Le drame d'Aurore
Chapter 8, p. 118 to 127.
As two of the policemen heard Aurore’s story and witnessed her death, three others arrived at the home of Madame Gratton.
Her face turned pale as she saw the officers.
“Yes? What is it?”
Sergeant Dumais gently pushed aside Madame Gratton, who was standing in the doorway, and entered, followed by his men.
Once in the kitchen, he asked,“We would like to speak to your daughter, Aurore.”
“Aurore? But why? What has she done?”
There was no further doubt possible. The sergeant showed his policeman’s badge that he held in the palm of his hand.
“Where is she?” he demanded in a tone that allowed for no argument.
Mélanie Gratton hesitated for a moment before answering.
“As a matter of fact,” she said, “I was just getting ready to go and get her. She went to the barn a half-hour ago, and I was beginning to worry....”
And she added, on a false note of sadness, “The poor little thing has been sick for some time.... I’m concerned there might be something wrong...."
The sergeant stared the woman down with an impassive look.
“Take us to the barn.”
But Mélanie continued on without budging. “She feels she is persecuted, you know. She tells me all sorts of things....”
The three men appeared not even to be listening to her, and Mélanie became nervous.
“But what do you want with Aurore? Did she go over to a neighbour’s and get into some mischief?”
The sergeant let out a brief laugh.
“You can stop acting,” he said. “The nonsense has lasted long enough. Take us to the barn.”
The wretched woman was growing desperate. The men seemed to know what they were doing....
There was only one possible reason. Aurore had run away.... No, it couldn’t be! The child was much too weak to open the immense barn doors....
What could have happened?
And who had warned the police?
The Gratton woman, however, could not easily divest herself of her cynicism. With a brief nod of the head, she said, “Very well, come with me.”
The barn was quiet when they entered, and Mélanie, still acting out her role, yelled, “Aurore! Aurore, are you in here?”
But, as could be expected, the silence was all the more evident. One of the men looked at Mélanie with a smile of contempt.
“You’re sure that she’s here?” asked the sergeant.
“Absolutely. Absolutely. She left to come here just a while ago....”
“Just a while ago...” repeated one of the men.
“Yes, just a while ago,” said Mélanie Gratton in a sharp voice. “And I would appreciate it, if you have something against me, that you tell me!”
The sergeant let out a sigh.
“You’re a very good actress,” he said, “but it won’t work.”
“Actress, me? I tell you that Aurore left to come to the barn just a while ago. I don’t know more than that.”
“What was she coming to do in the barn?’
“She liked to come and play in the hay.”
“Play in the hay? In this cold weather?”
“What can I tell you? I don’t know all of her habits. She’s not my daughter....”
“No, I know,” replied the sergeant.
He quickly climbed the ladder.
He inspected the hay.
But as he came back down, he noticed a cotton rag hanging off a nail on the ladder.
He inspected it at length, climbed up again, examined how the dust was wiped away in one spot at one edge of the hayloft.
He then came back down.
“You’ll have to come with us,” he said to the woman.
At the house, he told her, “Get dressed. You are under arrest.”
At that moment, there was a knock at the outside door. It was one of the policemen who had been sent over to the Allain home.
He spoke to his sergeant in a low voice for a few seconds.
The sergeant returned to the kitchen.
“Where is your husband, Madame Gratton?”
In a harsh voice, the policemen told her, “I advise you to answer me less sharply, Madame.”
The woman sneered.
“My husband is away working.”
She gave the address in the next village.
The sergeant turned to one of his men.
“Go and get him. Bring him back here.”
“Why?” asked Mélanie, “You’re making him waste time for nothing....”
“Oh, no, not for nothing.”
“Are you going to tell me, once and for all, what you want? What is all of this?”
“You’re under arrest, Madame. I warn you that anything you say now can be held against you at your trial.”
“At my trial? What trial? Why?”
The sergeant looked her straight in the eye, “Aurore Gratton has just died, at the home of your neighbour, Viateur Allain. I am therefore arresting you for the murder of your stepdaughter.”
“I have nothing more to say, Madame.”
“This is unacceptable! What does it all have to do with me?”
“Calm yourself. We have all the necessary evidence, and if you have something to say in your defence, you can do it in court. But for now, I have nothing more to say to you.”
For the next hour, the Gratton woman ranted and raved and begged, but the policemen kept silent, unwavering. When their colleague returned with Odilon Gratton, the woman, who had calmed herself somewhat, again created a scene.
“Odilon,” she cried, “tell these bandits to release me!”
But the man, confused, looked from one policeman to another. Finally, he asked the sergeant, “What is this all about?”
In a few words, the policeman told him what had happened.
“Aurore is dead?” screamed Odilon. “But where? When?...”
“At the home of your neighbour, Viateur Allain. It was he who came to get her out of the barn last night. Your wife had locked her in there, in the cold.”
Odilon turned to his wife, “You? You did that?”
“They’re all lying! It’s a plot! It’s your neighbours; they’re all jealous!... Aurore was asleep in her bed! They came into the house to get her.”
She was becoming incoherent. But the sergeant, in a weary voice said, “Madame Gratton, it’s useless to deny it all. The little girl told everything that happened to her. And it all fits with what the neighbours know about it. The doctor confirmed that she had been burned with a hot iron, and that she had been hit repeatedly. She also fell from the hayloft, last night, and broke her arm and ankle.” Odilon broke down into tears.
“Oh, my poor Aurore. My poor little girl!” Then, pouncing on Mélanie, he screamed, “You killed her! Hypocrite, liar! You killed her!”
All of a sudden, the woman stood totally straight and, pointing a finger at Odilon, shouted, “You’re going to let me be arrested? You want me to go to jail? Very well, Odilon Gratton. But don’t forget that I’m carrying your child!”
Odilon became totally still. A look of disbelief spread over his face.
“My child?” he said. “My child?”
“Yes. And if you let them take me away like this, your second child will be born in prison. Is that what you want?”
It did not occur to the man that he had been married only a very short time and that this revelation by Mélanie could only be a very recent event.
For her part, the wretched woman was grasping at straws. She was totally uncertain of what she had said but had made the announcement without thinking, not knowing that the sad event would be confirmed later on, at the trial....
The man was in a truly pitiful state. He was torn between his resentment toward his wife and his duty to her in view of the child that was to be born to them.
“Sergeant,” he said, “are you certain of your accusations? It seems impossible to me. I know my wife, and I assure you that she is incapable of committing such a crime.”
With patience, the sergeant explained, “Monsieur Gratton, a policeman’s duty is not to judge. We have sufficient evidence to believe that little Aurore suffered abuse at the hands of your wife, enough to cause death. And so, we must place her under arrest and take her to the precinct. As for her guilt in the matter, it will be up to the jury to judge at the trial, and to the judge to act on the verdict of the jury. That is all I can tell you....”
“I’ll hire the best lawyer,” exclaimed Odilon, “and then you’ll see how all these accusations are false. Neighbours’ lies, that’s all there is to it!”
“So much the better for you and for her,” agreed the sergeant, “if such is the case. But for the time being, I must arrest her.”
“I’ll put up bail if I have to,” offered Odilon.
But the policeman shook his head.
“It’s not up to me to release Madame Gratton on bail. Only the judge has that power.”
Still, Odilon would not give up, “Listen, you must continue to investigate the matter, to get proof. You’ll see that it’s not so clear cut as all that. You will be forced to release her.”
“We’ve got the proof,” responded the sergeant. “And I must tell you that, unfortunately, it weighs heavily against her.”
“You can prove that it’s my wife?”
“Absolutely, without a doubt?”
“Sufficiently, in any case, Monsieur Gratton, to arrest her.”
All this time, Mélanie Gratton had remained silent. She watched the policemen impassively, with an almost defiant air.
“Never mind, Odilon,” she said suddenly, “Let them arrest me. They will pay a big enough price when we sue them, later, and then they’ll regret it. Never mind, I tell you. They have nothing to lose by waiting.”
The sergeant started to laugh, “You have even more audacity than I thought, Madame! I believe that we’ll indeed have the last laugh....”
He motioned to his men, “Bring her along!”
Then, gathering a few pieces of evidence, he followed them to the automobile.
Odilon Gratton stayed alone in the house for the longest time.
The events had left him numb. He was lost, not knowing what to do, trying in his head to find a solution to all these problems.
The arrest of his wife had dealt him a vicious blow. He was stunned. But what was worse still, was the reason for her arrest. Mélanie, a cruel stepmother? Was it possible that he had misjudged the woman’s character? He had thought her to be authoritarian, serious and stable. And now, what was she truly? A maniac, a sadistic person who had caused Aurore’s death...
Aurore! Suddenly Odilon got hold of himself. The poor child, dead.... She was at the Allains’, they said?
He left and quickly walked towards the house where the body of his daughter lay.
On the way, the pain slowly returned. Along with the pain, he felt a sort of resentment against Mélanie. Little by little, this resentment turned into hatred.
Logic told Odilon that the police had not arrested Mélanie without sufficient evidence of her guilt. Had the sergeant been right? Could this woman truly have caused the death of his little Aurore?
And what if it was true? Odilon shuddered with rage. If it was the case, if this Mélanie was guilty, there would be no punishment great enough for her.
"Aurore,” he whispered, “my little one! My poor little girl!"
It was Viateur Allain who greeted him and extended his hand to him.
“I know,” said the man, “that you’re not responsible for this, Monsieur Gratton, and thank the good Lord. Your child died a very sad death....”
“I was only gone a few days,” whispered Gratton, “Only a few days....”
Viateur took him to the upstairs room, in the attic.
In this already gloomy room, the light on this rainy day came in only through a small window. In the half-light, Aurore’s thin body was barely visible. All one could see on the pillow was a head with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. The long dark hair framed it like a halo.