WITHIN AN INCH OF HIS LIFE
by Emile Gaboriau
This text was prepared from a 1913 edition, published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
FIRST PART—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 Castle Street.
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 uproar.
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 up!"
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 asked,—
"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 whip.
"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 fire?"
"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 New-Market Square."
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 them."
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 get away."
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-doers.
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!
"'Jupiter, 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 energetically."
There was no need of such a serious appeal to stop at once all the lawyer's quotations.
"Enough!" he said eagerly. "Come, let us take measures to catch the wretches."
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 been committed."
"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 misfortune!"
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 temper.
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 fire."
"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 engines!"
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 dangerous operation.
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 said,—
"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 courage."
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, he added,—
"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 them,—
"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 for you."
"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 aware of the accident?" asked the magistrate.
Without waiting for a more direct question, the countess came forward and said,—
"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 well done!"
"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 more."
"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 said,—
"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 fired."
"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 then replied,—
"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 five children.
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 heavenwards.
"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 he is!"
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 brutish air.
"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 count."
"And we'll make him talk," threatened his captors. "You hear! Go on, quick!"
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. Galpin.
"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 replied,—
"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 attorney."
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 eyes.
"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—Bois—Boiscoran!"
The name was received with murmurs of indignation and incredulous laughter. There was not a shadow of doubt or of suspicion. The peasants said,—
"M. de Boiscoran an incendiary! Who does he think will believe that story?"
"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 asked,—
"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 dressed."
"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 replied,—
"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 none."
"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 altercations."
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 door.
"What is it now?" he asked.
"More witnesses," replied the peasants. "Here are some more witnesses."
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 Count Claudieuse.
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. Galpin said,—
"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 side."
"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 me."
M. Galpin had written down the statement as fast as it was given. Then he asked,—
"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 come in."
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 course."
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 said,—
"Well?" as if, in his despair, he had hoped for some help or advice in his troubles,—"well?"
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 watching."
"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 a gun.
"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 raging."
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, who said,—
"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 Dionysia de Chandore. She returns his love; and the day before yesterday the wedding-day was fixed on the 20th of the next month."
In the meantime the hours had sped on. It was half-past three by the clock of the church in Brechy. Day was breaking; and the light of the lamps was turning pale. The morning mists began to disappear; and the sunlight fell upon the window-panes. But no one noticed this: all these men gathered around the bed of the wounded man were too deeply excited. M. Galpin had listened to the objection made by the others, without a word or a gesture. He had so far recovered his self-control, that it would have been difficult to see what impressions they made upon his mind. At last, shaking his head gravely, he said,—
"More than you, gentlemen, I feel a desire to believe M. de Boiscoran innocent. M. Daubigeon, who knows what I mean, will tell you so. In my heart I pleaded his cause long before you. But I am the representative of the law; and my duty is above my affections. Does it depend on me to set aside Cocoleu's accusation, however stupid, however absurd, it may be? Can I undo the three statements made by the witnesses, and confirming so strongly the suspicions aroused by the first charge?"
Count Claudieuse was distressed beyond expression. At last he said,—
"The worst thing about it is, that M. de Boiscoran thinks I am his enemy. I should not wonder if he went and imagined that these charges and vile suspicions have been suggested by my wife or by myself. If I could only get up! At least, let M. de Boiscoran know distinctly that I am ready to answer for him, as I would answer for myself. Cocoleu, the wretched idiot! Ah, Genevieve, my darling wife! Why did you induce him to talk? If you had not insisted, he would have kept silent forever."
The countess succumbed at last to the anxieties of this terrible night. At first she had been supported by that exaltation which is apt to accompany a great crisis; but latterly she had felt exhausted. She had sunk upon a stool, near the bed on which her two daughters were lying; and, her head hid in the pillow, she seemed to sleep. But she was not asleep. When her husband reproached her thus, she rose, pale, with swollen eyes and distorted features, and said in a piercing voice,—
"What? They have tried to kill my Trivulce; our children have been near unto death in the flames; and I should have allowed any means to be unused by which the guilty one may be found out? No! I have only done what it was my duty to do. Whatever may come of it, I regret nothing."
"But, Genevieve, M. de Boiscoran is not guilty: he cannot possibly be guilty. How could a man who has the happiness of being loved by Dionysia de Chandore, and who counts the days to his wedding,—how could he devise such a hideous crime?"
"Let him prove his innocence," replied the countess mercilessly.
The doctor smacked his lips in the most impertinent manner.
"There is a woman's logic for you," he murmured.
"Certainly," said M. Seneschal, "M. de Boiscoran's innocence will be promptly established. Nevertheless, the suspicion will remain. And our people are so constituted, that this suspicion will overshadow his whole life. Twenty years hence, they will meet him, and they will say, 'Oh, yes! the man who set Valpinson on fire!'"
It was not M. Galpin this time who replied, but the commonwealth attorney. He said sadly,—
"I cannot share your views; but that does not matter. After what has passed, our friend, M. Galpin cannot retrace his steps: his duty makes that impossible, and, even more so, what is due to the accused. What would all these people say, who have heard Cocoleu's deposition, and the evidence given by the witnesses, if the inquiry were stopped? They would certainly say M. de Boiscoran was guilty, but that he was not held responsible because he was rich and noble. Upon my honor I believe him to be innocent. But precisely because this is my conviction, I maintain that his innocence must be clearly established. No doubt he has the means of doing so. When he met Ribot, he told him he was on his way to see somebody at Brechy."
"But suppose he never went there?" objected M. Seneschal. "Suppose he did not see anybody there? Suppose it was only a pretext to satisfy Ribot's impertinent curiosity?"
"Well, then, he would only have to tell the truth in court. And look! Here's an important proof which almost by itself relieves M. de Boiscoran. Would he not have loaded his gun with a ball, if he should ever have really thought of murdering the count? But it was loaded with nothing but small-shot."
"And he would never have missed me at ten yards' distance," said the count.
Suddenly somebody was heard knocking furiously at the door.
"Come in!" cried M. Seneschal.
The door opened and three peasants appeared, looking bewildered, but evidently well pleased.
"We have just," said one of them, "found something curious."
"What?" asked M. Galpin.
"It looks very much like a case; but Pitard says it is the paper of a cartridge."
Count Claudieuse raised himself on his pillows, and said eagerly,—
"Let me see! I have during these last days fired several times quite near to the house to frighten the birds away that eat my fruit. I want to see if the paper is mine."
The peasant gave it to him.
It was a very thin lead form, such as contain the cartridges used in American breech-loading guns. What was singular was that it was blackened by burnt powder; but it had not been torn, nor had it blazed up in the discharge. It was so perfectly uninjured, that one could read the embossed letters of the name of the manufacturer, Clebb.
"That cartridge never belonged to me," said the count.
But as he uttered these words he turned deadly pale, so pale, that his wife came close to him, and looked at him with a glance full of terrible anguish.
He made no reply.
But at that moment such silence was so eloquent, that the countess felt sickened, and whispered to him,—
"Then Cocoleu was right, after all!"
Not one feature of this dramatic scene had escaped M. Galpin's eye. He had seen on every face signs of a kind of terror; still he made no remark. He took the metal case from the count's hands, knowing that it might become an important piece of evidence; and for nearly a minute he turned it round and round, looking at it from all sides, and examining it in the light with the utmost attention.
Then turning to the peasants, who were standing respectfully and uncovered close by the door, he asked them,—
"Where did you find this cartridge, my friends?"
"Close by the old tower, where they keep the tools, and where the ivy is growing all over the old castle."
M. Seneschal had in the meantime succeeded in recovering his self-control, and said now,—
"Surely the murderer cannot have fired from there. You cannot even see the door of the house from the old tower."
"That may be," replied the magistrate; "but the cartridge-case does not necessarily fall to the ground at the place where the gun is discharged. It falls as soon as the gun is cocked to reload."
This was so true, that even Dr. Seignebos had nothing to say.
"Now, my friends," said M. Galpin, "which of you has found the cartridge-case?"
"We were all together when we saw it, and picked it up."
"Well, then, all three of you must give me your names and your domicile, so that I can send for you when you are wanted."
This was done; and, when all formalities were attended to, they went off with numberless bows and doffings of hats. Just at that moment the furious gallop of a horse was heard approaching the house; the next moment the man who had been sent to Sauveterre for medicines came in. He was furious.
"That rascal of a druggist!" he said. "I thought he would never open his shop!"
Dr. Seignebos had eagerly seized the things that were sent him, then, bowing with mock respect to the magistrate, he said,—
"I know very well, sir, how pressing the necessity is to have the head of the culprit cut off; but I think it is almost as pressing to save the life of the murdered man. I have probably delayed the binding up of the count's wounds longer than I ought to have done; and I beg you will now leave me alone, so as to enable me to do my duty to him."
There was nothing more to be done for the magistrate, the commonwealth attorney, or the mayor. The doctor might assuredly have used more polite language; but people were accustomed to his brutal ways; for it is surprising with what readiness men are tolerated in France, under the pretext that they are as they are, and that they must be taken as they are. The three gentlemen, therefore, left the room, after having bid farewell to the countess, and after having promised to send the count news of all that might be discovered.
The fire was going out for want of fuel. A few hours had sufficed to destroy all that the hard work and incessant cares of many years had accomplished. This charming and much envied estate presented now nothing but a few half calcined walls, heaps of black and gray ashes, and still glowing timbers, from which columns of smoke were slowly rising upward. Thanks to Capt. Parenteau, all that they had been able to save had been carried to a distance, and safely stored away under the shelter of the ruins of the old castle. There, furniture and other articles were piled up pell-mell. There, carts and agricultural machines were standing about, empty casks, and sacks of oats and rye. There, also, the cattle were gathered, that had been drawn from their stalls with infinite labor, and at great risk of life,—horses, oxen, some sheep, and a dozen cows, who lowed piteously. Few of the people had left as yet. With greater zeal than ever the firemen, aided by the peasants, deluged the remains of the dwelling-house with water. They had nothing to fear from the fire; but they desired to keep the bodies of their unfortunate companions from being entirely consumed.
"What a terrible scourge fire is!" said M. Seneschal.
Neither M. Galpin nor the mayor made any answer. They also felt their hearts oppressed by the sad sight before them, in spite of all the intense excitement before; for a fire is nothing as long as the feverish excitement, and the hope of saving something, continue to keep us up, and as long as the red flames illumine the horizon; but the next day, when all is over, then we realize the extent of the misfortune.