Count Claudieuse seemed to be in great distress.
“It is true: we have used hard words. M. de Boiscoran had two wretched dogs that were continually escaping from his kennels, and came hunting in my fields. You cannot imagine how much game they destroyed.”
“Exactly so. And one day you met M. de Boiscoran, and you warned him that you would shoot his dogs.”
“I must confess I was furious. But I was wrong, a thousand times wrong: I did threaten”—
“That is it. You were both of you armed. You threatened one another: he actually aimed at you. Don’t deny it. A number of persons have seen it; and I know it. He has told me so himself.”
There was not a person in the whole district who did not know of what a fearful disease poor Cocoleu was suffering; and everybody knew, also, that it was perfectly useless to try and help him. The two men who had taken him out had therefore laid him simply on a pile of wet straw, and then they had left him to himself, eager as they were to see and hear what was going on.
It must be said, in justice to the several hundred peasants who were crowding around the smoking ruins of Valpinson, that they treated the madman who had accused M. de Boiscoran of such a crime, neither with cruel jokes nor with fierce curses. Unfortunately, first impulses, which are apt to be good impulses, do not last long. One of those idle good-for-nothings, drunkards, envious scamps who are found in every community, in the country as well as in the city, cried out,—
“And why not?”
These few words opened at once a door to all kinds of bold guesses.
Everybody had heard something about the quarrel between Count Claudieuse and M. de Boiscoran. It was well known, moreover, that the provocation had always come from the count, and that the latter had invariably given way in the end. Why, therefore, might not M. de Boiscoran, impatient at last, have resorted to such means in order to avenge himself on a man whom they thought he must needs hate, and whom he probably feared at the same time?
“Perhaps he would not do it, because he is a nobleman, and because he is rich?” they added sneeringly.
The next step was, of course, to look out for circumstances which might support such a theory; and the opportunity was not lacking. Groups were formed; and soon two men and a woman declared aloud that they could astonish the world if they chose to talk. They were urged to tell what they knew; and, of course, they refused. But they had said too much already. Willing or not willing, they were carried up to the house, where, at that very moment, M. Galpin was examining Count Claudieuse. The excited crowd made such a disturbance, that M. Seneschal, trembling at the idea of a new accident, rushed out to the door.
“What is it now?” he asked.
“More witnesses,” replied the peasants. “Here are some more witnesses.”