The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
On the Monday morning, at nine o'clock, M. Daburon was preparing to start for the Palais de Justice, where he expected to find Gevrol and his man, and perhaps old Tabaret. His preparations were nearly made, when his servant announced that a young lady, accompanied by another considerably older, asked to speak with him. She declined giving her name, saying, however, that she would not refuse it, if it was absolutely necessary in order to be received.
"Show them in," said the magistrate.
He thought it must be a relation of one or other of the prisoners, whose case he had had in hand when this fresh crime occurred. He determined to send her away quickly. He was standing before the fireplace, seeking for an address in a small china plate filled with visiting cards. At the sound of the opening of the door, at the rustling of a silk dress gliding by the window, he did not take the trouble to move, nor deign even to turn his head. He contented himself with merely casting a careless glance into the mirror.
But he immediately started with a movement of dismay, as if he had seen a ghost. In his confusion, he dropped the card-plate, which fell noisily on to the hearth, and broke into a thousand pieces.
"Claire!" he stammered, "Claire!"
And as if he feared equally either being deceived by an illusion or actually seeing her whose name he had uttered, he turned slowly round.
It was truly Mademoiselle d'Arlange. This young girl, usually so proud and reserved, had had the courage to come to his house alone, or almost so, for her governess, whom she had left in the ante-room, could hardly count. She was evidently obeying some powerful emotion, since it made her forget her habitual timidity.
Never, even in the time when a sight of her was his greatest happiness, had she appeared to him more fascinating. Her beauty, ordinarily veiled by a sweet sadness, was bright and shining. Her features had an animation which he had never seen in them before. In her eyes, rendered more brilliant by recent tears but partly wiped away, shone the noblest resolution. One could see that she was conscious of performing a great duty, and that she performed it, if not with pleasure, at least with that simplicity which in itself is heroism.
She advanced calm and dignified, and held out her hand to the magistrate in that English style that some ladies can render so gracefully.
"We are always friends, are we not?" asked she, with a sad smile.
The magistrate did not dare take the ungloved hand she held out to him. He scarcely touched it with the tips of his fingers, as though he feared too great an emotion.
"Yes," he replied indistinctly, "I am always devoted to you."
Mademoiselle d'Arlange sat down in the large armchair, where, two nights previously, old Tabaret had planned Albert's arrest. M. Daburon remained standing leaning against his writing-table.
"You know why I have come?" asked the young girl.
With a nod, he replied in the affirmative.
He divined her object only too easily; and he was asking himself whether he would be able to resist prayers from such a mouth. What was she about to ask of him? What could he refuse her? Ah, if he had but foreseen this? He had not yet got over his surprise.
"I only knew of this dreadful event yesterday," pursued Claire; "my grandmother considered it best to hide it from me, and, but for my devoted Schmidt, I should still be ignorant of it all. What a night I have passed! At first I was terrified; but, when they told me that all depended upon you, my fears were dispelled. It is for my sake, is it not, that you have undertaken this investigation? Oh, you are good, I know it! How can I ever express my gratitude?"
What humiliation for the worthy magistrate were these heartfelt thanks! Yes, he had at first thought of Mademoiselle d'Arlange, but since-- He bowed his head to avoid Claire's glance, so pure and so daring.
"Do not thank me, mademoiselle," he stammered, "I have not the claim that you think upon your gratitude."
Claire had been too troubled herself, at first, to notice the magistrate's agitation. The trembling of his voice attracted her attention; but she did not suspect the cause. She thought that her presence recalled sad memories, that he doubtless still loved her, and that he suffered. This idea saddened her, and filled her with self- reproach.
"And yet, sir," she continued, "I thank you all the same. I might never have dared go to another magistrate, to speak to a stranger! Besides, what value would another attach to my words, not knowing me? While you, so generous, will re-assure me, will tell me by what awful mistake he has been arrested like a villain and thrown into prison."
"Alas!" sighed the magistrate, so low that Claire scarcely heard him, and did not understand the terrible meaning of the exclamation.
"With you," she continued, "I am not afraid. You are my friend, you told me so; you will not refuse my prayers. Give him his liberty quickly. I do not know exactly of what he is accused, but I swear to you that he is innocent."
Claire spoke in the positive manner of one who saw no obstacle in the way of the very simple and natural desire which she had expressed. A formal assurance given by her ought to be amply sufficient; with a word, M. Daburon would repair everything. The magistrate was silent. He admired that saint-like ignorance of everything, that artless and frank confidence which doubted nothing. She had commenced by wounding him, unconsciously, it is true, but he had quite forgotten that.
He was really an upright man, as good as the best, as is proved from the fact that he trembled at the moment of unveiling the fatal truth. He hesitated to pronounce the words which, like a whirlwind, would overturn the fragile edifice of this young girl's happiness. He who had been so humiliated, so despised, he was going to have his revenge; and yet he did not experience the least feeling of a shameful, though easily understood, satisfaction.
"And if I should tell you, mademoiselle," he commenced, "that M. Albert is not innocent?"
She half-raised herself with a protesting gesture.
He continued, "If I should tell you that he is guilty?"
"Oh, sir!" interrupted Claire, "you cannot think so!"
"I do think so, mademoiselle," exclaimed the magistrate in a sad voice, "and I must add that I am morally certain of it."
Claire looked at the investigating magistrate with profound amazement. Could it be really he who was speaking thus. Had she heard him aright? Did she understand? She was far from sure. Had he answered seriously? Was he not deluding her by a cruel unworthy jest? She asked herself this scarcely knowing what she did: for to her everything appeared possible, probable, rather than that which he had said.
Not daring to raise his eyes, he continued in a tone, expressive of the sincerest pity, "I suffer cruelly for you at this moment, mademoiselle; but I have the sad courage to tell you the truth, and you must summon yours to hear it. It is far better that you should know everything from the mouth of a friend. Summon, then, all your fortitude; strengthen your noble soul against a most dreadful misfortune. No, there is no mistake. Justice has not been deceived. The Viscount de Commarin is accused of an assassination; and everything, you understand me, proves that he committed it."
Like a doctor, who pours out drop by drop a dangerous medicine, M. Daburon pronounced this last sentence slowly, word by word. He watched carefully the result, ready to cease speaking, if the shock was too great. He did not suppose that this young girl, timid to excess, with a sensitiveness almost a disease, would be able to hear without flinching such a terrible revelation. He expected a burst of despair, tears, distressing cries. She might perhaps faint away; and he stood ready to call in the worthy Schmidt.
He was mistaken. Claire drew herself up full of energy and courage. The flame of indignation flushed her cheeks, and dried her tears.
"It is false," she cried, "and those who say it are liars! He cannot be--no, he cannot be an assassin. If he were here, sir, and should himself say, 'It is true,' I would refuse to believe it; I would still cry out, 'It is false!'"
"He has not yet admitted it," continued the magistrate, "but he will confess. Even if he should not, there are more proofs than are needed to convict him. The charges against him are as impossible to deny as is the sun which shines upon us."
"Ah! well," interrupted Mademoiselle d'Arlange, in a voice filled with emotion, "I assert, I repeat, that justice is deceived. Yes," she persisted, in answer to the magistrate's gesture of denial, "yes, he is innocent. I am sure of it; and I would proclaim it, even were the whole world to join with you in accusing him. Do you not see that I know him better even than he can know himself, that my faith in him is absolute, as is my faith in God, that I would doubt myself before doubting him?"
The investigating magistrate attempted timidly to make an objection; Claire quickly interrupted him.
"Must I then, sir," said she, "in order to convince you, forget that I am a young girl, and that I am not talking to my mother, but to a man! For his sake I will do so. It is four years, sir, since we first loved each other. Since that time, I have not kept a single one of my thoughts from him, nor has he hid one of his from me. For four years, there has never been a secret between us; he lived in me, as I lived in him. I alone can say how worthy he is to be loved; I alone know all that grandeur of soul, nobleness of thought, generosity of feelings, out of which you have so easily made an assassin. And I have seen him, oh! so unhappy, while all the world envied his lot. He is, like me, alone in the world; his father never loved him. Sustained one by the other, we have passed through many unhappy days; and it is at the very moment our trials are ending that he has become a criminal? Why? tell me, why?"
"Neither the name nor the fortune of the Count de Commarin would descend to him, mademoiselle; and the knowledge of it came upon him with a sudden shock. One old woman alone was able to prove this. To maintain his position, he killed her."
"What infamy," cried the young girl, "what a shameful, wicked, calumny! I know, sir, that story of fallen greatness; he himself told me of it. It is true, that for three days this misfortune unmanned him; but, if he was dismayed, it was on my account more than his own. He was distressed at thinking that perhaps I should be grieved, when he confessed to me that he could no longer give me all that his love dreamed of. I grieved? Ah! what to me are that great name, that immense wealth? I owe to them the only unhappiness I have ever known. Was it, then, for such things that I loved him? It was thus that I replied to him; and he, so sad, immediately recovered his gaiety. He thanked me, saying, 'You love me; the rest is of no consequence.' I chided him, then, for having doubted me; and after that, you pretend that he cowardly assassinated an old woman? You would not dare repeat it."
Mademoiselle d'Arlange ceased speaking, a smile of victory on her lips. That smile meant, "At last I have attained my end: you are conquered; what can you reply to all that I have said?"
The investigating magistrate did not long leave this smiling illusion to the unhappy child. He did not perceive how cruel and offensive was his persistence. Always the same predominant idea! In persuading Claire, he would justify his own conduct to himself.
"You do not know, mademoiselle," he resumed, "how a sudden calamity may effect a good man's reason. It is only at the time a thing escapes us that we feel the greatness of the loss. God preserve me from doubting all that you have said; but picture to yourself the immensity of the blow which struck M. de Commarin. Can you say that on leaving you he did not give way to despair? Think of the extremities to which it may have led him. He may have been for a time bewildered, and have acted unconsciously. Perhaps this is the way the crime should be explained."
Mademoiselle d'Arlange's face grew deathly pale, and betrayed the utmost terror. The magistrate thought that at last doubt had begun to effect her pure and noble belief.
"He must, then, have been mad," she murmured.
"Possibly," replied the magistrate; "and yet the circumstances of the crime denote a well-laid plan. Believe me, then, mademoiselle, and do not be too confident. Pray, and wait patiently for the issue of this terrible trial. Listen to my voice, it is that of a friend. You used to have in me the confidence a daughter gives to her father, you told me so; do not, then, refuse my advice. Remain silent and wait. Hide your grief to all; you might hereafter regret having exposed it. Young, inexperienced, without a guide, without a mother, alas! you sadly misplaced your first affections."
"No, sir, no," stammered Claire. "Ah!" she added, "you talk like the rest of the world, that prudent and egotistical world, which I despise and hate."
"Poor child," continued M. Daburon, pitiless even in his compassion, "unhappy young girl! This is your first deception! Nothing more terrible could be imagined; few women would know how to bear it. But you are young; you are brave; your life will not be ruined. Hereafter you will feel horrified at this crime. There is no wound, I know by experience, which time does not heal."
Claire tried to grasp what the magistrate was saying, but his words reached her only as confused sounds, their meaning entirely escaped her.
"I do not understand you, sir," she said. "What advice, then, do you give me?"
"The only advice that reason dictates, and that my affection for you can suggest, mademoiselle. I speak to you as a kind and devoted brother. I say to you: 'Courage, Claire, resign yourself to the saddest, the greatest sacrifice which honour can ask of a young girl. Weep, yes, weep for your deceived love; but forget it. Pray heaven to help you do so. He whom you have loved is no longer worthy of you.'"
The magistrate stopped slightly frightened. Mademoiselle d'Arlange had become livid.
But though the body was weak, the soul still remained firm.
"You said, just now," she murmured, "that he could only have committed this crime in a moment of distraction, in a fit of madness?"
"Yes, it is possible."
"Then, sir, not knowing what he did, he can not be guilty."
The investigating magistrate forgot a certain troublesome question which he put to himself one morning in bed after his illness.
"Neither justice nor society, mademoiselle," he replied, "can take that into account. God alone, who sees into the depths of our hearts, can judge, can decide those questions which human justice must pass by. In our eyes, M. de Commarin is a criminal. There may be certain extenuating circumstances to soften the punishment; but the moral effect will be the same. Even if he were acquitted, and I wish he may be, but without hope, he will not be less unworthy. He will always carry the dishonour, the stain of blood cowardly shed. Therefore, forget him."
Mademoiselle d'Arlange stopped the magistrate with a look in which flashed the strongest resentment.
"That is to say," she exclaimed, "that you counsel me to abandon him in his misfortune. All the world deserts him; and your prudence advises me to act with the world. Men behave thus, I have heard, when one of their friends is down; but women never do. Look about you; however humiliated, however wretched, however low, a man may be, you will always find a woman near to sustain and console him. When the last friend has boldly taken to flight, when the last relation has abandoned him, woman remains."
The magistrate regretted having been carried away perhaps a little too far. Claire's excitement frightened him. He tried, but in vain, to stop her.
"I may be timid," she continued with increasing energy, "but I am no coward. I chose Albert voluntarily from amongst all. Whatever happens, I will never desert him. No, I will never say, 'I do not know this man.' He would have given me half of his prosperity, and of his glory. I will share, whether he wishes it or not, half of his shame and of his misfortune. Between two, the burden will be less heavy to bear. Strike! I will cling so closely to him that no blow shall touch him without reaching me, too. You counsel me to forget him. Teach me, then, how to. I forget him? Could I, even if I wished? But I do not wish it. I love him. It is no more in my power to cease loving him than it is to arrest, by the sole effort of my will, the beating of my heart. He is a prisoner, accused of murder. So be it. I love him. He is guilty! What of that? I love him. You will condemn him, you will dishonour him. Condemned and dishonoured, I shall love him still. You will send him to a convict prison. I will follow him; and in the prison, under the convict's dress, I will yet love him. If he falls to the bottom of the abyss, I will fall with him. My life is his, let him dispose of it. No, nothing will separate me from him, nothing short of death! And, if he must mount the scaffold, I shall die, I know it, from the blow which kills him."
M. Daburon had buried his face in his hands. He did not wish Claire to perceive a trace of the emotion which affected him.
"How she loves him!" he thought, "how she loves him!"
His mind was sunk in the darkest thoughts. All the stings of jealousy were rending him. What would not be his delight, if he were the object of so irresistible a passion as that which burst forth before him! What would he not give in return! He had, too, a young and ardent soul, a burning thirst for love. But who had ever thought of that? He had been esteemed, respected, perhaps feared, but not loved; and he never would be. Was he, then, unworthy of it? Why do so many men pass through life dispossessed of love, while others, the vilest beings sometimes, seem to possess a mysterious power, which charms and seduces, and inspires those blind and impetuous feelings which to assert themselves rush to the sacrifice all the while longing for it? Have women, then, no reason, no discernment?
Mademoiselle d'Arlange's silence brought the magistrate back to the reality. He raised his eyes to her. Overcome by the violence of her emotion, she lay back in her chair, and breathed with such difficulty that M. Daburon feared she was about to faint. He moved quickly towards the bell, to summon aid; but Claire noticed the movement, and stopped him.
"What would you do?" she asked.
"You seemed suffering so," he stammered, "that I----"
"It is nothing, sir," replied she. "I may seem weak; but I am not so. I am strong, believe me, very strong. It is true that I suffer, as I never believed that one could suffer. It is cruel for a young girl to have to do violence to all her feelings. You ought to be satisfied, sir. I have torn aside all veils; and you have read even the inmost recesses of my heart. But I do not regret it; it was for his sake. That which I do regret is my having lowered my self so far as to defend him; but he will forgive me that one doubt. Your assurance took me unawares. A man like him does not need defence; his innocence must be proved; and, God helping me, I will prove it."
As Claire was half-rising to depart, M. Daburon detained her by a gesture. In his blindness, he thought he would be doing wrong to leave this poor young girl in the slightest way deceived. Having gone so far as to begin, he persuaded himself that his duty bade him go on to the end. He said to himself, in all good faith, that he would thus preserve Claire from herself, and spare her in the future many bitter regrets. The surgeon who has commenced a painful operation does not leave it half-finished because the patient struggles, suffers, and cries out.
"It is painful, Mademoiselle,--" he began.
Claire did not let him finish.
"Enough, sir," said she; "all that you can say will be of no avail. I respect your unhappy conviction. I ask, in return, the same regard for mine. If you were truly my friend, I would ask you to aid me in the task of saving him, to which I am about to devote myself. But, doubtless, you would not do so."
"If you knew the proofs which I possess, mademoiselle," he said in a cold tone, which expressed his determination not to give way to anger, "if I detailed them to you, you would no longer hope."
"Speak, sir," cried Claire imperiously.
"You wish it, mademoiselle? Very well; I will give you in detail all the evidence we have collected. I am entirely yours, as you are aware. But yet, why should I harass you with all these proofs? There is one which alone is decisive. The murder was committed on the evening of Shrove Tuesday; and the prisoner cannot give an account of what he did on that evening. He went out, however, and only returned home about two o'clock in the morning, his clothes soiled and torn, and his gloves frayed."
"Oh! enough, sir, enough!" interrupted Claire, whose eyes beamed once more with happiness. "You say it was on Shrove Tuesday evening?"
"Ah! I was sure," she cried triumphantly. "I told you truly that he could not be guilty."
She clasped her hands, and, from the movement of her lips, it was evident that she was praying. The expression of the most perfect faith represented by some of the Italian painters illuminated her beautiful face while she rendered thanks to God in the effusion of her gratitude.
The magistrate was so disconcerted, that he forgot to admire her. He awaited an explanation.
"Well?" he asked impatiently.
"Sir," replied Claire, "if that is your strongest proof, it exists no longer. Albert passed the entire evening you speak of with me."
"With you?" stammered the magistrate.
"Yes, with me, at my home."
M. Daburon was astounded. Was he dreaming? He hardly knew.
"What!" he exclaimed, "the viscount was at your house? Your grandmother, your companion, your servants, they all saw him and spoke to him?"
"No, sir; he came and left in secret. He wished no one to see him; he desired to be alone with me."
"Ah!" said the magistrate with a sigh of relief. The sigh signified: "It's all clear--only too evident. She is determined to save him, at the risk even of compromising her reputation. Poor girl! But has this idea only just occurred to her?"
The "Ah!" was interpreted very differently by Mademoiselle d'Arlange. She thought that M. Daburon was astonished at her consenting to receive Albert.
"Your surprise is an insult, sir," said she.
"A daughter of my family, sir, may receive her betrothed without danger of anything occurring for which she would have to blush."
She spoke thus, and at the same time was red with shame, grief, and anger. She began to hate M. Daburon.
"I had no such insulting thought as you imagine, mademoiselle," said the magistrate. "I was only wondering why M. de Commarin went secretly to your house, when his approaching marriage gave him the right to present himself openly at all hours. I still wonder, how, on such a visit, he could get his clothes in the condition in which we found them."
"That is to say, sir," replied Claire bitterly, "that you doubt my word!"
"The circumstances are such, mademoiselle,--"
"You accuse me, then, of falsehood, sir. Know that, were we criminals, we should not descend to justifying ourselves; we should never pray nor ask for pardon."
Mademoiselle d'Arlange's haughty, contemptuous tone could only anger the magistrate. How harshly she treated him! And simply because he would not consent to be her dupe.
"Above all, mademoiselle," he answered severely, "I am a magistrate; and I have a duty to perform. A crime has been committed. Everything points to M. Albert de Commarin as the guilty man. I arrest him; I examine him; and I find overwhelming proofs against him. You come and tell me that they are false; that is not enough. So long as you addressed me as a friend, you found me kind and gentle. Now it is the magistrate to whom you speak: and it is the magistrate who answers, 'Prove it.'"
"My word, sir,--"
Mademoiselle d'Arlange rose slowly, casting upon the magistrate a look full of astonishment and suspicion.
"Would you, then, be glad, sir," she asked, "to find Albert guilty? Would it give you such great pleasure to have him convicted? Do you then hate this prisoner, whose fate is in your hands? One would almost think so. Can you answer for your impartiality? Do not certain memories weigh heavily in the scale? Are you sure that you are not, armed with the law, revenging yourself upon a rival?"
"This is too much," murmured the magistrate, "this is too much!"
"Do you know the unusual, the dangerous position we are in at this moment? One day, I remember, you declared your love for me. It appeared to me sincere and honest; it touched me. I was obliged to refuse you, because I loved another; and I pitied you. Now that other is accused of murder, and you are his judge; and I find myself between you two, praying to you for him. In undertaking the investigation you acquired an opportunity to help him; and yet you seem to be against him."
Every word Claire uttered fell upon M. Daburon's heart like a slap on his face. Was it really she who was speaking? Whence came this sudden boldness, which made her choose all those words which found an echo in his heart?
"Mademoiselle," said he, "your grief has been too much for you. From you alone could I pardon what you have just said. Your ignorance of things makes you unjust. If you think that Albert's fate depends upon my pleasure, you are mistaken. To convince me is nothing; it is necessary to convince others. That I should believe you is all very natural, I know you. But what weight will others attach to your testimony, when you go to them with a true story--most true, I believe, but yet highly improbable?"
Tears came into Claire's eyes.
"If I have unjustly offended you, sir," said she, "pardon me; my unhappiness makes me forget myself."
"You cannot offend me, mademoiselle," replied the magistrate. "I have already told you that I am devoted to your service."
"Then sir, help me to prove the truth of what I have said. I will tell you everything."
M. Daburon was fully convinced that Claire was seeking to deceive him; but her confidence astonished him. He wondered what fable she was about to concoct.
"Sir," began Claire, "you know what obstacles have stood in the way of my marriage with Albert. The Count de Commarin would not accept me for a daughter-in-law, because I am poor, I possess nothing. It took Albert five years to triumph over his father's objections. Twice the count yielded; twice he recalled his consent, which he said had been extorted from him. At last, about a month ago, he gave his consent of his own accord. But these hesitations, delays, refusals, had deeply hurt my grandmother. You know her sensitive nature; and, in this case, I must confess she was right. Though the wedding day had been fixed, the marchioness declared that we should not be compromised nor laughed at again for any apparent haste to contract a marriage so advantageous, that we had often before been accused of ambition. She decided, therefore, that, until the publication of the banns, Albert should only be admitted into the house every other day, for two hours in the afternoon, and in her presence. We could not get her to alter this determination. Such was the state of affairs, when, on Sunday morning, a note came to me from Albert. He told me that pressing business would prevent his coming, although it was his regular day. What could have happened to keep him away? I feared some evil. The next day I awaited him impatiently and distracted, when his valet brought Schmidt a note for me. In that letter, sir, Albert entreated me to grant him an interview. It was necessary, he wrote, that he should have a long conversation with me, alone, and without delay. Our whole future, he added, depended upon this interview. He left me to fix the day and hour, urging me to confide in no one. I did not hesitate. I sent him word to meet me on the Tuesday evening, at the little garden gate, which opens into an unfrequented street. To inform me of his presence, he was to knock just as nine o'clock chimed at the Invalides. I knew that my grandmother had invited a number of her friends for that evening; and I thought that, by pretending a headache, I might retire early, and so be free. I expected, also, that Madame d'Arlange would keep Schmidt with her."
"Excuse me, mademoiselle," interrupted M. Daburon, "what day did you write to M. Albert?"
"Can you fix the hour?"
"I must have sent the letter between two and three o'clock."
"Thanks, mademoiselle. Continue, I pray."
"All my anticipations," continued Claire, "were realised. I retired during the evening, and I went into the garden a little before the appointed time. I had procured the key of the little door; and I at once tried it. Unfortunately, I could not make it turn, the lock was so rusty. I exerted all my strength in vain. I was in despair, when nine o'clock struck. At the third stroke, Albert knocked. I told him of the accident; and I threw him the key, that he might try and unlock the door. He tried, but without success. I then begged him to postpone our interview. He replied that it was impossible, that what he had to say admitted of no delay; that, during three days he had hesitated about confiding in me, and had suffered martyrdom, and that he could endure it no longer. We were speaking, you must understand, through the door. At last, he declared that he would climb over the wall. I begged him not to do so, fearing an accident. The wall is very high, as you know; the top is covered with pieces of broken glass, and the acacia branches stretch out above like a hedge. But he laughed at my fears, and said that, unless I absolutely forbade him to do so, he was going to attempt to scale the wall. I dared not say no; and he risked it. I was very frightened, and trembled like a leaf. Fortunately, he is very active, and got over without hurting himself. He had come, sir, to tell me of the misfortune which had befallen him. We first of all sat down upon the little seat you know of, in front of the grove; then, as the rain was falling, we took shelter in the summer house. It was past midnight when Albert left me, quieted and almost gay. He went back in the same manner, only with less danger, because I made him use the gardener's ladder, which I laid down alongside the wall when he had reached the other side."
This account, given in the simplest and most natural manner, puzzled M. Daburon. What was he to think?
"Mademoiselle," he asked, "had the rain commenced to fall when M. Albert climbed over the wall?"
"No, sir, the first drops fell when we were on the seat. I recollect it very well, because he opened his umbrella, and I thought of Paul and Virginia."
"Excuse me a minute, mademoiselle," said the magistrate.
He sat down at his desk, and rapidly wrote two letters. In the first, he gave orders for Albert to be brought at once to his office in the Palais de Justice. In the second, he directed a detective to go immediately to the Faubourg St. Germain to the d'Arlange house, and examine the wall at the bottom of the garden, and make a note of any marks of its having been scaled, if any such existed. He explained that the wall had been climbed twice, both before and during the rain; consequently the marks of the going and returning would be different from each other.
He enjoined upon the detective to proceed with the utmost caution, and to invent a plausible pretext which would explain his investigations.
Having finished writing, the magistrate rang for his servant, who soon appeared.
"Here," said he, "are two letters, which you must take to my clerk, Constant. Tell him to read them, and to have the orders they contain executed at once,--at once, you understand. Run, take a cab, and be quick! Ah! one word. If Constant is not in my office, have him sought for; he will not be far off, as he is waiting for me. Go quickly!"
M. Daburon then turned and said to Claire: "Have you kept the letter, mademoiselle, in which M. Albert asked for this interview?"
"Yes, sir, I even think I have it with me."
She arose, felt in her pocket, and drew out a much crumpled piece of paper.
"Here it is!"
The investigating magistrate took it. A suspicion crossed his mind. This compromising letter happened to be very conveniently in Claire's pocket; and yet young girls do not usually carry about with them requests for secret interviews. At a glance, he read the ten lines of the note.
"No date," he murmured, "no stamp, nothing at all."
Claire did not hear him; she was racking her brain to find other proofs of the interview.
"Sir," said she suddenly, "it often happens, that when we wish to be, and believe ourselves alone, we are nevertheless observed. Summon, I beseech you, all of my grandmother's servants, and inquire if any of them saw Albert that night."
"Inquire of your servants! Can you dream of such a thing, mademoiselle?"
"What, sir? You fear that I shall be compromised. What of that, if he is only freed?"
M. Daburon could not help admiring her. What sublime devotion in this young girl, whether she spoke the truth or not! He could understand the violence she had been doing to her feelings during the past hour, he who knew her character so well.
"That is not all," she added; "the key which I threw to Albert, he did not return it to me; he must have forgotten to do so. If it is found in his possession, it will well prove that he was in the garden."
"I will give orders respecting it, mademoiselle."
"There is still another thing," continued Claire; "while I am here, send some one to examine the wall."
She seemed to think of everything.
"That is already done, mademoiselle," replied M. Daburon. "I will not hide from you that one of the letters which I have just sent off ordered an examination of your grandmother's wall, a secret examination, though, be assured."
Claire rose joyfully, and for the second time held out her hand to the magistrate.
"Oh, thanks!" she said, "a thousand thanks! Now I can well see that you are with me. But I have still another idea: Albert ought to have the note I wrote on Tuesday."
"No, mademoiselle, he burnt it."
Claire drew back. She imagined she felt a touch of irony in the magistrate's reply. There was none, however. M. Daburon remembered the letter thrown into the fire by Albert on the Tuesday afternoon. It could only been the one Claire had sent him. It was to her, then, that the words, "She cannot resist me," applied. He understood, now, the action and the remark.
"Can you understand, mademoiselle," he next asked, "how M. de Commarin could lead justice astray, and expose me to committing a most deplorable error, when it would have been so easy to have told me all this?"
"It seems to me, sir, that an honourable man cannot confess that he has obtained a secret interview from a lady, until he has full permission from her to do so. He ought to risk his life sooner than the honour of her who has trusted in him; but be assured Albert relied on me."
There was nothing to reply to this; and the sentiments expressed by Mademoiselle d'Arlange gave a meaning to one of Albert's replies in the examination.
"This is not all yet, mademoiselle," continued the magistrate; "all that you have told me here, you must repeat in my office, at the Palais de Justice. My clerk will take down your testimony, and you must sign it. This proceeding will be painful to you; but it is a necessary formality."
"Ah, sir, I will do so with pleasure. What can I refuse, when I know that he is in prison? I was determined to do everything. If he had been tried at the assizes, I would have gone there. Yes, I would have presented myself, and there before all I would have told the truth. Doubtless," she added sadly, "I should have been greatly compromised. I should have been looked upon as a heroine of romance; but what matters public opinion, the blame or approval of the world, since I am sure of his love?"
She rose from her seat, readjusting her cloak and the strings of her bonnet.
"Is it necessary," she asked, "that I should await the return of the police agents who are examining the wall?"
"It is needless, mademoiselle."
"Then," she continued in a sweet voice, "I can only beseech you," she clasped her hands, "conjure you," her eyes implored, "to let Albert out of prison."
"He shall be liberated as soon as possible; I give you my word."
"Oh, to-day, dear M. Daburon, to-day, I beg of you, now, at once! Since he is innocent, be kind, for you are our friend. Do you wish me to go down on my knees?"
The magistrate had only just time to extend his arms, and prevent her.
He was choking with emotion, the unhappy man! Ah! how much he envied the prisoner's lot!
"That which you ask of me is impossible, mademoiselle," said he in an almost inaudible voice, "impracticable, upon my honour. Ah! if it depended upon me alone, I could not, even were he guilty, see you weep, and resist."
Mademoiselle d'Arlange, hitherto so firm, could no longer restrain her sobs.
"Miserable girl that I am!" she cried, "he is suffering, he is in prison; I am free, and yet I can do nothing for him! Great heaven! inspire me with accents to touch the hearts of men! At whose feet must I cast myself to obtain his pardon?"
She suddenly stopped, surprised at having uttered such a word.
"Pardon!" she repeated fiercely; "he has no need of pardon. Why am I only a woman? Can I not find one man who will help me? Yes," she said after a moment's reflection, "there is one man who owes himself to Albert; since he it was who put him in this position,--the Count de Commarin. He is his father, and yet he has abandoned him. Ah, well! I will remind him that he still has a son."
The magistrate rose to see her to the door; but she had already disappeared, taking the kind-hearted Schmidt with her.
M. Daburon, more dead than alive, sank back again in his chair. His eyes filled with tears.
"And that is what she is!" he murmured. "Ah! I made no vulgar choice! I had divined and understood all her good qualities."
He had never loved her so much; and he felt that he would never be consoled for not having won her love in return. But, in the midst of his meditations, a sudden thought passed like a flash across his brain.
Had Claire spoken the truth? Had she not been playing a part previously prepared? No, most decidedly no! But she might have been herself deceived, might have been the dupe of some skillful trick.
In that case old Tabaret's prediction was now realised.
Tabaret had said: "Look out for an indisputable alibi."
How could he show the falsity of this one, planned in advance, affirmed by Claire, who was herself deceived?
How could he expose a plan, so well laid that the prisoner had been able without danger to await certain results, with his arms folded, and without himself moving in the matter?
And yet, if Claire's story were true, and Albert innocent!
The magistrate struggled in the midst of inextricable difficulties, without a plan, without an idea.
"Oh!" he said in a loud voice, as though encouraging himself, "at the Palais, all will be unravelled."