Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
The Marquis de Boiscoran had not been mistaken about M. Magloire. Much shaken by Dionysia’s statement, he had been completely overcome by M. Folgat’s explanations; and, when he now came to the jail, it was with a determination to prove Jacques’s innocence.
“But I doubt very much whether he will ever forgive me for my incredulity,” he said to M. Folgat while they were waiting for the prisoner in his cell.
Jacques came in, still deeply moved by the scene with his father. M. Magloire went up to him, and said,–
“I have never been able to conceal my thoughts, Jacques. When I thought you guilty, and felt sure that you accused the Countess Claudieuse falsely, I told you so with almost brutal candor. I have since found out my error, and am now convinced of the truth of your statement: so I come and tell you as frankly, Jacques, I was wrong to have had more faith in the reputation of a woman than in the words of a friend. Will you give me your hand?”
The prisoner grasped his hand with a profusion of joy, and cried,–
“Since you believe in my innocence, others may believe in me too, and my salvation is drawing near.”
The melancholy faces of the two advocates told him that he was rejoicing too soon. His features expressed his grief; but he said with a firm voice,–
“Well, I see that the struggle will be a hard one, and that the result is still uncertain. Never mind. You may be sure I will not give way.”
In the meantime M. Folgat had spread out on the table all the papers he had brought with him,–copies furnished by Mechinet, and notes taken during his rapid journey.
“First of all, my dear client,” he said, “I must inform you of what has been done.”
And when he had stated every thing, down to the minutest details of what Goudar and he had done, he said,–
“Let us sum up. We are able to prove three things: 1. That the house in Vine Street belongs to you, and that Sir Francis Burnett, who is known there, and you are one; 2. That you were visited in this house by a lady, who, from all the precautions she took, had powerful reasons to remain unknown; 3. That the visits of this lady took place at certain epochs every year, which coincided precisely with the journeys which the Countess Claudieuse yearly made to Paris.”
The great advocate of Sauveterre expressed his assent.
“Yes,” he said, “all this is fully established.”
“For ourselves, we have another certainty,–that Suky Wood, the servant of the false Sir Francis Burnett, has watched the mysterious lady; that she has seen her, and consequently would know her again.”
“True, that appears from the deposition of the girl’s friend.”
“Consequently, if we discover Suky Wood, the Countess Claudieuse is unmasked.”
“If we discover her,” said M. Magloire. “And here, unfortunately, we enter into the region of suppositions.”
“Suppositions!” said M. Folgat. “Well, call them so; but they are based upon positive facts, and supported by a hundred precedents. Why should we not find this Suky Wood, whose birthplace and family we know, and who has no reason for concealment? Goudar has found very different people; and Goudar is on our side. And you may be sure he will not be asleep. I have held out to him a certain hope which will make him do miracles,–the hope of receiving as a reward, if he succeeds, the house in Vine Street. The stakes are too magnificent: he must win the game,–he who has won so many already. Who knows what he may not have discovered since we left him? Has he not done wonders already?”
“It is marvellous!” cried Jacques, amazed at these results.
Older than M. Folgat and Jacques, the eminent advocate of Sauveterre was less ready to feel such enthusiasm.
“Yes,” he said, “it is marvellous; and, if we had time, I would say as you do, ’We shall carry the day!’ But there is no time for Goudar’s investigations: the sessions are on hand, and it seems to me it would be very difficult to obtain a postponement.”
“Besides, I do not wish it to be postponed,” said Jacques.
“On no account, Magloire, never! What? I should endure three months more of this anguish which tortures me? I could not do it: my strength is exhausted. This uncertainty has been too much for me. I could bear no more suspense.”
M. Folgat interrupted him, saying,–
“Do not trouble yourself about that: a postponement is out of the question. On what pretext could we ask for it? The only way would be to introduce an entirely new element in the case. We should have to summon the Countess Claudieuse.”
The greatest surprise appeared on Jacques’s face.
“Will we not summon her anyhow?” he asked.
“I do not understand you.”
’It is very simple, however. If Goudar should succeed, before the trial, in collecting sufficient evidence against her, I should summon her certainly; and then the case would naturally change entirely; the whole proceeding would begin anew; and you would probably appear only as a witness. If, on the contrary, we obtain, before the trial begins, no other proof but what we have now, I shall not mention her name even; for that would, in my opinion, and in M. Magloire’s opinion, ruin your cause irrevocably.”
“Yes,” said the great advocate, “that is my opinion.”
Jacques’s amazement was boundless.
“Still,” he said, “in self-defence, I must, if I am brought up in court, speak of my relations to the Countess Claudieuse.”
“But that is my only explanation.”
“If it were credited.”
“And you think you can defend me, you think you can save me, without telling the truth?”
M. Folgat shook his head, and said,–
“In court the truth is the last thing to be thought of.”
“Do you think the jury would credit allegations which M. Magloire did not credit? No. Well, then, we had better not speak of them any more, and try to find some explanation which will meet the charges brought against you. Do you think we should be the first to act thus? By no means. There are very few cases in which the prosecution says all it knows, and still fewer in which the defence calls for every thing it might call for. Out of ten criminal trials, there are at least three in which side-issues are raised. What will be the charge in court against you? The substance of the romance which the magistrate has invented in order to prove your guilt. You must meet him with another romance which proves your innocence.”
“But the truth.”
“Is dependent on probability, my dear client. Ask M. Magloire. The prosecution only asks for probability: hence probability is all the defence has to care for. Human justice is feeble, and limited in its means; it cannot go down to the very bottom of things; it cannot judge of motives, and fathom consciences. It can only judge from appearances, and decide by plausibility; there is hardly a case which has not some unexplored mystery, some undiscovered secret. The truth! Ah! do you think M. Galpin has looked for it? If he did, why did he not summon Cocoleu? But no, as long as he can produce a criminal, who may be responsible for the crime, he is quite content. The truth! Which of us knows the real truth? Your case, M. de Boiscoran, is one of those in which neither the prosecution, nor the defence, nor the accused himself, knows the truth of the matter.”
There followed a long silence, so deep a silence, that the step of the sentinel could b heard, who was walking up and down under the prison- windows. M. Folgat had said all he thought proper to say: he feared, in saying more, to assume too great a responsibility. It was, after all, Jacques’s life and Jacques’s honor which were at stake. He alone, therefore, ought to decide the nature of his defence. If his judgment was too forcibly controlled by his counsel, he would have had a right hereafter to say, “Why did you not leave me free to choose? I should not have been condemned.”
To show this very clearly, M. Folgat went on,–
“The advice I give you, my dear client, is, in my eyes, the best; it is the advice I would give my own brother. But, unfortunately, I cannot say it is infallible. You must decide yourself. Whatever you may resolve, I am still at your service.”
Jacques made no reply. His elbows resting on the table, his face in his hands, he remained motionless, like a statue, absorbed in his thoughts. What should he do? Should he follow his first impulse, tear the veil aside, and proclaim the truth? That was a doubtful policy, but also, what a triumph if he succeeded!
Should he adopt the views of his counsel, employ subterfuges and falsehoods? That was more certain of success; but to be successful in this way–was that a real victory?
Jacques was in a terrible perplexity. He felt it but too clearly. The decision he must form now would decide his fate. Suddenly he raised his head, and said,–
“What is your advice, M. Magloire?”
The great advocate of Sauveterre frowned angrily; and said, in a somewhat rough tone of voice,–
“I have had the honor to place before your mother all that my young colleague has just told you. M. Folgat has but one fault,–he is too cautious. The physician must not ask what his patient thinks of his remedies: he must prescribe them. It may be that our prescriptions do not meet with success; but, if you do not follow them, you are most assuredly lost.”
Jacques hesitated for some minutes longer. These prescriptions, as M. Magloire called them, were painfully repugnant to his chivalrous and open character.
“Would it be worth while,” he murmured, “to be acquitted on such terms? Would I really be exculpated by such proceedings? Would not my whole life thereafter be disgraced by suspicions? I should not come out from the trial with a clear acquittal: I should have escaped by a mere chance.”
“That would still better than to go, by a clear judgment, to the galleys,” said M. Magloire brutally.
This word, “the galleys,” made Jacques bound. He rose, walked up and down a few times in his room, and then, placing himself in front of his counsel, said,–
“I put myself in your hands, gentlemen. Tell me what I must do.”
Jacques had at least this merit, if he once formed a resolution, he was sure to adhere to it. Calm now, and self-possessed, he sat down, and said, with a melancholy smile,–
“Let us hear the plan of battle.”
This plan had been for a month now the one great thought of M. Folgat. All his intelligence, all his sagacity and knowledge of the world, had been brought to bear upon this case, which he had made his own, so to say, by his almost passionate interest. He knew the tactics of the prosecution as well as M. Galpin himself, and he knew its weak and its strong side even better than M. Galpin.
“We shall go on, therefore,” he began, “as if there was no such person as the Countess Claudieuse. We know nothing of her. We shall say nothing of the meeting at Valpinson, nor of the burned letters.”
“That is settled.”
“That being so, we must next look, not for the manner in which we spent our time, but for our purpose in going out the evening of the crime. Ah! If we could suggest a plausible, a very probable purpose, I should almost guarantee our success; for we need not hesitate to say there is the turning-point of the whole case, on which all the discussions will turn.”
Jacques did not seem to be fully convinced of this view. He said,–
“You think that possible?”
“Unfortunately, it is but too certain; and, if I say unfortunately, it is because here we have to meet a terrible charge, the most decisive, by all means, that has been raised, one on which M. Galpin has not insisted (he is much too clever for that), but one which, in the hands of the prosecution, may become a terrible weapon.”
“I must confess,” said Jacques, “I do not very well see"–
“Have you forgotten the letter you wrote to Miss Dionysia the evening of the crime?” broke in M. Magloire.
Jacques looked first at one, and then at the other of his counsel.
“What,” he said, “that letter?”
“Overwhelms us, my dear client,” said M. Folgat. “Don’t you remember it? You told your betrothed in that note, that you would be prevented from enjoying the evening with her by some business of the greatest importance, and which could not be delayed? Thus, you see, you had determined beforehand, and after mature consideration, to spend that evening in doing a certain thing. What was it? ’The murder of Count Claudieuse,’ says the prosecution. What can we say?”
“But, I beg your pardon–that letter. Miss Dionysia surely has not handed it over to them?”
“No; but the prosecution is aware of its existence. M. de Chandore and M. Seneschal have spoken of it in the hope of exculpating you, and have even mentioned the contents. And M. Galpin knows it so well, that he had repeatedly mentioned it to you, and you have confessed all that he could desire.”
The young advocate looked among his papers; and soon he had found what he wanted.
“Look here,” he said, “in your third examination, I find this,–
“ ’QUESTION.–You were shortly to marry Miss Chandore?
Q–For some time you had been spending your evenings with her?
Q.–Except the one of the crime?
Q.–Then your betrothed must have wondered at your absence?
A.–No: I had written to her.’ “
“Do you hear, Jacques?” cried M. Magloire. “Notice that M. Galpin takes care not to insist. He does not wish to rouse your suspicions. He has got you to confess, and that is enough for him.”
But, in the meantime, M. Folgat had found another paper.
“In your sixth examination,” he went on, “I have noticed this,–
“ ’Q.–You left your house with your gun on your shoulder, without any definite aim?
A.–I shall explain that when I have consulted with counsel.
Q.–You need no consultation to tell the truth.
A.–I shall not change my resolution.
Q.–Then you will not tell me where you were between eight and midnight?
A.–I shall answer that question at the same time with the other.
Q.–You must have had very strong reasons to keep you out, as you were expected by your betrothed, Miss Chandore?
A.–I had written to her not to expect me.’ “
“Ah! M. Galpin is a clever fellow,” growled M. Magloire.
“Finally,” said M. Folgat, “here is a passage from your last but one examination,–
“ ’Q.–When you wanted to send anybody to Sauveterre, whom did you usually employ?
A.–The son of one of my tenants, Michael.
Q.–It was he, I suppose, who, on the evening of the crime, carried the letter to Miss Chandore, in which you told her not to expect you?
Q.–You pretended you would be kept by some important business?
A.–That is the usual pretext.
Q.–But in your case it was no pretext. Where had you to go? and where did you go?
A.–As long as I have not seen counsel I shall say nothing.
Q.–Have a care: the system of negation and concealment is dangerous.
A.–I know it, and I accept the consequences.’ “
Jacques was dumfounded. And necessarily every accused person is equally surprised when he hears what he has stated in the examination. There is not one who does not exclaim,–
“What, I said that? Never!”
He has said it, and there is no denying it; for there it is written, and signed by himself. How could he ever say so?
Ah! that is the point. However clever a man may be, he cannot for many months keep all his faculties on the stretch, and all his energy up to its full power. He has his hours of prostration and his hours of hope, his attacks of despair and his moments of courage; and the impassive magistrate takes advantage of them all. Innocent or guilty, no prisoner can cope with him. However powerful his memory may be, how can he recall an answer which he may have given weeks and weeks before? The magistrate, however, remembers it; and twenty times, if need be, he brings it up again. And as the small snowflake may become an irresistible avalanche, so an insignificant word, uttered at haphazard, forgotten, then recalled, commented upon, and enlarged may become crushing evidence.
Jacques now experienced this. These questions had been put to him so skilfully, and at such long intervals of time, that he had totally forgotten them; and yet now, when he recalled his answers, he had to acknowledge that he had confessed his purpose to devote that evening to some business of great importance.
“That is fearful!” he cried.
And, overcome by the terrible reality of M. Folgat’s apprehension, he added,–
“How can we get out of that?”
“I told you,” replied M. Folgat, “we must find some plausible explanation.”
“I am sure I am incapable of that.”
The young lawyer seemed to reflect a moment, and then he said,–
“You have been a prisoner while I have been free. For a month now I have thought this matter over.”
“Where was your wedding to be?”
“At my house at Boiscoran.”
“Where was the religious ceremony to take place?”
“At the church at Brechy.”
“Have you ever spoken of that to the priest?”
“Several times. One day especially, when we discussed it in a pleasant way, he said jestingly to me, ’I shall have you, after all in my confessional.’ “
M. Folgat almost trembled with satisfaction, and Jacques saw it.
“Then the priest at Brechy was your friend?”
“An intimate friend. He sometimes came to dine with me quite unceremoniously, and I never passed him without shaking hands with him.”
The young lawyer’s joy was growing perceptibly.
“Well,” he said, “my explanation is becoming quite plausible. Just hear what I have positively ascertained to be the fact. In the time from nine to eleven o’clock, on the night of the crime, there was not a soul at the parsonage in Brechy. The priest was dining with M. Besson, at his house; and his servant had gone out to meet him with a lantern.”
“I understand,” said M. Magloire.
“Why should you not have gone to see the priest at Brechy, my dear client? In the first place, you had to arrange the details of the ceremony with him; then, as he is your friend, and a man of experience, and a priest, you wanted to ask him for his advice before taking so grave a step, and, finally, you intended to fulfil that religious duty of which he spoke, and which you were rather reluctant to comply with.”
“Well said!” approved the eminent lawyer of Sauveterre,–"very well said!”
“So, you see, my dear client, it was for the purpose of consulting the priest at Brechy that you deprived yourself of the pleasure of spending the evening with your betrothed. Now let us see how that answers the allegations of the prosecution. They ask you why you took to the marshes. Why? Because it was the shortest way, and you were afraid of finding the priest in bed. Nothing more natural; for it is well known that the excellent man is in the habit of going to bed at nine o’clock. Still you had put yourself out in vain; for, when you knocked at the door of the parsonage, nobody came to open.”
Here M. Magloire interrupted his colleague, saying,–
“So far, all is very well. But now there comes a very great improbability. No one would think of going through the forest of Rochepommier in order to return from Brechy to Boiscoran. If you knew the country"–
“I know it; for I have carefully explored it. And the proof of it is, that, having foreseen the objection, I have found an answer. While M. de Boiscoran knocked at the door, a little peasant-girl passed by, and told him that she had just met the priest at a place called the Marshalls’ Cross-roads. As the parsonage stands quite isolated, at the end of the village, such an incident is very probable. As for the priest, chance led me to learn this: precisely at the hour at which M. de Boiscoran would have been at Brechy, a priest passed the Marshalls’ Cross-roads; and this priest, whom I have seen, belongs to the next parish. He also dined at M. Besson’s, and had just been sent for to attend a dying woman. The little girl, therefore, did not tell a story; she only made a mistake.”
“Excellent!” said M. Magloire.
“Still,” continued M. Folgat, “after this information, what did M. de Boiscoran do? He went on; and, hoping every moment to meet the priest, he walked as far as the forest of Rochepommier. Finding, at last, that the peasant-girl had–purposely or not–led him astray, he determined to return to Boiscoran through the woods. But he was in very bad humor at having thus lost an evening which he might have spent with his betrothed; and this made him swear and curse, as the witness Gaudry has testified.”
The famous lawyer of Sauveterre shook his head.
“That is ingenious, I admit; and I confess, in all humility, that I could not have suggested any thing as good. But–for there is a but– your story sins by its very simplicity. The prosecution will say, ’If that is the truth, why did not M. de Boiscoran say so at once? And what need was there to consult his counsel?’ “
M. Folgat showed in his face that he was making a great effort to meet the objection. After a while, he replied,–
“I know but too well that that is the weak spot in our armor,–a very weak spot, too; for it is quite clear, that, if M. de Boiscoran had given this explanation on the day of his arrest, he would have been released instantly. But what better can be found? What else can be found? However, this is only a rough sketch of my plan, and I have never put it into words yet till now. With your assistance, M. Magloire, with the aid of Mechinet, to whom I am already indebted for very valuable information, with the aid of all our friends, in fine, I cannot help hoping that I may be able to improve my plan by adding some mysterious secret which may help to explain M. de Boiscoran’s reticence. I thought, at one time, of calling in politics, and to pretend, that, on account of the peculiar views of which he is suspected, M. de Boiscoran preferred keeping his relations with the priest at Brechy a secret.”
“Oh, that would have been most unfortunate!” broke in M. Magloire. “We are not only religious at Sauveterre, we are devout, my good colleague,–excessively devout.”
“And I have given up that idea.”
Jacques, who had till now kept silent and motionless, now raised himself suddenly to his full height, and cried, in a voice of concentrated rage,–
“Is it not too bad, is it not atrocious, that we should be compelled to concoct a falsehood? And I am innocent! What more could be done if I were a murderer?”
Jacques was perfectly right: it was monstrous that he should be absolutely forced to conceal the truth. But his counsel took no notice of his indignation: they were too deeply absorbed in examining minutely their system of defence.
“Let us go on to the other points of the accusation,” said M. Magloire.
“If my version is accepted,” replied M. Folgat, “the rest follows as a matter of course. But will they accept it? On the day on which he was arrested, M. de Boiscoran, trying to find an excuse for having been out that night, has said that he had gone to see his wood-merchant at Brechy. That was a disastrous imprudence. And here is the real danger. As to the rest, that amounts to nothing. There is the water in which M. de Boiscoran washed his hands when he came home, and in which they have found traces of burnt paper. We have only to modify the facts very slightly to explain that. We have only to state that M. de Boiscoran is a passionate smoker: that is well known. He had taken with him a goodly supply of cigarettes when he set out for Brechy; but he had taken no matches. And that is a fact. We can furnish proof, we can produce witnesses, we had no matches; for we had forgotten our match-box, the day before, at M. de Chandore’s,–the box which we always carry about on our person, which everybody knows, and which is still lying on the mantelpiece in Miss Dionysia’s little boudoir. Well, having no matches, we found that we could go no farther without a smoke. We had gone quite far already; and the question was, Shall we go on without smoking, or return? No need of either! There was our gun; and we knew very well what sportsmen do under such circumstances. We took the shot out of one of our cartridges, and, in setting the powder on fire, we lighted a piece of paper. This is an operation in which you cannot help blackening your fingers. As we had to repeat it several times, our hands were very much soiled and very black, and the nails full of little fragments of burnt paper.”
“Ah! now you are right,” exclaimed M. Magloire. “Well done!”
His young colleague became more and more animated; and always employing the profession “we,” which his brethren affect, he went on,–
“This water, which you dwell upon so much, is the clearest evidence of our innocence. If we had been an incendiary, we should certainly have poured it out as hurriedly as the murderer tries to wash out the blood-stains on his clothes, which betray him.”
“Very well,” said M. Magloire again approvingly.
“And your other charges,” continued M. Folgat, as if he were standing in court, and addressing the jury,–"your other charges have all the same weight. Our letter to Miss Dionysia–why do you refer to that? Because, you say, it proves our premeditation. Ah! there I hold you. Are we really so stupid and bereft of common sense? That is not our reputation. What! we premeditate a crime, and we do not say to ourselves that we shall certainly be convicted unless we prepare an /alibi/! What! we leave home with the fixed purpose of killing a man, and we load our gun with small-shot! Really, you make the defence too easy; for your charges do not stand being examined.”
It was Jacques’s turn, this time, to testify his approbation.
“That is,” he said, “what I have told Galpin over and over again; and he never had any thing to say in reply. We must insist on that point.”
M. Folgat was consulting his notes.
“I now come to a very important circumstance, and one which I should, at the trial, make a decisive question, if it should be favorable to our side. Your valet, my dear client,–your old Anthony,–told me that he had cleaned and washed your breech-loader the night before the crime.”
“Great God!” exclaimed Jacques.
“Well, I see you appreciate the importance of the fact. Between that cleaning and the time when you set a cartridge on fire, in order to burn the letters of the Countess Claudieuse, did you fire your gun? If you did, we must say nothing more about it. If you did not, one of the barrels of the breech-loader must be clean, and then you are safe.”
For more than a minute, Jacques remained silent, trying to recall the facts; at last he replied,–
“It seems to me, I am sure, I fired at a rabbit on the morning of the fatal day.”
M. Magloire looked disappointed.
“Fate again!” he said.
“Oh, wait!” cried Jacques. “I am quite sure, at all events, that I killed that rabbit at the first shot. Consequently, I can have fouled only one barrel of the gun. If I have used the same barrel at Valpinson, to get a light, I am safe. With a double gun, one almost instinctively first uses the right-hand barrel.”
M. Magloire’s face grew darker.
“Never mind,” he said, “we cannot possibly make an argument upon such an uncertain chance,–a chance which, in case of error, would almost fatally turn against us. But at the trial, when they show you the gun, examine it, so that you can tell me how that matter stands.”
Thus they had sketched the outlines of their plan of defence. There remained nothing now but to perfect the details; and to this task the two lawyers were devoting themselves still, when Blangin, the jailer, called to them through the wicket, that the doors of the prison were about to be closed.
“Five minutes more, my good Blangin!” cried Jacques.
And drawing his two friends aside, as far from the wicket as he could, he said to them in a low and distressed voice,–
“A thought has occurred to me, gentlemen, which I think I ought to mention to you. It cannot be but that the Countess Claudieuse must be suffering terribly since I am in prison. However, sure she may be of having left no trace behind her that could betray her, she must tremble at the idea that I may, after all, tell the truth in self- defence. She would deny, I know, and she is so sure of her prestige, that she knows my accusation would not injure her marvellous reputation. Nevertheless, she cannot but shrink from the scandal. Who knows if she might not give us the means to escape from the trial, to avoid such exposure? Why might not one of you gentleman make the attempt?”
M. Folgat was a man of quick resolution.
“I will try, if you will give me a line of introduction.”
Jacque immediately sat down, and wrote,–
“I have told my counsel, M. Folgat, every thing. Save me, and I swear to you eternal silence. Will you let me perish, Genevieve, when you know I am innocent?
“Is that enough?” he asked, handing the lawyer the note.
“Yes; and I promise you I will see the Countess Claudieuse within the next forty-eight hours.”
Blangin was becoming impatient; and the two advocates had to leave the prison. As they crossed the New-Market Square, they noticed, not far from them, a wandering musician, who was followed by a number of boys and girls.
It was a kind of minstrel, dressed in a sort of garment which was no longer an overcoat and had not yet assumed the shape of a shortcoat. He was strumming on a wretched fiddle; but his voice was good, and the ballad he sang had the full flavor of the local accent:–
“In the spring, mother Redbreast Made her nest in the bushes, The good lady! Made her nest in the bushes, The good lady!”
Instinctively M. Folgat was fumbling in his pocket for a few cents, when the musician came up to him, held out his hat as if to ask alms, and said,–
“You do not recognize me?”
The advocate started.
“You here!” he said.
“Yes, I myself. I came this morning. I was watching for you; for I must see you this evening at nine o’clock. Come and open the little garden-gate at M. de Chandore’s for me.”
And, taking up his fiddle again, he wandered off listlessly, singing with his clear voice,–
“And a few, a few weeks later, She had a wee, a wee bit birdy.”