Within an Inch of His Life by Emile Gaboriau
First Part. Fire at Valpinson
There was not a person in the whole district who did not know of what a fearful disease poor Cocoleu was suffering; and everybody knew, also, that it was perfectly useless to try and help him. The two men who had taken him out had therefore laid him simply on a pile of wet straw, and then they had left him to himself, eager as they were to see and hear what was going on.
It must be said, in justice to the several hundred peasants who were crowding around the smoking ruins of Valpinson, that they treated the madman who had accused M. de Boiscoran of such a crime, neither with cruel jokes nor with fierce curses. Unfortunately, first impulses, which are apt to be good impulses, do not last long. One of those idle good-for-nothings, drunkards, envious scamps who are found in every community, in the country as well as in the city, cried out,--
"And why not?"
These few words opened at once a door to all kinds of bold guesses.
Everybody had heard something about the quarrel between Count Claudieuse and M. de Boiscoran. It was well known, moreover, that the provocation had always come from the count, and that the latter had invariably given way in the end. Why, therefore, might not M. de Boiscoran, impatient at last, have resorted to such means in order to avenge himself on a man whom they thought he must needs hate, and whom he probably feared at the same time?
"Perhaps he would not do it, because he is a nobleman, and because he is rich?" they added sneeringly.
The next step was, of course, to look out for circumstances which might support such a theory; and the opportunity was not lacking. Groups were formed; and soon two men and a woman declared aloud that they could astonish the world if they chose to talk. They were urged to tell what they knew; and, of course, they refused. But they had said too much already. Willing or not willing, they were carried up to the house, where, at that very moment, M. Galpin was examining Count Claudieuse. The excited crowd made such a disturbance, that M. Seneschal, trembling at the idea of a new accident, rushed out to the door.
"What is it now?" he asked.
"More witnesses," replied the peasants. "Here are some more witnesses."
The mayor turned round, and, after having exchanged glances with M. Daubigeon, he said to the magistrate,--
"They are bringing you some more witnesses, sir."
No doubt M. Galpin was little pleased at the interruption; but he knew the people well enough to bear in mind, that, unless he took them at the moment when they were willing to talk, he might never be able to get any thing out of them at any other time.
"We shall return some other time to our conversation," he said to Count Claudieuse.
Then, replying to M. Seneschal, he said,--
"Let the witnesses come in, but one by one."
The first who entered was the only son of a well-to-do farmer in the village of Brechy, called Ribot. He was a young fellow of about twenty-five, broad-shouldered, with a very small head, a low brow, and formidable crimson ears. For twenty miles all around, he was reputed to be an irresistible beau,--a reputation of which he was very proud. After having asked him his name, his first names, and his age, M. Galpin said,--
"What do you know?"
The young man straightened himself, and with a marvellously conceited air, which set all the peasants a-laughing, he replied,--
"I was out that night on some little private business of my own. I was on the other side of the chateau of Boiscoran. Somebody was waiting for me, and I was behind time: so I cut right across the marsh. I knew the rains of the last days would have filled all the ditches; but, when a man is out on such important business as mine was, he can always find his way"--
"Spare us those tedious details," said the magistrate coldly. The handsome fellow looked surprised, rather than offended, by the interruption, and then went on,--
"As your Honor desires. Well, it was about eight o'clock, or a little more, and it was growing dark, when I reached the Seille swamps. They were overflowing; and the water was two inches above the stones of the canal. I asked myself how I should get across without spoiling my clothes, when I saw M. de Boiscoran coming towards me from the other side."
"Are you quite sure it was he?"
"Why, I should think so! I talked to him. But stop, he was not afraid of getting wet. Without much ado, he rolled up his trousers, stuffed them into the tops of his tall boots, and went right through. Just then he saw me, and seemed to be surprised. I was as much so as he was. 'Why, is it you, sir?' I said. He replied 'Yes: I have to see somebody at Brechy.' That was very probably so; still I said again, 'But you have chosen a queer way.' He laughed. 'I did not know the swamps were overflowed,' he answered, 'and I thought I would shoot some snipes.' As he said this, he showed me his gun. At that moment I had nothing to say; but now, when I think it over, it looks queer to me."
M. Galpin had written down the statement as fast as it was given. Then he asked,--
"How was M. de Boiscoran dressed?"
"Stop. He had grayish trousers on, a shooting-jacket of brown velveteen, and a broad-brimmed panama hat."
The count and the countess looked distressed and almost overcome; nor did the mayor and his friend seem to be less troubled. One circumstance in Ribot's evidence seemed to have struck them with peculiar force,--the fact that he had seen M. de Boiscoran push his trousers inside his boots.
"You can go," said M. Galpin to the young man. "Let another witness come in."
The next one was an old man of bad reputation, who lived alone in an old hut two miles from Valpinson. He was called Father Gaudry. Unlike young Ribot, who had shown great assurance, the old man looked humble and cringing in his dirty, ill-smelling rags. After having given his name, he said,--
"It might have been eleven o'clock at night, and I was going through the forest of Rochepommier, along one of the little by-paths"--
"You were stealing wood!" said the magistrate sternly.
"Great God, what an idea!" cried the old man, raising his hands to heaven. "How can you say such a thing! I steal wood! No, my dear sir, I was very quietly going to sleep in the forest, so as to be up with daylight, and gather champignons and other mushrooms to sell at Sauveterre. Well, I was trotting along, when, all of a sudden, I hear footsteps behind me. Naturally, I was frightened."
"Because you were stealing!"
"Oh, no! my dear sir; only, at night, you understand. Well, I hid behind a tree; and almost at the same moment I saw M. de Boiscoran pass by. I recognized him perfectly in spite of the dark; for he seemed to be in a great rage, talked loud to himself, swore, gesticulated, and tore handfuls of leaves from the branches."
"Did he have a gun?"
"Yes, my dear sir; for that was the very thing that frightened me so. I thought he was a keeper."
The third and last witness was a good old woman, Mrs. Courtois, whose little farm lay on the other side of the forest of Rochepommier. When she was asked, she hesitated a moment, and then she said,--
"I do not know much; but I will tell you all I do know. As we expected to have a house full of workmen a few days hence, and as I was going to bake bread to-morrow, I was going with my ass to the mill on Sauveterre Mountain to fetch flour. The miller had not any ready; but he told me, if I could wait, he would let me have some: and so I staid to supper. About ten o'clock, they gave me a bag full of flour. The boys put it on my ass, and I went home. I was about half-way, and it was, perhaps, eleven o'clock, when, just at the edge of the forest of Rochepommier, my ass stumbled, and the bag fell off. I had a great deal of trouble, for I was not strong enough to lift it alone; and just then a man came out of the woods, quite near me. I called to him, and he came. It was M. de Boiscoran: I ask him to help me; and at once, without losing a moment, he puts his gun down, lifts the bag from the ground, and puts it on my ass. I thank him. He says, 'Welcome,' and--that is all."
The mayor had been all this time standing in the door of the chamber, performing the humble duty of a doorkeeper, and barring the entrance to the eager and curious crowd outside. When Mrs. Courtois retired, quite bewildered by her own words, and regretting what she had said, he called out,--
"Is there any one else who knows any thing?"
As nobody appeared, he closed the door, and said curtly,--
"Well, then, you can go home now, my friends. Let the law have free course."
The law, represented by the magistrate, was a prey at that moment to the most cruel perplexity. M. Galpin was utterly overcome by consternation. He sat at the little table, on which he had been writing, his head resting on his hands, thinking, apparently, how he could find a way out of this labyrinth.
All of a sudden he rose, and forgetting, for a moment, his customary rigidity, he let his mask of icy impassiveness drop off his face, and said,--
"Well?" as if, in his despair, he had hoped for some help or advice in his troubles,--"well?"
No answer came.
All the others were as much troubled as he was. They all tried to shake off the overwhelming impression made by this accumulation of evidence; but in vain. At last, after a moment's silence, the magistrate said with strange bitterness,--
"You see, gentlemen, I was right in examining Cocoleu. Oh! don't attempt to deny it: you share my doubts and my suspicions, I see it. Is there one among you who would dare assert that the terrible excitement of this poor man has not restored to him for a time the use of his reason? When he told you that he had witnessed the crime, and when he gave the name of the criminal, you looked incredulous. But then other witnesses came; and their united evidence, corresponding without a missing link, constitutes a terrible presumption."
He became animated again. Professional habits, stronger than every thing else, obtained once more the mastery.
"M. de Boiscoran was at Valpinson to-night: that is clearly established. Well, how did he get here? By concealing himself. Between his own house and Valpinson there are two public roads,--one by Brechy, and another around the swamps. Does M. de Boiscoran take either of the two? No. He cuts straight across the marshes, at the risk of sinking in, or of getting wet from head to foot. On his return he chooses, in spite of the darkness, the forest of Rochepommier, unmindful of the danger he runs to lose his way, and to wander about in it till daybreak. What was he doing this for? Evidently, in order not to be seen. And, in fact, whom does he meet?--a loose fellow, Ribot, who is himself in hiding on account of some love-intrigue; a wood-stealer, Gaudry, whose only anxiety is to avoid the gendarmes; an old woman, finally, Mrs. Courtois, who has been belated by an accident. All his precautions were well chosen; but Providence was watching."
"O Providence!" growled Dr. Seignebos,--"Providence!"
But M. Galpin did not even hear the interruption. Speaking faster and faster, he went on,--
"Would it at least be possible to plead in behalf of M. de Boiscoran a difference in time? No. At what time was he seen to come to this place? At nightfall. 'It was half-past eight,' says Ribot, 'when M. de Boiscoran crossed the canal at the Seille swamps.' He might, therefore, have easily reached Valpinson at half-past nine. At that hour the crime had not yet been committed. When was he seen returning home? Gaudry and the woman Courtois have told you the hour,--after eleven o'clock. At that time Count Claudieuse had been shot, and Valpinson was on fire. Do we know any thing of M. de Boiscoran's temper at that time? Yes, we do. When he came this way he was quite cool. He is very much surprised at meeting Ribot; but he explains to him very fully how he happens to be at that place, and also why he has a gun.
"He says he is on his way to meet somebody at Brechy, and he thought he would shoot some birds. Is that admissible? Is it even likely? However, let us look at him on his way back. Gaudry says he was walking very fast: he seemed to be furious, and was pulling handfuls of leaves from the branches. What does Mrs. Courtois say? Nothing. When she calls him, he does not venture to run; that would have been a confession, but he is in a great hurry to help her. And then? His way for a quarter of an hour is the same as the woman's: does he keep her company? No. He leaves her hastily. He goes ahead, and hurries home; for he thinks Count Claudieuse is dead; he knows Valpinson is in flames; and he fears he will hear the bells ring, and see the fire raging."
It is not often that magistrates allow themselves such familiarity; for judges, and even lawyers, generally fancy they are too high above common mortals, on such occasions, to explain their views, to state their impressions, and to ask, as it were, for advice. Still, when the inquiry is only begun, there are, properly speaking, no fixed rules prescribed. As soon as a crime has been reported to a French magistrate, he is at liberty to do any thing he chooses in order to discover the guilty one. Absolutely master of the case, responsible only to his conscience, and endowed with extraordinary powers, he proceeds as he thinks best. But, in this affair at Valpinson, M. Galpin had been carried away by the rapidity of the events themselves. Since the first question addressed to Cocoleu, up to the present moment, he had not had time to consider. And his proceedings had been public; thus he felt naturally tempted to explain them.
"And you call this a legal inquiry?" asked Dr. Seignebos.
He had taken off his spectacles, and was wiping them furiously.
"An inquiry founded upon what?" he went on with such vehemence that no one dared interrupt him,--"founded upon the evidence of an unfortunate creature, whom I, a physician, testify to be not responsible for what he says. Reason does not go out and become lighted again, like the gas in a street-lamp. A man is an idiot, or he is not an idiot. He has always been one; and he always will be one. But you say the other statements are conclusive. Say, rather, that you think they are. Why? Because you are prejudiced by Cocoleu's accusation. But for it, you would never have troubled yourselves about what M. De Boiscoran did, or did not. He walked about the whole evening. He has a right to do so. He crossed the marsh. What hindered him? He went through the woods. Why should he not? He is met with by people. Is not that quite natural? But no: an idiot accuses him, and forthwith all he does looks suspicious. He talks. It is the insolence of a hardened criminal. He is silent. It is the remorse of a guilty man trembling with fear. Instead of naming M. de Boiscoran, Cocoleu might just as well have named me, Dr. Seignebos. At once, all my doings would have appeared suspicious; and I am quite sure a thousand evidences of my guilt would have been discovered. It would have been an easy matter. Are not my opinions more radical even than those of M. de Boiscoran? For there is the key to the whole matter. M. de Boiscoran is a Republican; M. de Boiscoran acknowledges no sovereignty but that of the people"--
"Doctor," broke in the commonwealth attorney,--"doctor, you are not thinking of what you say."
"I do think of it, I assure you"--
But he was once more interrupted, and this time by Count Claudieuse, who said,--
"For my part, I admit all the arguments brought up by the magistrate. But, above all probabilities, I put a fact,--the character of the accused. M. de Boiscoran is a man of honor and an excellent man. He is incapable of committing a mean and odious crime."
The others assented. M. Seneschal added,--
"And I, I will tell you another thing. What would have been the purpose of such a crime? Ah, if M. de Boiscoran had nothing to lose! But do you know among all your friends a happier man than he is?-- young, handsome, in excellent health, immensely wealthy, esteemed and popular with everybody. Finally, there is another fact, which is a family secret, but which I may tell you, and which will remove at once all suspicions,--M. de Boiscoran is desperately in love with Miss Dionysia de Chandore. She returns his love; and the day before yesterday the wedding-day was fixed on the 20th of the next month."
In the meantime the hours had sped on. It was half-past three by the clock of the church in Brechy. Day was breaking; and the light of the lamps was turning pale. The morning mists began to disappear; and the sunlight fell upon the window-panes. But no one noticed this: all these men gathered around the bed of the wounded man were too deeply excited. M. Galpin had listened to the objection made by the others, without a word or a gesture. He had so far recovered his self-control, that it would have been difficult to see what impressions they made upon his mind. At last, shaking his head gravely, he said,--
"More than you, gentlemen, I feel a desire to believe M. de Boiscoran innocent. M. Daubigeon, who knows what I mean, will tell you so. In my heart I pleaded his cause long before you. But I am the representative of the law; and my duty is above my affections. Does it depend on me to set aside Cocoleu's accusation, however stupid, however absurd, it may be? Can I undo the three statements made by the witnesses, and confirming so strongly the suspicions aroused by the first charge?"
Count Claudieuse was distressed beyond expression. At last he said,--
"The worst thing about it is, that M. de Boiscoran thinks I am his enemy. I should not wonder if he went and imagined that these charges and vile suspicions have been suggested by my wife or by myself. If I could only get up! At least, let M. de Boiscoran know distinctly that I am ready to answer for him, as I would answer for myself. Cocoleu, the wretched idiot! Ah, Genevieve, my darling wife! Why did you induce him to talk? If you had not insisted, he would have kept silent forever."
The countess succumbed at last to the anxieties of this terrible night. At first she had been supported by that exaltation which is apt to accompany a great crisis; but latterly she had felt exhausted. She had sunk upon a stool, near the bed on which her two daughters were lying; and, her head hid in the pillow, she seemed to sleep. But she was not asleep. When her husband reproached her thus, she rose, pale, with swollen eyes and distorted features, and said in a piercing voice,--
"What? They have tried to kill my Trivulce; our children have been near unto death in the flames; and I should have allowed any means to be unused by which the guilty one may be found out? No! I have only done what it was my duty to do. Whatever may come of it, I regret nothing."
"But, Genevieve, M. de Boiscoran is not guilty: he cannot possibly be guilty. How could a man who has the happiness of being loved by Dionysia de Chandore, and who counts the days to his wedding,--how could he devise such a hideous crime?"
"Let him prove his innocence," replied the countess mercilessly.
The doctor smacked his lips in the most impertinent manner.
"There is a woman's logic for you," he murmured.
"Certainly," said M. Seneschal, "M. de Boiscoran's innocence will be promptly established. Nevertheless, the suspicion will remain. And our people are so constituted, that this suspicion will overshadow his whole life. Twenty years hence, they will meet him, and they will say, 'Oh, yes! the man who set Valpinson on fire!' "
It was not M. Galpin this time who replied, but the commonwealth attorney. He said sadly,--
"I cannot share your views; but that does not matter. After what has passed, our friend, M. Galpin cannot retrace his steps: his duty makes that impossible, and, even more so, what is due to the accused. What would all these people say, who have heard Cocoleu's deposition, and the evidence given by the witnesses, if the inquiry were stopped? They would certainly say M. de Boiscoran was guilty, but that he was not help responsible because he was rich and noble. Upon my honor I believe him to be innocent. But precisely because this is my conviction, I maintain that his innocence must be clearly established. No doubt he has the means of doing so. When he met Ribot, he told him he was on his way to see somebody at Brechy."
"But suppose he never went there?" objected M. Seneschal. "Suppose he did not see anybody there? Suppose it was only a pretext to satisfy Ribot's impertinent curiosity?"
"Well, then, he would only have to tell the truth in court. And look! Here's an important proof which almost by itself relieves M. de Boiscoran. Would he not have loaded his gun with a ball, if he should ever have really thought of murdering the count? But it was loaded with nothing but small-shot."
"And he would never have missed me at ten yards' distance," said the count.
Suddenly somebody was heard knocking furiously at the door.
"Come in!" cried M. Seneschal.
The door opened and three peasants appeared, looking bewildered, but evidently well pleased.
"We have just," said one of them, "found something curious."
"What?" asked M. Galpin.
"It looks very much like a case; but Pitard says it is the paper of a cartridge."
Count Claudieuse raised himself on his pillows, and said eagerly,--
"Let me see! I have during these last days fired several times quite near to the house to frighten the birds away that eat my fruit. I want to see if the paper is mine."
The peasant gave it to him.
It was a very thin lead form, such as contain the cartridges used in American breech-loading guns. What was singular was that it was blackened by burnt powder; but it had not been torn, nor had it blazed up in the discharge. It was so perfectly uninjured, that one could read the embossed letters of the name of the manufacturer, Clebb.
"That cartridge never belonged to me," said the count.
But as he uttered these words he turned deadly pale, so pale, that his wife came close to him, and looked at him with a glance full of terrible anguish.
He made no reply.
But at that moment such silence was so eloquent, that the countess felt sickened, and whispered to him,--
"Then Cocoleu was right, after all!"
Not one feature of this dramatic scene had escaped M. Galpin's eye. He had seen on every face signs of a kind of terror; still he made no remark. He took the metal case from the count's hands, knowing that it might become an important piece of evidence; and for nearly a minute he turned it round and round, looking at it from all sides, and examining it in the light with the utmost attention.
Then turning to the peasants, who were standing respectfully and uncovered close by the door, he asked them,--
"Where did you find this cartridge, my friends?"
"Close by the old tower, where they keep the tools, and where the ivy is growing all over the old castle."
M. Seneschal had in the meantime succeeded in recovering his self- control, and said now,--
"Surely the murderer cannot have fired from there. You cannot even see the door of the house from the old tower."
"That may be," replied the magistrate; "but the cartridge-case does not necessarily fall to the ground at the place where the gun is discharged. It falls as soon as the gun is cocked to reload."
This was so true, that even Dr. Seignebos had nothing to say.
"Now, my friends," said M. Galpin, "which of you has found the cartridge-case?"
"We were all together when we saw it, and picked it up."
"Well, then, all three of you must give me your names and your domicile, so that I can send for you when you are wanted."
This was done; and, when all formalities were attended to, they went off with numberless bows and doffings of hats. Just at that moment the furious gallop of a horse was heard approaching the house; the next moment the man who had been sent to Sauveterre for medicines came in. He was furious.
"That rascal of a druggist!" he said. "I thought he would never open his shop!"
Dr. Seignebos had eagerly seized the things that were sent him, then, bowing with mock respect to the magistrate, he said,--
"I know very well, sir, how pressing the necessity is to have the head of the culprit cut off; but I think it is almost as pressing to save the life of the murdered man. I have probably delayed the binding up of the count's wounds longer than I ought to have done; and I beg you will now leave me alone, so as to enable me to do my duty to him."