Within an Inch of His Life by Emile Gaboriau
First Part. Fire at Valpinson
By this single phrase M. Galpin made himself master of the situation, and reduced the doctor to an inferior position, in which, it is true, he had the mayor and the commonwealth attorney to bear him company. There was nothing now to be thought of, but the crime that had been committed, and the judge who was to punish the author. But he tried in vain to assume all the rigidity of his official air and that contempt for human feelings which has made justice so hateful to thousands. His whole being was impregnated with intense satisfaction, up to his beard, cut and trimmed like the box-hedges of an old-fashioned garden.
"Well, doctor," he asked, "first of all, have you any objection to my questioning your patient?"
"It would certainly be better for him to be left alone," growled Dr. Seignebos. "I have made him suffer enough this last hour; and I shall directly begin again cutting out the small pieces of lead which have honeycombed his flesh. But if it must be"--
"It must be."
"Well, then, make haste; for the fever will set in presently."
M. Daubigeon could not conceal his annoyance. He called out,--
The other man paid no attention. Having taken a note-book and a pencil from his pocket, he drew up close to the sick man's bed, and asked him in an undertone,--
"Are you strong enough, count, to answer my questions?"
"Then, pray tell me all you know of the sad events of to-night."
With the aid of his wife and Dr. Seignebos, the count raised himself on his pillows, and began thus,--
"Unfortunately, the little I know will be of no use in aiding justice to discover the guilty man. It may have been eleven o'clock, for I am not even quite sure of the hour, when I had gone to bed, and just blown out my candle: suddenly a bright light fell upon the window. I was amazed, and utterly confused; for I was in that state of sleepiness which is not yet sleep, but very much like it. I said to myself, 'What can this be?' but I did not get up: I only was roused by a great noise, like the crash of a falling wall; and then I jumped out of bed, and said to myself, 'The house is on fire!' What increased my anxiety was the fact, which I at once recollected, that there were in the courtyard, and all around the house, some sixteen thousand bundles of dry wood, which had been cut last year. Half dressed, I rushed downstairs. I was very much bewildered, I confess, and could hardly succeed in opening the outer door: still I did open it at last. But I had barely put my foot on the threshold, when I felt in my right side, a little above the hip, a fierce pain, and heard at the same time, quite close to me, a shot."
The magistrate interrupted him by a gesture.
"Your statement, count, is certainly remarkably clear. But there is one point we must try to establish. Were you really fired at the moment you showed yourself at the door?"
"Then the murderer must have been quite near on the watch. He must have known that the fire would bring you out; and he was lying in wait for you."
"That was and still is my impression," declared the count.
M. Galpin turned to M. Daubigeon.
"Then," he said to him, "the murder is the principal fact with which we have to do; and the fire is only an aggravating circumstance,--the means which the criminal employed in order to succeed the better in perpetrating his crime."
Then, returning to the count, he said,--
"Pray go on."
"When I felt I was wounded," continued Count Claudieuse, "my first impulse was instinctively to rush forward to the place from which the gun seemed to have been fired at me. I had not proceeded three yards, when I felt the same pain once more in the shoulder and in the neck. This second wound was more serous than the first; for I lost my consciousness, my head began to swim and I fell."
"You had not seen the murderer?"
"I beg your pardon. At the moment when I fell, I thought I saw a man rush forth from behind a pile of fagots, cross the courtyard, and disappear in the fields."
"Would you recognize him?"
"But you saw how he was dressed: you can give me a description?"
"No, I cannot. I felt as if there was a veil before my eyes; and he passed me like a shadow."
The magistrate could hardly conceal his disappointment.
"Never mind," he said, "we'll find him out. But go on, sir."
The count shook his head.
"I have nothing more to say," he replied. "I had fainted; and when I recovered my consciousness, some hours later, I found myself here lying on this bed."
M. Galpin noted down the count's answers with scrupulous exactness: when he had done, he asked again,--
"We must return to the details of the attack, and examine them minutely. Now, however, it is important to know what happened after you fell. Who could tell us that?"
"My wife, sir."
"I thought so. The countess, no doubt, got up when you rose."
"My wife had not gone to bed."
The magistrate turned suddenly to the countess; and at a glance he perceived that her costume was not that of a lady who had been suddenly roused from slumber by the burning of her house."
"I see," he said to himself.
"Bertha," the count went on to state, "our youngest daughter, who is lying there on that bed, under the blanket, has the measles, and is suffering terribly. My wife was sitting up with her. Unfortunately the windows of her room look upon the garden, on the side opposite to that where the fire broke out."
"How, then, did the countess become award of the accident?" asked the magistrate.
Without waiting for a more direct question, the countess came forward and said,--
"As my husband has just told you, I was sitting up with my little Bertha. I was rather tired; for I had sat up the night before also, and I had begun to nod, when a sudden noise aroused me. I was not quite sure whether I had really heard such a noise; but just then a second shot was heard. I left the room more astonished than frightened. Ah, sir! The fire had already made such headway, that the staircase was as light as in broad day. I went down in great haste. The outer door was open. I went out; and there, some five or six yards from me, I saw, by the light of the flames, the body of my husband lying on the ground. I threw myself upon him; but he did not even hear me; his heart had ceased to beat. I thought he was dead; I called for help; I was in despair."
M. Seneschal and M. Daubigeon trembled with excitement.
"Well, very well!" said M. Galpin, with an air of satisfaction,--"very well done!"
"You know," continued the countess, "how hard it is to rouse country- people. It seems to me I remained ever so long alone there, kneeling by the side of my husband. At last the brightness of the fire awakened some of the farm-hands, the workmen, and our servants. They rushed out, crying, 'Fire!' When they saw me, they ran up and helped me carry my husband to a place of safety; for the danger was increasing every minute. The fire was spreading with terrific violence, thanks to a furious wind. The barns were one vast mass of fire; the outbuildings were burning; the distillery was in a blaze; and the roof of the dwelling-house was flaming up in various places. And there was not one cool head among them all. I was so utterly bewildered, that I forgot all about my children; and their room was already in flames, when a brave, bold fellow rushed in, and snatched them from the very jaws of death. I did not come to myself till Dr. Seignebos arrived, and spoke to me words of hope. This fire will probably ruin us; but what matters that, so long as my husband and my children are safe?"
Dr. Seignebos had more than once given utterance to his contemptuous impatience: he did not appreciate these preliminary steps. The others, however, the mayor, the attorney, and even the servants, had hardly been able to suppress their excitement. He shrugged his shoulders, and growled between his teeth,--
"Mere formalities! How petty! How childish!"
After having taken off his spectacles, wiped them and replaced them twenty times, he had sat down at the rickety table in the corner of the room, and amused himself with arranging the fifteen or twenty shot he had extracted from the count's wounds, in long lines or small circles. But, when the countess uttered her last words, he rose, and, turning to M. Galpin, said in a curt tone,--
"Now, sir, I hope you will let me have my patient again."
The magistrate was not a little incensed: there was reason enough, surely; and, frowning fiercely, he said,--
"I appreciate, sir, the importance of your duties; but mine are, I think, by no means less solemn nor less urgent."
"Consequently you will be pleased, sir, to grant me five minutes more."
"Ten, if it must be, sir. Only I warn you that every minute henceforth may endanger the life of my patient."
They had drawn near to each other, and were measuring each other with defiant looks, which betrayed the bitterest animosity. They would surely not quarrel at the bedside of a dying man? The countess seemed to fear such a thing; for she said reproachfully,--
"Gentlemen, I pray, gentlemen"--
Perhaps her intervention would have been of no avail, if M. Seneschal and M. Daubigeon had not stepped in, each addressing one of the two adversaries. M. Galpin was apparently the most obstinate of the two; for, in spite of all, he began once more to question the count, and said,--
"I have only one more question to ask you, sir: Where and how were you standing, where and how do you think the murderer was standing, at the moment when the crime was committed?"
"Sir," replied the count, evidently with a great effort, "I was standing, as I told you, on the threshold of my door, facing the courtyard. The murderer must have been standing some twenty yards off, on my right, behind a pile of wood."
When he had written down the answer of the wounded man, the magistrate turned once more to the physician, and said,--
"You heard what was said, sir. It is for you now to aid justice by telling us at what distance the murderer must have been when he fired."
"I don't guess riddles," replied the physician coarsely.
"Ah, have a care, sir!" said M. Galpin. "Justice, whom I here represent, has the right and the means to enforce respect. You are a physician, sir; and your science is able to answer my question with almost mathematical accuracy."
The physician laughed, and said,--
"Ah, indeed! Science has reached that point, has it? Which science? Medical jurisprudence, no doubt,--that part of our profession which is at the service of the courts, and obeys the judges' behests."
But the doctor was not the man to allow himself to be defeated a second time. He went on coolly,--
"I know what you are going to say; there is no handbook of medical jurisprudence which does not peremptorily settle the question you ask me. I have studied these handbooks, these formidable weapons which you gentlemen of the bar know so well how to handle. I know the opinions of a Devergie and an Orfila, I know even what Casper and Tardieu, and a host of others teach on that subject. I am fully aware that these gentlemen claim to be able to tell you by the inch at what distance a shot has been fired. But I am not so skilful. I am only a poor country-practitioner, a simple healer of diseases. And before I give an opinion which may cost a poor devil his life, innocent though he be, I must have time to reflect, to consult data, and to compare other cases in my practice."
He was so evidently right in reality, if not in form, that even M. Galpin gave way.
"It is merely as a matter of information that I request your opinion, sir," he replied. "Your real and carefully-considered professional opinion will, of course, be given in a special statement."
"Ah, if that is the case!"
"Pray, inform me, then unofficially, what you think of the nature of the wounds of Count Claudieuse."
Dr. Seignebos settled his spectacles ceremoniously on his nose, and then replied,--
"My impression, so far as I am now able to judge, is that the count has stated the facts precisely as they were. I am quite ready to believe that the murderer was lying in ambush behind one of the piles of wood, and at the distance which he has mentioned. I am also able to affirm that the two shots were fired at different distances,--one much nearer than the other. The proof of it lies in the nature of the wounds, one of which, near the hip may be scientifically called"--
"But we know at what distance a ball is spent," broke in M. Seneschal, whom the doctor's dogmatic tone began to annoy.
"Ah, do we know that, indeed? You know it, M. Seneschal? Well, I declare I do not know it. To be sure, I bear in mind, what you seem to forget, that we have no longer, as in former days, only three or four kinds of guns. Did you think of the immense variety of fire-arms, French and English, American and German, which are nowadays found in everybody's hands? Do you not see, you who have been a lawyer and a magistrate, that the whole legal question will be based upon this grave and all-important point?"
Thereupon the physician resumed his instruments, resolved to give no other answer, and was about to go to work once more when fearful cries were heard without; and the lawyers, the mayor, and the countess herself, rushed at once to the door.
These cries were, unfortunately, not uttered without cause. The roof of the main building had just fallen in, burying under its ruins the poor drummer who had a few hours ago beaten the alarm, and one of the firemen, the most respected carpenter in Sauveterre, and a father of five children.
Capt. Parenteau seemed to be maddened by this disaster; and all vied with each other in efforts to rescue the poor fellows, who were uttering shrieks of horror that rose high above the crash of falling timbers. But all their endeavors were unavailing. One of the gendarmes and a farmer, who had nearly succeeded in reaching the sufferers, barely escaped being burnt themselves, and were only rescued after having been dangerously injured. Then only it seemed as if all became fully aware of the abominable crime committed by the incendiary. Then only the clouds of smoke and the columns of fire, which rose high into the air, were accompanied by fierce cries of vengeance rising heavenwards.
"Death to the incendiary! Death!"
At the moment M. Seneschal felt himself inspired with a sudden thought. He knew how cautious peasants are, and how difficult it is to make them tell what they know. He climbed, therefore, upon a heap of fallen beams, and said in a clear, loud voice,--
"Yes, my friends, you are right: death to the incendiary! Yes, the unfortunate victims of the basest of all crimes must be avenged. We must find out the incendiary; we must! You want it to be done, don't you? Well, it depends only on you. There must be some one among you who knows something about this matter. Let him come forward and tell us what he has seen or heard. Remember that the smallest trifle may be a clew to the crime. You would be as bad as the incendiary himself, if you concealed him. Just think it over, consider."
Loud voices were heard in the crowd; then suddenly a voice said,--
"There is one here who can tell."
"Cocoleu. He was there from the beginning. It was he who went and brought the children of the countess out of their room. What has become of him?--Cocoleu, Cocoleu!"
One must have lived in the country, among these simple-minded peasants, to understand the excitement and the fury of all these men and women as they crowded around the ruins of Valpinson. People in town do not mind brigands, in general: they have their gas, their strong doors, and the police. They are generally little afraid of fire. They have their fire-alarms; and at the first spark the neighbor cries, "Fire!" The engines come racing up; and water comes forth as if by magic. But it is very different in the country: here every man is constantly under a sense of his isolation. A simple latch protects his door; and no one watches over his safety at night. If a murderer should attack him, his cries could bring no help. If fire should break out, his house would be burnt down before the neighbors could reach it; and he is happy who can save his own life and that of his family. Hence all these good people, whom the mayor's words had deeply excited, were eager to find out the only man who knew anything about this calamity, Cocoleu.
He was well known among them, and for many years.
There was not one among them who had not given him a piece of bread, or a bowl of soup, when he was hungry; not one of them had ever refused him a night's rest on the straw in his barn, when it was raining or freezing, and the poor fellow wanted a shelter.
For Cocoleu was one of those unfortunate beings who labor under a grievous physical or moral deformity.
Some twenty years ago, a wealthy land-owner in Brechy had sent to the nearest town for half a dozen painters, whom he kept at his house nearly a whole summer, painting and decorating his newly-built house. One of these men had seduced a girl in the neighborhood, whom he had bewitched by his long white blouse, his handsome brown mustache, his good spirits, gay songs, and flattering speeches. But, when the work was done, the tempter had flown away with the others, without thinking any more of the poor girl than of the last cigar which he had smoked.
And yet she was expecting a child. When she could no longer conceal her condition, she was turned out of the house in which she had been employed; and her family, unable to support themselves, drove her away without mercy. Overcome with grief, shame, and remorse, poor Colette wandered from farm to farm, begging, insulted, laughed at, beaten even at times. Thus it came about, that in a dark wood, one dismal winter evening, she gave life to a male child. No one ever understood how mother and child managed to survive. But both lived; and for many a year they were seen in and around Sauveterre, covered with rags, and living upon the dear-bought generosity of the peasants.
Then the mother died, utterly forsaken by human help, as she had lived. They found her body, one morning, in a ditch by the wayside.
The child survived alone. He was then eight years old, quite strong and tall for his age. A farmer took pity on him, and took him home. The little wretch was not fit for anything: he could not even keep his master's cows. During his mother's lifetime, his silence, his wild looks, and his savage appearance, had been attributed to his wretched mode of life. But when people began to be interested in him, they found out that his intellect had never been aroused. He was an idiot, and, besides, subject to that terrible nervous affection which at times shakes the whole body and disfigures the face by the violence of uncontrollable convulsions. He was not a deaf-mute; but he could only stammer out with intense difficulty a few disjointed syllables. Sometimes the country people would say to him,--
"Tell us your name, and you shall have a cent."
Then it took him five minutes' hard work to utter, amid a thousand painful contortions, the name of his mother.
Hence came his name Cocoleu. It had been ascertained that he was utterly unable to do anything; and people ceased to interest themselves in his behalf. The consequence was, that he became a vagabond as of old.
It was about this time that Dr. Seignebos, on one of his visits, met him one day on the public road.
This excellent man had, among other extraordinary notions, the conviction that idiocy is nothing more than a defective state of the brains, which may be remedied by the use of certain well-known substances, such as phosphorus, for instance. He lost no time in seizing upon this admirable opportunity to test his theory. Cocoleu was sent for, and installed in his house. He subjected him to a treatment which he kept secret; and only a druggist at Sauveterre, who was also well known as entertaining very extraordinary notions, knew what had happened. At the end of eighteen months, Cocoleu had fallen off terribly: he talked perhaps, a little more fluently; but his intellect had not been perceptibly improved.
Dr. Seignebos was discouraged. He made up a parcel of things which he had given to his patient, put it into his hands, pushed him out of his door, and told him never to come back again.
The doctor had rendered Cocoleu a sad service. The poor idiot had lost the habit of privation: he had forgotten how to go from door to door, asking for alms; and he would have perished, if his good fortune had not led him to knock at the door of the house at Valpinson.
Count Claudieuse and his wife were touched by his wretchedness, and determined to take charge of him. They gave him a room and a bed at one of the farmhouses; but they could never induce him to stay there. He was by nature a vagabond; and the instinct was too strong for him. In winter, frost and snow kept him in for a little while; but as soon as the first leaves came out, he went wandering again through forest and field, remaining absent often for weeks altogether.
At last, however, something seemed to have been aroused in him, which looked like the instinct of a domesticated animal. His attachment to the countess resembled that of a dog, even in the capers and cries with which he greeted her whenever he saw her. Often, when she went out, he accompanied her, running and frolicking around her just like a dog. He was also very fond of little girls, and seemed to resent it when he was kept from them: for people were afraid his nervous attacks might affect the children.
With time he had also become capable of performing some simple service. He could be intrusted with certain messages: he could water the flowers, summon a servant, or even carry a letter to the post- office at Brechy. His progress in this respect was so marked, that some of the more cunning peasants began to suspect that Cocoleu was not so "innocent," after all, as he looked, and that he was cleverly playing the fool in order to enjoy life easily.
"We have him at last," cried several voices at once. "Here he is; here he is!"
The crowd made way promptly; and almost immediately a young man appeared, led and pushed forward by several persons. Cocoleu's clothes, all in disorder, showed clearly that he had offered a stout resistance. He was a youth of about eighteen years, very tall, quite beardless, excessively thin, and so loosely jointed, that he looked like a hunchback. A mass of reddish hair came down his low, retreating forehead. His small eyes, his enormous mouth bristling with sharp teeth, his broad flat nose, and his immense ears, gave to his face a strange idiotic expression, and to his whole appearance a most painful brutish air.
"What must we do with him?" asked the peasants of the mayor.
"We must take him before the magistrate, my friends," replied M. Seneschal,--"down there in that cottage, where you have carried the count."
"And we'll make him talk," threatened his captors. "You hear! Go on, quick!"