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There is no man, however brave he may think himself, who would not tremble at the idea that he has, just by a miracle, escaped from the assassin's hand. There is not one who would not feel his blood grow chill in his veins at the thought that those who have failed in their attempt once will no doubt renew their efforts, and that perhaps the miracle may not be repeated.
That was Daniel's position.
He felt henceforth this terrible certainty, that war had been declared against him, a savage warfare, merciless, pitiless, a war of treachery and cunning, of snare and ambush. It had been proved to him that at his side, so to say, as his very shadow, there was ever a terrible enemy, stimulated by the thirst of gain, watching all his steps, ever awake and on the watch, and ready to seize the first opportunity to strike. The infernal cunning of the first two attempts enabled Daniel to measure the superior wickedness of the man who had been chosen and enlisted--at least Daniel thought so--by Sarah Brandon.
Still he did not say a word of the danger to which he was exposed, and even assumed, as soon as he had recovered from the first shock, a certain cheerfulness which he had not shown during the whole voyage, and under which he concealed his apprehensions.
"I do not want my enemy," he said to himself, "to suspect my suspicions."
But from that moment his suspicions never fell asleep; and every step he took was guided by most careful circumspection. He never put one foot before the other, so to say, without first having examined the ground; he never seized a man-rope without having first tried its solidity; he had made it a law to eat and drink nothing, not even a glass of water, but what came from the officers' table.
These perpetual precautions, these ceaseless apprehensions, were extremely repugnant to his daring temper; but he felt, that, under such circumstances, careless would be no longer courage, but simple folly. He had engaged in a duel in which he wanted to be victorious; hence he must at least defend himself against the attack. He felt, moreover, that he was the only protector his beloved had now; and that, if he died, she would certainly be lost. But he also thought not only of defending himself, but of getting at the assassin, and, through him, at the infamous creature by whom he was employed, Sarah Brandon.
He therefore pursued his search quietly, slowly, but indefatigably. Certain circumstances which he had at first forgotten, and a few points skilfully put together, gave him some hope. He had, for instance, ascertained that none but the crews of the boats had been on shore, and that, of these, not one had been for ten minutes out of sight of the others. Hence the pretended boatman was not a sailor on board "The Conquest." Nor could it have been one of the marines, as none of them had been allowed to leave the vessel. There remained the emigrants, fifty or sixty of whom had spent the night in Saigon.
But was not the idea that one of these men might have led Daniel into the trap contradicted by the circumstances of the first attempt? By no means; for many of the younger men among these emigrants had asked permission to help in the working of the ship in order to break the monotony of the long voyage. After careful inquiry, Daniel ascertained even that four of them had been with the sailors on the yards from which the heavy block fell that came so near ending his life.
Which were they? This he could not ascertain.
Still the result was enough for Daniel to make his life more endurable. He could breathe again on board ship; he went and came in all safety, since he was sure that the guilty man was not one of the crew. He even felt real and great relief at the thought that his would-be assassin was not to be looked for among these brave and frank sailors; none of them, at least, had been bribed with gold to commit a murder. Moreover, the limits of his investigations had now narrowed down in such a manner, that he might begin to hope for success in the end.
Unfortunately the emigrants had, a fortnight after the landing, scattered abroad, going according as they were wanted, to the different establishments in the colony, which were far apart from each other. Daniel had therefore, at least for the moment, to give up a plan he had formed, to talk with every one of them until he should recognize the voice of the false boatman.
He himself, besides, was not to remain at Saigon. After a first expedition, which kept him away for two months, he obtained command of a steam-sloop, which was ordered to explore and to take all the bearings of the River Kamboja, from the sea to Mitho, the second city of Cochin China. This was no easy task; for the Kamboja had already defeated the efforts of several hydrographic engineers by its capricious and constant changes, every pass and every turn nearly changing with the monsoons in direction and depth.
But the mission had its own difficulties and dangers. The Kamboja is not only obstructed by foul swamps; but it flows through vast marshy plains, which, in the season of rains, are covered with water; while in the dry season, under the burning rays of the sun, they exhale that fatal malaria which has cost already thousands of valuable lives.
Daniel was to experience its effects but too soon. In less than a week after he had set out, he saw three of the men who had been put under his orders die before his eyes, after a few hours' illness, and amid atrocious convulsions. They had the cholera. During the next four months, seven succumbed to fevers which they had contracted in these pestilential swamps. And towards the end of the expedition, when the work was nearly done, the survivors were so emaciated, that they had hardly strength enough to hold themselves up. Daniel alone had not yet suffered from these terrible scourges. God knows, however, that he had not spared himself, nor ever hesitated to do what he thought he ought to do. To sustain, to electrify these men, exhausted as they were by sickness, and irritated at wasting their lives upon work that had no reward, a leader was required who should possess uncommon intrepidity, and who should treat danger as an enemy who is to be defied only by facing him; and such a leader they found in Daniel.
He had told Sarah Brandon on the eve of his departure,--
"With a love like mine, with a hatred like mine, in the heart, one can defy all things. The murderous climate is not going to harm me; and, if I had six balls in my body, I should still find strength enough to come and call you to account for what you have done to Henrietta before I die."
He certainly had had need of all that dauntless energy which passion inspires to sustain him in his trials. But alas! his bodily sufferings were as nothing in comparison with his mental anxiety. At night, while his men were asleep, he kept awake, his heart torn with anguish, now crushed under the thought of his helplessness, and now asking himself if rage would not deprive him of his reason.
It was a year now since he had left Paris to go on board "The Conquest," a whole year.
And he had not received a single letter from Henrietta,--not one. Every time a vessel arrived from France with despatches, his hopes revived; and every time they were disappointed.
"Well," he would say to himself, "I can wait for the next." And then he began counting the days. Then it arrived at last, this long-expected ship, and never, never once brought a letter from Henrietta--
How could this silence be explained? What strange events could have happened? What must he think, hope, fear?
To be chained by honor to a place a thousand leagues from the woman he loved to distraction, to know nothing about her, her life, her actions and her thoughts, to be reduced to such extreme wretchedness, to doubt--
Daniel would have been much less unhappy if some one had suddenly come and told him, "Miss Ville-Handry is no more."
Yes, less unhappy; for true love in its savage selfishness suffers less from death than from treason. If Henrietta had died, Daniel would have been crushed; and maybe despair would have driven him to extreme measures; but he would have been relieved of that horrible struggle within him, between his faith in the promises of his beloved and certain suspicions, which caused his hair to stand on end.
But he knew that she was alive; for there was hardly a vessel coming from France or from England which did not bring him a letter from Maxime, or from the Countess Sarah. For Sarah insisted upon writing to him, as if there existed a mysterious bond between them, which she defied him to break.
"I obey," she said, "an impulse more powerful than reason and will alike. It is stronger than I am, stronger than all things else; I must write to you, I cannot help it."
At another time she said,--
"Do you remember that evening, O Daniel! when, pressing Sarah Brandon to your heart, you swore to be hers forever? The Countess Ville-Handry cannot forget it."
Under the most indifferent words there seemed to palpitate and to struggle a passion which was but partially restrained, and ever on the point of breaking forth. Her letters read like the conversations of timid lovers, who talk about the rain and the weather in a tone of voice trembling with desire, and with looks burning with passion.
"Could she really be in love with me?" Daniel thought, "and could that be her punishment?"
Then, again, swearing, like the roughest of his men, he added,--
"Am I to be a fool forever? Is it not quite clear that this wicked woman only tries to put my suspicions to sleep? She is evidently preparing for her defence, in case the rascal who attempted my life should be caught, and compromise her by his confessions."
Every letter; moreover, brought from the Countess Sarah some news about his betrothed, her "stepdaughter." But she always spoke of her with extreme reserve and reticence, and in ambiguous terms, as if counting upon Daniel's sagacity to guess what she could not or would not write. According to her account, Henrietta had become reconciled to her father's marriage. The poor child's melancholy had entirely disappeared. Miss Henrietta was very friendly with Sir Thorn. The coquettish ways of the young girl became quite alarming; and her indiscretion provoked the gossip of visitors. Daniel might as well accustom himself to the idea, that, on his return, he might find Henrietta a married woman.
"She lies, the wretch!" said Daniel; "yes, she lies!"
But he tried in vain to resist; every letter from Sarah brought him the germ of some new suspicion, which fermented in his mind as the miasma fermented in the veins of his men.
The information furnished by Maxime de Brevan was different, and often contradictory even, but by no means more reassuring. His letters portrayed the perplexity and the hesitation of a man who is all anxiety to soften hard truths. According to him, the Countess Sarah and Miss Ville-Handry did not get on well with each other; but he declared he was bound to say that the wrong was all on the young lady's side, who seemed to make it the study of her life to mortify her step-mother, while the latter bore the most irritating provocations with unchanging sweetness. He alluded to the calumnies which endangered Miss Henrietta's reputation, admitting that she had given some ground for them by thoughtless acts. He finally added that he foresaw the moment when she would leave her father's house in spite of all his advice to the contrary.
"And not one line from her," exclaimed Daniel,--"not one line!"
And he wrote her letter after letter, beseeching her to answer him, whatever might be the matter, and to fear nothing, as the certainty even of a misfortune would be a blessing to him in comparison with this torturing uncertainty.
He wrote without imagining for a moment that Henrietta suffered all the torments he endured, that their letters were intercepted, and that she had no more news of him than he had of her.
Time passed, however, carrying with it the evil as well as the good days. Daniel returned to Saigon, bringing back with him one of the finest hydrographic works that exist on Cochin China. It was well known that this work had cost an immense outlay of labor, of privations, and of life; hence he was rewarded as if he had won a battle, and he was rewarded instantly, thanks to special powers conferred upon his chief, reserving only the confirmation in France, which was never refused.
All the survivors of the expedition were mentioned in public orders and in the official report; two were decorated; and Daniel was promoted to officer of the Legion of Honor. Under other circumstances, this distinction, doubly valuable to so young a man, would have made him supremely happy; now it left him cold.
The fact was, that these long trials had worn out the elasticity of his heart; and the sources of joy, as well as the sources of sorrow, had dried up. He no longer struggled against despair, and came to believe that Henrietta had forgotten him, and would never be his wife. Now, as he knew he never could love another, or rather as no other existed for him; as, without Henrietta, the world seemed to him empty, absurd, intolerable,--he asked himself why he should continue to live. There were moments in which he looked lovingly at his pistols, and said to himself,--
"Why should I not spare Sarah Brandon the trouble?"
What kept his hand back was the leaven of hatred which still rose in him at times. He ought to have the courage, at least, to live long enough to avenge himself. Harassed by these anxieties, he withdrew more and more from society; never went on shore; and his comrades on board "The Conquest" felt anxious as they looked at him walking restlessly up and down the quarter-deck, pale, and with eyes on fire.
For they loved Daniel. His superiority was so evident, that none disputed it; they might envy him; but they could never be jealous of him. Some of them thought he had brought back with him from Kamboja the germ of one of those implacable diseases which demoralize the strongest, and which break out suddenly, carrying a man off in a few hours.
"You ought not to become a misanthrope, my dear Champcey," they would say. "Come, for Heaven's sake shake off that sadness, which might make an end of you before you are aware of it!"
And jestingly they added,--
"Decidedly, you regret the banks of the Kamboja!"
They thought it a jest: it was the truth. Daniel did regret even the worst days of his mission. At that time his grave responsibility, overwhelming fatigues, hard work, and daily danger, had procured him at least some hours of oblivion. Now idleness left him, without respite or time, face to face with his distressing thoughts. It was the desire, the necessity almost, of escaping in some manner from himself, which made him accept an invitation to join a number of his comrades who wanted to try the charms of a great hunting party.
On the morning of the expedition, however, he had a kind of presentiment.
"A fine opportunity," he thought, "for the assassin hired by Sarah Brandon!"
Then, shrugging his shoulders, he said with a bitter laugh,--
"How can I hesitate? As if a life like mine was worth the trouble of protecting it against danger!"
When they arrived on the following day on the hunting ground, he, as well as the other hunters, received their instructions, and had their posts assigned them by the leader. He found himself placed between two of his comrades, in front of a thicket, and facing a narrow ravine, through which all the game must necessarily pass as it was driven down by a crowd of Annamites.
They had been firing for an hour, when Daniel's neighbors saw him suddenly let go his rifle, turn over, and fall.
They hurried up to catch him; but he fell, face forward, to the ground, saying aloud, and very distinctly,--
"This time they have not missed me!"
At the outcry raised by the two neighbors of Daniel, other hunters had hastened up, and among them the chief surgeon of "The Conquest," one of those old "pill-makers," who, under a jovial scepticism, and a rough, almost brutal outside, conceal great skill and an almost feminine tenderness. As soon as he looked at the wounded man, whom his friends had stretched out on his back, making a pillow of their overcoats, and who lay there pale and inanimate, the good doctor frowned, and growled out,--
"He won't live."
The officers were thunderstruck.
"Poor Champcey!" said one of them, "to escape the Kamboja fevers, and to be killed here at a pleasure party! Do you recollect, doctor, what you said on the occasion of his second accident,--'Mind the third'?"
The old doctor did not listen. He had knelt down, and rapidly stripped the coat off Daniel's back. The poor man had been struck by a shot. The ball had entered on the right side, a little behind; and between the fourth and the fifth rib, one could see a round wound, the edges drawn in. But the most careful examination did not enable him to find the place where the projectile had come out again. The doctor rose slowly, and, while carefully dusting the knees of his trousers, he said,--
"All things considered, I would not bet that he may not escape. Who knows where the ball may be lodged? It may have respected the vital parts.
"Projectiles often take curious turns and twists. I should almost be disposed to answer for M. Champcey, if I had him in a good bed in the hospital at Saigon. At all events, we must try to get him there alive. Let one of you gentlemen tell the sailors who have come with us to make a litter of branches."
The noise of a struggle, of fearful oaths and inarticulate cries, interrupted his orders. Some fifteen yards off, below the place where Daniel had fallen, two sailors were coming out of the thicket, their faces red with anger, dragging out a man with a wretched gun, who hurled out,--
"Will you let me go, you parcel of good-for-nothings! Let me go, or I'll hurt you!"
He was so furiously struggling in the arms of the two sailors, clinging with an iron grip to roots and branches and rocks, turning and twisting at every step, that the men at last, furious at his resistance, lifted him up bodily, and threw him at the chief surgeon's feet, exclaiming,--
"Here is the scoundrel who has killed our lieutenant!"
It was a man of medium size, with a dejected air, and lack-lustre eyes, wearing a mustache and chin-beard, and looking impudent. His costume was that of an Annamite of the middle classes,--a blouse buttoned at the side, trousers made in Chinese style, and sandals of red leather. It was, nevertheless, quite evident that the man was a European.
"Where did you find him?" asked the surgeon of the men.
"Down there, commandant, behind that big bush, to the right of Lieut. Champcey, and a little behind him."
"Why do you accuse him?"
"Why? We have good reasons, I should think. He was hiding. When we saw him, he was lying flat on the ground, trembling with fear; and we said at once, 'Surely, there is the man who fired that shot.'"
The man had, in the meantime, raised himself, and assumed an air of almost provoking assurance.
"They lie!" he exclaimed. "Yes, they lie, the cowards!"
This insult would have procured him a sound drubbing, but for the old surgeon, who held the arm of the first sailor who made the attack. Then, continuing his interrogatory, he asked,--
"Why did you hide?"
"I did not hide."
"What were you doing there, crouching in the bush?"
"I was at my post, like the others. Do they require a permit to carry arms in Cochin China? I was not invited to your hunting party, to be sure; but I am fond of game; and I said to myself, 'Even if I were to shoot two or three head out of the hundreds their drivers will bring down, I would do them no great harm.'"
The doctor let him talk on for some time, observing him closely with his sagacious eye; then, all of a sudden, he broke in, saying,--
"Give me your gun!"
The man turned so visibly pale, that all the officers standing around noticed it. Still he did what he was asked to do, and said,--
"Here it is. It's a gun one of my friends has lent me."
The doctor examined the weapon very carefully; and, after having inspected the lock, he said,--
"Both barrels of your gun are empty; and they have not been emptied more than two minutes ago."
"That is so; I fired both barrels at an animal that passed me within reach."
"One of the balls may have gone astray."
"That cannot be. I was aiming in the direction of the prairie; and, consequently, I was turning my back to the place where the officer was standing."
To the great surprise of everybody, the doctor's face, ordinarily crafty enough, now looked all benevolent curiosity,--so much so, that the two sailors who had captured the man were furious, and said aloud,--
"Ah! don't believe him, commandant, the dirty dog!"
But the man, evidently encouraged by the surgeon's apparent kindliness, asked,--
"Am I to be allowed to defend myself, or not?"
And then he added in a tone of supreme impudence,--
"However, whether I defend myself or not, it will, no doubt, be all the same. Ah! if I were only a sailor, or even a marine, that would be another pair of sleeves; they would hear me! But now, I am nothing but a poor civilian; and here everybody knows civilians must have broad shoulders. Wrong or right, as soon as they are accused, they are convicted."
The doctor seemed to have made up his mind; for he interrupted this flow of words, saying in his kindest voice,--
"Calm yourself, my friend. There is a test which will clearly establish your innocence. The ball that has struck Lieut. Champcey is still in the wound; and I am the man who is going to take it out, I promise you. We all here have rifles with conical balls; you are the only one who has an ordinary shot-gun with round balls, so there is no mistake possible. I do not know if you understand me?"
Yes, he understood, and so well, that his pale face turned livid, and he looked all around with frightened glances. For about six seconds he hesitated, counting his chances; then suddenly falling on his knees, his hands folded, and beating the ground with his forehead, he cried out,--
"I confess! Yes, it may be I who have hit the officer. I heard the bushes moving in his direction, and I fired at a guess. What a misfortune! O God, what a misfortune! Ah! I would give my life to save his if I could. It was an accident, gentlemen, I swear. Such accidents happen every day in hunting; the papers are full of them. Great God! what an unfortunate man I am!"
The doctor had stepped back. He now ordered the two sailors who had arrested the man, to make sure of him, to bind him, and carry him to Saigon to prison. One of the gentlemen, he said, would write a few lines, which they must take with them. The man seemed to be annihilated.
"A misfortune is not a crime," he sighed out. "I am an honest mechanic."
"We shall see that in Saigon," answered the surgeon.
And he hastened away to see if all the preparations had been made to carry the wounded man. In less than twenty minutes, and with that marvellous skill which is one of the characteristic features of good sailors, a solid litter had been constructed; the bottom formed a real mattress of dry leaves; and overhead a kind of screen had been made of larger leaves. When they put Daniel in, the pain caused him to utter a low cry of pain. This was the first sign of life he had given.
"And now, my friends," said the doctor, "let us go! And bear in mind, if you shake the lieutenant, he is a dead man."
It was hardly eight in the morning when the melancholy procession started homeward; and it was not until between two and three o'clock on the next morning that it entered Saigon, under one of those overwhelming rains which give one an idea of the deluge, and of which Cochin China has the monopoly. The sailors who carried the litter on which Daniel lay had walked eighteen hours without stopping, on footpaths which were almost impassable, and where every moment a passage had to be cut through impenetrable thickets of aloes, cactus, and jack-trees. Several times the officers had offered to take their places; but they had always refused, relieving each other, and taking all the time as ingenious precautions as a mother might devise for her dying infant. Although, therefore, the march lasted so long, the dying man felt no shock; and the old doctor said, quite touched, to the officers who were around him,--
"Good fellows, how careful they are! You might have put a full glass of water on the litter, and they would not have spilled a drop."
Yes, indeed! Good people, rude and rough, no doubt, in many ways, coarse sometimes, and even brutal, bad to meet on shore the day after pay-day, or coming out from a drinking-shop, but keeping under the rough outside a heart of gold, childlike simplicity, and the sacred fire of noblest devotion. The fact was, they did not dare breathe heartily till after they had put their precious burden safe under the hospital porch.
Two officers who had hastened in advance had ordered a room to be made ready. Daniel was carried there; and when he had been gently put on a white, good bed, officers and sailors withdrew into an adjoining room to await the doctor's sentence. The latter remained with the wounded man, with two assistant surgeons who had been roused in the meantime.
Hope was very faint. Daniel had recovered his consciousness during the journey, and had even spoken a few words to those around him, but incoherent words, the utterance of delirium. They had questioned him once or twice; but his answers had shown that he had no consciousness of the accident which had befallen him, nor of his present condition; so that the general opinion among the sailors who were waiting, and who all had more or less experience of shot-wounds, was, that fever would carry off their lieutenant before sunrise.
Suddenly, as if by magic, all was hushed, and not a word spoken.
The old surgeon had just appeared at the door of the sick-chamber; and, with a pleasant and hopeful smile on his lips, he said,--
"Our poor Champcey is doing as well as could be expected; and I would almost be sure of his recovery, if the great heat was not upon us."
And, silencing the murmur of satisfaction which arose among them at this good news, he went on to say,--
"Because, after all, serious as the wound is, it is nothing in comparison with what it might have been; and what is more, gentlemen, I have the corpus delicti."
He raised in the air, as he said this, a spherical ball, which he held between his thumb and forefinger.
"Another instance," he said, "to be added to those mentioned by our great masters of surgery, of the oddities of projectiles. This one, instead of pursuing its way straight through the body of our poor friend, had turned around the ribs, and gone to its place close by the vertebral column. There I found it, almost on the surface; and nothing was needed to dislodge it but a slight push with the probe."
The shot-gun taken from the hands of the murderer had been deposited in a corner of the large room: they brought it up, tried the ball, and found it to fit accurately.
"Now we have a tangible proof," exclaimed a young ensign, "an unmistakable proof, that the wretch whom our men have caught is Daniel's murderer. Ah, he might as well have kept his confession!"
But the old surgeon replied with a dark frown,--
"Gently, gentlemen, gently! Don't let us be over-hasty in accusing a poor fellow of such a fearful crime, when, perhaps, he is guilty only of imprudence."
"O doctor, doctor!" protested half a dozen voices.
"I beg your pardon! Don't let us be hasty, I say; and let us consider, For an assassination there must be a motive, and an all-powerful motive; for, aside from the scaffold which he risks, no man is capable of killing another man solely for the purpose of shedding his blood. Now, in this case, I look in vain for any reason, which could have induced the man to commit a murder. He certainly did not expect to rob our poor comrade. But hatred, you say, or vengeance, perhaps! Well, that may be. But, before a man makes up his mind to shoot even the man he hates like a dog, he must have been cruelly offended by him; and, to bring this about, he must have been in contact, or must have stood in some relation to him. Now, I ask you, is it not far more probable that the murderer saw our friend Champcey this morning for the first time?"
"I beg your pardon, commandant! He knew him perfectly well."
The man who interrupted the doctor was one of the sailors to whom the prisoner had been intrusted to carry him to prison. He came forward, twisting his worsted cap in his hands; and, when the old surgeon had ordered him to speak, he said,--
"Yes, the rascal knew the lieutenant as well as I know you, commandant; and the reason of it is, that the scoundrel was one of the emigrants whom we brought here eighteen months ago."
"Are you sure of what you say?"
"As sure as I see you, commandant. At first my comrade and I did not recognize him, because a year and a half in this wretched country disfigure a man horribly; but, while we were carrying him to jail, we said to one another, 'That is a head we have seen before.' Then we made him talk; and he told us gradually, that he had been one of the passengers, and that he even knew my name, which is Baptist Lefloch."
This deposition of the sailor made a great impression upon all the bystanders, except the old doctor. It is true he was looked upon, on board "The Conquest," as one of the most obstinate men in holding on to his opinions.
"Do you know," he asked the sailor, "if this man was one of the four or five who had to be put in irons during the voyage?"
"No, he was not one of them, commandant."
"Did he ever have anything to do with Lieut. Champcey? Has he been reprimanded by him, or punished? Has he ever spoken to him?"
"Ah, commandant! that is more than I can tell."
The old doctor slightly shrugged his shoulders, and said in a tone of indifference,--
"You see, gentlemen, this deposition is too vague to prove anything. Believe me, therefore, do not let us judge before the trial, and let us go to bed."
Day was just breaking, pale and cool; the sailors disappeared one by one. The doctor was getting ready to lie down on a bed which he had ordered to be put up in a room adjoining that in which the wounded man was lying, when an officer came in. It was one of those who had been standing near Champcey; he, also, was a lieutenant.
"I should like to have a word in private with you, doctor," he said.
"Very well," replied the old surgeon. "Be kind enough to come up to my room." And when they were alone, he locked the door, and said,--
"I am listening."
The lieutenant thought a moment, like a man who looks for the best form in which to present an important idea, and then said,--
"Between us, doctor, do you believe it was an accident, or a crime?"
The surgeon hesitated visibly.
"I will tell you, but you only, frankly, that I do not believe it was an accident. But as we have no evidence"--
"Pardon me! I think I have evidence."
"You shall, judge yourself. When Daniel fell, he said, 'This time, they have not missed me!'"
"Did he say so?"
"Word for word. And Saint Edme, who was farther from him than I was, heard it as distinctly as I did."
To the great surprise of the lieutenant, the chief surgeon seemed only moderately surprised; his eyes, on the contrary, shone with that pleased air of a man who congratulates himself at having foreseen exactly what he now is told was the fact. He drew a chair up to the fireplace, in which a huge fire had been kindled to dry his clothes, sat down, and said,--
"Do you know, my dear lieutenant, that what you tell me is a matter of the greatest importance? What may we not conclude from those words, 'This time they have not missed me'? In the first place, it proves that Champcey was fully aware that his life was in danger. Secondly, that plural, 'They have not,' shows that he knew he was watched and threatened by several people: hence the scamp whom we caught must have accomplices. In the third place, those words, 'This time,' establish the fact that his life has been attempted before."
"That is just what I thought, doctor."
The worthy old gentleman looked very grave and solemn, meditating deeply.
"Well, I," he continued slowly, "I had a very clear presentiment of all that as soon as I looked at the murderer. Do you remember the man's amazing impudence as long as he thought he could not be convicted of the crime? And then, when he found that the calibre of his gun betrayed him, how abject, how painfully humble, he became! Evidently such a man is capable of anything."
"Oh! you need only look at him"--
"Yes, indeed! Well, as I was thus watching him, I instinctively recalled the two remarkable accidents which so nearly killed our poor Champcey,--that block that fell upon him from the skies, and that shipwreck in the Dong-Nai. But I was still doubtful. After what you tell me, I am sure."
He seized the lieutenant's hand; and, pressing it almost painfully, he went on,--
"Yes, I am ready to take my oath that this wretch is the vile tool of people who hate or fear Daniel Champcey; who are deeply interested in his death; and who, being too cowardly to do their own business, are rich enough to hire an assassin."
The lieutenant was evidently unable to follow.
"Still, doctor," he objected, "but just now you insisted"--
"Upon a diametrically opposite doctrine; eh?"
The old surgeon smiled, and said,--
"I had my reasons. The more I am persuaded that this man is an assassin, the less I am disposed to proclaim it on the housetops. He has accomplices, you think, do you?"
"Well, if we wish to reach them, we must by all means reassure them, leave them under the impression that everybody thinks it was an accident. If they are frightened, good-night. They will vanish before you can put out your hand to seize them."
"Champcey might be questioned; perhaps he could furnish some information."
But the doctor rose, and stopped him with an air of fury,--
"Question my patient! Kill him, you mean! No! If I am to have the wonderful good luck to pull him through, no one shall come near his bed for a month. And, moreover, it will be very fortunate indeed if in a month he is sufficiently recovered to keep up a conversation."
He shook his head, and went on, after a moment's silence,--
"Besides, it is a question whether Champcey would be disposed to say what he knows, or what he suspects. That is very doubtful. Twice he has been almost killed. Has he ever said a word about it? He probably has the same reasons for keeping silence now that he had then."
Then, without noticing the officer's objections, he added,--
"At all events, I will think it over, and go and see the judges as soon as they are out of bed. But I must ask you, lieutenant, to keep my secret till further order. Will you promise?"
"On my word, doctor."
"Then you may rest assured our poor friend shall be avenged. And now, as I have barely two hours to rest, please excuse me."
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
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