Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
Like all very clever men, Dr. Seignebos made the mistake of thinking other people as cunning as he was himself. M. Galpin was, of course, watching him, but by no means with the energy which one would have expected from so ambitious a man. He had, of course, been the first to be notified that the case was to be tried in open court, and from that moment he felt relieved of all anxiety.
As to remorse, he had none. He did not even regret any thing. He did not think of it, that the prisoner who was thus to be tried had once been his friend,–a friend of whom he was proud, whose hospitality he had enjoyed, and whose favor he had eagerly sought in his matrimonial aspirations. No. He only saw one thing,–that he had engaged in a dangerous affair, on which his whole future was depending, and that he was going to win triumphantly.
Evidently his responsibility was by no means gone; but his zeal in preparing the case for trial was no longer required. He need not appear at the trial. Whatever must be the result, he thought he should escape the blame, which he should surely have incurred if no true bill had been found. He did not disguise it from himself that he should be looked at askance by all Sauveterre, that his social relations were well-nigh broken off, and that no one would henceforth heartily shake hands with him. But that gave him no concern. Sauveterre, a miserable little town of five thousand inhabitants! He hoped with certainty he would not remain there long; and a brilliant preferment would amply repay him for his courage, and relieve him from all foolish reproaches.
Besides, once in the large city to which he would be promoted, he could hope that distance would aid in attenuating and even effacing the impression made by his conduct. All that would be remembered after a time would be his reputation as one of those famous judges, who, according to the stereotyped phrase, “sacrifice every thing to the sacred interests of justice, who put inflexible duty high above all the considerations that trouble and disturb the vulgar mind, and whose heart is like a rock, against which all human passions are helplessly broken to pieces.”
With such a reputation, with his knowledge of the world, and his eagerness to succeed, opportunities would not be wanting to put himself forward, to make himself known, to become useful, indispensable even. He saw himself already on the highest rungs of the official ladder. He was a judge in Bordeaux, in Lyons, in Paris itself!
With such rose-colored dreams he fell asleep at night. The next morning, as he crossed the streets, his carriage haughtier and stiffer than ever, his firmly-closed lips, and the cold and severe look of his eyes, told the curious observers that there must be something new.
“M. de Boiscoran’s case must be very bad indeed,” they said, “or M. Galpin would not look so very proud.”
He went first to the commonwealth attorney. The truth is, he was still smarting under the severe reproaches of M. Daubigeon, and he thought he would enjoy his revenge now. He found the old book-worm, as usual, among his beloved books, and in worse humor than ever. He ignored it, handed him a number of papers to sign; and when his business was over, and while he was carefully replacing the documents in his bag with his monogram on the outside, he added with an air of indifference,–
“Well, my dear sir, you have heard the decision of the court? Which of us was right?”
M. Daubigeon shrugged his shoulders, and said angrily,–
“Of course I am nothing but an old fool, a maniac: I give it up; and I say, like Horace’s man,–
’Stultum me fateor, liceat concedere vires Atque etiam insanum.’ “
“You are joking. But what would have happened if I had listened to you?”
“I don’t care to know.”
“M. de Boiscoran would none the less have been sent to a jury.”
“Anybody else would have collected the proofs of his guilt just as well as I.”
“That is a question.”
“And I should have injured my reputation very seriously; for they would have called me one of those timid magistrates who are frightened at a nothing.”
“That is as good a reputation as some others,” broke in the commonwealth attorney.
He had vowed he would answer only in monosyllables; but his anger made him forget his oath. He added in a very severe tone,–
“Another man would not have been bent exclusively upon proving that M. de Boiscoran was guilty.”
“I certainly have proved it.”
“Another man would have tried to solve the mystery.”
“But I have solved it, I should think.”
M. Daubigeon bowed ironically, and said,–
“I congratulate you. It must be delightful to know the secret of all things, only you may be mistaken. You are an excellent hand at such investigations; but I am an older man than you in the profession. The more I think in this case, the less I understand it. If you know every thing so perfectly well, I wish you would tell me what could have been the motive for the crime, for, after all, we do not run the risk of losing our head without some very powerful and tangible purpose. Where was Jacques’s interest? You will tell me he hated Count Claudieuse. But is that an answer. Come, go for a moment to your own conscience. But stop! No one likes to do that.”
M. Galpin was beginning to regret that he had ever come. He had hoped to find M. Daubigeon quite penitent, and here he was worse than ever.
“The Court of Inquiry has felt no such scruples,” he said dryly.
“No; but the jury may feel some. They are, occasionally, men of sense.”
“The jury will condemn M. de Boiscoran without hesitation.”
“I would not swear to that.”
“You would if you knew who will plead.”
“The prosecution will employ M. Gransiere!”
“You will not deny that he is a first-class man?”
The magistrate was evidently becoming angry; his ears reddened up; and in the same proportion M. Daubigeon regained his calmness.
“God forbid that I should deny M. Gransiere’s eloquence. He is a powerful speaker, and rarely misses his man. But then, you know, cases are like books: they have their luck or ill luck. Jacques will be well defended.”
“I am not afraid of M. Magloire.”
“But Mr. Folgat?”
“A young man with no weight. I should be far more afraid of M. Lachant.”
“Do you know the plan of the defence?”
This was evidently the place where the shoe pinched; but M. Galpin took care not to let it be seen, and replied,–
“I do not. But that does not matter. M. de Boiscoran’s friends at first thought of making capital out of Cocoleu; but they have given that up. I am sure of that! The police-agent whom I have charged to keep his eyes on the idiot tells me that Dr. Seignebos does not trouble himself about the man any more.”
M. Daubigeon smiled sarcastically, and said, much more for the purpose of teasing his visitor than because he believed it himself,–
“Take care! do not trust appearances. You have to do with very clever people. I always told you Cocoleu is probably the mainspring of the whole case. The very fact that M. Gransiere will speak ought to make you tremble. If he should not succeed, he would, of course, blame you, and never forgive you in all his life. Now, you know he may fail. ’There is many a slip between the cup and the lip.’
“And I am disposed to think with Villon,–
’Nothing is so certain as uncertain things.’ “
M. Galpin could tell very well that he should gain nothing by prolonging the discussion, and so he said,–
“Happen what may, I shall always know that my conscience supports me.”
Then he made great haste to take leave, lest an answer should come from M. Daubigeon. He went out; and as he descended the stairs, he said to himself,–
“It is losing time to reason with that old fogy who sees in the events of the day only so many opportunities for quotations.”
But he struggled in vain against his own feelings; he had lost his self-confidence. M. Daubigeon had revealed to him a new danger which he had not foreseen. And what a danger!–the resentment of one of the most eminent men of the French bar, one of those bitter, bilious men who never forgive. M. Galpin had, no doubt, thought of the possibility of failure, that is to say, of an acquittal; but he had never considered the consequences of such a check.
Who would have to pay for it? The prosecuting attorney first and foremost, because, in France, the prosecuting attorney makes the accusation a personal matter, and considers himself insulted and humiliated, if he misses his man.
Now, what would happen in such a case?
M. Gransiere, no doubt, would hold him responsible. He would say,–
“I had to draw my arguments from your part of the work. I did not obtain a condemnation, because your work was imperfect. A man like myself ought not to be exposed to such an humiliation, and, least of all, in a case which is sure to create an immense sensation. You do not understand your business.”
Such words were a public disgrace. Instead of the hoped-for promotion, they would bring him an order to go into exile, to Corsica, or to Algiers.
M. Galpin shuddered at the idea. He saw himself buried under the ruins of his castles in Spain. And, unluckily, he went once more over all the papers of the investigation, analyzing the evidence he had, like a soldier, who, on the eve of a battle, furbishes up his arms. However, he only found one objection, the same which M. Daubigeon had made,– what interest could Jacques have had in committing so great a crime?
“There,” he said, “is evidently the weak part of the armor; and I would do well to point it out to M. Gransiere. Jacques’s counsel are capable of making that the turning-point of their plea.”
And, in spite of all he had said to M. Daubigeon, he was very much afraid of the counsel for the defence. He knew perfectly well the prestige which M. Magloire derived from his integrity and disinterestedness. It was no secret to him, that a cause which M. Magloire espoused was at once considered a good cause. They said of him,–
“He may be mistaken; but whatever he says he believes.” He could not but have a powerful influence, therefore, not on judges who came into court with well-established opinions, but with jurymen who are under the influence of the moment, and may be carried off by the eloquence of a speech. It is true, M. Magloire did not possess that burning eloquence which thrills a crowd, but M. Folgat had it, and in an uncommon degree. M. Galpin had made inquiries; and one of his Paris friends had written to him,–
“Mistrust Folgat. He is a far more dangerous logician than Lachant, and possesses the same skill in troubling the consciences of jurymen, in moving them, drawing tears from them, and forcing them into an acquittal. Mind, especially, any incidents that may happen during the trial; for he has always some kind of surprise in reserve.”
“These are my adversaries,” thought M. Galpin. “What surprise, I wonder, is there in store for me? Have they really given up all idea of using Cocoleu?”
He had no reason for mistrusting his agent; and yet his apprehensions became so serious, that he went out of his way to look in at the hospital. The lady superior received him, as a matter of course, with all the signs of profound respect; and, when he inquired about Cocoleu, she added,–
“Would you like to see him?”
“I confess I should be very glad to do so.”
“Come with me, then.”
She took him into the garden, and there asked a gardener,–
“Where is the idiot?”
The man put his spade into the ground; and, with that affected reverence which characterizes all persons employed in a convent, he answered,–
“The idiot is down there in the middle avenue, mother, in his usual place, you know, which nothing will induce him to leave.”
M. Galpin and the lady superior found him there. They had taken off the rags which he wore when he was admitted, and put him into the hospital-dress, which was a large gray coat and a cotton cap. He did not look any more intelligent for that; but he was less repulsive. He was seated on the ground, playing with the gravel.
“Well, my boy,” asked M. Galpin, “how do you like this?”
He raised his inane face, and fixed his dull eye on the lady superior; but he made no reply.
“Would you like to go back to Valpinson?” asked the lawyer again. He shuddered, but did not open his lips.
“Look here,” said M. Galpin, “answer me, and I’ll give you a ten-cent piece.”
No: Cocoleu was at his play again.
“That is the way he is always,” declared the lady superior. “Since he is here, no one has ever gotten a word out of him. Promises, threats, nothing has any effect. One day I thought I would try an experiment; and, instead of letting him have his breakfast, I said to him, ’You shall have nothing to eat till you say, “I am hungry.” ’ At the end of twenty-four hours I had to let him have his pittance; for he would have starved himself sooner than utter a word.”
“What does Dr. Seignebos think of him?”
“The doctor does not want to hear his name mentioned,” replied the lady superior.
And, raising her eyes to heaven, she added,–
“And that is a clear proof, that, but for the direct intervention of Providence, the poor creature would never have denounced the crime which he had witnessed.”
Immediately, however, she returned to earthly things, and asked,–
“But will you not relieve us soon of this poor idiot, who is a heavy charge on our hospital? Why not send him back to his village, where he found his support before? We have quite a number of sick and poor, and very little room.”
“We must wait, sister, till M. de Boiscoran’s trial is finished," replied the magistrate.
The lady superior looked resigned, and said,–
“That is what the mayor told me, and it is very provoking, I must say: however, they have allowed me to turn him out of the room which they had given him at first. I have sent him to the Insane Ward. That is the name we give to a few little rooms, enclosed by a wall, where we keep the poor insane, who are sent to us provisionally.”
Here she was interrupted by the janitor of the hospital, who came up, bowing.
“What do you want?” she asked.
Vaudevin, the janitor, handed her a note.
“A man brought by a gendarme,” he replied. “Immediately to be admitted.”
The lady superior read the note, signed by Dr. Seignebos.
“Epileptic,” she said, “and somewhat idiotic: as if we wanted any more! And a stranger into the bargain! Really Dr. Seignebos is too yielding. Why does he not send all these people to their own parish to be taken care of?”
And, with a very elastic step for her age, she went to the parlor, followed by M. Galpin and the janitor. They had put the new patient in there, and, sunk upon a bench, he looked the picture of utter idiocy. After having looked at him for a minute, she said,–
“Put him in the Insane Ward: he can keep Cocoleu company. And let the sister know at the drug-room. But no, I will go myself. You will excuse me, sir.”
And then she left the room. M. Galpin was much comforted.
“There is no danger here,” he said to himself. “And if M. Folgat counts upon any incident during the trial, Cocoleu, at all events, will not furnish it to him.”