Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
M. Folgat and M. Magloire went to the courthouse; and, as they descended the steep street from M. de Chandore’s house, the Paris lawyer said,–
“M. Galpin must fancy himself wonderfully safe in his position, that he should grant the defence permission to see all the papers of the prosecution.”
Ordinarily such leave is given only after the court has begun proceedings against the accused, and the presiding judge has questioned him. This looks like crying injustice to the prisoner; and hence arrangements can be made by which the rigor of the law is somewhat mitigated. With the consent of the commonwealth attorney, and upon his responsibility, the magistrate who had carried on the preliminary investigation may inform the accused, or his counsel, by word of mouth, or by a copy of all or of part, of what has happened during the first inquiry. That is what M. Galpin had done.
And on the part of a man who was ever ready to interpret the law in its strictest meaning, and who no more dared proceed without authority for every step than a blind man without his staff,–or on the part of such a man, an enemy, too, of M. de Boiscoran, this permission granted to the defence was full of meaning. But did it really mean what M. Folgat thought it did?
“I am almost sure you are mistaken,” said M. Magloire. “I know the good man, having practiced with him for many years. If he were sure of himself, he would be pitiless. If he is kind, he is afraid. This concession is a door which he keeps open, in case of defeat.”
The eminent counsel was right. However well convinced M. Galpin might be of Jacques’s guilt, he was still very much troubled about his means of defence. Twenty examinations had elicited nothing from his prisoner but protestations of innocence. When he was driven to the wall, he would reply,–
“I shall explain when I have seen my counsel.”
This is often the reply of the most stupid scamp, who only wants to gain time. But M. Galpin knew his former friend, and had too high an opinion of his mind, not to fear that there was something serious beneath his obstinate silence.
What was it? A clever falsehood? a cunningly-devised /alibi/? Or witnesses bribed long beforehand?
M. Galpin would have given much to know. And it was for the purpose of finding it out sooner, that he had given the permission. Before he granted it, however, he had conferred with the commonwealth attorney. Excellent M. Daubigeon, whom he found, as usual, admiring the beautiful gilt edging of his beloved books, had treated him badly.
“Do you come for any more signatures?” he had exclaimed. “You shall have them. If you want any thing else, your servant
’When the blunder is made, It is too late, I tell thee, to come for advice.’ “
However discouraging such a welcome might be, M. Galpin did not give up his purpose. He said in his bitterest tone,–
“You still insist that it is a blunder to do one’s duty. Has not a crime been committed? Is it not my duty to find out the author, and to have him punished? Well? Is it my fault if the author of this crime is an old friend of mine, and if I was once upon a time on the point of marrying a relation of his? There is no one in court who doubts M. de Boiscoran’s guilt; there is no one who dares blame me: and yet they are all as cold as ice towards me.”
“Such is the world,” said M. Daubigeon with a face full of irony. “They praise virtue; but they hate it.”
“Well, yes! that is so,” cried M. Galpin in his turn. “Yes, they blame people who have done what they had not the courage to do. The attorney general has congratulated me, because he judges things from on high and impartially. Here cliques are all-powerful. Even those who ought to encourage and support me, cry out against me. My natural ally, the commonwealth attorney, forsakes me and laughs at me. The president of the court, my immediate superior, said to me this morning with intolerable irony, ’I hardly know any magistrate who would be able as you are to sacrifice his relations and his friends to the interests of truth and justice. You are one of the ancients: you will rise high.’ “
His friend could not listen any further. He said,–
“Let us break off there: we shall never understand each other. Is Jacques de Boiscoran innocent, or guilty? I do not know. But I do know that he was the pleasantest man in the world, an admirable host, a good talker, a scholar, and that he owned the finest editions of Horace and Juvenal that I have ever seen. I liked him. I like him still; and it distresses me to think of him in prison. I know that we had the most pleasant relations with each other, and that now they are broken off. And you, you complain! Am I the ambitious man? Do I want to have my name connected with a world-famous trial? M. de Boiscoran will in all probability be condemned. You ought to be delighted. And still you complain? Why, one cannot have everything. Who ever undertook a great enterprise, and never repented of it?”
After that there was nothing left for M. Galpin but to go away. He did go in a fury, but at the same time determined to profit by the rude truths which M. Daubigeon had told him; for he knew very well that his friend represented in his views nearly the whole community. He was fully prepared to carry out his plan. Immediately after his return, he communicated the papers of the prosecution to the defence, and directed his clerk to show himself as obliging as he could. M. Mechinet was not a little surprised at these orders. He knew his master thoroughly,–this magistrate, whose shadow he had been now for so many years.
“You are afraid, dear sir,” he had said to himself.
And as M. Galpin repeated the injunction, adding that the honor of justice required the utmost courtesy when rigor was not to be employed, the old clerk replied very gravely,–
“Oh! be reassured, sir. I shall not be wanting in courtesy.”
But, as soon as the magistrate turned his back, Mechinet laughed aloud.
“He would not recommend me to be obliging,” he thought, “if he suspected the truth, and knew how far I am devoted to the defence. What a fury he would be in, if he should ever find out that I have betrayed all the secrets of the investigation, that I have carried letters to and from the prisoner, that I have made of Trumence an accomplice, and of Blangin the jailer an agent, that I have helped Miss Dionysia to visit her betrothed in jail!”
For he had done all this four times more than enough to be dismissed from his place, and even to become, at least for some months, one of Blangin’s boarders. He shivered all down his back when he thought of this; and he had been furiously angry, when, one evening, his sisters, the devout seamstresses, had taken it into their heads to say to him,–
“Certainly, Mechinet, you are a different man ever since that visit of Miss Chandore.”
“Abominable talkers!” he had exclaimed, in a tone of voice which frightened them out of their wits. “Do you want to see me hanged?”
But, if he had these attacks of rage, he felt not a moment’s remorse. Miss Dionysia had completely bewitched him; and he judged M. Galpin’s conduct as severely as she did.
To be sure, M. Galpin had done nothing contrary to law; but he had violated the spirit of the law. Having once summoned courage to begin proceedings against his friend, he had not been able to remain impartial. Afraid of being charged with timidity, he had exaggerated his severity. And, above all, he had carried on the inquiry solely in the interests of a conviction, as if the crime had been proved, and the prisoner had not protested his innocence.
Now, Mechinet firmly believed in this innocence; and he was fully persuaded that the day on which Jacques de Boiscoran saw his counsel would be the day of his justification. This will show with what eagerness he went to the court-house to wait for M. Magloire.
But at noon the great lawyer had not yet come. He was still consulting with M. de Chandore.
“Could any thing amiss have happened?” thought the clerk.
And his restlessness was so great, that, instead of going home to breakfast with his sisters, he sent an office-boy for a roll and a glass of water. At last, as three o’clock struck, M. Magloire and M. Folgat arrived; and Mechinet saw at once in their faces, that he had been mistaken, and that Jacques had not explained. Still, before M. Magloire, he did not dare inquire.
“Here are the papers,” he said simply, putting upon the table an immense box.
Then, drawing M. Folgat aside, he asked,–
“What is the matter, pray?”
The clerk had certainly acted so well, that they could have no secret from him; and he so was fully committed, that there was no danger in relying upon his discretion. Still M. Folgat did not dare to mention the name of the Countess Claudieuse; and he replied evasively,–
“This is the matter: M. de Boiscoran explains fully; but he had no proofs for his statement, and we are busy collecting proofs.”
Then he went and sat down by M. Magloire, who was already deep in the papers. With the help of those documents, it was easy to follow step by step M. Galpin’s work, to see the efforts he had made, and to comprehend his strategy.
First of all, the two lawyers looked for the papers concerning Cocoleu. They found none. Of the statement of the idiot on the night of the fire, of the efforts made since to obtain from him a repetition of this evidence, of the report of the experts,–of all this there was not a trace to be found.
M. Galpin dropped Cocoleu. He had a right to do so. The prosecution, of course, only keeps those witnesses which it thinks useful, and drops all the others.
“Ah, the scamp is clever!” growled M. Magloire in his disappointment.
It was really very well done. M. Galpin deprived by this step the defence of one of their surest means, of one of those incidents in a trial which are apt to affect the mind of the jury so powerfully.
“We can, however, summon him at any time,” said M. Magloire.
They might do so, it is true; but what a difference it would make! If Cocoleu appeared for M. Galpin, he was a witness for the prosecution, and the defence could exclaim with indignation,–
“What! You suspect the prisoner upon the evidence of such a creature?”
But, if he had to be summoned by the defence, he became prisoner’s evidence, that is to say, one of those witnesses whom the jury always suspect; and then the prosecution would exclaim,–
“What do you hope for from a poor idiot, whose mental condition is such, that we refused his evidence when it might have been most useful to us?”
“If we have to go into court,” murmured M. Folgat, “here is certainly a considerable chance of which we are deprived. The whole character of the case is changed. But, then, how can M. Galpin prove the guilt?”
Oh! in the simplest possible manner. He started from the fact that Count Claudieuse was able to give the precise hour at which the crime was committed. Thence he passed on immediately to the deposition of young Ribot, who had met M. de Boiscoran on his way to Valpinson, crossing the marshes, before the crime, and to that of Gaudry, who had seen him come back from Valpinson through the woods, after the crime. Three other witnesses who had turned up during the investigation confirmed this evidence; and by these means alone, and by comparing the hours, M. Galpin succeeded in proving, almost beyond doubt, that the accused had gone to Valpinson, and nowhere else, and that he had been there at the time the crime was committed.
What was he doing there?
To this question the prosecution replied by the evidence taken on the first day of the inquiry, by the water in which Jacques had washed his hands, the cartridge-case found near the house, and the identity of the shot extracted from the count’s wounds with those seized with the gun at Boiscoran.
Every thing was plain, precise, and formidable, admitting of no discussion, no doubt, no suggestion. It looked like a mathematical deduction.
“Whether he be innocent or guilty,” said M. Magloire to his young colleague, “Jacques is lost, if we cannot get hold of some evidence against the Countess Claudieuse. And even in that case, even if it should be established that she is guilty, Jacques will always be looked upon as her accomplice.”
Nevertheless, they spent a part of the night in going over all the papers carefully, and in studying every point made by the prosecution.
Next morning, about nine o’clock, having had only a few hours’ sleep, they went together to the prison.