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- Within an Inch of His Life - 2/111 -


"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!"


Within an Inch of His Life - 2/111

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