Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
“Have you heard the news?”
“No: what is it?”
“Dionysia de Chandore has been to see M. de Boiscoran in prison.”
“Is it possible?”
“Yes, indeed! Twenty people have seen her come back from there, leaning on the arm of the older Miss Lavarande. She went in at ten minutes past ten, and she did not come out till a quarter-past three.”
“Is the young woman mad?”
“And the aunt–what do you think of the aunt?”
“She must be as mad as the niece.”
“And M. de Chandore?”
“He must have lost his senses to allow such a scandal. But you know very well, grandfather and aunts never had any will but Dionysia’s.”
“A nice training!”
“And nice fruits of such an education! After such a scandal, no man will be bold enough to marry her.”
Such were the comments on Dionysia’s visit to Jacques, when the news became known. It flew at once all over town. The ladies “in society" could not recover from it; for people are exceedingly virtuous at Sauveterre, and hence they claim the right of being exceedingly strict in their judgment. There is no trifling permitted on the score of propriety.
The person who defies public opinion is lost. Now, public opinion was decidedly against Jacques de Boiscoran. He was down, and everybody was ready to kick him.
“Will he get out of it?”
This problem, which was day by day discussed at the “Literary Club," had called forth torrents of eloquence, terrible discussions, and even one or two serious quarrels, one of which had ended in a duel. But nobody asked any longer,–
“Is he innocent?”
Dr. Seignebos’s eloquence, the influence of M. Seneschal, and the cunning plots of Mechinet, had all failed.
“Ah, what an interesting trial it will be!” said many people, who were all eagerness to know who would be the presiding judge, in order to ask him for tickets of admission. Day by day the interest in the trial became deeper; and all who were in any way connected with it were watched with great curiosity. Everybody wanted to know what they were doing, what they thought, and what they had said.
They saw in the absence of the Marquis de Boiscoran an additional proof of Jacques’s guilt. The continued presence of M. Folgat also created no small wonder. His extreme reserve, which they ascribed to his excessive and ill-placed pride, had made him generally disliked. And now they said,–
“He must have hardly any thing to do in Paris, that he can spend so many months in Sauveterre.”
The editor of “The Sauveterre Independent” naturally found the affair a veritable gold-mine for his paper. He forgot his old quarrel with the editor of “The Impartial Journal,” whom he accused of Bonapartism, and who retaliated by calling him a Communist. Each day brought, in addition to the usual mention under the “local” head, some article on the “Boiscoran Case.” He wrote,–
“The health of Count C., instead of improving, is declining visibly. He used to get up occasionally when he first came to Sauveterre; and now he rarely leaves his bed. The wound in the shoulder, which at first seemed to be the least dangerous, has suddenly become much inflamed, owing to the tropical heat of the last days. At one time gangrene was apprehended, and it was feared that amputation would become necessary. Yesterday Dr. S. seemed to be much disturbed.
“And, as misfortunes never come singly, the youngest daughter of Count C. is very ill. She had the measles at the time of the fire; and the fright, the cold, and the removal, have brought on a relapse, which may be dangerous.
“Amid all these cruel trials, the Countess C. is admirable in her devotion, her courage, and her resignation. Whenever she leaves the bedside of her dear patients to pray at church for them, she is received with the most touching sympathy and the most sincere admiration by the whole population.”
“Ah, that wretch Boiscoran!” cried the good people of Sauveterre when they read such an article.
The next day, they found this,–
“We have sent to the hospital to inquire from the lady superior how the poor idiot is, who has taken such a prominent part in the bloody drama at Valpinson. His mental condition remains unchanged since he has been examined by experts. The spark of intelligence which the crime had elicited seems to be extinguished entirely and forever. It is impossible to obtain a word from him. He is, however, not locked up. Inoffensive and gentle, like a poor animal that has lost its master, he wanders mournfully through the courts and gardens of the hospital. Dr. S., who used to take a lively interest in him, hardly ever sees him now.
“It was thought at one time, that C. would be summoned to give evidence in the approaching trial. We are informed by high authority, that such a dramatic scene must not be expected to take place. C. will not appear before the jury.”
“Certainly, Cocoleu’s deposition must have been an interposition of Providence,” said people who were not far from believing that it was a genuine miracle.
The next day the editor took M. Galpin in hand.
“M. G., the eminent magistrate, is very unwell just now, and very naturally so after an investigation of such length and importance as that which preceded the Boiscoran trial. We are told that he only awaits the decree of the court, to ask for a furlough and to go to one of the rural stations of the Pyrenees.”
Then came Jacques’s turn,–
“M. J. de B. stands his imprisonment better than could be expected. According to direct information, his health is excellent, and his spirits do not seem to have suffered. He reads much, and spends part of the night in preparing his defence, and making notes for his counsel.”
Then came, from day to day, smaller items,–
“M. J. de B. is no longer in close confinement.”
“M. de B. had this morning an interview with his counsel, M. M., the most eminent member of our bar, and M. F., a young but distinguished advocate from Paris. The conference lasted several hours. We abstain from giving details; but our readers will understand the reserve required in the case of an accused who insists upon protesting energetically that he is innocent.”
“M. de B. was yesterday visited by his mother.”
“We hear at the last moment that the Marchioness de B. and M. Folgat have left for Paris. Our correspondent in P. writes us that the decree of the court will not be delayed much longer.”
Never had “The Sauveterre Independent” been read with so much interest. And, as everybody endeavored to be better informed than his neighbor, quite a number of idle men had assumed the duty of watching Jacques’s friends, and spent their days in trying to find out what was going on at M. de Chandore’s house. Thus it came about, that, on the evening of Dionysia’s visit to Jacques, the street was full of curious people. Towards half-past ten, they saw M. de Chandore’s carriage come out of the courtyard, and draw up at the door. At eleven o’clock M. de Chandore and Dr. Seignebos got in, the coachman whipped the horse, and they drove off.
“Where can they be going?” asked they.
They followed the carriage. The two gentlemen drove to the station. They had received a telegram, and were expecting the return of the marchioness and M. Folgat, accompanied, this time, by the old marquis.
They reached there much too soon. The local branch railway which goes to Sauveterre is not famous for regularity, and still reminds its patrons occasionally of the old habits of stage-coaches, when the driver or the conductor had, at the last moment, to stop to pick up something they had forgotten. At a quarter-past midnight the train, which ought to have been there twenty minutes before, had not yet been signalled. Every thing around was silent and deserted. Through the windows the station-master might be seen fast asleep in his huge leather chair. Clerks and porters all were asleep, stretched out on the benches of the waiting-room. But people are accustomed to such delays at Sauveterre; they are prepared for being kept waiting: and the doctor and M. de Chandore were walking up and down the platform, being neither astonished nor impatient at the irregularity. Nor would they have been much surprised if they had been told that they were closely watched all the time: they knew their good town. Still it was so. Two curious men, more obstinate than the others, had jumped into the omnibus which runs between the station and the town; and now, standing a little aside, they said to each other,–
“I say, what can they be waiting for?”
At last towards one o’clock, a bell rang, and the station seemed to start into life. The station-master opened his door, the porters stretched themselves and rubbed their eyes, oaths were heard, doors slammed, and the large hand-barrows came in sight.
Then a low thunder-like noise came nearer and nearer; and almost instantly a fierce red light at the far end of the track shone out in the dark night like a ball of fire. M. de Chandore and the doctor hastened to the waiting-room.
The train stopped. A door opened, and the marchioness appeared, leaning on M. Folgat’s arm. The marquis, a travelling-bag in hand, followed next.
“That was it!” said the volunteer spies, who had flattened their noses against the window-panes.
And, as the train brought no other passengers, they succeeded in making the omnibus conductor start at once, eager as they were to proclaim the arrival of the prisoner’s father.
The hour was unfavorable: everybody was asleep; but they did not give up the hope of finding somebody yet at the club. People stay up very late at the club, for there is play going on there, and at times pretty heavy play: you can lose your five hundred francs quite readily there. Thus the indefatigable news-hunters had a fair chance of finding open ears for their great piece of news. And yet, if they had been less eager to spread it, they might have witnessed, perhaps not entirely unmoved, this first interview between M. de Chandore and the Marquis de Boiscoran.
By a natural impulse they had both hastened forward, and shook hands in the most energetic manner. Tears stood in their eyes. They opened their lips to speak; but they said nothing. Besides, there was no need of words between them. That close embrace had told Jacques’s father clearly enough what Dionysia’s grandfather must have suffered. They remained thus standing motionless, looking at each other, when Dr. Seignebos, who could not be still for any length of time, came up, and asked,–
“The trunks are on the carriage: shall we go?”
They left the station. The night was clear; and on the horizon, above the dark mass of the sleeping town, there rose against the pale-blue sky the two towers of the old castle, which now served as prison to Sauveterre.
“That is the place where my Jacques is kept,” murmured the marquis. “There my son is imprisoned, accused of horrible crimes.”
“We will get him out of it,” said the doctor cheerfully, as he helped the old gentleman into the carriage.
But in vain did he try, during the drive, to rouse, as he called it, the spirits of his companions. His hopes found no echo in their distressed hearts.
M. Folgat inquired after Dionysia, whom he had been surprised not to see at the station. M. de Chandore replied that she had staid at home with the Misses Lavarande, to keep M. Magloire company; and that was all.
There are situations in which it is painful to talk. The marquis had enough to do to suppress the spasmodic sobs which now and then would rise in his throat. He was upset by the thought that he was at Sauveterre. Whatever may be said to the contrary, distance does not weaken our emotions. Shaking hands with M. de Chandore in person had moved him more deeply than all the letters he had received for a month. And when he saw Jacques’s prison from afar, he had the first clear notion of the horrible tortures endured by his son. The marchioness was utterly exhausted: she felt as if all the springs in her system were broken.
M. de Chandore trembled when he looked at them, and saw how they all were on the point of succumbing. If they despaired, what could he hope for,–he, who knew how indissolubly Dionysia’s fate in life was connected with Jacques?
At length the carriage stopped before his house. The door opened instantly, and the marchioness found herself in Dionysia’s arms, and soon after comfortably seated in an easy-chair. The others had followed her. It was past two o’clock; but every minute now was valuable. Arranging his spectacles, Dr. Seignebos said,–
“I propose that we exchange our information. I, for my part, I am still at the same point. But you know my views. I do not give them up. Cocoleu is an impostor, and it shall be proved. I appear to notice him no longer; but, in reality, I watch him more closely than ever.”
Dionysia interrupted him, saying,–
“Before any thing is decided, there is one fact which you all ought to know. Listen.”
Pale like death, for it cost her a great struggle to reveal thus the secret of her heart, but with a voice full of energy, and an eye full of fire, she told them what she had already confessed to her grandfather; viz., the propositions she had made to Jacques, and his obstinate refusal to accede to them.
“Well done, madame!” said Dr. Seignebos, full of enthusiasm. “Well done! Jacques is very unfortunate, and still he is to be envied.”
Dionysia finished her recital. Then, turning with a triumphant air to M. Magloire, she added,–
“After that, is there any one yet who could believe that Jacques is a vile assassin?”
The eminent advocate of Sauveterre was not one of those men who prize their opinions more highly than truth itself.
“I confess,” he said, “that, if I were to go and see Jacques to-morrow for the first time, I should not speak to him as I did before.”
“And I,” exclaimed the Marquis de Boiscoran,–"I declare that I answer for my son as for myself, and I mean to tell him so to-morrow.”
Then turning towards his wife, and speaking so low, that she alone could hear him, he added,–
“And I hope you will forgive me those suspicions which now fill me with horror.”
But the marchioness had no strength left: she fainted, and had to be removed, accompanied by Dionysia and the Misses Lavarande. As soon as they were out of the room, Dr. Seignebos locked the door, rested his elbow on the chimney, and, taking off his spectacles to wipe them, said to M. Folgat,–
“Now we can speak freely. What news do you bring us?”