Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
M. Folgat had just risen. Standing before his mirror, hung up to one of the windows in his room, he had just finished shaving himself, when the door was thrown open violently, and old Anthony appeared quite beside himself.
“Ah, sir, what a terrible thing!”
“Run away, disappeared!”
The surprise was so great, that M. Folgat nearly let his razor drop: he said, however, peremptorily,–
“That is false!”
“Alas, sir,” replied the old servant, “everybody is full of it in town. All the details are known. I have just seen a man who says he met master last night, about eleven o’clock, running like a madman down National Street.”
“That is absurd.”
“I have only told Miss Dionysia so far, and she sent me to you. You ought to go and make inquiry.”
The advice was not needed. Wiping his face hastily, the young advocate went to dress at once. He was ready in a moment; and, having run down the stairs, he was crossing the passage when he heard somebody call his name. He turned round, and saw Dionysia making him a sign to come into the boudoir in which she was usually sitting. He did so.
Dionysia and the young advocate alone knew what a desperate venture Jacques had undertaken the night before. They had not said a word about it to each other; but each had noticed the preoccupation of the other. All the evening M. Folgat had not spoken ten words, and Dionysia had, immediately after dinner, gone up to her own room.
“Well?” she asked.
“The report, madam, must be false,” replied the advocate.
“His evasion would be a confession of his crime. It is only the guilty who try to escape; and M. de Boiscoran is innocent. You can rest quite assured, madam, it is not so. I pray you be quiet.”
Who would not have pitied the poor girl at that moment? She was as white as her collar, and trembled violently. Big tears ran over her eyes; and at each word a violent sob rose in her throat.
“You know where Jacques went last night?” she asked again.
She turned her head a little aside, and went on, in a hardly audible voice,–
“He went to see once more a person whose influence over him is, probably, all powerful. It may be that she has upset him, stunned him. Might she not have prevailed upon him to escape from the disgrace of appearing in court, charged with such a crime?”
“No, madam, no!”
“This person has always been Jacques’s evil genius. She loves him, I am sure. She must have been incensed at the idea of his becoming my husband. Perhaps, in order to induce him to flee, she has fled with him.”
“Ah! do not be afraid, madam: the Countess Claudieuse is incapable of such devotion.”
Dionysia threw herself back in utter amazement; and, raising her wide- open eyes to the young advocate, she said with an air of stupefaction,–
“The Countess Claudieuse?”
M. Folgat saw his indiscretion. He had been under the impression that Jacques had told his betrothed every thing; and her very manner of speaking had confirmed him in his conviction.
“Ah, it is the Countess Claudieuse,” she went on,–"that lady whom all revere as if she were a saint. And I, who only the other day marvelled at her fervor in praying,–I who pitied her with all my heart,–I–Ah! I now see what they were hiding from me.”
Distressed by the blunder which he had committed, the young advocate said,–
“I shall never forgive myself, madam, for having mentioned that name in your presence.”
She smiled sadly.
“Perhaps you have rendered me a great service, sir. But, I pray, go and see what the truth is about this report.”
M. Folgat had not walked down half the street, when he became aware that something extraordinary must really have happened. The whole town was in uproar. People stood at their doors, talking. Groups here and there were engaged in lively discussions.
Hastening his steps, he was just turning into National Street, when he was stopped by three or four gentlemen, whose acquaintance he had, in some way or other, been forced to make since he was at Sauveterre.
“Well, sir?” said one of these amiable friends, “your client, it seems, is running about nicely.”
“I do not understand,” replied M. Folgat in a tone of ice.
“Why? Don’t you know your client has run off?”
“Are you quite sure of that?”
“Certainly. The wife of a workman whom I employ was the person through whom the escape became known. She had gone on the old ramparts to cut grass there for her goat; and, when she came to the prison wall, she saw a big hole had been made there. She gave at once the alarm; the guard came up; and they reported the matter immediately to the commonwealth attorney.”
For M. Folgat the evidence was not satisfactory yet. He asked,–
“Well? And M. de Boiscoran?”
“Cannot be found. Ah, I tell you, it is just as I say. I know it from a friend who heard it from a clerk at the mayor’s office. Blangin the jailer, they say, is seriously implicated.”
“I hope soon to see you again,” said the young advocate, and left him abruptly.
The gentleman seemed to be very grievously offended at such treatment; but the young advocate paid no attention to him, and rapidly crossed the New-Market Square.
He was become apprehensive. He did not fear an evasion, but thought there might have occurred some fearful catastrophe. A hundred persons, at least, were assembled around the prison-doors, standing there with open mouths and eager eyes; and the sentinels had much trouble in keeping them back.
M. Folgat made his way through the crowd, and went in.
In the court-yard he found the commonwealth attorney, the chief of police, the captain of the gendarmes, M. Seneschal, and, finally, M. Galpin, all standing before the janitor’s lodge in animated discussion. The magistrate looked paler than ever, and was, as they called it in Sauveterre, in bull-dog humor. There was reason for it.
He had been informed as promptly as M. Folgat, and had, with equal promptness, dressed, and hastened to the prison. And all along his way, unmistakable evidence had proved to him that public opinion was fiercely roused against the accused, but that it was as deeply excited against himself.
On all sides he had been greeted by ironical salutations, mocking smiles, and even expressions of condolence at the loss of his prisoner. Two men, whom he suspected of being in close relations with Dr. Seignebos, had even murmured, as he passed by them,–
“Cheated, Mr. Bloodhound.”
He was the first to notice the young advocate, and at once said to him,–
“Well, sir, do you come for news?”
But M. Folgat was not the man to be taken in twice the same day. Concealing his apprehensions under the most punctilious politeness, he replied,–
“I have heard all kinds of reports; but they do not affect me. M. de Boiscoran has too much confidence in the excellency of his cause and the justice of his country to think of escaping. I only came to confer with him.”
“And you are right!” exclaimed M. Daubigeon. “M. de Boiscoran is in his cell, utterly unaware of all the rumors that are afloat. It was Trumence who has run off,–Trumence, the light-footed. He was kept in prison for form’s sake only, and helped the keeper as a kind of assistant jailer. He it is who has made a hole in the wall, and escaped, thinking, no doubt, that the heavens are a better roof than the finest jail.”
A little distance behind the group stood Blangin, the jailer, affecting a contrite and distressed air.
“Take the counsel to the prisoner Boiscoran,” said M. Galpin dryly, fearing, perhaps, that M. Daubigeon might regale the public with all the bitter epigrams with which he persecuted him privately. The jailer bowed to the ground, and obeyed the order; but, as soon as he was alone with M. Folgat in the porch of the building, he blew up his cheek, and then tapped it, saying,–
“Cheated all around,”
Then he burst out laughing. The young advocate pretended not to understand him. It was but prudent that he should appear ignorant of what had happened the night before, and thus avoid all suspicion of a complicity which substantially did not exist.
“And still,” Blangin went on, “this is not the end of it yet. The gendarmes are all out. If they should catch my poor Trumence! That man is such a fool, the most stupid judge would worm his secret out of him in five minutes. And then, who would be in a bad box?”
M. Folgat still made no reply; but the other did not seem to mind that much. He continued,–
“I only want to do one thing, and that is to give up my keys as soon as possible. I am tired of this profession of jailer. Besides, I shall not be able to stay here much longer. This escape has put a flea into the ear of the authorities, and they are going to give me an assistant, a former police sergeant, who is as bad as a watchdog. Ah! the good days of M. de Boiscoran are over: no more stolen visits, no more promenades. He is to be watched day and night.”
Blangin had stopped at the foot of the staircase to give all these explanations.
“Let us go up,” he said now, as M. Folgat showed signs of growing impatience.
He found Jacques lying on his bed, all dressed; and at the first glance he saw that a great misfortune had happened.
“One more hope gone?” he asked.
The prisoner raised himself up with difficulty, and sat up on the side of his bed; then he replied in a voice of utter despair,–
“I am lost, and this time hopelessly.”
The young advocate could not help shuddering as he heard the account given by Jacques of what had happened the night before. And when it was finished, he said,–
“You are right. If Count Claudieuse carries out his threat, it may be a condemnation.”
“It must be a condemnation, you mean. Well, you need not doubt. He will carry out his threat.”
And shaking his head with an air of desolation, he added,–
“And the most formidable part of it is this: I cannot blame him for doing it. The jealousy of husbands is often nothing more than self- love. When they find they have been deceived, their vanity is offended; but their heart remains whole. But in this case it is very different. He not only loved his wife, he worshipped her. She was his happiness, life itself. When I took her from him, I robbed him of all he had,–yes, of all! I never knew what adultery meant till I saw him overcome with shame and rage. He was left without any thing in a moment. His wife had a lover: his favorite daughter was not his own! I suffer terribly; but it is nothing, I am sure, in comparison with what he suffers. And you expect, that, holding a weapon in his hand, he should not use it? It is a treacherous, dishonest weapon, to be sure; but have I been frank and honest? It would be a mean, ignoble vengeance, you will say; but what was the offence? In his place, I dare say, I should do as he does.”
M. Folgat was thunderstruck.
“But after that,” he asked, “when you left the house?”
Jacques passed his hand mechanically over his forehead, as if to gather his thoughts, and then went on,–
“After that I fled precipitately, like a man who has committed a crime. The garden-door was open, and I rushed out. I could not tell you with certainty in what direction I ran, through what streets I passed. I had but one fixed idea,–to get away from that house as quickly and as far as possible. I did not know what I was doing. I went, I went. When I came to myself, I was many miles away from Sauveterre, on the road to Boiscoran. The instinct of the animal within me had guided me on the familiar way to my house. At the first moment I could not comprehend how I had gotten there. I felt like a drunkard whose head is filled with the vapors of alcohol, and who, when he is roused, tries to remember what has happened during his intoxication. Alas! I recalled the fearful reality but too soon. I knew that I ought to go back to prison, that it was an absolute necessity; and yet I felt at times so weary, so exhausted, that I was afraid I should not be able to get back. Still I did reach the prison. Blangin was waiting for me, all anxiety; for it was nearly two o’clock. He helped me to get up here. I threw myself, all dressed as I was, on my bed, and I fell fast asleep in an instant. But my sleep was a miserable sleep, broken by terrible dreams, in which I saw myself chained to the galleys, or mounting the scaffold with a priest by my side; and even at this moment I hardly know whether I am awake or asleep, and whether I am not still suffering under a fearful nightmare.”
M. Folgat could hardly conceal a tear. He murmured,–
“Oh, yes, poor man indeed!” repeated Jacques. “Why did I not follow my first inspiration last night when I found myself on the high-road. I should have gone on to Boiscoran, I should have gone up stairs to my room, and there I should have blown out my brains. I should then suffer no more.”
Was he once more giving himself up to that fatal idea of suicide?
“And your parents,” said M. Folgat.
“My parents! And do you think they will survive my condemnation?”
“And Miss Chandore?”
He shuddered, and said fiercely,–
“Ah! it is for her sake first of all that I ought to make an end of it. Poor Dionysia! Certainly she would grieve terribly when she heard of my suicide. But she is not twenty yet. My memory would soon fade in her heart; and weeks growing into months, and months into years, she would find comfort. To live means to forget.”
“No! You cannot really think what you are saying!” broke in M. Folgat. “You know very well that she–she would never forget you!”
A tear appeared in the eyes of the unfortunate man, and he said in a half-smothered voice,–
“You are right. I believe to strike me down means to strike her down also. But do you think what life would be after a condemnation? Can you imagine what her sensations would be, if day after day she had to say to herself, ’He whom alone I love upon earth is at the galleys, mixed up with the lowest of criminals, disgraced for life, dishonored.’ Ah! death is a thousand times preferable.”
“Jacques, M. de Boiscoran, do you forget that you have given me your word of honor?”
“The proof that I have not forgotten it is that you see me here. But, never mind, the day is not very far off when you will see me so wretched that you yourself will be the first to put a weapon into my hands.”
But the young advocate was one of those men whom difficulties only excite and stimulate, instead of discouraging. He had already recovered somewhat from the first great shock, and he said,–
“Before you throw down your hand, wait, at least, till the game is lost. You are not sentenced yet. Far from it! You are innocent, and there is divine justice. Who tells us that Count Claudieuse will really give evidence? We do not even know whether he has not, at this moment, drawn his last breath upon earth!”
Jacques leaped up as if in a spasm, and turning deadly pale, exclaimed,–
“Ah, don’t say that! That fatal thought has already occurred to me, that perhaps he did not rise again last night. Would to God that that be not so! for then I should but too surely be an assassin. He was my first thought when I awoke. I thought of sending out to make inquiries. But I did not dare do it.”
M. Folgat felt his heart oppressed with most painful anxiety, like the prisoner himself. Hence he said at once,–
“We cannot remain in this uncertainty. We can do nothing as long as the count’s fate is unknown to us; for on his fate depends ours. Allow me to leave you now. I will let you know as soon as I hear any thing positive. And, above all, keep up your courage, whatever may happen.”
The young advocate was sure of finding reliable information at Dr. Seignebos’s house. He hastened there; and, as soon as he entered, the physician cried,–
“Ah, there you are coming at last! I give up twenty of my worst patients to see you, and you keep me waiting forever. I was sure you would come. What happened last night at Count Claudieuse’s house?”
“Then you know"–
“I know nothing. I have seen the results; but I do not know the cause. The result was this: last night, about eleven o’clock, I had just gone to bed, tired to death, when, all of a sudden, somebody rings my bell as if he were determined to break it. I do not like people to perform so violently at my door; and I was getting up to let the man know my mind, when Count Claudieuse’s servant rushed in, pushing my own servant unceremoniously aside, and cried out to me to come instantly, as his master had just died.”
“That is what I said, because, although I knew the count was very ill, I did not think he was so near death.”
“Then, he is really dead?”
“Not at all. But, if you interrupt me continually, I shall never be able to tell you.”
And taking off his spectacles, wiping them, and putting them on again, he went on,–
“I was dressed in an instant, and in a few minutes I was at the house. They asked me to go into the sitting-room down stairs. There I found, to my great amazement, Count Claudieuse, lying on a sofa. He was pale and stiff, his features fearfully distorted, and on his forehead a slight wound, from which a slender thread of blood was trickling down. Upon my word I thought it was all over.”
“And the countess?”
“The countess was kneeling by her husband; and, with the help of her women, she was trying to resuscitate him by rubbing him, and putting hot napkins on his chest. But for these wise precautions she would be a widow at this moment; whilst, as it is, he may live a long time yet. This precious count has a wonderful tenacity of life. We, four of us, then took him and carried him up stairs, and put him to bed, after having carefully warmed it first. He soon began to move; he opened his eyes; and a quarter of an hour later he had recovered his consciousness, and spoke readily, though with a somewhat feeble voice. Then, of course, I asked what had happened, and for the first time in my life I saw the marvellous self-possession of the countess forsake her. She stammered pitifully, looking at her husband with a most frightened air, as if she wished to read in his eyes what she should say. He undertook to answer me; but he, also was evidently very much embarrassed. He said, that being left alone, and feeling better than usual, he had taken it into his head to try his strength. He had risen, put on his dressing-gown, and gone down stairs; but, in the act of entering the room, he had become dizzy, and had fallen so unfortunately as to hurt his forehead against the sharp corner of a table. I affected to believe it, and said, ’You have done a very imprudent thing, and you must not do it again.’ Then he looked at his wife in a very singular way, and replied, ’Oh! you can be sure I shall not commit another imprudence. I want too much to get well. I have never wished it so much as now.’ “
M. Folgat was on the point of replying; but the doctor closed his lips with his hand, and said,–
“Wait, I have not done yet.”
And, manipulating his spectacles most assiduously, he added,–
“I was just going home, when suddenly a chambermaid came in with a frightened air to tell the countess that her older daughter, little Martha, whom you know, had just been seized with terrible convulsions. Of course I went to see her, and found her suffering from a truly fearful nervous attack. It was only with great difficulty I could quiet her; and when I thought she had recovered, suspecting that there might be some connection between her attack and the accident that had befallen her father, I said in the most paternal tone I could assume, ’Now my child, you must tell me what was the matter.’ She hesitated a while, and then she said, ’I was frightened.’–’Frightened at what, my darling?’ She raised herself on her bed, trying to consult her mother’s eyes; but I had placed myself between them, so that she could not see them. When I repeated my question, she said, ’Well, you see, I had just gone to bed, when I heard the bell ring. I got up, and went to the window to see who could be coming so late. I saw the servant go and open the door, a candlestick in her hand, and come back to the house, followed by a gentleman, whom I did not know.’ The countess interrupted her here, saying, ’It was a messenger from the court, who had been sent to me with an urgent letter.’ But I pretended not to hear her; and, turning still to Martha, I asked again, ’And it was this gentleman who frightened you so?’–’Oh, no!’–’What then?’ Out of the corner of my eye I was watching the countess. She seemed to be terribly embarrassed. Still she did not dare to stop her daughter. ’Well, doctor,’ said the little girl, ’no sooner had the gentleman gone into the house than I saw one of the statues under the trees there come down from its pedestal, move on, and glide very quietly along the avenue of lime-trees.’ “
M. Folgat trembled.
“Do you remember, doctor,” he said, “the day we were questioning little Martha, she said she was terribly frightened by the statutes in the garden?”
“Yes, indeed!” replied the doctor. “But wait a while. The countess promptly interrupted her daughter, saying to me, ’But, dear doctor, you ought to forbid the child to have such notions in her head. At Valpinson she never was afraid, and even at night, quite alone, and without a light, all over the house. But here she is frightened at every thing; and, as soon as night comes, she fancies the garden is full of ghosts. You are too big now, Martha, to think that statues, which are made of stone, can come to life, and walk about.’ The child was shuddering.
” ’The other times, mamma,’ she said, ’I was not quite sure; but this time I am sure. I wanted to go away from the window, and I could not do it. It was too strong for me: so that I saw it all, saw it perfectly. I saw the statue, the ghost, come up the avenue slowly and cautiously, and then place itself behind the last tree, the one that is nearest to the parlor window. Then I heard a loud cry, then nothing more. The ghost remained all the time behind the tree, and I saw all it did: it turned to the left and the right; it drew itself up; and it crouched down. Then, all of a sudden, two terrible cries; but, O mamma, such cries! Then the ghost raised one arm, this way, and all of a sudden it was gone; but almost the same moment another one came out, and then disappeared, too.’ “
M. Folgat was utterly overcome with amazement.
“Oh, these ghosts!” he said.
“You suspect them, do you? I suspected them at once. Still I pretended to turn Martha’s whole story into a joke, and tried to explain to her how the darkness made us liable to have all kinds of optical illusions; so that when I left, and a servant was sent with a candle to light me on my way, the countess was quite sure that I had no suspicion. I had none; but I had more than that. As soon as I entered the garden, therefore, I dropped a piece of money which I had kept in my hand for the purpose. Of course I set to work looking for it at the foot of the tree nearest to the parlor-window, while the servant helped with his candle. Well, M. Folgat, I can assure you that it was not a ghost that had been walking about under the trees; and, if the footmarks which I found there were made by a statue, that statue must have enormous feet, and wear huge iron-shod shoes.”
The young advocate was prepared for this. He said,–
“There is no doubt: the scene had a witness.”