Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
It had just struck eleven o’clock, when the jailer, Blangin, entered Jacques’s cell in great excitement, and said,–
“Sir, your father is down stairs.”
The prisoner jumped up, thunderstruck.
The night before he had received a note from M. de Chandore, informing him of the marquis’s arrival; and his whole time had since been spent in preparing himself for the interview. How would it be? He had nothing by which to judge. He had therefore determined to be quite reserved. And, whilst he was following Blangin along the dismal passage and down the interminable steps, he was busily composing respectful phrases, and trying to look self-possessed.
But, before he could utter a single word, he was in his father’s arms. He felt himself pressed against his heart, and heard him stammer,–
“Jacques, my dear son, my unfortunate child!”
In all his life, long and stormy as it had been, the marquis had not been tried so severely. Drawing Jacques to one of the parlor-windows, and leaning back a little, so as to see him better, he was amazed how he could ever have doubted his son. It seemed to him that he was standing there himself. He recognized his own feature and carriage, his own frank but rather haughty expression, his own clear, bright eye.
Then, suddenly noticing details, he was shocked to see Jacques so much reduced. He found him looking painfully pale, and he actually discovered at the temples more than one silvery hair amid his thick black curls.
“Poor child!” he said. “How you must have suffered!”
“I thought I should lose my senses,” replied Jacques simply.
And with a tremor in his voice, he asked,–
“But, dear father, why did you give me no sign of life? Why did you stay away so long?”
The marquis was not unprepared for such a question. But how could he answer it? Could he ever tell Jacques the true secret of his hesitation? Turning his eyes aside, he answered,–
“I hoped I should be able to serve you better by remaining in Paris." But his embarrassment was too evident to escape Jacques.
“You did not doubt your own child, father?” he asked sadly.
“Never!” cried the marquis, “I never doubted a moment. Ask your mother, and she will tell you that it was this proud assurance I felt which kept me from coming down with her. When I heard of what they accused you, I said ’It is absurd!’ “
Jacques shook his head, and said,–
“The accusation was absurd; and yet you see what it has brought me to.”
Two big tears, which he could no longer retain, burnt in the eyes of the old gentleman.
“You blame me, Jacques,” he said. “You blame your father.”
There is not a man alive who could see his father shed tears, and not feel his heart melt within him. All the resolutions Jacques had formed vanished in an instant. Pressing his father’s hand in his own, he said,–
“No, I do not blame you, father. And still I have no words to tell you how much your absence has added to my sufferings. I thought I was abandoned, disowned.”
For the first time since his imprisonment, the unfortunate man found a heart to whom he could confide all the bitterness that overflowed in his own heart. With his mother and with Dionysia, honor forbade him to show despair. The incredulity of M. Magloire had made all confidence impossible; and M. Folgat, although as sympathetic as man could be was, after all, a perfect stranger.
But now he had near him a friend, the dearest and most precious friend that a man can ever have,–his father: now he had nothing to fear.
“Is there a human being in this world,” he said, “whose misfortunes equal mine? To be innocent, and not to be able to prove it! To know the guilty one, and not to dare mention the name. Ah! at first I did not take in the whole horror of my situation. I was frightened, to be sure; but I had recovered, thinking that surely justice would not be slow in discovering the truth. Justice! It was my friend Galpin who represented it, and he cared little enough for truth: his only aim was to prove that the man whom he accused was the guilty man. Read the papers, father, and you will see how I have been victimized by the most unheard-of combination of circumstances. Every thing is against me. Never has that mysterious, blind, and absurd power manifested itself so clearly,–that awful power which we call fate.
“First I was kept by a sense of honor from mentioning the name of the Countess Claudieuse, and then by prudence. The first time I mentioned it to M. Magloire, he told me I lied. Then I thought every thing lost. I saw no other end but the court, and, after the trial, the galleys or the scaffold. I wanted to kill myself. My friends made me understand that I did not belong to myself, and that, as long as I had a spark of energy and a ray of intelligence left me, I had no right to dispose of my life.”
“Poor, poor child!” said the marquis. “No, you have no such right.”
“Yesterday,” continued Jacques, “Dionysia came to see me. Do you know what brought her here? She offered to flee with me. Father, that temptation was terrible. Once free, and Dionysia by my side, what cared I for the world? She insisted, like the matchless girl that she is; and look there, there, on the spot where you now stand, she threw herself at my feet, imploring me to flee. I doubt whether I can save my life; but I remain here.”
He felt deeply moved, and sank upon the rough bench, hiding his face in his hands, perhaps to conceal his tears.
Suddenly, however, he was seized with one of those attacks of rage which had come to him but too often during his imprisonment, and he exclaimed,–
“But what have I done to deserve such fearful punishment?”
The brow of the marquis suddenly darkened; and he replied solemnly,–
“You have coveted your neighbor’s wife, my son.”
Jacques shrugged his shoulders. He said,–
“I loved the Countess Claudieuse, and she loved me.”
“Adultery is a crime, Jacques.”
“A crime? Magloire said the same thing. But, father, do you really think so? Then it is a crime which has nothing appalling about it, to which every thing invites and encourages, of which everybody boasts, and at which the world smiles. The law, it is true, gives the husband the right of life and death; but, if you appeal to the law, it gives the guilty man six months’ imprisonment, or makes him pay a few thousand francs.”
Ah, if he had known, the unfortunate man!
“Jacques,” said the marquis, “the Countess Claudieuse hints, as you say, that one of her daughters, the youngest, is your child?”
“That may be so.”
The Marquis de Boiscoran shuddered. Then he exclaimed bitterly,–
“That may be so! You say that carelessly, indifferently, madman! Did you never think of the grief Count Claudieuse would feel if he should learn the truth? And even if he merely suspected it! Can you not comprehend that such a suspicion is quite sufficient to embitter a whole life, to ruin the life of that girl? Have you never told yourself that such a doubt inflicts a more atrocious punishment than any thing you have yet suffered?”
He paused. A few words more, and he would have betrayed his secret. Checking his excitement by an heroic effort, he said,–
“But I did not come here to discuss this question; I came to tell you, that, whatever may happen, your father will stand by you, and that, if you must undergo the disgrace of appearing in court, I will take a seat by your side.”
In spite of his own great trouble, Jacques had not been able to avoid seeing his father’s unusual excitement and his sudden vehemence. For a second, he had a vague perception of the truth; but, before the suspicion could assume any shape, it had vanished before this promise which his father made, to face by his side the overwhelming humiliation of a judgment in court,–a promise full of divine self- abnegation and paternal love. His gratitude burst forth in the words,–
“Ah, father! I ought to ask your pardon for ever having doubted your heart for a moment.”
M. de Boiscoran tried his best to recover his self-possession. At last he said in an earnest voice,–
“Yes, I love you, my son; and still you must not make me out more of a hero than I am. I still hope we may be spared the appearance in court.”
“Has any thing new been discovered?”
“M. Folgat has found some traces which justify legitimate hopes, although, as yet, no real success has been achieved.”
Jacques looked rather discouraged.
“Traces?” he asked.
“Be patient. They are feeble traces, I admit, and such as could not be produced in court; but from day to day they may become decisive. And already they have had one good effect: they have brought us back M. Magloire.”
“O God! Could I really be saved?”
“I shall leave to M. Folgat,” continued the marquis, “the satisfaction of telling you the result of his efforts. He can explain their bearing better than I could. And you will not have long to wait; for last night, or rather this morning, when we separated, he and M. Magloire agreed to meet here at the prison, before two o’clock.”
A few minutes later a rapid step approached in the passage; and Trumence appeared, the prisoner of whom Blangin had made an assistant, and whom Mechinet had employed to carry Jacques’s letters to Dionysia. He was a tall well-made man of twenty-five or six years, whose large mouth and small eyes were perpetually laughing. A vagabond without hearth or home, Trumence had once been a land-owner. At the death of his parents, when he was only eighteen years old, Trumence had come into possession of a house surrounded by a yard, a garden, several acres of land, and a salt meadow; all worth about fifteen thousand francs. Unfortunately the time for the conscription was near. Like many young men of that district, Trumence believed in witchcraft, and had gone to buy a charm, which cost him fifty francs. It consisted of three tamarind-branches gathered on Christmas Eve, and tied together by a magic number of hairs drawn from a dead man’s head. Having sewed this charm into his waistcoat, Trumence had gone to town, and, plunging his hand boldly into the urn, had drawn number three. This was unexpected. But as he had a great horror of military service, and, well-made as he was, felt quite sure that he would not be rejected, he determined to employ a chance much more certain to succeed; namely, to borrow money in order to buy a substitute.
As he was a land-owner, he found no difficulty in meeting with an obliging person, who consented to lend him for two years thirty-five hundred francs, in return for a first mortgage on his property. When the papers were signed, and Trumence had the money in his pocket, he set out for Rochefort, where dealers in substitutes abounded; and for the sum of two thousand francs, exclusive of some smaller items, they furnished him a substitute of the best quality.
Delighted with the operation, Trumence was about to return home, when his evil star led him to sup at his inn with a countryman, a former schoolmate, who was now a sailor on board a coal-barge. Of course, countrymen when they meet must drink. They did drink; and, as the sailor very soon scented the twelve hundred francs which remained in Trumence’s pockets, he swore that he was going to have a jolly time, and would not return on board his barge as long as there remained a cent in his friend’s pocket. So it happened, that, after a fortnight’s carouse, the sailor was arrested and put in jail; and Trumence was compelled to borrow five francs from the stage-driver to enable him to get home.
This fortnight was decisive for his life. During these days he had lost all taste for work, and acquired a real passion for taverns where they played with greasy cards. After his return he tried to continue this jolly life; and, to do so, he made more debts. He sold, piece after piece, all he possessed that was salable, down to his mattress and his tools. This was not the way to repay the thirty-five hundred francs which he owed. When pay-day came, the creditor, seeing that his security was diminishing every day, lost no time. Before Trumence was well aware of what was going on, an execution was in the house; his lands were sold; and one fine day he found himself in the street, possessing literally nothing in the world but the wretched clothes on his back.
He might easily have found employment; for he was a good workman, and people were fond of him in spite of all. But he was even more afraid of work than he was fond of drink. Whenever want pressed too hard, he worked a few days; but, as soon as he had earned ten francs, good-by! Off he went, lounging by the road-side, talking with the wagoners, or loafing about the villages, and watching for one of those kind topers, who, rather than drink alone, invite the first-comer. Trumence boasted of being well known all along the coast, and even far into the department. And what was most surprising was that people did not blame him much for his idleness. Good housewives in the country would, it is true, greet him with a “Well, what do you want here, good-for- nothing?” But they would rarely refuse him a bowl of soup or a glass of white wine. His unchanging good-humor, and his obliging disposition, explained this forbearance. This man, who would refuse a well-paid job, was ever ready to lend a hand for nothing. And he was handy at every thing, by land and by water, he called it, so that the farmer whose business was pressing, and the fisherman in his boat who wanted help, appealed alike to Trumence.
The mischief, however, is, that this life of rural beggary, if it has its good days, also has its evil times. On certain days, Trumence could not find either kind-hearted topers or hospitable housewives. Hunger, however, was ever on hand; then he had to become a marauder; dig some potatoes, and cook them in a corner of a wood, or pilfer the orchards. And if he found neither potatoes in the fields, nor apples in the orchards, what could he do but climb a fence, or scale a wall?
Relatively speaking, Trumence was an honest man, and incapable of stealing a piece of money; but vegetables, fruits, chickens–
Thus it had come about that he had been arrested twice, and condemned to several days’ imprisonment; and each time he had vowed solemnly that he would never be caught at it again, and that he was going to work hard. And yet he had been caught again.
The poor fellow had told his misfortunes to Jacques; and Jacques, who owed it to him that he could, when still in close confinement, correspond with Dionysia, felt very kindly towards him. Hence, when he saw him come up very respectful, and cap in hand, he asked,–
“What is it, Trumence?”
“Sir,” replied the vagrant, “M. Blangin sends you word that the two advocates are coming up to your room.”
Once more the marquis embraced his son, saying,–
“Do not keep them waiting, and keep up your courage.”