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Produced by Dagny; John Bickers; David Widger





WITHIN AN INCH OF HIS LIFE

by Emile Gaboriau

PREPARER'S NOTE

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: -



I.

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."

"The 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?"

"Yes."

"At Count Claudieuse's?"

"Of course."

"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."

"But" -

"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."

"Oh!"

"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."

"All?"

"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."

"Evidently."

"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!"



II.

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?"

"No."

"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."



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