Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

XII

M. Segmuller certainly wished that a number had been branded upon the enigmatical prisoner before him. And yet he did not by any means despair, and his confidence, exaggerated though it might be, was not at all feigned. He was of opinion that the weakest point of the prisoner’s defense so far was his pretended ignorance concerning the two women. He proposed to return to this subject later on. In the mean while, however, there were other matters to be dealt with.

When he felt that his threat as regards the women had had time to produce its full effect, the magistrate continued: “So, prisoner, you assert that you were acquainted with none of the persons you met at the Poivriere.”

“I swear it.”

“Have you never had occasion to meet a person called Lacheneur, an individual whose name is connected with this unfortunate affair?”

“I heard the name for the first time when it was pronounced by the dying soldier. Poor fellow! I had just dealt him his death blow; and yet his last words testified to my innocence.”

This sentimental outburst produced no impression whatever upon the magistrate. “In that case,” said he, “I suppose you are willing to accept this soldier’s statement.”

The man hesitated, as if conscious that he had fallen into a snare, and that he would be obliged to weigh each answer carefully. “I accept it,” said he at last. “Of course I accept it.”

“Very well, then. This soldier, as you must recollect, wished to revenge himself on Lacheneur, who, by promising him a sum of money, had inveigled him into a conspiracy. A conspiracy against whom? Evidently against you; and yet you pretend that you had only arrived in Paris that evening, and that mere chance brought you to the Poivriere. Can you reconcile such conflicting statements?”

The prisoner had the hardihood to shrug his shoulders disdainfully. “I see the matter in an entirely different light,” said he. “These people were plotting mischief against I don’t know whom — and it was because I was in their way that they sought a quarrel with me, without any cause whatever.”

Skilfully as the magistrate had delivered this thrust, it had been as skilfully parried; so skilfully, indeed, that Goguet, the smiling clerk, could not conceal an approving grimace. Besides, on principle, he always took the prisoner’s part, in a mild, Platonic way, of course.

“Let us consider the circumstances that followed your arrest,” resumed M. Segmuller. “Why did you refuse to answer all the questions put to you?”

A gleam of real or assumed resentment shone in the prisoner’s eyes.

“This examination,” he growled, “will alone suffice to make a culprit out of an innocent man!”

“I advise you, in your own interest, to behave properly. Those who arrested you observed that you were conversant with all the prison formalities and rules.”

“Ah! sir, haven’t I told you that I have been arrested and put in prison several times — always on account of my papers? I told you the truth, and you shouldn’t taunt me for having done so.”

The prisoner had dropped his mask of careless gaiety, and had assumed a surly, discontented tone. But his troubles were by no means ended; in fact, the battle had only just begun. Laying a tiny linen bag on his desk, M. Segmuller asked him if he recognized it.

“Perfectly! It is the package that the governor of the Depot placed in his safe.”

The magistrate opened the bag, and poured the dust that it contained on to a sheet of paper. “You are aware, prisoner,” said he, “that this dust comes from the mud that was sticking to your feet. The police agent who collected it has been to the station-house where you spent the night of the murder, and has discovered that the composition of this dust is identical with that of the floor of the cell you occupied.”

The prisoner listened with gaping mouth.

“Hence,” continued the magistrate, “it was certainly at the station-house, and designedly, that you soiled your feet with that mud. In doing so you had an object.”

“I wished —”

“Let me finish. Being determined to keep your identity secret, and to assume the character of a member of the lower classes — of a mountebank, if you please — you reflected that the care you bestow upon your person might betray you. You foresaw the impression that would be caused when the coarse, ill-fitting boots you wore were removed, and the officials perceived your trim, clean feet, which are as well kept as your hands. Accordingly, what did you do? You poured some of the water that was in the pitcher in your cell on to the ground and then dabbled your feet in the mud that had thus been formed.”

During these remarks the prisoner’s face wore, by turns, an expression of anxiety, astonishment, irony, and mirth. When the magistrate had finished, he burst into a hearty laugh.

“So that’s the result of twelve or fourteen hours’ research,” he at length exclaimed, turning toward Lecoq. “Ah! Mr. Agent, it’s good to be sharp, but not so sharp as that. The truth is, that when I was taken to the station-house, forty-eight hours — thirty-six of them spent in a railway carriage — had elapsed since I had taken off my boots. My feet were red and swollen, and they burned like fire. What did I do? I poured some water over them. As for your other suspicions, if I have a soft white skin, it is only because I take care of myself. Besides, as is usual with most men of my profession, I rarely wear anything but slippers on my feet. This is so true that, on leaving Leipsic, I only owned a single pair of boots, and that was an old cast-off pair given me by M. Simpson.”

Lecoq struck his chest. “Fool, imbecile, idiot, that I am!” he thought. “He was waiting to be questioned about this circumstance. He is so wonderfully shrewd that, when he saw me take the dust, he divined my intentions; and since then he has managed to concoct this story — a plausible story enough — and one that any jury would believe.”

M. Segmuller was saying the same thing to himself. But he was not so surprised nor so overcome by the skill the prisoner had displayed in fencing with this point. “Let us continue,” said he. “Do you still persist in your statements, prisoner?”

“Yes.”

“Very well; then I shall be forced to tell you that what you are saying is untrue.”

The prisoner’s lips trembled visibly, and it was with difficulty that he faltered: “May my first mouthful of bread strangle me, if I have uttered a single falsehood!”

“A single falsehood! Wait.”

The magistrate drew from the drawer of his desk the molds of the footprints prepared by Lecoq, and showing them to the murderer, he said: “You told me a few minutes ago that the two women were as tall as grenadiers; now, just look at the footprints made by these female giants. They were as ‘dark as moles,’ you said; a witness will tell you that one of them was a small, delicate-featured blonde, with an exceedingly sweet voice.” He sought the prisoner’s eyes, gazed steadily into them, and added slowly: “And this witness is the driver whose cab was hired in the Rue de Chevaleret by the two fugitives, both short, fair-haired women.”

This sentence fell like a thunderbolt upon the prisoner; he grew pale, tottered, and leaned against the wall for support.

“Ah! you have told me the truth!” scornfully continued the pitiless magistrate. “Then, who is this man who was waiting for you while you were at the Poivriere? Who is this accomplice who, after your arrest, dared to enter the Widow Chupin’s den to regain possession of some compromising object — no doubt a letter — which he knew he would find in the pocket of the Widow Chupin’s apron? Who is this devoted, courageous friend who feigned drunkenness so effectually that even the police were deceived, and thoughtlessly placed him in confinement with you? Dare you deny that you have not arranged your system of defense in concert with him? Can you affirm that he did not give the Widow Chupin counsel as to the course she should pursue?”

But already, thanks to his power of self-control, the prisoner had mastered his agitation. “All this,” said he, in a harsh voice, “is a mere invention of the police!”

However faithfully one may describe an examination of this kind, a narrative can convey no more idea of the real scene than a heap of cold ashes can give the effect of a glowing fire. One can note down each word, each ejaculation, but phraseology is powerless to portray the repressed animation, the impassioned movements, the studied reticence, the varied tones of voice, the now bold, now faltering glances, full of hatred and suspicion, which follow each other in rapid succession, mostly on the prisoner’s side, but not entirely so, for although the magistrate may be an adept in the art of concealing his feelings, at times nature can not be controlled.

When the prisoner reeled beneath the magistrate’s last words, the latter could not control his feelings. “He yields,” he thought, “he succumbs — he is mine!”

But all hope of immediate success vanished when M. Segmuller saw his redoubtable adversary struggle against his momentary weakness, and arm himself for the fight with renewed, and, if possible, even greater energy. The magistrate perceived that it would require more than one assault to over-come such a stubborn nature. So, in a voice rendered still more harsh by disappointment, he resumed: “It is plain that you are determined to deny evidence itself.”

The prisoner had recovered all his self-possession. He must have bitterly regretted his weakness, for a fiendish spite glittered in his eyes. “What evidence!” he asked, frowning. “This romance invented by the police is very plausible, I don’t deny it; but it seems to me that the truth is quite as probable. You talk to me about a cabman whose vehicle was hired by two short, fair-haired women: but who can prove that these women were the same that fled from the Poivriere?”

“The police agent you see here followed the tracks they left across the snow.”

“Ah! at night-time — across fields intersected by ditches, and up a long street — a fine rain falling all the while, and a thaw already beginning! Oh, your story is very probable!”

As he spoke, the murderer extended his arm toward Lecoq, and then, in a tone of crushing scorn, he added: “A man must have great confidence in himself, or a wild longing for advancement, to try and get a man guillotined on such evidence as that!”

At these words, Goguet, the smiling clerk, whose pen was rapidly flying across the paper, could not help remarking to himself: “The arrow has entered the bull’s-eye this time!”

The comment was not without foundation: for Lecoq was evidently cut to the quick. Indeed, he was so incensed that, forgetful of his subordinate position, he sprang to his feet, exclaiming: “This circumstance would be of slight importance if it were not one of a long chain —”

“Be good enough to keep silent,” interrupted the magistrate, who, turning to the prisoner, added: “The court does not utilize the proofs and testimony collected by the police until it has examined and weighed them.”

“No matter,” murmured the prisoner. “I should like to see this cab-driver.”

“Have no fear about that; he shall repeat his evidence in your presence.”

“Very well. I am satisfied then. I will ask him how he can distinguish people’s faces when it is as dark as —”

He checked himself, apparently enlightened by a sudden inspiration.

“How stupid I am!” he exclaimed. “I’m losing my temper about these people when you know all the while who they are. For of course the cabmen drove them home.”

M. Segmuller saw that the prisoner understood him. He perceived, moreover, that the latter was doing all he could to increase the mystery that enshrouded this essential point of the case — a point upon which the prosecution was particularly anxious to obtain information.

The prisoner was truly an incomparable comedian, for his last observation was made in a tone of remarkable candor, just tinged with sufficient irony to show that he felt he had nothing to fear in this direction.

“If you are consistent with yourself,” remarked the magistrate, “you will also deny the existence of an accomplice, of a — comrade.”

“What would be the use denying it, since you believe nothing that I say? Only a moment ago you insinuated that my former employer was an imaginary personage; so what need I say about my pretended accomplice? According to your agents, he’s at all events a most faithful friend. Indeed, this wonderful being — invented by Monsieur” (with these words the prisoner pointed to Lecoq)—“was seemingly not satisfied at having once escaped the police, for, according to your account, he voluntarily placed himself in their clutches a second time. You gentlemen pretend that he conferred first of all with me, and next with the Widow Chupin. How did that happen? Perhaps after removing him from my cell, some of your agents obligingly shut him up with the old woman.”

Goguet, the clerk, wrote all this down admiringly. “Here,” thought he, “is a man of brain, who understands his case. He won’t need any lawyer’s eloquence to put his defense favorably before a jury.”

“And after all,” continued the prisoner, “what are the proofs against me? The name of Lacheneur faltered by a dying man; a few footprints on some melting snow; a sleepy cab-driver’s declaration; and a vague doubt about a drunkard’s identity. If that is all you have against me, it certainly doesn’t amount to much —”

“Enough!” interrupted M. Segmuller. “Your assurance is perfect now; though a moment ago your embarrassment was most remarkable. What was the cause of it?”

“The cause!” indignantly exclaimed the prisoner, whom this query had seemingly enraged; “the cause! Can’t you see, sir, that you are torturing me frightfully, pitilessly! I am an innocent man, and you are trying to deprive me of my life. You have been turning me this way and that way for so many hours that I begin to feel as if I were standing on the guillotine. Each time I open my mouth to speak I ask myself, is it this answer that will send me to the scaffold? My anxiety and dismay surprise you, do they? Why, since this examination began, I’ve felt the cold knife graze my neck at least twenty times. I wouldn’t like my worst enemy to be subjected to such torture as this.”

The prisoner’s description of his sufferings did not seem at all exaggerated. His hair was saturated with perspiration, and big drops of sweat rested on his pallid brow, or coursed down his cheeks on to his beard.

“I am not your enemy,” said the magistrate more gently. “A magistrate is neither a prisoner’s friend nor enemy, he is simply the friend of truth and the executor of the law. I am not seeking either for an innocent man or for a culprit; I merely wish to arrive at the truth. I must know who you are — and I do know —”

“Ah! — if the assertion costs me my life — I’m May and none other.”

“No, you are not.”

“Who am I then? Some great man in disguise? Ah! I wish I were! In that case, I should have satisfactory papers to show you; and then you would set me free, for you know very well, my good sir, that I am as innocent as you are.”

The magistrate had left his desk, and taken a seat by the fireplace within a yard of the prisoner. “Do not insist,” said he. Then, suddenly changing both manner and tone, he added with the urbanity that a man of the world displays when addressing an equal:

“Do me the honor, sir, to believe me gifted with sufficient perspicuity to recognize, under the difficult part you play to such perfection, a very superior gentleman — a man endowed with remarkable talents.”

Lecoq perceived that this sudden change of manner had unnerved the prisoner. He tried to laugh, but his merriment partook somewhat of the nature of a sob, and big tears glistened in his eyes.

“I will not torture you any longer,” continued the magistrate. “In subtle reasoning I confess that you have conquered me. However, when I return to the charge I shall have proofs enough in my possession to crush you.”

He reflected for a moment, then lingering over each word, he added: “Only do not then expect from me the consideration I have shown you to-day. Justice is human; that is, she is indulgent toward certain crimes. She has fathomed the depth of the abyss into which blind passion may hurl even an honest man. To-day I freely offer you any assistance that will not conflict with my duty. Speak, shall I send this officer of police away? Would you like me to send my clerk out of the room, on an errand?” He said no more, but waited to see the effect of this last effort.

The prisoner darted upon him one of those searching glances that seem to pierce an adversary through. His lips moved; one might have supposed that he was about to make a revelation. But no; suddenly he crossed his arms over his chest, and murmured: “You are very frank, sir. Unfortunately for me, I’m only a poor devil, as I’ve already told you. My name is May, and I earn my living by speaking to the public and turning a compliment.”

“I am forced to yield to your decision,” said the magistrate sadly. “The clerk will now read the minutes of your examination — listen.”

While Goguet read the evidence aloud, the prisoner listened without making any remark, but when asked to sign the document, he obstinately refused to do so, fearing, he said, “some hidden treachery.”

A moment afterward the soldiers who had escorted him to the magistrate’s room conducted him back to the Depot.

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