Within an Inch of His Life by Emile Gaboriau
First Part. Fire at Valpinson
M. de Boiscoran looked around him like a man who has suddenly been seized with vertigo, pale, as if all his blood had rushed to his heart.
He saw nothing but mournful, dismayed faces.
Anthony, his old trusted servant, was leaning against the doorpost, as if he feared to fall. The clerk was mending his pen in the air, overcome with amazement. M. Daubigeon hung his head.
"This is horrible!" he murmured: "this is horrible!"
He fell heavily into a chair, pressing his hands on his heart, as if to keep down the sobs that threatened to rise. M. Galpin alone seemed to remain perfectly cool. The law, which he imagined he was representing in all its dignity, knows nothing of emotions. His thin lips even trembled a little, as if a slight smile was about to burst forth: it was the cold smile of the ambitious man, who thinks he has played his little part well.
Did not every thing tend to prove that Jacques de Boiscoran was the guilty man, and that, in the alternative between a friend, and an opportunity of gaining high distinction, he had chosen well? After the silence of a minute, which seemed to be a century, he went and stood, with arms crossed on his chest, before the accused, and asked him,--
"Do you confess?"
M. de Boiscoran sprang up as if moved by a spring, and said,--
"What? What do you want me to confess?"
"That you have committed the crime at Valpinson."
The young man pressed his hands convulsively on his brow, and cried out,--
"But I am mad! I should have committed such a fearful, cowardly crime? Is that possible? Is that likely? I might confess, and you would not believe me. No! I am sure you would not believe my own words."
He would have moved the marble on his mantelpiece sooner than M. Galpin. The latter replied in icy tones,--
"I am not part of the question here. Why will you refer to relations which must be forgotten? It is no longer the friend who speaks to you, not even the man, but simply the magistrate. You were seen"--
"Who is the wretch?"
M. de Boiscoran seemed to be overwhelmed. He stammered,--
"Cocoleu? That poor epileptic idiot whom the Countess Claudieuse has picked up?"
"And upon the strength of the senseless words of a poor imbecile I am charged with incendiarism, with murder?"
Never had the magistrate made such efforts to assume an air of impassive dignity and icy solemnity, as when he replied,--
"For an hour, at least, poor Cocoleu has been in the full enjoyment of his faculties. The ways of Providence are inscrutable."
"And what does Cocoleu depose? He says he saw you kindle the fire with your own hands, then conceal yourself behind a pile of wood, and fire twice at Count Claudieuse."
"And all that appears quite natural to you?"
"No! At first it shocked me as it shocked everybody. You seem to be far above all suspicion. But a moment afterwards they pick up the cartridge-case, which can only have belonged to you. Then, upon my arrival here, I surprise you in bed, and find the water in which you have washed your hands black with coal, and little pieces of charred paper swimming on top of it."
"Yes," said M. de Boiscoran in an undertone: "it is fate."
"And that is not all," continued the magistrate, raising his voice, "I examine you, and you admit having been out from eight o'clock till after midnight. I ask what you have been doing, and you refuse to tell me. I insist, and you tell a falsehood. In order to overwhelm you, I am forced to quote the evidence of young Ribot, of Gaudry, and Mrs. Courtois, who have seen you at the very places where you deny having been. That circumstance alone condemns you. Why should you not be willing to tell me what you have been doing during those four hours? You claim to be innocent. Help me, then, to establish your innocence. Speak, tell me what you were doing between eight and midnight."
M. de Boiscoran had no time to answer.
For some time already, half-suppressed cries, and the sound of a large crowd, had come up from the courtyard. A gendarme came in quite excited; and, turning to the magistrate and the commonwealth attorney, he said,--
"Gentlemen, there are several hundred peasants, men and women, in the yard, who clamor for M. de Boiscoran. They threaten to drag him down to the river. Some of the men are armed with pitchforks; but the women are the maddest. My comrade and I have done our best to keep them quiet."
And just then, as if to confirm what he said, the cries came nearer, growing louder and louder; and one could distinctly hear,--
"Drown Boiscoran! Let us drown the incendiary!"
The attorney rose, and told the gendarme,--
"Go down and tell these people that the authorities are this moment examining the accused; that they interrupt us; and that, if they keep on, they will have to do with me."
The gendarme obeyed his orders. M. de Boiscoran had turned deadly pale. He said to himself,--
"These unfortunate people believe my guilt!"
"Yes," said M. Galpin, who had overheard the words; "and you would comprehend their rage, for which there is good reason, if you knew all that has happened."
"Two Sauveterre firemen, one the father of five children, have perished in the flames. Two other men, a farmer from Brechy, and a gendarme who tried to rescue them, have been so seriously burned that their lives are in danger."
M. de Boiscoran said nothing.
"And it is you," continued the magistrate, "who is charged with all these calamities. You see how important it is for you to exculpate yourself."
"Ah! how can I?"
"If you are innocent, nothing is easier. Tell us how you employed yourself last night."
"I have told you all I can say."
The magistrate seemed to reflect for a full minute; then he said,--
"Take care, M. de Boiscoran: I shall have to have you arrested."
"I shall be obliged to order your arrest at once, and to send you to jail in Sauveterre."
"Then you confess?"
"I confess that I am the victim of an unheard-of combination of circumstances; I confess that you are right, and that certain fatalities can only be explained by the belief in Providence: but I swear by all that is holy in the world, I am innocent."
"Ah! would I not do it if I could?"
"Be good enough, then, to dress, sir, and to follow the gendarmes."
Without a word, M. de Boiscoran went into his dressing-room, followed by his servant, who carried him his clothes. M. Galpin was so busy dictating to the clerk the latter part of the examination, that he seemed to forget his prisoner. Old Anthony availed himself of this opportunity.
"Sir," he whispered into his master's ear while helping him to put on his clothes.
"Hush! Don't speak so loud! The other window is open. It is only about twenty feet to the ground: the ground is soft. Close by is one of the cellar openings; and in there, you know, there is the old hiding- place. It is only five miles to the coast, and I will have a good horse ready for you to-night, at the park-gate."
A bitter smile rose on M. de Boiscoran's lips, as he said,--
"And you too, my old friend: you think I am guilty?"
"I conjure you," said Anthony, "I answer for any thing. It is barely twenty feet. In your mother's name"--
But, instead of answering him, M. de Boiscoran turned round, and called M. Galpin. When he had come in, he said to him, "Look at that window, sir! I have money, fast horses; and the sea is only five miles off. A guilty man would have escaped. I stay here; for I am innocent."
In one point, at least, M. de Boiscoran had been right. Nothing would have been easier for him than to escape, to get into the garden, and to reach the hiding-place which his servant had suggested to him. But after that? He had, to be sure, with old Anthony's assistance, some chance of escaping altogether. But, after all, he might have been found out in his hiding-place, or he might have been overtaken in his ride to the coast. Even if he had succeeded, what would have become of him? His flight would necessarily have been looked upon as a confession of his guilt.
Under such circumstances, to resist the temptation to escape, and to make this resistance well known, was in fact not so much an evidence of innocence as a proof of great cleverness. M. Galpin, at all events, looked upon it in that light; for he judged others by himself. Carefully and cunningly calculating every step he took in life, he did not believe in sudden inspirations. He said, therefore, with an ironical smile, which was to show that he was not so easily taken in,--
"Very well, sir. This circumstance shall be mentioned, as well as the others, at the trial."
Very differently thought the commonwealth attorney and the clerk. If the magistrate had been too much engaged in his dictation to notice any thing, they had been perfectly able to notice the great excitement under which the accused had naturally labored. Perfectly amazed at first, and thinking, for a moment, that the whole was a joke, he had next become furiously angry; then fear and utter dejection had followed one another. But in precise proportion as the charges had accumulated, and the evidence had become overwhelming, he had, so far from becoming demoralized, seemed to recover his assurance.
"There is something curious about it," growled Mechinet. M. Daubigeon, on the other hand, said nothing; but when M. de Boiscoran came out of his dressing-room, fully dressed and ready, he said,--
"One more question, sir."
The poor man bowed. He was pale, but calm and self-possessed.
"I am ready to reply," he said.
"I'll be brief. You seemed to be surprised and indignant at any one's daring to accuse you. That was weakness. Justice is but the work of man, and must needs judge by appearances. If you reflect, you will see that the appearances are all against you."
"I see it but too clearly."
"If you were on a jury, you would not hesitate to pronounce a man guilty upon such evidence."
"No, sir, no!"
The commonwealth attorney bounded from his chair. He said,--
"You are not sincere!"
M. de Boiscoran sadly shook his head, and replied,--
"I speak to you without the slightest hope of convincing you, but in all sincerity. No, I should not condemn a man, as you say, if he asserted his innocence, and if I did not see any reason for his crime. For, after all, unless a man is mad, he does not commit a crime for nothing. Now I ask you, how could I, upon whom fortune has always smiled; I who am on the eve of marrying one whom I love passionately, --how could I have set Valpinson on fire, and tried to murder Count Claudieuse?"
M. Galpin had scarcely been able to disguise his impatience, when he saw the attorney take part in the affair. Seizing, therefore, the opportunity to interfere, he said,--
"Your reason, sir, was hatred. You hated the count and the countess mortally. Do not protest: it is of no use. Everybody knows it; and you yourself have told me so."
M. de Boiscoran looked as if he were growing still more pale, and then replied in a tone of crushing disdain,--
"Even if that were so, I do not see what right you have to abuse the confidence of a friend, after having declared, upon your arrival here, that all friendship between us had ceased. But that is not so. I never told you any such thing. As my feelings have never changed, I can repeat literally what I have said. I have told you that the count was a troublesome neighbor, a stickler for his rights, and almost absurdly attached to his preserves. I have also told you, that, if he declared my public opinions to be abominable, I looked upon his as ridiculous and dangerous. As for the countess, I have simply said, half in jest, that so perfect a person was not to my taste; and that I should be very unhappy if my wife were a Madonna, who hardly ever deigned to put her foot upon the ground."
"And that was the only reason why you once pointed your gun at Count Claudieuse? A little more blood rushing to your head would have made you a murderer on that day."
A terrible spasm betrayed M. de Boiscoran's fury; but he checked himself, and said,--
"My passion was less fiery than it may have looked. I have the most profound respect for the count's character. It is an additional grief to me that he should have accused me."
"But he has not accused you!" broke in M. Daubigeon. "On the contrary, he was the first and the most eager to defend you."
And, in spite of the signs which M. Galpin made, he continued,--
"Unfortunately that has nothing to do with the force of the evidence against you. If you persist in keeping silence, you must look for a criminal trial for the galleys. If you are innocent, why not explain the matter? What do you wait for? What do you hope?"
Mechinet had, in the meantime, completed the official report.
"We must go," said M. Galpin
"Am I at liberty," asked M. de Boiscoran, "to write a few lines to my father and my mother? They are old: such an event may kill them."
"Impossible!" said the magistrate.
Then, turning to Anthony, he said,--
"I am going to put the seals on this room, and I shall leave it in the meanwhile in your keeping. You know your duty, and the penalties to which you would be subject, if, at the proper time, every thing is not found in the same condition in which it is left now. Now, how shall we get back to Sauveterre?"
After mature deliberation it was decided that M. de Boiscoran should go in one of his own carriages, accompanied by one of the gendarmes. M. Daubigeon, the magistrate, and the clerk would return in the mayor's carriage, driven by Ribot, who was furious at being kept under surveillance.
"Let us be off," said the magistrate, when the last formalities had been fulfilled.
M. de Boiscoran came down slowly. He knew the court was full of furious peasants; and he expected to be received with hootings. It was not so. The gendarme whom the attorney had sent down had done his duty so well, that not a cry was heard. But when he had taken his seat in the carriage, and the horse went off at a trot, fierce curses arose, and a shower of stones fell, one of which wounded a gendarme.
"Upon my word, you bring ill luck, prisoner," said the man, a friend of the other gendarme who had been so much injured at the fire.
M. de Boiscoran made no reply. He sank back into the corner, and seemed to fall into a kind of stupor, from which he did not rouse himself till the carriage drove into the yard of the prison at Sauveterre. On the threshold stood Master Blangin, the jailer, smiling with delight at the idea of receiving so distinguished a prisoner.
"I am going to give you my best room," he said, "but first I have to give a receipt to the gendarme, and to enter you in my book." Thereupon he took down his huge, greasy register, and wrote the name of Jacques de Boiscoran beneath that of Trumence Cheminot, a vagabond who had just been arrested for having broken into a garden.
It was all over. Jacques de Boiscoran was a prisoner, to be kept in close confinement.