Within an Inch of His Life by Emile Gaboriau
First Part. Fire at Valpinson
In a straight line it is only a mile from Sauveterre to Valpinson; but that mile is as long as two elsewhere. M. Seneschal, however, had a good horse, "the best perhaps in the county," he said, as he got into his carriage. In ten minutes they had overtaken the firemen, who had left some time before them. And yet these good people, all of them master workmen of Sauveterre, masons, carpenters, and tilers, hurried along as fast as they could. They had half a dozen smoking torches with them to light them on the way: they walked, puffing and groaning, on the bad road, and pulling the two engines, together with the heavy cart on which they had piled up their ladders and other tools.
"Keep up, my friends!" said the mayor as he passed them,--"keep up!" Three minutes farther on, a peasant on horseback appeared in the dark, riding along like a forlorn knight in a romance. M. Daubigeon ordered him to halt. He stopped.
"You come from Valpinson?" asked M. Seneschal.
"Yes," replied the peasant.
"How is the count?"
"He has come to at last."
"What does the doctor say?"
"He says he will live. I am going to the druggist to get some medicines." M. Galpin, to hear better, was leaning out of the carriage. He asked,--
"Do they accuse any one?"
"And the fire?"
"They have water enough," replied the peasant, "but no engines: so what can they do? And the wind is rising again! Oh, what a misfortune!"
He rode off as fast as he could, while M. Seneschal was whipping his poor horse, which, unaccustomed as it was to such treatment, instead of going any faster, only reared, and jumped from side to side. The excellent man was in despair. He looked upon this crime as if it had been committed on purpose to disgrace him, and to do the greatest possible injury to his administration.
"For after all," he said, for the tenth time to his companions, "is it natural, I ask you, is it sensible, that a man should think of attacking the Count and the Countess Claudieuse, the most distinguished and the most esteemed people in the whole county, and especially a lady whose name is synonymous with virtue and charity?"
And, without minding the ruts and the stones in the road, M. Seneschal went on repeating all he knew about the owners of Valpinson.
Count Trivulce Claudieuse was the last scion of one of the oldest families of the county. At sixteen, about 1829, he had entered the navy as an ensign, and for many years he had appeared at Sauveterre only rarely, and at long intervals. In 1859 he had become a captain, and was on the point of being made admiral, when he had all of a sudden sent in his resignation, and taken up his residence at the Castle of Valpinson, although the house had nothing to show of its former splendor but two towers falling to pieces, and an immense mass of ruin and rubbish. For two years he had lived here alone, busy with building up the old house as well as it could be done, and by great energy and incessant labor restoring it to some of its former splendor. It was thought he would finish his days in this way, when one day the report arose that he was going to be married. The report, for once, proved true.
One fine day Count Claudieuse had left for Paris; and, a few days later, his friends had been informed by letter that he had married the daughter of one of his former colleagues, Miss Genevieve de Tassar. The amazement had been universal. The count looked like a gentleman, and was very well preserved; but he was at least forty-seven years old, and Miss Genevieve was hardly twenty. Now, if the bride had been poor, they would have understood the match, and approved it: it is but natural that a poor girl should sacrifice her heart to her daily bread. But here it was not so. The Marquis de Tassar was considered wealthy; and report said that his daughter had brought her husband fifty thousand dollars.
Next they had it that the bride was fearfully ugly, infirm, or at least hunchback, perhaps idiotic, or, at all events, of frightful temper.
By no means. She had come down; and everybody was amazed at her noble, quiet beauty. She had conversed with them, and charmed everybody.
Was it really a love-match, as people called it at Sauveterre? Perhaps so. Nevertheless there was no lack of old ladies who shook their heads, and said twenty-seven years difference between husband and wife was too much, and such a match could not turn out well.
All these dark forebodings came to nought. The fact was, that, for miles and miles around, there was not a happier couple to be found than the Count and the Countess Claudieuse; and two children, girls, who had appeared at an interval of four years, seemed to have secured the happiness of the house forever.
It is true the count retained somewhat of the haughty manners, the reserve, and the imperious tone, which he had acquired during the time that he controlled the destinies of certain important colonies. He was, moreover, naturally so passionate, that the slightest excitement made him turn purple in his face. But the countess was as gentle and as sweet as he was violent; and as she never failed to step in between her husband and the object of his wrath, as both he and she were naturally just, kind to excess, and generous to all, they were beloved by everybody. There was only one point on which the count was rather unmanageable, and that was the game laws. He was passionately fond of hunting, and watched all the year round with almost painful restlessness over his preserves, employing a number of keepers, and prosecuting poachers with such energy, that people said he would rather miss a hundred napoleons than a single bird.
The count and the countess lived quite retired, and gave their whole time, he to agricultural pursuits, and she to the education of her children. They entertained but little, and did not come to Sauveterre more than four times a year, to visit the Misses Lavarande, or the old Baron de Chandore. Every summer, towards the end of July, they went to Royan, where they had a cottage. When the season opened, and the count went hunting, the countess paid a visit to her relatives in Paris, with whom she usually stayed a few weeks.
It required a storm like that of 1870 to overthrow so peaceful an existence. When the old captain heard that the Prussians were on French soil, he felt all the instincts of the soldier and the Frenchman awake in his heart. He could not be kept at home, and went to headquarters. Although a royalist at heart, he did not hesitate a moment to offer his sword to Gambetta, whom he detested. They made him colonel of a regiment; and he fought like a lion, from the first day to the last, when he was thrown down and trod under foot in one of those fearful routs in which a part of Chanzy's army was utterly destroyed. When the armistice was signed, he returned to Valpinson; but no one except his wife ever succeeded in making him say a word about the campaign. He was asked to become a candidate for the assembly, and would have certainly been elected; but he refused, saying that he knew how to fight, but not how to talk.
The commonwealth attorney and the magistrate listened but very carelessly to these details, with which they were perfectly familiar. Suddenly M. Galpin asked,--
"Are we not getting near? I look and look; but I see no trace of a fire."
"We are in a deep valley," replied the mayor. "But we are quite near now, and, at the top of that hill before us, you will see enough."
This hill is well known in the whole province, and is frequently called the Sauveterre Mountain. It is so steep, and consists of such hard granite, that the engineers who laid out the great turnpike turned miles out of their way to avoid it. It overlooks the whole country; and, when M. Seneschal and his companions had reached the top, they could not control their excitement.
"Horresco!" murmured the attorney.
The burning house itself was hid by high trees; but columns of fire rose high above the tops, and illumined the whole region with their sombre light. The whole country was in a state of excitement. The short, square tower of Brechy sent the alarm from its big bell; and in the deep shade on all sides was heard the strange sound of the huge shells which the people here use for signals, and for the summoning of laborers at mealtimes. Hurried steps were heard on all the high-roads and by-roads; and peasants were continuously rushing by, with a bucket in each hand.
"It is too late for help," said M. Galpin.
"Such a fine property!" said the mayor, "and so well managed!" And regardless of danger, he dashed forward, down the hill; for Valpinson lies in a deep valley, half a mile from the river. Here all was terror, disorder, and confusion; and yet there was no lack of hands or of good-will. At the first alarm, all the people of the neighborhood had hurried up, and there were more coming every moment; but there was no one there to assume the command. They were mainly engaged in saving the furniture. The boldest tried to get into the rooms, and in a kind of rage, threw every thing they could lay hold on out of the window. Thus the courtyard was already half full of beds and mattresses, chairs and tables, books, linen, and clothes.
An immense clamor greeted the mayor and his companions.
"Here comes the mayor!" cried the peasants, encouraged by his presence, and all ready to obey him.
M. Seneschal took in the whole situation at a glance.
"Yes, here I am, my friends," he said, "and I thank you for your zeal. Now we must try not to waste our efforts. The farm buildings and the workshops are lost: we must give them up. Let us try to save the dwelling-house. The river is not far. We must form a chain. Everybody in line,--men and women! And now for water, water! Here come the engines!"
They really came thundering up: the firemen appeared on the scene. Capt. Parenteau took the command. At last the mayor was at leisure to inquire after Count Claudieuse.
"Master is down there," replied an old woman, pointing at a little cottage with a thatched roof. "The doctor has had him carried there."
"Let us go and see how he is," said the mayor to his two companions. They stopped at the door of the only room of the cottage. It was a large room with a floor of beaten clay; while overhead the blackened beams were full of working tools and parcels of seeds. Two beds with twisted columns and yellow curtains filled one side: on that on the left hand lay a little girl, four years old, fast asleep, and rolled up in a blanket, watched over by her sister, who was two or three years older. On the other bed, Count Claudieuse was lying, or rather sitting; for they had supported his back by all the pillows that had been saved from the fire. His chest was bare, and covered with blood; and a man, Dr. Seignebos, with his coat off, and his sleeves rolled up above the elbows, was bending over him, and holding a sponge in one hand and a probe in the other, seemed to be engaged in a delicate and dangerous operation.
The countess, in a light muslin dress, was standing at the foot of her husband's bed, pale but admirably composed and resigned. She was holding a lamp, and moved it to and fro as the doctor directed. In a corner two servant-women were sitting on a box, and crying, their aprons turned over their heads.
At last the mayor of Sauveterre overcame his painful impressions, and entered the room. Count Claudieuse was the first to perceive him, and said,--
"Ah, here is our good M. Seneschal. Come nearer, my friend; come nearer. You see the year 1871 is a fatal year. It will soon leave me nothing but a few handfuls of ashes of all I possessed."
"It is a great misfortune," replied the excellent mayor; "but, after all, it is less than we apprehended. God be thanked, you are safe!"
"Who knows? I am suffering terribly."
The countess trembled.
"Trivulce!" she whispered in a tone of entreaty. "Trivulce!"
Never did lover glance at his beloved with more tenderness than Count Claudieuse did at his wife.
"Pardon me, my dear Genevieve, pardon me, if I show any want of courage."
A sudden nervous spasm seized him; and then he exclaimed in a loud voice, which sounded like a trumpet,--
"Sir! But sir! Thunder and lightning! You kill me!"
"I have some chloroform here," replied the physician coldly.
"I do not want any."
"Then you must make up your mind to suffer, and keep quiet now; for every motion adds to your pain."
Then sponging a jet of blood which spurted out from under his knife, he added,--
"However, you shall have a few minutes rest now. My eyes and my hand are exhausted. I see I am no longer young."
Dr. Seignebos was sixty years old. He was a small, thin man, with a bald head and a bilious complexion, carelessly dressed, and spending his life in taking off, wiping, and putting back again his large gold spectacles. His reputation was widespread; and they told of wonderful cures which he had accomplished. Still he had not many friends. The common people disliked his bitterness; the peasants, his strictness in demanding his fees; and the townspeople, his political views.
There was a story that one evening, at a public dinner, he had gotten up and said, "I drink to the memory of the only physician of whose pure and chaste renown I am envious,--the memory of my countryman, Dr. Guillotin of Saintes!"
Had he really offered such a toast? The fact is, he pretended to be a fierce radical, and was certainly the soul and the oracle of the small socialistic clubs in the neighborhood. People looked aghast when he began to talk of the reforms which he thought necessary; and they trembled when he proclaimed his convictions, that "the sword and the torch ought to search the rotten foundations of society."
These opinions, certain utilitarian views of like eccentricity, and still stranger experiments which he openly carried on before the whole world, had led people more than once to doubt the soundness of his mind. The most charitable said, "He is an oddity." This eccentric man had naturally no great fondness for M. Seneschal, the mayor, a former lawyer, and a legitimist. He did not think much of the commonwealth attorney, a useless bookworm. But he detested M. Galpin. Still he bowed to the three men; and, without minding his patient, he said to them,--
"You see, gentlemen, Count Claudieuse is in a bad plight. He has been fired at with a gun loaded with small shot; and wounds made in that way are very puzzling. I trust no vital part has been injured; but I cannot answer for any thing. I have often in my practice seen very small injuries, wounds caused by a small-sized shot, which, nevertheless, proved fatal, and showed their true character only twelve or fifteen hours after the accident had happened."
He would have gone on in this way, if the magistrate had not suddenly interrupted him, saying,--
"Doctor, you know I am here because a crime has been committed. The criminal has to be found out, and to be punished: hence I request your assistance, from this moment, in the name of the Law."