Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

XI

The governor of the Depot, a functionary who had gained the reputation of an oracle by twenty years’ experience in prisons and with prisoners — a man whom it was most difficult to deceive — had advised the magistrate to surround himself with every precaution before examining the prisoner, May.

And yet this man, characterized as a most dangerous criminal, and the very announcement of whose coming had made the clerk turn pale, had proved to be a practical, harmless, and jovial philosopher, vain of his eloquence, a bohemian whose existence depended upon his ability to turn a compliment; in short, a somewhat erratic genius.

This was certainly strange, but the seeming contradiction did not cause M. Segmuller to abandon the theory propounded by Lecoq. On the contrary, he was more than ever convinced of its truth. If he remained silent, with his elbows leaning on the desk, and his hands clasped over his eyes, it was only that he might gain time for reflection.

The prisoner’s attitude and manner were remarkable. When his English harangue was finished, he remained standing in the centre of the room, a half-pleased, half-anxious expression on his face. Still, he was as much at ease as if he had been on the platform outside some stroller’s booth, where, if one could believe his story, he had passed the greater part of his life. It was in vain that the magistrate sought for some indication of weakness on his features, which in their mobility were more enigmatical than the lineaments of the Sphinx.

Thus far, M. Segmuller had been worsted in the encounter. It is true, however, that he had not as yet ventured on any direct attack, nor had he made use of any of the weapons which Lecoq had forged for his use. Still he was none the less annoyed at his defeat, as it was easy to see by the sharp manner in which he raised his head after a few moments’ silence. “I see that you speak three European languages correctly,” said he. “It is a rare talent.”

The prisoner bowed, and smiled complacently. “Still that does not establish your identity,” continued the magistrate. “Have you any acquaintances in Paris? Can you indicate any respectable person who will vouch for the truth of this story?”

“Ah! sir, it is seventeen years since I left France.”

“That is unfortunate, but the prosecution can not content itself with such an explanation. What about your last employer, M. Simpson? Who is he?”

“M. Simpson is a rich man,” replied the prisoner, rather coldly, “worth more than two hundred thousand francs, and honest besides. In Germany he traveled with a show of marionettes, and in England with a collection of phenomena to suit the tastes of that country.”

“Very well! Then this millionaire could testify in your favor; it would be easy to find him, I suppose?”

“Certainly,” responded May, emphatically. “M. Simpson would willingly do me this favor. It would not be difficult for me to find him, only it would require considerable time.”

“Why?”

“Because at the present moment he must be on his way to America. It was on account of this journey that I left his company — I detest the ocean.”

A moment previously Lecoq’s anxiety had been so intense that his heart almost stopped beating; on hearing these last words, however, he regained all his self-possession. As for the magistrate, he merely greeted the murderer’s reply with a brief but significant ejaculation.

“When I say that he is on his way,” resumed the prisoner, “I may be mistaken. He may not have started yet, though he had certainly made all his arrangements before we separated.”

“What ship was he to sail by?”

“He did not tell me.”

“Where was he when you left him?”

“At Leipsic.”

“When was this?”

“Last Wednesday.”

M. Segmuller shrugged his shoulders disdainfully. “So you say you were in Leipsic on Wednesday? How long have you been in Paris?”

“Since Sunday afternoon, at four o’clock.”

“It will be necessary to prove that.”

Judging by the murderer’s contracted brow it might be conjectured that he was making a strenuous effort to remember something. He cast questioning glances first toward the ceiling and then toward the floor, scratching his head and tapping his foot in evident perplexity. “How can I prove it — how?” he murmured.

The magistrate did not appear disposed to wait. “Let me assist you,” said he. “The people at the inn where you boarded while in Leipsic must remember you.”

“We did not stop at an inn.”

“Where did you eat and sleep, then?”

“In M. Simpson’s large traveling-carriage; it had been sold, but he was not to give it up until he reached the port he was to sail from.”

“What port was that?”

“I don’t know.”

At this reply Lecoq, who had less experience than the magistrate in the art of concealing one’s impressions, could not help rubbing his hands with satisfaction. The prisoner was plainly convicted of falsehood, indeed driven into a corner.

“So you have only your own word to offer in support of this story?” inquired M. Segmuller.

“Wait a moment,” said the prisoner, extending his arm as if to clutch at a still vague inspiration —“wait a moment. When I arrived in Paris I had with me a trunk containing my clothes. The linen is all marked with the first letter of my name, and besides some ordinary coats and trousers, there were a couple of costumes I used to wear when I appeared in public.”

“Well, what have you done with all these things?”

“When I arrived in Paris, I took the trunk to a hotel, close by the Northern Railway Station —”

“Go on. Tell us the name of this hotel,” said M. Segmuller, perceiving that the prisoner had stopped short, evidently embarrassed.

“That’s just what I’m trying to recollect. I’ve forgotten it. But I haven’t forgotten the house. I fancy I can see it now; and, if some one would only take me to the neighborhood, I should certainly recognize it. The people at the hotel would know me, and, besides, my trunk would prove the truth of what I’ve told you.”

On hearing this statement, Lecoq mentally resolved to make a tour of investigation through the various hotels surrounding the Gare du Nord.

“Very well,” retorted the magistrate. “Perhaps we will do as you request. Now, there are two questions I desire to ask. If you arrived in Paris at four o’clock in the afternoon, how did it happen that by midnight of the same day you had discovered the Poivriere, which is merely frequented by suspicious characters, and is situated in such a lonely spot that it would be impossible to find it at night-time, if one were not familiar with the surrounding localities? In the second place, how does it happen, if you possess such clothing as you describe, that you are so poorly dressed?”

The prisoner smiled at these questions. “I can easily explain that,” he replied. “One’s clothes are soon spoiled when one travels third-class, so on leaving Leipsic I put on the worst things I had. When I arrived here, and felt my feet on the pavements of Paris, I went literally wild with delight. I acted like a fool. I had some money in my pocket — it was Shrove Sunday — and my only thought was to make a night of it. I did not think of changing my clothes. As I had formerly been in the habit of amusing myself round about the Barriere d’Italie, I hastened there and entered a wine-shop. While I was eating a morsel, two men came in and began talking about spending the night at a ball at the Rainbow. I asked them to take me with them; they agreed, I paid their bills, and we started. But soon after our arrival there these young men left me and joined the dancers. It was not long before I grew weary of merely looking on. Rather disappointed, I left the inn, and being foolish enough not to ask my way, I wandered on till I lost myself, while traversing a tract of unoccupied land. I was about to go back, when I saw a light in the distance. I walked straight toward it, and reached that cursed hovel.”

“What happened then?”

“Oh! I went in; called for some one. A woman came downstairs, and I asked her for a glass of brandy. When she brought it, I sat down and lighted a cigar. Then I looked about me. The interior was almost enough to frighten one. Three men and two women were drinking and chatting in low tones at another table. My face did not seem to suit them. One of them got up, came toward me, and said: ‘You are a police agent; you’ve come here to play the spy; that’s very plain.’ I answered that I wasn’t a police agent. He replied that I was. I again declared that I wasn’t. In short, he swore that he was sure of it, and that my beard was false. So saying, he caught hold of my beard and pulled it. This made me mad. I jumped up, and with a blow of my fist I felled him to the ground. In an instant all the others were upon me! I had my revolver — you know the rest.”

“And while all this was going on what were the two women doing?”

“Ah! I was too busy to pay any attention to them. They disappeared!”

“But you saw them when you entered the place — what were they like?”

“Oh! they were big, ugly creatures, as tall as grenadiers, and as dark as moles!”

Between plausible falsehood, and improbable truth, justice — human justice, and therefore liable to error — is compelled to decide as best it can. For the past hour M. Segmuller had not been free from mental disquietude. But all his doubts vanished when he heard the prisoner declare that the two women were tall and dark. If he had said: “The women were fair,” M. Segmuller would not have known what to believe, but in the magistrate’s opinion the audacious falsehood he had just heard proved that there was a perfect understanding between the supposed murderer and Widow Chupin.

Certainly, M. Segmuller’s satisfaction was great; but his face did not betray it. It was of the utmost importance that the prisoner should believe that he had succeeded in deceiving his examiner. “You must understand how necessary it is to find these women,” said the magistrate kindly.

“If their testimony corresponds with your allegations, your innocence will be proved conclusively.”

“Yes, I understand that; but how can I put my hand upon them?”

“The police can assist you — our agents are always at the service of prisoners who desire to make use of them in establishing their innocence. Did you make any observations which might aid in the discovery of these women?”

Lecoq, whose eyes never wandered from the prisoner’s face, fancied that he saw the faint shadow of a smile on the man’s lips.

“I remarked nothing,” said the prisoner coldly.

M. Segmuller had opened the drawer of his desk a moment before. He now drew from it the earring which had been found on the scene of the tragedy, and handing it abruptly to the prisoner, he asked: “So you didn’t notice this in the ear of one of the women?”

The prisoner’s imperturbable coolness of demeanor did not forsake him. He took the jewel in his hand, examined it attentively, held it up to the light, admired its brilliant scintillations, and said: “It is a very handsome stone, but I didn’t notice it.”

“This stone,” remarked the magistrate, “is a diamond.”

“Ah!”

“Yes; and worth several thousand francs.”

“So much as that!”

This exclamation may have been in accordance with the spirit of the part assumed by the prisoner; though, at the same time, its simplicity was undoubtedly far-fetched. It was strange that a nomad, such as the murderer pretended to have been, acquainted with most of the countries and capitals of Europe, should have displayed this astonishment on learning the value of a diamond. Still, M. Segmuller did not seem to notice the discrepancy.

“Another thing,” said he. “When you threw down your pistol, crying, ‘Come and take me,’ what did you intend to do?”

“I intended to make my escape.”

“In what way?”

“Why, of course, by the door, sir — by —”

“Yes, by the back door,” retorted the magistrate, with freezing irony. “It remains for you to explain how you — you who had just entered that hovel for the first time — could have known of this door’s existence.”

For once, in the course of the examination, the prisoner seemed troubled. For an instant all his assurance forsook him. He evidently perceived the danger of his position, and after a considerable effort he contrived to burst out in a laugh. His laugh was a poor one, however; it rang false, and failed to conceal a sensation of deep anxiety. Growing gradually bolder, he at length exclaimed: “That’s nonsense, I had just seen these two women go out by that very door.”

“Excuse me, you declared a minute ago that you did not see these women leave: that you were too busy to watch their movements.”

“Did I say that?”

“Word for word; the passage shall be shown you. Goguet, find it.”

The clerk at once read the passage referred to, whereupon the prisoner undertook to show that the remark had been misunderstood. He had not said — at least, he did not intend to say — that; they had quite misinterpreted his words. With such remarks did he try to palliate the effect of his apparent blunders.

In the mean while, Lecoq was jubilant. “Ah, my fine fellow,” thought he, “you are contradicting yourself — you are in deep water already — you are lost. There’s no hope for you.”

The prisoner’s situation was indeed not unlike that of a bather, who, unable to swim, imprudently advances into the sea until the water rises above his chin. He may for a while have preserved his equilibrium, despite the buffeting of the waves, but now he totters, loses his footing — another second, and he will sink!

“Enough — enough!” said the magistrate, cutting the prisoner’s embarrassed explanation short. “Now, if you started out merely with the intention of amusing yourself, how did it happen that you took your revolver with you?”

“I had it with me while I was traveling, and did not think of leaving it at the hotel any more than I thought of changing my clothes.”

“Where did you purchase it?”

“It was given me by M. Simpson as a souvenir.”

“Confess that this M. Simpson is a very convenient personage,” said the magistrate coldly. “Still, go on with your story. Only two chambers of this murderous weapon were discharged, but three men were killed. You have not told me the end of the affair.”

“What’s the use?” exclaimed the prisoner, in saddened tones. “Two of my assailants had fallen; the struggle became an equal one. I seized the remaining man, the soldier, round the body, and threw him down. He fell against a corner of the table, and did not rise again.”

M. Segmuller had unfolded upon his desk the plan of the Poivriere drawn by Lecoq. “Come here,” he said, addressing the prisoner, “and show me on this paper the precise spot you and your adversaries occupied.”

May obeyed, and with an assurance of manner a little surprising in a man in his position, he proceeded to explain the drama. “I entered,” said he, “by this door, marked C; I seated myself at the table, H, to the left of the entrance: my assailants occupied the table between the fireplace, F, and the window, B.”

“I must admit,” said the magistrate, “that your assertions fully agree with the statements of the physicians, who say that one of the shots must have been fired about a yard off, and the other about two yards off.”

This was a victory for the prisoner, but he only shrugged his shoulders and murmured: “That proves that the physicians knew their business.”

Lecoq was delighted. This part of the prisoner’s narrative not merely agreed with the doctor’s statements, but also confirmed his own researches. The young detective felt that, had he been the examiner, he would have conducted the investigation in precisely the same way. Accordingly, he thanked heaven that M. Segmuller had supplied the place of M. d’Escorval.

“This admitted,” resumed the magistrate, “it remains for you to explain a sentence you uttered when the agent you see here arrested you.”

“What sentence?”

“You exclaimed: ‘Ah, it’s the Prussians who are coming; I’m lost!’ What did you mean by that?”

A fleeting crimson tinge suffused the prisoner’s cheek. It was evident that if he had anticipated the other questions, and had been prepared for them, this one, at least, was unexpected. “It’s very strange,” said he, with ill-disguised embarrassment, “that I should have said such a thing!”

“Five persons heard you,” insisted the magistrate.

The prisoner did not immediately reply. He was evidently trying to gain time, ransacking in his mind for a plausible explanation. “After all,” he ultimately said, “the thing’s quite possible. When I was with M. Simpson, we had with us an old soldier who had belonged to Napoleon’s body-guard and had fought at Waterloo. I recollect he was always repeating that phrase. I must have caught the habit from him.”

This explanation, though rather slow in coming, was none the less ingenious. At least, M. Segmuller appeared to be perfectly satisfied. “That’s very plausible,” said he; “but there is one circumstance that passes my comprehension. Were you freed from your assailants before the police entered the place? Answer me, yes or no.”

“Yes.”

“Then why, instead of making your escape by the back door, the existence of which you had divined, did you remain on the threshold of the door leading into the back room, with a table before you to serve as a barricade, and your revolver leveled at the police, as if to keep them at bay?”

The prisoner hung his head, and the magistrate had to wait for his answer. “I was a fool,” he stammered at last. “I didn’t know whether these men were police agents or friends of the fellows I had killed.”

“In either case your own interest should have induced you to fly.”

The prisoner remained silent.

“Ah, well!” resumed M. Segmuller, “let me tell you my opinion. I believe you designedly and voluntarily exposed yourself to the danger of being arrested in order to protect the retreat of the two women who had just left.”

“Why should I have risked my own safety for two hussies I did not even know?”

“Excuse me. The prosecution is strongly inclined to believe that you know these two women very well.”

“I should like to see any one prove that!” So saying, the prisoner smiled sneeringly, but at once changed countenance when the magistrate retorted in a tone of assurance: “I will prove it.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38