Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
Thus M. Galpin triumphed, and M. Gransiere had reason to be proud of his eloquence. Jacques de Boiscoran had been found guilty.
But he looked calm, and even haughty, as the president, M. Domini, pronounced the terrible sentence, a thousand times braver at that moment than the man who, facing the squad of soldiers from whom he is to receive death, refuses to have his eyes bandaged, and himself gives the word of command with a firm voice.
That very morning, a few moments before the beginning of the trial, he had said to Dionysia,–
“I know what is in store for me; but I am innocent. They shall not see me turn pale, nor hear me ask for mercy.”
And, gathering up all the energy of which the human heart is capable, he had made a supreme effort at the decisive moment, and kept his word.
Turning quietly to his counsel at the moment when the last words of the president were lost among the din of the crowd, he said,–
“Did I not tell you that the day would come when you yourself would be the first to put a weapon into my hands?”
M. Folgat rose promptly.
He showed neither the anger nor the disappointment of an advocate who has just had a cause which he knew to be just.
“That day has not come yet,” he replied. “Remember your promise. As long as there remains a ray of hope, we shall fight. Now we have much more than mere hope at this moment. In less than a month, in a week, perhaps to-morrow, we shall have our revenge.”
The unfortunate man shook his head.
“I shall nevertheless have undergone the disgrace of a condemnation," he murmured.
The taking the ribbon of the Legion of Honor from his buttonhole, he handed it to M. Folgat, saying–
“Keep this in memory of me, and if I never regain the right to wear it"–
In the meantime, however, the gendarmes, whose duty it was to guard the prisoner, had risen; and the sergeant said to Jacques,–
“We must go, sir. Come, come! You need not despair. You need not lose courage. All is not over yet. There is still the appeal for you, and then the petition for pardon, not to speak of what may happen, and cannot be foreseen.”
M. Folgat was allowed to accompany the prisoner, and was getting ready to do so; but the latter said, with a pained voice,–
“No, my friend, please leave me alone. Others have more need of your presence than I have. Dionysia, my poor father, my mother. Go to them. Tell them that the horror of my condemnation lies in the thought of them. May they forgive me for the affliction which I cause them, and for the disgrace of having me for their son, for her betrothed!”
Then, pressing the hands of his counsel, he added,–
“And you, my friends, how shall I ever express to you my gratitude? Ah! if incomparable talents, and matchless zeal and ability, had sufficed, I know I should be free. But instead of that"–he pointed at the little door through which he was to pass, and said in a heartrending tone,–
“Instead of that, there is the door to the galleys. Henceforth"–
A sob cut short his words. His strength was exhausted; for if there are, so to say, no limits to the power of endurance of the spirit, the energy of the body has its bounds. Refusing the arm which the sergeant offered him, he rushed out of the room.
M. Magloire was well-nigh beside himself with grief.
“Ah! why could we not save him?” he said to his young colleague. “Let them come and speak to me again of the power of conviction. But we must not stay here: let us go!”
They threw themselves into the crowd, which was slowly dispersing, all palpitating yet with the excitement of the day.
A strange reaction was already beginning to set in,–a reaction perfectly illogic, and yet intelligible, and by no means rare under similar circumstances.
Jacques de Boiscoran, an object of general execration as long as he was only suspected, regained the sympathy of all the moment he was condemned. It was as if the fatal sentence had wiped out the horror of the crime. He was pitied; his fate was deplored; and as they thought of his family, his mother, and his betrothed, they almost cursed the severity of the judges.
Besides, even the least observant among those present had been struck by the singular course which the proceedings had taken. There was not one, probably, in that vast assembly who did not feel that there was a mysterious and unexplored side of the case, which neither the prosecution nor the defence had chosen to approach. Why had Cocoleu been mentioned only once, and then quite incidentally? He was an idiot, to be sure; but it was nevertheless through his evidence alone that suspicions had been aroused against M. de Boiscoran. Why had he not been summoned either by the prosecution or by the defence?
The evidence given by Count Claudieuse, also, although apparently so conclusive at the moment, was now severely criticised.
The most indulgent said,–
“That was not well done. That was a trick. Why did he not speak out before? People do not wait for a man to be down before they strike him.”
“And did you notice how M. de Boiscoran and Count Claudieuse looked at each other? Did you hear what they said to each other? One might have sworn that there was something else, something very different from a mere lawsuit, between them.”
And on all sides people repeated,–
“At all events, M. Folgat is right. The whole matter is far from being cleared up. The jury was long before they agreed. Perhaps M. de Boiscoran would have been acquitted, if, at the last moment, M. Gransiere had not announced the impending death of Count Claudieuse in the adjoining room.”
M. Magloire and M. Folgat listened to all these remarks, as they heard them in the crowd here and there, with great satisfaction; for in spite of all the assertions of magistrates and judges, in spite of all the thundering condemnations against the practice, public opinion will find an echo in the court-room; and, more frequently than we think, public opinion does dictate the verdict of the jury.
“And now,” said M. Magloire to his young colleague, “now we can be content. I know Sauveterre by heart. I tell you public opinion is henceforth on our side.”
By dint of perseverance they made their way, at last, out through the narrow door of the court-room, when one of the ushers stopped them.
“They wish to see you,” said the man.
“The family of the prisoner. Poor people! They are all in there, in M. Mechinet’s office. M. Daubigeon told me to keep it for them. The Marchioness de Boiscoran also was carried there when she was taken ill in the court-room.”
He accompanied the two gentlemen, while telling them this, to the end of the hall; then he opened a door, and said,–
“They are in there,” and withdrew discreetly.
There, in an easy-chair, with closed eyes, and half-open lips, lay Jacques’s mother. Her livid pallor and her stiff limbs made her look like a dead person; but, from time to time, spasms shook her whole body, from head to foot. M. de Chandore stood on one side, and the marquis, her husband, on the other, watching her with mournful eyes and in perfect silence. They had been thunderstruck; and, from the moment when the fatal sentence fell upon their ears, neither of them had uttered a word.
Dionysia alone seemed to have preserved the faculty of reasoning and moving. But her face was deep purple; her dry eyes shone with a painful light; and her body shook as with fever. As soon as the two advocates appeared, she cried,–
“And you call this human justice?”
And, as they were silent, she added,–-
“Here is Jacques condemned to penal labor; that is to say, he is judicially dishonored, lost, disgraced, forever cut off from human society. He is innocent; but that does not matter. His best friends will know him no longer: no hand will touch his hand hereafter; and even those who were most proud of his affection will pretend to have forgotten his name.”
“I understand your grief but too well, madam,” said M. Magloire.
“My grief is not as great as my indignation,” she broke in. “Jacques must be avenged, and he shall be avenged! I am only twenty, and he is not thirty yet: there is a whole life before us which we can devote to the work of his rehabilitation; for I do not mean to abandon him. I! His undeserved misfortunes make him a thousand times dearer to me, and almost sacred. I was his betrothed this morning: this evening I am his wife. His condemnation was our nuptial benediction. And if it is true, as grandpapa says, that the law prohibits a prisoner to marry the woman he loves, well, I will be his without marriage.”
Dionysia spoke all this aloud, so loud that it seemed she wanted all the earth to hear what she was saying.
“Ah! let me reassure you by a single word, madam,” said M. Folgat. “We have not yet come to that. The sentence is not final.”
The Marquis de Boiscoran and M. de Chandore started.
“What do you mean?”
“An oversight which M. Galpin has committed makes the whole proceeding null and void. You will ask how a man of his character, so painstaking and so formal, should have made such a blunder. Probably because he was blinded by passion. Why had nobody noticed this oversight? Because fate owed us this compensation. There can be no question about the matter. The defect is a defect of form; and the law provides expressly for the case. The sentence must be declared void, and we shall have another trial.”
“And you never told us anything of that?” asked Dionysia.
“We hardly dared to think of it,” replied M. Magloire. “It was one of those secrets which we dare not confide to our own pillow. Remember, that, in the course of the proceedings, the error might have been corrected at any time. Now it is too late. We have time before us; and the conduct of Count Claudieuse relieves us from all restraint of delicacy. The veil shall be torn now.”
The door opened violently, interrupting his words. Dr. Seignebos entered, red with anger, and darting fiery glances from under his gold spectacles.
“Count Claudieuse?” M. Folgat asked eagerly.
“Is next door,” replied the doctor. “They have had him down on a mattress, and his wife is by his side. What a profession ours is! Here is a man, a wretch, whom I should be most happy to strangle with my own hands; and I am compelled to do all I can to recall him to life: I must lavish my attentions upon him, and seek every means to relieve his sufferings.”
“Is he any better?”
“Not at all! Unless a special miracle should be performed in his behalf, he will leave the court-house only feet forward, and that in twenty-four hours. I have not concealed it from the countess; and I have told her, that, if she wishes her husband to die in peace with Heaven, she has but just time to send for a priest.”
“And has she sent for one?”
“Not at all! She told me her husband would be terrified by the appearance of a priest, and that would hasten his end. Even when the good priest from Brechy came of his own accord, she sent him off unceremoniously.”
“Ah the miserable woman!” cried Dionysia.
And, after a moment’s reflection, she added,–
“And yet that may be our salvation. Yes, certainly. Why should I hesitate? Wait for me here: I am coming back.”
She hurried out. Her grandpapa was about to follow her; but M. Folgat stopped him.
“Let her do it,” he said,–"let her do it!”
It had just struck ten o’clock. The court-house, just now as full and as noisy as a bee-hive, was silent and deserted. In the immense hall, badly lighted by a smoking lamp, there were only two men to be seen. One was the priest from Brechy, who was praying on his knees close to a door; and the other was the watchman, who was slowly walking up and down, and whose steps resounded there as in a church.
Dionysia went straight up to the latter.
“Where is Count Claudieuse?” she asked.
“There, madam,” replied the man, pointing at the door before which the priest was praying,–"there, in the private office of the commonwealth attorney.”
“Who is with him?”
“His wife, madam, and a servant.”
“Well, go in and tell the Countess Claudieuse,–but so that her husband does not hear you,–that Miss Chandore desires to see her a few moments.”
The watchman made no objection, and went in. But, when he came back, he said to the young girl,–
“Madam, the countess sends word that she cannot leave her husband, who is very low.”
She stopped him by an impatient gesture, and said,–
“Never mind! Go back and tell the countess, that, if she does not come out, I shall go in this moment; that, if it must be, I shall force my way in; that I shall call for help; that nothing will keep me. I must absolutely see her.”
“Go! Don’t you see that it is a question of life and death?”
There was such authority in her voice, that the watchman no longer hesitated. He went in once more, and reappeared a moment after.
“Go in,” he said to the young girl.
She went in, and found herself in a little anteroom which preceded the office of the commonwealth attorney. A large lamp illuminated the room. The door leading to the room in which the count was lying was closed.
In the centre of the room stood the Countess Claudieuse. All these successive blows had not broken her indomitable energy. She looked pale, but calm.
“Since you insist upon it, madam,” she began, “I come to tell you myself that I cannot listen to you. Are you not aware that I am standing between two open graves,–that of my poor girl, who is dying at my house, and that of my husband, who is breathing his last in there?”
She made a motion as if she were about to retire; but Dionysia stopped her by a threatening look, and said with a trembling voice,–
“If you go back into that room where your husband is, I shall go back with you, and I shall speak before him. I shall ask you right before him, how you dare order a priest away from his bedside at the moment of death, and whether, after having robbed him of all his happiness in life, you mean to make him unhappy in all eternity.”
Instinctively the countess drew back.
“I do not understand you,” she said.
“Yes, you do understand me, madam. Why will you deny it? Do you not see that I know every thing, and that I have guessed what you have not told me? Jacques was your lover; and your husband has had his revenge.”
“Ah!” cried the countess, “that is too much; that is too much!”
“And you have permitted it,” Dionysia went on with breathless haste; “and you did not come, and cry out in open court that your husband was a false witness! What a woman you must be! You do not mind it, that your love carries a poor unfortunate man to the galleys. You mean to live on with this thought in your heart, that the man whom you love is innocent, and nevertheless, disgraced forever, and cut off from human society. A priest might induce the count to retract his statement, you know very well; and hence you refuse to let the priest from Brechy come to his bedside. And what is the end and aim of all your crimes? To save your false reputation as an honest woman. Ah! that is miserable; that is mean; that is infamous!”
The countess was roused at last. What all M. Folgat’s skill and ability had not been able to accomplish, Dionysia obtained in an instant by the force of her passion. Throwing aside her mask, the countess exclaimed with a perfect burst of rage,–
“Well, then, no, no! I have not acted so, and permitted all this to happen, because I care for my reputation. My reputation!–what does it matter? It was only a week ago, when Jacques had succeeded in escaping from prison, I offered to flee with him. He had only to say a word, and I should have given up my family, my children, my country, every thing, for him. He answered, ’Rather the galleys!’ “
In the midst of all her fearful sufferings, Dionysia’s heart filled with unspeakable happiness as she heard these words. Ah! now she could no longer doubt Jacques.
“He has condemned himself, you see,” continued the countess. “I was quite willing to ruin myself for him, but certainly not for another woman.”
“And that other woman–no doubt you mean me!”
“Yes!–you for whose sake he abandoned me,–you whom he was going to marry,–you with whom he hoped to enjoy long happy years, and a happiness not furtive and sinful like ours, but a legitimate, honest happiness.”
Tears were trembling in Dionysia’s eyes. She was beloved: she thought of what she must suffer who was not beloved.
“And yet I should have been generous,” she murmured. The countess broke out into a fierce, savage laugh.
“And the proof of it is,” said the young girl, “that I came to offer you a bargain.”
“Yes. Save Jacques, and, by all that is sacred to me in the world, I promise I will enter a convent: I will disappear, and you shall never hear my name any more.”
Intense astonishment seized the countess, and she looked at Dionysia with a glance full of doubt and mistrust. Such devotion seemed to her too sublime not to conceal some snare.
“You would really do that?” she asked.
“You would make a great sacrifice for my benefit?”
“For yours? No, madam, for Jacques’s.”
“You love him very dearly, do you?”
“I love him dearly enough to prefer his happiness to my own a thousand times over. Even if I were buried in the depths of a convent, I should still have the consolation of knowing that he owed his rehabilitation to me; and I should suffer less in knowing that he belonged to another than that he was innocent, and yet condemned.”
But, in proportion as the young girl thus confirmed her sincerity, the brow of the countess grew darker and sterner, and passing blushes mantled her cheek. At last she said with haughty irony,–
“You condescend to give up M. de Boiscoran. Will that make him love me? You know very well he will not. You know that he loves you alone. Heroism with such conditions is easy enough. What have you to fear? Buried in a convent, he will love you only all the more ardently, and he will execrate me all the more fervently.”
“He shall never know any thing of our bargain!”
“Ah! What does that matter? He will guess it, if you do not tell him. No: I know what awaits me. I have felt it now for two years,–this agony of seeing him becoming daily more detached from me. What have I not done to keep him near me! How I have stooped to meanness, to falsehood, to keep him a single day longer, perhaps a single hour! But all was useless. I was a burden to him. He loved me no longer; and my love became to him a heavier load than the cannon-ball which they will fasten to his chains at the galleys.”
“That is horrible!” she murmured.
“Horrible! Yes, but true. You look amazed. That is because you have as yet only seen the morning dawn of your love: wait for the dark evening, and you will understand me. Is not the story of all of us women the same! I have seen Jacques at my feet as you see him at yours: the vows he swears to you, he once swore to me; and he swore them to me with the same voice, tremulous with passion, and with the same burning glances. But you think you will be his wife, and I never was. What does that matter? What does he tell you? That he will love you forever, because his love is under the protection of God and of men. He told me, precisely because our love was not thus protected, that we should be united by indissoluble bonds,–bonds stronger than all others. You have his promise: so had I. And the proof of it is that I gave him every thing,–my honor and the honor of my family, and that I would have given him still more, if there had been any more to give. And now to be betrayed, forsaken, despised, to sink lower and lower, until at last I must become the object of your pity! To have fallen so low, that you should dare come and offer me to give up Jacques for my benefit! Ah, that is maddening! And I should let the vengeance I hold in my hands slip from me at your bidding! I should be stupid enough, blind enough, to allow myself to be touched by your hypocritical tears! I should secure your happiness by the sacrifice of my reputation! No, madam, cherish no such hope!”
Her voice expired in her throat in a kind of toneless rattle. She walked up and down a few times in the room. Then she placed herself straight before Dionysia, and, looking fixedly into her eyes, she asked,–
“Who suggested to you this plan of coming here, this supreme insult which you tried to inflict upon me?”
Dionysia was seized with unspeakable horror, and hardly found heart to reply.
“No one,” she murmured.
“Knows nothing of it.”
“I have not seen him. The thought occurred to me quite suddenly, like an inspiration on high. When Dr. Seignebos told me that you had refused to admit the priest from Brechy, I said to myself, ’This is the last misfortune, and the greatest of them all! If Count Claudieuse dies without retracting, Jacques can never be fully restored, whatever may happen hereafter, not even if his innocence should be established.’ Then I made up my mind to come to you. Ah! it was a hard task. But I was in hopes I might touch your heart, or that you might be moved by the greatness of my sacrifice.”
The countess was really moved. There is no heart absolutely bad, as there is none altogether good. As she listened to Dionysia’s passionate entreaty, her resolution began to grow weaker.
“Would it be such a great sacrifice?” she asked.
Tears sprang to the eyes of the poor young girl.
“Alas!” she said, “I offer you my life. I know very well you will not be long jealous of me.”
She was interrupted by groans, which seemed to come from the room in which the count was lying.
The countess half-opened the door; and immediately a feeble, and yet imperious voice was heard calling out,–
“Genevieve, I say, Genevieve!”
“I am coming, my dear, in a moment,” replied the countess.
“What security can you give me,” she said, in a hard and stern voice, after having closed the door again,–"what security do you give me, that if Jacques’s innocence were established, and he reinstated, you would not forget your promises?”
“Ah, madam! How or upon what do you want me to swear that I am ready to disappear. Choose your own securities, and I will do whatever you require.”
Then, sinking down on her knees, before the countess, she went on,–
“Here I am at your feet, madam, humble and suppliant,–I whom you accuse of a desire to insult you. Have pity on Jacques! Ah! if you loved him as much as I do, you would not hesitate.”
The countess raised her suddenly and quickly, and holding her hands in her own, looked at her for more than a minute without saying a word, but with heaving bosom and trembling lips. At last she asked in a voice which was so deeply affected, that it was hardly intelligible.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Induce Count Claudieuse to retract.”
The countess shook her head.
“It would be useless to try. You do not know the count. He is a man of iron. You might tear his flesh inch by inch with hot iron pincers, and he would not take back one of his words. You cannot conceive what he has suffered, nor the depth of the hatred, the rage, and the thirst of vengeance, which have accumulated in his heart. It was to torture me that he brought me here to his bedside. Only five minutes ago he told me that he died content, since Jacques was declared guilty, and condemned through his evidence.”
She was conquered: her energy was exhausted, and tears came to her eyes.
“He has been so cruelly tried!” she went on. “He loved me to distraction; he loved nothing in the world but me. And I– Ah, if we could know, if we could foresee! No, I shall never be able to induce him to retract.”
Dionysia almost forgot her own great grief.
“Nor do I expect you to obtain that favor,” she said very gently.
“The priest from Brechy. He will surely find words to shake even the firmest resolution. He can speak in the name of that God, who, even on the cross, forgave those who crucified Him.”
One moment longer the countess hesitated; and then, overcoming finally the last rebellious impulses of her pride, she said,–
“Well, I will call the priest.”
“And I, madam, I swear I will keep my promise.”
But the countess stopped her, and said, making a supreme effort over herself,–
“No: I shall try to save Jacques without making conditions. Let him be yours. He loves you, and you were ready to sacrifice your life for his sake. He forsakes me; but I sacrifice my honor to him. Farewell!”
And hastening to the door, while Dionysia returned to her friends, she summoned the priest from Brechy.