Within an Inch of His Life by Emile Gaboriau
First Part. Fire at Valpinson
There was nothing more to be done for the magistrate, the commonwealth attorney, or the mayor. The doctor might assuredly have used more polite language; but people were accustomed to his brutal ways; for it is surprising with what readiness men are tolerated in France, under the pretext that they are as they are, and that they must be taken as they are. The three gentlemen, therefore, left the room, after having bid farewell to the countess, and after having promised to send the count news of all that might be discovered.
The fire was going out for want of fuel. A few hours had sufficed to destroy all that the hard work and incessant cares of many years had accomplished. This charming and much envied estate presented now nothing but a few half calcined walls, heaps of black and gray ashes, and still glowing timbers, from which columns of smoke were slowly rising upward. Thanks to Capt. Parenteau, all that they had been able to save had been carried to a distance, and safely stored away under the shelter of the ruins of the old castle. There, furniture and other articles were piled up pell-mell. There, carts and agricultural machines were standing about, empty casks, and sacks of oats and rye. There, also, the cattle were gathered, that had been drawn from their stalls with infinite labor, and at great risk of life,--horses, oxen, some sheep, and a dozen cows, who lowed piteously. Few of the people had left as yet. With greater zeal than ever the firemen, aided by the peasants, deluged the remains of the dwelling-house with water. They had nothing to fear from the fire; but they desired to keep the bodies of their unfortunate companions from being entirely consumed.
"What a terrible scourge fire is!" said M. Seneschal.
Neither M. Galpin nor the mayor made any answer. They also felt their hearts oppressed by the sad sight before them, in spite of all the intense excitement before; for a fire is nothing as long as the feverish excitement, and the hope of saving something, continue to keep us up, and as long as the red flames illumine the horizon; but the next day, when all is over, then we realize the extent of the misfortune.
The firemen recognized the mayor, and greeted him with cheers. He went rapidly towards them; and, for the first time since the alarm had been raised, the magistrate and the attorney were alone. They were standing close by each other, and for a moment kept silent, while each one tried to read in the other's eyes the secret of his thoughts. At last M. Daubigeon asked,--
M. Galpin trembled.
"This is a fearful calamity," he said.
"What is your opinion?"
"Ah! do I know it myself? I have lost my head: the whole thing looks to me like a nightmare."
"You cannot really believe that M. de Boiscoran is guilty?"
"I believe nothing. My reason tells me he is innocent. I feel he must be innocent; and yet I see terrible evidence rising against him."
The attorney was overwhelmed.
"Alas!" he said, "why did you, contrary to everybody's opinion, insist upon examining Cocoleu, a poor idiotic wretch?"
But the magistrate remonstrated--
"You do not mean to reproach me, sir, for having followed the impulses of my conscience?"
"I reproach you for nothing."
"A horrible crime has been committed; and my duty compelled me to do all that lies in the power of man to discover the culprit."
"Yes; and the man who is accused of the crime is your friend, and only yesterday you spoke of his friendship as your best chance of success in life."
"Are you surprised to find me so well informed? Ah, you do not know that nothing escapes the idle curiosity of a village. I know that your dearest hope was to become a member of M. de Boiscoran's family, and that you counted upon him to back you in your efforts to obtain the hand of one of his cousins."
"I do not deny that."
"Unfortunately, you have been tempted by the prestige you might gain in a great and famous trial. You have laid aside all prudence; and your projects are forgotten. Whether M. de Boiscoran is innocent or guilty, his family will never forgive you your interference. If he is guilty, they will blame you for having handed him over to justice: if he is innocent, they will blame you even more for having suspected him."
M. Galpin hung his head as if to conceal his trouble. Then he asked,--
"And what would you do in my place?"
"I would withdraw from the case, although it is rather late."
"If I did so, I should risk my career."
"Even that would be better for you than to engage in an affair in which you cannot feel the calmness nor the impartiality which are the first and indispensable virtues of an upright magistrate."
The latter was becoming impatient. He exclaimed,--
"Sir, do you think I am a man to be turned aside from my duty by considerations of friendship or personal interest?"
"I said nothing of the kind."
"Did you not see just now how I carried on the inquiry? Did you see me start when Cocoleu first mentioned M. de Boiscoran's name? If he had denounced any one else, I should probably have let the matter rest there. But precisely because M. de Boiscoran is a friend of mine, and because I have great expectations from him, I have insisted and persisted, and I do so still."
The commonwealth attorney shrugged his shoulders.
"That is it exactly," he said. "Because M. de Boiscoran is a friend of yours, you are afraid of being accused of weakness; and you are going to be hard, pitiless, unjust even, against him. Because you had great expectations from him, you will insist upon finding him guilty. And you call yourself impartial?"
M. Galpin assumed all his usual rigidity, and said solemnly,--
"I am sure of myself!"
"Have a care!"
"My mind is made up, sir."
It was time for M. Seneschal to join them again: he returned, accompanied by Capt. Parenteau.
"Well, gentlemen," he asked, "what have you resolved?"
"We are going to Boiscoran," replied the magistrate.
"Yes: I wish to find M. de Boiscoran in bed. I am so anxious about it, that I shall do without my clerk."
Capt. Parenteau bowed, and said,--
"Your clerk is here, sir: he was but just inquiring for you." Thereupon he called out as loud as he could,--
A small gray-haired man, jovial and cheerful, came running up, and at once proceeded to tell at full length how a neighbor had told him what had happened, and how the magistrate had left town, whereupon he, also, had started on foot, and come after him as fast as he could.
"Now will you go to Boiscoran?" asked the mayor.
"I do not know yet. Mechinet will have to look for some conveyance."
Quick like lightning, the clerk was starting off, when M. Seneschal held him back, saying,--
"Don't go. I place my horse and my carriage at your disposal. Any one of these peasants can drive you. Capt. Parenteau and I will get into some farmer's wagon, and thus get back to Sauveterre; for we ought to be back as soon as possible. I have just heard alarming news. There may be some disorder. The peasant-women who attend the market have brought in most exciting reports, and exaggerated the calamities of last night. They have started reports that ten or twelve men have been killed, and that the incendiary, M. de Boiscoran, has been arrested. The crowd has gone to poor Guillebault's widow; and there have been demonstrations before the houses of several of the principal inhabitants of Sauveterre."
In ordinary times, M. Seneschal would not have intrusted his famous horse, Caraby, for any thing in the world, to the hands of a stranger. He considered it the best horse in the province. But he was evidently terribly upset, and betrayed it in his manner, and by the very efforts he made to regain his official dignity and self-possession.
He made a sign, and his carriage was brought up, all ready. But, when he asked for somebody to drive, no one came forward. All these good people who had spent the night abroad were in great haste to return home, where their cattle required their presence. When young Ribot saw the others hesitate, he said,--
"Well, I'll drive the justice."
And, taking hold of the whip and the reins, he took his seat on the front-bench, while the magistrate, the commonwealth attorney, and the clerk filled the vehicle.
"Above all, take care of Caraby," begged M. Seneschal, who at the last moment felt almost overcome with anxiety for his favorite.
"Don't be afraid, sir," replied the young man, as he started the horse. "If I strike too hard, M. Mechinet will stop me."
This Mechinet, the magistrate's clerk, was almost a power in Sauveterre; and the greatest personages there paid their court to him. His official duties were of very humble nature, and ill paid; but he knew how to eke out his income by other occupations, of which the court took no notice; and these added largely both to his importance in the community and to his modest income.
As he was a skilful lithographer, he printed all the visiting-cards which the people of Sauveterre ordered at the principal printing- office of Sauveterre, where "The Independent" was published. An able accountant, he kept books and made up accounts for some of the principal merchants in town. Some of the country people who were fond of litigation came to him for legal advice; and he drew up all kinds of law papers. For many years now, he had been director of the firemen's band, and manager of the Orpheon. He was a correspondent of certain Paris societies, and thus obtained free admission to the theatre not only, but also to the sacred precincts behind the scenes. Finally he was always ready to give writing-lessons, French lessons to little girls, or music-lessons on the flute and the horn, to amateurs.
These varied talents had drawn upon him the hostility of all the other teachers and public servants of the community, especially that of the mayor's clerk, and the clerks of the bank and great institutions of Sauveterre. But all these enemies he had gradually conquered by the unmistakable superiority of his ability; so that they fell in with the universal habit, and, when any thing special happened, said to each other,--
"Let us go and consult Mechinet."
He himself concealed, under an appearance of imperturbable good nature, the ambition by which he was devoured: he wanted to become rich, and to rise in the world. In fact, Mechinet was a diplomat, working in secret, but as cunning as Talleyrand. He had succeeded already in making himself the one great personage of Sauveterre. The town was full of him; nothing was done without him; and yet he had not an enemy in the place.
The fact is, people were afraid of him, and dreaded his terrible tongue. Not that he had ever injured anybody, he was too wise for that; but they knew the harm he might do, if he chose, as he was master of every important secret in Sauveterre, and the best informed man in town as regarded all their little intrigues, their private foibles, and their dark antecedents.
This gave him quite an exceptional position. As he was unmarried, he lived with his sisters, the Misses Mechinet, who were the best dressmakers in town, and, moreover, devout members of all kinds of religious societies. Through them he heard all that was going on in society, and was able to compare the current gossip with what he heard in court, or at the newspaper office. Thus he could say pleasantly,--
"How could any thing escape me, when I have the church and the press, the court and the theatre, to keep me informed?"
Such a man would have considered himself disgraced if he had not known every detail of M. de Boiscoran's private affairs. He did not hesitate, therefore, while the carriage was rolling along on an excellent road, in the fresh spring morning, to explain to his companions the "case," as he called it, of the accused nobleman.
M. de Boiscoran, called Jacques by his friends, was rarely on his estate, and then only staid a month or so there. He was living in Paris, where his family owned a comfortable house in University Street. His parents were still alive.
His father, the Marquis de Boiscoran, the owner of a large landed estate, a deputy under Louis Philippe, a representative in 1848, had withdrawn from public life when the Second Empire was established, and spent, since that time, all his money, and all his energies, in collecting rare old books, and especially costly porcelain, on which he had written a monograph.
His mother, a Chalusse by birth, had enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most beautiful and most gifted ladies at the court of the Citizen King. At a certain period in her life, unfortunately, slander had attacked her; and about 1845 or 1846, it was reported that she had had a remarkable affair with a young lawyer of distinction, who had since become one of the austerest and most renowned judges. As she grew old, the marchioness devoted herself more and more to politics, as other women become pious. While her husband boasted that he had not read a newspaper for ten years, she had made her salon a kind of parliamentary centre, which had its influence on political affairs.
Although Jacques de Boiscoran's parents were still alive, he possessed a considerable fortune of his own--five or six thousand dollars a year. This fortune, which consisted of the Chateau of Boiscoran, the farms, meadows, and forests belonging to it, had been left to him by one of his uncles, the oldest brother of his father, who had died a widower, and childless, in 1868. M. de Boiscoran was at this moment about twenty-six or twenty-seven years old, dark complexion, tall, strong, well made, not exactly a handsome man, but having, what was worth more, one of those frank, intelligent faces which prepossess one at first sight.
His character was less well known at Sauveterre than his person. Those who had had any business with him described him as an honorable, upright man: his companions spoke of him as cheerful and gay, fond of pleasure, and always in good humor. At the time of the Prussian invasion, he had been made a captain of one of the volunteer companies of the district. He had led his men bravely under fire, and conducted himself so well on the battlefield, that Gen. Chanzy had rewarded him, when wounded, with the cross of the legion of honor.
"And such a man should have committed such a crime at Valpinson," said M. Daubigeon to the magistrate. "No, it is impossible! And no doubt he will very easily scatter all our doubts to the four winds."
"And that will be done at once," said young Ribot; "for here we are."
In many of the provinces of France the name of chateau is given to almost any little country-house with a weathercock on its pointed roof. But Boiscoran was a real chateau. It had been built towards the end of the seventeenth century, in wretched taste, but massively, like a fortress. Its position is superb. It is surrounded on all sides by woods and forests; and at the foot of the sloping garden flows a little river, merrily splashing over its pebbly bed, and called the Magpie on account of its perpetual babbling.