Part 1 out of 6
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by Emile Gaboriau
At about eleven o'clock in the evening of the 20th of February, 186--,
which chanced to be Shrove Sunday, a party of detectives left the police
station near the old Barriere d'Italie to the direct south of Paris.
Their mission was to explore the district extending on the one hand
between the highroad to Fontainebleau and the Seine, and on the other
between the outer boulevards and the fortifications.
This quarter of the city had at that time anything but an enviable
reputation. To venture there at night was considered so dangerous that
the soldiers from the outlying forts who came in to Paris with
permission to go to the theatre, were ordered to halt at the barriere,
and not to pass through the perilous district excepting in parties of
three or four.
After midnight, these gloomy, narrow streets became the haunt of
numerous homeless vagabonds, and escaped criminals and malefactors,
moreover, made the quarter their rendezvous. If the day had been a lucky
one, they made merry over their spoils, and when sleep overtook them,
hid in doorways or among the rubbish in deserted houses. Every effort
had been made to dislodge these dangerous guests, but the most energetic
measures had failed to prove successful. Watched, hunted, and in
imminent danger of arrest though they were, they always returned with
idiotic obstinacy, obeying, as one might suppose, some mysterious law
of attraction. Hence, the district was for the police an immense trap,
constantly baited, and to which the game came of their own accord to be
The result of a tour of inspection of this locality was so certain, that
the officer in charge of the police post called to the squad as they
departed: "I will prepare lodgings for our guests. Good luck to you and
This last wish was pure irony, for the weather was the most disagreeable
that could be imagined. A very heavy snow storm had prevailed for
several days. It was now beginning to thaw, and on all the frequented
thoroughfares the slush was ankle-deep. It was still cold, however; a
damp chill filled the air, and penetrated to the very marrow of one's
bones. Besides, there was a dense fog, so dense that one could not see
one's hands before one's face.
"What a beastly job!" growled one of the agents.
"Yes," replied the inspector who commanded the squad; "if you had an
income of thirty thousand francs, I don't suppose you'd be here." The
laugh that greeted this common-place joke was not so much flattery as
homage to a recognized and established superiority.
The inspector was, in fact, one of the most esteemed members of the
force, a man who had proved his worth. His powers of penetration were
not, perhaps, very great; but he thoroughly understood his profession,
its resources, its labyrinths, and its artifices. Long practise had
given him imperturbable coolness, a great confidence in himself, and a
sort of coarse diplomacy that supplied the place of shrewdness. To his
failings and his virtues he added incontestable courage, and he would
lay his hand upon the collar of the most dangerous criminal as
tranquilly as a devotee dips his fingers in a basin of holy water.
He was a man about forty-six years of age, strongly built, with rugged
features, a heavy mustache, and rather small, gray eyes, hidden by bushy
eyebrows. His name was Gevrol, but he was universally known as "the
General." This sobriquet was pleasing to his vanity, which was not
slight, as his subordinates well knew; and, doubtless, he felt that he
ought to receive from them the same consideration as was due to a person
of that exalted rank.
"If you begin to complain already," he added, gruffly, "what will you do
by and by?"
In fact, it was too soon to complain. The little party were then passing
along the Rue de Choisy. The people on the footways were orderly; and
the lights of the wine-shops illuminated the street. All these places
were open. There is no fog or thaw that is potent enough to dismay
lovers of pleasure. And a boisterous crowd of maskers filled each
tavern, and public ballroom. Through the open windows came alternately
the sounds of loud voices and bursts of noisy music. Occasionally, a
drunken man staggered along the pavement, or a masked figure crept by
in the shadow cast by the houses.
Before certain establishments Gevrol commanded a halt. He gave a
peculiar whistle, and almost immediately a man came out. This was
another member of the force. His report was listened to, and then the
squad passed on.
"To the left, boys!" ordered Gevrol; "we will take the Rue d'Ivry, and
then cut through the shortest way to the Rue de Chevaleret."
From this point the expedition became really disagreeable. The way led
through an unfinished, unnamed street, full of puddles and deep holes,
and obstructed with all sorts of rubbish. There were no longer any
lights or crowded wine-shops. No footsteps, no voices were heard;
solitude, gloom, and an almost perfect silence prevailed; and one might
have supposed oneself a hundred leagues from Paris, had it not been for
the deep and continuous murmur that always arises from a large city,
resembling the hollow roar of a torrent in some cavern depth.
All the men had turned up their trousers and were advancing slowly,
picking their way as carefully as an Indian when he is stealing upon his
prey. They had just passed the Rue du Chateau-des-Rentiers when suddenly
a wild shriek rent the air. At this place, and at this hour, such a cry
was so frightfully significant, that all the men paused as if by common
"Did you hear that, General?" asked one of the detectives, in a low voice.
"Yes, there is murder going on not far from here--but where? Silence!
let us listen."
They all stood motionless, holding their breath, and anxiously
listening. Soon a second cry, or rather a wild howl, resounded.
"Ah!" exclaimed the inspector, "it is at the Poivriere."
This peculiar appellation "Poivriere" or "pepper-box" was derived from
the term "peppered" which in French slang is applied to a man who has
left his good sense at the bottom of his glass. Hence, also, the
sobriquet of "pepper thieves" given to the rascals whose specialty it
is to plunder helpless, inoffensive drunkards.
"What!" added Gevrol to his companions, "don't you know Mother Chupin's
drinking-shop there on the right. Run."
And, setting the example, he dashed off in the direction indicated. His
men followed, and in less than a minute they reached a hovel of sinister
aspect, standing alone, in a tract of waste ground. It was indeed from
this den that the cries had proceeded. They were now repeated, and were
immediately followed by two pistol shots. The house was hermetically
closed, but through the cracks in the window-shutters, gleamed a reddish
light like that of a fire. One of the police agents darted to one of
these windows, and raising himself up by clinging to the shutters with
his hands, endeavored to peer through the cracks, and to see what was
Gevrol himself ran to the door. "Open!" he commanded, striking it
heavily. No response came. But they could hear plainly enough the sound
of a terrible struggle--of fierce imprecations, hollow groans, and
occasionally the sobs of a woman.
"Horrible!" cried the police agent, who was peering through the
shutters; "it is horrible!"
This exclamation decided Gevrol. "Open, in the name of the law!" he
cried a third time.
And no one responding, with a blow of the shoulder that was as violent
as a blow from a battering-ram, he dashed open the door. Then the
horror-stricken accent of the man who had been peering through the
shutters was explained. The room presented such a spectacle that all the
agents, and even Gevrol himself, remained for a moment rooted to the
threshold, shuddering with unspeakable horror.
Everything denoted that the house had been the scene of a terrible
struggle, of one of those savage conflicts which only too often stain
the barriere drinking dens with blood. The lights had been extinguished
at the beginning of the strife, but a blazing fire of pine logs
illuminated even the furthest corners of the room. Tables, glasses,
decanters, household utensils, and stools had been overturned, thrown
in every direction, trodden upon, shivered into fragments. Near the
fireplace two men lay stretched upon the floor. They were lying
motionless upon their backs, with their arms crossed. A third was
extended in the middle of the room. A woman crouched upon the lower
steps of a staircase leading to the floor above. She had thrown her
apron over her head, and was uttering inarticulate moans. Finally,
facing the police, and with his back turned to an open door leading into
an adjoining room, stood a young man, in front of whom a heavy oaken
table formed, as it were, a rampart.
He was of medium stature, and wore a full beard. His clothes, not unlike
those of a railway porter, were torn to fragments, and soiled with dust
and wine and blood. This certainly was the murderer. The expression on
his face was terrible. A mad fury blazed in his eyes, and a convulsive
sneer distorted his features. On his neck and cheek were two wounds
which bled profusely. In his right hand, covered with a handkerchief,
he held a pistol, which he aimed at the intruders.
"Surrender!" cried Gevrol.
The man's lips moved, but in spite of a visible effort he could not
articulate a syllable.
"Don't do any mischief," continued the inspector, "we are in force, you
can not escape; so lay down your arms."
"I am innocent," exclaimed the man, in a hoarse, strained voice.
"Naturally, but we do not see it."
"I have been attacked; ask that old woman. I defended myself; I have
killed--I had a right to do so; it was in self-defense!"
The gesture with which he enforced these words was so menacing that one
of the agents drew Gevrol violently aside, saying, as he did so; "Take
care, General, take care! The revolver has five barrels, and we have
heard but two shots."
But the inspector was inaccessible to fear; he freed himself from the
grasp of his subordinate and again stepped forward, speaking in a still
calmer tone. "No foolishness, my lad; if your case is a good one, which
is possible, after all, don't spoil it."
A frightful indecision betrayed itself on the young man's features. He
held Gevrol's life at the end of his finger, was he about to press the
trigger? No, he suddenly threw his weapon to the floor, exclaiming:
"Come and take me!" And turning as he spoke he darted into the adjoining
room, hoping doubtless to escape by some means of egress which he knew
Gevrol had expected this movement. He sprang after him with outstretched
arms, but the table retarded his pursuit. "Ah!" he exclaimed, "the
wretch escapes us!"
But the fate of the fugitive was already decided. While Gevrol parleyed,
one of the agents--he who had peered through the shutters--had gone to
the rear of the house and effected an entrance through the back door.
As the murderer darted out, this man sprang upon him, seized him, and
with surprising strength and agility dragged him back. The murderer
tried to resist; but in vain. He had lost his strength: he tottered and
fell upon the table that had momentarily protected him, murmuring loud
enough for every one to hear: "Lost! It is the Prussians who are
This simple and decisive maneuvre on the part of the subordinate had won
the victory, and at first it greatly delighted the inspector. "Good, my
boy," said he, "very good! Ah! you have a talent for your business, and
you will do well if ever an opportunity--"
But he checked himself; all his followers so evidently shared his
enthusiasm that a feeling of jealousy overcame him. He felt his prestige
diminishing, and hastened to add: "The idea had occurred to me; but I
could not give the order without warning the scoundrel himself."
This remark was superfluous. All the police agents had now gathered
around the murderer. They began by binding his feet and hands, and then
fastened him securely to a chair. He offered no resistance. His wild
excitement had given place to that gloomy prostration that follows all
unnatural efforts, either of mind or body. Evidently he had abandoned
himself to his fate.
When Gevrol saw that the men had finished their task, he called on them
to attend to the other inmates of the den, and in addition ordered the
lamps to be lit for the fire was going out. The inspector began his
examination with the two men lying near the fireplace. He laid his hand
on their hearts, but no pulsations were to be detected. He then held the
face of his watch close to their lips, but the glass remained quite
clear. "Useless," he murmured, after several trials, "useless; they are
dead! They will never see morning again. Leave them in the same position
until the arrival of the public prosecutor, and let us look at the other
The third man still breathed. He was a young fellow, wearing the uniform
of a common soldier of the line. He was unarmed, and his large bluish
gray cloak was partly open, revealing his bare chest. The agents lifted
him very carefully--for he groaned piteously at the slightest
movement--and placed him in an upright position, with his back leaning
against the wall. He soon opened his eyes, and in a faint voice asked
for something to drink. They brought him a glass of water, which he
drank with evident satisfaction. He then drew a long breath, and seemed
to regain some little strength.
"Where are you wounded?" asked Gevrol.
"In the head, there," he responded, trying to raise one of his arms.
"Oh! how I suffer."
The police agent, who had cut off the murderer's retreat now approached,
and with a dexterity that an old surgeon might have envied, made an
examination of the gaping wound which the young man had received in the
back of the neck. "It is nothing," declared the police agent, but as he
spoke there was no mistaking the movement of his lower lip. It was
evident that he considered the wound very dangerous, probably mortal.
"It will be nothing," affirmed Gevrol in his turn; "wounds in the head,
when they do not kill at once, are cured in a month."
The wounded man smiled sadly. "I have received my death blow,"
"Oh! it is useless to say anything; I feel it, but I do not complain.
I have only received my just deserts."
All the police agents turned toward the murderer on hearing these words,
presuming that he would take advantage of this opportunity to repeat his
protestations of innocence. But their expectations were disappointed;
he did not speak, although he must certainly have heard the words.
"It was that brigand, Lacheneur, who enticed me here," continued the
wounded man, in a voice that was growing fainter.
"Yes, Jean Lacheneur, a former actor, who knew me when I was rich--for
I had a fortune, but I spent it all; I wished to amuse myself. He,
knowing I was without a single sou in the world, came and promised me
money enough to begin life over again. Fool that I was to believe him,
for he brought me to die here like a dog! Oh! I will have my revenge on
him!" At this thought the wounded man clenched his hands threateningly.
"I will have my revenge," he resumed. "I know much more than he
believes. I will reveal everything."
But he had presumed too much upon his strength. Anger had given him a
moment's energy, but at the cost of his life which was ebbing away. When
he again tried to speak, he could not. Twice did he open his lips, but
only a choking cry of impotent rage escaped them. This was his last
manifestation of intelligence. A bloody foam gathered upon his lips, his
eyes rolled back in their sockets, his body stiffened, and he fell face
downward in a terrible convulsion.
"It is over," murmured Gevrol.
"Not yet," replied the young police agent, who had shown himself so
proficient; "but he can not live more than two minutes. Poor devil! he
will say nothing."
The inspector of police had risen from the floor as if he had just
witnessed the commonest incident in the world, and was carefully dusting
the knees of his trousers. "Oh, well," he responded, "we shall know all
we need to know. This fellow is a soldier, and the number of his
regiment will be given on the buttons of his cloak."
A slight smile curved the lips of the subordinate. "I think you are
mistaken, General," said he.
"Yes, I understand. Seeing him attired in a military coat, you
supposed--But no; this poor wretch was no soldier. Do you wish for an
immediate proof? Is his hair the regulation cut? Where did you ever see
soldiers with their hair falling over their shoulders?"
This objection silenced the General for a moment; but he replied
bruskly: "Do you think that I keep my eyes in my pocket? What you have
remarked did not escape my notice; only I said to myself, here is a
young man who has profited by leave of absence to visit the wig maker."
But Gevrol would permit no more interruptions. "Enough talk," he
declared. "We will now hear what has happened. Mother Chupin, the old
hussy, is not dead!"
As he spoke, he advanced toward the old woman, who was still crouching
upon the stairs. She had not moved nor ventured so much as a look since
the entrance of the police, but her moans had not been discontinued.
With a sudden movement, Gevrol tore off the apron which she had thrown
over her head, and there she stood, such as years, vice, poverty, and
drink had made her; wrinkled, shriveled, toothless, and haggard, her
skin as yellow and as dry as parchment and drawn tightly over her bones.
"Come, stand up!" ordered the inspector. "Your lamentations don't
affect me. You ought to be sent to prison for putting such vile drugs
into your liquors, thus breeding madness in the brains of your
The old woman's little red eyes traveled slowly round the room, and then
in tearful tones she exclaimed: "What a misfortune! what will become of
me? Everything is broken--I am ruined!" She only seemed impressed by the
loss of her table utensils.
"Now tell us how this trouble began," said Gevrol.
"Alas! I know nothing about it. I was upstairs mending my son's clothes,
when I heard a dispute."
"And after that?"
"Of course I came down, and I saw those three men that are lying there
picking a quarrel with the young man you have arrested; the poor
innocent! For he is innocent, as truly as I am an honest woman. If my
son Polyte had been here he would have separated them; but I, a poor
widow, what could I do! I cried 'Police!' with all my might."
After giving this testimony she resumed her seat, thinking she had said
enough. But Gevrol rudely ordered her to stand up again. "Oh! we have
not done," said he. "I wish for other particulars."
"What particulars, dear Monsieur Gevrol, since I saw nothing?"
Anger crimsoned the inspector's ears. "What would you say, old woman,
if I arrested you?"
"It would be a great piece of injustice."
"Nevertheless, it is what will happen if you persist in remaining
silent. I have an idea that a fortnight in Saint Lazare would untie your
These words produced the effect of an electric shock on the Widow
Chupin. She suddenly ceased her hypocritical lamentations, rose, placed
her hands defiantly on her hips, and poured forth a torrent of invective
upon Gevrol and his agents, accusing them of persecuting her family ever
since they had previously arrested her son, a good-for-nothing fellow.
Finally, she swore that she was not afraid of prison, and would be only
too glad to end her days in jail beyond the reach of want.
At first the General tried to impose silence upon the terrible
termagant: but he soon discovered that he was powerless; besides, all
his subordinates were laughing. Accordingly he turned his back upon her,
and, advancing toward the murderer, he said: "You, at least, will not
refuse an explanation."
The man hesitated for a moment. "I have already said all that I have to
say," he replied, at last. "I have told you that I am innocent; and this
woman and a man on the point of death who was struck down by my hand,
have both confirmed my declaration. What more do you desire? When the
judge questions me, I will, perhaps, reply; until then do not expect
another word from me."
It was easy to see that the fellow's resolution was irrevocable; and
that he was not to be daunted by any inspector of police. Criminals
frequently preserve an absolute silence, from the very moment they are
captured. These men are experienced and shrewd, and lawyers and judges
pass many sleepless nights on their account. They have learned that a
system of defense can not be improvised at once; that it is, on the
contrary, a work of patience and meditation; and knowing what a terrible
effect an apparently insignificant response drawn from them at the
moment of detection may produce on a court of justice, they remain
obstinately silent. So as to see whether the present culprit was an old
hand or not, Gevrol was about to insist on a full explanation when some
one announced that the soldier had just breathed his last.
"As that is so, my boys," the inspector remarked, "two of you will
remain here, and I will leave with the others. I shall go and arouse the
commissary of police, and inform him of the affair; he will take the
matter in hand: and we can then do whatever he commands. My
responsibility will be over, in any case. So untie our prisoner's legs
and bind Mother Chupin's hands, and we will drop them both at the
station-house as we pass."
The men hastened to obey, with the exception of the youngest among them,
the same who had won the General's passing praise. He approached his
chief, and motioning that he desired to speak with him, drew him outside
the door. When they were a few steps from the house, Gevrol asked him
what he wanted.
"I wish to know, General, what you think of this affair."
"I think, my boy, that four scoundrels encountered each other in this
vile den. They began to quarrel; and from words they came to blows. One
of them had a revolver, and he killed the others. It is as clear as
daylight. According to his antecedents, and according to the antecedents
of the victims, the assassin will be judged. Perhaps society owes him
"And you think that any investigation--any further search is unnecessary."
The younger man appeared to deliberate for a moment. "It seems to me,
General," he at length replied, "that this affair is not perfectly
clear. Have you noticed the murderer, remarked his demeanor, and
observed his look? Have you been surprised as I have been--?"
"Ah, well! it seems to me--I may, of course, be mistaken--but I fancy
that appearances are deceitful, and--Yes, I suspect something."
"Bah!--explain yourself, please."
"How can you explain the dog's faculty of scent?"
Gevrol shrugged his shoulders. "In short, he replied, "you scent a
melodrama here--a rendezvous of gentlemen in disguise, here at the
Poivriere, at Mother Chupin's house. Well, hunt after the mystery, my
boy; search all you like, you have my permission."
"What! you will allow me?"
"I not only allow you, I order you to do it. You are going to remain
here with any one of your comrades you may select. And if you find
anything that I have not seen, I will allow you to buy me a pair of
The young police agent to whom Gevrol abandoned what he thought an
unnecessary investigation was a debutant in his profession. His name was
Lecoq. He was some twenty-five or twenty-six years of age, almost
beardless, very pale, with red lips, and an abundance of wavy black
hair. He was rather short but well proportioned; and each of his
movements betrayed unusual energy. There was nothing remarkable about
his appearance, if we except his eyes, which sparkled brilliantly or
grew extremely dull, according to his mood; and his nose, the large full
nostrils of which had a surprising mobility.
The son of a respectable, well-to-do Norman family, Lecoq had received
a good and solid education. He was prosecuting his law studies in Paris,
when in the same week, blow following blow, he learned that his father
had died, financially ruined, and that his mother had survived him only
a few hours. He was left alone in the world, destitute of resources,
obliged to earn his living. But how? He had an opportunity of learning
his true value, and found that it amounted to nothing; for the
university, on bestowing its diploma of bachelor, does not give an
annuity with it. Hence of what use is a college education to a poor
orphan boy? He envied the lot of those who, with a trade at the ends of
their fingers, could boldly enter the office of any manufacturer, and
say: "I would like to work." Such men were working and eating. Lecoq
sought bread by all the methods employed by people who are in reduced
circumstances! Fruitless labor! There are a hundred thousand people in
Paris who have seen better days. No matter! He gave proofs of undaunted
energy. He gave lessons, and copied documents for a lawyer. He made his
appearance in a new character almost every day, and left no means
untried to earn an honest livelihood. At last he obtained employment
from a well-known astronomer, the Baron Moser, and spent his days in
solving bewildering and intricate problems, at the rate of a hundred
francs a month.
But a season of discouragement came. After five years of constant toil,
he found himself at the same point from which he had started. He was
nearly crazed with rage and disappointment when he recapitulated his
blighted hopes, his fruitless efforts, and the insults he had endured.
The past had been sad, the present was intolerable, the future
threatened to be terrible. Condemned to constant privations, he tried
to escape from the horrors of his real life by taking refuge in dreams.
Alone in his garret, after a day of unremitting toil, assailed by the
thousand longings of youth, Lecoq endeavored to devise some means of
suddenly making himself rich. All reasonable methods being beyond his
reach, it was not long before he was engaged in devising the worst
expedients. In short, this naturally moral and honest young man spent
much of his time in perpetrating--in fancy--the most abominable crimes.
Sometimes he himself was frightened by the work of his imagination: for
an hour of recklessness might suffice to make him pass from the idea to
the fact, from theory to practise. This is the case with all
monomaniacs; an hour comes in which the strange conceptions that have
filled their brains can be no longer held in check.
One day he could not refrain from exposing to his patron a little plan
he had conceived, which would enable him to obtain five or six hundred
francs from London. Two letters and a telegram were all that was
necessary, and the game was won. It was impossible to fail, and there
was no danger of arousing suspicion.
The astronomer, amazed at the simplicity of the plan, could but admire
it. On reflection, however, he concluded that it would not be prudent
for him to retain so ingenious a secretary in his service. This was why,
on the following day, he gave him a month's pay in advance, and
dismissed him, saying: "When one has your disposition, and is poor, one
may either become a famous thief or a great detective. Choose."
Lecoq retired in confusion; but the astronomer's words bore fruit in his
mind. "Why should I not follow good advice?" he asked himself. Police
service did not inspire him with repugnance--far from it. He had often
admired that mysterious power whose hand is everywhere, and which,
although unseen and unheard, still manages to hear and see everything.
He was delighted with the prospect of being the instrument of such a
power. He considered that the profession of detective would enable him
to employ the talents with which he had been endowed in a useful and
honorable fashion; besides opening out a life of thrilling adventure
with fame as its goal.
In short, this profession had a wonderful charm for him. So much so,
that on the following week, thanks to a letter from Baron Moser, he was
admitted into the service. A cruel disenchantment awaited him. He had
seen the results, but not the means. His surprise was like that of a
simple-minded frequenter of the theatre, when he is admitted for the
first time behind the scenes, and is able to pry into the decorations
and tinsel that are so dazzling at a distance.
However, the opportunity for which he had so ardently longed, for which
he had been waiting during many weary months, had come, he thought, at
last, as he reached the Poivriere with Gevrol and the other police
agents. While he was clinging to the window shutters he saw by the light
of his ambition a pathway to success. It was at first only a
presentiment, but it soon became a supposition, and then a conviction
based upon actual facts, which had escaped his companions, but which he
had observed and carefully noted. He recognized that fortune had, at
last, turned in his favor when he saw Gevrol neglect all but the merest
formalities of examination, and when he heard him declare peremptorily
that this triple murder was merely the result of one of those ferocious
quarrels so frequent among vagrants in the outskirts of the city.
"Ah, well!" he thought; "have it your own way--trust in appearances,
since you will see nothing beneath them! But I will prove to you that
my youthful theory is better than all your experience."
The inspector's carelessness gave Lecoq a perfect right to secretly seek
information on his own account; but by warning his superior officers
before attempting anything on his own responsibility, he would protect
himself against any accusation of ambition or of unduly taking advantage
of his comrade. Such charges might prove most dangerous for his future
prospects in a profession where so much rivalry is seen, and where
wounded vanity has so many opportunities to avenge itself by resorting
to all sorts of petty treason. Accordingly, he spoke to his superior
officer--saying just enough to be able to remark, in case of success:
"Ah! I warned you!"--just enough so as not to dispel any of Gevrol's
The permission which Lecoq obtained to remain in charge of the bodies
was his first triumph of the best possible augury; but he knew how to
dissimulate, and it was in a tone of the utmost indifference that he
requested one of his comrades to remain with him. Then, while the others
were making ready to depart, he seated himself upon the corner of the
table, apparently oblivious of all that was passing around. He did not
dare to lift his head, for fear of betraying his joy, so much did he
fear that his companions might read his hopes and plans in the
expression of his face.
Inwardly he was wild with impatience. Though the murderer submitted with
good grace to the precautions that were taken to prevent his escape, it
required some time to bind the hands of the Widow Chupin, who fought and
howled as if they were burning her alive. "They will never go!" Lecoq
murmured to himself.
They did so at last, however. Gevrol gave the order to start, and left
the house, addressing a laughing good-by to his subordinate. The latter
made no reply. He followed his comrades as far as the threshold to make
sure that they were really going, for he trembled at the thought that
Gevrol might reflect, change his mind, and return to solve the mystery,
as was his right.
His anxiety was needless, however. The squad gradually faded away in the
distance, and the cries of Widow Chupin died away in the stillness of
the night. It was only then that Lecoq reentered the room. He could no
longer conceal his delight; his eyes sparkled as might those of a
conqueror taking possession of some vast empire: he stamped his foot
upon the floor and exclaimed with exultation: "Now the mystery belongs
to us two alone!"
Authorized by Gevrol to choose one of his comrades to remain with him
at the Poivriere, Lecoq had requested the least intelligent of the party
to keep him company. He was not influenced by a fear of being obliged
to share the fruits of success with his companion, but by the necessity
of having an assistant from whom he could, in case of need, exact
The comrade Lecoq selected was a man of about fifty, who, after a term
of cavalry service, had become an agent of the prefecture. In the humble
office that he occupied he had seen prefect succeed prefect, and might
probably have filled an entire prison with the culprits he had arrested
with his own hands. Experience had not, however, made him any the
shrewder or any the more zealous. Still he had this merit, when he
received an order he executed it with military exactitude, so far as he
understood it. Of course if he had failed to understand it, so much the
worse. It might, indeed, be said of him, that he discharged his duties
like a blind man, like an old horse trained for a riding school.
When he had a moment's leisure, and a little money in his pocket, he
invariably got drunk. Indeed, he spent his life between two fits of
intoxication, without ever rising above a condition of semi-lucidity.
His comrades had known, but had forgotten, his name, and his partiality
for a certain beverage had accordingly induced them to call him "Father
With his limited powers of observation, he naturally did not observe the
tone of triumph in his young companion's voice. "Upon my word," he
remarked, when they were alone, "your idea of keeping me here was a good
one, and I thank you for it. While the others spend the night paddling
about in the slush, I shall get a good sleep."
Here he stood, in a room that was splashed with blood, that was
shuddering, so to speak, with crime, and yet face to face with the still
warm bodies of three murdered men he could talk of sleep!
But, after all, what did it matter to him? He had seen so many similar
scenes in his time. And does not habit infallibly lead to professional
indifference, making the soldier cool and composed in the midst of
conflict, and rendering the surgeon impassible when the patient shrieks
and writhes beneath his operating knife.
"I have been upstairs, looking about," pursued Father Absinthe; "I saw
a bed up there, and we can mount guard here, by turns."
With an imperious gesture, Lecoq interrupted him. "You must give up that
idea, Father Absinthe," he said, "we are not here to sleep, but to
collect information--to make the most careful researches, and to note
all the probabilities. In a few hours the commissary of police, the
legal physician, and the public prosecutor will be here. I wish to have
a report ready for them."
This proposition seemed anything but pleasing to the old police agent.
"Eh! what is the use of that?" he exclaimed. "I know the General. When
he goes in search of the commissary, as he has gone this evening, there
is nothing more to be done. Do you think you can see anything that he
"I think that Gevrol, like every one else, is liable to be mistaken. I
think that he believes too implicitly in what seems to him evidence. I
could swear that this affair is not what it seems to be; and I am sure
that if we like we can discover the mystery which is concealed beneath
Although Lecoq's vehemence was intense, he did not succeed in making any
impression upon his companion, who with a yawn that threatened to
dislocate his jaws replied: "Perhaps you are right; but I am going to
bed. This need not prevent you from searching around, however; and if
you find anything you can wake me."
Lecoq made no sign of impatience: nor in reality was he impatient. These
words afforded him the opportunity for which he was longing. "You will
give me a moment first," he remarked. "In five minutes, by your watch,
I promise to let you put your finger on the mystery that I suspect
"Well, go on for five minutes."
"After that you shall be free, Father Absinthe. Only it is clear that
if I unravel the mystery alone, I alone ought to pocket the reward that
a solution will certainly bring."
At the word "reward" the old police agent pricked up his ears. He was
dazzled by the vision of an infinite number of bottles of the greenish
liquor whose name he bore. "Convince me, then," said he, taking a seat
upon a stool, which he had lifted from the floor.
Lecoq remained standing in front of him. "To begin with," he remarked,
"whom do you suppose the person we have just arrested to be?"
"A porter, probably, or a vagabond."
"That is to say, a man belonging to the lowest class of society:
consequently, a fellow without education."
Lecoq spoke with his eyes fixed upon those of his companion. He
distrusted his own powers, as is usual with persons of real merit, but
he felt that if he could succeed in making his convictions penetrate his
comrade's obtuse mind, their exactitude would be virtually proved.
"And now," he continued, "what would you say if I showed you that this
young man had received an excellent, even refined, education?"
"I should reply that it was very extraordinary. I should reply that--but
what a fool I am! You have not proved it to me yet."
"But I can do so very easily. Do you remember the words that he uttered
as he fell?"
"Yes, I remember them perfectly. He said: 'It is the Prussians who are
"What do you suppose he meant by that?"
"What a question! I should suppose that he did not like the Prussians,
and that he supposed he was offering us a terrible insult."
Lecoq was waiting anxiously for this response. "Ah, well; Father
Absinthe," he said gravely, "you are wrong, quite wrong. And that this
man has an education superior to his apparent position is proved by the
fact that you did not understand his meaning, nor his intention. It was
this single phrase that enlightened me."
Father Absinthe's physiognomy expressed the strange and comical
perplexity of a man who is so thoroughly mystified that he knows not
whether to laugh, or to be angry. After reflecting a little, he decided
to adopt the latter course. "You are rather too young to impose upon an
old fellow like me," he remarked. "I don't like boasters--"
"One moment!" interrupted Lecoq; "allow me to explain. You have
certainly heard of a terrible battle which resulted in one of the
greatest defeats that ever happened to France--the battle of Waterloo?"
"I don't see the connection--"
"Answer, if you please."
"Yes--then! I have heard of it!"
"Very well; you must know then that for some time victory seemed likely
to rest with the banners of France. The English began to fall back, and
the emperor had already exclaimed: "We have them!" when suddenly on the
right, a little in the rear, a large body of troops was seen advancing.
It was the Prussian army. The battle of Waterloo was lost."
In all his life, worthy Father Absinthe had never made such a strenuous
effort to understand anything. In this case his perseverance was not
wholly useless, for, springing from his stool, and probably in much the
same tone that Archimedes cried "Eureka!" he exclaimed, "I understand.
The man's words were only an allusion."
"It is as you have said," remarked Lecoq, approvingly. "But I had not
finished. If the emperor was thrown into consternation by the appearance
of the Prussians, it was because he was momentarily expecting the
arrival of one of his own generals from the same direction--Grouchy--
with thirty-five thousand men. So if this man's allusion was exact and
complete, he was not expecting an enemy, but a friend. Now draw your own
Father Absinthe was amazed but convinced: and his eyes, heavy with sleep
a few moments before, now opened to their widest extent. "Good heavens!"
he murmured, "if you put it in that way! But I forget; you must have
seen something as you were looking through the shutters."
The young man shook his head. "Upon my honor," he declared, "I saw
nothing save the struggle between the murderer and the poor devil
dressed as a soldier. It was that sentence alone that aroused my
"Wonderful! prodigious!" exclaimed the astonished old man.
"I will add that reflection has confirmed my suspicions. I ask myself
why this man, instead of flying at once, should have waited and remained
there, at that door, to parley with us."
With a bound, Father Absinthe sprang again to his feet. "Why?" he
interrupted; "because he had accomplices, and he wished to give them
time to escape. Ah! I understand it all now."
A triumphant smile parted Lecoq's lips. "That is what I said to myself,"
he replied, "and now it is easy to verify my suspicions. There is snow
outside, isn't there?"
It was not necessary to say any more. The elder officer seized the
light, and followed by his companion, he hastened to the back door of
the house, which opened into a small garden. In this sheltered enclosure
the snow had not melted, and upon its white surface the dark stains of
numerous footprints presented themselves. Without hesitation, Lecoq
threw himself upon his knees in the snow; he rose again almost
immediately. "These indentations were not made by the men's feet," said
he. "There have been women here."
Obstinate men of Father Absinthe's stamp, who are at first always
inclined to differ from other people's opinions, are the very
individuals who end in madly adopting them. When an idea has at last
penetrated their empty brains, they twist and turn it, dwell upon it,
and develop it until it exceeds the bounds of reason.
Hence, the police veteran was now much more strongly convinced than his
companion that the usually clever Gevrol had been mistaken, and
accordingly he laughed the inspector to scorn. On hearing Lecoq affirm
that women had taken part in the horrible scene at the Poivriere, his
joy was extreme--"A fine affair!" he exclaimed; "an excellent case!"
And suddenly recollecting a maxim that has been handed down from the
time of Cicero, he added in sententious tones: "Who holds the woman
holds the cause!"
Lecoq did not deign to reply. He was standing upon the threshold,
leaning against the framework of the door, his hand pressed to his
forehead, as motionless as a statue. The discovery he had just made, and
which so delighted Father Absinthe, filled him with consternation. It
was the death of his hopes, the annihilation of the ingenious structure
which his imagination had built upon the foundation of a single
There was no longer any mystery--, so celebrity was not to be gained by
a brilliant stroke!
For the presence of two women in this vile den explained everything in
the most natural and commonplace fashion. Their presence explained the
quarrel, the testimony of Widow Chupin, the dying declaration of the
pretended soldier. The behavior of the murderer was also explained. He
had remained to cover the retreat of the two women; he had sacrificed
himself in order to save them, an act of gallantry so common in the
French character, that any scoundrel of the barrieres might have
Still, the strange allusion to the battle of Waterloo remained
unexplained. But what did that prove now? Nothing, simply nothing.
However, who could say how low an unworthy passion might cause a man
even of birth and breeding to descend? And the carnival afforded an
opportunity for the parties to disguise themselves.
But while Lecoq was turning and twisting all these probabilities in his
mind, Father Absinthe became impatient. "Are we going to remain here
until doomsday?" he asked. "Are we to pause just at the moment when our
search has been productive of such brilliant results?"
"Brilliant results!" These words stung the young man as deeply as the
keenest irony could have done. "Leave me alone," he replied gruffly;
"and, above all, don't walk about the garden, as by doing so, you'll
damage any footprints."
His companion swore a little; but soon became silent in his turn. He was
constrained to submit to the irresistible ascendency of superior will
Lecoq was engaged in following out his course of reasoning. "The
murderer, leaving the ball at the Rainbow, a dancing-house not far from
here, near the fortifications, came to this wine-shop, accompanied by
two women. He found three men drinking here, who either began teasing
him, or who displayed too much gallantry toward his companions. He
became angry. The others threatened him; he was one against three; he
was armed; he became wild with rage, and fired--"
He checked himself, and an instant after added, aloud: "But was it the
murderer who brought these women here? If he is tried, this will be the
important point. It is necessary to obtain information regarding it."
He immediately went back into the house, closely followed by his
colleague, and began an examination of the footprints round about the
door that Gevrol had forced open. Labor lost. There was but little snow
on the ground near the entrance of the hovel, and so many persons had
passed in and out that Lecoq could discover nothing. What a
disappointment after his patient hopes! Lecoq could have cried with
rage. He saw the opportunity for which he had sighed so long
indefinitely postponed. He fancied he could hear Gevrol's coarse
sarcasms. "Enough of this," he murmured, under his breath. "The General
was right, and I am a fool!"
He was so positively convinced that one could do no more than discover
the circumstances of some commonplace, vulgar broil, that he began to
wonder if it would not be wise to renounce his search and take a nap,
while awaiting the coming of the commissary of police.
But Father Absinthe was no longer of this opinion. This worthy man, who
was far from suspecting the nature of his companion's reflections could
not explain his inaction. "Come! my boy," said he, "have you lost your
wits? This is losing time, it seems to me. The authorities will arrive
in a few hours, and what report shall we be able to give them! As for
me, if you desire to go to sleep, I shall pursue the investigation
Disappointed as he was, the young police officer could not repress a
smile. He recognized his own exhortation of a few moments before. It was
the old man who had suddenly become intrepid. "To work, then!" he
sighed, like a man who, while foreseeing defeat, wishes, at least, to
have no cause for self-reproach.
He found it, however, extremely difficult to follow the footprints in
the open air by the uncertain light of a candle, which was extinguished
by the least breath of wind. "I wonder if there is a lantern in the
house," he said. "If we could only lay our hands upon one!"
They searched everywhere, and, at last, upstairs in the Widow Chupin's
own room, they found a well-trimmed lantern, so small and compact that
it certainly had never been intended for honest purposes.
"A regular burglar's implement," said Father Absinthe, with a coarse laugh.
The implement was useful in any case; as both men agreed when they
returned to the garden and recommenced their investigations
systematically. They advanced very slowly and with extreme caution. The
old man carefully held the lantern in the best position, while Lecoq,
on his knees, studied each footprint with the attention of a chiromancer
professing to read the future in the hand of a rich client. This new
examination assured Lecoq that he had been correct in his first
supposition. It was plain that two women had left the Poivriere by the
back door. They had started off running, as was proved by the length of
the steps and the shape of the footprints.
The difference in the tracks left by the two fugitives was so remarkable
that it did not escape Father Absinthe's eyes. "Sapristi!" he muttered;
"one of these jades can boast of having a pretty foot at the end of her
He was right. One of the tracks betrayed a small, coquettish, slender
foot, clad in an elegant high-heeled boot with a narrow sole and an
arched instep. The other denoted a broad, short foot growing wider
toward the end. It had evidently been incased in a strong, low shoe.
This was indeed a clue. Lecoq's hopes at once revived; so eagerly does
a man welcome any supposition that is in accordance with his desires.
Trembling with anxiety, he went to examine some other footprints a short
distance from these; and an excited exclamation at once escaped his
"What is it?" eagerly inquired the other agent: "what do you see?"
"Come and look for yourself, see there!" cried Lecoq.
The old man bent down, and his surprise was so great that he almost
dropped the lantern. "Oh!" said he in a stifled voice, "a man's
"Exactly. And this fellow wore the finest of boots. See that imprint,
how clear, how neat it is!"
Worthy Father Absinthe was scratching his ear furiously, his usual
method of quickening his rather slow wits. "But it seems to me," he
ventured to say at last, "that this individual was not coming from this
"Of course not; the direction of the foot tells you that. No, he was not
going away, he was coming here. But he did not pass beyond the spot
where we are now standing. He was standing on tiptoe with outstretched
neck and listening ears, when, on reaching this spot, he heard some
noise, fear seized him, and he fled."
"Or rather, the women were going out as he was coming, and--"
"No, the women were outside the garden when he entered it."
This assertion seemed far too audacious to suit Lecoq's companion, who
remarked: "One can not be sure of that."
"I am sure of it, however; and can prove it conclusively. If you doubt
it, it is because your eyes are growing old. Bring your lantern a little
nearer--yes, here it is--our man placed his large foot upon one of the
marks made by the woman with the small foot and almost effaced it." This
unexceptionable piece of circumstantial evidence stupefied the old
"Now," continued Lecoq, "could this man have been the accomplice whom
the murderer was expecting? Might it not have been some strolling
vagrant whose attention was attracted by the two pistol shots? This is
what we must ascertain. And we will ascertain it. Come!"
A wooden fence of lattice-work, rather more than three feet high, was
all that separated the Widow Chupin's garden from the waste land
surrounding it. When Lecoq made the circuit of the house to cut off the
murderer's escape he had encountered this obstacle, and, fearing lest
he should arrive too late, he had leaped the fence to the great
detriment of his pantaloons, without even asking himself if there was
a gate or not. There was one, however--a light gate of lattice-work
similar to the fence, turning upon iron hinges, and closed by a wooden
button. Now it was straight toward this gate that these footprints in
the snow led the two police agents. Some now thought must have struck
the younger man, for he suddenly paused. "Ah!" he murmured, "these two
women did not come to the Poivriere this evening for the first time."
"Why do you think that, my boy?" inquired Father Absinthe.
"I could almost swear it. How, unless they were in the habit of coming
to this den, could they have been aware of the existence of this gate?
Could they have discovered it on such a dark, foggy night? No; for I,
who can, without boasting, say that I have good eyes--I did not see it."
"Ah! yes, that is true!"
"These two women, however, came here without hesitating, in a straight
line; and note that to do this, it was necessary for them to cross the
The veteran would have given something if he could have found some
objection to offer; but unfortunately he could find none. "Upon my
word!" he exclaimed, "yours is a droll way of proceeding. You are only
a conscript; I am a veteran in the service, and have assisted in more
affairs of this sort than you are years old, but never have I seen--"
"Nonsense!" interrupted Lecoq, "you will see much more. For example, I
can prove to you that although the women knew the exact position of the
gate, the man knew it only by hearsay."
"The fact is easily demonstrated. Study the man's footprints, and you,
who are very sharp, will see at once that he deviated greatly from the
straight course. He was in such doubt that he was obliged to search for
the gate with his hand stretched out before him--and his fingers have
left their imprint on the thin covering of snow that lies upon the upper
railing of the fence."
The old man would have been glad to verify this statement for himself,
as he said, but Lecoq was in a hurry. "Let us go on, let us go on!" said
he. "You can verify my assertions some other time."
They left the garden and followed the footprints which led them toward
the outer boulevards, inclining somewhat in the direction of the Rue de
Patay. There was now no longer any need of close attention. No one save
the fugitives had crossed this lonely waste since the last fall of snow.
A child could have followed the track, so clear and distinct it was.
Four series of footprints, very unlike in character, formed the track;
two of these had evidently been left by the women; the other two, one
going and one returning, had been made by the man. On several occasions
the latter had placed his foot exactly on the footprints left by the two
women, half effacing them, thus dispelling all doubt as to the precise
moment of his approach.
About a hundred yards from the Poivriere, Lecoq suddenly seized his
colleague's arm. "Halt!" he exclaimed, "we have reached a good place;
I can see unmistakable proofs."
The spot, all unenclosed as it was, was evidently utilized by some
builder for the storage of various kinds of lumber. The ground was
strewn with large blocks of granite, some chiseled, some in the rough,
with numerous long planks and logs of wood in their midst. In front of
one of these logs, the surface of which had been evidently wiped, all
the various footprints came together, mingling confusedly.
"Here," declared the young detective, "our fugitives met the man and
took counsel with him. One of the women, the one with the little feet,
sat down upon this log."
"We ought to make quite sure of that," said Father Absinthe, in an
But his companion cut short his desire for verification. "You, my old
friend," said he, "are going to do me the kindness to keep perfectly
still: pass me the lantern and do not move."
Lecoq's modest tone had suddenly become so imperious that his colleague
dared offer no resistance. Like a soldier at the command to halt, he
remained erect, motionless, and mute, following his colleague's
movements with an inquisitive, wondering eye.
Quick in his motions, and understanding how to maneuvre the lantern in
accordance with his wishes, the young police agent explored the
surroundings in a very short space of time. A bloodhound in pursuit of
his prey would have been less alert, less discerning, less agile. He
came and went, now turning, now pausing, now retreating, now hurrying
on again without any apparent reason; he scrutinized, he questioned
every surrounding object: the ground, the logs of wood, the blocks of
stone, in a word, nothing escaped his glance. For a moment he would
remain standing, then fall upon his knees, and at times lie flat upon
his stomach with his face so near the ground that his breath must have
melted the snow. He had drawn a tape-line from his pocket, and using it
with a carpenter's dexterity, he measured, measured, and measured.
And all his movements were accompanied with the wild gestures of a
madman, interspersed with oaths or short laughs, with exclamations of
disappointment or delight. After a quarter of an hour of this strange
exercise, he turned to Father Absinthe, placed the lantern on a stone,
wiped his hands with his pocket-handkerchief, and said: "Now I know
"Well, that is saying a great deal!"
"When I say everything, I mean all that is connected with the episode
of the drama which ended in that bloody bout in the hovel. This expanse
of earth covered with snow is a white page upon which the people we are
in search of have written, not only their movements, their goings, and
comings, but also their secret thoughts, their alternate hopes and
anxieties. What do these footprints say to you, Papa Absinthe? To me
they are alive like the persons who made them; they breathe, speak,
The old agent was saying to himself: "Certainly, this fellow is
intelligent, undeniably shrewd; but he is very disagreeable."
"These are the facts as I have read them," pursued Lecoq. "When the
murderer repaired to the Poivriere with the two women, his companion--I
should say his accomplice--came here to wait. He was a tall man of
middle age; he wore a soft hat and a shaggy brown overcoat; he was,
moreover, probably married, or had been so, as he had a wedding-ring on
the little finger of his right hand--"
His companion's despairing gestures obliged the speaker to pause. This
description of a person whose existence had but just now been
demonstrated, these precise details given in a tone of absolute
certainty, completely upset all Father Absinthe's ideas, increasing his
perplexity beyond all bounds.
"This is not right," he growled, "this is not kind. You are poking fun
at me. I take the thing seriously; I listen to you, I obey you in
everything, and then you mock me in this way. We find a clue, and
instead of following it up, you stop to relate all these absurd
"No," replied his companion, "I am not jesting, and I have told you
nothing of which I am not absolutely sure, nothing that is not strictly
and indisputably true."
"And you would have me believe--"
"Fear nothing, papa; I would not have you do violence to your
convictions. When I have told you my reasons, and my means of
information, you will laugh at the simplicity of the theory that seems
so incomprehensible to you now."
"Go on, then," said the good man, in a tone of resignation.
"We had decided," rejoined Lecoq, "that the accomplice mounted guard
here. The time seemed long, and, growing impatient, he paced to and
fro--the length of this log of wood--occasionally pausing to listen.
Hearing nothing, he stamped his foot, doubtless exclaiming: 'What the
deuce has happened to him down there!' He had made about thirty turns (I
have counted them), when a sound broke the stillness--the two women were
On hearing Lecoq's recital, all the conflicting sentiments that are
awakened in a child's mind by a fairy tale--doubt, faith, anxiety, and
hope--filled Father Absinthe's heart. What should he believe? what
should he refuse to believe? He did not know. How was he to separate the
true from the false among all these equally surprising assertions? On
the other hand, the gravity of his companion, which certainly was not
feigned, dismissed all idea of pleasantry.
Finally, curiosity began to torture him. "We had reached the point where
the women made their appearance," said he.
"Yes, indeed," responded Lecoq, "but here all certainty ceases; no more
proofs, only suppositions. Still, I have every reason to believe that
our fugitives left the drinking den before the beginning of the fight,
before the cries that attracted our attention. Who were they? I can only
conjecture. I suspect, however, that they were not equals in rank. I am
inclined to think that one was the mistress, the other her servant."
"That is proved," ventured the old man, "by the great difference in
their feet and in their shoes."
This shrewd observation elicited a smile from Lecoq. "That difference,"
he replied, seriously, "is something, of course; but it was not that
which decided me in my opinion. If greater or less perfection of the
extremities regulated social distinctions, many mistresses would be
servants. What struck me was this: when the two women rushed wildly from
Mother Chupin's house, the woman with the small feet sprang across the
garden with one bound, she darted on some distance in advance of the
other. The terror of the situation, the vileness of the den, the horror
of the scandal, the thought of safety, inspired her with marvelous
energy. But her strength, as often happens with delicate and nervous
women, lasted only a few seconds. She was not half-way from the
Poivriere when her speed relaxed, her limbs trembled. Ten steps farther
on she tottered and almost fell. Some steps farther, and she became so
exhausted that she let go her hold upon her skirts; they trailed upon
the snow, tracing a faint circle there. Then the woman with the broad
feet came to aid her. She seized her companion round the waist; she
dragged her along; their footprints here are mingled confusedly; then,
seeing that her friend was about to fall, she caught her up in her
strong arms and carried her--for you will see that the footprints made
by the woman with the small feet suddenly cease at this point."
Was Lecoq merely amusing himself by inventing this story? Was this scene
anything but a work of imagination? Was the accent of deep and sincere
conviction which he imparted to his words only feigned?
Father Absinthe was still in doubt, but he thought of a way in which he
might satisfy his uncertainty. He caught up the lantern and hurried off
to examine these footprints which he had not known how to read, which
had been speechless to him, but which yielded their secret to another.
He was obliged to agree with his companion. All that Lecoq had described
was written there; he saw the confused footprints, the circle made by
the sweeping skirts, the cessation of the tiny imprints.
On his return, his countenance betrayed a respectful and astonished
admiration, and it was with a shade of embarrassment that he said: "You
can scarcely blame an old man for being a little like St. Thomas. 'I
have touched it with my fingers,' and now I am content to follow you."
The young police agent could not, indeed, blame his colleague for his
incredulity. Resuming his recital, he continued: "Then the accomplice,
who had heard the fugitives coming, ran to meet them, and he aided the
woman with large feet in carrying her companion. The latter must have
been really ill, for the accomplice took off his hat and used it in
brushing the snow off this log. Then, thinking the surface was not yet
dry enough, he wiped it with the skirt of his overcoat. Were these
civilities pure gallantry, or the usual attentions of an inferior? I
have asked myself that question. This much, however, is certain, while
the woman with the small feet was recovering her strength, half
reclining upon this board, the other took the accomplice a little on one
side, five or six steps away to the left, just beside that enormous
block of granite. There she talked with him, and, as he listened, the
man leaned upon the snow-covered stone. His hand left a very distinct
imprint there. Then, as the conversation continued, he rested his elbow
upon the snowy surface."
Like all men of limited intelligence, Father Absinthe had suddenly
passed from unreasoning distrust to unquestioning confidence.
Henceforth, he could believe anything for the very same reason that had,
at first, made him believe nothing. Having no idea of the bounds of
human reasoning and penetration, he saw no limits to the conjectural
genius of his companion. With perfect faith, therefore, he inquired:
"And what was the accomplice saying to the woman with the broad shoes?"
Lecoq smiled at this simplicity, but the other did not see him do so.
"It is rather difficult for me to answer that question," replied the
young detective, "I think, however, that the woman was explaining to the
man the immensity and imminence of the danger that threatened his
companion, and that they were trying to devise some means to rescue him
from it. Perhaps she brought him orders given by the murderer. It is
certain that she ended by beseeching the accomplice to run to the
Poivriere and see what was passing there. And he did so, for his tracks
start from this block of granite."
"And only to think," exclaimed Father Absinthe, "that we were in the
hovel at that very moment. A word from Gevrol, and we might have had
handcuffs on the whole gang! How unfortunate!"
Lecoq was not sufficiently disinterested to share his companion's
regret. On the contrary, he was very thankful for Gevrol's blunder. Had
it not been for that, how would he ever have found an opportunity of
investigating an affair that grew more and more mysterious as his search
proceeded, but which he hoped to fathom finally.
"To conclude," he resumed, "the accomplice soon returned, he had
witnessed the scene, and was evidently afraid. He feared that the
thought of exploring the premises might enter the minds of the police.
It was to the lady with small feet that he addressed himself. He
explained the necessity of flight, and told her that even a moment's
delay might be fatal. At his words, she summoned all her energy; she
rose and hastened away, clinging to the arm of her companion. Did the
man indicate the route they were to take, or did they know it
themselves? This much is certain, he accompanied them some distance, in
order to watch over them. But besides protecting these women, he had a
still more sacred duty to perform--that of succoring his accomplice, if
possible. He retraced his steps, passed by here once more, and the last
footprint that I can discover leads in the direction of the Rue du
Chateau des Rentiers. He wished to know what would become of the
murderer, and went to place himself where he might see him pass by with
Like a dilettante who can scarcely restrain his applause until the close
of the aria that delights him, Father Absinthe had been unable during
the recital to entirely suppress his admiration. But it was not until
Lecoq ceased speaking that he gave full vent to his enthusiasm: "Here
is a detective if you like!" he exclaimed. "And they pretend that Gevrol
is shrewd! What has he ever done to compare with this? Ah! shall I tell
you what I think? Why, in comparison with you, the General is a more
John the Baptist."
Certainly the flattery was gross, but it was impossible to doubt its
sincerity. This was the first time that the balmy dew of praise had
fallen upon Lecoq's vanity, and it greatly delighted him, although he
modestly replied: "Nonsense, you are too kind, papa. After all, what
have I done that is so very clever? I told you that the man was of
middle age. It was not difficult to see that after one had examined his
heavy, dragging step. I told you that he was tall--an easy matter. When
I saw that he had been leaning upon that block of granite there to the
left, I measured the block in question. It is almost five feet five
inches in height, consequently a man who could rest his elbow upon it
must be at least six feet high. The mark of his hand proves that I am
not mistaken. On seeing that he had brushed away the snow which covered
the plank, I asked myself what he had used; I thought that it might be
his cap, and the mark left by the peak proves that I was right. Finally,
if I have discovered the color and the material of his overcoat, it is
only because when he wiped the wet board, some splinters of the wood
tore off a few tiny flakes of brown wool, which I have found, and which
will figure in the trial. But what does this amount to, after all?
Nothing. We have only discovered the first clues of the affair. Still,
we are on the right scent--so, forward then!"
The old officer was electrified, and, like an echo, he repeated:
That night the vagabonds, who had taken refuge in the neighborhood of
the Poivriere, had a very bad time of it; for while those who managed
to sleep were disturbed by frightful dreams of a police raid, those who
remained awake witnessed some strange incidents, well calculated to fill
their minds with terror. On hearing the shots fired inside Mother
Chupin's drinking den, most of the vagrants concluded that there had
been a collision between the police and some of their comrades, and they
immediately began prowling about, eagerly listening and watching, and
ready to take flight at the least sign of danger. At first they could
discover no particular reasons for alarm. But later on, at about two
o'clock in the morning, just as they were beginning to feel secure
again, the fog lifted a little, and they witnessed a phenomenon well
calculated to arouse anxiety.
Upon the unoccupied tract of land, which the people of the neighborhood
called the "plain," a small but very bright light was seen describing
the most capricious evolutions. It moved here and there without any
apparent aim, tracing the most inexplicable zigzags, sometimes sinking
to the earth, sometimes rising to a height of four or five feet, at
others remaining quite motionless, and the next second flying off like
a ball. In spite of the place and the season of the year, the less
ignorant among vagabonds believed the light to be some ignis fatuus, one
of those luminous meteors that raise from the marshes and float about
in the atmosphere at the bidding of the wind. In point of fact, however,
this ignis fatuus was the lantern by the light of which the two police
agents were pursuing their investigations.
After thus suddenly revealing his capacity to his first disciple, Lecoq
found himself involved in a cruel perplexity. He had not the boldness
and promptness of decision which is the gift of a prosperous past, and
was hesitating between two courses, both equally reasonable, and both
offering strong probabilities of success. He stood between two paths,
that made by the two women on the one side, and that made by the
accomplice on the other. Which should he take? For he could not hope to
follow both. Seated upon the log where the women had rested a few
moments before, with his hand pressed upon his forehead, he reflected
and weighed the chances.
"If I follow the man I shall learn nothing that I do not know already.
He has gone to hover round the party; he has followed them at a
distance, he has seen them lock up his accomplice, and he is undoubtedly
prowling round about the station house. If I hurried in pursuit, could
I hope to overtake and capture him? No; too long a time has elapsed."
Father Absinthe listened to this monologue with intense curiosity, as
anxious as an unsophisticated person who, having questioned a
clairvoyant in regard to some lost articles, is waiting the oracle's
"To follow the women," continued the young man, "to what would that
lead? Perhaps to an important discovery, perhaps to nothing."
However, he preferred the unknown, which, with all its chances of
failure, had chances of success as well. He rose, his course was
"Father Absinthe," said he, "we are going to follow the footprints of
these two women, and wherever they lead us we will go."
Inspired with equal ardor they began their walk. At the end of the path
upon which they had entered they fancied they observed, as in some magic
glass, the one the fruits, the other the glory of success. They hurried
forward. At first it was only play to follow the distinct footprints
that led toward the Seine. But it was not long before they were obliged
to proceed more slowly.
On leaving the waste ground they arrived at the outer limits of
civilization, so to speak; and strange footprints mingled constantly
with the footprints of the fugitives, at times even effacing them. In
many spots, either on account of exposure or the nature of the soil, the
thaw had completed its work, and there were large patches of ground
entirely free from snow. In such cases they lost the trail, and it
required all Lecoq's sagacity and all his companion's good-will to find
On such occasions Father Absinthe planted his cane in the earth, near
the last footprint that had been discovered, and Lecoq and himself
hunted all over the ground around this point, much after the fashion of
a couple of bloodhounds thrown off the scent. Then it was that the
lantern moved about so strangely. More than a dozen times, in spite of
all their efforts, they would have lost the clue entirely had it not
been for the elegant shoes worn by the lady with the little feet. These
had such small and extremely high heels that the impression they left
could not be mistaken. They sank down three or four inches in the snow,
or the mud, and their tell-tale impress remained as clear and distinct
as that of a seal.
Thanks to these heels, the pursuers were able to discover that the two
fugitives had not gone up the Rue de Patay, as might have been supposed.
Probably they had considered this street too frequented, and too well
lighted. They had only crossed it, just below the Rue de la Croix-Rouge,
and had profited by an empty space between two houses to regain the open
"Certainly these women were well acquainted with the locality," murmured
Indeed, the topography of the district evidently had no secrets for
them, for, on quitting the Rue de Patay, they had immediately turned to
the right, so as to avoid several large excavations, from which a
quantity of brick clay had been dug.
But at last the trail was recovered, and the detectives followed it as
far as the Rue du Chevaleret. Here the footprints abruptly ceased. Lecoq
discovered eight or ten footmarks left by the woman who wore the broad
shoes, but that was all. Hereabout, moreover, the condition of the
ground was not calculated to facilitate an exploration of this nature.
There had been a great deal of passing to and fro in the Rue du
Chevaleret, and not merely was there scarcely any snow left on the
footpaths, but the middle of the street was transformed into a river of
"Did these people recollect at last that the snow might betray them? Did
they take the middle of the road?" grumbled the young police agent.
Certainly they could not have crossed to a vacant space as they had done
just before, for on the other side of the street extended a long factory
"Ah!" sighed Father Absinthe, "we have our labor for our pains."
But Lecoq possessed a temperament that refused to acknowledge defeat.
Animated by the cold anger of a man who sees the object which he was
about to seize disappear from before his eyes, he recommenced his
search, and was well repaid for his efforts.
"I understand!" he cried suddenly, "I comprehend--I see!"
Father Absinthe drew near. He did not see nor divine anything! but he
no longer doubted his companion's powers.
"Look there," said Lecoq; "what are those marks?"
"Marks left by the wheels of some carriage that plainly turned here."
"Very well, papa, these tracks explain everything. When they reached
this spot, our fugitives saw the light of an approaching cab, which was
returning from the centre of Paris. It was empty, and proved their
salvation. They waited, and when it came nearer they hailed the driver.
No doubt they promised him a handsome fare; this is indeed evident,
since he consented to go back again. He turned round here; they got into
the vehicle, and that is why the footprints go no further."
This explanation did not please Lecoq's companion. "Have we made any
great progress now that we know that?" he asked.
Lecoq could not restrain an impulse to shrug his shoulders. "Did you
expect that the tracks made by the fugitives would lead us through Paris
and up to their very doors?" he asked.
"Then what would you ask more? Do you think that I shall not know how
to find this driver to-morrow? He was returning with his empty vehicle,
his day's work was ended; hence, his stable is in the neighborhood. Do
you suppose that he will have forgotten that he took up two persons in
the Rue du Chevaleret? He will tell us where he drove them; but that
will not do us any good, for, of course, they will not have given him
their real address. But at all events he can probably give us a
description of them, tell us how they were dressed, describe their
appearance, their manner, and their age. And with that, and what we
An eloquent gesture expressed the remainder of his thought, then he
added: "We must now go back to the Poivriere, and go quickly. And you,
my friend, may now extinguish your lantern."
While doing his best to keep pace with his companion, who was in such
haste to get back to the Poivriere that he almost ran, Father Absinthe's
thoughts were as busy as his legs, and an entirely new train of ideas
was awakened in his mind.
During the twenty-five years that he had been connected with the police
force, the good man--to use his own expression--had seen many of his
colleagues walk over him and win, after only a few months' work, a
promotion that his long years of service had not gained for him. In
these cases he had not failed to accuse his superiors of injustice, and
his fortunate rivals of gross flattery. In his opinion, seniority was
the only claim to advancement--the only, the best, the most respectable
claim; and he was wont to sum up all his opinions, all his grief and
bitterness of mind in one phrase: "It is infamous to pass over an old
member of the service."
To-night, however, Father Absinthe discovered that there is something
else in the world besides seniority, and sufficient reasons for what he
had formerly regarded as favoritism. He secretly confessed that this
newcomer whom he had treated so carelessly had just followed up a clue
as he, veteran though he was, would never have succeeded in doing.
But communing with himself was not this good man's forte; he soon grew
weary of reflection; and on reaching a place where they were obliged to
proceed more slowly on account of the badness of the road, he deemed it
a favorable opportunity to resume the conversation. "You are silent,
comrade," he ventured to remark, "and one might swear that you were not
This surprising result of the old man's reflections would have amazed
Lecoq, if his mind had not been a hundred leagues away. "No, I am not
pleased," he responded.
"And why, pray? Only ten minutes ago you were as gay as a lark."
"Then I did not see the misfortune that threatens us."
"A very great misfortune. Do you not perceive that the weather has
undesirably changed. It is evident that the wind is now coming from the
south. The fog has disappeared, but the sky is cloudy and threatening.
It will rain in less than an hour."
"A few drops are falling now; I just felt one."
These words produced on Lecoq much the same effect as a whip-up on a
spirited horse. He sprang forward, and, adopting a still more hurried
pace, exclaimed: "Let us make haste! let us make haste!"
The old police agent followed him as in duty bound; but his mind was,
if possible, still more troubled by the replies of his young companion.
A great misfortune! The wind from the south! Rain! He did not, he could
not see the connection.
Greatly puzzled, and not a little anxious, Father Absinthe asked for an
explanation, although he had but little more breath than was absolutely
necessary to enable him to continue the forced march he was making.
"Upon my word," said he, "I have racked my brains--"
His companion took pity on his anxiety. "What!" he exclaimed, as he
still hastened forward, "you do not understand that our investigation,
my success, and your reward, are dependent upon those black clouds which
the wind is driving toward us!"
"Twenty minutes of merely gentle rain, and our time and labor will be
lost. If it rains, the snow will melt, and then farewell to our proofs.
Let us get on--let us get on more quickly! You know very well that in
such cases words don't suffice. If we declare to the public prosecutor
that we have seen these footprints, he will ask, where? And what can we
say? If we swear by all the gods that we have seen the footprints of a
man and of two women, the investigating magistrate will say, 'Let me see
them.' And who will feel sheepish then? Father Absinthe and Lecoq.
Besides, Gevrol would not fail to declare that we were saying what was
not true, in order to enhance our own value, and humiliate him."
"What an idea!"
"Faster, papa, faster; you will have all day to-morrow to be indignant.
Perhaps it will not rain. In that case, these perfect, clear, and easily
recognizable footprints will prove the culprits' ruin. How can we
preserve them? By what process could we solidify them? I would deluge
them with my blood if that could only cause them to congeal."
Father Absinthe was just then thinking that his share of the labor had
hitherto been the least important; for he had merely held the lantern.
But here was a chance for him to acquire a real and substantial right
to the prospective reward. "I know a method," said he, "by which one
could preserve these marks in the snow."
At these words the younger man stopped short. "You know--you?" he
"Yes, I know," replied the old detective, with the evident satisfaction
of a man who has gained his revenge. "They invented a way at the time
of that affair at the Maison Blanche, last December."
"Ah! well, on the snow in the courtyard there was a footprint that
attracted a detective's attention. He said that the whole evidence
depended on that mark alone, that it was worth more than ten years' hard
work in following up the case. Naturally, he desired to preserve it.
They sent for a great chemist--"
"Go on, go on."
"I have never seen the method put into practise, but an expert told me
all about it, and showed me the mold they obtained. He explained it to
me precisely, on account of my profession."
Lecoq was trembling with impatience. "And how did they obtain the mold?"
he asked abruptly.
"Wait: I was just going to explain. They take some of the best gelatine,
and allow it to soak in cold water. When it becomes thoroughly softened,
they heat it until it forms a liquid, of moderate consistency. Then when
it is just cool enough, they pour a nice little covering of it upon the
Lecoq felt the irritation that is natural to a person who has just heard
a bad joke, or who has lost his time in listening to a fool.
"Enough!" he interrupted, angrily. "That method can be found in all the
manuals. It is excellent, no doubt, but how can it serve us? Have you
any gelatine about you?"
"Nor have I. You might as well have counseled me to pour melted lead
upon the footprints to fix them."
They continued their way, and five minutes later, without having
exchanged another word, they reentered the Widow Chupin's hovel. The
first impulse of the older man would have been to rest to breathe, but
Lecoq did not give him time to do so.
"Make haste: get me a dish--a plate--anything!" cried the young
detective, "and bring me some water; gather together all the boards and
old boxes you can find lying about."
While his companion was obeying him, Lecoq armed himself with a fragment
of one of the broken bottles, and began scraping away furiously at the
plastered wall that separated the two rooms.
His mind, disconcerted at first by the imminence of this unexpected
catastrophe, a fall of rain, had now regained its equilibrium. He had
reflected, he had thought of a way by which failure might possibly be
averted--and he hoped for ultimate success. When he had accumulated some
seven or eight handfuls of fine plaster dust, he mixed one-half with a
little water so as to form a thin paste, leaving the rest untouched on
the side of the plate.
"Now, papa," said he, "come and hold the light for me."
When in the garden, the young man sought for the deepest and most
distinct of the footprints, knelt beside it, and began his experiment,
trembling with anxiety. He first sprinkled upon the impression a fine
coating of dry plaster, and then upon this coating, with infinite care,
he poured his liquid solution drop by drop.
What luck! the experiment was successful! The plaster united in a
homogeneous mass, forming a perfect model of the impression. Thus, after
an hour's labor, Lecoq possessed half a dozen of these casts, which
might, perhaps, be a little wanting in clearness of outline, but which
were quite perfect enough to be used as evidence.
The young detective's alarm had been well founded, for it was already
beginning to rain. Still, he had plenty of time to cover a number of the
footprints with the boxes and pieces of board which Father Absinthe had
collected, thus placing them, as it were, beyond the reach of a thaw.
Now he could breathe. The authorities might come, for the most important
part of his task was completed.
It was some distance from the Poivriere to the Rue de Chevaleret, even
by way of the plain, and fully four hours had been occupied by Lecoq and
his colleague in collecting their elements of information.
All this while, the Widow Chupin's abode had remained open, accessible
to any chance visitor. Still, when, on his return, the young police
agent remembered this neglect of elementary precautions, he did not feel
alarmed. Considering all the circumstances, it was very difficult to
believe that any serious harm could have resulted from this
For who would have been likely to visit this drinking-den after
midnight? Its bad name served the purpose of a bulwark. The most daring
vagrants did not drink there without some disquietude, fearing that if
the liquor caused them to lose consciousness, they might be robbed or
perhaps even murdered. Hence, if any one had been attracted to this
notoriously dangerous drinking-shop by the light that streamed through
the open door, it could only have been some very reckless person
returning late at night from the ball at the Rainbow, with a few sous
left in his pocket. But, even then, a single glance inside would have
sufficed to put the bravest to flight.
In less than a second the young police agent had weighed all these
possibilities, concerning which he did not breathe a word to Father
Absinthe. When, little by little, the excitement caused by his
successive hopes and disappointments, and by the accomplishment of the
experiment with the footprints had died away, and he had regained his
usual calm of mind, he made a careful inspection of the abode, and was
by no means satisfied with himself. He had experimented upon Father
Absinthe with his new system of investigation, just as an aspiring
orator tries his powers before his least gifted friends, not before the
cleverest. He had certainly overwhelmed the old veteran by his
superiority; he had literally crushed him. But what great merit, what
wonderful victory was this? Why should he boast of having outwitted
Father Absinthe, one of the least sagacious men in the service?
If he could only have given some startling proofs of his energy or of
his penetration! But, after all, what had he accomplished? Was the
mystery solved? Was his success more than problematical? When one thread
is drawn out, the skein is not untangled. This night would undoubtedly
decide his future as a detective, so he swore that if he could not
conquer his vanity, he would, at least, compel himself to conceal it.
Hence, it was in a very modest tone that he said to his companion: "We
have done all that we can do outside, now, would it not be wise to busy
ourselves with the inside of the house?"
Everything looked exactly in the same state as when the two men left the
room. A candle, with a charred smoking wick, cast its flickering light
upon the same scene of disorder, revealing to view the rigid features
of the three victims. Without losing a moment, Lecoq began to pick up
and study the various objects scattered over the floor. Some of these
still remained intact. The Widow Chupin had recoiled from the expense
of a tiled floor, judging the bare ground upon which the cabin was built
quite good enough for the feet of her customers. This ground, which must
originally have been well beaten down, had, by constant use and damp,
become well-nigh as muddy as the soil outside.
The first fruits of Lecoq's search were a large salad-bowl and a big
iron spoon, the latter so twisted and bent that it had evidently been
used as a weapon during the conflict. On inspecting the bowl, it became
evident that when the quarrel began the victims were regaling themselves
with the familiar mixture of water, wine, and sugar, known round about
the barrieres as vin a la Frangaise. After the salad-bowl, the two men
picked up five of the weighty glasses ordinarily used in wine-shops, and
which, while looking as though they would contain half a bottle, are in
point of fact so thick at the bottom that they hold next to nothing.
Three of these glasses were broken, two were whole. All of them had
contained wine--the same vin a la Frangaise. This was plain, but for
greater surety, Lecoq applied his tongue to the bluish mixture remaining
in the bottom of each glass. "The deuce!" he muttered, with an
Then he examined successively the surfaces of the three overturned
tables. Upon one of these, the one nearest the fireplace and the window,
the still wet marks of the five glasses, of the salad-bowl, and even of
the spoons could be distinguished. Lecoq very properly regarded this
circumstance as a matter of the greatest importance, for it proved
clearly enough that five persons had emptied the salad-bowl in company.
Who were these five persons?
"Oh! oh!" suddenly exclaimed Lecoq in two entirely different tones.
"Then the two women could not have been with the murderer!"
A very simple mode of discovery had presented itself to his mind. It was
to ascertain if there were any other glasses, and what they had
contained. After a fresh search on the floor, a sixth glass was found,
similar in form to the others, but much smaller. Its smell showed that
it had contained brandy. Then these two women had not been with the
murderer, and therefore he could not have fought because the other men
had insulted them. This discovery proved the inaccuracy of Lecoq's
original suppositions. It was an unexpected check, and he was mourning
over it in silence, when Father Absinthe, who had not ceased ferreting
about, uttered a cry of surprise.
The young man turned; he saw that his companion had become very pale.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Some one has been here in our absence."
It was not impossible--it was true. When Gevrol had torn the apron off
Widow Chupin's head he had thrown it upon the steps of the stairs;
neither of the police agents had since touched it. And yet the pockets
of this apron were now turned inside out; this was a proof, this was
evidence. At this discovery Lecoq was overcome with consternation, and
the contraction of his features revealed the struggle going on in his
mind. "Who could have been here?" he murmured. "Robbers? That is
Then, after a long silence which his companion took good care not to
interrupt, he added: "The person who came here, who dared to penetrate
into this abode and face the corpses of these murdered men--this person
could have been none other than the accomplice. But it is not enough to
suspect this, it is necessary to know it. I must--I will know it!"
They searched for a long time, and it was not until after an hour of
earnest work that, in front of the door forced open by the police, they
discovered in the mud, just inside the marks made by Gevrol's tread, a
footprint that bore a close resemblance to those left by the man who had
entered the garden. They compared the impressions and recognized the
same designs formed by the nails upon the sole of the boot.
"It must have been the accomplice!" exclaimed Lecoq. "He watched us, he
saw us go away, and then he entered. But why? What pressing,
irresistible necessity made him decide to brave such imminent danger?"
He seized his companion's hand, nearly crushing it in his excitement:
"Ah! I know why!" continued he, violently. "I understand only too well.
Some article that would have served to throw light on this horrible
affair had been left or forgotten, or lost here, and to obtain it, to
find it, he decided to run this terrible risk. And to think that it was
my fault, my fault alone, that this convincing proof escaped us! And I
thought myself so shrewd! What a lesson! The door should have been
locked; any fool would have thought of it--" Here he checked himself,
and remained with open mouth and distended eyes, pointing with his
finger to one of the corners of the room.
"What is the matter?" asked his frightened companion.
Lecoq made no reply, but slowly, and with the stiff movements of a
somnambulist, he approached the spot to which he had pointed, stooped,
picked up something, and said: "My folly is not deserving of such luck."
The object he had found was an earring composed of a single large
diamond. The setting was of marvelous workmanship. "This diamond,"
declared Lecoq, after a moment's examination, "must be worth at least
five or six thousand francs."
"Are you in earnest?"
"I think I could swear to it."
He would not have troubled about such a preamble as "I think" a few
hours before, but the blunder he had made was a lesson that would not
be forgotten so long as he lived.
"Perhaps it was that same diamond earring that the accomplice came to
seek," ventured Father Absinthe.
"The supposition is scarcely admissible. In that case, he would not have
sought for it in Mother Chupin's apron. No, he must have been seeking
for something else--a letter, for example."
The older man was not listening; he had taken the earring, and was
examining it in his turn. "And to think," he murmured, astonished by the
brilliancy of the stone, "to think that a woman who had ten thousand
francs' worth of jewels in her ears would have come to the Poivriere.
Who would have believed it?"
Lecoq shook his head thoughtfully. "Yes, it is very strange, very
improbable, very absurd. And yet we shall see many things quite as
strange if we ever arrive--which I very much doubt--at a solution of
this mysterious affair."
Day was breaking, cold, cheerless, and gloomy, when Lecoq and his
colleague concluded their investigation. There was not an inch of space
that had not been explored, carefully examined and studied, one might
almost say, with a magnifying glass. There now only remained to draw up
The younger man seated himself at the table, and, with the view of
making his recital as intelligible as possible, he began by sketching
a plan of the scene of the murder.
It will be seen that in the memoranda appended to this explanatory
diagram, Lecoq had not once written his own name. In noting the things
that he had imagined or discovered, he referred to himself simply as one
of the police. This was not so much modesty as calculation. By hiding
one's self on well-chosen occasions, one gains greater notoriety when
one emerges from the shade. It was also through cunning that he gave
Gevrol such a prominent position. These tactics, rather subtle, perhaps,
but after all perfectly fair, could not fail to call attention to the
man who had shown himself so efficient when the efforts of his chief had
been merely confined to breaking open the door.
The document Lecoq drew up was not a /proces-verbal/, a formal act
reserved for the officers of judiciary police; it was a simple report,
that would be admitted under the title of an inquiry, and yet the young
detective composed it with quite as much care as a general would have
displayed in drawing up the bulletin of his first victory.
While Lecoq was drawing and writing, Father Absinthe leaned over his
shoulder to watch him. The plan amazed that worthy man. He had seen a
great deal; but he had always supposed that it was necessary to be an
engineer, an architect, or, at least, a carpenter, to execute such work.
Not at all. With a tape-line with which to take some measurements, and
a bit of board in place of a rule, his inexperienced colleague had soon
accomplished the miracle. Father Absinthe's respect for Lecoq was
thereby greatly augmented. It is true that the worthy veteran had not
noticed the explosion of the young police agent's vanity, nor his return
to his former modest demeanor. He had not observed his alarm, nor his
perplexity, nor his lack of penetration.
After a few moments, Father Absinthe ceased watching his companion. He
felt weary after the labors of the night, his head was burning, and he
shivered and his knees trembled. Perhaps, though he was by no means
sensitive, he felt the influence of the horrors that surrounded him, and
which seemed more sinister than ever in the bleak light of morning. He
began to ferret in the cupboards, and at last succeeded in
discovering--oh, marvelous fortune!--a bottle of brandy, three parts
full. He hesitated for an instant, then he poured out a glass, and
drained it at a single draft.
"Will you have some?" he inquired of his companion. "It is not a very
famous brand, to be sure; but it is just as good, it makes one's blood
circulate and enlivens one."
Lecoq refused; he did not need to be enlivened. All his faculties were
hard at work. He intended that, after a single perusal of his report,
the investigating magistrate should say: "Let the officer who drew up
this document be sent for." It must be remembered that Lecoq's future
depended upon such an order. Accordingly, he took particular care to be
brief, clear, and concise, to plainly indicate how his suspicions on the
subject of the murder had been aroused, how they had increased, and how
they had been confirmed. He explained by what series of deductions he
had succeeded in establishing a theory which, if it was not the truth,
was at least plausible enough to serve as the basis for further
Then he enumerated the articles of conviction ranged on the table before
him. There were the flakes of brown wool collected upon the plank, the
valuable earring, the models of the different footprints in the garden,
and the Widow Chupin's apron with its pockets turned inside out. There
was also the murderer's revolver, with two barrels discharged and three
still loaded. This weapon, although not of an ornamental character, was
still a specimen of highly finished workmanship. It bore the name of one
Stephens, 14 Skinner Street, a well-known London gunsmith.
Lecoq felt convinced that by examining the bodies of the victims he
would obtain other and perhaps very valuable information; but he did not
dare venture upon such a course. Besides his own inexperience in such
a matter, there was Gevrol to be thought of, and the inspector, furious
at his own mistake, would not fail to declare that, by changing the
attitude of the bodies, Lecoq had rendered a satisfactory examination
by the physicians impossible.
The young detective accordingly tried to console himself for his forced
inaction in this respect, and he was rereading his report, modifying a
few expressions, when Father Absinthe, who was standing upon the
threshold of the outer door, called to him.
"Is there anything new?" asked Lecoq.
"Yes," was the reply. "Here come Gevrol and two of our comrades with the
commissary of police and two other gentlemen."
It was, indeed, the commissary who was approaching, interested but not
disturbed by this triple murder which was sure to make his
arrondissement the subject of Parisian conversation during the next few
days. Why, indeed, should he be troubled about it? For Gevrol, whose
opinion in such matters might be regarded as an authority, had taken
care to reassure him when he went to arouse him from his slumbers.
"It was only a fight between some old offenders; former jail birds,
habitues of the Poivriere," he had said, adding sententiously: "If all
these ruffians would kill one another, we might have some little peace."
He added that as the murderer had been arrested and placed in
confinement, there was nothing urgent about the case. Accordingly, the
commissary thought there was no harm in taking another nap and waiting
until morning before beginning the inquiry. He had seen the murderer,
reported the case to the prefecture, and now he was coming--leisurely
enough--accompanied by two physicians, appointed by the authorities to
draw up a /medico-legal/ report in all such cases. The party also
comprised a sergeant-major of the 53d regiment of infantry of the line,
who had been summoned by the commissary to identify, if possible, the
murdered man who wore a uniform, for if one might believe the number
engraved upon the buttons of his overcoat, he belonged to the 53d
regiment, now stationed at the neighboring fort.
As the party approached it was evident that Inspector Gevrol was even
less disturbed than the commissary. He whistled as he walked along,
flourishing his cane, which never left his hand, and already laughing
in his sleeve over the discomfiture of the presumptuous fool who had
desired to remain to glean, where he, the experienced and skilful
officer, had perceived nothing. As soon as he was within speaking
distance, the inspector called to Father Absinthe, who, after warning
Lecoq, remained on the threshold, leaning against the door-post, puffing
his pipe, as immovable as a sphinx.
"Ah, well, old man!" cried Gevrol, "have you any great melodrama, very
dark and very mysterious, to relate to us?"
"I have nothing to relate myself," replied the old detective, without
even drawing his pipe from his lips, "I am too stupid, that is perfectly
understood. But Monsieur Lecoq will tell you something that will
The prefix, "monsieur," which the old police agent used in speaking of
his colleague, displeased Gevrol so much that he pretended not to
understand. "Who are you speaking of?" he asked abruptly.
"Of my colleague, of course, who is now busy finishing his report--of
Monsieur Lecoq." Quite unintentionally, the worthy fellow had certainly
become the young police agent's godfather. From that day forward, for
his enemies as well as for his friends, he was and he remained