Part 1 out of 12
Etext prepared by Dagny, email@example.com
and John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
This text was prepared from a 1913 edition, published by Charles
Scribner's Sons, New York.
Within an Inch of His Life
by Emile Gaboriau
FIRE AT VALPINSON
These were the facts:--
In the night from the 22nd to the 23rd of June, 1871, towards one
o'clock in the morning, the Paris suburb of Sauveterre, the principal
and most densely populated suburb of that pretty town, was startled by
the furious gallop of a horse on its ill-paved streets.
A number of peaceful citizens rushed to the windows.
The dark night allowed these only to see a peasant in his shirt
sleeves, and bareheaded, who belabored a large gray mare, on which he
rode bareback, with his heels and a huge stick.
This man, after having passed the suburbs, turned into National
Street, formerly Imperial Street, crossed New-Market Square, and
stopped at last before the fine house which stands at the corner of
This was the house of the mayor of Sauveterre, M. Seneschal, a former
lawyer, and now a member of the general council.
Having alighted, the peasant seized the bell-knob, and began to ring
so furiously, that, in a few moments, the whole house was in an
A minute later, a big, stout servant-man, his eyes heavy with sleep,
came and opened the door, and then cried out in an angry voice,--
"Who are you, my man? What do you want? Have you taken too much wine?
Don't you know at whose house you are making such a row?"
"I wish to see the mayor," replied the peasant instantly. "Wake him
M. Seneschal was wide awake.
Dressed in a large dressing-gown of gray flannel, a candlestick in his
hand, troubled, and unable to disguise his trouble, he had just come
down into the hall, and heard all that was said.
"Here is the mayor," he said in an ill-satisfied tone. "What do you
want of him at this hour, when all honest people are in bed?"
Pushing the servant aside, the peasant came up to him, and said,
making not the slightest attempt at politeness,--
"I come to tell you to send the fire-engine."
"Yes; at once. Make haste!"
The mayor shook his head.
"Hm!" he said, according to a habit he had when he was at a loss what
to do; "hm, hm!"
And who would not have been embarrassed in his place?
To get the engine out, and to assemble the firemen, he had to rouse
the whole town; and to do this in the middle of the night was nothing
less than to frighten the poor people of Sauveterre, who had heard the
drums beating the alarm but too often during the war with the Germans,
and then again during the reign of the Commune. Therefore M. Seneschal
"Is it a serious fire?"
"Serious!" exclaimed the peasant. "How could it be otherwise with such
a wind as this,--a wind that would blow off the horns of our oxen."
"Hm!" uttered the mayor again. "Hm, hm!"
It was not exactly the first time, since he was mayor of Sauveterre,
that he was thus roused by a peasant, who came and cried under his
window, "Help! Fire, fire!"
At first, filled with compassion, he had hastily called out the
firemen, put himself at their head, and hurried to the fire.
And when they reached it, out of breath, and perspiring, after having
made two or three miles at double-quick, they found what? A wretched
heap of straw, worth about ten dollars, and almost consumed by the
fire. They had had their trouble for nothing.
The peasants in the neighborhood had cried, "Wolf!" so often, when
there was no reason for it, that, even when the wolf really was there,
the townspeople were slow in believing it.
"Let us see," said M. Seneschal: "what is burning?"
The peasant seemed to be furious at all these delays, and bit his long
"Must I tell you again and again," he said, "that every thing is on
fire,--barns, outhouses, haystacks, the houses, the old castle, and
every thing? If you wait much longer, you won't find one stone upon
another in Valpinson."
The effect produced by this name was prodigious.
"What?" asked the mayor in a half-stifled voice, "Valpinson is on
"At Count Claudieuse's?"
"Fool! Why did you not say so at once?" exclaimed the mayor.
He hesitated no longer.
"Quick!" he said to his servant, "go and get me my clothes. Wait, no!
my wife can help me. There is no time to be lost. You run to Bolton,
the drummer, you know, and tell him from me to beat the alarm
instantly all over town. Then you run to Capt. Parenteau's, and
explain to him what you have heard. Ask him to get the keys of the
engine-house.--Wait!--when you have done that, come back and put the
horse in.--Fire at Valpinson! I shall go with the engine. Go, run,
knock at every door, cry, 'Fire! Fire!' Tell everybody to come to the
When the servant had run off as fast as he could, the mayor turned to
the peasant, and said,--
"And you, my good man, you get on your horse, and reassure the count.
Tell them all to take courage, not to give up; we are coming to help
But the peasant did not move.
"Before going back to Valpinson," he said, "I have another commission
to attend to in town."
"Why? What is it?"
"I am to get the doctor to go back with me."
"The doctor! Why? Has anybody been hurt?"
"Yes, master, Count Claudieuse."
"How imprudent! I suppose he rushed into danger as usually."
"Oh, no! He has been shot twice!"
The mayor of Sauveterre nearly dropped his candlestick.
"Shot! Twice!" he said. "Where? When? By whom?"
"Ah! I don't know."
"All I can tell you is this. They have carried him into a little barn
that was not on fire yet. There I saw him myself lying on the straw,
pale like a linen sheet, his eyes closed, and bloody all over."
"Great God! They have not killed him?"
"He was not dead when I left."
"And the countess?"
"Our lady," replied the peasant with an accent of profound veneration,
"was in the barn on her knees by the count's side, washing his wounds
with fresh water. The two little ladies were there too."
M. Seneschal trembled with excitement.
"It is a crime that has been committed, I suppose."
"Why, of course!"
"But who did it? What was the motive?"
"Ah! that is the question."
"The count is very passionate, to be sure, quite violent, in fact; but
still he is the best and fairest of men, everybody knows that."
"Everybody knows it."
"He never did any harm to anybody."
"That is what all say."
"As for the countess"--
"Oh!" said the peasant eagerly, "she is the saint of saints."
The mayor tried to come to some conclusion.
"The criminal, therefore, must be a stranger. We are overrun with
vagabonds and beggars on the tramp. There is not a day on which a lot
of ill-looking fellows do not appear at my office, asking for help to
The peasant nodded his head, and said,--
"That is what I think. And the proof of it is, that, as I came along,
I made up my mind I would first get the doctor, and then report the
crime at the police office."
"Never mind," said the mayor. "I will do that myself. In ten minutes I
shall see the attorney of the Commonwealth. Now go. Don't spare your
horse, and tell your mistress that we are all coming after you."
In his whole official career M. Seneschal had never been so terribly
shocked. He lost his head, just as he did on that unlucky day, when,
all of a sudden, nine hundred militia-men fell upon him, and asked to
be fed and lodged. Without his wife's help he would never have been
able to dress himself. Still he was ready when his servant returned.
The good fellow had done all he had been told to do, and at that
moment the beat of the drum was heard in the upper part of the town.
"Now, put the horse in," said M. Seneschal: "let me find the carriage
at the door when I come back."
In the streets he found all in an uproar. At every window a head
popped out, full of curiosity or terror; on all sides house doors were
opened, and promptly closed again.
"Great God!" he thought, "I hope I shall find Daubigeon at home!" M.
Daubigeon, who had been first in the service of the empire, and then
in the service of the republic, was one of M. Seneschal's best
friends. He was a man of about forty years, with a cunning look in his
eye, a permanent smile on his face, and a confirmed bachelor, with no
small pride in his consistency. The good people of Sauveterre thought
he did not look stern and solemn enough for his profession. To be sure
he was very highly esteemed; but his optimism was not popular; they
reproached him for being too kind-hearted, too reluctant to press
criminals whom he had to prosecute, and thus prone to encourage evil-
He accused himself of not being inspired with the "holy fire," and, as
he expressed it in his own way, "of robbing Themis of all the time he
could, to devote it to the friendly Muses." He was a passionate lover
of fine books, rare editions, costly bindings, and fine illustrations;
and much the larger part of his annual income of about ten thousand
francs went to buying books. A scholar of the old-fashioned type, he
professed boundless admiration for Virgil and Juvenal, but, above all,
for Horace, and proved his devotion by constant quotations.
Roused, like everybody else in the midst of his slumbers, this
excellent man hastened to put on his clothes, when his old housekeeper
came in, quite excited, and told him that M. Seneschal was there, and
wanted to see him.
"Show him in!" he said, "show him in!"
And, as soon as the mayor entered, he continued:--
"For you will be able to tell me the meaning of all this noise, this
beating of drums,--
'Clamorque, virum, clangorque tubarum.' "
"A terrible misfortune has happened," answered the mayor. From the
tone of his voice one might have imagined it was he himself who had
been afflicted; and the lawyer was so strongly impressed in this way,
that he said,--
"My dear friend, what is the matter? /Quid?/ Courage, my friend, keep
cool! Remember that the poet advises us, in misfortune never to lose
our balance of mind:--
'AEquam, memento, rebus in arduis,
Sevare mentem.' "
"Incendiaries have set Valpinson on fire!" broke in the mayor.
"You do not say so? Great God!
Quod verbum audio.' "
"More than that. Count Claudieuse has been shot, and by this time he
is probably dead."
"You hear the drummer is beating the alarm. I am going to the fire;
and I have only come here to report the matter officially to you, and
to ask you to see to it that justice be done promptly and
There was no need of such a serious appeal to stop at once all the
"Enough!" he said eagerly. "Come, let us take measures to catch the
When they reached National Street, it was as full as at mid-day; for
Sauveterre is one of those rare provincial towns in which an
excitement is too rare a treat to be neglected. The sad event had by
this time become fully known everywhere. At first the news had been
doubted; but when the doctor's cab had passed the crowd at full speed,
escorted by a peasant on horseback, the reports were believed. Nor had
the firemen lost time. As soon as the mayor and M. Daubigeon appeared
on New-Market Square, Capt. Parenteau rushed up to them, and, touching
his helmet with a military salute, said,--
"My men are ready."
"There are hardly ten absentees. When they heard that Count and
Countess Claudieuse were in need--great heavens!--you know, they all
were ready in a moment."
"Well, then, start and make haste," commanded M. Seneschal. "We shall
overtake you on the way: M. Daubigeon and I are going to pick up M.
Galpin, the magistrate."
They had not far to go.
The magistrate had already been looking for them all over town: he was
just appearing on the Square, and saw them at once.
In striking contrast with the commonwealth attorney, M. Galpin was a
professional man in the full sense of the word, and perhaps a little
more. He was the magistrate all over, from head to foot, and from the
gaiters on his ankles to the light blonde whiskers on his face.
Although he was quite young, yet no one had ever seen him smile, or
heard him make a joke. He was so very stiff that M. Daubigeon
suggested he had been impaled alive on the sword of justice.
At Sauveterre M. Galpin was looked upon as a superior man. He
certainly believed it himself: hence he was very impatient at being
confined to so narrow a sphere of action, and thought his brilliant
ability wasted upon the prosecution of a chicken-thief or a poacher.
But his almost desperate efforts to secure a better office had always
been unsuccessful. In vain he had enlisted a host of friends in his
behalf. In vain he had thrown himself into politics, ready to serve
any party that would serve him.
But M. Galpin's ambition was not easily discouraged, and lately after
a journey to Paris, he had thrown out hints at a great match, which
would shortly procure him that influence in high places which so far
he had been unable to obtain. When he joined M. Daubigeon and the
mayor, he said,--
"Well, this is a horrible affair! It will make a tremendous noise."
The mayor began to give him the details, but he said,--
"Don't trouble yourself. I know all you know. I met the peasant who
had been sent in, and I have examined him."
Then, turning to the commonwealth attorney, he added,--
"I think we ought to proceed at once to the place where the crime has
"I was going to suggest it to you," replied M. Daubigeon.
"The gendarmes ought to be notified."
"M. Seneschal has just sent them word."
The magistrate was so much excited, that his cold impassiveness
actually threatened to give way for once.
"There has been an attempt at murder."
"Then we can act in concert, and side by side, each one in his own
line of duty, you examining, and I preparing for the trial."
An ironical smile passed over the lips of the commonwealth attorney.
"You ought to know me well enough," he said, "to be sure that I have
never interfered with your duties and privileges. I am nothing but a
good old fellow, a friend of peace and of studies.
'Sum piger et senior, Pieridumque comes.' "
"Then," exclaimed M. Seneschal, "nothing keeps us here any longer. I
am impatient to be off; my carriage is ready; let us go!"
In a straight line it is only a mile from Sauveterre to Valpinson; but
that mile is as long as two elsewhere. M. Seneschal, however, had a
good horse, "the best perhaps in the county," he said, as he got into
his carriage. In ten minutes they had overtaken the firemen, who had
left some time before them. And yet these good people, all of them
master workmen of Sauveterre, masons, carpenters, and tilers, hurried
along as fast as they could. They had half a dozen smoking torches
with them to light them on the way: they walked, puffing and groaning,
on the bad road, and pulling the two engines, together with the heavy
cart on which they had piled up their ladders and other tools.
"Keep up, my friends!" said the mayor as he passed them,--"keep up!"
Three minutes farther on, a peasant on horseback appeared in the dark,
riding along like a forlorn knight in a romance. M. Daubigeon ordered
him to halt. He stopped.
"You come from Valpinson?" asked M. Seneschal.
"Yes," replied the peasant.
"How is the count?"
"He has come to at last."
"What does the doctor say?"
"He says he will live. I am going to the druggist to get some
medicines." M. Galpin, to hear better, was leaning out of the
carriage. He asked,--
"Do they accuse any one?"
"And the fire?"
"They have water enough," replied the peasant, "but no engines: so
what can they do? And the wind is rising again! Oh, what a
He rode off as fast as he could, while M. Seneschal was whipping his
poor horse, which, unaccustomed as it was to such treatment, instead
of going any faster, only reared, and jumped from side to side. The
excellent man was in despair. He looked upon this crime as if it had
been committed on purpose to disgrace him, and to do the greatest
possible injury to his administration.
"For after all," he said, for the tenth time to his companions, "is it
natural, I ask you, is it sensible, that a man should think of
attacking the Count and the Countess Claudieuse, the most
distinguished and the most esteemed people in the whole county, and
especially a lady whose name is synonymous with virtue and charity?"
And, without minding the ruts and the stones in the road, M. Seneschal
went on repeating all he knew about the owners of Valpinson.
Count Trivulce Claudieuse was the last scion of one of the oldest
families of the county. At sixteen, about 1829, he had entered the
navy as an ensign, and for many years he had appeared at Sauveterre
only rarely, and at long intervals. In 1859 he had become a captain,
and was on the point of being made admiral, when he had all of a
sudden sent in his resignation, and taken up his residence at the
Castle of Valpinson, although the house had nothing to show of its
former splendor but two towers falling to pieces, and an immense mass
of ruin and rubbish. For two years he had lived here alone, busy with
building up the old house as well as it could be done, and by great
energy and incessant labor restoring it to some of its former
splendor. It was thought he would finish his days in this way, when
one day the report arose that he was going to be married. The report,
for once, proved true.
One fine day Count Claudieuse had left for Paris; and, a few days
later, his friends had been informed by letter that he had married the
daughter of one of his former colleagues, Miss Genevieve de Tassar.
The amazement had been universal. The count looked like a gentleman,
and was very well preserved; but he was at least forty-seven years
old, and Miss Genevieve was hardly twenty. Now, if the bride had been
poor, they would have understood the match, and approved it: it is but
natural that a poor girl should sacrifice her heart to her daily
bread. But here it was not so. The Marquis de Tassar was considered
wealthy; and report said that his daughter had brought her husband
fifty thousand dollars.
Next they had it that the bride was fearfully ugly, infirm, or at
least hunchback, perhaps idiotic, or, at all events, of frightful
By no means. She had come down; and everybody was amazed at her noble,
quiet beauty. She had conversed with them, and charmed everybody.
Was it really a love-match, as people called it at Sauveterre? Perhaps
so. Nevertheless there was no lack of old ladies who shook their
heads, and said twenty-seven years difference between husband and wife
was too much, and such a match could not turn out well.
All these dark forebodings came to nought. The fact was, that, for
miles and miles around, there was not a happier couple to be found
than the Count and the Countess Claudieuse; and two children, girls,
who had appeared at an interval of four years, seemed to have secured
the happiness of the house forever.
It is true the count retained somewhat of the haughty manners, the
reserve, and the imperious tone, which he had acquired during the time
that he controlled the destinies of certain important colonies. He
was, moreover, naturally so passionate, that the slightest excitement
made him turn purple in his face. But the countess was as gentle and
as sweet as he was violent; and as she never failed to step in between
her husband and the object of his wrath, as both he and she were
naturally just, kind to excess, and generous to all, they were beloved
by everybody. There was only one point on which the count was rather
unmanageable, and that was the game laws. He was passionately fond of
hunting, and watched all the year round with almost painful
restlessness over his preserves, employing a number of keepers, and
prosecuting poachers with such energy, that people said he would
rather miss a hundred napoleons than a single bird.
The count and the countess lived quite retired, and gave their whole
time, he to agricultural pursuits, and she to the education of her
children. They entertained but little, and did not come to Sauveterre
more than four times a year, to visit the Misses Lavarande, or the old
Baron de Chandore. Every summer, towards the end of July, they went to
Royan, where they had a cottage. When the season opened, and the count
went hunting, the countess paid a visit to her relatives in Paris,
with whom she usually stayed a few weeks.
It required a storm like that of 1870 to overthrow so peaceful an
existence. When the old captain heard that the Prussians were on
French soil, he felt all the instincts of the soldier and the
Frenchman awake in his heart. He could not be kept at home, and went
to headquarters. Although a royalist at heart, he did not hesitate a
moment to offer his sword to Gambetta, whom he detested. They made him
colonel of a regiment; and he fought like a lion, from the first day
to the last, when he was thrown down and trod under foot in one of
those fearful routs in which a part of Chanzy's army was utterly
destroyed. When the armistice was signed, he returned to Valpinson;
but no one except his wife ever succeeded in making him say a word
about the campaign. He was asked to become a candidate for the
assembly, and would have certainly been elected; but he refused,
saying that he knew how to fight, but not how to talk.
The commonwealth attorney and the magistrate listened but very
carelessly to these details, with which they were perfectly familiar.
Suddenly M. Galpin asked,--
"Are we not getting near? I look and look; but I see no trace of a
"We are in a deep valley," replied the mayor. "But we are quite near
now, and, at the top of that hill before us, you will see enough."
This hill is well known in the whole province, and is frequently
called the Sauveterre Mountain. It is so steep, and consists of such
hard granite, that the engineers who laid out the great turnpike
turned miles out of their way to avoid it. It overlooks the whole
country; and, when M. Seneschal and his companions had reached the
top, they could not control their excitement.
"Horresco!" murmured the attorney.
The burning house itself was hid by high trees; but columns of fire
rose high above the tops, and illumined the whole region with their
sombre light. The whole country was in a state of excitement. The
short, square tower of Brechy sent the alarm from its big bell; and in
the deep shade on all sides was heard the strange sound of the huge
shells which the people here use for signals, and for the summoning of
laborers at mealtimes. Hurried steps were heard on all the high-roads
and by-roads; and peasants were continuously rushing by, with a bucket
in each hand.
"It is too late for help," said M. Galpin.
"Such a fine property!" said the mayor, "and so well managed!" And
regardless of danger, he dashed forward, down the hill; for Valpinson
lies in a deep valley, half a mile from the river. Here all was
terror, disorder, and confusion; and yet there was no lack of hands or
of good-will. At the first alarm, all the people of the neighborhood
had hurried up, and there were more coming every moment; but there was
no one there to assume the command. They were mainly engaged in saving
the furniture. The boldest tried to get into the rooms, and in a kind
of rage, threw every thing they could lay hold on out of the window.
Thus the courtyard was already half full of beds and mattresses,
chairs and tables, books, linen, and clothes.
An immense clamor greeted the mayor and his companions.
"Here comes the mayor!" cried the peasants, encouraged by his
presence, and all ready to obey him.
M. Seneschal took in the whole situation at a glance.
"Yes, here I am, my friends," he said, "and I thank you for your zeal.
Now we must try not to waste our efforts. The farm buildings and the
workshops are lost: we must give them up. Let us try to save the
dwelling-house. The river is not far. We must form a chain. Everybody
in line,--men and women! And now for water, water! Here come the
They really came thundering up: the firemen appeared on the scene.
Capt. Parenteau took the command. At last the mayor was at leisure to
inquire after Count Claudieuse.
"Master is down there," replied an old woman, pointing at a little
cottage with a thatched roof. "The doctor has had him carried there."
"Let us go and see how he is," said the mayor to his two companions.
They stopped at the door of the only room of the cottage. It was a
large room with a floor of beaten clay; while overhead the blackened
beams were full of working tools and parcels of seeds. Two beds with
twisted columns and yellow curtains filled one side: on that on the
left hand lay a little girl, four years old, fast asleep, and rolled
up in a blanket, watched over by her sister, who was two or three
years older. On the other bed, Count Claudieuse was lying, or rather
sitting; for they had supported his back by all the pillows that had
been saved from the fire. His chest was bare, and covered with blood;
and a man, Dr. Seignebos, with his coat off, and his sleeves rolled up
above the elbows, was bending over him, and holding a sponge in one
hand and a probe in the other, seemed to be engaged in a delicate and
The countess, in a light muslin dress, was standing at the foot of her
husband's bed, pale but admirably composed and resigned. She was
holding a lamp, and moved it to and fro as the doctor directed. In a
corner two servant-women were sitting on a box, and crying, their
aprons turned over their heads.
At last the mayor of Sauveterre overcame his painful impressions, and
entered the room. Count Claudieuse was the first to perceive him, and
"Ah, here is our good M. Seneschal. Come nearer, my friend; come
nearer. You see the year 1871 is a fatal year. It will soon leave me
nothing but a few handfuls of ashes of all I possessed."
"It is a great misfortune," replied the excellent mayor; "but, after
all, it is less than we apprehended. God be thanked, you are safe!"
"Who knows? I am suffering terribly."
The countess trembled.
"Trivulce!" she whispered in a tone of entreaty. "Trivulce!"
Never did lover glance at his beloved with more tenderness than Count
Claudieuse did at his wife.
"Pardon me, my dear Genevieve, pardon me, if I show any want of
A sudden nervous spasm seized him; and then he exclaimed in a loud
voice, which sounded like a trumpet,--
"Sir! But sir! Thunder and lightning! You kill me!"
"I have some chloroform here," replied the physician coldly.
"I do not want any."
"Then you must make up your mind to suffer, and keep quiet now; for
every motion adds to your pain."
Then sponging a jet of blood which spurted out from under his knife,
"However, you shall have a few minutes rest now. My eyes and my hand
are exhausted. I see I am no longer young."
Dr. Seignebos was sixty years old. He was a small, thin man, with a
bald head and a bilious complexion, carelessly dressed, and spending
his life in taking off, wiping, and putting back again his large gold
spectacles. His reputation was widespread; and they told of wonderful
cures which he had accomplished. Still he had not many friends. The
common people disliked his bitterness; the peasants, his strictness in
demanding his fees; and the townspeople, his political views.
There was a story that one evening, at a public dinner, he had gotten
up and said, "I drink to the memory of the only physician of whose
pure and chaste renown I am envious,--the memory of my countryman, Dr.
Guillotin of Saintes!"
Had he really offered such a toast? The fact is, he pretended to be a
fierce radical, and was certainly the soul and the oracle of the small
socialistic clubs in the neighborhood. People looked aghast when he
began to talk of the reforms which he thought necessary; and they
trembled when he proclaimed his convictions, that "the sword and the
torch ought to search the rotten foundations of society."
These opinions, certain utilitarian views of like eccentricity, and
still stranger experiments which he openly carried on before the whole
world, had led people more than once to doubt the soundness of his
mind. The most charitable said, "He is an oddity." This eccentric man
had naturally no great fondness for M. Seneschal, the mayor, a former
lawyer, and a legitimist. He did not think much of the commonwealth
attorney, a useless bookworm. But he detested M. Galpin. Still he
bowed to the three men; and, without minding his patient, he said to
"You see, gentlemen, Count Claudieuse is in a bad plight. He has been
fired at with a gun loaded with small shot; and wounds made in that
way are very puzzling. I trust no vital part has been injured; but I
cannot answer for any thing. I have often in my practice seen very
small injuries, wounds caused by a small-sized shot, which,
nevertheless, proved fatal, and showed their true character only
twelve or fifteen hours after the accident had happened."
He would have gone on in this way, if the magistrate had not suddenly
interrupted him, saying,--
"Doctor, you know I am here because a crime has been committed. The
criminal has to be found out, and to be punished: hence I request your
assistance, from this moment, in the name of the Law."
By this single phrase M. Galpin made himself master of the situation,
and reduced the doctor to an inferior position, in which, it is true,
he had the mayor and the commonwealth attorney to bear him company.
There was nothing now to be thought of, but the crime that had been
committed, and the judge who was to punish the author. But he tried in
vain to assume all the rigidity of his official air and that contempt
for human feelings which has made justice so hateful to thousands. His
whole being was impregnated with intense satisfaction, up to his
beard, cut and trimmed like the box-hedges of an old-fashioned garden.
"Well, doctor," he asked, "first of all, have you any objection to my
questioning your patient?"
"It would certainly be better for him to be left alone," growled Dr.
Seignebos. "I have made him suffer enough this last hour; and I shall
directly begin again cutting out the small pieces of lead which have
honeycombed his flesh. But if it must be"--
"It must be."
"Well, then, make haste; for the fever will set in presently."
M. Daubigeon could not conceal his annoyance. He called out,--
The other man paid no attention. Having taken a note-book and a pencil
from his pocket, he drew up close to the sick man's bed, and asked him
in an undertone,--
"Are you strong enough, count, to answer my questions?"
"Then, pray tell me all you know of the sad events of to-night."
With the aid of his wife and Dr. Seignebos, the count raised himself
on his pillows, and began thus,--
"Unfortunately, the little I know will be of no use in aiding justice
to discover the guilty man. It may have been eleven o'clock, for I am
not even quite sure of the hour, when I had gone to bed, and just
blown out my candle: suddenly a bright light fell upon the window. I
was amazed, and utterly confused; for I was in that state of
sleepiness which is not yet sleep, but very much like it. I said to
myself, 'What can this be?' but I did not get up: I only was roused by
a great noise, like the crash of a falling wall; and then I jumped out
of bed, and said to myself, 'The house is on fire!' What increased my
anxiety was the fact, which I at once recollected, that there were in
the courtyard, and all around the house, some sixteen thousand bundles
of dry wood, which had been cut last year. Half dressed, I rushed
downstairs. I was very much bewildered, I confess, and could hardly
succeed in opening the outer door: still I did open it at last. But I
had barely put my foot on the threshold, when I felt in my right side,
a little above the hip, a fierce pain, and heard at the same time,
quite close to me, a shot."
The magistrate interrupted him by a gesture.
"Your statement, count, is certainly remarkably clear. But there is
one point we must try to establish. Were you really fired at the
moment you showed yourself at the door?"
"Then the murderer must have been quite near on the watch. He must
have known that the fire would bring you out; and he was lying in wait
"That was and still is my impression," declared the count.
M. Galpin turned to M. Daubigeon.
"Then," he said to him, "the murder is the principal fact with which
we have to do; and the fire is only an aggravating circumstance,--the
means which the criminal employed in order to succeed the better in
perpetrating his crime."
Then, returning to the count, he said,--
"Pray go on."
"When I felt I was wounded," continued Count Claudieuse, "my first
impulse was instinctively to rush forward to the place from which the
gun seemed to have been fired at me. I had not proceeded three yards,
when I felt the same pain once more in the shoulder and in the neck.
This second wound was more serous than the first; for I lost my
consciousness, my head began to swim and I fell."
"You had not seen the murderer?"
"I beg your pardon. At the moment when I fell, I thought I saw a man
rush forth from behind a pile of fagots, cross the courtyard, and
disappear in the fields."
"Would you recognize him?"
"But you saw how he was dressed: you can give me a description?"
"No, I cannot. I felt as if there was a veil before my eyes; and he
passed me like a shadow."
The magistrate could hardly conceal his disappointment.
"Never mind," he said, "we'll find him out. But go on, sir."
The count shook his head.
"I have nothing more to say," he replied. "I had fainted; and when I
recovered my consciousness, some hours later, I found myself here
lying on this bed."
M. Galpin noted down the count's answers with scrupulous exactness:
when he had done, he asked again,--
"We must return to the details of the attack, and examine them
minutely. Now, however, it is important to know what happened after
you fell. Who could tell us that?"
"My wife, sir."
"I thought so. The countess, no doubt, got up when you rose."
"My wife had not gone to bed."
The magistrate turned suddenly to the countess; and at a glance he
perceived that her costume was not that of a lady who had been
suddenly roused from slumber by the burning of her house."
"I see," he said to himself.
"Bertha," the count went on to state, "our youngest daughter, who is
lying there on that bed, under the blanket, has the measles, and is
suffering terribly. My wife was sitting up with her. Unfortunately the
windows of her room look upon the garden, on the side opposite to that
where the fire broke out."
"How, then, did the countess become award of the accident?" asked the
Without waiting for a more direct question, the countess came forward
"As my husband has just told you, I was sitting up with my little
Bertha. I was rather tired; for I had sat up the night before also,
and I had begun to nod, when a sudden noise aroused me. I was not
quite sure whether I had really heard such a noise; but just then a
second shot was heard. I left the room more astonished than
frightened. Ah, sir! The fire had already made such headway, that the
staircase was as light as in broad day. I went down in great haste.
The outer door was open. I went out; and there, some five or six yards
from me, I saw, by the light of the flames, the body of my husband
lying on the ground. I threw myself upon him; but he did not even hear
me; his heart had ceased to beat. I thought he was dead; I called for
help; I was in despair."
M. Seneschal and M. Daubigeon trembled with excitement.
"Well, very well!" said M. Galpin, with an air of satisfaction,--"very
"You know," continued the countess, "how hard it is to rouse country-
people. It seems to me I remained ever so long alone there, kneeling
by the side of my husband. At last the brightness of the fire awakened
some of the farm-hands, the workmen, and our servants. They rushed
out, crying, 'Fire!' When they saw me, they ran up and helped me carry
my husband to a place of safety; for the danger was increasing every
minute. The fire was spreading with terrific violence, thanks to a
furious wind. The barns were one vast mass of fire; the outbuildings
were burning; the distillery was in a blaze; and the roof of the
dwelling-house was flaming up in various places. And there was not one
cool head among them all. I was so utterly bewildered, that I forgot
all about my children; and their room was already in flames, when a
brave, bold fellow rushed in, and snatched them from the very jaws of
death. I did not come to myself till Dr. Seignebos arrived, and spoke
to me words of hope. This fire will probably ruin us; but what matters
that, so long as my husband and my children are safe?"
Dr. Seignebos had more than once given utterance to his contemptuous
impatience: he did not appreciate these preliminary steps. The others,
however, the mayor, the attorney, and even the servants, had hardly
been able to suppress their excitement. He shrugged his shoulders, and
growled between his teeth,--
"Mere formalities! How petty! How childish!"
After having taken off his spectacles, wiped them and replaced them
twenty times, he had sat down at the rickety table in the corner of
the room, and amused himself with arranging the fifteen or twenty shot
he had extracted from the count's wounds, in long lines or small
circles. But, when the countess uttered her last words, he rose, and,
turning to M. Galpin, said in a curt tone,--
"Now, sir, I hope you will let me have my patient again."
The magistrate was not a little incensed: there was reason enough,
surely; and, frowning fiercely, he said,--
"I appreciate, sir, the importance of your duties; but mine are, I
think, by no means less solemn nor less urgent."
"Consequently you will be pleased, sir, to grant me five minutes
"Ten, if it must be, sir. Only I warn you that every minute henceforth
may endanger the life of my patient."
They had drawn near to each other, and were measuring each other with
defiant looks, which betrayed the bitterest animosity. They would
surely not quarrel at the bedside of a dying man? The countess seemed
to fear such a thing; for she said reproachfully,--
"Gentlemen, I pray, gentlemen"--
Perhaps her intervention would have been of no avail, if M. Seneschal
and M. Daubigeon had not stepped in, each addressing one of the two
adversaries. M. Galpin was apparently the most obstinate of the two;
for, in spite of all, he began once more to question the count, and
"I have only one more question to ask you, sir: Where and how were you
standing, where and how do you think the murderer was standing, at the
moment when the crime was committed?"
"Sir," replied the count, evidently with a great effort, "I was
standing, as I told you, on the threshold of my door, facing the
courtyard. The murderer must have been standing some twenty yards off,
on my right, behind a pile of wood."
When he had written down the answer of the wounded man, the magistrate
turned once more to the physician, and said,--
"You heard what was said, sir. It is for you now to aid justice by
telling us at what distance the murderer must have been when he
"I don't guess riddles," replied the physician coarsely.
"Ah, have a care, sir!" said M. Galpin. "Justice, whom I here
represent, has the right and the means to enforce respect. You are a
physician, sir; and your science is able to answer my question with
almost mathematical accuracy."
The physician laughed, and said,--
"Ah, indeed! Science has reached that point, has it? Which science?
Medical jurisprudence, no doubt,--that part of our profession which is
at the service of the courts, and obeys the judges' behests."
But the doctor was not the man to allow himself to be defeated a
second time. He went on coolly,--
"I know what you are going to say; there is no handbook of medical
jurisprudence which does not peremptorily settle the question you ask
me. I have studied these handbooks, these formidable weapons which you
gentlemen of the bar know so well how to handle. I know the opinions
of a Devergie and an Orfila, I know even what Casper and Tardieu, and
a host of others teach on that subject. I am fully aware that these
gentlemen claim to be able to tell you by the inch at what distance a
shot has been fired. But I am not so skilful. I am only a poor
country-practitioner, a simple healer of diseases. And before I give
an opinion which may cost a poor devil his life, innocent though he
be, I must have time to reflect, to consult data, and to compare other
cases in my practice."
He was so evidently right in reality, if not in form, that even M.
Galpin gave way.
"It is merely as a matter of information that I request your opinion,
sir," he replied. "Your real and carefully-considered professional
opinion will, of course, be given in a special statement."
"Ah, if that is the case!"
"Pray, inform me, then unofficially, what you think of the nature of
the wounds of Count Claudieuse."
Dr. Seignebos settled his spectacles ceremoniously on his nose, and
"My impression, so far as I am now able to judge, is that the count
has stated the facts precisely as they were. I am quite ready to
believe that the murderer was lying in ambush behind one of the piles
of wood, and at the distance which he has mentioned. I am also able to
affirm that the two shots were fired at different distances,--one much
nearer than the other. The proof of it lies in the nature of the
wounds, one of which, near the hip may be scientifically called"--
"But we know at what distance a ball is spent," broke in M. Seneschal,
whom the doctor's dogmatic tone began to annoy.
"Ah, do we know that, indeed? You know it, M. Seneschal? Well, I
declare I do not know it. To be sure, I bear in mind, what you seem to
forget, that we have no longer, as in former days, only three or four
kinds of guns. Did you think of the immense variety of fire-arms,
French and English, American and German, which are nowadays found in
everybody's hands? Do you not see, you who have been a lawyer and a
magistrate, that the whole legal question will be based upon this
grave and all-important point?"
Thereupon the physician resumed his instruments, resolved to give no
other answer, and was about to go to work once more when fearful cries
were heard without; and the lawyers, the mayor, and the countess
herself, rushed at once to the door.
These cries were, unfortunately, not uttered without cause. The roof
of the main building had just fallen in, burying under its ruins the
poor drummer who had a few hours ago beaten the alarm, and one of the
firemen, the most respected carpenter in Sauveterre, and a father of
Capt. Parenteau seemed to be maddened by this disaster; and all vied
with each other in efforts to rescue the poor fellows, who were
uttering shrieks of horror that rose high above the crash of falling
timbers. But all their endeavors were unavailing. One of the gendarmes
and a farmer, who had nearly succeeded in reaching the sufferers,
barely escaped being burnt themselves, and were only rescued after
having been dangerously injured. Then only it seemed as if all became
fully aware of the abominable crime committed by the incendiary. Then
only the clouds of smoke and the columns of fire, which rose high into
the air, were accompanied by fierce cries of vengeance rising
"Death to the incendiary! Death!"
At the moment M. Seneschal felt himself inspired with a sudden
thought. He knew how cautious peasants are, and how difficult it is to
make them tell what they know. He climbed, therefore, upon a heap of
fallen beams, and said in a clear, loud voice,--
"Yes, my friends, you are right: death to the incendiary! Yes, the
unfortunate victims of the basest of all crimes must be avenged. We
must find out the incendiary; we must! You want it to be done, don't
you? Well, it depends only on you. There must be some one among you
who knows something about this matter. Let him come forward and tell
us what he has seen or heard. Remember that the smallest trifle may be
a clew to the crime. You would be as bad as the incendiary himself, if
you concealed him. Just think it over, consider."
Loud voices were heard in the crowd; then suddenly a voice said,--
"There is one here who can tell."
"Cocoleu. He was there from the beginning. It was he who went and
brought the children of the countess out of their room. What has
become of him?--Cocoleu, Cocoleu!"
One must have lived in the country, among these simple-minded
peasants, to understand the excitement and the fury of all these men
and women as they crowded around the ruins of Valpinson. People in
town do not mind brigands, in general: they have their gas, their
strong doors, and the police. They are generally little afraid of
fire. They have their fire-alarms; and at the first spark the neighbor
cries, "Fire!" The engines come racing up; and water comes forth as if
by magic. But it is very different in the country: here every man is
constantly under a sense of his isolation. A simple latch protects his
door; and no one watches over his safety at night. If a murderer
should attack him, his cries could bring no help. If fire should break
out, his house would be burnt down before the neighbors could reach
it; and he is happy who can save his own life and that of his family.
Hence all these good people, whom the mayor's words had deeply
excited, were eager to find out the only man who knew anything about
this calamity, Cocoleu.
He was well known among them, and for many years.
There was not one among them who had not given him a piece of bread,
or a bowl of soup, when he was hungry; not one of them had ever
refused him a night's rest on the straw in his barn, when it was
raining or freezing, and the poor fellow wanted a shelter.
For Cocoleu was one of those unfortunate beings who labor under a
grievous physical or moral deformity.
Some twenty years ago, a wealthy land-owner in Brechy had sent to the
nearest town for half a dozen painters, whom he kept at his house
nearly a whole summer, painting and decorating his newly-built house.
One of these men had seduced a girl in the neighborhood, whom he had
bewitched by his long white blouse, his handsome brown mustache, his
good spirits, gay songs, and flattering speeches. But, when the work
was done, the tempter had flown away with the others, without thinking
any more of the poor girl than of the last cigar which he had smoked.
And yet she was expecting a child. When she could no longer conceal
her condition, she was turned out of the house in which she had been
employed; and her family, unable to support themselves, drove her away
without mercy. Overcome with grief, shame, and remorse, poor Colette
wandered from farm to farm, begging, insulted, laughed at, beaten even
at times. Thus it came about, that in a dark wood, one dismal winter
evening, she gave life to a male child. No one ever understood how
mother and child managed to survive. But both lived; and for many a
year they were seen in and around Sauveterre, covered with rags, and
living upon the dear-bought generosity of the peasants.
Then the mother died, utterly forsaken by human help, as she had
lived. They found her body, one morning, in a ditch by the wayside.
The child survived alone. He was then eight years old, quite strong
and tall for his age. A farmer took pity on him, and took him home.
The little wretch was not fit for anything: he could not even keep his
master's cows. During his mother's lifetime, his silence, his wild
looks, and his savage appearance, had been attributed to his wretched
mode of life. But when people began to be interested in him, they
found out that his intellect had never been aroused. He was an idiot,
and, besides, subject to that terrible nervous affection which at
times shakes the whole body and disfigures the face by the violence of
uncontrollable convulsions. He was not a deaf-mute; but he could only
stammer out with intense difficulty a few disjointed syllables.
Sometimes the country people would say to him,--
"Tell us your name, and you shall have a cent."
Then it took him five minutes' hard work to utter, amid a thousand
painful contortions, the name of his mother.
Hence came his name Cocoleu. It had been ascertained that he was
utterly unable to do anything; and people ceased to interest
themselves in his behalf. The consequence was, that he became a
vagabond as of old.
It was about this time that Dr. Seignebos, on one of his visits, met
him one day on the public road.
This excellent man had, among other extraordinary notions, the
conviction that idiocy is nothing more than a defective state of the
brains, which may be remedied by the use of certain well-known
substances, such as phosphorus, for instance. He lost no time in
seizing upon this admirable opportunity to test his theory. Cocoleu
was sent for, and installed in his house. He subjected him to a
treatment which he kept secret; and only a druggist at Sauveterre, who
was also well known as entertaining very extraordinary notions, knew
what had happened. At the end of eighteen months, Cocoleu had fallen
off terribly: he talked perhaps, a little more fluently; but his
intellect had not been perceptibly improved.
Dr. Seignebos was discouraged. He made up a parcel of things which he
had given to his patient, put it into his hands, pushed him out of his
door, and told him never to come back again.
The doctor had rendered Cocoleu a sad service. The poor idiot had lost
the habit of privation: he had forgotten how to go from door to door,
asking for alms; and he would have perished, if his good fortune had
not led him to knock at the door of the house at Valpinson.
Count Claudieuse and his wife were touched by his wretchedness, and
determined to take charge of him. They gave him a room and a bed at
one of the farmhouses; but they could never induce him to stay there.
He was by nature a vagabond; and the instinct was too strong for him.
In winter, frost and snow kept him in for a little while; but as soon
as the first leaves came out, he went wandering again through forest
and field, remaining absent often for weeks altogether.
At last, however, something seemed to have been aroused in him, which
looked like the instinct of a domesticated animal. His attachment to
the countess resembled that of a dog, even in the capers and cries
with which he greeted her whenever he saw her. Often, when she went
out, he accompanied her, running and frolicking around her just like a
dog. He was also very fond of little girls, and seemed to resent it
when he was kept from them: for people were afraid his nervous attacks
might affect the children.
With time he had also become capable of performing some simple
service. He could be intrusted with certain messages: he could water
the flowers, summon a servant, or even carry a letter to the post-
office at Brechy. His progress in this respect was so marked, that
some of the more cunning peasants began to suspect that Cocoleu was
not so "innocent," after all, as he looked, and that he was cleverly
playing the fool in order to enjoy life easily.
"We have him at last," cried several voices at once. "Here he is; here
The crowd made way promptly; and almost immediately a young man
appeared, led and pushed forward by several persons. Cocoleu's
clothes, all in disorder, showed clearly that he had offered a stout
resistance. He was a youth of about eighteen years, very tall, quite
beardless, excessively thin, and so loosely jointed, that he looked
like a hunchback. A mass of reddish hair came down his low, retreating
forehead. His small eyes, his enormous mouth bristling with sharp
teeth, his broad flat nose, and his immense ears, gave to his face a
strange idiotic expression, and to his whole appearance a most painful
"What must we do with him?" asked the peasants of the mayor.
"We must take him before the magistrate, my friends," replied M.
Seneschal,--"down there in that cottage, where you have carried the
"And we'll make him talk," threatened his captors. "You hear! Go on,
M. Galpin and the doctor had both considered it a point of honor who
should show the most perfect indifference; and thus they had betrayed
by no sign their curiosity to know what was going on out doors. Dr.
Seignebos was on the point of resuming the operation; and, as coolly
as if he had been in his own rooms at home, he was washing the sponge
which he had just used, and wiping his instruments. The magistrate, on
the other hand, was standing in the centre of the room, his arms
crossed, his eyes fixed upon the infinite, apparently. It may be he
was thinking of his star which had at last brought him that famous
criminal case for which he had ardently longed many a year.
Count Claudieuse, however, was very far from sharing their reserve. He
was tossing about on his bed; and as soon as the mayor and his friend
reappeared, looking quite upset, he exclaimed,--
"What does that uproar mean?"
And, when he had heard of the calamity, he added,--
"Great God! And I was complaining of my losses. Two men killed! That
is a real misfortune. Poor men! to die because they were so brave,--
Bolton hardly thirty years old; Guillebault, a father of a family, who
leaves five children, and not a cent!"
The countess, coming in at that moment, heard his last words.
"As long as we have a mouthful of bread," she said in a voice full of
deep emotion, "neither Bolton's mother, nor Guillebault's children,
shall ever know what want is."
She could not say another word; for at that moment the peasants
crowded into the room, pushing the prisoner before them.
"Where is the magistrate?" they asked. "Here is a witness!"
"What, Cocoleu!" exclaimed the count.
"Yes, he knows something: he said so himself. We want him to tell it
to the magistrate. We want the incendiary to be caught."
Dr. Seignebos had frowned fiercely. He execrated Cocoleu, whose sight
recalled to him that great failure which the good people of Sauveterre
were not likely to forget soon.
"You do not really mean to examine him?" he asked, turning to M.
"Why not?" answered the magistrate dryly.
"Because he is an imbecile, sir, an idiot. Because he cannot possibly
understand your questions, or the importance of his answers."
"He may give us a valuable hint, nevertheless."
"He? A man who has no sense? You don't really think so. The law cannot
attach any importance to the evidence of a fool."
M. Galpin betrayed his impatience by an increase of stiffness, as he
"I know my duty, sir."
"And I," replied the physician,--"I also know what I have to do. You
have summoned me to assist you in this investigation. I obey; and I
declare officially, that the mental condition of this unfortunate man
makes his evidence utterly worthless. I appeal to the commonwealth
He had hoped for a word of encouragement from M. Daubigeon; but
nothing came. Then he went on,--
"Take care, sir, or you may get yourself into trouble. What would you
do if this poor fellow should make a formal charge against any one?
Could you attach any weight to his word?"
The peasants were listening with open mouths. One of them said,--
"Oh! Cocoleu is not so innocent as he looks."
"He can say very well what he wants to say, the scamp!" added another.
"At all events, I am indebted to him for the life of my children,"
said the count gently. "He thought of them when I was unconscious, and
when no one else remembered them. Come, Cocoleu, come nearer, my
friend, don't be afraid: there is no one here to hurt you."
It was very well the count used such kind words; for Cocoleu was
thoroughly terrified by the brutal treatment he had received, and was
trembling in all his limbs.
"I am--not--a--afraid," he stammered out.
"Once more I protest," said the physician.
He had found out that he stood not alone in his opinion. Count
Claudieuse came to his assistance, saying,--
"I really think it might be dangerous to question Cocoleu."
But the magistrate was master of the situation, and conscious of all
the powers conferred upon him by the laws of France in such cases.
"I must beg, gentlemen," he said, in a tone which did not allow of any
reply,--"I must beg to be permitted to act in my own way."
And sitting down, he asked Cocoleu,--
"Come, my boy, listen to me, and try to understand what I say. Do you
know what has happened at Valpinson?"
"Fire," replied the idiot.
"Yes, my friend, fire, which burns down the house of your benefactor,
--fire, which has killed two good men. But that is not all: they have
tried to murder the count. Do you see him there in his bed, wounded,
and covered with blood? Do you see the countess, how she suffers?"
Did Cocoleu follow him? His distorted features betrayed nothing of
what might be going on within him.
"Nonsense!" growled the doctor, "what obstinacy! What folly!"
M. Galpin heard him, and said angrily,--
"Sir, do not force me to remind you that I have not far from here, men
whose duty it is to see that my authority is respected here."
Then, turning again to the poor idiot, he went on,--
"All these misfortunes are the work of a vile incendiary. You hate
him, don't you; you detest him, the rascal!"
"Yes," said Cocoleu.
"You want him to be punished, don't you?"
"Well, then you must help me to find him out, so that the gendarmes
may catch him, and put him in jail. You know who it is; you have told
these people and"--
He paused, and after a moment, as Cocoleu kept silent, he asked,--
"But, now I think of it, whom has this poor fellow talked to?"
Not one of the peasants could tell. They inquired; but no answer came.
Perhaps Cocoleu had never said what he was reported to have said.
"The fact is," said one of the tenants at Valpinson, "that the poor
devil, so to say, never sleeps, and that he is roaming about all night
around the house and the farm buildings."
This was a new light for M. Galpin; suddenly changing the form of his
interrogatory, he asked Cocoleu,--
"Where did you spend the night?"
"Were you asleep when the fire broke out?"
"Did you see it commence?"
"How did it commence?"
The idiot looked fixedly at the Countess Claudieuse with the timid and
abject expression of a dog who tries to read something in his master's
"Tell us, my friend," said the Countess gently,--"tell us."
A flash of intelligence shone in Cocoleu's eyes.
"They--they set it on fire," he stammered.
There was not a person present at this extraordinary scene who did not
anxiously hold his breath as the word was uttered. The doctor alone
kept cool, and exclaimed,--
"Such an examination is sheer folly!"
But the magistrate did not seem to hear his words; and, turning to
Cocoleu, he asked him, in a deeply agitated tone of voice--
"Did you see the gentleman?"
"Do you know who he is?"
"What is his name?"
"What is his name? Tell us."
Cocoleu's features betrayed the fearful anguish of his mind. He
hesitated, and at last he answered, making a violent effort,--"Bois--
The name was received with murmurs of indignation and incredulous
laughter. There was not a shadow of doubt or of suspicion. The
"M. de Boiscoran an incendiary! Who does he think will believe that
"It is absurd!" said Count Claudieuse.
"Nonsense!" repeated the mayor and his friend.
Dr. Siegnebos had taken off his spectacles, and was wiping them with
an air of intense satisfaction.
"What did I tell you?" he exclaimed. "But the gentleman did not
condescend to attach any importance to my suggestions."
The magistrate was by far the most excited man in the crowd. He had
turned excessively pale, and made, visibly, the greatest efforts to
preserve his equanimity. The commonwealth attorney leaned over towards
him, and whispered,--
"If I were in your place, I would stop here, and consider the answer
as not given."
But M. Galpin was one of those men who are blinded by self-conceit,
and who would rather be cut to pieces than admit that they have been
mistaken. He answered,--
"I shall go on."
Then turning once more to Cocoleu, in the midst of so deep a silence
that the buzzing of a fly would have been distinctly heard, he
"Do you know, my boy, what you say? Do you know that you are accusing
a man of a horrible crime?"
Whether Cocoleu understood, or not, he was evidently deeply agitated.
Big drops of perspiration rolled slowly down his temples; and nervous
shocks agitated his limbs, and convulsed his features.
"I, I--am--telling the--truth!" he said at last.
"M. de. Boiscoran has set Valpinson on fire?"
"How did he do it?"
Cocoleu's restless eyes wandered incessantly from the count, who
looked indignant, to the countess, who seemed to listen with painful
surprise. The magistrate repeated,--
After another moment's hesitation, the idiot began to explain what he
had seen; and it took him many minutes to state, amid countless
contortions, and painful efforts to speak, that he had seen M. de
Boiscoran pull out some papers from his pocket, light them with a
match, put them under a rick of straw near by, and push the burning
mass towards two enormous piles of wood which were in close contact
with a vat full of spirits.
"This is sheer nonsense!" cried the doctor, thus giving words to what
they all seemed to feel.
But M. Galpin had mastered his excitement. He said solemnly,--
"At the first sign of applause or of displeasure, I shall send for the
gendarmes, and have the room cleared."
Then, turning once more to Cocoleu, he said,--
"Since you saw M. de Boiscoran so distinctly, tell us how he was
"He had light trousers on," replied the idiot, stammering still most
painfully, "a dark-brown shooting-jacket, and a big straw hat. His
trousers were stuffed into his boots."
Two or three peasants looked at each other, as if they had at last hit
upon a suspicious fact. The costume which Cocoleu had so accurately
described was well known to them all.
"And when he had kindled the fire," said the magistrate again, "what
did he do next?"
"He hid behind the woodpile."
"He loaded his gun, and, when master came out, he fired."
Count Claudieuse was so indignant that he forgot the pain which his
wounds caused him, and raised himself on his bed.
"It is monstrous," he exclaimed, "to allow an idiot to charge an
honorable man with such a crime! If he really saw M. de Boiscoran set
the house on fire, and hide himself in order to murder me, why did he
not come and warn me?"
Mr. Galpin repeated the question submissively, to the great amazement
of the mayor and M. Daubigeon.
"Why did you not give warning?" he asked Cocoleu.
But the efforts which the unfortunate man had made during the last
half-hour had exhausted his little strength. He broke out into stupid
laughter; and almost instantly one of his fearful nervous attacks
overcame him: he fell down yelling, and had to be carried away.
The magistrate had risen, pale and deeply excited, but evidently
meditating on what was to be done next. The commonwealth attorney
asked him in an undertone what he was going to do; and the lawyer
"Can I do otherwise in my position? God is my witness that I tried my
best, by urging this poor idiot, to prove the absurdity of his
accusation. But the result has disappointed me."
"Now I can no longer hesitate. There have been ten witnesses present
at the examination. My honor is at stake. I must establish either the
guilt or the innocence of the man whom Cocoleu accuses." Immediately,
walking up to the count's bed, he asked,--
"Will you have the kindness, Count Claudieuse, to tell me what your
relations are to M. de Boiscoran?"
Surprise and indignation caused the wounded man to blush deeply.
"Can it be possible, sir, that you believe the words of that idiot?"
"I believe nothing," answered the magistrate. "My duty is to unravel
the truth; and I mean to do it."
"The doctor has told you what the state of Cocoleu's mind is?"
"Count, I beg you will answer my question."
Count Claudieuse looked angry; but he replied promptly,--
"My relations with M. de Boiscoran are neither good nor bad. We have
"It is reported, I have heard it myself, that you are on bad terms."
"On no terms at all. I never leave Valpinson, and M. de Boiscoran
spends nine months of the year in Paris. He has never called at my
house, and I have never been in his."
"You have been overheard speaking of him in unmeasured terms."
"That may be. We are neither of the same age, nor have we the same
tastes or the same opinions. He is young: I am old. He likes Paris and
the great world: I am fond of solitude and hunting. I am a Legitimist:
he used to be an Orleanist, and now he is a Republican. I believe that
the descendant of our old kings alone can save the country; and he is
convinced that the happiness of France is possible only under a
Republic. But two men may be enemies, and yet esteem each other. M. de
Boiscoran is an honorable man; he has done his duty bravely in the
war, he has fought well, and has been wounded."
M. Galpin noted down these answers with extreme care. When he had done
so, he continued,--
"The question is not one of political opinions only. You have had
personal difficulties with M. de Boiscoran."
"Of no importance."
"I beg pardon: you have been at law."
"Our estates adjoin each other. There is an unlucky brook between us,
which is a source of constant trouble to the neighbors."
M. Galpin shook his head, and added,--
"These are not the only difficulties you have had with each other.
Everybody in the country knows that you have had violent
Count Claudieuse seemed to be in great distress.
"It is true: we have used hard words. M. de Boiscoran had two wretched
dogs that were continually escaping from his kennels, and came hunting
in my fields. You cannot imagine how much game they destroyed."
"Exactly so. And one day you met M. de Boiscoran, and you warned him
that you would shoot his dogs."
"I must confess I was furious. But I was wrong, a thousand times
wrong: I did threaten"--
"That is it. You were both of you armed. You threatened one another:
he actually aimed at you. Don't deny it. A number of persons have seen
it; and I know it. He has told me so himself."
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
"What is it now?" he asked.
"More witnesses," replied the peasants. "Here are some more
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
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.
"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
"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
M. Galpin had written down the statement as fast as it was given. Then
"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
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
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
"Well?" as if, in his despair, he had hoped for some help or advice in
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
"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
"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
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,
"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