Within an Inch of His Life by Emile Gaboriau
First Part. Fire at Valpinson
It was seven o'clock when the carriage containing the justice drove into the courtyard at Boiscoran,--a vast court, planted with lime- trees, and surrounded by farm buildings. The chateau was wide awake. Before her house-door, the farmer's wife was cleaning the huge caldron in which she had prepared the morning soup; the maids were going and coming; and at the stable a groom was rubbing down with great energy a thorough-bred horse.
On the front-steps stood Master Anthony, M. de Boiscoran's own man, smoking his cigar in the bright sunlight, and overlooking the farm operations. He was a man of nearly fifty, still very active, who had been bequeathed to his new master by his uncle, together with his possessions. He was a widower now; and his daughter was in the marchioness' service.
As he had been born in the family, and never left it afterwards, he looked upon himself as one of them, and saw no difference between his own interests and those of his master. In fact, he was treated less like a servant than like a friend; and he fancied he knew every thing about M. de Boiscoran's affairs.
When he saw the magistrate and the commonwealth attorney come up to the door, he threw away his cigar, came down quickly, and, bowing deeply, said to them with his most engaging smile,--
"Ah, gentlemen! What a pleasant surprise! My master will be delighted."
With strangers, Anthony would not have allowed himself such familiarity, for he was very formal; but he had seen M. Daubigeon more than once at the chateau; and he knew the plans that had been discussed between M. Galpin and his master. Hence he was not a little amazed at the embarrassed stiffness of the two gentlemen, and at the tone of voice in which the magistrate asked him,--
"Has M. de Boiscoran gotten up yet?"
"Not yet," he replied; "and I have orders not to wake him. He came home late last night, and wanted to make up this morning."
Instinctively the magistrate and the attorney looked away, each fearing to meet the other's eyes.
"Ah! M. de Boiscoran came home late last night?" repeated M. Galpin.
"Towards midnight, rather after midnight than before."
"And when had he gone out?"
"He left here about eight."
"How was he dressed?"
"As usually. He had light gray trousers, a shooting-jacket of brown velveteen, and a large straw hat."
"Did he take his gun?"
"Do you know where he went?"
But for the respect which he felt for his master's friends, Anthony would not have answered these questions, which he thought were extremely impertinent. But this last question seemed to him to go beyond all fair limits. He replied, therefore, in a tone of injured self-respect,--
"I am not in the habit of asking my master where he goes when he leaves the house, nor where he has been when he comes back."
M. Daubigeon understood perfectly well the honorable feelings which actuated the faithful servant. He said to him with an air of unmistakable kindness,--
"Do not imagine, my friend, that I ask you these questions from idle curiosity. Tell me what you know; for your frankness may be more useful to your master than you imagine."
Anthony looked with an air of perfect stupefaction, by turns at the magistrate and the commonwealth attorney, at Mechinet, and finally at Ribot, who had taken the lines, and tied Caraby to a tree.
"I assure you, gentlemen, I do not know where M. de Boiscoran has spent the evening."
"You have no suspicion?"
"Perhaps he went to Brechy to see a friend?"
"I do not know that he has any friends in Brechy."
"What did he do after he came home?"
The old servant showed evident signs of embarrassment.
"Let me think," he said. "My master went up to his bedroom, and remained there four or five minutes. Then he came down, ate a piece of a pie, and drank a glass of wine. Then he lit a cigar, and told me to go to bed, adding that he would take a little walk, and undress without my help."
"And then you went to bed?"
"So that you do not know what your master may have done?"
"I beg your pardon. I heard him open the garden door."
"He did not appear to you different from usual?"
"No: he was as he always is,--quite cheerful: he was singing."
"Can you show me the gun he took with him?"
"No. My master probably took it to his room."
M. Daubigeon was about to make a remark, when the magistrate stopped him by a gesture, and eagerly asked,--
"How long is it since your master and Count Claudieuse have ceased seeing each other?"
Anthony trembled, as if a dark presentiment had entered his mind. He replied,--
"A long time: at least I think so."
"You are aware that they are on bad terms?"
"They have had great difficulties between them?"
"Something unpleasant has happened, I know; but it was not much. As they do not visit each other, they cannot well hate each other. Besides, I have heard master say a hundred times, that he looked upon Count Claudieuse as one of the best and most honorable men; that he respected him highly, and"--
For a minute or so M. Galpin kept silent, thinking whether he had forgotten any thing. Then he asked suddenly,--
"How far is it from here to Valpinson?"
"Three miles, sir," replied Anthony.
"If you were going there, what road would you take?"
"The high road which passes Brechy."
"You would not go across the marsh?"
"Because the Seille is out of its banks, and the ditches are full of water."
"Is not the way much shorter through the forest?"
"Yes, the way is shorter; but it would take more time. The paths are very indistinct, and overgrown with briers."
The commonwealth attorney could hardly conceal his disappointment. Anthony's answers seemed to become worse and worse.
"Now," said the magistrate again, "if fire should break out at Valpinson, would you see it from here?"
"I think not, sir. There are hills and tall woods between."
"Can you hear the Brechy bells from here?"
"When the wind is north, yes, sir."
"And last night, how was it?"
"The wind was from the west, as it always is when we have a storm."
"So that you have heard nothing? You do not know what a terrible calamity"--
"A calamity? I do not understand you, sir."
This conversation had taken place in the court-yard: and at this moment there appeared two gendarmes on horseback, whom M. Galpin had sent for just before he left Valpinson.
When old Anthony saw them, he exclaimed,--
"Great God! what is the meaning of this? I must wake master."
The magistrate stopped him, saying harshly,--
"Not a step! Don't say a word!"
And pointing out Ribot to the gendarmes, he said,--
"Keep that lad under your eyes, and let him have no communication with anybody."
Then, turning again to Anthony, he said,--
"Now show us to M. de Boiscoran's bedroom."