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- Within an Inch of His Life - 4/111 -


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."

III.

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,--

"Galpin, Galpin!"

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?"

"Oh, perfectly!"

"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?"

"Yes, sir."

"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,--


Within an Inch of His Life - 4/111

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