tone of voice,–
“It was in the first days of the month of August, in 1866, and at Boiscoran, where I was on a visit to my uncle, that I saw the Countess Claudieuse for the first time. Count Claudieuse and my uncle were, at that time, on very bad terms with each other, thanks to that unlucky little stream which crosses our estates; and a common friend, M. de Besson, had undertaken to reconcile them at a dinner to which he had invited both. My uncle had taken me with him. The countess had come with her husband. I was just twenty years old; she was twenty-six. When I saw her, I was overcome. It seemed to me that I had never in all my life met a woman so perfectly beautiful and graceful; that I had never seen so charming a face, such beautiful eyes, and such a sweet smile.
“She did not seem to notice me. I did not speak to her; and still I felt within me a kind of presentiment that this woman would play a great, a fatal part in my life.
“This impression was so strong, that, as we left the house, I could not keep from mentioning it to my uncle. He only laughed, and said that I was a fool, and that, if my existence should ever be troubled by a woman, it would certainly not be by the Countess Claudieuse.
“He was apparently right. It was hard to imagine that any thing should ever again bring me in contact with the countess. M. de Besson’s attempt at reconciliation had utterly failed; the countess lived at Valpinson; and I went back to Paris.
“Still I was unable to shake off the impression; and the memory of the dinner at M. de Besson’s house was still in my mind, when a month later, at a party at my mother’s brother’s, M. de Chalusse, I thought I recognized the Countess Claudieuse. It was she. I bowed, and, seeing that she recognized me, I went up to her, trembling, and she allowed me to sit down by her.
“She told me then that she had come up to Paris for a month, as she did every year, and that she was staying at her father’s, the Marquis de Tassar. She had come to this party much against her inclination, as she disliked going out. She did not dance; and thus I talked to her till the moment when she left.
“I was madly in love when we parted; and still I made no effort to see her again. It was mere chance again which brought us together.
“One day I had business at Melun, and, reaching the station rather late, I had but just time to jump into the nearest car. In the compartment was the countess. She told me–and that is all I ever recollected of the conversation–that she was on her way to Fontainebleau to see a friend, with whom she spent every Tuesday and Saturday. Usually she took the nine o’clock train.
“This was on a Tuesday; and during the next three days a great struggle went on in my heart. I was desperately in love with the countess, and still I was afraid of her. But my evil star conquered; and the next Saturday, at nine o’clock, I was at the station again.
“The countess has since confessed to me that she expected me. When she saw me, she made a sign; and, when they opened the doors, I managed to find a place by her side.”
M. Magloire had for some minutes given signs of great impatience; now he broke forth,–
“This is too improbable!”
At first Jacques de Boiscoran made no reply. It was no easy task for a man, tried as he had been of late, to stir up thus the ashes of the past; and it made him shudder. He was amazed at seeing on his lips this secret which he had so long buried in his innermost heart. Besides, he had loved, loved in good earnest; and his love had been returned. And there are certain sensations which come to us only once in life, and which can never again be effaced. He was moved to tears. But as the eminent advocate of Sauveterre repeated his words, and even added,–
“No, it is not credible!”
“I do not ask you to believe me,” he said gently: “I only ask you to hear me.”
And, overcoming with all his energy the kind of torpor which was mastering him, he continued,–
“This trip to Fontainebleau decided our fate. Other trips followed. The countess spent her days with her friend, and I passed the long hours in roaming through the woods. But in the evening we met again at the station. We took a /coupe/, which I had engaged beforehand, and I accompanied her in a carriage to her father’s house.
“Finally, one evening, she left her friend’s house at the usual hour; but she did not return to her father’s house till the day after.”
“Jacques!” broke in M. Magloire, shocked, as if he had heard a curse, –"Jacques!”
M. de Boiscoran remained unmoved.
“Oh!” he said, “I know you must think it strange. You fancy that there is no excuse for the man who betrays the confidence of a woman who has once given herself to him. Wait, before you judge me.”
And he went on, in a firmer tone of voice,–
“At that time I thought I was the happiest man on earth; and my heart was full of the most absurd vanity at the thought that she was mine, this beautiful woman, whose purity was high above all calumny. I had tied around my neck one of those fatal ropes which death alone can sever, and, fool that I was, I considered myself happy.
“Perhaps she really loved me at that time. At least she did not hesitate, and, overcome by the only real great passion of her life, she told me all that was in her innermost heart. At that time she did not think yet of protecting herself against me, and of making me her slave. She told me the secret of her marriage, which had at one time created such a sensation in the whole country.
“When her father, the Marquis de Brissac, had given up his place, he had soon begun to feel his inactivity weigh upon him, and at the same time he had become impatient at the narrowness of his means. He had ventured upon hazardous speculations. He had lost every thing he had; and even his honor was at stake. In his despair he was thinking of suicide, when chance brought to his house a former comrade, Count Claudieuse. In a moment of confidence, the marquis confessed every thing; and the other had promised to rescue him, and save him from disgrace. That was noble and grand. It must have cost an immense sum. And the friends of our youth who are capable of rendering us such services are rare in our day. Unfortunately, Count Claudieuse could not all the time be the hero he had been at first. He saw Genevieve de Tassar. He was struck with her beauty; and overcome by a sudden passion–forgetting that she was twenty, while he was nearly fifty–he made his friend aware that he was still willing to render him all the services in his power, but that he desired to obtain Genevieve’s hand in return.
“That very evening the ruined nobleman entered his daughter’s room, and, with tears in his eyes, explained to her his terrible situation. She did not hesitate a moment.
” ’Above all,’ she said to her father, ’let us save our honor, which even your death would not restore. Count Claudieuse is cruel to forget that he is thirty years older than I am. From this moment I hate and despise him. Tell him I am willing to be his wife.’
“And when her father, overcome with grief, told her that the count would never accept her hand in this form, she replied,–
” ’Oh, do not trouble yourself about that! I shall do the thing handsomely, and your friend shall have no right to complain. But I know what I am worth; and you must remember hereafter, that, whatever service he may render you, you owe him nothing.’
“Less than a fortnight after this scene, Genevieve had allowed the count to perceive that he was not indifferent to her and a month later she became his wife.
“The count, on his side, had acted with the utmost delicacy and tact; so that no one suspected the cruel position of the Marquis de Tassar. He had placed two hundred thousand francs in his hands to settle his most pressing debts. In his marriage-contract he had acknowledged having received with his wife a dower of the same amount; and finally, he had bound himself to pay to his father-in-law and his wife an annual income of ten thousand francs. This had absorbed more than half of all he possessed.”
M. Magloire no longer thought of protesting. Sitting stiffly on his chair, his eyes wide open, like a man who asks himself whether he is asleep or awake, he murmured,–
“That is incomprehensible! That is unheard of!”
Jacques was becoming gradually excited. He went on,–
“This is, at least, what the countess told me in her first hours of enthusiasm. But she told it to me calmly, coldly, like a thing that was perfectly natural. ’Certainly,’ she said, ’Count Claudieuse has never had to regret the bargain he made. If he has been generous, I have been faithful. My father owes his life to him; but I have given him years of happiness to which he was not entitled. If he has received no love, he has had all the appearance of it, and an appearance far more pleasant than the reality.’
“When I could not conceal my astonishment, she added, laughing heartily,–
” ’Only I brought to the bargain a mental reservation. I reserved to myself the right to claim my share of earthly happiness whenever it should come within my reach. That share is yours, Jacques; and do not fancy that I am troubled by remorse. As long as my husband thinks he is happy, I am within the terms of the contract.’
“That was the way she spoke at that time, Magloire; and a man of more experience would have been frightened. But I was a child; I loved her with all my heart. I admired her genius; I was overcome by her sophisms.
“A letter from Count Claudieuse aroused us from our dreams.
“The countess had committed the only and the last imprudence of her whole life: she had remained three weeks longer in Paris than was agreed upon; and her impatient husband threatened to come for her.
” ’I must go back to Valpinson,’ she said; ’for there is nothing I would not do to keep up the reputation I have managed to make for myself. My life, your life, my daughter’s life–I would give them all, without hesitation, to protect my reputation.”
“This happened–ah! the dates have remained fixed in my mind as if engraven on bronze–on the 12th October.
” ’I cannot remain longer than a month,’ she said to me, ’without seeing you. A month from to-day, that is to say, on 12th November, at three o’clock precisely, you must be in the forest of Rochepommier, at the Red Men’s Cross-roads. I will be there.’
“And she left Paris. I was in such a state of depression, that I scarcely felt the pain of parting. The thought of being loved by such a woman filled me with extreme pride, and, no doubt, saved me from many an excess. Ambition was rising within me whenever I thought of her. I wanted to work, to distinguish myself, to become eminent in some way.
” ’I want her to be proud of me,’ I said to myself, ashamed at being nothing at my age but the son of a rich father.”
Ten times, at least, M. Magloire had risen from his chair, and moved his lips, as if about to make some objection. But he had pledged himself, in his own mind, not to interrupt Jacques, and he did his best to keep his pledge.
“In the meantime,” Jacques went on, “the day fixed by the countess was drawing near. I went down to Boiscoran; and on the appointed day, at the precise hour, I was in the forest at the Red Men’s Cross-roads. I was somewhat behind time, and I was extremely sorry for it: but I did not know the forest very well, and the place chosen by the countess for the rendezvous is in the very thickest part of the old wood. The weather was unusually severe for the season. The night before, a heavy snow had fallen: the paths were all white; and a sharp wind blew the flakes from the heavily-loaded branches. From afar off, I distinguished the countess, as she was walking, up and down in a kind of feverish excitement, confining herself to a narrow space, where the ground was dry, and where she was sheltered from the wind by enormous masses of stone. She wore a dress of dark-red silk, very long, a cloak trimmed with fur, and a velvet hat to match her dress. In three minutes I was by her side. But she did not draw her hand from her muff to offer it to me; and, without giving me time to apologize for the delay, she said in a dry tone,–
” ’When did you reach Boiscoran?’
” ’Last night.’
” ’How childish you are!’ she exclaimed, stamping her foot. ’Last night! And on what pretext?’
” ’I need no pretext to visit my uncle.’
” ’And was he not surprised to see you drop from the clouds at this time of the year?’
” ’Why, yes, a little,’ I answered foolishly, incapable as I was of concealing the truth.
“Her dissatisfaction increased visibly.
” ’And how did you get here?’ she commenced again. ’Did you know this cross-road?’
” ’No, I inquired about it.’
” ’From whom?’
” ’From one of my uncle’s servants; but his information was so imperfect, that I lost my way.’
“She looked at me with such a bitter, ironical smile, that I stopped.
” ’And all that, you think, is very simple,’ she broke in. ’Do you really imagine people will think it very natural that you should thus fall like a bombshell upon Boiscoran, and immediately set out for the Red Men’s Cross-roads in the forest? Who knows but you have been followed? Who knows but behind one of these trees there may be eyes even now watching us?’
“And as she looked around with all the signs of genuine fear, I answered,–
” ’And what do you fear? Am I not here?’
“I think I can even now see the look in her eyes as she said,–
” ’I fear nothing in the world–do you hear me? nothing in the world, except being suspected; for I cannot be compromised. I like to do as I do; I like to have a lover. But I do not want it to be known; because, if it became known, there would be mischief. Between my reputation and my life I have no choice. If I were to be surprised here by any one, I would rather it should be my husband than a stranger. I have no love for the count, and I shall never forgive him for having married me; but he has saved my father’s honor, and I owe it to him to keep his honor unimpaired. He is my husband, besides, and the father of my child: I bear his name, and I want it to be respected. I should die with grief and shame and rage, if I had to give my arm to a man at whom people might look and smile. Wives are absurdly stupid when they do not feel that all the scorn with which their unfortunate husbands are received in the great world falls back upon them. No. I do not love the count, Jacques, and I love you. But remember, that, between him and you, I should not hesitate a moment, and that I should sacrifice your life and your honor, with a smile on my lips, even though my heart should break, if I could, by doing so, spare him the shadow of a suspicion.’
“I was about to reply; but she said,–
” ’No more! Every minute we stay here increases the danger. What pretext will you plead for your sudden appearance at Boiscoran?’
” ’I do no know,’ I replied.
” ’You must borrow some money from your uncle, a considerable sum, to pay your debts. He will be angry, perhaps; but that will explain your sudden fancy for travelling in the month of November. Good-by, good- by!’
“All amazed, I cried,–
” ’What! You will not let me see you again, at least from afar?’
” ’During this visit that would be the height of imprudence. But, stop! Stay at Boiscoran till Sunday. Your uncle never stays away from high mass: go with him to church. But be careful, control yourself. A single imprudence, one blunder, and I should despise you. Now we must part. You will find in Paris a letter from me.’ “
Jacques paused here, looking to read in M. Magloire’s face what impression his recital had produced so far. But the famous lawyer remained impassive. He sighed, and continued,–
“I have entered into all these details, Magloire, because I want you to know what kind of a woman the countess is, so that you may understand her conduct. You see that she did not treat me like a traitor: she had given me fair warning, and shown me the abyss into which I was going to fall. Alas! so far from being terrified, these dark sides of her character only attracted me the more. I admired her imperious air, her courage, and her prudence, even her total lack of principle, which contrasted so strangely with her fear of public opinion. I said to myself with foolish pride,–
” ’She certainly is a superior woman!’
“She must have been pleased with my obedience at church; for I managed to check even a slight trembling which seized me when I saw her and bowed to her as she passed so close to me that my hand touched her dress. I obeyed her in other ways also. I asked my uncle for six thousand francs, and he gave them to me, laughing; for he was the most generous man on earth: but he said at the same time,–
” ’I thought you had not come to Boiscoran merely for the purpose of exploring the forest of Rochepommier.’
“This trifling circumstance increased my admiration for the Countess Claudieuse. How well she had foreseen my uncle’s astonishment, when I had not even dreamed of it!
” ’She has a genius for prudence,’ I thought.
“Yes, indeed she had a genius for it, and a genius for calculation also, as I soon found out. When I reached Paris, I found a letter from her waiting for me; but it was nothing more than a repetition of all she had told me at our meeting. This letter was followed by several others, which she begged me to keep for her sake, and which all had a number in the upper corner.
“The first time I saw her again, I asked her,–
” ’What are these numbers?’
” ’My dear Jacques,’ she replied, ’a woman ought always to know how many letters she has written to her lover. Up to now, you must have had nine.’
“This occurred in May, 1867, at Rochefort, where she had gone to be present at the launching of a frigate, and where I had followed her, at her suggestion, with a view to spending a few hours in each other’s company. Like a fool, I laughed at the idea of this epistolary responsibility, and then I thought no more of it. I was at that time too busy otherwise. She had recalled to me the fact that time was passing, in spite of the sadness of our separation, and that the month of September, the month of her freedom, was drawing near. Should we be compelled again, like the year before, to resort to these perilous trips to Fontainebleau? Why not get a house in a remote quarter of town?
“Every wish of hers was an order for me. My uncle’s liberality knew no end. I bought a house.”
At last in the midst of all of Jacques’s perplexities, there appeared a circumstance which might furnish tangible evidence.
M. Magloire started, and asked eagerly,–
“Ah, you bought a house?”
“Yes, a nice house with a large garden, in Vine Street, Passy.”
“And you own it still?”
“Of course you have the title-papers?”
Jacques looked in despair.
“Here, again, fate is against me. There is quite a tale connected with that house.”
The features of the Sauveterre lawyer grew dark again, much quicker than they had brightened up just now.
“Ah!” he said,–"a tale, ah!”
“I was scarcely of age,” resumed Jacques, “when I wanted to purchase this house. I dreaded difficulties. I was afraid my father might hear of it; in fine, I wanted to be as prudent as the countess was. I asked, therefore, one of my English friends, Sir Francis Burnett, to purchase it in his name. He agreed; and he handed me, with the necessary bills of sale, also a paper in which he acknowledged my right as proprietor.”
“Oh! wait a moment. I did not take these papers to my rooms in my father’s house. I put them into a drawer of a bureau in my house at Passy. When the war broke out, I forgot them. I had left Paris before the siege began, you know, being in command of a company of volunteers from this department. During the two sieges, my house was successively occupied by the National Guards, the soldiers of the Commune, and the regular troops. When I got back there, I found the four walls pierced with holes by the shells; but all the furniture had disappeared, and with it the papers.”
“And Sir Francis Burnett?”
“He left France at the beginning of the invasion; and I do not know what has become of him. Two friends of his in England, to whom I wrote, replied,–the one that he was probably in Australia; the other that he was dead.”
“And you have taken no other steps to secure your rights to a piece of property which legally belongs to you?”
“No, not till now.”
“You mean to say virtually that there is in Paris a house which has no owner, is forgotten by everybody, and unknown even to the tax- gatherer?”
“I beg your pardon! The taxes have always been regularly paid; and the whole neighborhood knows that I am the owner. But the individuality is not the same. I have unceremoniously assumed the identity of my friend. In the eyes of the neighbors, the small dealers near by, the workmen and contractors whom I have employed, for the servants and the gardener, I am Sir Francis Burnett. Ask them about Jacques de Boiscoran, and they will tell you, ’Don’t know.’ Ask them about Sir Francis Burnett, and they will answer, ’Oh, very well!’ and they will give you my portrait.”
M. Magloire shook his head as if he were not fully convinced.
“Then,” he asked again, “you declare that the Countess Claudieuse has been at this house?”
“More than fifty times in three years.”
“If that is so, she must be known there.”
“Paris is not like Sauveterre, my dear friend; and people are not solely occupied with their neighbors’ doings. Vine Street is quite a deserted street; and the countess took the greatest precautions in coming and going.”
“Well, granted, as far as the outside world is concerned. But within? You must have had somebody to stay in the house and keep it in order when you were away, and to wait upon you when you were there?”
“I had an English maid-servant.”
“Well, this girl must know the countess?”
“She has never caught a glimpse of her even.”
“When the countess was coming down, or when she was going away, or when we wanted to walk in the garden, I sent the girl on some errand. I have sent her as far as Orleans to get rid of her for twenty-four hours. The rest of the time we staid up stairs, and waited upon ourselves.”
Evidently M. Magloire was suffering. He said,–
“You must be under a mistake. Servants are curious, and to hide from them is only to make them mad with curiosity. That girl has watched you. That girl has found means to see the countess when she came there. She must be examined. Is she still in your service?”
“No, she left me when the war broke out.”
“She wanted to return to England.”
“Then we cannot hope to find her again?”
“I believe not.”
“We must give it up, then. But your man-servant? Old Anthony was in your confidence. Did you never tell him any thing about it?”
“Never. Only once I sent for him to come to Vine Street when I had sprained my foot in coming down stairs.”
“So that it is impossible for you to prove that the Countess Claudieuse ever came to your house in Passy? You have no evidence of it, and no eye-witness?”
“I used to have evidence. She had brought a number of small articles for her private use; but they have disappeared during the war.”
“Ah, yes!” said M. Magloire, “always the war! It has to answer for every thing.”
Never had any of M. Galpin’s examinations been half as painful to Jacques de Boiscoran as this series of quick questions, which betrayed such distressing incredulity.
“Did I not tell you, Magloire,” he resumed, “that the countess had a genius for prudence? You can easily conceal yourself when you can spend money without counting it. Would you blame me for not having any proofs to furnish? Is it not the duty of every man of honor to do all he can to keep even a shadow of suspicion from her who has confided herself to his hands? I have done my duty, and whatever may come of it, I shall not regret it. Could I foresee such unheard-of emergencies? Could I foresee that a day might come when I, Jacques de Boiscoran, should have to denounce the Countess Claudieuse, and should be compelled to look for evidence and witnesses against her?”
The eminent advocate of Sauveterre looked aside; and, instead of replying, he said in a somewhat changed voice,–
“Go on, Jacques, go on!”
Jacques de Boiscoran tried to overcome the discouragement which well- nigh mastered him, and said,–
“It was on the 2d September, 1867, that the Countess Claudieuse for the first time entered this house in Passy, which I had purchased and furnished for her; and during the five weeks which she spent in Paris, she came almost every day, and spent several hours there.
“At her father’s house she enjoyed absolute and almost uncontrolled independence. She left her daughter–for she had at that time but one child–with her mother, the Marchioness de Tassar; and she was free to go and to come as she liked.
“When she wanted still greater freedom, she went to see her friend in Fontainebleau; and every time she did this she secured twenty-four or forty-eight hours over and above the time for the journey. I, for my part, was as perfectly free from all control. Ostensibly, I had gone to Ireland; in reality, I lived in Vine Street.
“These five weeks passed like a dream; and yet I must confess, the parting was not as painful as might have been supposed. Not that the bright prism was broken; but I always felt humiliated by the necessity of being concealed. I began to be tired of these incessant precautions; and I was quite ready to give up being Sir Francis Burnett, and to resume my identity.
“We had, besides, promised each other never to remain a month without seeing each other, at least for a few hours; and she had invented a number of expedients by which we could meet without danger.
“A family misfortune came just then to our assistance. My father’s eldest brother, that kind uncle who had furnished me the means to purchase my house in Passy, died, and left me his entire fortune. As owner of Boiscoran, I could, henceforth, live as much as I chose in the province; and at all events come there whenever I liked, without anybody’s inquiring for my reasons.”