Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

XIV

Long, narrow, and low of ceiling, having on the one side a row of windows looking on to a small courtyard, and on the other a range of doors, each with a number on its central panel, thus reminding one of some corridor in a second-rate hotel, such is the Galerie d’Instruction at the Palais de Justice whereby admittance is gained into the various rooms occupied by the investigating magistrates. Even in the daytime, when it is thronged with prisoners, witnesses, and guards, it is a sad and gloomy place. But it is absolutely sinister of aspect at night-time, when deserted, and only dimly lighted by the smoky lamp of a solitary attendant, waiting for the departure of some magistrate whom business has detained later than usual.

Although Lecoq was not sensitive to such influences, he made haste to reach the staircase and thus escape the echo of his footsteps, which sounded most drearily in the silence and darkness pervading the gallery.

Finding an open window on the floor below, he looked out to ascertain the state of the weather. The temperature was much milder; the snow had altogether disappeared, and the pavement was almost dry. A slight haze, illumined by the ruddy glare of the street lamps, hung like a purple mantle over the city. The streets below were full of animation; vehicles were rolling rapidly to and fro, and the footways were too narrow for the bustling crowd, which, now that the labors of the day were ended, was hastening homeward or in search of pleasure.

The sight drew a sigh from the young detective. “And it is in this great city,” he murmured, “in the midst of this world of people that I must discover the traces of a person I don’t even know! Is it possible to accomplish such a feat?”

The feeling of despondency that had momentarily surprised him was not, however, of long duration. “Yes, it is possible,” cried an inward voice. “Besides, it must be done; your future depends upon it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Ten seconds later he was in the street, more than ever inflamed with hope and courage.

Unfortunately, however, man can only place organs of limited power at the disposal of his boundless desires; and Lecoq had not taken twenty steps along the streets before he became aware that if the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak. His limbs trembled, and his head whirled. Nature was asserting her rights; during the last forty-eight hours, the young detective had taken scarcely a moment’s rest, and he had, moreover, now passed an entire day without food.

“Am I going to be ill?” he thought, sinking on to a bench. And he groaned inwardly on recapitulating all that he wished to do that evening.

If he dealt only with the more important matters, must he not at once ascertain the result of Father Absinthe’s search after the man who had recognized one of the victims at the Morgue; test the prisoner’s assertions regarding the box of clothes left at one of the hotels surrounding the Northern Railway Station; and last, but not the least, must he not procure the address of Polyte Chupin’s wife, in order to serve her with the summons to appear before M. Segmuller?

Under the power of urgent necessity, he succeeded in triumphing over his attack of weakness, and rose, murmuring: “I will go first to the Prefecture and to the Morgue; then I will see.”

But he did not find Father Absinthe at the Prefecture, and no one could give any tidings of him. He had not been there at all during the day. Nor could any one indicate, even vaguely, the abode of the Widow Chupin’s daughter-in-law.

On the other hand, however, Lecoq met a number of his colleagues, who laughed and jeered at him unmercifully. “Ah! you are a shrewd fellow!” they said, “it seems that you have just made a wonderful discovery, and it’s said you are going to be decorated with the Legion of Honor.”

Gevrol’s influence betrayed itself everywhere. The jealous inspector had taken pains to inform all his colleagues and subordinates that poor Lecoq, crazed by ambition, persisted in declaring that a low, vulgar murderer trying to escape justice was some great personage in disguise. However, the jeers and taunts of which Lecoq was the object had but little effect upon him, and he consoled himself with the reflection that, “He laughs best who laughs last.”

If he were restless and anxious as he walked along the Quai des Orfevres, it was because he could not explain Father Absinthe’s prolonged absence, and because he feared that Gevrol, mad with jealousy, might attempt, in some underhand way, to frustrate his, Lecoq’s, efforts to arrive at a solution of the mystery.

At the Morgue the young detective met with no better success than at the Prefecture. After ringing three or four times, one of the keepers opened the door and informed him that the bodies had not been identified, and that the old police agent had not been seen since he went away early in the morning.

“This is a bad beginning,” thought Lecoq. “I will go and get some dinner — that, perhaps, will change the luck; at all events, I have certainly earned the bottle of good wine to which I intend to treat myself.”

It was a happy thought. A hearty meal washed down with a couple of glasses of Bordeaux sent new courage and energy coursing through his veins. If he still felt a trifle weary, the sensation of fatigue was at all events greatly diminished when he left the restaurant with a cigar between his lips.

Just at that moment he longed for Father Papillon’s trap and sturdy steed. Fortunately, a cab was passing: he hired it, and as eight o’clock was striking, alighted at the corner of the square in front of the Northern Railway Station. After a brief glance round, he began his search for the hotel where the murderer pretended to have left a box of clothes.

It must be understood that he did not present himself in his official capacity. Hotel proprietors fight shy of detectives, and Lecoq was aware that if he proclaimed his calling he would probably learn nothing at all. By brushing back his hair and turning up his coat collar, he made, however, a very considerable alteration in his appearance; and it was with a marked English accent that he asked the landlords and servants of various hostelries surrounding the station for information concerning a “foreign workman named May.”

He conducted his search with considerable address, but everywhere he received the same reply.

“We don’t know such a person; we haven’t seen any one answering the description you give of him.”

Any other answer would have astonished Lecoq, so strongly persuaded was he that the prisoner had only mentioned the circumstances of a trunk left at one of these hotels in order to give a semblance of truth to his narrative. Nevertheless he continued his investigation. If he noted down in his memorandum book the names of all the hotels which he visited, it was with a view of making sure of the prisoner’s discomfiture when he was conducted to the neighborhood and asked to prove the truth of his story.

Eventually, Lecoq reached the Hotel de Mariembourg, at the corner of the Rue St. Quentin. The house was of modest proportions; but seemed respectable and well kept. Lecoq pushed open the glass door leading into the vestibule, and entered the office — a neat, brightly lighted room, where he found a woman standing upon a chair, her face on a level with a large bird cage, covered with a piece of black silk. She was repeating three or four German words with great earnestness to the inmate of the cage, and was so engrossed in this occupation that Lecoq had to make considerable noise before he could attract her attention.

At length she turned her head, and the young detective exclaimed: “Ah! good evening, madame; you are much interested, I see, in teaching your parrot to talk.”

“It isn’t a parrot,” replied the woman, who had not yet descended from her perch; “but a starling, and I am trying to teach it to say ‘Have you breakfasted?’ in German.”

“What! can starlings talk?”

“Yes, sir, as well as you or I,” rejoined the woman, jumping down from the chair.

Just then the bird, as if it had understood the question, cried very distinctly: “Camille! Where is Camille?”

But Lecoq was too preoccupied to pay any further attention to the incident. “Madame,” he began, “I wish to speak to the proprietor of this hotel.”

“I am the proprietor.”

“Oh! very well. I was expecting a mechanic — from Leipsic — to meet me here in Paris. To my great surprise, he has not made his appearance; and I came to inquire if he was stopping here. His name is May.”

“May!” repeated the hostess, thoughtfully. “May!”

“He ought to have arrived last Sunday evening.”

The woman’s face brightened. “Wait a moment,” said she. “Was this friend of yours a middle-aged man, of medium size, of very dark complexion — wearing a full beard, and having very bright eyes?”

Lecoq could scarcely conceal his agitation. This was an exact description of the supposed murderer. “Yes,” he stammered, “that is a very good portrait of the man.”

“Ah, well! he came here on Shrove Sunday, in the afternoon. He asked for a cheap room, and I showed him one on the fifth floor. The office-boy was not here at the time, and he insisted upon taking his trunk upstairs himself. I offered him some refreshments; but he declined to take anything, saying that he was in a great hurry; and he went away after giving me ten francs as security for the rent.”

“Where is he now?” inquired the young detective.

“Dear me! that reminds me,” replied the woman. “He has never returned, and I have been rather anxious about him. Paris is such a dangerous place for strangers! It is true he spoke French as well as you or I; but what of that? Yesterday evening I gave orders that the commissary of police should be informed of the matter.”

“Yesterday — the commissary?”

“Yes. Still, I don’t know whether the boy obeyed me. I had forgotten all about it. Allow me to ring for the boy, and ask him.”

A bucket of iced water falling upon Lecoq’s head could not have astonished him more than did this announcement from the proprietress of the Hotel de Mariembourg. Had the prisoner indeed told the truth? Was it possible? Gevrol and the governor of the prison were right, then, and M. Segmuller and he, Lecoq, were senseless fools, pursuing a fantom. These ideas flashed rapidly through the young detective’s brain. But he had no time for reflection. The boy who had been summoned now made his appearance, and proved to be a big overgrown lad with frank, chubby face.

“Fritz,” asked his mistress, “did you go to the commissary’s office?”

“Yes, madame.”

“What did he say?”

“He was not in; but I spoke to his secretary, M. Casimir, who said you were not to worry yourself, as the man would no doubt return.”

“But he has not returned.”

The boy rejoined, with a movement of the shoulders that plainly implied: “How can I help that?”

“You hear, sir,” said the hostess, apparently thinking the importunate questioner would now withdraw.

Such, however, was not Lecoq’s intention, and he did not even move, though he had need of all his self-possession to retain his English accent. “This is very annoying,” said he, “very! I am even more anxious and undecided than I was before, since I am not certain that this is the man I am seeking for.”

“Unfortunately, sir, I can tell you nothing more,” calmly replied the landlady.

Lecoq reflected for a moment, knitting his brows and biting his lips, as if he were trying to discover some means of solving the mystery. In point of fact, he was seeking for some adroit phrase which might lead this woman to show him the register in which all travelers are compelled to inscribe their full names, profession, and usual residence. At the same time, however, it was necessary that he should not arouse her suspicions.

“But, madame,” said he at last, “can’t you remember the name this man gave you? Was it May? Try to recollect if that was the name — May — May!”

“Ah! I have so many things to remember. But now I think of it, and the name must be entered in my book, which, if it would oblige you, I can show you. It is in the drawer of my writing-table. Whatever can I have done with my keys?”

And while the hostess, who seemed to possess about as much intelligence as her starling, was turning the whole office upside down looking for her keys, Lecoq scrutinized her closely. She was about forty years of age, with an abundance of light hair, and a very fair complexion. She was well preserved — that is to say, she was plump and healthy in appearance; her glance was frank and unembarrassed; her voice was clear and musical, and her manners were pleasing, and entirely free from affectation.

“Ah!” she eventually exclaimed, “I have found those wretched keys at last.” So saying, she opened her desk, took out the register, laid it on the table, and began turning over the leaves. At last she found the desired page.

“Sunday, February 20th,” said she. “Look, sir: here on the seventh line — May — no Christian name — foreign artist — coming from Leipsic — without papers.”

While Lecoq was examining this record with a dazed air, the woman exclaimed: “Ah! now I can explain how it happened that I forgot the man’s name and strange profession —‘foreign artist.’ I did not make the entry myself.”

“Who made it, then?”

“The man himself, while I was finding ten francs to give him as change for the louis he handed me. You can see that the writing is not at all like that of other entries.”

Lecoq had already noted this circumstance, which seemed to furnish an irrefutable argument in favor of the assertions made by the landlady and the prisoner. “Are you sure,” he asked, “that this is the man’s handwriting?”

In his anxiety he had forgotten his English accent. The woman noticed this at once, for she drew back, and cast a suspicious glance at the pretended foreigner. “I know what I am saying,” she said, indignantly. “And now this is enough, isn’t it?”

Knowing that he had betrayed himself, and thoroughly ashamed of his lack of coolness, Lecoq renounced his English accent altogether. “Excuse me,” he said, “if I ask one more question. Have you this man’s trunk in your possession?”

“Certainly.”

“You would do me an immense service by showing it to me.”

“Show it to you!” exclaimed the landlady, angrily. “What do you take me for? What do you want? and who are you?”

“You shall know in half an hour,” replied the young detective, realizing that further persuasion would be useless.

He hastily left the room, ran to the Place de Roubaix, jumped into a cab, and giving the driver the address of the district commissary of police, promised him a hundred sous over and above the regular fare if he would only make haste. As might have been expected under such circumstances, the poor horse fairly flew over the ground.

Lecoq was fortunate enough to find the commissary at his office. Having given his name, he was immediately ushered into the magistrate’s presence and told his story in a few words.

“It is really true that they came to inform me of this man’s disappearance,” said the commissary. “Casimir told me about it this morning.”

“They — came — to inform — you —” faltered Lecoq.

“Yes, yesterday; but I have had so much to occupy my time. Now, my man, how can I serve you?”

“Come with me, sir; compel them to show us the trunk, and send for a locksmith to open it. Here is the authority — a search warrant given me by the investigating magistrate to use in case of necessity. Let us lose no time. I have a cab at the door.”

“We will start at once,” said the commissary.

The driver whipped up his horse once more, and they were soon rapidly rolling in the direction of the Rue St. Quentin.

“Now, sir,” said the young detective, “permit me to ask if you know this woman who keeps the Hotel de Mariembourg?”

“Yes, indeed, I know her very well. When I was first appointed to this district, six years ago, I was a bachelor, and for a long while I took my meals at her table d’hote. Casimir, my secretary, boards there even now.”

“And what kind of woman is she?”

“Why, upon my word, my young friend, Madame Milner — for such is her name — is a very respectable widow (highly esteemed by her neighbors) and having a very prosperous business. If she remains a widow, it is only from choice, for she is very prepossessing and has plenty of suitors.”

“Then you don’t think her capable of serving, for the sake of a good round sum, the interests of some wealthy culprit?”

“Have you gone mad?” interrupted the commissary. “What, Madame Milner perjure herself for the sake of money! Haven’t I just told you that she is an honest woman, and that she is very well off! Besides, she informed me yesterday that this man was missing, so —”

Lecoq made no reply; the driver was pulling up; they had reached their destination.

On seeing her obstinate questioner reappear, accompanied by the commissary, Madame Milner seemed to understand everything.

“Good heavens!” she exclaimed, “a detective! I might have guessed it! Some crime has been committed; and now my hotel has lost its reputation forever!”

While a messenger was despatched for a locksmith, the commissary endeavored to reassure and console her, a task of no little difficulty, and which he was some time in accomplishing.

At last they all went up to the missing man’s room, and Lecoq sprang toward the trunk. Ah! there was no denying it. It had, indeed, come from Leipsic; as the labels pasted upon it by the different railroad companies only too plainly proved. On being opened, it was, moreover, found to contain the various articles mentioned by the prisoner.

Lecoq was thunderstruck. When he had seen the commissary lock the trunk and its contents up in a cupboard and take possession of the key, he felt he could endure nothing more. He left the room with downcast head; and stumbled like a drunken man as he went down the stairs.

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