Etext prepared by David, firstname.lastname@example.org and Dagny, email@example.com
THE LEROUGE CASE
by EMILE GABORIAU
On Thursday, the 6th of March, 1862, two days after Shrove Tuesday, five women belonging to the village of La Jonchere presented themselves at the police station at Bougival.
They stated that for two days past no one had seen the Widow Lerouge, one of their neighbours, who lived by herself in an isolated cottage. They had several times knocked at the door, but all in vain. The window-shutters as well as the door were closed; and it was impossible to obtain even a glimpse of the interior.
This silence, this sudden disappearance alarmed them. Apprehensive of a crime, or at least of an accident, they requested the interference of the police to satisfy their doubts by forcing the door and entering the house.
Bougival is a pleasant riverside village, peopled on Sundays by crowds of boating parties. Trifling offences are frequently heard of in its neighbourhood, but crimes are rare.
The commissary of police at first refused to listen to the women, but their importunities so fatigued him that he at length acceded to their request. He sent for the corporal of gendarmes, with two of his men, called into requisition the services of a locksmith, and, thus accompanied, followed the neighbours of the Widow Lerouge.
La Jonchere owes some celebrity to the inventor of the sliding railway, who for some years past has, with more enterprise than profit, made public trials of his system in the immediate neighbourhood. It is a hamlet of no importance, resting upon the slope of the hill which overlooks the Seine between La Malmaison and Bougival. It is about twenty minutes’ walk from the main road, which, passing by Rueil and Port-Marly, goes from Paris to St. Germain, and is reached by a steep and rugged lane, quite unknown to the government engineers.
The party, led by the gendarmes, followed the main road which here bordered the river until it reached this lane, into which it turned, and stumbled over the rugged inequalities of the ground for about a hundred yards, when it arrived in front of a cottage of extremely modest yet respectable appearance. This cottage had probably been built by some little Parisian shopkeeper in love with the beauties of nature; for all the trees had been carefully cut down. It consisted merely of two apartments on the ground floor with a loft above. Around it extended a much-neglected garden, badly protected against midnight prowlers, by a very dilapidated stone wall about three feet high, and broken and crumbling in many places. A light wooden gate, clumsily held in its place by pieces of wire, gave access to the garden.
“It is here,” said the women.
The commissary stopped. During his short walk, the number of his followers had been rapidly increasing, and now included all the inquisitive and idle persons of the neighbourhood. He found himself surrounded by about forty individuals burning with curiosity.
“No one must enter the garden,” said he; and, to ensure obedience, he placed the two gendarmes on sentry before the entrance, and advanced towards the house, accompanied by the corporal and the locksmith.
He knocked several times loudly with his leaded cane, first at the door, and then successively at all the window shutters. After each blow, he placed his ear against the wood and listened. Hearing nothing, he turned to the locksmith.
“Open!” said he.
The workman unstrapped his satchel, and produced his implements. He had already introduced a skeleton key into the lock, when a loud exclamation was heard from the crowd outside the gate.
“The key!” they cried. “Here is the key!”
A boy about twelve years old playing with one of his companions, had seen an enormous key in a ditch by the roadside; he had picked it up and carried it to the cottage in triumph.
“Give it to me youngster,” said the corporal. “We shall see.”
The key was tried, and it proved to be the key of the house.
The commissary and the locksmith exchanged glances full of sinister misgivings. “This looks bad,” muttered the corporal. They entered the house, while the crowd, restrained with difficulty by the gendarmes, stamped with impatience, or leant over the garden wall, stretching their necks eagerly, to see or hear something of what was passing within the cottage.
Those who anticipated the discovery of a crime, were unhappily not deceived. The commissary was convinced of this as soon as he crossed the threshold. Everything in the first room pointed with a sad eloquence to the recent presence of a malefactor. The furniture was knocked about, and a chest of drawers and two large trunks had been forced and broken open.
In the inner room, which served as a sleeping apartment, the disorder was even greater. It seemed as though some furious hand had taken a fiendish pleasure in upsetting everything. Near the fireplace, her face buried in the ashes, lay the dead body of Widow Lerouge. All one side of the face and the hair were burnt; it seemed a miracle that the fire had not caught her clothing.
“Wretches!” exclaimed the corporal. “Could they not have robbed, without assassinating the poor woman?”
“But where has she been wounded?” inquired the commissary, “I do not see any blood.”
“Look! here between the shoulders,” replied the corporal; “two fierce blows, by my faith. I’ll wager my stripes she had no time to cry out.”
He stooped over the corpse and touched it.
“She is quite cold,” he continued, “and it seems to me that she is no longer very stiff. It is at least thirty-six hours since she received her death-blow.”
The commissary began writing, on the corner of a table, a short official report.
“We are not here to talk, but to discover the guilty,” said he to the corporal. “Let information be at once conveyed to the justice of the peace, and the mayor, and send this letter without delay to the Palais de Justice. In a couple of hours, an investigating magistrate can be here. In the meanwhile, I will proceed to make a preliminary inquiry.”
“Shall I carry the letter?” asked the corporal of gendarmes.
“No, send one of your men; you will be useful to me here in keeping these people in order, and in finding any witnesses I may want. We must leave everything here as it is. I will install myself in the other room.”
A gendarme departed at a run towards the station at Rueil; and the commissary commenced his investigations in regular form, as prescribed by law.
“Who was Widow Lerouge? Where did she come from? What did she do? Upon what means, and how did she live? What were her habits, her morals, and what sort of company did she keep? Was she known to have enemies? Was she a miser? Did she pass for being rich?”
The commissary knew the importance of ascertaining all this: but although the witnesses were numerous enough, they possessed but little information. The depositions of the neighbours, successively interrogated, were empty, incoherent, and incomplete. No one knew anything of the victim, who was a stranger in the country. Many presented themselves as witnesses moreover, who came forward less to afford information than to gratify their curiosity. A gardener’s wife, who had been friendly with the deceased, and a milk-woman with whom she dealt, were alone able to give a few insignificant though precise details.
In a word, after three hours of laborious investigation, after having undergone the infliction of all the gossip of the country, after receiving evidence the most contradictory, and listened to commentaries the most ridiculous, the following is what appeared the most reliable to the commissary.
Twelve years before, at the beginning of 1850, the woman Lerouge had made her appearance at Bougival with a large wagon piled with furniture, linen, and her personal effects. She had alighted at an inn, declaring her intention of settling in the neighbourhood, and had immediately gone in quest of a house. Finding this one unoccupied, and thinking it would suit her, she had taken it without trying to beat down the terms, at a rental of three hundred and twenty francs payable half yearly and in advance, but had refused to sign a lease.
The house taken, she occupied it the same day, and expended about a hundred francs on repairs.
She was a woman about fifty-four or fifty-five years of age, well preserved, active, and in the enjoyment of excellent health. No one knew her reasons for taking up her abode in a country where she was an absolute stranger. She was supposed to have come from Normandy, having been frequently seen in the early morning to wear a white cotton cap. This night-cap did not prevent her dressing very smartly during the day; indeed, she ordinarily wore very handsome dresses, very showy ribbons in her caps, and covered herself with jewels like a saint in a chapel. Without doubt she had lived on the coast, for ships and the sea recurred incessantly in her conversation.
She did not like speaking of her husband who had, she said, perished in a shipwreck. But she had never given the slightest detail. On one particular occasion she had remarked, in presence of the milk-woman and three other persons, “No woman was ever more miserable than I during my married life.” And at another she had said, “All new, all fine! A new broom sweeps clean. My defunct husband only loved me for a year!”
Widow Lerouge passed for rich, or at the least for being very well off and she was not a miser. She had lent a woman at La Malmaison sixty francs with which to pay her rent, and would not let her return them. At another time she had advanced two hundred francs to a fisherman of Port-Marly. She was fond of good living, spent a good deal on her food, and bought wine by the half cask. She took pleasure in treating her acquaintances, and her dinners were excellent. If complimented on her easy circumstances, she made no very strong denial. She had frequently been heard to say, “I have nothing in the funds, but I have everything I want. If I wished for more, I could have it.”
Beyond this, the slightest allusion to her past life, her country, or her family had never escaped her. She was very talkative, but all she would say would be to the detriment of her neighbours. She was supposed, however, to have seen the world, and to know a great deal. She was very distrustful and barricaded herself in her cottage as in a fortress. She never went out in the evening, and it was well known that she got tipsy regularly at her dinner and went to bed very soon afterwards. Rarely had strangers been seen to visit her; four or five times a lady accompanied by a young man had called, and upon one occasion two gentlemen, one young, the other old and decorated, had come in a magnificent carriage.
In conclusion, the deceased was held in but little esteem by her neighbours. Her remarks were often most offensive and odious in the mouth of a woman of her age. She had been heard to give a young girl the most detestable counsels. A pork butcher, belonging to Bougival, embarrassed in his business, and tempted by her supposed wealth, had at one time paid her his addresses. She, however, repelled his advances, declaring that to be married once was enough for her. On several occasions men had been seen in her house; first of all, a young one, who had the appearance of a clerk of the railway company; then another, a tall, elderly man, very sunburnt, who was dressed in a blouse, and looked very villainous. These men were reported to be her lovers.
Whilst questioning the witnesses, the commissary wrote down their depositions in a more condensed form, and he had got so far, when the investigating magistrate arrived, attended by the chief of the detective police, and one of his subordinates.
M. Daburon was a man thirty-eight years of age, and of prepossessing appearance; sympathetic notwithstanding his coldness; wearing upon his countenance a sweet, and rather sad expression. This settled melancholy had remained with him ever since his recovery, two years before, from a dreadful malady, which had well-nigh proved fatal.
Investigating magistrate since 1859, he had rapidly acquired the most brilliant reputation. Laborious, patient, and acute, he knew with singular skill how to disentangle the skein of the most complicated affair, and from the midst of a thousand threads lay hold to the right one. None better than he, armed with an implacable logic, could solve those terrible problems in which X–in algebra, the unknown quantity– represents the criminal. Clever in deducing the unknown from the known, he excelled in collecting facts, and in uniting in a bundle of overwhelming proofs circumstances the most trifling, and in appearance the most insignificant.
Although possessed of qualifications for his office so numerous and valuable, he was tremblingly distrustful of his own abilities and exercised his terrible functions with diffidence and hesitation. He wanted audacity to risk those sudden surprises so often resorted to by his colleagues in the pursuit of truth.
Thus it was repugnant to his feelings to deceive even an accused person, or to lay snares for him; in fact the mere idea of the possibility of a judicial error terrified him. They said of him in the courts, “He is a trembler.” What he sought was not conviction, nor the most probable presumptions, but the most absolute certainty. No rest for him until the day when the accused was forced to bow before the evidence; so much so that he had been jestingly reproached with seeking not to discover criminals but innocents.
The chief of detective police was none other than the celebrated Gevrol. He is really an able man, but wanting in perseverance, and liable to be blinded by an incredible obstinacy. If he loses a clue, he cannot bring himself to acknowledge it, still less to retrace his steps. His audacity and coolness, however, render it impossible to disconcert him; and being possessed of immense personal strength, hidden under a most meagre appearance, he has never hesitated to confront the most daring of malefactors.
But his specialty, his triumph, his glory, is a memory of faces, so prodigious as to exceed belief. Let him see a face for five minutes, and it is enough. Its possessor is catalogued, and will be recognised at any time. The impossibilities of place, the unlikelihood of circumstances, the most incredible disguises will not lead him astray. The reason for this, so he pretends, is because he only looks at a man’s eyes, without noticing any other features.
This faculty was severely tested some months back at Poissy, by the following experiment. Three prisoners were draped in coverings so as to completely disguise their height. Over their faces were thick veils, allowing nothing of the features to be seen except the eyes, for which holes had been made; and in this state they were shown to Gevrol.
Without the slightest hesitation he recognised the prisoners and named them. Had chance alone assisted him?
The subordinate Gevrol had brought with him, was an old offender, reconciled to the law. A smart fellow in his profession, crafty as a fox, and jealous of his chief, whose abilities he held in light estimation. His name was Lecoq.
The commissary, by this time heartily tired of his responsibilities, welcomed the investigating magistrate and his agents as liberators. He rapidly related the facts collected and read his official report.
“You have proceeded very well,” observed the investigating magistrate. “All is stated clearly; yet there is one fact you have omitted to ascertain.”
“What is that, sir?” inquired the commissary.
“On what day was Widow Lerouge last seen, and at what hour?”
“I was coming to that presently. She was last seen and spoken to on the evening of Shrove Tuesday, at twenty minutes past five. She was then returning from Bougival with a basketful of purchases.”
“You are sure of the hour, sir?” inquired Gevrol.
“Perfectly, and for this reason; the two witnesses who furnished me with this fact, a woman named Tellier and a cooper who lives hard by, alighted from the omnibus which leaves Marly every hour, when they perceived the widow in the cross-road, and hastened to overtake her. They conversed with her and only left her when they reached the door of her own house.”
“And what had she in her basket?” asked the investigating magistrate.
“The witnesses cannot say. They only know that she carried two sealed bottles of wine, and another of brandy. She complained to them of headache, and said, ‘Though it is customary to enjoy oneself on Shrove Tuesday, I am going to bed.'”
“So, so!” exclaimed the chief of detective police. “I know where to search!”
“You think so?” inquired M. Daburon.
“Why, it is clear enough. We must find the tall sunburnt man, the gallant in the blouse. The brandy and the wine were intended for his entertainment. The widow expected him to supper. He came, sure enough, the amiable gallant!”
“Oh!” cried the corporal of gendarmes, evidently scandalised, “she was very old, and terribly ugly!”
Gevrol surveyed the honest fellow with an expression of contemptuous pity. “Know, corporal,” said he, “that a woman who has money is always young and pretty, if she desires to be thought so!”
“Perhaps there is something in that,” remarked the magistrate; “but it is not what strikes me most. I am more impressed by the remark of this unfortunate woman. ‘If I wished for more, I could have it.'”
“That also attracted my attention,” acquiesced the commissary.
But Gevrol no longer took the trouble to listen. He stuck to his own opinion, and began to inspect minutely every corner of the room. Suddenly he turned towards the commissary. “Now that I think of it,” cried he, “was it not on Tuesday that the weather changed? It had been freezing for a fortnight past, and on that evening it rained. At what time did the rain commence here?”
“At half-past nine,” answered the corporal. “I went out from supper to make my circuit of the dancing halls, when I was overtaken opposite the Rue des Pecheurs by a heavy shower. In less than ten minutes there was half an inch of water in the road.”
“Very well,” said Gevrol. “Then if the man came after half-past nine his shoes must have been very muddy. If they were dry, he arrived sooner. This must have been noticed, for the floor is a polished one. Were there any imprints of footsteps, M. Commissary?”
“I must confess we never thought of looking for them.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the chief detective, in a tone of irritation, “that is vexatious!”
“Wait,” added the commissary; “there is yet time to see if there are any, not in this room, but in the other. We have disturbed absolutely nothing there. My footsteps and the corporal’s will be easily distinguished. Let us see.”
As the commissary opened the door of the second chamber, Gevrol stopped him. “I ask permission, sir,” said he to the investigating magistrate, “to examine the apartment before any one else is permitted to enter. It is very important for me.”
“Certainly,” approved M. Daburon.
Gevrol passed in first, the others remaining on the threshold. They all took in at a glance the scene of the crime. Everything, as the commissary had stated, seemed to have been overturned by some furious madman. In the middle of the room was a table covered with a fine linen cloth, white as snow. Upon this was placed a magnificent wineglass of the rarest manufacture, a very handsome knife, and a plate of the finest porcelain. There was an opened bottle of wine, hardly touched, and another of brandy, from which about five or six small glassfuls had been taken.
On the right, against the wall, stood two handsome walnut-wood wardrobes, with ornamental locks; they were placed one on each side of the window; both were empty, and the contents scattered about on all sides. There were clothing, linen, and other effects unfolded, tossed about, and crumpled. At the end of the room, near the fireplace, a large cupboard used for keeping the crockery was wide open. On the other side of the fireplace, an old secretary with a marble top had been forced, broken, smashed into bits, and rummaged, no doubt, to its inmost recesses. The desk, wrenched away, hung by a single hinge. The drawers had been pulled out and thrown upon the floor.
To the left of the room stood the bed, which had been completely disarranged and upset. Even the straw of the mattress had been pulled out and examined.
“Not the slightest imprint,” murmured Gevrol disappointed. “He must have arrived before half-past nine. You can all come in now.”
He walked right up to the corpse of the widow, near which he knelt.
“It can not be said,” grumbled he, “that the work is not properly done! the assassin is no apprentice!”
Then looking right and left, he continued: “Oh! oh! the poor devil was busy with her cooking when he struck her; see her pan of ham and eggs upon the hearth. The brute hadn’t patience enough to wait for the dinner. The gentleman was in a hurry, he struck the blow fasting; therefore he can’t invoke the gayety of dessert in his defense!”
“It is evident,” said the commissary to the investigating magistrate, “that robbery was the motive of the crime.”
“It is probable,” answered Gevrol in a sly way; “and that accounts for the absence of the silver spoons from the table.”
“Look here! Some pieces of gold in this drawer!” exclaimed Lecoq, who had been searching on his own account, “just three hundred and twenty francs!”
“Well, I never!” cried Gevrol, a little disconcerted. But he soon recovered from his embarrassment, and added: “He must have forgotten them; that often happens. I have known an assassin, who, after accomplishing the murder, became so utterly bewildered as to depart without remembering to take the plunder, for which he had committed the crime. Our man became excited perhaps, or was interrupted. Some one may have knocked at the door. What makes me more willing to think so is, that the scamp did not leave the candle burning. You see he took the trouble to put it out.”
“Pooh!” said Lecoq. “That proves nothing. He is probably an economical and careful man.”
The investigations of the two agents were continued all over the house; but their most minute researches resulted in discovering absolutely nothing; not one piece of evidence to convict; not the faintest indication which might serve as a point of departure. Even the dead woman’s papers, if she possessed any, had disappeared. Not a letter, not a scrap of paper even, to be met with. From time to time Gevrol stopped to swear or grumble. “Oh! it is cleverly done! It is a tiptop piece of work! The scoundrel is a cool hand!”
“Well, what do you make of it?” at length demanded the investigating magistrate.
“It is a drawn game monsieur,” replied Gevrol. “We are baffled for the present. The miscreant has taken his measures with great precaution; but I will catch him. Before night, I shall have a dozen men in pursuit. Besides, he is sure to fall into our hands. He has carried off the plate and the jewels. He is lost!”
“Despite all that,” said M. Daburon, “we are no further advanced than we were this morning!”
“Well!” growled Gevrol. “A man can only do what he can!”
“Ah!” murmured Lecoq in a low tone, perfectly audible, however, “why is not old Tirauclair here?”
“What could he do more than we have done?” retorted Gevrol, directing a furious glance at his subordinate. Lecoq bowed his head and was silent, inwardly delighted at having wounded his chief.
“Who is old Tirauclair?” asked M. Daburon. “It seems to me that I have heard the name, but I can’t remember where.”
“He is an extraordinary man!” exclaimed Lecoq. “He was formerly a clerk at the Mont de Piete,” added Gevrol; “but he is now a rich old fellow, whose real name is Tabaret. He goes in for playing the detective by way of amusement.”
“And to augment his revenues,” insinuated the commissary.
“He?” cried Lecoq. “No danger of that. He works so much for the glory of success that he often spends money from his own pocket. It’s his amusement, you see! At the Prefecture we have nicknamed him ‘Tirauclair,’ from a phrase he is constantly in the habit of repeating. Ah! he is sharp, the old weasel! It was he who in the case of that banker’s wife, you remember, guessed that the lady had robbed herself, and who proved it.”
“True!” retorted Gevrol; “and it was also he who almost had poor Dereme guillotined for killing his wife, a thorough bad woman; and all the while the poor man was innocent.”
“We are wasting our time, gentlemen,” interrupted M. Daburon. Then, addressing himself to Lecoq, he added:–“Go and find M. Tabaret. I have heard a great deal of him, and shall be glad to see him at work here.”
Lecoq started off at a run, Gevrol was seriously humiliated. “You have of course, sir, the right to demand the services of whom you please,” commenced he, “but yet–“
“Do not,” interrupted M. Daburon, “let us lose our tempers, M. Gevrol. I have known you for a long time, and I know your worth; but to-day we happen to differ in opinion. You hold absolutely to your sunburnt man in the blouse, and I, on my side, am convinced that you are not on the right track!”
“I think I am right,” replied the detective, “and I hope to prove it. I shall find the scoundrel, be he whom he may!”
“I ask nothing better,” said M. Daburon.
“Only, permit me, sir, to give–what shall I say without failing in respect?–a piece of advice?”
“I would advise you, sir, to distrust old Tabaret.”
“Really? And for what reason?”
“The old fellow allows himself to be carried away too much by appearances. He has become an amateur detective for the sake of popularity, just like an author; and, as he is vainer than a peacock, he is apt to lose his temper and be very obstinate. As soon as he finds himself in the presence of a crime, like this one, for example, he pretends he can explain everything on the instant. And he manages to invent a story that will correspond exactly with the situation. He professes, with the help of one single fact, to be able to reconstruct all the details of an assassination, as a savant pictures an antediluvian animal from a single bone. Sometimes he divines correctly; very often, though, he makes a mistake. Take, for instance, the case of the tailor, the unfortunate Dereme, without me–“
“I thank you for your advice,” interrupted M. Daburon, “and will profit by it. Now commissary,” he continued, “it is most important to ascertain from what part of the country Widow Lerouge came.”
The procession of witnesses under the charge of the corporal of gendarmes were again interrogated by the investigating magistrate.
But nothing new was elicited. It was evident that Widow Lerouge had been a singularly discreet woman; for, although very talkative, nothing in any way connected with her antecedents remained in the memory of the gossips of La Jonchere.
All the people interrogated, however, obstinately tried to impart to the magistrate their own convictions and personal conjectures. Public opinion sided with Gevrol. Every voice denounced the tall sunburnt man with the gray blouse. He must surely be the culprit. Everyone remembered his ferocious aspect, which had frightened the whole neighbourhood. He had one evening menaced a woman, and another day beaten a child. They could point out neither the child nor the woman; but no matter: these brutal acts were notoriously public. M. Daburon began to despair of gaining the least enlightenment, when some one brought the wife of a grocer of Bougival, at whose shop the victim used to deal, and a child thirteen years old, who knew, it was said, something positive.
The grocer’s wife first made her appearance. She had heard Widow Lerouge speak of having a son still living.
“Are you quite sure of that?” asked the investigating magistrate.
“As of my existence,” answered the woman, “for, on that evening, yes, it was evening, she was, saving your presence, a little tipsy. She remained in my shop more than an hour.”
“And what did she say?”
“I think I see her now,” continued the shopkeeper: “she was leaning against the counter near the scales, jesting with a fisherman of Marly, old Husson, who can tell you the same; and she called him a fresh water sailor. ‘My husband,’ said she, ‘was a real sailor, and the proof is, he would sometimes remain years on a voyage, and always used to bring me back cocoanuts. I have a son who is also a sailor, like his dead father, in the imperial navy.'”
“Did she mention her son’s name?”
“Not that time, but another evening, when she was, if I may say so, very drunk. She told us that her son’s name was Jacques, and that she had not seen him for a very long time.”
“Did she speak ill of her husband?”
“Never! She only said he was jealous and brutal, though a good man at bottom, and that he led her a miserable life. He was weak-headed, and forged ideas out of nothing at all. In fact he was too honest to be wise.”
“Did her son ever come to see her while she lived here?”
“She never told me of it.”
“Did she spend much money with you?”
“That depends. About sixty francs a month; sometimes more, for she always buys the best brandy. She paid cash for all she bought.”
The woman knowing no more was dismissed. The child, who was now brought forward, belonged to parents in easy circumstances. Tall and strong for his age, he had bright intelligent eyes, and features expressive of watchfulness and cunning. The presence of the magistrate did not seem to intimidate him in the least.
“Let us hear, my boy,” said M. Daburon, “what you know.”
“Well, sir, a few days ago, on Sunday last, I saw a man at Madame Lerouge’s garden-gate.”
“At what time of the day?”
“Early in the morning. I was going to church, to serve in the second mass.”
“Well,” continued the magistrate, “and this man was tall and sunburnt, and dressed in a blouse?”
“No, sir, on the contrary, he was short, very fat, and old.”
“You are sure you are not mistaken?”
“Quite sure,” replied the urchin, “I saw him close face to face, for I spoke to him.”
“Tell me, then, what occurred?”
“Well, sir, I was passing when I saw this fat man at the gate. He appeared very much vexed, oh! but awfully vexed! His face was red, or rather purple, as far as the middle of his head, which I could see very well, for it was bare, and had very little hair on it.”
“And did he speak to you first?”
“Yes, sir, he saw me, and called out, ‘Halloa! youngster!’ as I came up to him, and he asked me if I had got a good pair of legs? I answered yes. Then he took me by the ear, but without hurting me, and said, ‘Since that is so, if you will run an errand for me, I will give you ten sous. Run as far as the Seine; and when you reach the quay, you will notice a large boat moored. Go on board, and ask to see Captain Gervais: he is sure to be there. Tell him that he can prepare to leave, that I am ready.’ Then he put ten sous in my hand; and off I went.”
“If all the witnesses were like this bright little fellow,” murmured the commissary, “what a pleasure it would be!”
“Now,” said the magistrate, “tell us how you executed your commission?”
“I went to the boat, sir, found the man, and I told him; and that’s all.”
Gevrol, who had listened with the most lively attention, leaned over towards the ear of M. Daburon, and said in a low voice: “Will you permit me, sir, to ask the brat a few questions?”
“Certainly, M. Gevrol.”
“Come now, my little friend,” said Gevrol, “if you saw this man again, would you know him?”
“Then there was something remarkable about him?”
“Yes, I should think so! his face was the colour of a brick!”
“And is that all?”
“Well, yes, sir.”
“But you must remember how he was dressed; had he a blouse on?”
“No; he wore a jacket. Under the arms were very large pockets, and from out of one of them peeped a blue spotted handkerchief.”
“What kind of trousers had he on?”
“I do not remember.”
“And his waistcoat?”
“Let me see,” answered the child. “I don’t think he wore a waistcoat. And yet,–but no, I remember he did not wear one; he had a long cravat, fastened near his neck by a large ring.”
“Ah!” said Gevrol, with an air of satisfaction, “you are a bright boy; and I wager that if you try hard to remember you will find a few more details to give us.”
The boy hung down his head, and remained silent. From the knitting of his young brows, it was plain he was making a violent effort of memory. “Yes,” cried he suddenly, “I remember another thing.”
“The man wore very large rings in his ears.”
“Bravo!” cried Gevrol, “here is a complete description. I shall find the fellow now. M. Daburon can prepare a warrant for his appearance whenever he likes.”
“I believe, indeed, the testimony of this child is of the highest importance,” said M. Daburon; and turning to the boy added, “Can you tell us, my little friend, with what this boat was loaded?”
“No, sir, I couldn’t see because it was decked.”
“Which way was she going, up the Seine or down?”
“Neither, sir, she was moored.”
“We know that,” said Gevrol. “The magistrate asks you which way the prow of the boat was turned,–towards Paris or towards Marly?”
“The two ends of the boat seemed alike to me.”
The chief of the detective of police made a gesture of disappointment.
“At least,” said he, addressing the child again, “you noticed the name of the boat? you can read I suppose. One should always know the names of the boats one goes aboard of.”
“No, I didn’t see any name,” said the little boy.
“If this boat was moored at the quay,” remarked M. Daburon, “it was probably noticed by the inhabitants of Bougival.”
“That is true, sir,” approved the commissary.
“Yes,” said Gevrol, “and the sailors must have come ashore. I shall find out all about it at the wine shop. But what sort of a man was Gervais, the master, my little friend?”
“Like all the sailors hereabouts, sir.”
The child was preparing to depart when M. Daburon recalled him.
“Before you go, my boy, tell me, have you spoken to any one of this meeting before to-day?”
“Yes, sir, I told all to mamma when I got back from church, and gave her the ten sous.”
“And you have told us the whole truth?” continued the magistrate. “You know that it is a very grave matter to attempt to impose on justice. She always finds it out, and it is my duty to warn you that she inflicts the most terrible punishment upon liars.”
The little fellow blushed as red as a cherry, and held down his head.
“I see,” pursued M. Daburon, “that you have concealed something from us. Don’t you know that the police know everything?”
“Pardon! sir,” cried the boy, bursting into tears,–“pardon. Don’t punish me, and I will never do so again.”
“Tell us, then, how you have deceived us?”
“Well, sir, it was not ten sous that the man gave me, it was twenty sous. I only gave half to mamma; and I kept the rest to buy marbles with.”
“My little friend,” said the investigating magistrate, “for this time I forgive you. But let it be a lesson for the remainder of your life. You may go now, and remember it is useless to try and hide the truth; it always comes to light!”
The two last depositions awakened in M. Daburon’s mind some slight gleams of hope. In the midst of darkness, the humblest rush-light acquires brilliancy.
“I will go at once to Bougival, sir, if you approve of this step,” suggested Gevrol.
“Perhaps you would do well to wait a little,” answered M. Daburon. “This man was seen on Sunday morning; we will inquire into Widow Lerouge’s movements on that day.”
Three neighbours were called. They all declared that the widow had kept her bed all Sunday. To one woman who, hearing she was unwell, had visited her, she said, “Ah! I had last night a terrible accident.” Nobody at the time attached any significance to these words.
“The man with the rings in his ears becomes more and important,” said the magistrate, when the woman had retired. “To find him again is indispensable: you must see to this, M. Gevrol.”
“Before eight days, I shall have him,” replied the chief of detective police, “if I have to search every boat on the Seine, from its source to the ocean. I know the name of the captain, Gervais. The navigation office will tell me something.”
He was interrupted by Lecoq, who rushed into the house breathless. “Here is old Tabaret,” he said. “I met him just as he was going out. What a man! He wouldn’t wait for the train, but gave I don’t know how much to a cabman; and we drove here in fifty minutes!”
Almost immediately, a man appeared at the door, whose aspect it must be admitted was not at all what one would have expected of a person who had joined the police for honour alone. He was certainly sixty years old and did not look a bit younger. Short, thin, and rather bent, he leant on the carved ivory handle of a stout cane. His round face wore that expression of perpetual astonishment, mingled with uneasiness, which has made the fortunes of two comic actors of the Palais-Royal theatre. Scrupulously shaved, he presented a very short chin, large and good natured lips, and a nose disagreeably elevated, like the broad end of one of Sax’s horns. His eyes of a dull gray, were small and red at the lids, and absolutely void of expression; yet they fatigued the observer by their insupportable restlessness. A few straight hairs shaded his forehead, which receded like that of a greyhound, and through their scantiness barely concealed his long ugly ears. He was very comfortably dressed, clean as a new franc piece, displaying linen of dazzling whiteness, and wearing silk gloves and leather gaiters. A long and massive gold chain, very vulgar-looking, was twisted thrice round his neck, and fell in cascades into the pocket of his waistcoat.
M. Tabaret, surnamed Tirauclair, stood at the threshold, and bowed almost to the ground, bending his old back into an arch, and in the humblest of voices asked, “The investigating magistrate has deigned to send for me?”
“Yes!” replied M. Daburon, adding under his breath; “and if you are a man of any ability, there is at least nothing to indicate it in your appearance.”
“I am here,” continued the old fellow, “completely at the service of justice.”
“I wish to know,” said M. Daburon, “whether you can discover some clue that will put us upon the track of the assassin. I will explain the–“
“Oh, I know enough of it!” interrupted old Tabaret. “Lecoq has told me the principal facts, just as much as I desire to know.”
“Nevertheless–” commenced the commissary of police.
“If you will permit me, I prefer to proceed without receiving any details, in order to be more fully master of my own impressions. When one knows another’s opinion it can’t help influencing one’s judgment. I will, if you please, at once commence my researches, with Lecoq’s assistance.”
As the old fellow spoke, his little gray eyes dilated, and became brilliant as carbuncles. His face reflected an internal satisfaction; even his wrinkles seemed to laugh. His figure became erect, and his step was almost elastic, as he darted into the inner chamber.
He remained there about half an hour; then came out running, then re-entered and then again came out; once more he disappeared and reappeared again almost immediately. The magistrate could not help comparing him to a pointer on the scent, his turned-up nose even moved about as if to discover some subtle odour left by the assassin. All the while he talked loudly and with much gesticulation, apostrophising himself, scolding himself, uttering little cries of triumph or self- encouragement. He did not allow Lecoq to have a moment’s rest. He wanted this or that or the other thing. He demanded paper and a pencil. Then he wanted a spade; and finally he cried out for plaster of Paris, some water and a bottle of oil.
When more than an hour had elapsed, the investigating magistrate began to grow impatient, and asked what had become of the amateur detective.
“He is on the road,” replied the corporal, “lying flat in the mud, and mixing some plaster in a plate. He says he has nearly finished, and that he is coming back presently.”
He did in fact return almost instantly, joyous, triumphant, looking at least twenty years younger. Lecoq followed him, carrying with the utmost precaution a large basket.
“I have solved the riddle!” said Tabaret to the magistrate. “It is all clear now, and as plain as noon-day. Lecoq, my lad, put the basket on the table.”
Gevrol at this moment returned from his expedition equally delighted.
“I am on the track of the man with the earrings,” said he; “the boat went down the river. I have obtained an exact description of the master Gervais.”
“What have you discovered, M. Tabaret!” asked the magistrate.
The old fellow carefully emptied upon the table the contents of the basket,–a big lump of clay, several large sheets of paper, and three or four small lumps of plaster yet damp. Standing behind this table, he presented a grotesque resemblance to those mountebank conjurers who in the public squares juggle the money of the lookers-on. His clothes had greatly suffered; he was covered with mud up to the chin.
“In the first place,” said he, at last, in a tone of affected modesty, “robbery has had nothing to do with the crime that occupies our attention.”
“Oh! of course not!” muttered Gevrol.
“I shall prove it,” continued old Tabaret, “by the evidence. By-and-by I shall offer my humble opinion as to the real motive. In the second place, the assassin arrived here before half-past nine; that is to say, before the rain fell. No more than M. Gevrol have I been able to discover traces of muddy footsteps; but under the table, on the spot where his feet rested, I find dust. We are thus assured of the hour. The widow did not in the least expect her visitor. She had commenced undressing, and was winding up her cuckoo clock when he knocked.”
“These are absolute details!” cried the commissary.
“But easily established,” replied the amateur. “You see this cuckoo clock above the secretary; it is one of those which run fourteen or fifteen hours at most, for I have examined it. Now it is more than probable, it is certain, that the widow wound it up every evening before going to bed. How, then, is it that the clock has stopped at five? Because she must have touched it. As she was drawing the chain, the assassin knocked. In proof, I show this chair standing under the clock, and on the seat a very plain foot-mark. Now look at the dress of the victim; the body of it is off. In order to open the door more quickly, she did not wait to put it on again, but hastily threw this old shawl over her shoulders.”
“By Jove!” exclaimed the corporal, evidently struck.
“The widow,” continued the old fellow, “knew the person who knocked. Her haste to open the door gives rise to this conjecture; what follows proves it. The assassin then gained admission without difficulty. He is a young man, a little above the middle height, elegantly dressed. He wore on that evening a high hat. He carried an umbrella, and smoked a trabucos cigar in a holder.”
“Ridiculous!” cried Gevrol. “This is too much.”
“Too much, perhaps,” retorted old Tabaret. “At all events, it is the truth. If you are not minute in your investigations, I cannot help it; anyhow, I am, I search, and I find. Too much, say you? Well deign to glance at these lumps of damp plaster. They represent the heels of the boots worn by the assassin, of which I found a most perfect impression near the ditch, where the key was picked up. On these sheets of paper, I have marked in outline the imprint of the foot which I cannot take up, because it is on some sand. Look! heel high, instep pronounced, sole small and narrow,–an elegant boot, belonging to a foot well cared for evidently. Look for this impression all along the path; and you will find it again twice. Then you will find it five times repeated in the garden where no one else had been; and these footprints prove, by the way, that the stranger knocked not at the door, but at the window-shutter, beneath which shone a gleam of light. At the entrance to the garden, the man leapt to avoid a flower bed! the point of the foot, more deeply imprinted than usual, shows it. He leapt more than two yards with ease, proving that he is active, and therefore young.”
Old Tabaret spoke in a low voice, clear and penetrating: and his eye glanced from one to the other of his auditors, watching the impression he was making.
“Does the hat astonish you, M. Gevrol?” he pursued. “Just look at the circle traced in the dust on the marble top of the secretary. Is it because I have mentioned his height that you are surprised? Take the trouble to examine the tops of the wardrobes and you will see that the assassin passed his hands across them. Therefore he is taller than I am. Do not say that he got on a chair, for in that case, he would have seen and would not have been obliged to feel. Are you astonished about the umbrella? This lump of earth shows an admirable impression not only of the end of the stick, but even of the little round piece of wood which is always placed at the end of the silk. Perhaps you cannot get over the statement that he smoked a cigar? Here is the end of a trabucos that I found amongst the ashes. Has the end been bitten? No. Has it been moistened with saliva? No. Then he who smoked it used a cigar-holder.”
Lecoq was unable to conceal his enthusiastic admiration, and noiselessly rubbed his hands together. The commissary appeared stupefied, while M. Daburon was delighted. Gevrol’s face, on the contrary, was sensibly elongated. As for the corporal, he was overwhelmed.
“Now,” continued the old fellow, “follow me closely. We have traced the young man into the house. How he explained his presence at this hour, I do not know; this much is certain, he told the widow he had not dined. The worthy woman was delighted to hear it, and at once set to work to prepare a meal. This meal was not for herself; for in the cupboard I have found the remains of her own dinner. She had dined off fish; the autopsy will confirm the truth of this statement. Besides you can see yourselves, there is but one glass on the table, and one knife. But who is this young man? Evidently the widow looked upon him as a man of superior rank to her own; for in the cupboard is a table- cloth still very clean. Did she use it? No. For her guest she brought out a clean linen one, her very best. It is for him this magnificent glass, a present, no doubt, and it is evident she did not often use this knife with the ivory handle.”
“That is all true,” murmured M. Daburon, “very true.”
“Now, then we have got the young man seated. He began by drinking a glass of wine, while the widow was putting her pan on the fire. Then, his heart failing him, he asked for brandy, and swallowed about five small glassfuls. After an internal struggle of ten minutes (the time it must have taken to cook the ham and eggs as much as they are), the young man arose and approached the widow, who was squatting down and leaning forward over her cooking. He stabbed her twice on the back; but she was not killed instantly. She half arose seizing the assassin by the hands; while he drew back, lifting her suddenly, and then hurling her down in the position in which you see her. This short struggle is indicated by the posture of the body; for, squatting down and being struck in the back, it is naturally on her back that she ought to have fallen. The murderer used a sharp narrow weapon, which was, unless I am deceived, the end of a foil, sharpened, and with the button broken off. By wiping the weapon upon his victim’s skirt, the assassin leaves us this indication. He was not, however, hurt in the struggle. The victim must have clung with a death-grip to his hands; but, as he had not taken off his lavender kid gloves,–“
“Gloves! Why this is romance,” exclaimed Gevrol.
“Have you examined the dead woman’s finger-nails, M. Gevrol? No. Well, do so, and then tell me whether I am mistaken. The woman, now dead, we come to the object of her assassination. What did this well-dressed young gentleman want? Money? Valuables? No! no! a hundred times no! What he wanted, what he sought, and what he found, were papers, documents, letters, which he knew to be in the possession of the victim. To find them, he overturned everything, upset the cupboards, unfolded the linen, broke open the secretary, of which he could not find the key, and even emptied the mattress of the bed. At last he found these documents. And then do you know what he did with them? Why, burned them, of course; not in the fire-place, but in the little stove in the front room. His end accomplished, what does he do next? He flies, carrying with him all that he finds valuable, to baffle detection, by suggesting a robbery. He wrapped everything he found worth taking in the napkin which was to have served him at dinner, and blowing out the candle, he fled, locking the door on the outside, and throwing the key into a ditch. And that is all.”
“M. Tabaret,” said the magistrate, “your investigation is admirable; and I am persuaded your inferences are correct.”
“Ah!” cried Lecoq. “is he not colossal, my old Tirauclair?”
“Pyramidal!” cried Gevrol ironically. “I fear, however, your well- dressed young man must have been just a little embarrassed in carrying a bundle covered with a snow white napkin, which could be so easily seen from a distance.
“He did not carry it a hundred leagues,” responded old Tabaret. “You may well believe, that, to reach the railway station, he was not fool enough to take the omnibus. No, he returned on foot by the shortest way, which borders the river. Now on reaching the Seine, unless he is more knowing than I take him to be, his first care was to throw this tell-tale bundle into the water.”
“Do you believe so, M. Tirauclair?” asked Gevrol.
“I don’t mind making a bet on it; and the best evidence of my belief is, that I have sent three men, under the surveillance of a gendarme, to drag the Seine at the nearest spot from here. If they succeed in finding the bundle, I have promised them a recompense.”
“Out of your own pocket, old enthusiast?”
“Yes, M. Gevrol, out of my own pocket.”
“If they should however find this bundle!” murmured M. Daburon.
He was interrupted by the entrance of a gendarme, who said: “Here is a soiled table-napkin, filled with plate, money, and jewels, which these men have found; they claim the hundred francs’ reward, promised them.”
Old Tabaret took from his pocket-book a bank note, which he handed to the gendarme. “Now,” demanded he, crushing Gevrol with one disdainful glance, “what thinks the investigating magistrate after this?”
“That, thanks to your remarkable penetration, we shall discover–“
He did not finish. The doctor summoned to make the post-mortem examination entered the room. That unpleasant task accomplished, it only confirmed the assertions and conjectures of old Tabaret. The doctor explained, as the old man had done, the position of the body. In his opinion also, there had been a struggle. He pointed out a bluish circle, hardly perceptible, round the neck of the victim, produced apparently by the powerful grasp of the murderer; finally he declared that Widow Lerouge had eaten about three hours before being struck.
Nothing now remained except to collect the different objects which would be useful for the prosecution, and might at a later period confound the culprit. Old Tabaret examined with extreme care the dead woman’s finger-nails; and, using infinite precaution, he even extracted from behind them several small particles of kid. The largest of these pieces was not above the twenty-fifth part of an inch in length; but all the same their colour was easily distinguishable. He put aside also the part of the dress upon which the assassin had wiped his weapon. These with the bundle recovered from the Seine, and the different casts taken by the old fellow, were all the traces the murderer had left behind him.
It was not much; but this little was enormous in the eyes of M. Daburon; and he had strong hopes of discovering the culprit. The greatest obstacle to success in the unravelling of mysterious crimes is in mistaking the motive. If the researches take at the first step a false direction, they are diverted further and further from the truth, in proportion to the length they are followed. Thanks to old Tabaret, the magistrate felt confident that he was in the right path.
Night had come on. M. Daburon had now nothing more to do at La Jonchere; but Gevrol, who still clung to his own opinion of the guilt of the man with the rings in his ears, declared he would remain at Bougival. He determined to employ the evening in visiting the different wine shops, and finding if possible new witnesses. At the moment of departure, after the commissary and the entire party had wished M. Daburon good-night, the latter asked M. Tabaret to accompany him.
“I was about to solicit that honour,” replied the old fellow. They set out together; and naturally the crime which had been discovered, and with which they were mutually preoccupied, formed the subject of their conversation.
“Shall we, or shall we not, ascertain the antecedents of this woman!” repeated old Tabaret. “All depends upon that now!”
“We shall ascertain them, if the grocer’s wife has told the truth,” replied M. Daburon. “If the husband of Widow Lerouge was a sailor, and if her son Jacques is in the navy, the minister of marine can furnish information that will soon lead to their discovery. I will write to the minister this very night.”
They reached the station at Rueil, and took their places in the train. They were fortunate enough to secure a 1st class carriage to themselves. But old Tabaret was no longer disposed for conversation. He reflected, he sought, he combined; and in his face might easily be read the working of his thoughts. M. Daburon watched him curiously and felt singularly attracted by this eccentric old man, whose very original taste had led him to devote his services to the secret police of the Rue de Jerusalem.
“M Tabaret,” he suddenly asked, “have you been long associated with the police?”
“Nine years, M. Daburon, more than nine years; and permit me to confess I am a little surprised that you have never before heard of me.”
“I certainly knew you by reputation,” answered M. Daburon; “but your name did not occur to me, and it was only in consequence of hearing you praised that I had the excellent idea of asking your assistance. But what, I should like to know, is your reason for adopting this employment?”
“Sorrow, sir, loneliness, weariness. Ah! I have not always been happy!”
“I have been told, though, that you are rich.”
The old fellow heaved a deep sigh, which revealed the most cruel deceptions. “I am well off, sir,” he replied; “but I have not always been so. Until I was forty-five years old, my life was a series of absurd and useless privations. I had a father who wasted my youth, ruined my life, and made me the most pitiable of human creatures.”
There are men who can never divest themselves of their professional habits. M. Daburon was at all times and seasons more or less an investigating magistrate.
“How, M. Tabaret,” he inquired, “your father the author of all your misfortunes?”
“Alas, yes, sir! I have forgiven him at last; but I used to curse him heartily. In the first transports of my resentment, I heaped upon his memory all the insults that can be inspired by the most violent hatred, when I learnt,– But I will confide my history to you, M. Daburon. When I was five and twenty years of age. I was earning two thousand francs a year, as a clerk at the Monte de Piete. One morning my father entered my lodging, and abruptly announced to me that he was ruined, and without food or shelter. He appeared in despair, and talked of killing himself. I loved my father. Naturally, I strove to reassure him; I boasted of my situation, and explained to him at some length, that, while I earned the means for living, he should want for nothing; and, to commence, I insisted that henceforth we should live together. No sooner said than done, and during twenty years I was encumbered with the old–“
“What! you repent of your admirable conduct, M. Tabaret?”
“Do I repent of it! That is to say he deserved to be poisoned by the bread I gave him.”
M. Daburon was unable to repress a gesture of surprise, which did not escape the old fellow’s notice.
“Hear, before you condemn me,” he continued. “There was I at twenty- five, imposing upon myself the severest privations for the sake of my father,–no more friends, no more flirtations, nothing. In the evenings, to augment our scanty revenues, I worked at copying law papers for a notary. I denied myself even the luxury of tobacco. Notwithstanding this, the old fellow complained without ceasing; he regretted his lost fortune; he must have pocket-money, with which to buy this, or that; my utmost exertions failed to satisfy him. Ah, heaven alone knows what I suffered! I was not born to live alone and grow old, like a dog. I longed for the pleasures of a home and a family. My dream was to marry, to adore a good wife, by whom I might be loved a little, and to see innocent healthy little ones gambolling about my knees. But pshaw! when such thoughts entered my heart and forced a tear or two from my eyes, I rebelled against myself. I said: ‘My lad, when you earn but three thousand francs a year, and have an old and cherished father to support, it is your duty to stifle such desires, and remain a bachelor.’ And yet I met a young girl. It is thirty years now since that time; well! just look at me, I am sure I am blushing as red as a tomato. Her name was Hortense. Who can tell what has become of her? She was beautiful and poor. Well, I was quite an old man when my father died, the wretch, the–“
“M. Tabaret!” interrupted the magistrate, “for shame, M. Tabaret!”
“But I have already told you, I have forgiven him, sir. However, you will soon understand my anger. On the day of his death, looking in his secretary, I found a memorandum of an income of twenty thousand francs!”
“How so! was he rich?”
“Yes, very rich; for that was not all: he owned near Orleans a property leased for six thousand francs a year. He owned, besides, the house I now live in, where we lived together; and I, fool, sot, imbecile, stupid animal that I was, used to pay the rent every three months to the concierge!”
“That was too much!” M. Daburon could not help saying.
“Was it not, sir? I was robbing myself of my own money! To crown his hypocrisy, he left a will wherein he declared, in the name of Holy Trinity, that he had no other aim in view, in thus acting, than my own advantage. He wished, so he wrote, to habituate me to habits of good order and economy, and keep me from the commission of follies. And I was forty-five years old, and for twenty years I had been reproaching myself if ever I spent a single sou uselessly. In short, he had speculated on my good heart, he had . . . Bah! on my word, it is enough to disgust the human race with filial piety!”
M. Tabaret’s anger, albeit very real and justified, was so highly ludicrous, that M. Daburon had much difficulty to restrain his laughter, in spite of the real sadness of the recital.
“At least,” said he, “this fortune must have given you pleasure.”
“Not at all, sir, it came too late. Of what avail to have the bread when one has no longer the teeth? The marriageable age had passed. I resigned my situation, however, to make way for some one poorer than myself. At the end of a month I was sick and tired of life; and, to replace the affections that had been denied me, I resolved to give myself a passion, a hobby, a mania. I became a collector of books. You think, sir, perhaps that to take an interest in books a man must have studied, must be learned?”
“I know, dear M. Tabaret, that he must have money. I am acquainted with an illustrious bibliomaniac who may be able to read, but who is most certainly unable to sign his own name.”
“This is very likely. I, too, can read; and I read all the books I bought. I collected all I could find which related, no matter how little, to the police. Memoirs, reports, pamphlets, speeches, letters, novels,–all suited me; and I devoured them. So much so, that little by little I became attracted towards the mysterious power which, from the obscurity of the Rue de Jerusalem, watches over and protects society, which penetrates everywhere, lifts the most impervious veils, sees through every plot, divines what is kept hidden, knows exactly the value of a man, the price of a conscience, and which accumulates in its portfolios the most terrible, as well as the most shameful secrets! In reading the memoirs of celebrated detectives, more attractive to me than the fables of our best authors I became inspired by an enthusiastic admiration for those men, so keen scented, so subtle, flexible as steel, artful and penetrating, fertile in expedients, who follow crime on the trail, armed with the law, through the rushwood of legality, as relentlessly as the savages of Cooper pursue their enemies in the depths of the American forests. The desire seized me to become a wheel of this admirable machine,–a small assistance in the punishment of crime and the triumph of innocence. I made the essay; and I found I did not succeed too badly.”
“And does this employment please you?”
“I owe to it, sir, my liveliest enjoyments. Adieu weariness! since I have abandoned the search for books to the search for men. I shrug my shoulders when I see a foolish fellow pay twenty-five francs for the right of hunting a hare. What a prize! Give me the hunting of a man! That, at least, calls the faculties into play, and the victory is not inglorious! The game in my sport is equal to the hunter; they both possess intelligence, strength, and cunning. The arms are nearly equal. Ah! if people but knew the excitement of these games of hide and seek which are played between the criminal and the detective, everybody would be wanting employment at the office of the Rue de Jerusalem. The misfortune is, that the art is becoming lost. Great crimes are now so rare. The race of strong fearless criminals has given place to the mob of vulgar pick-pockets. The few rascals who are heard of occasionally are as cowardly as foolish. They sign their names to their misdeeds, and even leave their cards lying about. There is no merit in catching them. Their crime found out, you have only to go and arrest them,–“
“It seems to me, though,” interrupted M. Daburon, smiling, “that our assassin is not such a bungler.”
“He, sir, is an exception; and I shall have greater delight in tracking him. I will do everything for that, I will even compromise myself if necessary. For I ought to confess, M. Daburon,” added he, slightly embarrassed, “that I do not boast to my friends of my exploits; I even conceal them as carefully as possible. They would perhaps shake hands with me less warmly did they know that Tirauclair and Tabaret were one and the same.”
Insensibly the crime became again the subject of conversation. It was agreed, that, the first thing in the morning, M. Tabaret should install himself at Bougival. He boasted that in eight days he should examine all the people round about. On his side M. Daburon promised to keep him advised of the least evidence that transpired, and recall him, if by any chance he should procure the papers of Widow Lerouge.
“To you, M. Tabaret,” said the magistrate in conclusion, “I shall be always at home. If you have any occasion to speak to me, do not hesitate to come at night as well as during the day. I rarely go out, and you will always find me either at my home, Rue Jacob, or in my office at the Palais de Justice. I will give orders for your admittance whenever you present yourself.”
The train entered the station at this moment. M. Daburon, having called a cab, offered a seat to M. Tabaret. The old fellow declined.
“It is not worth while,” he replied, “for I live, as I have had the honour of telling you, in the Rue St. Lazare, only a few steps from here.”
“Till to-morrow, then!” said M. Daburon.
“Till to-morrow,” replied old Tabaret; and he added, “We shall succeed.”
M. Tabaret’s house was in fact not more than four minutes’ walk from the railway terminus of St. Lazare. It was a fine building carefully kept, and which probably yielded a fine income though the rents were not too high. The old fellow found plenty of room in it. He occupied on the first floor, overlooking the street, some handsome apartments, well arranged and comfortably furnished, the principal of which was his collection of books. He lived very simply from taste, as well as habit, waited on by an old servant, to whom on great occasions the concierge lent a helping hand.
No one in the house had the slightest suspicion of the avocations of the proprietor. Besides, even the humblest agent of police would be expected to possess a degree of acuteness for which no one gave M. Tabaret credit. Indeed, they mistook for incipient idiocy his continual abstraction of mind.
It is true that all who knew him remarked the singularity of his habits. His frequent absenses from home had given to his proceedings an appearance at once eccentric and mysterious. Never was young libertine more irregular in his habits than this old man. He came or failed to come home to his meals, ate it mattered not what or when. He went out at every hour of the day and night, often slept abroad, and even disappeared for entire weeks at a time. Then too he received the strangest visitors, odd looking men of suspicious appearance, and fellows of ill-favoured and sinister aspect.
This irregular way of living had robbed the old fellow of much consideration. Many believed they saw in him a shameless libertine, who squandered his income in disreputable places. They would remark to one another, “Is it not disgraceful, a man of his age?”
He was aware of all this tittle-tattle, and laughed at it. This did not, however, prevent many of his tenants from seeking his society and paying court to him. They would invite him to dinner, but he almost invariably refused.
He seldom visited but one person of the house, but with that one he was very intimate, so much so indeed, that he was more often in her apartment, than in his own. She was a widow lady, who for fifteen years had occupied an apartment on the third floor. Her name was Madame Gerdy, and she lived with her son Noel, whom she adored.
Noel Gerdy was a man thirty-three years of age, but looking older; tall and well made, with a noble and intelligent face, large black eyes, and black hair which curled naturally. An advocate, he passed for having great talent, and greater industry, and had already gained a certain amount of notoriety. He was an obstinate worker, cold and meditative, though devoted to his profession, and affected, with some ostentation, perhaps, a great rigidity of principle, and austerity of manners.
In Madame Gerdy’s apartment, old Tabaret felt himself quite at home. He considered her as a relation, and looked upon Noel as a son. In spite of her fifty years, he had often thought of asking the hand of this charming widow, and was restrained less by the fear of a refusal than its consequence. To propose and to be rejected would sever the existing relations, so pleasurable to him. However, he had by his will, which was deposited with his notary constituted this young advocate his sole legatee; with the single condition of founding an annual prize of two thousand francs to be bestowed on the police agent who during the year had unravelled the most obscure and mysterious crime.
Short as was the distance to his house, old Tabaret was a good quarter of an hour in reaching it. On leaving M. Daburon his thoughts reverted to the scene of the murder; and, so blinded was the old fellow to external objects, that he moved along the street, first jostled on the right, then on the left, by the busy passers by, advancing one step and receding two. He repeated to himself for the fiftieth time the words uttered by Widow Lerouge, as reported by the milk-woman. “If I wished for any more, I could have it.”
“All is in that,” murmured he. “Widow Lerouge possessed some important secret, which persons rich and powerful had the strongest motives for concealing. She had them in her power, and that was her fortune. She made them sing to her tune; she probably went too far, and so they suppressed her. But of what nature was this secret, and how did she become possessed of it? Most likely she was in her youth a servant in some great family; and whilst there, she saw, heard, or discovered, something– What? Evidently there is a woman at the bottom of it. Did she assist her mistress in some love intrigue? What more probable? And in that case the affair becomes even more complicated. Not only must the woman be found but her lover also; for it is the lover who has moved in this affair. He is, or I am greatly deceived, a man of noble birth. A person of inferior rank would have simply hired an assassin. This man has not hung back; he himself has struck the blow and by that means avoiding the indiscretion or the stupidity of an accomplice. He is a courageous rascal, full of audacity and coolness, for the crime has been admirably executed. The fellow left nothing behind of a nature to compromise him seriously. But for me, Gevrol, believing in the robbery, would have seen nothing. Fortunately, however, I was there. But yet it can hardly be that,” continued the old man. “It must be something worse than a mere love affair.”
Old Tabaret entered the porch of the house. The concierge seated by the window of his lodge saw him as he passed beneath the gas lamp.
“Ah,” said he, “the proprietor has returned at last.”
“So he has,” replied his wife, “but it looks as though his princess would have nothing to do with him to-night. He seems more loose than ever.”
“Is it not positively indecent,” said the concierge, “and isn’t he in a state! His fair ones do treat him well! One of these fine mornings I shall have to take him to a lunatic asylum in a straight waistcoat.”
“Look at him now!” interrupted his wife, “just look at him now, in the middle of the courtyard!”
The old fellow had stopped at the extremity of the porch. He had taken off his hat, and, while talking to himself, gesticulated violently.
“No,” said he, “I have not yet got hold of the clue, I am getting near it; but have not yet found it out.”
He mounted the staircase, and rang his bell, forgetting that he had his latch-key in his pocket. His housekeeper opened the door.
“What, is it you, sir,” said she, “and at this hour!”
“What’s that you say?” asked the old fellow.
“I say,” replied the housekeeper, “that it is more than half-past eight o’clock. I thought you were not coming back this evening. Have you at least dined?”
“No, not yet.”
“Well, fortunately I have kept your dinner warm. You can sit down to it at once.”
Old Tabaret took his place at the table, and helped himself to soup, but mounting his hobby-horse again, he forgot to eat, and remained, his spoon in the air, as though suddenly struck by an idea.
“He is certainly touched in the head,” thought Manette, the housekeeper. “Look at that stupid expression. Who in his senses would lead the life he does?” She touched him on the shoulder, and bawled in his ear, as if he were deaf,–“You do not eat. Are you not hungry?”
“Yes, yes,” muttered he, trying mechanically to escape the voice that sounded in his ears, “I am very hungry, for since the morning I have been obliged–” He interrupted himself, remaining with his mouth open, his eyes fixed on vacancy.
“You were obliged–?” repeated Manette.
“Thunder!” cried he, raising his clenched fists towards the ceiling,– “heaven’s thunder! I have it!”
His movement was so violent and sudden that the housekeeper was a little alarmed, and retired to the further end of the dining-room, near the door.
“Yes,” continued he, “it is certain there is a child!”
Manette approached him quickly. “A child?” she asked in astonishment.
“What next!” cried he in a furious tone. “What are you doing there? Has your hardihood come to this that you pick up the words which escape me? Do me the pleasure to retire to your kitchen, and stay there until I call you.”
“He is going crazy!” thought Manette, as she disappeared very quickly.
Old Tabaret resumed his seat. He hastily swallowed his soup which was completely cold. “Why,” said he to himself, “did I not think of it before? Poor humanity! I am growing old, and my brain is worn out. For it is clear as day; the circumstances all point to that conclusion.”
He rang the bell placed on the table beside him; the servant reappeared.
“Bring the roast,” he said, “and leave me to myself.”
“Yes,” continued he furiously carving a leg of Presale mutton–“Yes, there is a child, and here is his history! The Widow Lerouge, when a young woman, is in the service of a great lady, immensely rich. Her husband, a sailor, probably had departed on a long voyage. The lady had a lover–found herself enciente. She confided in the Widow Lerouge, and, with her assistance, accomplished a clandestine accouchement.”
He called again.
“Manette, the dessert, and get out!”
Certainly such a master was unworthy of so excellent a cook as Manette. He would have been puzzled to say what he had eaten for diner, or even what he was eating at this moment; it was a preserve of pears.
“But what,” murmured he, “has become of the child? Has it been destroyed? No; for the Widow Lerouge, an accomplice in an infanticide, would be no longer formidable. The child has been preserved, and confided to the care of our widow, by whom it has been reared. They have been able to take the infant away from her, but not the proofs of its birth and its existence. Here is the opening. The father is the man of the fine carriage; the mother is the lady who came with the handsome young man. Ha! ha! I can well believe the dear old dame wanted for nothing. She had a secret worth a farm in Brie. But the old lady was extravagant; her expenses and her demands have increased year by year. Poor humanity! She has leaned upon the staff too heavily, and broken it. She has threatened. They have been frightened, and said, ‘Let there be an end of this!’ But who has charged himself with the commission? The papa? No; he is too old. By jupiter! The son,–the child himself! He would save his mother, the brave boy! He has slain the witness and burnt the proofs!”
Manette all this time, her ear to the keyhole, listened with all her soul; from time to time she gleaned a word, an oath, the noise of a blow upon the table; but that was all.
“For certain,” thought she, “his women are running in his head.”
Her curiosity overcame her prudence. Hearing no more, she ventured to open the door a little way. The old fellow caught her in the very act.
“Monsieur wants his coffee?” stammered she timidly.
“Yes, you may bring it to me,” he answered.
He attempted to swallow his coffee at a gulp, but scalded himself so severely that the pain brought him suddenly from speculation to reality.
“Thunder!” growled he; “but it is hot! Devil take the case! it has set me beside myself. They are right when they say I am too enthusiastic. But who amongst the whole lot of them could have, by the sole exercise of observation and reason, established the whole history of the assassination? Certainly not Gevrol, poor man! Won’t he feel vexed and humiliated, being altogether out of it. Shall I seek M. Daburon? No, not yet. The night is necessary to me to sift to the bottom all the particulars, and arrange my ideas systematically. But, on the other hand, if I sit here all alone, this confounded case will keep me in a fever of speculation, and as I have just eaten a great deal, I may get an attack of indigestion. My faith! I will call upon Madame Gerdy: she has been ailing for some days past. I will have a chat with Noel, and that will change the course of my ideas.”
He got up from the table, put on his overcoat, and took his hat and cane.
“Are you going out, sir?” asked Manette.
“Shall you be late?”
“But you will return to-night?”
“I do not know.”
One minute later, M. Tabaret was ringing his friend’s bell.
Madame Gerdy lived in respectable style. She possessed sufficient for her wants; and her son’s practice, already large, had made them almost rich. She lived very quietly, and with the exception of one or two friends, whom Noel occasionally invited to dinner, received very few visitors. During more than fifteen years that M. Tabaret came familiarly to the apartments, he had only met the cure of the parish, one of Noel’s old professors, and Madame Gerdy’s brother, a retired colonel. When these three visitors happened to call on the same evening, an event somewhat rare, they played at a round game called Boston; on other evenings piquet or all-fours was the rule. Noel, however, seldom remained in the drawing-room, but shut himself up after dinner in his study, which with his bedroom formed a separate apartment to his mother’s, and immersed himself in his law papers. He was supposed to work far into the night. Often in winter his lamp was not extinguished before dawn.
Mother and son absolutely lived for one another, as all who knew them took pleasure in repeating. They loved and honoured Noel for the care he bestowed upon his mother, for his more than filial devotion, for the sacrifices which all supposed he made in living at his age like an old man.
The neighbours were in the habit of contrasting the conduct of this exemplary young man with that of M. Tabaret, the incorrigible old rake, the hairless dangler.
As for Madame Gerdy, she saw nothing but her son in all the world. Her love had actually taken the form of worship. In Noel she believed she saw united all the physical and moral perfections. To her he seemed of a superior order to the rest of humanity. If he spoke, she was silent and listened: his word was a command, his advice a decree of Providence. To care for her son, study his tastes, anticipate his wishes, was the sole aim of her life. She was a mother.
“Is Madame Gerdy visible?” asked old Tabaret of the girl who opened the door; and, without waiting for an answer, he walked into the room like a man assured that his presence cannot be inopportune, and ought to be agreeable.
A single candle lighted the drawing-room, which was not in its accustomed order. The small marble-top table, usually in the middle of the room, had been rolled into a corner. Madame Gerdy’s large arm- chair was near the window; a newspaper, all crumpled, lay before it on the carpet.
The amateur detective took in the whole at a glance.
“Has any accident happened?” he asked of the girl.
“Do not speak of it, sir: we have just had a fright! oh, such a fright!”
“What was it? tell me quickly!”
“You know that madame has been ailing for the last month. She has eaten I may say almost nothing. This morning, even, she said to me–“
“Yes, yes! but this evening?”
“After her dinner, madame went into the drawing-room as usual. She sat down and took up one of M. Noel’s newspapers. Scarcely had she begun to read, when she uttered a great cry,–oh, a terrible cry! We hastened to her; madame had fallen on to the floor, as one dead. M. Noel raised her in his arms, and carried her into her room. I wanted to fetch the doctor, sir, but he said there was no need; he knew what was the matter with her.”
“And how is she now?”
“She has come to her senses; that is to say, I suppose so; for M. Noel made me leave the room. All that I do know is, that a little while ago she was talking, and talking very loudly too, for I heard her. Ah, sir, it is all the same, very strange!”
“What is strange?”
“What I heard Madame Gerdy say to M. Noel.”
“Ah ha! my girl!” sneered old Tabaret; “so you listen at key-holes, do you?”
“No, sir, I assure you; but madame cried out like one lost. She said,–“
“My girl!” interrupted old Tabaret severely, “one always hears wrong through key-holes. Ask Manette if that is not so.”
The poor girl, thoroughly confused, sought to excuse herself.
“Enough, enough!” said the old man. “Return to your work: you need not disturb M. Noel; I can wait for him very well here.”
And satisfied with the reproof he had administered, he picked up the newspaper, and seated himself beside the fire, placing the candle near him so as to read with ease. A minute had scarcely elapsed when he in his turn bounded in his chair, and stifled a cry of instinctive terror and surprise. These were the first words that met his eye.
“A horrible crime has plunged the village of La Jonchere in consternation. A poor widow, named Lerouge, who enjoyed the general esteem and love of the community, has been assassinated in her home. The officers of the law have made the usual preliminary investigations, and everything leads us to believe that the police are already on the track of the author of this dastardly crime.”
“Thunder!” said old Tabaret to himself, “can it be that Madame Gerdy?–“
The idea but flashed across his mind; he fell back into his chair, and, shrugging his shoulders, murmured,–
“Really this affair of La Jonchere is driving me out of my senses! I can think of nothing but this Widow Lerouge. I shall be seeing her in everything now.”
In the mean while, an uncontrollable curiosity made him peruse the entire newspaper. He found nothing with the exception of these lines, to justify or explain even the slightest emotion.
“It is an extremely singular coincidence, at the same time,” thought the incorrigible police agent. Then, remarking that the newspaper was slightly torn at the lower part, and crushed, as if by a convulsive grasp, he repeated,–
“It is strange!”
At this moment the door of Madame Gerdy’s room opened, and Noel appeared on the threshold.
Without doubt the accident to his mother had greatly excited him; for he was very pale and his countenance, ordinarily so calm, wore an expression of profound sorrow. He appeared surprised to see old Tabaret.
“Ah, my dear Noel!” cried the old fellow. “Calm my inquietude. How is your mother?”
“Madame Gerdy is as well as can be expected.”
“Madame Gerdy!” repeated the old fellow with an air of astonishment; but he continued, “It is plain you have been seriously alarmed.”
“In truth,” replied the advocate, seating himself, “I have experienced a rude shock.”
Noel was making visibly the greatest efforts to appear calm, to listen to the old fellow, and to answer him. Old Tabaret, as much disquieted on his side, perceived nothing.
“At least, my dear boy,” said he, “tell me how this happened?”
The young man hesitated a moment, as if consulting with himself. No doubt he was unprepared for this point blank question, and knew not what answer to make; at last he replied,–
“Madame Gerdy has suffered a severe shock in learning from a paragraph in this newspaper that a woman in whom she takes a strong interest has been assassinated.”
“Ah!” replied old Tabaret.
The old fellow was in a fever of embarrassment. He wanted to question Noel, but was restrained by the fear of revealing the secret of his association with the police. Indeed he had almost betrayed himself by the eagerness with which he exclaimed,–
“What! your mother knew the Widow Lerouge?”
By an effort he restrained himself, and with difficulty dissembled his satisfaction; for he was delighted to find himself so unexpectedly on the trace of the antecedents of the victim of La Jonchere.
“She was,” continued Noel, “the slave of Madame Gerdy, devoted to her in every way! She would have sacrificed herself for her at a sign from her hand.”
“Then you, my dear friend, you knew this poor woman!”
“I had not seen her for a very long time,” replied Noel, whose voice seemed broken by emotion, “but I knew her well. I ought even to say I loved her tenderly. She was my nurse.”
“She, this woman?” stammered old Tabaret.
This time he was thunderstruck. Widow Lerouge Noel’s nurse? He was most unfortunate. Providence had evidently chosen him for its instrument, and was leading him by the hand. He was about to obtain all the information, which half an hour ago he had almost despaired of procuring. He remained seated before Noel amazed and speechless. Yet he understood, that, unless he would compromise himself, he must speak.
“It is a great misfortune,” he murmured at last.
“What it is for Madame Gerdy, I cannot say,” replied Noel with a gloomy air; “but, for me, it is an overwhelming misfortune! I am struck to the heart by the blow which has slain this poor woman. Her death, M. Tabaret, has annihilated all my dreams of the future, and probably overthrown my most cherished hopes. I had to avenge myself for cruel injuries; her death breaks the weapon in my hands, and reduces me to despair, to impotence. Alas! I am indeed unfortunate.”
“You unfortunate?” cried old Tabaret, singularly affected by his dear Noel’s sadness. “In heaven’s name, what has happened to you?”
“I suffer,” murmured the advocate, “and very cruelly. Not only do I fear that the injustice is irreparable; but here am I totally without defence delivered over to the shafts of calumny. I may be accused of inventing falsehood, of being an ambitious intriguer, having no regard for truth, no scruples of conscience.”
Old Tabaret was puzzled. What connection could possibly exist between Noel’s honour and the assassination at La Jonchere? His brain was in a whirl. A thousand troubled and confused ideas jostled one another in inextricable confusion.
“Come, come, Noel,” said he, “compose yourself. Who would believe any calumny uttered about you? Take courage, have you not friends? am I not here? Have confidence, tell me what troubles you, and it will be strange, indeed if between us two–“
The advocate started to his feet, impressed by a sudden resolution.
“Well! yes,” interrupted he, “yes, you shall know all. In fact, I am tired of carrying all alone a secret that is stifling me. The part I have been playing irritates and wearies me. I have need of a friend to console me. I require a counsellor whose voice will encourage me, for one is a bad judge of his own cause, and this crime has plunged me into an abyss of hesitations.”
“You know,” replied M. Tabaret kindly, “that I regard you as my own son. Do not scruple to let me serve you.”
“Know then,” commenced the advocate,–“but no, not here: what I have to say must not be overheard. Let us go into my study.”
When Noel and old Tabaret were seated face to face in Noel’s study, and the door had been carefully shut, the old fellow felt uneasy, and said: “What if your mother should require anything.”
“If Madame Gerdy rings,” replied the young man drily, “the servant will attend to her.”
This indifference, this cold disdain, amazed old Tabaret, accustomed as he was to the affectionate relations always existing between mother and son.
“For heaven’s sake, Noel,” said he, “calm yourself. Do not allow yourself to be overcome by a feeling of irritation. You have, I see, some little pique against your mother, which you will have forgotten to-morrow. Don’t speak of her in this icy tone; but tell me what you mean by calling her Madame Gerdy?”
“What I mean?” rejoined the advocate in a hollow tone,–“what I mean?”
Then rising from his arm-chair, he took several strides about the room, and, returning to his place near the old fellow, said,–
“Because, M. Tabaret, Madame Gerdy is not my mother!”
This sentence fell like a heavy blow on the head of the amateur detective.
“Oh!” he said, in the tone one assumes when rejecting an absurd proposition, “do you really know what you are saying, Noel? Is it credible? Is it probable?”
“It is improbable,” replied Noel with a peculiar emphasis which was habitual to him: “it is incredible, if you will; but yet it is true. That is to say, for thirty-three years, ever since my birth, this woman has played a most marvellous and unworthy comedy, to ennoble and enrich her son,–for she has a son,–at my expense!”
“My friend,” commenced old Tabaret, who in the background of the picture presented by this singular revelation saw again the phantom of the murdered Widow Lerouge.
But Noel heard not, and seemed hardly in a state to hear. The young man, usually so cold, so self-contained, could no longer control his anger. At the sound of his own voice, he became more and more animated, as a good horse might at the jingling of his harness.
“Was ever man,” continued he, “more cruelly deceived, more miserably duped, than I have been! I, who loved this woman, who knew not how to show my affection for her, who, for her sake, sacrificed my youth! How she must have laughed at me! Her infamy dates from the moment when for the first time she took me on her knees; and, until these few days past, she has sustained without faltering her execrable role. Her love for me was nothing but hypocrisy! her devotion, falsehood! her caresses, lies! And I adored her! Ah! why can I not take back all the embraces I bestowed on her in exchange for her Judas kisses? And for what was all this heroism of deception, this caution, this duplicity? To betray me more securely, to despoil me, to rob me, to give to her bastard all that lawfully appertained to me; my name, a noble name, my fortune, a princely inheritance!”
“We are getting near it!” thought old Tabaret, who was fast relapsing into the colleague of M. Gevrol; then aloud he said, “This is very serious, all that you have been saying, my dear Noel, terribly serious. We must believe Madame Gerdy possessed of an amount of audacity and ability rarely to be met with in a woman. She must have been assisted, advised, compelled perhaps. Who have been her accomplices? She could never have managed this unaided; perhaps her husband himself.”
“Her husband!” interrupted the advocate, with a laugh. “Ah! you too have believed her a widow. Pshaw! She never had a husband, the defunct Gerdy never existed. I was a bastard, dear M. Tabaret, very much a bastard; Noel, son of the girl Gerdy and an unknown father!”
“Ah!” cried the old fellow; “that then was the reason why your marriage with Mademoiselle Levernois was broken off four years ago?”
“Yes, my friend, that was the reason. And what misfortunes might have been averted by this marriage with a young girl whom I loved! However I did not complain to her whom I then called my mother. She wept, she accused herself, she seemed ready to die of grief: and I, poor fool! I consoled her as best I could, I dried her tears, and excused her in her own eyes. No, there was no husband. Do such women as she have husbands? She was my father’s mistress; and, on the day when he had had enough of her, he took up his hat and threw her three hundred thousand francs, the price of the pleasures she had given him.”
Noel would probably have continued much longer to pour forth his furious denunciations; but M. Tabaret stopped him. The old fellow felt he was on the point of learning a history in every way similar to that which he had imagined; and his impatience to know whether he had guessed aright, almost caused him to forget to express any sympathy for his friend’s misfortunes.
“My dear boy,” said he, “do not let us digress. You ask me for advice; and I am perhaps the best adviser you could have chosen. Come, then, to the point. How have you learned this? Have you any proofs? where are they?”
The decided tone in which the old fellow spoke, should no doubt, have awakened Noel’s attention; but he did not notice it. He had not leisure to reflect. He therefore answered,–
“I have known the truth for three weeks past. I made the discovery by chance. I have important moral proofs; but they are mere presumptive evidence. A word from Widow Lerouge, one single word, would have rendered them decisive. This word she cannot now pronounce, since they have killed her; but she had said it to me. Now, Madame Gerdy will deny all. I know her; with her head on the block, she will deny it. My father doubtless will turn against me. I am certain, and I possess proofs; now this crime makes my certitude but a vain boast, and renders my proofs null and void!”
“Explain it all to me,” said old Tabaret after a pause–“all, you understand. We old ones are sometimes able to give good advice. We will decide what’s to be done afterwards.”
“Three weeks ago,” commenced Noel, “searching for some old documents, I opened Madame Gerdy’s secretary. Accidentally I displaced one of the small shelves: some papers tumbled out, and a packet of letters fell in front of my eyes. A mechanical impulse, which I cannot explain, prompted me to untie the string, and, impelled by an invincible curiosity, I read the first letter which came to my hand.”
“You did wrong,” remarked M. Tabaret.
“Be it so; anyhow I read. At the end of ten lines, I was convinced that these letters were from my father, whose name, Madame Gerdy, in spite of my prayers, had always hidden from me. You can understand my emotion. I carried off the packet, shut myself up in this room, and devoured the correspondence from beginning to end.”
“And you have been cruelly punished my poor boy!”