I remained in the utmost anxiety during the time the council lasted. At last, about mid-day, Prosper Magnan was brought back. I was then taking my usual walk; he saw me, and came and threw himself into my arms.
"Lost!" he said, "lost, without hope! Here, to all the world, I am a murderer." He raised his head proudly. "This injustice restores to me my innocence. My life would always have been wretched; my death leaves me without reproach. But is there a future?"
The whole eighteenth century was in that sudden question. He remained thoughtful.
"Tell me," I said to him, "how you answered. What did they ask you? Did you not relate the simple facts as you told them to me?"
He looked at me fixedly for a moment; then, after that awful pause, he answered with feverish excitement:--
"First they asked me, 'Did you leave the inn during the night?' I said, 'Yes.' 'How?' I answered, 'By the window.' 'Then you must have taken great precautions; the innkeeper heard no noise.' I was stupefied. The sailors said they saw me walking, first to Andernach, then to the forest. I made many trips, they said, no doubt to bury the gold and diamonds. The valise had not been found. My remorse still held me dumb. When I wanted to speak, a pitiless voice cried out to me, 'YOU MEANT TO COMMIT THAT CRIME!' All was against me, even myself. They asked me about my comrade, and I completely exonerated him. Then they said to me: 'The crime must lie between you, your comrade, the innkeeper, and his wife. This morning all the windows and doors were found securely fastened.' At those words," continued the poor fellow, "I had neither voice, nor strength, nor soul to answer. More sure of my comrade than I could be of myself, I could not accuse him. I saw that we were both thought equally guilty of the murder, and that I was considered the most clumsy. I tried to explain the crime by somnambulism, and so protect my friend; but there I rambled and contradicted myself. No, I am lost. I read my condemnation in the eyes of my judges. They smiled incredulously. All is over. No more uncertainty. To-morrow I shall be shot. I am not thinking of myself," he went on after a pause, "but of my poor mother." Then he stopped, looked up to heaven, and shed no tears; his eyes were dry and strongly convulsed. "Frederic--"
["Ah! true," cried Monsieur Hermann, with an air of triumph. "Yes, the other's name was Frederic, Frederic! I remember now!"
My neighbor touched my foot, and made me a sign to look at Monsieur Taillefer. The former purveyor had negligently dropped his hand over his eyes, but between the interstices of his fingers we thought we caught a darkling flame proceeding from them.
"Hein?" she said in my ear, "what if his name were Frederic?"
I answered with a glance, which said to her: "Silence!"
"Frederic!" cried the young surgeon, "Frederic basely deserted me. He must have been afraid. Perhaps he is still hidden in the inn, for our horses were both in the courtyard this morning. What an incomprehensible mystery!" he went on, after a moment's silence. "Somnambulism! somnambulism? I never had but one attack in my life, and that was when I was six years old. Must I go from this earth," he cried, striking the ground with his foot, "carrying with me all there is of friendship in the world? Shall I die a double death, doubting a fraternal love begun when we were only five years old, and continued through school and college? Where is Frederic?"
He wept. Can it be that we cling more to a sentiment than to life?
"Let us go in," he said; "I prefer to be in my cell. I do not wish to be seen weeping. I shall go courageously to death, but I cannot play the heroic at all moments; I own I regret my beautiful young life. All last night I could not sleep; I remembered the scenes of my childhood; I fancied I was running in the fields. Ah! I had a future," he said, suddenly interrupting himself; "and now, twelve men, a sub-lieutenant shouting 'Carry-arms, aim, fire!' a roll of drums, and infamy! that's my future now. Oh! there must be a God, or it would all be too senseless."
Then he took me in his arms and pressed me to him with all his strength.
"You are the last man, the last friend to whom I can show my soul. You will be set at liberty, you will see your mother! I don't know whether you are rich or poor, but no matter! you are all the world to me. They won't fight always, 'ceux-ci.' Well, when there's peace, will you go to Beauvais? If my mother has survived the fatal news of my death, you will find her there. Say to her the comforting words, 'He was innocent!' She will believe you. I am going to write to her; but you must take her my last look; you must tell her that you were the last man whose hand I pressed. Oh, she'll love you, the poor woman! you, my last friend. Here," he said, after a moment's silence, during which he was overcome by the weight of his recollections, "all, officers and soldiers, are unknown to me; I am an object of horror to them. If it were not for you my innocence would be a secret between God and myself."
I swore to sacredly fulfil his last wishes.