Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
At Sauveterre, everybody, M. de Chandore as much as Jacques himself, blamed the Marquis de Boiscoran. He persisted in remaining in Paris, it is true: but it was certainly not from indifference; for he was dying with anxiety. He had shut himself up, and refused to see even his oldest friends, even his beloved dealers in curiosities. He never went out; the dust accumulated on his collections; and nothing could arouse him from this state of prostration, except a letter from Sauveterre.
Every morning he received three or four,–from the marchioness or M. Folgat, from M. Seneschal or M. Magloire, from M. de Chandore, Dionysia, or even from Dr. Seignebos. Thus he could follow at a distance all the phases, and even the smallest changes, in the proceedings. Only one thing he would not do: he would not come down, however important his coming might be for his son. He did not move.
Once only he had received, through Dionysia’s agency, a letter from Jacques himself; and then he ordered his servant to get ready his trunks for the same evening. But at the last moment he had given counter-orders, saying that he had reconsidered, and would not go.
“There is something extraordinary going on in the mind of the marquis,” said the servants to each other.
The fact is, he spent his days, and a part of his nights, in his cabinet, half-buried in an arm-chair, resting little, and sleeping still less, insensible to all that went on around him. On his table he had arranged all his letters from Sauveterre in order; and he read and re-read them incessantly, examining the phrases, and trying, ever in vain, to disengage the truth from this mass of details and statements. He was no longer as sure of his son as at first: far from it! Every day had brought him a new doubt; every letter, additional uncertainty. Hence he was all the time a prey to most harassing apprehensions. He put them aside; but they returned, stronger and more irresistible than before like the waves of the rising tide.
He was thus one morning in his cabinet. It was very early yet; but he was more than ever suffering from anxiety, for M. Folgat had written, “To-morrow all uncertainty will end. To-morrow the close confinement will be raised, and M. Jacques will see M. Magloire, the counsel whom he has chosen. We will write immediately.”
It was for this news the marquis was waiting now. Twice already he had rung to inquire if the mail had not come yet, when all of a sudden his valet appeared and with a frightened air said,–
“The marchioness. She has just come with Anthony, M. Jacques’s own man.”
He hardly said so, when the marchioness herself entered, looking even worse than she had done in the prison parlor; for she was overcome by the fatigue of a night spent on the road.
The marquis had started up suddenly. As soon as the servant had left the room, and shut the door again, he said with trembling voice, as if wishing for an answer, and still fearing to hear it,–
“Has any thing unusual happened?”
“Good or bad?”
“Great God! Jacques has not confessed?”
“How could he confess when he is innocent?”
“Then he has explained?”
“As far as I am concerned, and M. Folgat, Dr. Seignebos, and all who know him and love him, yes, but not for the public, for his enemies, or the law. He has explained every thing; but he has no proof.”
The mournful features of the marquis settled into still deeper gloom.
“In other words, he has to be believed on his own word?” he asked.
“Don’t you believe him?”
“I am not the judge of that, but the jury.”
“Well, for the jury he will find proof. M. Folgat, who has come in the same train with me, and whom you will see to-day, hopes to discover proof.”
“Proof of what?”
Perhaps the marchioness was not unprepared for such a reception. She expected it, and still she was disconcerted.
“Jacques,” she began, “has been the lover of the Countess Claudieuse.”
“Ah, ah!” broke in the marquis.
And, in a tone of offensive irony, he added,–
“No doubt another story of adultery; eh?”
The marchioness did not answer. She quietly went on,–
“When the countess heard of Jacques’s marriage, and that he abandoned her, she became exasperated, and determined to be avenged.”
“And, in order to be avenged, she attempted to murder her husband; eh?”
“She wished to be free.”
The Marquis de Boiscoran interrupted his wife with a formidable oath. Then he cried,–
“And that is all Jacques could invent! And to come to such an abortive story–was that the reason of his obstinate silence?”
“You do not let me finish. Our son is the victim of unparalleled coincidences.”
“Of course! Unparalleled coincidences! That is what every one of the thousand or two thousand rascals say who are sentenced every year. Do you think they confess? Not they! Ask them, and they will prove to you that they are the victims of fate, of some dark plot, and, finally, of an error of judgment. As if justice could err in these days of ours, after all these preliminary examinations, long inquiries, and careful investigations.”
“You will see M. Folgat. He will tell you what hope there is.”
“And if all hope fails?”
The marchioness hung her head.
“All would not be lost yet. But then we should have to endure the pain of seeing our son brought up in court.”
The tall figure of the old gentleman had once more risen to its full height; his face grew red; and the most appalling wrath flashed from his eyes.
“Jacques brought up in court?” he cried, with a formidable voice. “And you come and tell me that coolly, as if it were a very simple and quite natural matter! And what will happen then, if he is in court? He will be condemned; and a Boiscoran will go to the galleys. But no, that cannot be! I do not say that a Boiscoran may not commit a crime, passion makes us do strange things; but a Boiscoran, when he regains his senses, knows what becomes him to do. Blood washes out all stains. Jacques prefers the executioner; he waits; he is cunning; he means to plead. If he but save his head, he is quite content. A few years at hard labor, I suppose, will be a trifle to him. And that coward should be a Boiscoran: my blood should flow in his veins! Come, come, madam, Jacques is no son of mine.”
Crushed as the marchioness had seemed to be till now, she rose under this atrocious insult.
“Sir!” she cried.
But M. de Boiscoran was not in a state to listen to her.
“I know what I am saying,” he went on. “I remember every thing, if you have forgotten every thing. Come, let us go back to your past. Remember the time when Jacques was born, and tell me what year it was when M. de Margeril refused to meet me.”
Indignation restored to the marchioness her strength. She cried,–
“And you come and tell me this to-day, after thirty years, and God knows under what circumstances!”
“Yes, after thirty years. Eternity might pass over these recollections, and it would not efface them. And, but for these circumstances to which you refer, I should never have said any thing. At the time to which I allude, I had to choose between two evils,– either to be ridiculous, or to be hated. I preferred to keep silence, and not to inquire too far. My happiness was gone; but I wished to save my peace. We have lived together on excellent terms; but there has always been between us this high wall, this suspicion. As long as I was doubtful, I kept silent. But now, when the facts confirm my doubts, I say again, ’Jacques is no son of mine!’ “
Overcome with grief, shame, and indignation, the Marchioness de Boiscoran was wringing her hands; then she cried,–
“What a humiliation! What you are saying is too horrible. It is unworthy of you to add this terrible suffering to the martyrdom which I am enduring.”
M. de Boiscoran laughed convulsively.
“Have I brought about this catastrophe?”
“Well then yes! One day I was imprudent and indiscreet. I was young; I knew nothing of life; the world worshipped me; and you, my husband, my guide, gave yourself up to your ambition, and left me to myself. I could not foresee the consequences of a very inoffensive piece of coquetry.”
“You see, then, now these consequences. After thirty years, I disown the child that bears my name; and I say, that, if he is innocent, he suffers for his mother’s sins. Fate would have it that your son should covet his neighbor’s wife, and, having taken her, it is but justice that he should die the death of the adulterer.”
“But you know very well that I have never forgotten my duty.”
“I know nothing.”
“You have acknowledged it, because you refused to hear the explanation which would have justified me.”
“True, I did shrink from an explanation, which, with your unbearable pride, would necessarily have led to a rupture, and thus to a fearful scandal.”
The marchioness might have told her husband, that, by refusing to hear her explanation, he had forfeited all right to utter a reproach; but she felt it would be useless, and thus he went on,–
“All I do know is, that there is somewhere in this world a man whom I wanted to kill. Gossiping people betrayed his name to me. I went to him, and told him that I demanded satisfaction, and that I hoped he would conceal the real reason for our encounter even from our seconds. He refused to give me satisfaction, on the ground that he did not owe me any, that you had been calumniated, and that he would meet me only if I should insult him publicly.”
“What could I do after that? Investigate the matter? You had no doubt taken your precautions, and it would have amounted to nothing. Watch you? I should only have demeaned myself uselessly; for you were no doubt on your guard. Should I ask for a divorce? The law afforded me that remedy. I might have dragged you into court, held you up to the sarcasms of my counsel, and exposed you to the jests of your own. I had a right to humble you, to dishonor my name, to proclaim your disgrace, to publish it in the newspapers. Ah, I would have died rather!”
The marchioness seemed to be puzzled.
“That was the explanation of your conduct?”
“Yes, that was my reason for giving up public life, ambitious as I was. That was the reason why I withdrew from the world; for I thought everybody smiled as I passed. That is why I gave up to you the management of our house and the education of your son, why I became a passionate collector, a half-mad original. And you find out only to-day that you have ruined my life?”
There was more compassion than resentment in the manner in which the marchioness looked at her husband.
“You had mentioned to me your unjust suspicions,” she replied; “but I felt strong in my innocence, and I was in hope that time and my conduct would efface them.”
“Faith once lost never comes back again.”
“The fearful idea that you could doubt of your paternity had never even occurred to me.”
The marquis shook his head.
“Still it was so,” he replied. “I have suffered terribly. I loved Jacques. Yes, in spite of all, in spite of myself, I loved him. Had he not all the qualities which are the pride and the joy of a family? Was he not generous and noble-hearted, open to all lofty sentiments, affectionate, and always anxious to please me? I never had to complain of him. And even lately, during this abominable war, has he not again shown his courage, and valiantly earned the cross which they gave him? At all times, and from all sides, I have been congratulated on his account. They praised his talents and his assiduity. Alas! at the very moment when they told me what a happy father I was, I was the most wretched of men. How many times would I have drawn him to my heart! But immediately that terrible doubt rose within me, if he should not be my son; and I pushed him back, and looked in his features for a trace of another man’s features.”
His wrath had cooled down, perhaps by its very excess.
He felt a certain tenderness in his heart, and sinking into his chair, and hiding his face in his hands, he murmured,–
“If he should be my son, however; if he should be innocent! Ah, this doubt is intolerable! And I who would not moved from here,–I who have done nothing for him,–I might have done every thing at first. It would have been easy for me to obtain a change of venue to free him from this Galpin, formerly his friend, and now his enemy.”
M. de Boiscoran was right when he said that his wife’s pride was unmanageable. And still, as cruelly wounded as woman well could be, she now suppressed her pride, and, thinking only of her son, remained quite humble. Drawing from her bosom the letter which Jacques had sent to her the day before she left Sauveterre, she handed it to her husband, saying,–
“Will you read what our son says?”
The marquis’s hand trembled as he took the letter; and, when he had torn it open, he read,–
“Do you forsake me too, father, when everybody forsakes me? And yet I have never needed your love as much as now. The peril is imminent. Every thing is against me. Never has such a combination of fatal circumstances been seen before. I may not be able to prove my innocence; but you,–you surely cannot think your son guilty of such an absurd and heinous crime! Oh, no! surely not. My mind is made up. I shall fight to the bitter end. To my last breath I shall defend, not my life, but my honor. Ah, if you but knew! But there are things which cannot be written, and which only a father can be told. I beseech you come to me, let me see you, let me hold your hand in mine. Do not refuse this last and greatest comfort to your unhappy son.”
The marquis had started up.
“Oh, yes, very unhappy indeed!” he cried.
And, bowing to his wife, he said,–
“I interrupted you. Now, pray tell me all.”
Maternal love conquered womanly resentment. Without a shadow of hesitation, and as if nothing had taken place, the marchioness gave her husband the whole of Jacques’s statement as he had made it to M. Magloire.
The marquis seemed to be amazed.
“That is unheard of!” he said.
And, when his wife had finished, he added,–
“That was the reason why Jacques was so very angry when you spoke of inviting the Countess Claudieuse, and why he told you, that, if he saw her enter at one door, he would walk out of the other. We did not understand his aversion.”
“Alas! it was not aversion. Jacques only obeyed at that time the cunning lessons given him by the countess.”
In less than one minute the most contradictory resolutions seemed to flit across the marquis’s face. He hesitated, and at last he said,–
“Whatever can be done to make up for my inaction, I will do. I will go to Sauveterre. Jacques must be saved. M. de Margeril is all-powerful. Go to him. I permit it. I beg you will do it.”
The eyes of the marchioness filled with tears, hot tears, the first she had shed since the beginning of this scene.
“Do you not see,” she asked, “that what you wish me to do is now impossible? Every thing, yes, every thing in the world but that. But Jacques and I–we are innocent. God will have pity on us. M. Folgat will save us.”