Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
Jacques de Boiscoran went straight to Mautrec Street. But he knew with what horror he was looked upon by the population; and in order to avoid being recognized, and perhaps arrested, he did not take the most direct route, nor did he choose the more frequented streets. He went a long way around, and well-nigh lost himself in the winding, dark lanes of the old town. He walked along in Feverish haste, turning aside from the rare passers-by, pulling his felt hat down over his eyes, and, for still greater safety, holding his handkerchief over his face. It was nearly half-past nine when he at last reached the house inhabited by Count and Countess Claudieuse. The little gate had been taken out, and the great doors were closed.
Never mind! Jacques had his plan. He rang the bell.
A maid, who did not know him, came to the door.
“Is the Countess Claudieuse in?” he asked.
“The countess does not see anybody,” replied the girl. “She is sitting up with the count, who is very ill to-night.”
“But I must see her.”
“Tell her that a gentleman who has been sent by M. Galpin desires to see her for a moment. It is the Boiscoran affair.”
“Why did you not say so at once?” said the servant. “Come in.” And forgetting, in her hurry, to close the gates again, she went before Jacques through the garden, showed him into the vestibule, and then opened the parlor-door, saying,–
“Will you please go in here and sit down, while I go to tell the countess?”
After lighting one of the candles on the mantelpiece, she went out. So far, every thing had gone well for Jacques, and even better than he could have expected. Nothing remained now to be done, except to prevent the countess from going back and escaping, as soon as she should have recognized Jacques. Fortunately the parlor-door opened into the room. He went and put himself behind the open half, and waited there.
For twenty-four hours he had prepared himself for this interview, and arranged in his head the very words he would use. But now, at the last moment, all his ideas flew away, like dry leaves under the breath of a tempest. His heart was beating with such violence, that he thought it filled the whole room with the noise. He imagined he was cool, and, in fact, he possessed that lucidity which gives to certain acts of madmen an appearance of sense.
He was surprised at being kept waiting so long, when, at last, light steps, and the rustling of a dress, warned him that the countess was coming.
She came in, dressed in a long, dark, undress robe, and took a few steps into the room, astonished at not seeing the person who was waiting for her.
It was exactly as Jacques had foreseen.
He pushed to, violently, the open half of the door; and, placing himself before her, he said,–
“We are alone!”
She turned round at the noise, and cried,–
And terrified, as if she had seen a ghost, she looked all around, hoping to see a way out. One of the tall windows of the room, which went down to the ground, was half open, and she rushed towards it; but Jacques anticipated her, and said,–
“Do not attempt to escape; for I swear I should pursue you into your husband’s room, to the foot of his bed.”
She looked at him as if she did not comprehend.
“You,” she stammered,–"you here!”
“Yes,” he replied, “I am here. You are astonished, are you? You said to yourself, ’He is in prison, well kept under lock and key: I can sleep in peace. No evidence can be found. He will not speak. I have committed the crime, and he will be punished for it. I am guilty; but I shall escape. He is innocent, and he is lost.’ You thought it was all settled? Well, no, it is not. I am here!”
An expression of unspeakable horror contracted the beautiful features of the countess. She said,–
“This is monstrous!”
He burst out laughing, a strident, convulsive, terrible laughter.
“And you,” he said, “you call me so?”
By one great effort the Countess Claudieuse recovered her energy.
“Yes,” she replied, “yes, I do! You cannot deny your crime to me. I know, I know the motives which the judges do not even guess. You thought I would carry out my threats, and you were frightened. When I left you in such haste, you said to yourself, ’It is all over: she will tell her husband.’ And then you kindled that fire in order to draw my husband out of the house, you incendiary! And then you fired at my husband, you murderer!”
He was still laughing.
“And that is your plan?” he broke in. “Who do you think will believe such an absurd story? Our letters were burnt; and, if you deny having been my mistress, I can just as well deny having been your lover. And, besides, would the exposure do me any harm? You know very well it would not. You are perfectly aware, that, as society is with us, the same thing which disgraces a woman rather raises a man in the estimate of the world. And as to my being afraid of Count Claudieuse, it is well known that I am afraid of nobody. At the time when we were concealing our love in the house in Vine Street, yes, at that time, I might have been afraid of your husband; for he might have surprised us there, the code in one hand, a revolver in the other, and have availed himself of that stupid and savage law which makes the husband the judge of his own case, and the executor of the sentence which he himself pronounces. But setting aside such a case, the case of being taken in the act, which allows a man to kill like a dog another man, who can not or will not defend himself, what did I care for Count Claudieuse? What did I care for your threats or for his hatred?” He said these words with perfect calmness, but with that cold, cutting tone which is as sharp as a sword, and with that positiveness which enters irresistibly into the mind. The countess was tottering, and stammered almost inaudibly,–
“Who would imagine such a thing? Is it possible?
Then, suddenly raising her head, she said,–
“But I am losing my senses. If you are innocent, who, then, could be the guilty man?”
Jacques seized her hands almost madly, and pressing them painfully, and bending over her so closely that she felt his hot breath like a flame touching her face, he hissed into her ear,–
“You, wretched creature, you!”
And then pushing her from him with such violence that she fell into a chair, he continued,–
“You, who wanted to be a widow in order to prevent me from breaking the chains in which you held me. At our last meeting, when I thought you were crushed by grief, and felt overcome by your hypocritical tears, I was weak enough, I was stupid enough, to say that I married Dionysia only because you were not free. Then you cried, ’O God, how happy I am that that idea did not occur to me before!’ What idea was that, Genevieve? Come, answer me and confess, that it occurred to you too soon after all, since you have carried it out?”
And repeating with crushing irony the words just uttered by the countess, he said,–
“If you are innocent, who, then, would be the guilty man?”
Quite beside herself, she sprang up from her chair, and casting at Jacques one of those glances which seem to enter through our eyes into the very heart of our hearts, she asked,–
“Is it really possible that you have not committed this abominable crime?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“But then,” she repeated, almost panting, “is it true, can it really be true, that you think I have committed it?”
“Perhaps you have only ordered it to be committed.”
With a wild gesture she raised her arms to heaven, and cried in a heart-rending voice,–
“O God, O God! He believes it! he really believes it!”
There followed great silence, dismal, formidable silence, such as in nature follows the crash of the thunderbolt.
Standing face to face, Jacques and the Countess Claudieuse looked at each other madly, feeling that the fatal hour in their lives had come at last.
Each felt a growing, a sure conviction of the other. There was no need of explanations. They had been misled by appearances: they acknowledged it; they were sure of it.
And this discovery was so fearful, so overwhelming, that neither thought of who the real guilty one might be.
“What is to be done?” asked the countess.
“The truth must be told,” replied Jacques.
“That I have been your lover; that I went to Valpinson by appointment with you; that the cartridge-case which was found there was used by me to get fire; that my blackened hands were soiled by the half-burnt fragment of our letters, which I had tried to scatter.”
“Never!” cried the countess.
Jacques’s face turned crimson, as he said with an accent of merciless severity,–
“It shall be told! I will have it so, and it must be done!”
The countess seemed to be furious.
“Never!” she cried again, “never!”
And with convulsive haste she added,–
“Do you not see that the truth cannot possibly be told. They would never believe in our innocence. They would only look upon us as accomplices.”
“Never mind. I am not willing to die.”
“Say that you will not die alone.”
“Be it so.”
“To confess every thing would never save you, but would most assuredly ruin me. Is that what you want? Would your fate appear less cruel to you, if there were two victims instead of one?”
He stopped her by a threatening gesture, and cried,–
“Are you always the same? I am sinking, I am drowning; and she calculates, she bargains! And she said she loved me!”
“Jacques!” broke in the countess.
And drawing close up to him, she said,–
“Ah! I calculate, I bargain? Well, listen. Yes, it is true. I did value my reputation as an honest woman more highly, a thousand times more, than my life; but, above my life and my reputation, I valued you. You are drowning, you say. Well, then, let us flee. One word from you, and I leave all,–honor, country, family, husband, children. Say one word, and I follow you without turning my head, without a regret, without a remorse.”
Her whole body was shivering from head to foot; her bosom rose and fell; her eyes shone with unbearable brilliancy.
Thanks to the violence of her action, her dress, put on in great haste, had opened, and her dishevelled hair flowed in golden masses over her bosom and her shoulders, which matched the purest marble in their dazzling whiteness.
And in a voice trembling with pent-up passion, now sweet and soft like a tender caress, and now deep and sonorous like a bell, she went on,–
“What keeps us? Since you have escaped from prison, the greatest difficulty is overcome. I thought at first of taking our girl, your girl, Jacques; but she is very ill; and besides a child might betray us. If we go alone, they will never overtake us. We will have money enough, I am sure, Jacques. We will flee to those distant countries which appear in books of travels in such fairy-like beauty. There, unknown, forgotten, unnoticed, our life will be one unbroken enjoyment. You will never again say that I bargain. I will be yours, entirely, and solely yours, body and soul, your wife, your slave.”
She threw her head back, and with half-closed eyes, bending with her whole person toward him, she said in melting tones,–
“Say, Jacques, will you? Jacques!”
He pushed her aside with a fierce gesture. It seemed to him almost a sacrilege that she also, like Dionysia, should propose to him to flee.
“Rather the galleys!” he cried.
She turned deadly pale; a spasm of rage convulsed her features; and drawing back, stiff and stern, she said,–
“What else do you want?”
“Your help to save me,” he replied.
“At the risk of ruining myself?”
He made no reply.
Then she, who had just now been all humility, raised herself to her full height, and in a tone of bitterest sarcasm said slowly,–
“In other words, you want me to sacrifice myself, and at the same time all my family. For your sake? Yes, but even more for Miss Chandore’s sake. And you think that it is quite a simple thing. I am the past to you, satiety, disgust: she is the future to you, desire, happiness. And you think it quite natural that the old love should make a footstool of her love and her honor for the new love? You think little of my being disgraced, provided she be honored; of my weeping bitterly, if she but smile? Well, no, no! it is madness in you to come and ask me to save you, so that you may throw yourself into the arms of another. It is madness, when in order to tear you from Dionysia, I am ready to ruin myself, provided only that you be lost to her forever.”
“Wretch!” cried Jacques.
She looked at him with a mocking air, and her eyes beamed with infernal audacity.
“You do not know me yet,” she cried. “Go, speak, denounce me! M. Folgat no doubt has told you how I can deny and defend myself.”
Maddened by indignation, and excited to a point where reason loses its power over us, Jacques de Boiscoran moved with uplifted hand towards the countess, when suddenly a voice said,–
“Do not strike that woman!”
Jacques and the countess turned round, and uttered, both at the same instant, the same kind of sharp, terrible cry, which must have been heard a great distance.
In the frame of the door stood Count Claudieuse, a revolver in his hand, and ready to fire.
He looked as pale as a ghost; and the white flannel dressing-gown which he had hastily thrown around him hung like a pall around his lean limbs. The first cry uttered by the countess had been heard by him on the bed on which he lay apparently dying. A terrible presentiment had seized him. He had risen from his bed, and, dragging himself slowly along, holding painfully to the balusters, he had come down.
“I have heard all,” he said, casting crushing looks at both the guilty ones.
The countess uttered a deep, hoarse sigh, and sank into a chair. But Jacques drew himself up, and said,–
“I have insulted you terribly, sir. Avenge yourself.”
The count shrugged his shoulders.
“Great God! You would allow me to be condemned for a crime which I have not committed. Ah, that would be the meanest cowardice.”
The count was so feeble that he had to lean against the door-post.
“Would it be cowardly?” he asked. “Then, what do you call the act of that miserable man who meanly, disgracefully robs another man of his wife, and palms off his own children upon him? It is true you are neither an incendiary nor an assassin. But what is fire in my house in comparison with the ruin of all my faith? What are the wounds in my body in comparison with that wound in my heart, which never can heal? I leave you to the court, sir.”
Jacques was terrified; he saw the abyss opening before him that was to swallow him up.
“Rather death,” he cried,–"death.”
And, baring his breast, he said,–
“But why do you not fire, sir? Why do you not fire? Are you afraid of blood? Shoot! I have been the lover of your wife: your youngest daughter is my child.”
The count lowered his weapon.
“The courts of justice are more certain,” he said. “You have robbed me of my honor: now I want yours. And, if you cannot be condemned without it, I shall say, I shall swear, that I recognized you. You shall go to the galleys, M. de Boiscoran.”
He was on the point of coming forward; but his strength was exhausted, and he fell forward, face downward, and arms outstretched.
Overcome with horror, half mad, Jacques fled.