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- Within an Inch of His Life - 5/111 -
"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 award 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!"
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