Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

XIII

When the prisoner had gone, M. Segmuller sank back in his armchair, literally exhausted. He was in that state of nervous prostration which so often follows protracted but fruitless efforts. He had scarcely strength enough to bathe his burning forehead and gleaming eyes with cool, refreshing water.

This frightful examination had lasted no less than seven consecutive hours.

The smiling clerk, who had kept his place at his desk busily writing the whole while, now rose to his feet, glad of an opportunity to stretch his limbs and snap his fingers, cramped by holding the pen. Still, he was not in the least degree bored. He invariably took a semi-theatrical interest in the dramas that were daily enacted in his presence; his excitement being all the greater owing to the uncertainty that shrouded the finish of the final act — a finish that only too often belied the ordinary rules and deductions of writers for the stage.

“What a knave!” he exclaimed after vainly waiting for the magistrate or the detective to express an opinion, “what a rascal!”

M. Segmuller ordinarily put considerable confidence in his clerk’s long experience. He sometimes even went so far as to consult him, doubtless somewhat in the same style that Moliere consulted his servant. But, on this occasion he did not accept his opinion.

“No,” said he in a thoughtful tone, “that man is not a knave. When I spoke to him kindly he was really touched; he wept, he hesitated. I could have sworn that he was about to tell me everything.”

“Ah, he’s a man of wonderful power!” observed Lecoq.

The detective was sincere in his praise. Although the prisoner had disappointed his plans, and had even insulted him, he could not help admiring his shrewdness and courage. He — Lecoq — had prepared himself for a strenuous struggle with this man, and he hoped to conquer in the end. Nevertheless in his secret soul he felt for his adversary, admiring that sympathy which a “foeman worthy of one’s steel” always inspires.

“What coolness, what courage!” continued the young detective. “Ah! there’s no denying it, his system of defense — of absolute denial — is a masterpiece. It is perfect. How well he played that difficult part of buffoon! At times I could scarcely restrain my admiration. What is a famous comedian beside that fellow? The greatest actors need the adjunct of stage scenery to support the illusion, whereas this man, entirely unaided, almost convinced me even against my reason.”

“Do you know what your very appropriate criticism proves?” inquired the magistrate.

“I am listening, sir.”

“Ah, well! I have arrived at this conclusion — either this man is really May, the stroller, earning his living by paying compliments, as he says — or else he belongs to the highest rank of society, and not to the middle classes. It is only in the lowest or in the highest ranks that you encounter such grim energy as he has displayed, such scorn of life, as well as such remarkable presence of mind and resolution. A vulgar tradesman attracted to the Poivriere by some shameful passion would have confessed it long ago.”

“But, sir, this man is surely not the buffoon, May,” replied the young detective.

“No, certainly not,” responded M. Segmuller; “we must, therefore, decide upon some plan of action.” He smiled kindly, and added, in a friendly voice: “It was unnecessary to tell you that, Monsieur Lecoq. Quite unnecessary, since to you belongs the honor of having detected this fraud. As for myself, I confess, that if I had not been warned in advance, I should have been the dupe of this clever artist’s talent.”

The young detective bowed; a blush of modesty tinged his cheeks, but a gleam of pleased vanity sparkled in his eyes. What a difference between this friendly, benevolent magistrate and M. d’Escorval, so taciturn and haughty. This man, at least, understood, appreciated, and encouraged him; and it was with a common theory and an equal ardor that they were about to devote themselves to a search for the truth. Scarcely had Lecoq allowed these thoughts to flit across his mind than he reflected that his satisfaction was, after all, a trifle premature, and that success was still extremely doubtful. With this chilling conclusion, presence of mind returned. Turning toward the magistrate, he exclaimed: “You will recollect, sir, that the Widow Chupin mentioned a son of hers, a certain Polyte —”

“Yes.”

“Why not question him? He must know all the frequenters of the Poivriere, and might perhaps give us valuable information regarding Gustave, Lacheneur, and the murderer himself. As he is not in solitary confinement, he has probably heard of his mother’s arrest; but it seems to me impossible that he should suspect our present perplexity.”

“Ah! you are a hundred times right!” exclaimed the magistrate. “I ought to have thought of that myself. In his position he can scarcely have been tampered with as yet, and I’ll have him up here to-morrow morning; I will also question his wife.”

Turning to his clerk, M. Segmuller added: “Quick, Goguet, prepare a summons in the name of the wife of Hippolyte Chupin, and address an order to the governor of the Depot to produce her husband!”

But night was coming on. It was already too dark to see to write, and accordingly the clerk rang the bell for lights. Just as the messenger who brought the lamps turned to leave the room, a rap was heard at the door. Immediately afterward the governor of the Depot entered.

During the past twenty-four hours this worthy functionary had been greatly perplexed concerning the mysterious prisoner he had placed in secret cell No. 3, and he now came to the magistrate for advice regarding him. “I come to ask,” said he, “if I am still to retain the prisoner May in solitary confinement?”

“Yes.”

“Although I fear fresh attacks of frenzy, I dislike to confine him in the strait-jacket again.”

“Leave him free in his cell,” replied M. Segmuller; “and tell the keepers to watch him well, but to treat him kindly.”

By the provisions of Article 613 of the Code, accused parties are placed in the custody of the government, but the investigating magistrate is allowed to adopt such measures concerning them as he may deem necessary for the interest of the prosecution.

The governor bowed assent to M. Segmuller’s instructions, and then added: “You have doubtless succeeded in establishing the prisoner’s identity.”

“Unfortunately, I have not.”

The governor shook his head with a knowing air. “In that case,” said he, “my conjectures were correct. It seems to me evident that this man is a criminal of the worst description — an old offender certainly, and one who has the strongest interest in concealing his identity. You will find that you have to deal with a man who has been sentenced to the galleys for life, and who has managed to escape from Cayenne.”

“Perhaps you are mistaken.”

“Hum! I shall be greatly surprised if such should prove the case. I must admit that my opinion in this matter is identical with that of M. Gevrol, the most experienced and the most skilful of our inspectors. I agree with him in thinking that young detectives are often overzealous, and run after fantoms originated in their own brains.”

Lecoq, crimson with wrath, was about to make an angry response when M. Segmuller motioned to him to remain silent. Then with a smile on his face the magistrate replied to the governor. “Upon my word, my dear friend,” he said, “the more I study this affair, the more convinced I am of the correctness of the theory advanced by the ‘overzealous’ detective. But, after all, I am not infallible, and I shall depend upon your counsel and assistance.”

“Oh! I have means of verifying my assertion,” interrupted the governor; “and I hope before the end of the next twenty-four hours that our man will have been identified, either by the police or by one of his fellow-prisoners.”

With these words he took his leave. Scarcely had he done so than Lecoq sprang to his feet. The young detective was furious. “You see that Gevrol already speaks ill of me; he is jealous.”

“Ah, well! what does that matter to you? If you succeed, you will have your revenge. If you are mistaken — then I am mistaken, too.”

Then, as it was already late, M. Segmuller confided to Lecoq’s keeping the various articles the latter had accumulated in support of his theory. He also placed in his hands the diamond earring, the owner of which must be discovered; and the letter signed “Lacheneur,” which had been found in the pocket of the spurious soldier. Having given him full instructions, he asked him to make his appearance promptly on the morrow, and then dismissed him, saying: “Now go; and may good luck attend you!”

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