Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
M. Folgat was already at work. He had confidence in his cause, a firm conviction of the innocence of his client, a desire to solve the mystery, a love of battle, and an intense thirst for success: all these motives combined to stimulate the talents of the young advocate, and to increase his activity.
And, above all this, there was a mysterious and indefinable sentiment with which Dionysia had inspired him; for he had succumbed to her charms, like everybody else. It was not love, for he who says love says hope; and he knew perfectly well that altogether and forever Dionysia belonged to Jacques. It was a sweet and all-powerful sentiment, which made him wish to devote himself to her, and to count for something in her life and in her happiness.
It was for her sake that he had sacrificed all his business, and forgotten his clients, in order to stay at Sauveterre. It was for her sake, above all, that he wished to save Jacques.
He had no sooner arrived at the station, and left the Marchioness de Boiscoran in old Anthony’s care, than he jumped into a cab, and had himself driven to his house. He had sent a telegram the day before; and his servant was waiting for him. In less than no time he had changed his clothes. Immediately he went back to his carriage, and went in search of the man, who, he thought, was most likely to be able to fathom this mystery.
This was a certain Goudar, who was connected with the police department in some capacity or other, and at all events received an income large enough to make him very comfortable. He was one of those agents for every thing whom the police keep employed for specially delicate operations, which require both tact and keen scent, an intrepidity beyond all doubt, and imperturbable self-possession. M. Folgat had had opportunities of knowing and appreciating him in the famous case of the Mutual Discount Society.
He was instructed to track the cashier who had fled, having a deficit of several millions. Goudar had caught him in Canada, after pursuing him for three months all over America; but, on the day of his arrest, this cashier had in his pocket-book and his trunk only some forty thousand francs.
What had become of the millions?
When he was questioned, he said he had spent them. He had gambled in stocks, he had become unfortunate, etc.
Everybody believed him except Goudar.
Stimulated by the promise of a magnificent reward, he began his campaign once more; and, in less than six weeks, he had gotten hold of sixteen hundred thousand francs which the cashier had deposited in London with a woman of bad character.
The story is well known; but what is not known is the genius, the fertility of resources, and the ingenuity of expedients, which Goudar displayed in obtaining such a success. M. Folgat, however, was fully aware of it; for he had been the counsel of the stockholders of the Mutual Discount Society; and he had vowed, that, if ever the opportunity should come, he would employ this marvellously able man.
Goudar, who was married, and had a child, lived out of the world on the road to Versailles, not far from the fortifications. He occupied with his family a small house which he owned,–a veritable philosopher’s home, with a little garden in front, and a vast garden behind, in which he raised vegetables and admirable fruit, and where he kept all kinds of animals.
When M. Folgat stepped out of his carriage before this pleasant home, a young woman of twenty-five or twenty-six, of surpassing beauty, young and fresh, was playing in the front garden with a little girl of three or four years, all milk and roses.
“M. Goudar, madam?” asked M. Folgat, raising his hat.
The young woman blushed slightly, and answered modestly, but without embarrassment, and in a most pleasing voice,–
“My husband is in the garden; and you will find him, if you will walk down this path around the house.”
The young man followed the direction, and soon saw his man at a distance. His head covered with an old straw hat, without a coat, and in slippers, with a huge blue apron such as gardeners wear, Goudar had climbed up a ladder, and was busy dropping into a horsehair bag the magnificent Chasselas grapes of his trellises. When he heard the sand grate under the footsteps of the newcomer, he turned his head, and at once said,–
“Why, M. Folgat? Good morning, sir!”
The young advocate was not a little surprised to see himself recognized so instantaneously. He should certainly never have recognized the detective. It was more than three years since they had seen each other; and how often had they seen each other then? Twice, and not an hour each time.
It is true that Goudar was one of those men whom nobody remembers. Of middle height, he was neither stout nor thin, neither dark nor light haired, neither young nor old. A clerk in a passport office would certainly have written him down thus: Forehead, ordinary; nose, ordinary; mouth, ordinary, eyes, neutral color; special marks, none.
It could not be said that he looked stupid; but neither did he look intelligent. Every thing in him was ordinary, indifferent, and undecided. Not one marked feature. He would necessarily pass unobserved, and be forgotten as soon as he had passed.
“You find me busy securing my crops for the winter,” he said to M. Folgat. “A pleasant job. However, I am at your service. Let me put these three bunches into their three bags, and I’ll come down.”
This was the work of an instant; and, as soon as he had reached the ground, he turned round, and asked,–
“Well, and what do you think of my garden?”
And at once he begged M. Folgat to visit his domain, and, with all the enthusiasm of the land-owner, he praised the flavor of his duchess pears, the bright colors of his dahlias, the new arrangements in his poultry-yard, which was full of rabbit-houses, and the beauty of his pond, with its ducks of all colors and all possible varieties.
In his heart, M. Folgat swore at this enthusiasm. What time he was losing! But, when you expect a service from a man, you must, at least, flatter his weak side. He did not spare praise, therefore. He even pulled out his cigar-case, and, still with a view to win the great man’s good graces, he offered it to him, saying,–
“Can I offer you one?”
“Thanks! I never smoke,” replied Goudar.
And, when he saw the astonishment of the advocate, he explained,–
“At least not at home. I am disposed to think the odor is unpleasant to my wife.”
Positively, if M. Folgat had not known the man, he would have taken him for some good and simple retired grocer, inoffensive, and any thing but bright, and, bowing to him politely, he would have taken his leave. But he had seen him at work; and so he followed him obediently to his greenhouse, his melon-house, and his marvellous asparagus-beds.
At last Goudar took his guest to the end of the garden, to a bower in which were some chairs and a table, saying,–
“Now let us sit down, and tell me your business; for I know you did not come solely for the pleasure of seeing my domain.”
Goudar was one of those men who have heard in their lives more confessions than ten priests, ten lawyers, and ten doctors all together. You could tell him every thing. Without a moment’s hesitation, therefore, and without a break, M. Folgat told him the whole story of Jacques and the Countess Claudieuse. He listened, without saying a word, without moving a muscle in his face. When the lawyer had finished, he simply said,–
“First of all,” replied M. Folgat, “I should like to hear your opinion. Do you believe the statement made by M. de Boiscoran?”
“Why not? I have seen much stranger cases than that.”
“Then you think, that, in spite of the charges brought against him, we must believe in his innocence?”
“Pardon me, I think nothing at all. Why, you must study a matter before you can have an opinion.”
He smiled; and, looking at the young advocate, he said,–
“But why all these preliminaries? What do you want of me?”
“Your assistance to get at the truth.”
The detective evidently expected something of the kind. After a minute’s reflection, he looked fixedly at M. Folgat, and said,–
“If I understand you correctly, you would like to begin a counter- investigation for the benefit of the defence?”
“And unknown to the prosecution?”
“Well, I cannot possibly serve you.”
The young advocate knew too well how such things work not to be prepared for a certain amount of resistance; and he had thought of means to overcome it.
“That is not your final decision, my dear Goudar?” he said.
“Pardon me. I am not my own master. I have my duty to fulfil, and my daily occupation.”
“You can at any time obtain leave of absence for a month.”
“So I might; but they would certainly wonder at such a furlough at headquarters. They would probably have me watched; and, if they found out that I was doing police work for private individuals, they would scold me grievously, and deprive themselves henceforth of my services.”
“There is no ’oh!’ about it. They would do what I tell you, and they would be right; for, after all, what would become of us, and what would become of the safety and liberty of us all, if any one could come and use the agents of the police for his private purposes? And what would become of me if I should lose my place?”
“M. de Boiscoran’s family is very rich, and they would prove their gratitude magnificently to the man who would save him.”
“And if I did not save him? And if, instead of gathering proof of his innocence, I should only meet with more evidence of his guilt?”
The objection was so well founded, that M. Folgat preferred not to discuss it.
“I might,” he said, “hand you at once, and as a retainer, a considerable sum, which you could keep, whatever the result might be.”
“What sum? A hundred Napoleons? Certainly a hundred Napoleons are not to be despised; but what would they do for me if I were turned out? I have to think of somebody else besides myself. I have a wife and a child; and my whole fortune consists in this little cottage, which is not even entirely paid for. My place is not a gold-mine; but, with the special rewards which I receive, it brings me, good years and bad years, seven or eight thousand francs, and I can lay by two or three thousand.”
The young lawyer stopped him by a friendly gesture, and said,–
“If I were to offer you ten thousand francs?”
“A year’s income.”
“If I offered you fifteen thousand!”
Goudar made no reply; but his eyes spoke.
“It is a most interesting case, this case of M. de Boiscoran," continued M. Folgat, “and such as does not occur often. The man who should expose the emptiness of the accusation would make a great reputation for himself.”
“Would he make friends also at the bar?”
“I admit he would not.”
The detective shook his head.
“Well, I confess,” he said, “I do not work for glory, nor from love of my art. I know very well that vanity is the great motive-power with some of my colleagues; but I am more practical. I have never liked my profession; and, if I continue to practise it, it is because I have not the money to go into any other. It drives my wife to despair, besides: she is only half alive as long as I am away; and she trembles every morning for fear I may be brought home with a knife between my shoulders.”
M. Folgat had listened attentively; but at the same time he had pulled out a pocket-book, which looked decidedly plethoric, and placed it on the table.
“With fifteen thousand francs,” he said, “a man may do something.”
“That is true. There is a piece of land for sale adjoining my garden, which would suit me exactly. Flowers bring a good price in Paris, and that business would please my wife. Fruit, also yields a good profit.”
The advocate knew now that he had caught his man.
“Remember, too, my dear Goudar, that, if you succeed, these fifteen thousand francs would only be a part payment. They might, perhaps, double the sum. M. de Boiscoran is the most liberal of men, and he would take pleasure in royally rewarding the man who should have saved him.”
As he spoke, he opened the pocket-book, and drew from it fifteen thousand-franc notes, which he spread out on the table.
“To any one but to you,” he went on, “I should hesitate to pay such a sum in advance. Another man might take the money, and never trouble himself about the affair. But I know your uprightness; and, if you give me your word in return for the notes, I shall be satisfied. Come, shall it be so?”
The detective was evidently not a little excited; for, self-possessed as he was, he had turned somewhat pale. He hesitated, handled the bank-notes, and then, all of a sudden, said,–
“Wait two minutes.”
He got up instantly, and ran towards the house.
“Is he going to consult his wife?” M. Folgat asked himself.
He did so; for the next moment they appeared at the other end of the walk, engaged in a lively discussion. However, the discussion did not last long. Goudar came back to the bower, and said,–
“Agreed! I am your man!”
The advocate was delighted, and shook his hand.
“Thank you!” he cried; “for, with your assistance, I am almost sure of success. Unfortunately, we have no time to lose. When can you go to work?”
“This moment. Give me time to change my costume; and I am at your service. You will have to give me the keys of the house in Passy.”
“I have them here in my pocket.”
“Well, then let us go there at once; for I must, first of all, reconnoitre the ground. And you shall see if it takes me long to dress.”
In less than fifteen minutes he reappeared in a long overcoat, with gloves on, looking, for all the world, like one of those retired grocers who have made a fortune, and settled somewhere outside of the corporation of Paris, displaying their idleness in broad daylight, and repenting forever that they have given up their occupation.
“Let us go,” he said to the lawyer.
After having bowed to Mrs. Goudar, who accompanied them with a radiant smile, they got into the carriage, calling out to the driver,–
“Vine Street, Passy, No. 23.”
This Vine Street is a curious street, leading nowhere, little known, and so deserted, that the grass grows everywhere. It stretches out long and dreary, is hilly, muddy, scarcely paved, and full of holes, and looks much more like a wretched village lane than like a street belonging to Paris. No shops, only a few homes, but on the right and the left interminable walls, overtopped by lofty trees.
“Ah! the place is well chosen for mysterious rendezvouses,” growled Goudar. “Too well chosen, I dare say; for we shall pick up no information here.”
The carriage stopped before a small door, in a thick wall, which bore the traces of the two sieges in a number of places.
“Here is No. 23,” said the driver; “but I see no house.”
It could not be seen from the street; but, when they got in, Mr. Folgat and Goudar saw it, rising in the centre of an immense garden, simple and pretty, with a double porch, a slate roof, and newly- painted blinds.
“Great God!” exclaimed the detective, “what a place for a gardener!”
And M. Folgat felt so keenly the man’s ill-concealed desire, that he at once said,–
“If we save M. de Boiscoran, I am sure he will not keep this house.”
“Let us go in,” cried the detective, in a voice which revealed all his intense desire to succeed.
Unfortunately, Jacques de Boiscoran had spoken but too truly, when he said that no trace was left of former days. Furniture, carpets, all was new; and Goudar and M. Folgat in vain explored the four rooms down stairs, and the four rooms up stairs, the basement, where the kitchen was, and finally the garret.
“We shall find nothing here,” declared the detective. “To satisfy my conscience, I shall come and spend an afternoon here; but now we have more important business. Let us go and see the neighbors!”
There are not many neighbors in Vine Street.
A teacher and a nurseryman, a locksmith and a liveryman, five or six owners of houses, and the inevitable keeper of a wine-shop and restaurant, these were the whole population.
“We shall soon make the rounds,” said Goudar, after having ordered the coachman to wait for them at the end of the street.
Neither the head master nor his assistants knew any thing. The nurseryman had heard it said that No. 23 belonged to an Englishman; but he had never seen him, and did not even know his name.
The locksmith knew that he was called Francis Burnett. He had done some work for him, for which he had been well paid, and thus he had frequently seen him; but it was so long since, that he did not think he would recognize him.
“We are unlucky,” said M. Folgat, after this visit.
The memory of the liveryman was more trustworthy. He said he knew the Englishman of No. 23 very well, having driven him three or four times; and the description he gave of him answered fully to Jacques de Boiscoran. He also remembered that one evening, when the weather was wretched, Sir Burnett had come himself to order a carriage. It was for a lady, who had got in alone, and who had been driven to the Place de la Madeleine. But it was a dark night; the lady wore a thick veil; he had not been able to distinguish her features, and all he could say was that she looked above medium height.
“It is always the same story,” said Goudar. “But the wine-merchant ought to be best informed. If I were alone I would breakfast there.”
“I shall breakfast with you,” said M. Folgat.
They did so, and they did wisely.
The wine-merchant did not know much; but his waiter, who had been with him five or six years, knew Sir Burnett, as everybody called the Englishman, by sight, and was quite well acquainted with the servant- girl, Suky Wood. While he was bringing in breakfast, he told them all he knew.
Suky, he said, was a tall, strapping girl, with hair red enough to set her bonnets on fire, and graceful enough to be mistaken for a heavy dragoon in female disguise. He had often had long talks with her when she came to fetch some ready-made dish, or to buy some beer, of which she was very fond. She told him she was very pleased with her place, as she got plenty of money, and had, so to say, nothing to do, being left alone in the house for nine months in the year. From her the waiter had also learned that Sir Burnett must have another house, and that he came to Vine Street only to receive visits from a lady.
This lady troubled Suky very much. She declared she had never been able to see the end of her nose even, so very cautious was she in all her movements; but she intended to see her in spite of all.
“And you may be sure she managed to do it some time or other,” Goudar whispered into M. Folgat’s ear.
Finally they learned from this waiter, that Suky had been very intimate with the servant of an old gentleman who lived quite alone in No. 27.
“We must see her,” said Goudar.
Luckily the girl’s master had just gone out, and she was alone in the house. At first she was a little frightened at being called upon and questioned by two unknown men; but the detective knew how to reassure her very quickly, and, as she was a great talker, she confirmed all the waiter at the restaurant had told them, and added some details.
Suky had been very intimate with her; she had never hesitated to tell her that Burnett was not an Englishman; that his name was not Burnett, and that he was concealing himself in Vine Street under a false name, for the purpose of meeting there his lady-love, who was a grand, fine lady, and marvellously beautiful. Finally, at the outbreak of the war, Suky had told her that she was going back to England to her relations. When they left the old bachelor’s house, Goudar said to the young advocate,–
“We have obtained but little information, and the jurymen would pay little attention to it; but there is enough of it to confirm, at least in part, M. de Boiscoran’s statement. We can prove that he met a lady here who had the greatest interest in remaining unknown. Was this, as he says, the Countess Claudieuse? We might find this out from Suky; for she has seen her, beyond all doubt. Hence we must hunt up Suky. And now, let us take our carriage, and go to headquarters. You can wait for me at the café near the Palais de Justice. I shall not be away more than a quarter of an hour.”
It took him, however, a good hour and a half; M. Folgat was beginning to be troubled, when he at last reappeared, looking very well pleased.
“Waiter, a glass of beer!” he said.
And, sitting down so as to face the advocate, he said,–
“I stayed away rather long; but I did not lose any time. In the first place, I procured a month’s leave of absence; then I put my hand upon the very man whom I wanted to send after Sir Burnett and Miss Suky. He is a good fellow, called Barousse, fine like a needle, and speaks English like a native. He demands twenty-five francs a day, his travelling-expenses, and a gratuity of fifteen hundred francs if he succeeds. I have agreed to meet him at six to give him a definite answer. If you accept the conditions, he will leave for England to-night, well drilled by me.”
Instead of any answer, M. Folgat drew from his pocket-book a thousand- franc note, and said,–
“Here is something to begin with.”
Goudar had finished his beer, and said,–
“Well, then, I must leave you. I am going to hang abut M. de Tassar’s house, and make my inquiries. Perhaps I may pick up something there. To-morrow I shall spend my day in searching the house in Vine Street and in questioning all the tradesmen on your list. The day after to-morrow I shall probably have finished here. So that in four or five days there will arrive in Sauveterre a somebody, who will be myself." And as he got up, he added,–
“For I must save M. de Boiscoran. I will and I must do it. He has too nice a house. Well, we shall see each other at Sauveterre.”
It struck four o’clock. M. Folgat left the café immediately after Goudar, and went down the river to University Street. He was anxious to see the marquis and the marchioness.
“The marchioness is resting,” said the valet; “but the marquis is in his cabinet.”
M. Folgat was shown in, and found him still under the effects of the terrible scene he had undergone in the morning. He had said nothing to his wife that he did not really think; but he was distressed at having said it under such circumstances. And yet he felt a kind of relief; for, to tell the truth, he felt as if the horrible doubts which he had kept secret so many years had vanished as soon as they were spoken out. When he saw M. Folgat, he asked in a sadly-changed voice,–
The young advocate repeated in detail the account given by the marchioness; but he added what the latter had not been able to mention, because she did not know it, the desperate resolution which Jacques had formed. At this revelation the marquis looked utterly overcome.
“The unhappy man!” he cried. “And I accused him of– He thought of killing himself!”
“And we had a great trouble, M. Magloire, and myself,” added M. Folgat, “to overcome his resolution, great trouble to make him understand, that never, under any circumstances, ought an innocent man to think of committing suicide.”
A big tear rolled down the furrowed cheek of the old gentleman; and he murmured,–
“Ah! I have been cruelly unjust. Poor, unhappy child!”
Then he added aloud,–
“But I shall see him. I have determined to accompany the marchioness to Sauveterre. When will you leave?”
“Nothing keeps me here in Paris. I have done all that could be done, and I might return this evening. But I am really too tired. I think I shall to-morrow take the train at 10.45.”
“If you do so, we shall travel in company; you understand? To-morrow at ten o’clock at the Orleans station. We shall reach Sauveterre by midnight.”