Within an Inch of His Life by Emile Gaboriau
First Part. Fire at Valpinson
M. Galpin and the doctor had both considered it a point of honor who should show the most perfect indifference; and thus they had betrayed by no sign their curiosity to know what was going on out doors. Dr. Seignebos was on the point of resuming the operation; and, as coolly as if he had been in his own rooms at home, he was washing the sponge which he had just used, and wiping his instruments. The magistrate, on the other hand, was standing in the centre of the room, his arms crossed, his eyes fixed upon the infinite, apparently. It may be he was thinking of his star which had at last brought him that famous criminal case for which he had ardently longed many a year.
Count Claudieuse, however, was very far from sharing their reserve. He was tossing about on his bed; and as soon as the mayor and his friend reappeared, looking quite upset, he exclaimed,--
"What does that uproar mean?"
And, when he had heard of the calamity, he added,--
"Great God! And I was complaining of my losses. Two men killed! That is a real misfortune. Poor men! to die because they were so brave,-- Bolton hardly thirty years old; Guillebault, a father of a family, who leaves five children, and not a cent!"
The countess, coming in at that moment, heard his last words.
"As long as we have a mouthful of bread," she said in a voice full of deep emotion, "neither Bolton's mother, nor Guillebault's children, shall ever know what want is."
She could not say another word; for at that moment the peasants crowded into the room, pushing the prisoner before them.
"Where is the magistrate?" they asked. "Here is a witness!"
"What, Cocoleu!" exclaimed the count.
"Yes, he knows something: he said so himself. We want him to tell it to the magistrate. We want the incendiary to be caught."
Dr. Seignebos had frowned fiercely. He execrated Cocoleu, whose sight recalled to him that great failure which the good people of Sauveterre were not likely to forget soon.
"You do not really mean to examine him?" he asked, turning to M. Galpin.
"Why not?" answered the magistrate dryly.
"Because he is an imbecile, sir, an idiot. Because he cannot possibly understand your questions, or the importance of his answers."
"He may give us a valuable hint, nevertheless."
"He? A man who has no sense? You don't really think so. The law cannot attach any importance to the evidence of a fool."
M. Galpin betrayed his impatience by an increase of stiffness, as he replied,--
"I know my duty, sir."
"And I," replied the physician,--"I also know what I have to do. You have summoned me to assist you in this investigation. I obey; and I declare officially, that the mental condition of this unfortunate man makes his evidence utterly worthless. I appeal to the commonwealth attorney."
He had hoped for a word of encouragement from M. Daubigeon; but nothing came. Then he went on,--
"Take care, sir, or you may get yourself into trouble. What would you do if this poor fellow should make a formal charge against any one? Could you attach any weight to his word?"
The peasants were listening with open mouths. One of them said,--
"Oh! Cocoleu is not so innocent as he looks."
"He can say very well what he wants to say, the scamp!" added another.
"At all events, I am indebted to him for the life of my children," said the count gently. "He thought of them when I was unconscious, and when no one else remembered them. Come, Cocoleu, come nearer, my friend, don't be afraid: there is no one here to hurt you."
It was very well the count used such kind words; for Cocoleu was thoroughly terrified by the brutal treatment he had received, and was trembling in all his limbs.
"I am--not--a--afraid," he stammered out.
"Once more I protest," said the physician.
He had found out that he stood not alone in his opinion. Count Claudieuse came to his assistance, saying,--
"I really think it might be dangerous to question Cocoleu."
But the magistrate was master of the situation, and conscious of all the powers conferred upon him by the laws of France in such cases.
"I must beg, gentlemen," he said, in a tone which did not allow of any reply,--"I must beg to be permitted to act in my own way."
And sitting down, he asked Cocoleu,--
"Come, my boy, listen to me, and try to understand what I say. Do you know what has happened at Valpinson?"
"Fire," replied the idiot.
"Yes, my friend, fire, which burns down the house of your benefactor, --fire, which has killed two good men. But that is not all: they have tried to murder the count. Do you see him there in his bed, wounded, and covered with blood? Do you see the countess, how she suffers?"
Did Cocoleu follow him? His distorted features betrayed nothing of what might be going on within him.
"Nonsense!" growled the doctor, "what obstinacy! What folly!"
M. Galpin heard him, and said angrily,--
"Sir, do not force me to remind you that I have not far from here, men whose duty it is to see that my authority is respected here."
Then, turning again to the poor idiot, he went on,--
"All these misfortunes are the work of a vile incendiary. You hate him, don't you; you detest him, the rascal!"
"Yes," said Cocoleu.
"You want him to be punished, don't you?"
"Well, then you must help me to find him out, so that the gendarmes may catch him, and put him in jail. You know who it is; you have told these people and"--
He paused, and after a moment, as Cocoleu kept silent, he asked,--
"But, now I think of it, whom has this poor fellow talked to?"
Not one of the peasants could tell. They inquired; but no answer came. Perhaps Cocoleu had never said what he was reported to have said.
"The fact is," said one of the tenants at Valpinson, "that the poor devil, so to say, never sleeps, and that he is roaming about all night around the house and the farm buildings."
This was a new light for M. Galpin; suddenly changing the form of his interrogatory, he asked Cocoleu,--
"Where did you spend the night?"
"Were you asleep when the fire broke out?"
"Did you see it commence?"
"How did it commence?"
The idiot looked fixedly at the Countess Claudieuse with the timid and abject expression of a dog who tries to read something in his master's eyes.
"Tell us, my friend," said the Countess gently,--"tell us."
A flash of intelligence shone in Cocoleu's eyes.
"They--they set it on fire," he stammered.
There was not a person present at this extraordinary scene who did not anxiously hold his breath as the word was uttered. The doctor alone kept cool, and exclaimed,--
"Such an examination is sheer folly!"
But the magistrate did not seem to hear his words; and, turning to Cocoleu, he asked him, in a deeply agitated tone of voice--
"Did you see the gentleman?"
"Do you know who he is?"
"What is his name?"
"What is his name? Tell us."
Cocoleu's features betrayed the fearful anguish of his mind. He hesitated, and at last he answered, making a violent effort,--"Bois-- Bois--Boiscoran!"
The name was received with murmurs of indignation and incredulous laughter. There was not a shadow of doubt or of suspicion. The peasants said,--
"M. de Boiscoran an incendiary! Who does he think will believe that story?"
"It is absurd!" said Count Claudieuse.
"Nonsense!" repeated the mayor and his friend.
Dr. Siegnebos had taken off his spectacles, and was wiping them with an air of intense satisfaction.
"What did I tell you?" he exclaimed. "But the gentleman did not condescend to attach any importance to my suggestions."
The magistrate was by far the most excited man in the crowd. He had turned excessively pale, and made, visibly, the greatest efforts to preserve his equanimity. The commonwealth attorney leaned over towards him, and whispered,--
"If I were in your place, I would stop here, and consider the answer as not given."
But M. Galpin was one of those men who are blinded by self-conceit, and who would rather be cut to pieces than admit that they have been mistaken. He answered,--
"I shall go on."
Then turning once more to Cocoleu, in the midst of so deep a silence that the buzzing of a fly would have been distinctly heard, he asked,--
"Do you know, my boy, what you say? Do you know that you are accusing a man of a horrible crime?"
Whether Cocoleu understood, or not, he was evidently deeply agitated. Big drops of perspiration rolled slowly down his temples; and nervous shocks agitated his limbs, and convulsed his features.
"I, I--am--telling the--truth!" he said at last.
"M. de. Boiscoran has set Valpinson on fire?"
"How did he do it?"
Cocoleu's restless eyes wandered incessantly from the count, who looked indignant, to the countess, who seemed to listen with painful surprise. The magistrate repeated,--
After another moment's hesitation, the idiot began to explain what he had seen; and it took him many minutes to state, amid countless contortions, and painful efforts to speak, that he had seen M. de Boiscoran pull out some papers from his pocket, light them with a match, put them under a rick of straw near by, and push the burning mass towards two enormous piles of wood which were in close contact with a vat full of spirits.
"This is sheer nonsense!" cried the doctor, thus giving words to what they all seemed to feel.
But M. Galpin had mastered his excitement. He said solemnly,--
"At the first sign of applause or of displeasure, I shall send for the gendarmes, and have the room cleared."
Then, turning once more to Cocoleu, he said,--
"Since you saw M. de Boiscoran so distinctly, tell us how he was dressed."
"He had light trousers on," replied the idiot, stammering still most painfully, "a dark-brown shooting-jacket, and a big straw hat. His trousers were stuffed into his boots."
Two or three peasants looked at each other, as if they had at last hit upon a suspicious fact. The costume which Cocoleu had so accurately described was well known to them all.
"And when he had kindled the fire," said the magistrate again, "what did he do next?"
"He hid behind the woodpile."
"He loaded his gun, and, when master came out, he fired."
Count Claudieuse was so indignant that he forgot the pain which his wounds caused him, and raised himself on his bed.
"It is monstrous," he exclaimed, "to allow an idiot to charge an honorable man with such a crime! If he really saw M. de Boiscoran set the house on fire, and hide himself in order to murder me, why did he not come and warn me?"
Mr. Galpin repeated the question submissively, to the great amazement of the mayor and M. Daubigeon.
"Why did you not give warning?" he asked Cocoleu.
But the efforts which the unfortunate man had made during the last half-hour had exhausted his little strength. He broke out into stupid laughter; and almost instantly one of his fearful nervous attacks overcame him: he fell down yelling, and had to be carried away.
The magistrate had risen, pale and deeply excited, but evidently meditating on what was to be done next. The commonwealth attorney asked him in an undertone what he was going to do; and the lawyer replied,--
"Can I do otherwise in my position? God is my witness that I tried my best, by urging this poor idiot, to prove the absurdity of his accusation. But the result has disappointed me."
"Now I can no longer hesitate. There have been ten witnesses present at the examination. My honor is at stake. I must establish either the guilt or the innocence of the man whom Cocoleu accuses." Immediately, walking up to the count's bed, he asked,--
"Will you have the kindness, Count Claudieuse, to tell me what your relations are to M. de Boiscoran?"
Surprise and indignation caused the wounded man to blush deeply.
"Can it be possible, sir, that you believe the words of that idiot?"
"I believe nothing," answered the magistrate. "My duty is to unravel the truth; and I mean to do it."
"The doctor has told you what the state of Cocoleu's mind is?"
"Count, I beg you will answer my question."
Count Claudieuse looked angry; but he replied promptly,--
"My relations with M. de Boiscoran are neither good nor bad. We have none."
"It is reported, I have heard it myself, that you are on bad terms."
"On no terms at all. I never leave Valpinson, and M. de Boiscoran spends nine months of the year in Paris. He has never called at my house, and I have never been in his."
"You have been overheard speaking of him in unmeasured terms."
"That may be. We are neither of the same age, nor have we the same tastes or the same opinions. He is young: I am old. He likes Paris and the great world: I am fond of solitude and hunting. I am a Legitimist: he used to be an Orleanist, and now he is a Republican. I believe that the descendant of our old kings alone can save the country; and he is convinced that the happiness of France is possible only under a Republic. But two men may be enemies, and yet esteem each other. M. de Boiscoran is an honorable man; he has done his duty bravely in the war, he has fought well, and has been wounded."
M. Galpin noted down these answers with extreme care. When he had done so, he continued,--
"The question is not one of political opinions only. You have had personal difficulties with M. de Boiscoran."
"Of no importance."
"I beg pardon: you have been at law."
"Our estates adjoin each other. There is an unlucky brook between us, which is a source of constant trouble to the neighbors."
M. Galpin shook his head, and added,--
"These are not the only difficulties you have had with each other. Everybody in the country knows that you have had violent altercations."
Count Claudieuse seemed to be in great distress.
"It is true: we have used hard words. M. de Boiscoran had two wretched dogs that were continually escaping from his kennels, and came hunting in my fields. You cannot imagine how much game they destroyed."
"Exactly so. And one day you met M. de Boiscoran, and you warned him that you would shoot his dogs."
"I must confess I was furious. But I was wrong, a thousand times wrong: I did threaten"--
"That is it. You were both of you armed. You threatened one another: he actually aimed at you. Don't deny it. A number of persons have seen it; and I know it. He has told me so himself."