Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

X

If it is difficult to extort a confession from a man interested in preserving silence and persuaded that no proofs can be produced against him, it is a yet more arduous task to make a woman, similarly situated, speak the truth. As they say at the Palais de Justice, one might as well try to make the devil confess.

The examination of the Widow Chupin had been conducted with the greatest possible care by M. Segmuller, who was as skilful in managing his questions as a tried general in maneuvering his troops.

However, all that he had discovered was that the landlady of the Poivriere was conniving with the murderer. The motive of her connivance was yet unknown, and the murderer’s identity still a mystery. Both M. Segmuller and Lecoq were nevertheless of the opinion that the old hag knew everything. “It is almost certain,” remarked the magistrate, “that she was acquainted with the people who came to her house — with the women, the victims, the murderer — with all of them, in fact. I am positive as regards that fellow Gustave — I read it in her eyes. I am also convinced that she knows Lacheneur — the man upon whom the dying soldier breathed vengeance — the mysterious personage who evidently possesses the key to the enigma. That man must be found.”

“Ah!” replied Lecoq, “and I will find him even if I have to question every one of the eleven hundred thousand men who constantly walk the streets of Paris!”

This was promising so much that the magistrate, despite his preoccupation, could not repress a smile.

“If this old woman would only decide to make a clean breast of it at her next examination!” remarked Lecoq.

“Yes. But she won’t.”

The young detective shook his head despondently. Such was his own opinion. He did not delude himself with false hopes, and he had noticed between the Widow Chupin’s eyebrows those furrows which, according to physiognomists, indicate a senseless, brutish obstinacy.

“Women never confess,” resumed the magistrate; “and even when they seemingly resign themselves to such a course they are not sincere. They fancy they have discovered some means of misleading their examiner. On the contrary, evidence will crush the most obstinate man; he gives up the struggle, and confesses. Now, a woman scoffs at evidence. Show her the sun; tell her it’s daytime; at once she will close her eyes and say to you, ‘No, it’s night.’ Male prisoners plan and combine different systems of defense according to their social positions; the women, on the contrary, have but one system, no matter what may be their condition in life. They deny everything, persist in their denials even when the proof against them is overwhelming, and then they cry. When I worry the Chupin with disagreeable questions, at her next examination, you may be sure she will turn her eyes into a fountain of tears.”

In his impatience, M. Segmuller angrily stamped his foot. He had many weapons in his arsenal; but none strong enough to break a woman’s dogged resistance.

“If I only understood the motive that guides this old hag!” he continued. “But not a clue! Who can tell me what powerful interest induces her to remain silent? Is it her own cause that she is defending? Is she an accomplice? Is it certain that she did not aid the murderer in planning an ambuscade?”

“Yes,” responded Lecoq, slowly, “yes; this supposition very naturally presents itself to the mind. But think a moment, sir, such a theory would prove that the idea we entertained a short time since is altogether false. If the Widow Chupin is an accomplice, the murderer is not the person we have supposed him to be; he is simply the man he seems to be.”

This argument apparently convinced M. Segmuller. “What is your opinion?” he asked.

The young detective had formed his opinion a long while ago. But how could he, a humble police agent, venture to express any decided views when the magistrate hesitated? He understood well enough that his position necessitated extreme reserve; hence, it was in the most modest tone that he replied: “Might not the pretended drunkard have dazzled Mother Chupin’s eyes with the prospect of a brilliant reward? Might he not have promised her a considerable sum of money?”

He paused; Goguet, the smiling clerk, had just returned.

Behind him stood a private of the Garde de Paris who remained respectfully on the threshold, his heels in a straight line, his right hand raised to the peak of his shako, and his elbow on a level with his eyes, in accordance with the regulations.

“The governor of the Depot,” said the soldier, “sends me to inquire if he is to keep the Widow Chupin in solitary confinement; she complains bitterly about it.”

M. Segmuller reflected for a moment. “Certainly,” he murmured, as if replying to an objection made by his own conscience; “certainly, it is an undoubted aggravation of suffering; but if I allow this woman to associate with the other prisoners, she will certainly find some opportunity to communicate with parties outside. This must not be; the interests of justice and truth must be considered first.” The thought embodied in these last words decided him. “Despite her complaints the prisoner must be kept in solitary confinement until further orders,” he said.

The soldier allowed his right hand to fall to his side, he carried his right foot three inches behind his left heel, and wheeled around. Goguet, the smiling clerk, then closed the door, and, drawing a large envelope from his pocket, handed it to the magistrate. “Here is a communication from the governor of the Depot,” said he.

The magistrate broke the seal, and read aloud, as follows:

“I feel compelled to advise M. Segmuller to take every precaution with the view of assuring his own safety before proceeding with the examination of the prisoner, May. Since his unsuccessful attempt at suicide, this prisoner has been in such a state of excitement that we have been obliged to keep him in a strait-waistcoat. He did not close his eyes all last night, and the guards who watched him expected every moment that he would become delirious. However, he did not utter a word. When food was offered him this morning, he resolutely rejected it, and I should not be surprised if it were his intention to starve himself to death. I have rarely seen a more determined criminal. I think him capable of any desperate act.”

“Ah!” exclaimed the clerk, whose smile had disappeared, “If I were in your place, sir, I would only let him in here with an escort of soldiers.”

“What! you — Goguet, you, an old clerk — make such a proposition! Can it be that you’re frightened?”

“Frightened! No, certainly not; but —”

“Nonsense!” interrupted Lecoq, in a tone that betrayed superlative confidence in his own muscles; “Am I not here?”

If M. Segmuller had seated himself at his desk, that article of furniture would naturally have served as a rampart between the prisoner and himself. For purposes of convenience he usually did place himself behind it; but after Goguet’s display of fear, he would have blushed to have taken the slightest measure of self-protection. Accordingly, he went and sat down by the fireplace — as he had done a few moments previously while questioning the Widow Chupin — and then ordered his door-keeper to admit the prisoner alone. He emphasized this word “alone.”

A moment later the door was flung open with a violent jerk, and the prisoner entered, or rather precipitated himself into the room. Goguet turned pale behind his table, and Lecoq advanced a step forward, ready to spring upon the prisoner and pinion him should it be requisite. But when the latter reached the centre of the room, he paused and looked around him. “Where is the magistrate?” he inquired, in a hoarse voice.

“I am the magistrate,” replied M. Segmuller.

“No, the other one.”

“What other one?”

“The one who came to question me last evening.”

“He has met with an accident. Yesterday, after leaving you, he fell down and broke his leg.”

“Oh!”

“And I am to take his place.”

The prisoner was apparently deaf to the explanation. Excitement had seemingly given way to stupor. His features, hitherto contracted with anger, now relaxed. He grew pale and tottered, as if about to fall.

“Compose yourself,” said the magistrate in a benevolent tone; “if you are too weak to remain standing, take a seat.”

Already, with a powerful effort, the man had recovered his self-possession. A momentary gleam flashed from his eyes. “Many thanks for your kindness,” he replied, “but this is nothing. I felt a slight sensation of dizziness, but it is over now.”

“Is it long since you have eaten anything?”

“I have eaten nothing since that man”— and so saying he pointed to Lecoq —“brought me some bread and wine at the station house.”

“Wouldn’t you like to take something?”

“No — and yet — if you would be so kind — I should like a glass of water.”

“Will you not have some wine with it?”

“I should prefer pure water.”

His request was at once complied with. He drained a first glassful at a single draft; the glass was then replenished and he drank again, this time, however, more slowly. One might have supposed that he was drinking in life itself. Certainly, when he laid down the empty glass, he seemed quite another man.

Eighteen out of every twenty criminals who appear before our investigating magistrates come prepared with a more or less complete plan of defense, which they have conceived during their preliminary confinement. Innocent or guilty, they have resolved, on playing some part or other, which they begin to act as soon as they cross the threshold of the room where the magistrate awaits them.

The moment they enter his presence, the magistrate needs to bring all his powers of penetration into play; for such a culprit’s first attitude as surely betrays his plan of defense as an index reveals a book’s contents. In this case, however, M. Segmuller did not think that appearances were deceitful. It seemed evident to him that the prisoner was not feigning, but that the excited frenzy which marked his entrance was as real as his after stupor.

At all events, there seemed no fear of the danger the governor of the Depot had spoken of, and accordingly M. Segmuller seated himself at his desk. Here he felt stronger and more at ease for his back being turned to the window, his face was half hidden in shadow; and in case of need, he could, by bending over his papers, conceal any sign of surprise or discomfiture.

The prisoner, on the contrary, stood in the full light, and not a movement of his features, not the fluttering of an eyelid could escape the magistrate’s attention. He seemed to have completely recovered from his indisposition; and his features assumed an expression which indicated either careless indifference, or complete resignation.

“Do you feel better?” asked M. Segmuller.

“I feel very well.”

“I hope,” continued the magistrate, paternally, “that in future you will know how to moderate your excitement. Yesterday you tried to destroy yourself. It would have been another great crime added to many others — a crime which —”

With a hasty movement of the hand, the prisoner interrupted him. “I have committed no crime,” said he, in a rough, but no longer threatening voice. “I was attacked, and I defended myself. Any one has a right to do that. There were three men against me. It was a great misfortune; and I would give my right hand to repair it; but my conscience does not reproach me — that much!”

The prisoner’s “that much,” was a contemptuous snap of his finger and thumb.

“And yet I’ve been arrested and treated like an assassin,” he continued. “When I saw myself interred in that living tomb which you call a secret cell, I grew afraid; I lost my senses. I said to myself: ‘My boy, they’ve buried you alive; and it is better to die — to die quickly, if you don’t wish to suffer.’ So I tried to strangle myself. My death wouldn’t have caused the slightest sorrow to any one. I have neither wife nor child depending upon me for support. However, my attempt was frustrated. I was bled; and then placed in a strait-waistcoat, as if I were a madman. Mad! I really believed I should become so. All night long the jailors sat around me, like children amusing themselves by tormenting a chained animal. They watched me, talked about me, and passed the candle to and fro before my eyes.”

The prisoner talked forcibly, but without any attempt at oratorical display; there was bitterness but not anger in his tone; in short, he spoke with all the seeming sincerity of a man giving expression to some deep emotion or conviction. As the magistrate and the detective heard him speak, they were seized with the same idea. “This man,” they thought, “is very clever; it won’t be easy to get the better of him.”

Then, after a moment’s reflection, M. Segmuller added aloud: “This explains your first act of despair; but later on, for instance, even this morning, you refused to eat the food that was offered you.”

As the prisoner heard this remark, his lowering face suddenly brightened, he gave a comical wink, and finally burst into a hearty laugh, gay, frank, and sonorous.

“That,” said he, “is quite another matter. Certainly, I refused all they offered me, and now I will tell you why. As I had my hands confined in the strait-waistcoat, the jailor tried to feed me just as a nurse tries to feed a baby with pap. Now I wasn’t going to submit to that, so I closed my lips as tightly as I could. Then he tried to force my mouth open and push the spoon in, just as one might force a sick dog’s jaws apart and pour some medicine down its throat. The deuce take his impertinence! I tried to bite him: that’s the truth, and if I had succeeded in getting his finger between my teeth, it would have stayed there. However, because I wouldn’t be fed like a baby, all the prison officials raised their hands to heaven in holy horror, and pointed at me, saying: ‘What a terrible man! What an awful rascal!’”

The prisoner seemed to thoroughly enjoy the recollection of the scene he had described, for he now burst into another hearty laugh, to the great amazement of Lecoq, and the scandal of Goguet, the smiling clerk.

M. Segmuller also found it difficult to conceal his surprise. “You are too reasonable, I hope,” he said, at last, “to attach any blame to these men, who, in confining you in a strait-waistcoat, were merely obeying the orders of their superior officers with the view of protecting you from your own violent passions.”

“Hum!” responded the prisoner, suddenly growing serious. “I do blame them, however, and if I had one of them in a corner — But, never mind, I shall get over it. If I know myself aright, I have no more spite in my composition than a chicken.”

“Your treatment depends on your own conduct,” rejoined M. Segmuller, “If you will only remain calm, you shan’t be put in a strait-waistcoat again. But you must promise me that you will be quiet and conduct yourself properly.”

The murderer sadly shook his head. “I shall be very prudent hereafter,” said he, “but it is terribly hard to stay in prison with nothing to do. If I had some comrades with me, we could laugh and chat, and the time would slip by; but it is positively horrible to have to remain alone, entirely alone, in that cold, damp cell, where not a sound can be heard.”

The magistrate bent over his desk to make a note. The word “comrades” had attracted his attention, and he proposed to ask the prisoner to explain it at a later stage of the inquiry.

“If you are innocent,” he remarked, “you will soon be released: but it is necessary to prove your innocence.”

“What must I do to prove it?”

“Tell the truth, the whole truth: answer my questions honestly without reserve.”

“As for that, you may depend upon me.” As he spoke the prisoner lifted his hand, as if to call upon God to witness his sincerity.

But M. Segmuller immediately intervened: “Prisoners do not take the oath,” said he.

“Indeed!” ejaculated the man with an astonished air, “that’s strange!”

Although the magistrate had apparently paid but little attention to the prisoner, he had in point of fact carefully noted his attitude, his tone of voice, his looks and gestures. M. Segmuller had, moreover, done his utmost to set the culprit’s mind at ease, to quiet all possible suspicion of a trap, and his inspection of the prisoner’s person led him to believe that this result had been attained.

“Now,” said he, “you will give me your attention; and do not forget that your liberty depends upon your frankness. What is your name?”

“May.”

“What is your Christian name?”

“I have none.”

“That is impossible.”

“I have been told that already three times since yesterday,” rejoined the prisoner impatiently. “And yet it’s the truth. If I were a liar, I could easily tell you that my name was Peter, James, or John. But lying is not in my line. Really, I have no Christian name. If it were a question of surnames, it would be quite another thing. I have had plenty of them.”

“What were they?”

“Let me see — to commence with, when I was with Father Fougasse, I was called Affiloir, because you see —”

“Who was this Father Fougasse?”

“The great wild beast tamer, sir. Ah! he could boast of a menagerie and no mistake! Lions, tigers, and bears, serpents as big round as your thigh, parrakeets of every color under the sun. Ah! it was a wonderful collection. But unfortunately —”

Was the man jesting, or was he in earnest? It was so hard to decide, that M. Segmuller and Lecoq were equally in doubt. As for Goguet, the smiling clerk, he chuckled to himself as his pen ran over the paper.

“Enough,” interrupted the magistrate. “How old are you?”

“Forty-four or forty-five years of age.”

“Where were you born?”

“In Brittany, probably.”

M. Segmuller thought he could detect a hidden vein of irony in this reply.

“I warn you,” said he, severely, “that if you go on in this way your chances of recovering your liberty will be greatly compromised. Each of your answers is a breach of propriety.”

As the supposed murderer heard these words, an expression of mingled distress and anxiety was apparent in his face. “Ah! I meant no offense, sir,” he sighed. “You questioned me, and I replied. You will see that I have spoken the truth, if you will allow me to recount the history of the whole affair.”

“When the prisoner speaks, the prosecution is enlightened,” so runs an old proverb frequently quoted at the Palais de Justice. It does, indeed, seem almost impossible for a culprit to say more than a few words in an investigating magistrate’s presence, without betraying his intentions or his thoughts; without, in short, revealing more or less of the secret he is endeavoring to conceal. All criminals, even the most simple-minded, understand this, and those who are shrewd prove remarkably reticent. Confining themselves to the few facts upon which they have founded their defense, they are careful not to travel any further unless absolutely compelled to do so, and even then they only speak with the utmost caution. When questioned, they reply, of course, but always briefly; and they are very sparing of details.

In the present instance, however, the prisoner was prodigal of words. He did not seem to think that there was any danger of his being the medium of accomplishing his own decapitation. He did not hesitate like those who are afraid of misplacing a word of the romance they are substituting for the truth. Under other circumstances, this fact would have been a strong argument in his favor.

“You may tell your own story, then,” said M. Segmuller in answer to the prisoner’s indirect request.

The presumed murderer did not try to hide the satisfaction he experienced at thus being allowed to plead his own cause, in his own way. His eyes sparkled and his nostrils dilated as if with pleasure. He sat himself dawn, threw his head back, passed his tongue over his lips as if to moisten them, and said: “Am I to understand that you wish to hear my history?”

“Yes.”

“Then you must know that one day about forty-five years ago, Father Tringlot, the manager of a traveling acrobatic company, was going from Guingamp to Saint Brieuc, in Brittany. He had with him two large vehicles containing his wife, the necessary theatrical paraphernalia, and the members of the company. Well, soon after passing Chatelaudren, he perceived something white lying by the roadside, near the edge of a ditch. ‘I must go and see what that is,’ he said to his wife. He stopped the horses, alighted from the vehicle he was in, went to the ditch, picked up the object he had noticed, and uttered a cry of surprise. You will ask me what he had found? Ah! good heavens! A mere trifle. He had found your humble servant, then about six months old.”

With these last words, the prisoner made a low bow to his audience.

“Naturally, Father Tringlot carried me to his wife. She was a kind-hearted woman. She took me, examined me, fed me, and said: ‘He’s a strong, healthy child; and we’ll keep him since his mother has been so wicked as to abandon him by the roadside. I will teach him; and in five or six years he will be a credit to us.’ They then asked each other what name they should give me, and as it happened to be the first day of May, they decided to call me after the month, and so it happens that May has been my name from that day to this.”

The prisoner paused again and looked from one to another of his listeners, as if seeking some sign of approval. None being forthcoming, he proceeded with his story.

“Father Tringlot was an uneducated man, entirely ignorant of the law. He did not inform the authorities that he had found a child, and, for this reason, although I was living, I did not legally exist, for, to have a legal existence it is necessary that one’s name, parentage, and birthplace should figure upon a municipal register.

“When I grew older, I rather congratulated myself on Father Tringlot’s neglect. ‘May, my boy,’ said I, ‘you are not put down on any government register, consequently there’s no fear of your ever being drawn as a soldier.’ I had a horror of military service, and a positive dread of bullets and cannon balls. Later on, when I had passed the proper age for the conscription, a lawyer told me that I should get into all kinds of trouble if I sought a place on the civil register so late in the day; and so I decided to exist surreptitiously. And this is why I have no Christian name, and why I can’t exactly say where I was born.”

If truth has any particular accent of its own, as moralists have asserted, the murderer had found that accent. Voice, gesture, glance, expression, all were in accord; not a word of his long story had rung false.

“Now,” said M. Segmuller, coldly, “what are your means of subsistence?”

By the prisoner’s discomfited mien one might have supposed that he had expected to see the prison doors fly open at the conclusion of his narrative. “I have a profession,” he replied plaintively. “The one that Mother Tringlot taught me. I subsist by its practise; and I have lived by it in France and other countries.”

The magistrate thought he had found a flaw in the prisoner’s armor. “You say you have lived in foreign countries?” he inquired.

“Yes; during the seventeen years that I was with M. Simpson’s company, I traveled most of the time in England and Germany.”

“Then you are a gymnast and an athlete. How is it that your hands are so white and soft?”

Far from being embarrassed, the prisoner raised his hands from his lap and examined them with evident complacency. “It is true they are pretty,” said he, “but this is because I take good care of them and scarcely use them.”

“Do they pay you, then, for doing nothing?”

“Ah, no, indeed! But, sir, my duty consists in speaking to the public, in turning a compliment, in making things pass off pleasantly, as the saying is; and, without boasting, I flatter myself that I have a certain knack —”

M. Segmuller stroked his chin, according to his habit whenever he considered that a prisoner had committed some grave blunder. “In that case,” said he, “will you give me a specimen of your talent?”

“Ah, ha!” laughed the prisoner, evidently supposing this to be a jest on the part of the magistrate. “Ah, ha!”

“Obey me, if you please,” insisted M. Segmuller.

The supposed murderer made no objection. His face at once assumed a different expression, his features wearing a mingled air of impudence, conceit, and irony. He caught up a ruler that was lying on the magistrate’s desk, and, flourishing it wildly, began as follows, in a shrill falsetto voice: “Silence, music! And you, big drum, hold your peace! Now is the hour, now is the moment, ladies and gentlemen, to witness the grand, unique performance of these great artists, unequaled in the world for their feats upon the trapeze and the tight-rope, and in innumerable other exercises of grace, suppleness, and strength!”

“That is sufficient,” interrupted the magistrate. “You can speak like that in France; but what do you say in Germany?”

“Of course, I use the language of that country.”

“Let me hear, then!” retorted M. Segmuller, whose mother-tongue was German.

The prisoner ceased his mocking manner, assumed an air of comical importance, and without the slightest hesitation began to speak as follows, in very emphatic tones: “Mit Be-willigung der hochloeblichen Obrigkeit, wird heute, vor hiesiger ehrenwerthen Burgerschaft, zum erstenmal aufgefuhrt — Genovesa, oder —”

This opening of the prisoner’s German harangue may be thus rendered: “With the permission of the local authorities there will now be presented before the honorable citizens, for the first time — Genevieve, or the —”

“Enough,” said the magistrate, harshly. He rose, perhaps to conceal his chagrin, and added: “We will send for an interpreter to tell us whether you speak English as fluently.”

On hearing these words, Lecoq modestly stepped forward. “I understand English,” said he.

“Very well. You hear, prisoner?”

But the man was already transformed. British gravity and apathy were written upon his features; his gestures were stiff and constrained, and in the most ponderous tones he exclaimed: “Walk up! ladies and gentlemen, walk up! Long life to the queen and to the honorable mayor of this town! No country, England excepted — our glorious England! — could produce such a marvel, such a paragon —” For a minute or two longer he continued in the same strain.

M. Segmuller was leaning upon his desk, his face hidden by his hands. Lecoq, standing in front of the prisoner, could not conceal his astonishment. Goguet, the smiling clerk, alone found the scene amusing.

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