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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 caught.
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 much pleasure!”
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 impulse.
“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 passing within.
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 of.
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 coming!”
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 one.”
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,” he murmured.
“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 customers.”
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 tongue.”
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 some thanks.”
“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 spectacles.”
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 doubts.
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 implicit obedience.
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 Absinthe.”
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 didn’t see?”
“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 present appearances.”
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 here.”
“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 coming.'”
“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 conclusions.”
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 attention.”
“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 sentence.
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 performed it.
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 and intelligence.
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 alone.”
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 leg!”
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 lips.
“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 footprint!”
“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 ill-fated hovel.”
“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 police agent.
“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 garden diagonally.”
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 oracular tone.
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 everything!”
“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, accuse!”
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 stories.”
“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 coming.”
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 his captors.”
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: “Forward!”
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 response.
“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 decided.
“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 it again.
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 ground.
“Certainly these women were well acquainted with the locality,” murmured Lecoq.
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 slush.
“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 wall.
“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 already know–“
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 exactly pleased.”
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 interrupted.
“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 footprint.”
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 carelessness.
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 astonished air.
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 improbable.”
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 report.
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 investigation.
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 astonish you.”
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