Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
Jacques de Boiscoran was evidently anxious to have done with his recital, to come to that night of the fire at Valpinson, and to learn at last from the eminent advocate of Sauveterre what he had to fear or to hope. After a moment’s silence, for his breath was giving out, and after a few steps across his cell, he went on in a bitter tone of voice,–
“But why trouble you with all these details, Magloire? Would you believe me any more than you do now, if I were to enumerate to you all my meetings with the Countess Claudieuse, or if I were to repeat all her most trifling words?
“We had gradually learnt to calculate all our movements, and made our preparations so accurately, that we met constantly, and feared no danger. We said to each other at parting, or she wrote to me, ’On such a day, at such an hour, at such a place;’ and however distant the day, or the hour, or the place, we were sure to meet. I had soon learned to know the country as well as the cleverest of poachers; and nothing was so useful to us as this familiarity with all the unknown hiding- places. The countess, on her side, never let three months pass by without discovering some urgent motive which carried her to Rochelle, to Angouleme, or to Paris; and I was there to meet her. Nothing kept her from these excursions; even when indisposed, she braved the fatigues of the journey. It is true, my life was well-nigh spent in travelling; and at any moment, when least expected, I disappeared for whole weeks. This will explain to you that restlessness at which my father sneered, and for which you, yourself, Magloire, used to blame me.”
“That is true,” replied the latter. “I remember.”
Jacques de Boiscoran did not seem to notice the encouragement.
“I should not tell the truth if I were to say that this kind of life was unpleasant to me. Mystery and danger always add to the charms of love. The difficulties only increased my passion. I saw something sublime in this success with which two superior beings devoted all their intelligence and cleverness to the carrying-on of a secret intrigue. The more fully I became aware of the veneration with which the countess was looked up to by the whole country, the more I learned to appreciate her ability in dissembling and her profound perversity; and I was all the more proud of her. I felt the pride setting my cheeks aglow when I saw her at Brechy; for I came there every Sunday for her sake alone, to see her pass calm and serene in the imposing security of her lofty reputation. I laughed at the simplicity of all these honest, good people, who bowed so low to her, thinking they saluted a saint; and I congratulated myself with idiotic delight at being the only one who knew the true Countess Claudieuse,–she who took her revenge so bravely in our house in Passy!
“But such delights never last long.
“It had not taken me long to find out that I had given myself a master, and the most imperious and exacting master that ever lived. I had almost ceased to belong to myself. I had become her property; and I lived and breathed and thought and acted for her alone. She did not mind my tastes and my dislikes. She wished a thing, and that was enough. She wrote to me, ’Come!’ and I had to be instantly on the spot: she said to me, ’Go!’ an I had to leave at once. At first I accepted these evidences of her despotism with joy; but gradually I became tired of this perpetual abdication of my own will. I disliked to have no control over myself, to be unable to dispose of twenty-four hours in advance. I began to feel the pressure of the halter around my neck. I thought of flight. One of my friends was to set out on a voyage around the world, which was to last eighteen months or two years, and I had an idea of accompanying him. There was nothing to retain me. I was, by fortune and position, perfectly independent. Why should I not carry out my plan?
“Ah, why? The prism was not broken yet. I cursed the tyranny of the countess; but I still trembled when I heard her name mentioned. I thought of escaping from her; but a single glance moved me to the bottom of my heart. I was bound to her by the thousand tender threads of habit and of complicity,–those threads which seem to be more delicate than gossamer, but which are harder to break than a ship’s cable.
“Still, this idea which had occurred to me brought it about that I uttered for the first time the word ’separation’ in her presence, asking her what she would do if I should leave her. She looked at me with a strange air and asked me, after a moment’s hesitation,–
” ’Are you serious? Is it a warning?’
“I dared not carry matters any farther, and, making an effort to smile, I said,–
” ’It is only a joke.’
” ’Then,’ she said, ’let us not say any thing more about it. If you should ever come to that, you would soon see what I would do.’
“I did not insist; but that look remained long in my memory, and made me feel that I was far more closely bound than I had thought. From that day it became my fixed idea to break with her.”
“Well, you ought to have made an end of it,” said Magloire.
Jacques de Boiscoran shook his head.
“That is easily said,” he replied. “I tried it; but I could not do it. Ten times I went to her, determined to say, ’Let us part;’ and ten times, at the last moment, my courage failed me. She irritated me. I almost began to hate her; but I could not forget how much I had loved her, and how much she had risked for my sake. Then–why should I not confess it?–I was afraid of her.
“This inflexible character, which I had so much admired, terrified me; and I shuddered, seized with vague and sombre apprehensions, when I thought what she was capable of doing. I was thus in the utmost perplexity, when my mother spoke to me of a match which she had long hoped for. This might be the pretext which I had so far failed to find. At all events, I asked for time to consider; and, the first time I saw the countess again, I gathered all my courage, and said to her,–
” ’Do you know what has happened? My mother wants me to marry.’
“She turned as pale as death; and looking me fixedly in the eyes, as if wanting to read my innermost thoughts, she asked,–
” ’And you, what do you want?’
” ’I,’ I replied with a forced laugh,–’I want nothing just now. But the thing will have to be done sooner or later. A man must have a home, affections which the world acknowledges’–
” ’And I,’ she broke in; ’what am I to you?’
” ’You,’ I exclaimed, ’you, Genevieve! I love you with all the strength of my heart. But we are separated by a gulf: you are married.’
“She was still looking at me fixedly.
” ’In other words,’ she said, ’you have loved me as a pastime. I have been the amusement of your youth, the poetry of twenty years, that love-romance which every man wants to have. But you are becoming serious; you want sober affections, and you leave me. Well, be it so. But what is to become of me when you are married?’
“I was suffering terribly.
” ’You have your husband,’ I stammered, ’your children’–
“She stopped me.
” ’Yes,’ she said. ’I shall go back go live at Valpinson, in that country full of associations, where every place recalls a rendezvous. I shall live with my husband, whom I have betrayed; with daughters, one of whom– That cannot be, Jacques.’
“I had a fit of courage.
” ’Still,’ I said, ’I may have to marry. What would you do?’
” ’Oh! very little,’ she replied. ’I should hand all your letters to Count Claudieuse.’ “
During the thirty years which he had spent at the bar, M. Magloire had heard many a strange confession; but never in his life had all his ideas been overthrown as in this case.
“That is utterly confounding,” he murmured.
But Jacques went on,–
“Was this threat of the countess meant in earnest? I did not doubt it; but affecting great composure, I said,–
” ’You would not do that.’
” ’By all that I hold dear and sacred in this world,’ she replied, ’I would do it.’
“Many months have passed by since that scene, Magloire, many events have happened; and still I feel as if it had taken place yesterday. I see the countess still, whiter than a ghost. I still hear her trembling voice; and I can repeat to you her words almost literally,–
” ’Ah! you are surprised at my determination, Jacques. I understand that. Wives who have betrayed their husbands have not accustomed their lovers to be held responsible by them. When they are betrayed, they dare not cry out; when they are abandoned, they submit; when they are sacrificed, they hide their tears, for to cry would be to avow their wrong. Who would pity them, besides? Have they not received their well-known punishment? Hence it is that all men agree, and there are some of them cynical enough to confess it, that a married woman is a convenient lady-love, because she can never be jealous, and she may be abandoned at any time. Ah! we women are great cowards. If we had more courage, you men would look twice before you would dare speak of love to a married woman. But what no one dares I will dare. It shall not be said that in our common fault there are two parts, and that you shall have had all the benefit of it, and that I must bear all the punishment. What? You might be free to-morrow to console yourself with a new love; and I–I should have to sink under my shame and remorse. No, no! Such bonds as those that bind us, riveted by long years of complicity, are not broken so easily.
” ’You belong to me; you are mine; and I shall defend you against all and every one, with such arms as I possess. I told you that I valued my reputation more than my life; but I never told you that I valued life. On the eve of your wedding-day, my husband shall know all. I shall not survive the loss of my honor; but at least I shall have my revenge. If you escape the hatred of Count Claudieuse, your name will be bound up with such a tragic affair that your life will be ruined forever.’
“That was the way she spoke, Magloire, and with a passion of which I can give you no idea. It was absurd, it was insane, I admit. But is not all passion absurd and insane? Besides, it was by no means a sudden inspiration of her pride, which made her threaten me with such vengeance. The precision of her phrases, the accuracy of her words, all made me feel that she had long meditated such a blow, and carefully calculated the effect of every word.
“I was thunderstruck.
“And as I kept silence for some time, she asked me coldly,–
“I had to gain time, first of all.
” ’Well,’ I said, ’I cannot understand your passion. This marriage which I mentioned has never existed as yet, except in my mother’s imagination.’
” ’True?’ she asked.
” ’I assure you.’
“She examined me with suspicious eyes. At last she said,–
” ’Well, I believe you. But now you are warned: let us think no more of such horrors.’
“She might think no more of them, but I could not.
“I left her with fury in my heart.
“She had evidently settled it all. I had for lifetime this halter around my neck, which held me tighter day by day and, at the slightest effort to free myself, I must be prepared for a terrible scandal; for one of those overwhelming adventures which destroy a man’s whole life. Could I ever hope to make her listen to reason? No, I was quite sure I could not.
“I knew but too well that I should lose my time, if I were to recall to her that I was not quite as guilty as she would make me out; if I were to show her that her vengeance would fall less upon myself than upon her husband and her children; and that, although she might blame the count for the conditions of their marriage, her daughters, at least, were innocent.
“I looked in vain for an opening out of this horrible difficulty. Upon my honor, Magloire, there were moments when I thought I would pretend getting married, for the purpose of inducing the countess to act, and of bringing upon myself these threats which were hanging over me. I fear no danger; but I cannot bear to know it to exist, and to wait for it with folded hands: I must go forth and meet it.
“The thought that the countess should use her husband for the purpose of keeping me bound shocked me. It seemed to me ridiculous and ignoble that she should make her husband the guardian of her love. Did she think I was afraid of her?
“In the meantime, my mother had asked me what was the result of my reflections on the subject of marriage; and I blushed with shame as I told her that I was not disposed to marry as yet, as I felt too young to accept the responsibility of a family. It was so; but, under other circumstances, I should hardly have put in that plea. I was thus hesitating, and thinking how and when I should be able to make an end of it, when the war broke out. I felt naturally bound to offer my services. I hastened to Boiscoran. They had just organized the volunteers of the district; and they made me their captain. With them I joined the army of the Loire. In my state of mind, war had nothing fearful for me: every excitement was welcome that made me forget the past. There was, consequently, no merit in my courage. Nevertheless, as the weeks passed, and then the months, without my hearing a word about the Countess Claudieuse, I began secretly to hope that she had forgotten me; and that, time and absence doing their work, she was giving me up.
“When peace was made, I returned to Boiscoran; and the countess gave no more signs of life now than before. I began to feel reassured, and to recover possession of myself, when one day M. de Chandore invited me to dinner. I went. I saw Miss Dionysia.
“I had known her already for some time; and the recollection of her had, perhaps, had its influence upon my desire to quit the countess. Still I had always had self-control enough to avoid her lest I should draw some fatal vengeance upon her. When I was brought in contact with her by her grandfather, I had no longer the heart to avoid her; and, on the day on which I thought I read in her eyes that she loved me I made up my mind, and I resolved to risk every thing.
“But how shall I tell you what I suffered, Magloire, and with what anxiety I asked every evening when I returned to Boiscoran,–
” ’No letter yet?’
“None came; and still it was impossible that the Countess Claudieuse should not have heard of my marriage. My father had called on M. de Chandore, and asked him for the hand of his grand-daughter for me. I had been publicly acknowledged as her betrothed; and nothing was now to be done but to fix the wedding-day.
“This silence frightened me.”
Exhausted and out of breath, Jacque de Boiscoran paused here, pressing both of his hands on his chest, as if to check the irregular beating of his heart.
He was approaching the catastrophe.
And yet he looked in vain to the advocate for a word or a sign of encouragement. M. Magloire remained impenetrable: his face remained as impassive as an iron mask.
At last, with a great effort, Jacques resumed,–
“Yes, this calm frightened me more than a storm would have done. To win Dionysia’s love was too great happiness. I expected a catastrophe, something terrible. I expected it with such absolute certainty, that I had actually made up my mind to confess every thing to M. de Chandore. You know him, Magloire. The old gentleman is the purest and brightest type of honor itself. I could intrust my secrets to him with as perfect safety as I formerly intrusted Genevieve’s name to the night winds.
“Alas! why did I hesitate? why did I delay?
“One word might have saved me; and I should not be here, charged with an atrocious crime, innocent, and yet condemned to see how you doubt the truth of my words.
“But fate was against me.
“After having for a week postponed my confession every day to the next, one evening, after Dionysia and I had been talking of presentiments, I said to myself, ’To-morrow it shall be done.’
“The next morning, I went to Boiscoran much earlier than usual, and on foot, because I wanted to give some orders to a dozen workmen whom I employed in my vineyards. I took a short cut through the fields. Alas! not a single detail has escaped from my memory. When I had given my orders, I returned to the high road, and there met the priest from Brechy, who is a friend of mine.
” ’You must,’ he said, ’keep me company for a little distance. As you are on your way to Sauveterre, it will not delay you much to take the cross-road which passes by Valpinson and the forest of Rochepommier.’
“On what trifles our fate depends!
“I accompanied the priest, and only left him at the point where the high-road and the cross-road intersect. As soon as I was alone, I hastened on; and I was almost through the wood, when, all of a sudden, some twenty yards before me, I saw the Countess Claudieuse coming towards me. In spite of my emotion, I kept on my way, determined to bow to her, but to pass her without speaking. I did so, and had gone on a little distance, when I heard her call me,–
“I stopped; or, rather, I was nailed to the spot by that voice which for a long time had held such entire control over my heart. She came up to me, looking even more excited than I was. Her lips trembled, and her eyes wandered to and fro.
” ’Well,’ she said, ’it is no longer a fancy: this time you marry Miss Chandore.’
“The time for half-measures had passed.
” ’Yes,’ I replied.
” ’Then it is really true,’ she said again. ’It is all over now. I suppose it would be in vain to remind you of those vows of eternal love which you used to repeat over and over again. Look down there under that old oak. They are the same trees, this is the same landscape, and I am still the same woman; but your heart has changed.’
“I made no reply.
” ’You love her very much, do you?’ she asked me.
“I kept obstinately silent.
” ’I understand,’ she said, ’I understand you but too well. And Dionysia? She loves you so much she cannot keep it to herself. She stops her friends to tell them all about her marriage, and to assure them of her happiness. Oh, yes, indeed, very happy! That love which was my disgrace is her honor. I was forced to conceal it like a crime: she can display it as a virtue. Social forms are, after all, very absurd and unjust; but a fool is he who tries to defy them.’
“Tears, the very first tears I had ever seen her shed, glittered in her long silky eyelashes.
” ’And to be nothing more to you,–nothing at all! Ah, I was too cautious! Do you recollect the morning after your uncle’s death, when you, now a rich man, proposed that we should flee? I refused; I clung to my reputation. I wanted to be respected. I thought it possible to divide life into two parts,–one to be devoted to pleasure; the other, to the hypocrisy of duty. Poor fool that I was! And still I discovered long ago that you were weary of me. I knew you so well! Your heart was like an open book to me, in which I read your most secret thoughts. Then I might have retained you. I ought to have been humble, obliging, submissive. Instead of that, I tried to command.
” ’And you,’ she said after a short pause,–’are you happy?’
” ’I cannot be completely happy as long as I know that you are unhappy. But there is no sorrow which time does not heal. You will forget’–
” ’Never!’ she cried.
“And, lowering her voice, she added,–
” ’Can I forget you? Alas! my crime is fearful; but the punishment is still more so.’
“People were coming down the road.
” ’Compose yourself,’ I said.
“She made an effort to control her emotion. The people passed us, saluting politely. And after a moment she said again,–
” ’Well, and when is the wedding?’
“I trembled. She herself insisted upon an explanation.
” ’No day has as yet been fixed,’ I replied. ’Had I not to see you first? You uttered once grave threats.’
” ’And you were afraid?’
” ’No: I was sure I knew you too well to fear that you would punish me for having loved you, as if that had been a crime. So many things have happened since the day when you made those threats!’
” ’Yes,’ she replied, ’many things indeed! My poor father is incorrigible. Once more he has committed himself fearfully; and once more my husband has been compelled to sacrifice a large sum to save him. Ah, Count Claudieuse has a noble heart; and it is a great pity I should be the only one towards whom he has failed to show generosity. Every kindness which he shows me is a new grievance for me; but, having accepted them all, I have forfeited the right to strike him, as I had intended to do. You may marry Dionysia, Jacques; you have nothing to fear from me.’
“Ah! I had not hoped for so much, Magloire. Overcome with joy, I seized her hand, and raising it to my lips, I said,–
” ’You are the kindest of friends.’
“But promptly, as if my lips had burnt her hand, she drew it back, and said, turning very pale,–
” ’No, don’t do that!’
“Then, overcoming her emotion to a certain degree, she added,–
” ’But we must meet once more. You have my letters, I dare say.’
” ’I have them all.’
” ’Well, you must bring them to me. But where? And how? I can hardly absent myself at this time. My youngest daughter–our daughter, Jacques–is very ill. Still, an end must be made. Let us see, on Thursday–are you free then? Yes. Very well, then come on Thursday evening, towards nine o’clock, to Valpinson. You will find me at the edge of the wood, near the towers of the old castle, which my husband has repaired.’
” ’Is that quite prudent?’ I asked.
” ’Have I ever left any thing to chance?’ she replied, ’and would I be apt, at this time, to be imprudent? Rely on me. Come, we must part, Jacques. Thursday, and be punctual!’
“Was I really free? Was the chain really broken? And had I become once more my own master?
“I thought so, and in my almost delirious joy I forgave the countess all the anxieties of the last year. What do I say? I began to accuse myself of injustice and cruelty. I admired her for sacrificing herself to my happiness. I felt, in the fulness of my gratitude, like kneeling down, and kissing the hem of her dress.
“It had become useless now to confide my secret to M. de Chandore. I might have gone back to Boiscoran. But I was more than half-way; I kept on; and, when I reached Sauveterre, my face bore such evident trances of my relief, that Dionysia said to me,–
” ’Something very pleasant must have happened to you, Jacques.’
“Oh, yes, very pleasant! For the first time, I breathed freely as I sat by her side. I could love her now, without fearing that my love might be fatal to her.
“This security did not last long. As I considered the matter, I thought it very singular that the countess should have chosen such a place for our meeting.
” ’Can it be a trap?’ I asked, as the day drew nearer.
“All day long on Thursday I had the most painful presentiments. If I had known how to let the countess know, I should certainly not have gone. But I had no means to send her word; and I knew her well enough to be sure that breaking my word would expose me to her full vengeance. I dined at the usual hour; and, when I had finished, I went up to my room, where I wrote to Dionysia not to expect me that evening, as I should be detained by a matter of the utmost importance.
“I handed the note to Michael, the son of one of my tenants, and told him to carry it to town without losing a minute. Then I tied up all of the countess’s letters in a parcel, put it in my pocket, took my gun, and went out. It might have been eight o’clock; but it was still broad daylight.”
Whether M. Magloire accepted every thing that the prisoner said as truth, or not, he was evidently deeply interested. He had drawn up his chair, and at every statement he uttered half-loud exclamations.
“Under any other circumstances,” said Jacques, “I should have taken one of the two public roads in going to Valpinson. But troubled, as I was, by vague suspicions, I thought only of concealing myself and cut across the marshes. They were partly overflowed; but I counted upon my intimate familiarity with the ground, and my agility. I thought, moreover, that here I should certainly not be seen, and should meet no one. In this I was mistaken. When I reached the Seille Canal, and was just about to cross it, I found myself face to face with young Ribot, the son of a farmer at Brechy. He looked so very much surprised at seeing me in such a place, that I thought to give him some explanation; and, rendered stupid by my troubles, I told him I had business at Brechy, and was crossing the marshes to shoot some birds.
” ’If that is so,’ he replied, laughing, ’we are not after the same kind of game.’
“He went his way; but this accident annoyed me seriously. I continued on my way, swearing, I fear, at young Ribot, and found that the path became more and more dangerous. It was long past nine when I reached Valpinson at last. But the night was clear, and I became more cautious than ever.
“The place which the countess had chosen for our meeting was about two hundred yards from the house and the farm buildings, sheltered by other buildings, and quite close to the wood. I approached it through this wood.
“Hid among the trees, I was examining the ground, when I noticed the countess standing near one of the old towers: she wore a simple costume of light muslin, which could be seen at a distance. Finding every thing quiet, I went up to her; and, as soon as she saw me, she said,–
” ’I have been waiting for you nearly an hour.’
“I explained to her the difficulties I had met with on my way there; and then I asked her,–
” ’But where is your husband?’
” ’He is laid up with rheumatism,’ she replied.
” ’Will he not wonder at your absence?’
” ’No: he knows I am sitting up with my youngest daughter. I left the house through the little door of the laundry.’
“And, without giving me time to reply, she asked,–
” ’Where are my letters?’
” ’Here they are,’ I said, handing them to her.
“She took them with feverish haste, saying in an undertone,–
” ’There ought to be twenty-four.’
“And, without thinking of the insult, she went to work counting them.
” ’They are all here,’ she said when she had finished.
“Then, drawing a little package from her bosom, she added,–
” ’And here are yours.’
“But she did not give them to me.
” ’We’ll burn them,’ she said.
“I started with surprise.
” ’You cannot think of it,’ I cried, ’here, and at this hour. The fire would certainly be seen.’
” ’What? Are you afraid? However, we can go into the wood. Come, give me some matches.’
“I felt in my pockets; but I had none.
” ’I have no matches,’ I said.
” ’Oh, come!–you who smoke all day long,–you who, even in my presence, could never give up your cigars.’
” ’I left my match-box, yesterday, at M. de Chandore’s.’
“She stamped her foot vehemently.
” ’Since that is so, I’ll go in and get some.’
“This would have delayed us, and thus would have been an additional imprudence. I saw that I must do what she wanted, and so I said,–
” ’That is not necessary. Wait!’
“All sportsmen know that there is a way to replace matches. I employed the usual means. I took a cartridge out of my gun, emptied it and its shot, and put in, instead a piece of paper. Then, resting my gun on the ground, so as to prevent a loud explosion, I made the powder flash up.
“We had fire, and put the letters to the flame.
“A few minutes later, and nothing was left of them but a few blackened fragments, which I crumbled in my hands, and scattered to the winds. Immovable, like a statue, the Countess Claudieuse had watched my operations.
” ’And that is all,’ she said, ’that remains of five years of our life, of our love, and of your vows,–ashes.’
“I replied by a commonplace remark. I was in a hurry to be gone.
“She felt this, and cried with great vehemence,–
” ’Ah! I inspire you with horror.’
” ’We have just committed a marvellous imprudence,’ I said.
” ’Ah! what does it matter?’
“Then, in a hoarse voice, she added,–
” ’Happiness awaits you, and a new life full of intoxicating hopes: it is quite natural that you should tremble. I, whose life is ended, and who have nothing to look for,–I, in whom you have killed every hope,–I am not afraid.’
“I saw her anger rising within her, and said very quietly,–
” ’I hope you do not repent of your generosity, Genevieve.’
” ’Perhaps I do,’ she replied, in an accent which made me tremble. ’How you must laugh at me! What a wretched thing a woman is who is abandoned, who resigns, and sheds tears!’
“Then she went on fiercely,–
” ’Confess that you have never loved me really!’
” ’Ah, you know very well the contrary!’
” ’Still you abandon me for another,–for that Dionysia!’
” ’You are married: you cannot be mine.’
” ’Then if I were free–if I had been a widow’–
” ’You would be my wife you know very well.’
“She raised her arms to heaven, like a drowning person; and, in a voice which I thought they could hear at the house, she cried,–
” ’His wife! If I were a widow, I would be his wife! O God! Luckily, that thought, that terrible thought, never occurred to me before.’ “
All of a sudden, at these words, the eminent advocate of Sauveterre rose from his chair, and, placing himself before Jacques de Boiscoran, he asked, looking at him with one of those glances which seem to pierce our innermost heart,–
Jacques had to summon all the energy that was left him to be able to continue with a semblance of calmness, at least,–
“Then I tried every thing in the world to quiet the countess, to move her, and bring her back to the generous feelings of former days. I was so completely upset that I hardly knew what I was saying. I hated her bitterly, and still I could not help pitying her. I am a man; and there is no man living who would not feel deeply moved at seeing himself the object of such bitter regrets and such terrible despair. Besides, my happiness and Dionysia’s honor were at stake. How do I know what I said? I am not a hero of romance. No doubt I was mean. I humbled myself, I besought her, I told falsehoods, I vowed to her that it was my family, mainly, who made me marry. I hoped I should be able, by great kindness and caressing words, to soften the bitterness of the parting. She listened to me, remaining as impassive as a block of ice; and, when I paused, she said with a sinister laugh,–
” ’And you tell me all that! Your Dionysia! Ah! if I were a woman like other women, I would say nothing to-day, and, before the year was over, you would again be at my feet.’
“She must have been thinking of our meeting at the cross-roads. Or was this the last outburst of passion at the moment when the last ties were broken off? I was going to speak again; but she interrupted me bruskly, saying,–
” ’Oh, that is enough! Spare me, at least, the insult of your pity! I’ll see. I promise nothing. Good-by!’
“And she escaped toward the house, while I remained rooted to the spot, almost stupefied, and asking myself if she was not, perhaps at that moment, telling Count Claudieuse every thing. It was at that moment that I drew from my gun, almost mechanically, the burnt cartridge and put in a fresh one. Then, as nothing stirred, I went off with rapid strides.”
“What time was it?” asked M. Magloire.
“I could not tell you precisely. My state of mind was such, that I had lost all idea of time. I went back through the forest of Rochepommier.”
“And you saw nothing?”
“Still, from your statement, you could not have been far from Valpinson when the fire broke out.”
“That is true, and, in the open country, I should certainly have seen the fire; but I was in a dense wood: the trees cut off all view.”
“And these same trees prevented the sound of the two shots fired at Count Claudieuse from reaching your ear?”
“They might have helped to prevent it; but there was no need for that. I was walking against the wind, which was very high; and it is an established fact, that, under such circumstances, the sound of a gun is not heard beyond fifty yards.”
M. Magloire once more could hardly restrain his impatience; and, utterly unconscious that he was even harsher than the magistrate, he said,–
“And you think your statement explains every thing?”
“I believe that my statement, which is founded upon the most exact truth, explains the charges brought against me by M. Galpin. It explains how I tried to keep my visit to Valpinson secret; how I was met in going and in coming back, and at hours which correspond with the time of the fire. It explains, finally, how I came at first to deny. It explains how one of my cartridge-cases was found near the ruins, and why I had to wash my hands when I reached home.”
Nothing seemed to be able to shake the lawyer’s conviction. He asked,–
“And the day after, when they came to arrest you, what was your first impression?”
“I thought at once of Valpinson.”
“And when you were told that a crime had been committed?”
“I said to myself, ’The countess wants to be a widow.’ “
All of M. Magloire’s blood seemed to rise in his face. He cried,–
“Unhappy man! How can you dare accuse the Countess Claudieuse of such a crime?”
Indignation gave Jacques strength to reply,–
“Whom else should I accuse? A crime has been committed, and under such circumstances that it cannot have been committed by any one except by her or by myself. I am innocent: consequently she is guilty.”
“Why did you not say so at once?”
Jacques shrugged his shoulders, and replied in a tone of bitter irony,–
“How many times, and in how many ways, do you want me to give you my reasons? I kept silent the first day, because I did not then know the circumstances of the crime, and because I was reluctant to accuse a woman who had given me her love, and who had become criminal from passion; because, in fine, I did not think at that time that I was in danger. After that I kept silent because I hoped justice would be able to discover the truth, or the countess would be unable to bear the idea that I, the innocent one, should be accused. Still later, when I saw my danger, I was afraid.”
The advocates’ feelings seemed to be revolted. He broke in,–
“You do not tell the truth, Jacques; and I will tell you why you kept silent. It is very difficult to make up a story which is to account for every thing. But you are a clever man: you thought it over, and you made out a story. There is nothing lacking in it, except probability. You might tell me that the Countess Claudieuse has unfairly enjoyed the reputation of a saint, and that she has given you her love; perhaps I might be willing to believe it. But when you say she has set her own house on fire, and taken up a gun to shoot her husband, that I can never, never admit.”
“Still it is the truth.”
“No; for the evidence of Count Claudieuse is precise. He has seen his murderer; it was a man who fired at him.”
“And who tells you that Count Claudieuse does not know all, and wants to save his wife, and ruin me? There would be a vengeance for him.”
The objection took the advocate by surprise; but he rejected it at once, and said,–
“Ah! be silent, or prove.”
“All the letters are burned.”
“When one has been a woman’s lover for five years, there are always proofs.”
“But you see there are none.”
“Do not insist,” repeated M. Magloire.
And, in a voice full of pity and emotion, he added,–
“Unhappy man! Do you not feel, that, in order to escape from one crime, you are committing another which is a thousand times worse?”
Jacques stood wringing his hand, and said–
“It is enough to drive me mad.”
“And even if I, your friend,” continued M. Magloire, “should believe you, how would that help you? Would any one else believe it? Look here I will tell you exactly what I think. Even if I were perfectly sure of all the facts you mention, I should never plead them in my defence, unless I had proofs. To plead them, understand me well, would be to ruin yourself inevitably.”
“Still they must be pleaded; for they are the truth.”
“Then,” said M. Magloire, “you must look for another advocate.”
And he went toward the door. He was on the point of leaving, when Jacques cried out, almost in agony,–
“Great God, he forsakes me!”
“No,” replied the advocate; “but I cannot discuss matters with you in the state of excitement in which you now are. You will think it over, and I will come again to-morrow.”
He left; and Jacques de Boiscoran fell, utterly undone, on one of the prison chairs.
“It is all over,” he stammered: “I am lost.”