Within an Inch of His Life
By Emile Gaboriau
Public Domain Books
When Dionysia, after leaving the Countess Claudieuse, came back to Jacques’s parents and his friends, she said, radiant with hope,–
“Now victory is on our side!”
Her grandfather and the Marquis de Boiscoran urged her to explain; but she refused to say any thing, and only later, towards evening, she confessed to M. Folgat what she had done with the countess, and that it was more than probable that the count would, before he died, retract his evidence.
“That alone would save Jacques,” said the young advocate.
But his hope only encouraged him to make still greater efforts; and, all overcome as he was by his labors and emotions of the trial, he spent the night in Grandpapa Chandore’s study, preparing with M. Magloire the application they proposed to make for a new trial.
They finished only when it was already broad daylight: so he did not care to go to bed, and installed himself in a large easy-chair for the purpose of getting a few hours’ rest.
He had, however, not slept more than an hour, when old Anthony roused him to tell him that there was an unknown man down stairs who asked to see him instantly.
M. Folgat rubbed his eyes, and at once went down: in the passage he found himself face to face with a man of some fifty years, of rather suspicious appearance, who wore his mustache and his chin-beard, and was dressed in a tight coat and large trousers, such as old soldiers affect.
“You are M. Folgat?” asked this man.
“Well, I–I am the agent whom friend Goudar sent to England.”
The young lawyer started, and asked,–
“Since when are you here?”
“Since this morning, by express. Twenty-four hours too late, I know; for I bought a newspaper at the station. M. de Boiscoran has been found guilty. And yet I swear I did not lose a minute; and I have well earned the gratuity which I was promised in case of success.”
“You have been successful, have you?”
“Of course. Did I not tell you in my letter from Jersey that I was sure of success?”
“You have found Suky?”
“Twenty-four hours after I wrote to you,–in a public-house at Bonly Bay. She would not come, the wretch!”
“You have brought her, however?”
“Of course. She is at the Hotel de France, where I have left her till I could come and see you.”
“Does she know any thing?”
“Make haste and bring her here.”
From the time when M. Folgat first hoped for this recovery of the servant-girl, he had made up his mind to make the most of her evidence.
He had slipped a portrait of the Countess Claudieuse into an album of Dionysia’s, amidst some thirty photographs. He now went for this album, and had just put it upon the centre-table in the parlor when the agent came back with his captive.
She was a tall, stout woman of some forty years, with hard features, masculine manners, and dressed, as all common English-women are, with great pretensions to fashion.
When M. Folgat questioned her, she answered in very fair, intelligible French, which was only marred by her strong English accent,–
“I stayed four years at the house in Vine Street; and I should be there still, but for the war. As soon as I entered upon my duties, I became aware that I was put in charge of a house in which two lovers had their meetings. I was not exactly pleased, because, you know, we have our self-respect; but it was a good place. I had very little to do, and so I staid. However, my master mistrusted me: I saw that very clearly. When a meeting was to take place, my master sent me on some errand to Versailles, to Saint Germain, or even to Orleans. This hurt me so much, that I determined I would find out what they tried so hard to conceal from me. It was not very difficult; and the very next week I knew that my master was no more Sir Francis Burnett than I was; and that he had borrowed the name from a friend of his.”
“How did you go about to find it out?”
“Oh! very simply. One day, when my master went away on foot, I followed him, and saw him go into a house in University Street. Before the house opposite, some servants were standing and talking. I asked them who the gentleman was; and they told me it was the son of the Marquis de Boiscoran.”
“So much for the master; but the lady.”
Suky Wood smiled.
“As for the lady,” she replied, “I did the same thing to find her out. It cost me, however, a great deal more time and a great deal more patience, because she took the very greatest precautions; and I lost more than one afternoon in watching her. But, the more she tried to hide, the more I was curious to know, as a matter of course. At last, one evening when she left the house in her carriage, I took a cab and followed her. I traced her thus to her house; and next morning I talked to the servants there, and they told me that she was a lady who lived in the province, but came every year to Paris to spend a month with her parents, and that her name was Countess Claudieuse.”
And Jacques had imagined and strongly maintained that Suky would not know any thing, in fact, could not know any thing!
“But did you ever see this lady?” asked M. Folgat.
“As well as I see you.”
“Would you recognize her?”
“And if you saw her portrait?”
“I should know it at once.”
M. Folgat handed her the album.
“Well, look for her,” he said.
She had found the likeness in a moment.
“Here she is!” cried Suky, putting her finger on the photograph.
There was no doubt any longer.
“But now, Miss Suky,” said the young advocate, “you will have to repeat all that before a magistrate.”
“I will do so with pleasure. It is the truth.”
“If that is so, they will send for you at your lodgings, and you will please stay there till you are called. You need not trouble yourself about any thing. You shall have whatever you want, and they will pay you your wages as if you were in service.”
M. Folgat had not time to say more; for Dr. Seignebos rushed in like a tempest, and cried out at the top of his voice,–
“Victory! We are victorious now! Great Victory!”
But he could not speak before Suky and the agent. They were sent off; and, as soon as they had left the room, he said to M. Folgat,–
“I am just from the hospital. I have seen Goudar. He had done it. He had made Cocoleu talk.”
“And what does he say?”
“Well, exactly what I knew he would say, as soon as they could loose his tongue. But you will hear it all; for it is not enough that Cocoleu should confess it to Goudar: there must be witnesses present to certify to the confessions of the wretch.”
“He will not talk before witnesses.”
“He must not see them: they can be concealed. The place is admirably adapted for such a purpose.”
“But how, if Cocoleu refuses to talk after the witnesses have been introduced?”
“He will not. Goudar has found out a way to make him talk whenever he wants it. Ah! that man is a clever man, and understands his business thoroughly. Have you full confidence in him?”
“Well, he says he is sure he will succeed. ’Come to-day,’ he said to me, ’between one and two, with M. Folgat, the commonwealth attorney, and M. Galpin: put yourself where I will show you, and then let me go to work.’ Then he showed me the place where he wants us to remain, and told me how we should let him know when we are all ready.”
M. Folgat did not hesitate.
“We have not a moment to lose. Let me go at once to the court-house.”
But they were hardly in the passage when they were met by Mechinet, who came running up out of breath, and half mad with delight.
“M. Daubigeon sends me to say you must come to him at once. Great news! Great news!”
And immediately he told them in a few words what had happened in the morning,–Trumence’s statement, and the deposition of the maid of Countess Claudieuse.
“Ah, now we are safe!” cried Dr. Seignebos.
M. Folgat was pale with excitement. Still he proposed,–
“Let us tell the marquis and Miss Dionysia what is going on before we leave the house.”
“No,” said the doctor, “no! Let us wait till every thing is quite safe. Let us go quick; let us go at once.”
They were right to make haste. The magistrate and the commonwealth attorney were waiting for them with the greatest impatience. As soon as they came into the small room of the clerk’s office, M. Daubigeon cried,–
“Well, I suppose Mechinet has told you all?”
“Yes,” replied M. Folgat; “but we have some information of which you have heard as yet nothing.”
Then he told them that Suky Wood had arrived, and what she had given in as evidence.
M. Galpin had sunk into a chair, completely crushed by the weight of so many proofs of his misapprehension of the case. There he sat without saying a word, without moving a muscle. But M. Daubigeon was radiant.
“Most assuredly,” he cried, “Jacques must be innocent!”
“Most assuredly he is innocent!” said Dr. Seignebos; “and the proof of it is, that I know who is guilty.”
“And you will know too, if you will take the trouble of following me, with M. Galpin, to the hospital.”
It was just striking one; and not one of them all had eaten any thing that morning. But they had no time to think of breakfast.
Without a shadow of hesitation, M. Daubigeon turned to M. Galpin, and said,–
“Will you come, Galpin?”
The poor magistrate rose mechanically, after the manner of an automaton, and they went out, creating no small sensation among the good people of Sauveterre, when they appeared thus all in a group.
M. Daubigeon spoke first to the lady superior of the hospital; and, when he had explained to her what their purpose was in coming there, she raised her eyes heavenward, and said with a sigh of resignation,–
“Well, gentlemen, do as you like, and I hope you will be successful; for it is a sore trial for us poor sisters to have these continual visitations in the name of the law.”
“Please follow me, then, to the Insane Ward, gentlemen,” said the doctor.
They call the Insane Ward at the Sauveterre hospital a small, low building, with a sanded court in front, and a tall wall around the whole. The building is divided into six cells, each of which has two doors,–one opening into the court, and the other an outside door for the assistants and servants.
It was to one of these latter doors that Dr. Seignebos led his friends. And after having recommended to them the most perfect silence, so as not to rouse Cocoleu’s suspicions, he invited them into one of the cells, in which the door leading into the court had been closed. There was, however, a little grated window in the upper part of the door, so that they could, without being seen, both see and hear all that was said and done in the court reserved for the use of the insane.
Not two yards from the little window, Goudar and Cocoleu were sitting on a wooden bench in the bright sunlight.
By long study and a great effort of will, Goudar had succeeded in giving to his face a most perfect expression of stupidity: even the people belonging to the hospital thought he was more idiotic than the other.
He held in his hand his violin, which the doctor had ordered to be left to him; and he accompanied himself with a few notes, as he repeated the same familiar song which he had sung on the New-Market Square when he first accosted M. Folgat.
Cocoleu, a large piece of bread-and-butter in one hand, and a big clasp-knife in the other, was finishing his meal.
But this music delighted him so intensely, that he actually forgot to eat, and, with hanging lip and half-closed eyes, rocked himself to and fro, keeping time with the measure.
“They look hideous!” M. Folgat could not keep from whispering. In the meantime Goudar, warned by the preconcerted signal, had finished his song. He bent over, and drew from under the bench an enormous bottle, from which he seemed to draw a considerable quantity of something pleasant.
Then he passed it to Cocoleu, who likewise began to pull, eagerly and long, and with an expression of idiotic beatitude. Then patting his stomach with his hands, he said,–
M. Daubigeon whispered into Dr. Seignebos’s ear,–
“Ah, I begin to see! I notice from Cocoleu’s eyes, that this practice with the bottle must have been going on for some time already. Cocoleu is drunk.”
Goudar again took up his violin and repeated his song.
“I–I–want–want to–to drink!” stammered Cocoleu.
Goudar kept him waiting a little while, and then handed him the bottle. The idiot threw back his head, and drank till he had lost his breath. Then Goudar asked,–
“Ah! you did not have such good wine to drink at Valpinson?”
“Oh, yes!” replied Cocoleu.
“But as much as you wanted?”
And, laughing with some difficulty, he stammered, and stuttered out,–
“I got–got into the cellar through one of the windows; and I drank– drank through–through a–a straw.”
“You must be sorry you are no longer there?”
“But, if you were so well off at Valpinson, why did you set it on fire?”
The witnesses of the strange scene crowded to the little window of the cell, and held their breath with eager expectation.
“I wanted to burn some fagots only, to make the count come out. It was not my fault, if the whole house got on fire.”
“And why did you want to kill the count?”
“Because I wanted the great lady to marry M. de Boiscoran.”
“Ah! She told you to do it, did she?”
“Oh, no! But she cried so much; and then she told me she would be so happy if her husband were dead. And she was always good to Cocoleu; and the count was always bad; and so I shot him.”
“Well! But why, then, did you say it was M. de Boiscoran who shot the count?”
“They said at first it was me. I did not like that. I would rather they should cut off his head than mine.”
He shuddered as he said this, so that Goudar, afraid of having gone rather too fast, took up his violin, and gave him a verse of his song to quiet him. Then accompanying his words still now and then with a few notes, and after having allowed Cocoleu to caress his bottle once more, he asked again,–
“Where did you get a gun?”
“I–I had taken it from the count to shoot birds: and I–I have it still–still. It is hid in the hole where Michael found me.”
Poor Dr. Seignebos could not stand it any longer. He suddenly pushed open the door, and, rushing into the court, he cried,–
“Bravo, Goudar! Well done!”
At the noise, Cocoleu had started up. He evidently understood it all; for terror drove the fumes of the wine out of his mind in an instant, and he looked frightened to death.
“Ah, you scoundrel!” he howled.
And, throwing himself upon Goudar, he plunged his knife twice into him.
The movement was so rapid and so sudden, that it had been impossible to prevent it. Pushing M. Folgat violently back as he tried to disarm him, Cocoleu leaped into a corner of the court, and there, looking like a wild beast driven to bay, his eyes bloodshot, his mouth foaming, he threatened with his formidable knife to kill any one who should come near him.
At the cries of M. Daubigeon and M. Galpin, the assistants in the hospital came rushing in. The struggle, however, would probably have been a long one, notwithstanding their numbers, if one of the keepers had not, with great presence of mind, climbed up to the top of the wall, and caught the arm of the wretch in a noose. By these means he was thrown down in a moment, disarmed, and rendered harmless.
“You–you may–may do–do what you–you choose; I–I won’t say–say another w-w-word!”
In the meantime, poor Dr. Seignebos, who had unwillingly caused the catastrophe, was distressed beyond measure; still he hastened to the assistance of Goudar, who lay insensible on the sand of the court. The two wounds which the detective had received were quite serious, but not fatal, or even very dangerous, as the knife had been turned aside by the ribs. He was at once carried into one of the private rooms of the hospital, and soon recovered his consciousness.
When he saw all four of the gentlemen bending anxiously over his bed, he murmured with a mournful smile,–
“Well, was I not right when I said that my profession is a rascally profession?”
“But you are at liberty now to give it up,” replied M. Folgat, “provided always a certain house in Vine Street should not prove too small for your ambition.”
The pale face of the detective recovered its color for a moment.
“Will they really give it to me?” he asked.
“Since you have discovered the real criminal, and handed him over to justice.”
“Well, then, I will bless these wounds: I feel that I shall be up again in a fortnight. Give me quick pen and ink, that I may write my resignation immediately, and tell my wife the good news.”
He was interrupted by the entrance of one of the officers of the court, who, walking up to the commonwealth attorney, said to him respectfully,–
“Sir, the priest from Brechy is waiting for you at your office.”
“I am coming directly,” replied M. Daubigeon.
And, turning to his companions, he said,–
“Let us go, gentlemen.”
The priest was waiting, and rose quickly from his chair when he saw M. Daubigeon enter, accompanied by M. Galpin, M. Folgat, and Dr. Seignebos.
“Perhaps you wish to speak to me alone, sir?” asked M. Daubigeon.
“No, sir,” replied the old priest, “no! The words of reparation which have been intrusted to me must be uttered publicly.” And handing him a letter, he added,–
“Read this. Please read it aloud.”
The commonwealth attorney tore the envelope with a tremulous hand, an then read,–
“Being about to die as a Christian, as I have lived as a Christian, I owe it to myself, I owe it to God whom I have offended, and I owe it to those men whom I have deceived, to declare the truth.
“Actuated by hatred, I have been guilty of giving false evidence in court, and of stating wrongfully that M. de Boiscoran is the man who shot at me, and that I recognized him in the act.
“I did not only not recognize him, but I know that he is innocent. I am sure of it; and I swear it by all I hold sacred in this world which I am about to leave, and in that world in which I must appear before my sovereign Judge.
“May M. de Boiscoran pardon me as I pardon myself.
“Trivulce Count Claudieuse.”
“Poor man!” murmured M. Folgat.
The priest at once went on,–
“You see, gentlemen, Count Claudieuse withdraws his charge unconditionally. He asks for nothing in return: he only wants the truth to be established. And yet I beg leave to express the last wishes of a dying man. I beseech you, in the new trial, to make no mention of the name of the countess.”
Tears were seen in all eyes.
“You may rest assured, reverend father,” said M. Daubigeon, “that Count Claudieuse’s last wishes shall be attended to. The name of the countess shall not appear. There will be no need for it. The secret of her wrongs shall be religiously kept by those who know it.”
It was four o’clock now.
An hour later there arrived at the court-house a gendarme and Michael, the son of the Boiscoran tenant, who had been sent out to ascertain if Cocoleu’s statement was true. They brought back the gun which the wretch had used, and which he had concealed in that den which he had dug out for himself in the forest of Rochepommier, and where Michael had discovered him the day after the crime.
Henceforth Jacques’s innocence was as clear as daylight; and although he had to bear the burden of his sentence till the judgment was declared void, it was decided, with the consent of the president of the court, M. Domini, and the active cooperation of M. Gransiere, that he should be set free that same evening.
M. Folgat and M. Magloire were charged with the pleasant duty of informing the prisoner of this happy news. They found him walking up and down in his cell like a madman, devoured by unspeakable anguish, and not knowing what to make of the words of hope which M. Daubigeon had spoken to him in the morning.
He was hopeful, it is true; and yet when he was told that he was safe, that he was free, he sank, an inert mass, into a chair, being less able to bear joy than sorrow.
But such emotions are not apt to last long. A few moments later, and Jacques de Boiscoran, arm in arm with his counsel, left his prison, in which he had for several months suffered all that an honest man can suffer. He had paid a fearful penalty for what, in the eyes of so many men, is but a trifling wrong.
When they reached the street in which the Chandores lived, M. Folgat said to his client,–
“They do not expect you, I am sure. Go slowly, while I go ahead to prepare them.”
He found Jacques’s parents and friends assembled in the parlor, suffering great anxiety; for they had not been able to ascertain if there were any truth in the vague rumors which had reached them.
The young advocate employed the utmost caution in preparing them for the truth; but at the first words Dionysia asked,–
“Where is Jacques?”
Jacques was kneeling at her feet, overcome with gratitude and love.