Within an Inch of His Life by Emile Gaboriau
Second Part. The Boiscoran Trial
Yes, the step taken by the Misses Lavarande was foolish. At the point which things had reached now, their going to see M. Galpin was perhaps equivalent to furnishing him the means to crush Jacques. But whose fault was it, but M. de Chandore's and M. Folgat's? Had they not committed an unpardonable blunder in leaving Sauveterre without any other precaution than to send word through M. Seneschal's servant, that they would be back for dinner, and that they need not be troubled about them?
Not be troubled? And that to the Marchioness de Boiscoran and Dionysia, to Jacques's mother and Jacques's betrothed.
Certainly, at first, the two wretched women preserved their self- control in a manner, trying to set each other an example of courage and confidence. But, as hour after hour passed by, their anxiety became intolerable; and gradually, as they confided their apprehensions to each other, their grief broke out openly. They thought of Jacques being innocent, and yet treated like one of the worst criminals, alone in the depth of his prison, given up to the most horrible inspirations of despair. What could have been his feelings during the twenty-four hours which had brought him no news from his friends? Must he not fancy himself despised and abandoned.
"That is an intolerable thought!" exclaimed Dionysia at lat. "We must get to him at any price."
"How?" asked the marchioness.
"I do not know; but there must be some way. There are things which I would not have ventured upon as long as I was alone; but, with you by my side, I can risk any thing. Let us go to the prison."
The old lady promptly put a shawl around her shoulders, and said,--
"I am ready; let us go."
They had both heard repeatedly that Jacques was kept in close confinement; but neither of them realized fully what that meant. They had no idea of this atrocious measure, which is, nevertheless, rendered necessary by the peculiar forms of French law-proceedings,--a measure which, so to say, immures a man alive, and leaves him in his cell alone with the crime with which he is charged, and utterly at the mercy of another man, whose duty it is to extort the truth from him. The two ladies only saw the want of liberty, a cell with its dismal outfittings, the bars at the window, the bolts at the door, the jailer shaking his bunch of keys at his belt, and the tramp of the solitary sentinel in the long passages.
"They cannot refuse me permission," said the old lady, "to see my son."
"They cannot," repeated Dionysia. "And, besides, I know the jailer, Blangin: his wife was formerly in our service."
When the young girl, therefore, raised the heavy knocker at the prison-door, she was full of cheerful confidence. Blangin himself came to the door; and, at the sight of the two poor ladies, his broad face displayed the utmost astonishment.
"We come to see M. de Boiscoran," said Dionysia boldly.
"Have you a permit, ladies?" asked the keeper.
"From M. Galpin."
"We have no permit."
"Then I am very sorry to have to tell you, ladies, that you cannot possibly see M. de Boiscoran. He is kept in close confinement, and I have the strictest orders."
Dionysia looked threatening, and said sharply,--
"Your orders cannot apply to this lady, who is the Marchioness de Boiscoran."
"My orders apply to everybody, madam."
"You would not, I am sure, keep a poor, distressed mother from seeing her son!"
"Ah! but--madam--it does not rest with me. I? Who am I? Nothing more than one of the bolts, drawn or pushed at will."
For the first time, it entered the poor girl's head that her effort might fail: still she tried once more, with tears in her eyes,--
"But I, my dear M. Blangin, think of me! You would not refuse me? Don't you know who I am? Have you never heard your wife speak of me?"
The jailer was certainly touched. He replied,--
"I know how much my wife and myself are indebted to your kindness, madam. But--I have my orders, and you surely would not want me to lose my place, madam?"
"If you lose your place, M. Blangin, I, Dionysia de Chandore, promise you another place twice as good."
"You do not doubt my word, M. Blangin, do you?"
"God forbid, madam! But it is not my place only. If I did what you want me to do, I should be severely punished."
The marchioness judged from the jailer's tone that Dionysia was not likely to prevail over him, and so she said,--
"Don't insist, my child. Let us go back."
"What? Without finding out what is going on behind these pitiless walls; without knowing even whether Jacques is dead or alive?"
There was evidently a great struggle going on in the jailer's heart. All of a sudden he cast a rapid glance around, and then said, speaking very hurriedly,--
"I ought not to tell you--but never mind--I cannot let you go away without telling you that M. de Boiscoran is quite well."
"Yesterday, when they brought him here, he was, so to say, overcome. He threw himself upon his bed, and he remained there without stirring for over two hours. I think he must have been crying."
A sob, which Dionysia could not suppress, made Blangin start.
"Oh, reassure yourself, madame!" he added quickly. "That state of things did not last long. Soon M. de Boiscoran got up, and said, 'Why, I am a fool to despair!' "
"Did you hear him say so?" asked the old lady.
"Not I. It was Trumence who heard it."
"Yes, one of our jail-birds. Oh! he is only a vagabond, not bad at all; and he has been ordered to stand guard at the door of M. de Boiscoran's cell, and not for a moment to lose sight of it. It was M. Galpin who had that idea, because the prisoners sometimes in their first despair,--a misfortune happens so easily,--they become weary of life--Trumence would be there to prevent it."
The old lady trembled with horror. This precautionary measure, more than any thing else, gave her the full measure of her son's situation.
"However," M. Blangin went on, "there is nothing to fear. M. de Boiscoran became quite calm again, and even cheerful, if I may say so. When he got up this morning, after having slept all night like a dormouse, he sent for me, and asked me for paper, ink, and pen. All the prisoners ask for that the second day. I had orders to let him have it, and so I gave it to him. When I carried him his breakfast, he handed me a letter for Miss Chandore."
"What?" cried Dionysia, "you have a letter for me, and you don't give it to me?"
"I do not have it now, madam. I had to hand it, as is my duty, to M. Galpin, when he came accompanied by his clerk, Mechinet, to examine M. de Boiscoran."
"And what did he say?"
"He opened the letter, read it, put it into his pocket, and said, 'Well.' "
Tears of anger this time sprang from Dionysia's eyes; and she cried,--
"What a shame? This man reads a letter written by Jacques to me! That is infamous!"
And, without thinking of thanking Blangin, she drew off the old lady, and all the way home did not say a word.
"Ah, poor child, you did not succeed," exclaimed the two old aunts, when they saw their niece come back.
But, when they had heard every thing, they said,--
"Well, we'll go and see him, this little magistrate, who but the day before yesterday was paying us abject court to obtain the hand of our cousin. And we'll tell him the truth; and, if we cannot make him give us back Jacques, we will at least trouble him in his triumph, and take down his pride."
How could poor Dionysia help adopting the notions of the old ladies, when their project offered such immediate satisfaction to her indignation, and at the same time served her secret hopes?
"Oh, yes! You are right, dear aunts," she said. "Quick, don't lose any time; go at once!"
Unable to resist her entreaties, they started instantly, without listening to the timid objections made by the marchioness. But the good ladies were sadly mistaken as to the state of mind of M. Galpin. The ex-lover of one of their cousins was not bedded on roses by any means. At the beginning of this extraordinary affair he had taken hold of it with eagerness, looking upon it as an admirable opportunity, long looked for, and likely to open wide the doors to his burning ambition. Then having once begun, and the investigation being under way, he had been carried away by the current, without having time to reflect. He had even felt a kind of unhealthy satisfaction at seeing the evidence increasing, until he felt justified and compelled to order his former friend to be sent to prison. At that time he was fairly dazzled by the most magnificent expectations. This preliminary inquiry, which in a few hours already had led to the discovery of a culprit the most unlikely of all men in the province, could not fail to establish his superior ability and matchless skill.
But, a few hours later, M. Galpin looked no longer with the same eye upon these events. Reflection had come; and he had begun to doubt his ability, and to ask himself, if he had not, after all, acted rashly. If Jacques was guilty, so much the better. He was sure, in that case, immediately after the verdict, to obtain brilliant promotion. Yes, but if Jacques should be innocent? When that thought occurred to M. Galpin for the first time, it made him shiver to the marrow of his bones. Jacques innocent!--that was his own condemnation, his career ended, his hopes destroyed, his prospects ruined forever. Jacques innocent!-- that was certain disgrace. He would be sent away from Sauveterre, where he could not remain after such a scandal. He would be banished to some out-of-the-way village, and without hope of promotion.
In vain he tried to reason that he had only done his duty. People would answer, if they condescended at all to answer, that there are flagrant blunders, scandalous mistakes, which a magistrate must not commit; and that for the honor of justice, and in the interest of the law, it is better, under certain circumstances, to let a guilty man escape, than to punish an innocent one.
With such anxiety on his mind, the most cruel that can tear the heart of an ambitious man, M. Galpin found his pillow stuffed with thorns. He had been up since six o'clock. At eleven, he had sent for his clerk, Mechinet; and they had gone together to the jail to recommence the examination. It was then that the jailer had handed him the prisoner's letter for Dionysia. It was a short note, such as a sensible man would write who knows full well that a prisoner cannot count upon the secrecy of his correspondence. It was not even sealed, a fact which M. Blangin had not noticed.
"Well," M. Galpin had really said after reading this letter. Nevertheless it had stung him to the quick.
"What assurance!" he had said to himself.
Still he had regained courage while ascending the steps of the prison. Jacques had evidently not thought it likely that his note would reach its destination directly, and hence it might be fairly presumed that he had written for the eyes of justice as well as for his lady-love. The fact that the letter was not sealed even, gave some weight to this presumption.
"After all we shall see," said M. Galpin, while Blangin was unlocking the door.
But he found Jacques as calm as if he had been in his chateau at Boiscoran, haughty and even scornful. It was impossible to get any thing out of him. When he was pressed, he became obstinately silent, or said that he needed time to consider. The magistrate had returned home more troubled than ever. The position assumed by Jacques puzzled him. Ah, if he could have retraced his steps!
But it was too late. He had burnt his vessels, and condemned himself to go on to the end. For his own safety, for his future life, it was henceforth necessary that Jacques de Boiscoran should be found guilty; that he should be tried in open court, and there be sentenced. It must be. It was a question of life or death for him.
He was in this state of mind when the two Misses Lavarande called at his house, and asked to see him. He shook himself; and in an instant his over-excited mind presented to him all possible contingencies. What could the two old ladies want of him?
"Show them in," he said at last.
They came in, and haughtily declined the chairs that were offered.
"I hardly expected to have the honor of a visit from you, ladies," he commenced.
The older of the two, Miss Adelaide, cut him short, saying,--
"I suppose not, after what has passed."
And thereupon, speaking with all the eloquence of a pious woman who is trying to wither an impious man, she poured upon him a stream of reproaches for what she called his infamous treachery. What? How could he appear against Jacques, who was his friend, and who had actually aided him in obtaining the promise of a great match. By that one hope he had become, so to say, a member of the family. Did he not know that among kinsmen it was a sacred duty to set aside all personal feelings for the purpose of protecting that sacred patrimony called family honor?
M. Galpin felt like a man upon whom a handful of stones falls from the fifth story of a house. Still he preserved his self-control, and even asked himself what advantage he might obtain from this extraordinary scene. Might it open a door for reconciliation?
As soon, therefore, as Miss Adelaide stopped, he began justifying himself, painting in hypocritical colors the grief it had given him, swearing that he was able to control the events, and that Jacques was as dear to him now as ever.
"If he is so dear to you," broke in Miss Adelaide, "why don't you set him free?"
"Ah! how can I?"
"At least give his family and his friends leave to see him."
"The law will not let me. If he is innocent, he has only to prove it. If he is guilty, he must confess. In the first case, he will be set free; in the other case, he can see whom he wishes."
"If he is so dear to you, how could you dare read the letter he had written to Dionysia?"
"It is one of the most painful duties of my profession to do so."
"Ah! And does that profession also prevent you from giving us that letter after having read it?"
"Yes. But I may tell you what is in it."
He took it out of a drawer, and the younger of the two sisters, Miss Elizabeth, copied it in pencil. Then they withdrew, almost without saying good-by.
M. Galpin was furious. He exclaimed,--
"Ah, old witches! I see clearly you do not believe in Jacques's innocence. Why else should his family be so very anxious to see him? No doubt they want to enable him to escape by suicide the punishment of his crime. But, by the great God, that shall not be, if I can help it!"
M. Folgat was, as we have seen, excessively annoyed at this step taken by the Misses Lavarande; but he did not let it be seen. It was very necessary that he at least should retain perfect presence of mind and calmness in this cruelly tried family. M. de Chandore, on the other hand, could not conceal his dissatisfaction so well; and, in spite of his deference to his grandchild's wishes, he said,--
"I am sure, my dear child, I don't wish to blame you. But you know your aunts, and you know, also, how uncompromising they are. They are quite capable of exasperating M. Galpin."
"What does it matter?" asked the young girl haughtily. "Circumspection is all very well for guilty people; but Jacques is innocent."
"Miss Chandore is right," said M. Folgat, who seemed to succumb to Dionysia like the rest of the family. "Whatever the ladies may have done, they cannot make matters worse. M. Galpin will be none the less our bitter enemy."
Grandpapa Chandore started. He said,--
"Oh! I do not blame him," broke in the young lawyer; "but I blame the laws which make him act as he does. How can a magistrate remain perfectly impartial in certain very important cases, like this one, when his whole future career depends upon his success? A man may be a most upright magistrate, incapable of unfairness, and conscientious in fulfilling all his duties, and yet he is but a man. He has his interest at stake. He does not like the court to find that that there is no case. The great rewards are not always given to the lawyer who has taken most pains to find out the truth."
"But M. Galpin was a friend of ours, sir."
"Yes; and that is what makes me fear. What will be his fate on the day when M. Jacques's innocence is established?"
They were just coming home, quite proud of their achievement, and waving in triumph the copy of Jacques's letter. Dionysia seized upon it; and, while she read it aside, Miss Adelaide described the interview, stating how haughty and disdainful she had been, and how humble and repentant M. Galpin had seemed to be.
"He was completely undone," said the two old ladies with one voice: "he was crushed, annihilated."
"Yes, you have done a nice thing," growled the old baron; "and you have much reason to boast, forsooth."
"My aunts have done well," declared Dionysia. "Just see what Jacques has written! It is clear and precise. What can we fear when he says, 'Be reassured: when the time comes, I shall be able to set matters right'?"
M. Folgat took the letter, read it, and shook his head. Then he said,--
"There was no need of this letter to confirm my opinion. At the bottom of this affair there is a secret which none of us have found out yet. But M. de Boiscoran acts very rashly in playing in this way with a criminal prosecution. Why did he not explain at once? What was easy yesterday may be less easy to-morrow, and perhaps impossible in a week."
"Jacques, sir, is a superior man," cried Dionysia, "and whatever he says is perfectly sure to be the right thing."
His mother's entrance prevented the young lawyer from making any reply. Two hours' rest had restored to the old lady a part of her energy, and her usual presence of mind; and she now asked that a telegram should be sent to her husband.
"It is the least we can do," said M. de Chandore in an undertone, "although it will be useless, I dare say. Boiscoran does not care that much for his son. Pshaw! Ah! if it was a rare faience, or a plate that is wanting in his collection, then would it be a very different story."
Still the despatch was drawn up and sent, at the very moment when a servant came in, and announced that dinner was ready. The meal was less sad than they had anticipated. Everybody, to be sure, felt a heaviness at heart as he thought that at the same hour a jailer probably brought Jacques his meal to his cell; nor could Dionysia keep from dropping a tear when she saw M. Folgat sitting in her lover's place. But no one, except the young advocate, thought that Jacques was in real danger.
M. Seneschal, however, who came in just as coffee was handed round, evidently shared M. Folgat's apprehensions. The good mayor came to hear the news, and to tell his friends how he had spent the day. The funeral of the firemen had passed off quietly, although amid deep emotion. No disturbance had taken place, as was feared; and Dr. Seignebos had not spoken at the graveyard. Both a disturbance and a row would have been badly received, said M. Seneschal; for he was sorry to say, the immense majority of the people of Sauveterre did not doubt M. de Boiscoran's guilt. In several groups he had heard people say, "And still you will see they will not condemn him. A poor devil who should commit such a horrible crime would be hanged sure enough; but the son of the Marquis de Boiscoran--you will see, he'll come out of it as white as snow."
The rolling of a carriage, which stopped at the door, fortunately interrupted him at this point.
"Who can that be?" asked Dionysia, half frightened.
They heard in the passage the noise of steps and voices, something like a scuffle; and almost instantly the tenant's son Michael pushed open the door of the sitting-room, crying out,--
"I have gotten him! Here he is!"
And with these words he pushed in Cocoleu, all struggling, and looking around him, like a wild beast caught in a trap.
"Upon my word, my good fellow," said M. Seneschal, "you have done better than the gendarmes!"
The manner in which Michael winked with his eye showed that he had not a very exalted opinion of the cleverness of the gendarmes.
"I promised the baron," he said, "I would get hold of Cocoleu somehow or other. I knew that at certain times he went and buried himself, like the wild beast that he is, in a hole which he has scratched under a rock in the densest part of the forest of Rochepommier. I had discovered this den of his one day by accident; for a man might pass by a hundred times, and never dream of where it was. But, as soon as the baron told me that the innocent had disappeared, I said to myself, 'I am sure he is in his hole: let us go and see.' So I gathered up my legs; I ran down to the rocks: and there was Cocoleu. But it was not so easy to pull him out of his den. He would not come; and, while defending himself, he bit me in the hand, like the mad dog that he is."
And Michael held up his left hand, wrapped up in a bloody piece of linen.
"It was pretty hard work to get the madman here. I was compelled to tie him hand and foot, and to carry him bodily to my father's house. There we put him into the little carriage, and here he is. Just look at the pretty fellow!"
He was hideous at that moment, with his livid face spotted all over with red marks, his hanging lips covered with white foam, and his brutish glances.
"Why would you not come?" asked M. Seneschal.
The idiot looked as if he did not hear.
"Why did you bit Michael?" continued the mayor.
Cocoleu made no reply.
"Do you know that M. de Boiscoran is in prison because of what you have said?"
Still no reply.
"Ah!" said Michael, "it is of no use to question him. You might beat him till to-morrow, and he would rather give up the ghost than say a word."
"I am--I am hungry," stammered Cocoleu.
M. Folgat looked indignant.
"And to think," he said, "that, upon the testimony of such a thing, a capital charge has been made!"
Grandpapa Chandore seemed to be seriously embarrassed. He said,--
"But now, what in the world are we to do with the idiot?"
"I am going to take him," said M. Seneschal, "to the hospital. I will go with him myself, and let Dr. Seignebos know, and the commonwealth attorney."
Dr. Seignebos was an eccentric man, beyond doubt; and the absurd stories which his enemies attributed to him were not all unfounded. But he had, at all events, the rare quality of professing for his art, as he called it, a respect very nearly akin to enthusiasm. According to his views, the faculty were infallible, as much so as the pope, whom he denied. He would, to be sure, in confidence, admit that some of his colleagues were amazing donkeys; but he would never have allowed any one else to say so in his presence. From the moment that a man possessed the famous diploma which gives him the right over life and death, that man became in his eyes an august personage for the world at large. It was a crime, he thought, not to submit blindly to the decision of a physician. Hence his obstinacy in opposing M. Galpin, hence the bitterness of his contradictions, and the rudeness with which he had requested the "gentlemen of the law" to leave the room in which his patient was lying.
"For these devils," he said, "would kill one man in order to get the means of cutting off another man's head."
And thereupon, resuming his probes and his sponge, he had gone to work once more, with the aid of the countess, digging out grain by grain the lead which had honeycombed the flesh of the count. At nine o'clock the work was done.
"Not that I fancy I have gotten them all out," he said modestly, "but, if there is any thing left, it is out of reach, and I shall have to wait for certain symptoms which will tell me where they are."
As he had foreseen, the count had grown rather worse. His first excitement had given way to perfect prostration; and he seemed to be insensible to what was going on around him. Fever began to show itself; and, considering the count's constitution, it was easily to be foreseen that delirium would set in before the day was out.
"Nevertheless, I think there is hardly any danger," said the doctor to the countess, after having pointed out to her all the probable symptoms, so as to keep her from being alarmed. Then he recommended to her to let no one approach her husband's bed, and M. Galpin least of all.
This recommendation was not useless; for almost at the same moment a peasant came in to say that there was a man from Sauveterre at the door who wished to see the count.
"Show him in," said the doctor; "I'll speak to him."
It was a man called Tetard, a former constable, who had given up his place, and become a dealer in stones. But besides being a former officer of justice and a merchant, as his cards told the world, he was also the agent of a fire insurance company. It was in this capacity that he presumed, as he told the countess, to present himself in person. He had been informed that the farm buildings at Valpinson, which were insured in his company, had been destroyed by fire; that they had been purposely set on fire by M. de Boiscoran; and that he wished to confer with Count Claudieuse on the subject. Far from him, he added, to decline the responsibility of his company: he only wished to establish the facts which would enable him to fall back upon M. de Boiscoran, who was a man of fortune, and would certainly be condemned to make compensation for the injury done. For this purpose, certain formalities had to be attended to; and he had come to arrange with Count Claudieuse the necessary measures."
"And I," said Dr. Seignebos,--"I request you to take to your heels." He added with a thundering voice,--
"I think you are very bold to dare to speak in that way of M. de Boiscoran."
M. Tetard disappeared without saying another word; and the doctor, very much excited by this scene, turned to the youngest daughter of the countess, the one with whom she was sitting up when the fire broke out, and who was now decidedly better: after that nothing could keep him at Valpinson. He carefully pocketed the pieces of lead which he had taken from the count's wounds, and then, drawing the countess out to the door, he said,--
"Before I go away, madam, I should like to know what you think of these events."
The poor lady, who looked as pale as death itself, could hardly hold up any longer. There seemed to be nothing alive in her but her eyes, which were lighted up with unusual brilliancy.
"Ah! I do not know, sir," she replied in a feeble voice. "How can I collect my thoughts after such terrible shocks?"
"Still you questioned Cocoleu."
"Who would not have done so, when the truth was at stake?"
"And you were not surprised at the name he mentioned?"
"You must have seen, sir."
"I saw; and that is exactly why I ask you, and why I want to know what you really think of the state of mind of the poor creature."
"Don't you know that he is idiotic?"
"I know; and that is why I was so surprised to see you insist upon making him talk. Do you really think, that, in spite of his habitual imbecility, he may have glimpses of sense?"
"He had, a few moments before, saved my children from death."
"That proves his devotion for you."
"He is very much attached to me indeed, just like a poor animal that I might have picked up and cared for."
"Perhaps so. And still he showed more than mere animal instinct."
"That may well be so. I have more than once noticed flashes of intelligence in Cocoleu."
The doctor had taken off his spectacles, and was wiping them furiously.
"It is a great pity that one of these flashes of intelligence did not enlighten him when he saw M. de Boiscoran make a fire and get ready to murder Count Claudieuse."
The countess leaned against the door-posts, as if about to faint.
"But it is exactly to his excitement at the sight of the flames, and at hearing the shots fired, that I ascribe Cocoleu's return to reason."
"May be," said the doctor, "may be."
Then putting on his spectacles again, he added,--
"That is a question to be decided by the professional men who will have to examine the poor imbecile creature."
"What! Is he going to be examined?"
"Yes, and very thoroughly, madam, I tell you. And now I have the honor of wishing you good-bye. However, I shall come back to-night, unless you should succeed during the day in finding lodgings in Sauveterre,-- an arrangement which would be very desirable for myself, in the first place, and not less so for your husband and your daughter. They are not comfortable in this cottage."
Thereupon he lifted his hat, returned to town, and immediately asked M. Seneschal in the most imperious manner to have Cocoleu arrested. Unfortunately the gendarmes had been unsuccessful; and Dr. Seignebos, who saw how unfortunate all this was for Jacques, began to get terribly impatient, when on Saturday night, towards ten o'clock, M. Seneschal came in, and said,--
"Cocoleu is found."
The doctor jumped up, and in a moment his hat on his head, and stick in hand, asked,--
"Where is he?"
"At the hospital. I have seen him myself put into a separate room."
"I am going there."
"What, at this hour?"
"Am I not one of the hospital physicians? And is it not open to me by night and by day?"
"The sisters will be in bed."
The doctor shrugged his shoulders furiously; then he said,--
"To be sure, it would be a sacrilege to break the slumbers of these good sisters, these dear sisters, as you say. Ah, my dear mayor! When shall we have laymen for our hospitals? And when will you put good stout nurses in the place of these holy damsels?"
M. Seneschal had too often discussed that subject with the doctor, to open it anew. He kept silent, and that was wise; for Dr. Seignebos sat down, saying,--
"Well, I must wait till to-morrow."