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- Within an Inch of His Life - 10/111 -

"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

Within an Inch of His Life - 10/111

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