Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
When the Marchioness de Boiscoran, on the day of her departure for Paris, had gone to see her son, Dionysia had asked her to let her go with her. She resisted, and the young girl did not insist.
“I see they are trying to conceal something from me,” she said simply; “but it does not matter.”
And she had taken refuge in the sitting-room; and there, taking her usual seat, as in the happy days when Jacques spent all his evenings by her side, she had remained long hours immovable, looking as if, with her mind’s eye, she was following invisible scenes far away.
Grandpapa Chandore and the two aunts were indescribably anxious. They knew their Dionysia, their darling child, better than she knew herself, having nursed and watched her for twenty years. They knew every expression of her face, every gesture, every intonation of voice, and could almost read her thoughts in her features.
“Most assuredly Dionysia is meditating upon something very serious," they said. “She is evidently calculating and preparing for a great resolution.”
The old gentleman thought so too, and asked her repeatedly,–
“What are you thinking of, dear child?”
“Of nothing, dear papa,” she replied.
“You are sadder than usual: why are you so?”
“Alas! How do I know? Does anybody know why one day we have sunshine in our hearts, and another day dismal clouds?”
But the next day she insisted upon being taken to her seamstresses, and finding Mechinet, the clerk, there, she remained a full half-hour in conference with him. Then, in the evening, when Dr. Seignebos, after a short visit, was leaving the room, she lay in wait for him, and kept him talking a long time at the door. Finally, the day after, she asked once more to be allowed to go and see Jacques. They could no longer refuse her this sad satisfaction; and it was agreed that the older of the two Misses Lavarande, Miss Adelaide, should accompany her.
About two o’clock on that day they knocked at the prison-door, and asked the jailer, who had come to open the door, to let them see Jacques.
“I’ll go for him at once, madam,” replied Blangin. “In the meantime pray step in here: the parlor is rather damp, and the less you stay in it, the better it will be.”
Dionysia did so, or rather, she did a great deal more; for, leaving her aunt down stairs, she drew Mrs. Blangin to the upper room, having something to say to her, as she pretended.
When they came down again, Blangin told them that M. de Boiscoran was waiting for them.
“Come!” said the young girl to her aunt.
But she had not taken ten steps in the long narrow passage which led to the parlor, when she stopped. The damp which fell from the vaulted ceiling like a pall upon her, and the emotions which were agitating her heart, combined to overwhelm her. She tottered, and had to lean against the wall, reeking as it was with wet and with saltpetre.
“O Lord, you are ill!” cried Miss Adelaide.
Dionysia beckoned to her to be silent.
“Oh, it is nothing!” she said. “Be quiet!”
And gathering up all her strength, and putting her little hand upon the old lady’s shoulder, she said,–
“My darling aunty, you must render us an immense service. It is all important that I should speak to Jacques alone. It would be very dangerous for us to be overheard. I know they often set spies to listen to prisoners’ talk. Do please, dear aunt, remain here in the passage, and give us warning, if anybody should come.”
“You do not think of it, dear child. Would it be proper?”
The young girl stopped her again.
“Was it proper when I came and spent a night here? Alas! in our position, every thing is proper that may be useful.”
And, as Aunt Lavarande made no reply, she felt sure of her perfect submission, and went on towards the parlor.
“Dionysia!” cried Jacques as soon as she entered,–"Dionysia!”
He was standing in the centre of this mournful hall, looking whiter than the whitewash on the wall, but apparently calm, and almost smiling. The violence with which he controlled himself was horrible. But how could he allow his betrothed to see his despair? Ought he not, on the contrary, do every thing to reassure her?
He came up to her, took her hands in his, and said,–
“Ah, it is so kind in you to come! and yet I have looked for you ever since the morning. I have been watching and waiting, and trembling at every noise. But will you ever forgive me for having made you come to a place like this, untidy and ugly, without the fatal poetry of horror even?”
She looked at him with such obstinate fixedness, that the words expired on his lips.
“Why will you tell me a falsehood?” she said sadly.
“I tell you a falsehood!”
“Yes. Why do you affect this gayety and tranquillity, which are so far from your heart? Have you no longer confidence in me? Do you think I am a child, from whom the truth must be concealed, or so feeble and good for nothing, that I cannot bear my share of your troubles? Do not smile, Jacques; for I know you have no hope.”
“You are mistaken, Dionysia, I assure you.”
“No, Jacques. They are concealing something from me, I know, and I do not ask you to tell me what it is. I know quite enough. You will have to appear in court.”
“I beg your pardon. That question has not yet been decided.”
“But it will be decided, and against you.”
Jacques knew very well it would be so, and dreaded it; but he still insisted upon playing his part.
“Well,” he said, “if I appear in court, I shall be acquitted.”
“Are you quite sure of that?”
“I have ninety-nine chances out of a hundred for me.”
“There is one, however, against you,” cried the young girl. And seizing Jacques’s hands, and pressing them with a force of which he would never have suspected her, she added,–
“You have no right to run that one chance.”
Jacques trembled in all his limbs. Was it possible? Did he understand her? Did Dionysia herself come and suggest to him that act of supreme despair, from which his counsel had so strongly dissuaded him?”
“What do you mean?” he said with trembling voice.
“You must escape.”
“Nothing so easy. I have considered the whole matter thoroughly. The jailers are in our pay. I have just come to an understanding with Blangin’s wife. One evening, as soon as night falls, they will open the doors to you. A horse will be ready for you outside of town, and relays have been prepared. In four hours you can reach Rochelle. There, one of those pilot-boats which can stand any storm takes you on board, and carries you to England.”
Jacques shook his head.
“That cannot be,” he replied. “I am innocent. I cannot abandon all I hold dear,–you, Dionysia.”
A deep flush covered the young girl’s cheeks. She stammered,–
“I have expressed myself badly. You shall not go alone.”
He raised his hands to heaven, as if in utter despair.
“Great God! Thou grantest me this consolation!”
But Dionysia went on speaking in a firmer voice.
“Did you think I would be mean enough to forsake the friend who is betrayed by everybody else? No, no! Grandpapa and my aunts will accompany me, and we will meet you in England. You will change your name, and go across to America; and we will look out, far in the West, for some new country where we can establish ourselves. It won’t be France, to be sure. But our country, Jacques, is the country where we are free, where we are beloved, where we are happy.”
Jacques de Boiscoran was moved to the last fibre of his innermost heart, and in a kind of ecstasy which did not allow him to keep up any longer his mask of impassive indifference. Was there a man upon earth who could receive a more glorious proof of love and devotion? And from what a woman! From a young girl, who united in herself all the qualities of which a single one makes others proud,–intelligence and grace, high rank and fortune, beauty and angelic purity.
Ah! she did not hesitate like that other one; she did not think of asking for securities before she granted the first favor; she did not make a science of duplicity, nor hypocrisy her only virtue. She gave herself up entirely, and without the slightest reserve.
And all this at the moment when Jacques saw every thing else around him crumbled to pieces, when he was on the very brink of utter despair, just then this happiness came to him, this great and unexpected happiness, which well-nigh broke his heart.
For a moment he could not move, he could not think.
Then all of a sudden, drawing his betrothed to him, pressing her convulsively to his bosom, and covering her hair with a thousand kisses, he cried,–
“I bless you, oh, my darling! I bless you, my well beloved! I shall mourn no longer. Whatever may happen, I have had my share of heavenly bliss.”
She thought he consented. Palpitating like the bird in the hand of a child, she drew back, and looking at Jacques with ineffable love and tenderness, she said,–
“Let us fix the day!”
“The day for your flight.”
This word alone recalled Jacques to a sense of his fearful position. He was soaring in the supreme heights of the ether, and he was plunged down into the vile mud of reality. His face, radiant with celestial joy, grew dark in an instant, and he said hoarsely,–
“That dream is too beautiful to be realized.”
“What do you say?” she stammered.
“I can not, I must not, escape!”
“You refuse me, Jacques?”
He made no reply.
“You refuse me, when I swear to you that I will join you, and share your exile? Do you doubt my word? Do you fear that my grandfather or my aunts might keep me here in spite of myself?”
As this suppliant voice fell upon his ears, Jacques felt as if all his energy abandoned him, and his will was shaken.
“I beseech you, Dionysia,” he said, “do not insist, do not deprive me of my courage.”
She was evidently suffering agonies. Her eyes shone with unbearable fire. Her dry lips were trembling.
“You will submit to being brought up in court?” she asked.
“And if you are condemned?”
“I may be, I know.”
“This is madness!” cried the young girl.
In her despair she was wringing her hands; and then the words escaped from her lips, almost unconsciously,–
“Great God,” she said, “inspire me! How can I bend him? What must I say? Jacques, do you love me no longer? For my sake, if not for your own, I beseech you, let us flee! You escape disgrace; you secure liberty. Can nothing touch you? What do you want? Must I throw myself at your feet?”
And she really let herself fall at his feet.
“Flee!” she repeated again and again. “Oh, flee!”
Like all truly energetic men, Jacques recovered in the very excess of his emotion all his self-possession. Gathering his bewildered thoughts by a great effort of mind, he raised Dionysia, and carried her, almost fainting, to the rough prison bench; then, kneeling down by her side, and taking her hands he said,–
“Dionysia, for pity’s sake, come to yourself and listen to me. I am innocent; and to flee would be to confess that I am guilty.”
“Ah! what does that matter?”
“Do you think that my escape would stop the trial? No. Although absent, I should still be tried, and found guilty without any opposition: I should be condemned, disgraced, irrevocably dishonored.”
“What does it matter?”
Then he felt that such arguments would never bring her back to reason. He rose, therefore, and said in a firm voice,–
“Let me tell you what you do not know. To flee would be easy, I agree. I think, as you do, we could reach England readily enough, and we might even take ship there without trouble. But what then? The cable is faster than the fastest steamer; and, upon landing on American soil, I should, no doubt, be met by agents with orders to arrest me. But suppose even I should escape this first danger. Do you think there is in all this world an asylum for incendiaries and murderers? There is none. At the extreme confines of civilization I should still meet with police-agents and soldiers, who, an extradition treaty in hand, would give me up to the government of my country. If I were alone, I might possibly escape all these dangers. But I should never succeed if I had you near me, and Grandpapa Chandore, and your two aunts.”
Dionysia was forcibly struck by these objections, of which she had had no idea. She said nothing.
“Still, suppose we might possibly escape all such dangers. What would our life be! Do you know what it would mean to have to hide and to run incessantly, to have to avoid the looks of every stranger, and to tremble, day by day, at the thought of discovery? With me, Dionysia, your existence would be that of the wife of one of those banditti whom the police are hunting down in his dens. And you ought to know that such a life is so intolerable, that hardened criminals have been unable to endure it, and have given up their life for the boon of a night’s quiet sleep.”
Big tears were silently rolling down the poor girl’s cheeks. She murmured,–
“Perhaps you are right, Jacques. But, O Jacques, if they should condemn you!”
“Well, I should at least have done my duty. I should have met fate, and defended my honor. And, whatever the sentence may be, it will not overthrow me; for, as long as my heart beats within me, I mean to defend myself. And, if I die before I succeed in proving my innocence, I shall leave it to you, Dionysia, to your kindred, and to my friends, to continue the struggle, and to restore my honor.”
She was worthy of comprehending and of appreciating such sentiments.
“I was wrong, Jacques,” she said, offering him her hand: “you must forgive me.”
She had risen, and, after a few moments’ hesitation, was about to leave the room, when Jacques retained her, saying,–
“I do not mean to escape; but would not the people who have agreed to favor my evasion be willing to furnish me the means for passing a few hours outside of my prison?”
“I think they would,” replied the young girl; “And, if you wish it, I will make sure of it.”
“Yes. That might be a last resort.”
With these words they parted, exhorting each other to keep up their courage, and promising each other to meet again during the next days.
Dionysia found her poor aunt Lavarande very tired of the long watch; and they hastened home.
“How pale you are!” exclaimed M. de Chandore, when he saw his grand- daughter; “and how red your eyes are! What has happened?”
She told him every thing; and the old gentleman felt chilled to the marrow of his bones, when he found that it had depended on Jacques alone to carry off his grandchild. But he had not done so.
“Ah, he is an honest man!” he said.
And, pressing his lips on Dionysia’s brow, he added,–
“And you love him more than ever?”
“Alas!” she replied, “is he not more unhappy than ever?”