Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

XV

Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, was very gay that year; that is to say, all places of public resort were crowded. When Lecoq left the Hotel de Mariembourg about midnight, the streets were as full as if it had been noonday, and the cafes were thronged with customers.

But the young detective had no heart for pleasure. He mingled with the crowd without seemingly seeing it, and jostled against groups of people chatting at the corners, without hearing the imprecations occasioned by his awkwardness. Where was he going? He had no idea. He walked aimlessly, more disconsolate and desperate than the gambler who had staked his last hope with his last louis, and lost.

“I must yield,” he murmured; “this evidence is conclusive. My presumptions were only chimeras; my deductions the playthings of chance! All I can now do is to withdraw, with the least possible damage and ridicule, from the false position I have assumed.”

Just as he reached the boulevard, however, a new idea entered his brain, an idea of so startling a kind that he could scarcely restrain a loud exclamation of surprise. “What a fool I am!” cried he, striking his hand violently against his forehead. “Is it possible to be so strong in theory, and yet so ridiculously weak in practise? Ah! I am only a child, a mere novice, disheartened by the slightest obstacle. I meet with a difficulty, and at once I lose all my courage. Now, let me reflect calmly. What did I tell the judge about this murderer, whose plan of defense so puzzles us? Did I not tell him that we had to deal with a man of superior talent — with a man of consummate penetration and experience — a bold, courageous fellow of imperturbable coolness, who will do anything to insure the success of his plans? Yes; I told him all that, and yet I give up the game in despair as soon as I meet with a single circumstance that I can not instantly explain. It is evident that such a prisoner would not resort to old, hackneyed, commonplace expedients. Time, patience, and research are requisite to find a flaw in his defense. With such a man as he is, the more appearances are against my presumptions, and in favor of his narrative, the more certain it is that I am right — or else logic is no longer logic.”

At this thought, Lecoq burst into a hearty laugh. “Still,” continued he, “it would perhaps be premature to expose this theory at headquarters in Gevrol’s presence. He would at once present me with a certificate for admission into some lunatic asylum.”

The young detective paused. While absorbed in thought, his legs, obeying an instinctive impulse, had brought him to his lodgings. He rang the bell; the door opened, and he groped his way slowly up to the fourth floor. He had reached his room, and was about to enter, when some one, whom he could not distinguish in the dark, called out: “Is that you, Monsieur Lecoq?”

“Yes, it’s I!” replied the young man, somewhat surprised; “but who are you?”

“I’m Father Absinthe.”

“Oh! indeed! Well, you are welcome! I didn’t recognize your voice — will you come in?”

They entered the room, and Lecoq lit a candle. Then the young man could see his colleague, and, good heavens! he found him in a most pitiable condition.

He was as dirty and as bespattered with mud as a lost dog that has been wandering about in the rain and the mire for a week at the very least. His overcoat bore the traces of frequent contact with damp walls; his hat had lost its form entirely. His eyes wore an anxious look, and his mustache drooped despondently. He spoke, moreover, so strangely that one might have supposed his mouth was full of sand.

“Do you bring me bad news?” inquired Lecoq, after a short examination of his companion.

“Yes, bad.”

“The people you were following escaped you, then?”

The old man nodded his head affirmatively.

“It is unfortunate — very unfortunate!” said Lecoq. “But it is useless to distress ourselves about it. Don’t be so cast down, Father Absinthe. To-morrow, between us, we will repair the damage.”

This friendly encouragement only increased the old man’s evident embarrassment. He blushed, this veteran, as if he had been a schoolgirl, and raising his hands toward heaven, he exclaimed: “Ah, you wretch! didn’t I tell you so?”

“Why! what is the matter with you?” inquired Lecoq.

Father Absinthe made no reply. Approaching a looking-glass that hung against the wall, he surveyed himself reproachfully and began to heap cruel insults upon the reflection of his features.

“You old good-for-nothing!” he exclaimed. “You vile deserter! have you no shame left? You were entrusted with a mission, were you not? And how have you fulfilled it? You have got drunk, you old wretch, so drunk as to have lost your wits. Ah, you shan’t escape punishment this time, for even if M. Lecoq is indulgent, you shan’t taste another drop for a week. Yes, you old sot, you shall suffer for this escapade.”

“Come, come,” said Lecoq, “you can sermonize by and by. Now tell me your story.”

“Ah! I am not proud of it, believe me. However, never mind. No doubt you received the letter in which I told you I was going to follow the young men who seemed to recognize Gustave?”

“Yes, yes — go on!”

“Well, as soon as they entered the cafe, into which I had followed them, they began drinking, probably to drive away their emotion. After that they apparently felt hungry. At all events they ordered breakfast. I followed their example. The meal, with coffee and beer afterward, took up no little time, and indeed a couple of hours had elapsed before they were ready to pay their bill and go. Good! I supposed they would now return home. Not at all. They walked down the Rue Dauphin; and I saw them enter another cafe. Five minutes later I glided in after them; and found them already engaged in a game of billiards.”

At this point Father Absinthe hesitated; it is no easy task to recount one’s blunders to the very person who has suffered by them.

“I seated myself at a little table,” he eventually resumed, “and asked for a newspaper. I was reading with one eye and watching with the other, when a respectable-looking man entered, and took a seat beside me. As soon as he had seated himself he asked me to let him have the paper when I had finished with it. I handed it to him, and then we began talking about the weather. At last he proposed a game of bezique. I declined, but we afterward compromised the matter by having a game of piquet. The young men, you understand, were still knocking the balls about. We began by playing for a glass of brandy each. I won. My adversary asked for his revenge, and we played two games more. I still kept on winning. He insisted upon another game, and again I won, and still I drank — and drank again —”

“Go on, go on.”

“Ah! here’s the rub. After that I remember nothing — nothing either about the man I had been playing with or the young men. It seems to me, however, that I recollect falling asleep in the cafe, and that a long while afterward a waiter came and woke me and told me to go. Then I must have wandered about along the quays until I came to my senses, and decided to go to your lodgings and wait on the stairs until you returned.”

To Father Absinthe’s great surprise, Lecoq seemed rather thoughtful than angry. “What do you think about this chance acquaintance of yours, papa?” asked the young detective.

“I think he was following me while I was following the others, and that he entered the cafe with the view of making me drunk.”

“What was he like?”

“Oh, he was a tall, stoutish man, with a broad, red face, and a flat nose; and he was very unpretending and affable in manner.

“It was he!” exclaimed Lecoq.

“He! Who?”

“Why, the accomplice — the man whose footprints we discovered — the pretended drunkard — a devil incarnate, who will get the best of us yet, if we don’t keep our eyes open. Don’t you forget him, papa; and if you ever meet him again —”

But Father Absinthe’s confession was not ended. Like most devotees, he had reserved the worst sin for the last.

“But that’s not all,” he resumed; “and as it’s best to make a clean breast of it, I will tell you that it seems to me this traitor talked about the affair at the Poivriere, and that I told him all we had discovered, and all we intended to do.”

Lecoq made such a threatening gesture that the old tippler drew back in consternation. “You wretched man!” exclaimed the young detective, “to betray our plans to the enemy!”

But his calmness soon returned. If at first sight the evil seemed to be beyond remedy, on further thought it had a good side after all. It sufficed to dispel all the doubts that had assailed Lecoq’s mind after his visit to the Hotel de Mariembourg.

“However,” quoth our hero, “this is not the time for deliberation. I am overcome with fatigue; take a mattress from the bed for yourself, my friend, and let us get a little sleep.”

Lecoq was a man of considerable forethought. Hence, before going to bed he took good care to wind up his alarm so that it might wake him at six o’clock. “With that to warn us,” he remarked to his companion, as he blew out the candle, “there need be no fear of our missing the coach.”

He had not, however, made allowance for his own extreme weariness or for the soporific effect of the alcoholic fumes with which his comrade’s breath was redolent. When six o’clock struck at the church of St. Eustache, the young detective’s alarm resounded faithfully enough, with a loud and protracted whir. Shrill and sonorous as was the sound, it failed, however, to break the heavy sleep of the two detectives. They would indeed, in all probability, have continued slumbering for several hours longer, if at half-past seven a sturdy fist had not begun to rap loudly at the door. With one bound Lecoq was out of bed, amazed at seeing the bright sunlight, and furious at the futility of his precautions.

“Come in!” he cried to his early visitor. He had no enemies to fear, and could, without danger, sleep with his door unlocked.

In response to his call, Father Papillon’s shrewd face peered into the room.

“Ah! it is my worthy coachman!” exclaimed Lecoq. “Is there anything new?”

“Excuse me, but it’s the old affair that brings me here,” replied our eccentric friend the cabman. “You know — the thirty francs those wretched women paid me. Really, I shan’t sleep in peace till you have worked off the amount by using my vehicle. Our drive yesterday lasted two hours and a half, which, according to the regular fare, would be worth a hundred sous; so you see I’ve still more than twelve hours at your disposal.”

“That is all nonsense, my friend!”

“Possibly, but I am responsible for it, and if you won’t use my cab, I’ve sworn to spend those twelve hours waiting outside your door. So now make up your mind.” He gazed at Lecoq beseechingly, and it was evident that a refusal would wound him keenly.

“Very well,” replied Lecoq, “I will take you for the morning, only I ought to warn you that we are starting on a long journey.”

“Oh, Cocotte’s legs may be relied upon.”

“My companion and myself have business in your own neighborhood. It is absolutely necessary for us to find the Widow Chupin’s daughter-in-law; and I hope we shall be able to obtain her address from the police commissary of the district where the Poivriere is situated.”

“Very well, we will go wherever you wish; I am at your orders.”

A few moments later they were on their way.

Papillon’s features wore an air of self-satisfied pride as, sitting erect on his box, he cracked his whip, and encouraged the nimble Cocotte. The vehicle could not have got over the ground more rapidly if its driver had been promised a hundred sous’ gratuity.

Father Absinthe alone was sad. He had been forgiven by Lecoq, but he could not forget that he, an old police agent, had been duped as easily as if he had been some ignorant provincial. The thought was humiliating, and then in addition he had been fool enough to reveal the secret plans of the prosecution! He knew but too well that this act of folly had doubled the difficulties of Lecoq’s task.

The long drive in Father Papillon’s cab was not a fruitless one. The secretary of the commissary of police for the thirteenth arrondissement informed Lecoq that Polyte Chupin’s wife lived with her child, in the suburbs, in the Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles. He could not indicate the precise number, but he described the house and gave them some information concerning its occupants.

The Widow Chupin’s daughter-in-law, a native of Auvergne, had been bitterly punished for preferring a rakish Parisian ragamuffin to one of the grimy charcoal-burners of the Puy de Dome. She was hardly more than twelve years of age when she first came to Paris and obtained employment in a large factory. After ten years’ privation and constant toil, she had managed to amass, sou by sou, the sum of three thousand francs. Then her evil genius threw Polyte Chupin across her path. She fell in love with this dissipated, selfish rascal; and he married her for the sake of her little hoard.

As long as the money lasted, that is, for some three or four months, matters went on pleasantly enough. But as soon as the last franc had been spent, Polyte left his wife, and complacently resumed his former life of idleness, thieving, and debauchery. When at times he returned home, it was merely with the view of robbing his wife of what little money she might have saved in the mean while; and periodically she uncomplainingly allowed him to despoil her of the last penny of her earnings.

Horrible to relate, this unworthy rascal even tried to trade on her good looks. Here, however, he met with a strenuous resistance — a resistance which excited not merely his own ire, but also the hatred of the villain’s mother — that old hag, the Widow Chupin. The result was that Polyte’s wife was subjected to such incessant cruelty and persecution that one night she was forced to fly with only the rags that covered her. The Chupins — mother and son — believed, perhaps, that starvation would effect what their horrible threats and insidious counsel had failed to accomplish. Their shameful expectations were not, however, gratified.

In mentioning these facts to Lecoq, the commissary’s secretary added that they had become widely known, and that the unfortunate creature’s force of character had won for her general respect. Among those she frequented, moreover, she was known by the nickname of “Toinon the Virtuous”— a rather vulgar but, at all events, sincere tribute to her worth.

Grateful for this information, Lecoq returned to the cab. The Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles, whither Papillon was now directed to drive, proved to be very unlike the Boulevard Malesherbes, and one brief glance sufficed to show that opulence had not here fixed its abode. Luck seemed for the moment to have turned in Lecoq’s favor. At all events, when he and Father Absinthe alighted at the corner of the street, it so happened that the very first person the young detective questioned concerning the virtuous Toinon was well acquainted with her whereabouts. The house in which she resided was pointed out, and Lecoq was instructed to go upstairs to the top floor, and knock at the door in front of him. With such precise directions the two detectives speedily reached Madame Polyte Chupin’s abode.

This proved to be a cold and gloomy attic of medium size, windowless, but provided with a small skylight. A straw pallet, a broken table, two chairs, and a few plain kitchen utensils constituted the sole appointments of this miserable garret. But in spite of the occupant’s evident poverty, everything was neat and clean, and to use a forcible expression that fell from Father Absinthe, one could have eaten off the floor.

The two detectives entered, and found a woman busily engaged in making a heavy linen sack. She was seated in the centre of the room, directly under the skylight, so that the sun’s rays might fall upon her work. At the sight of two strangers, she half rose from her chair, surprised, and perhaps a little frightened; but when Lecoq had explained that they desired a few moments’ conversation with her, she gave up her own seat, and drawing the second chair from a corner, invited both detectives to sit down. Lecoq complied, but Father Absinthe declared that he preferred to remain standing.

With a single glance Lecoq took an inventory of the humble abode, and, so to speak, appraised the woman. She was short, stout, and of commonplace appearance. Her forehead was extremely low, being crowned by a forest of coarse, black hair; while the expression of her large, black eyes, set very close together, recalled the look of patient resignation one so often detects in ill-treated and neglected animals. Possibly, in former days, she might have possessed that fleeting attraction called the beaute du diable; but now she looked almost as old as her wretched mother-in-law. Sorrow and privation, excessive toil and ill-treatment, had imparted to her face a livid hue, reddening her eyes and stamping deep furrows round about her temples. Still, there was an attribute of native honesty about her which even the foul atmosphere in which she had been compelled to live had not sufficed to taint.

Her little boy furnished a striking contrast. He was pale and puny; his eyes gleamed with a phosphorescent brilliancy; and his hair was of a faded flaxen tint. One little circumstance attracted both detectives’ attention. If the mother was attired in an old, thin, faded calico dress, the child was warmly clad in stout woolen material.

“Madame, you have doubtless heard of a dreadful crime, committed in your mother-in-law’s establishment,” began Lecoq in a soft voice.

“Alas! yes, sir,” replied Toinon the Virtuous, quickly adding: “But my husband could not have been implicated in it, since he is in prison.”

Did not this objection, forestalling, as it were, suspicion, betray the most horrible apprehensions?

“Yes, I am aware of that,” replied Lecoq. “Polyte was arrested a fortnight ago —”

“Yes, and very unjustly, sir,” replied the neglected wife. “He was led astray by his companions, wicked, desperate men. He is so weak when he has taken a glass of wine that they can do whatever they like with him. If he were only left to himself he would not harm a child. You have only to look at him —”

As she spoke, the virtuous Toinon turned her red and swollen eyes to a miserable photograph hanging against the wall. This blotchy smudge portrayed an exceedingly ugly, dissipated-looking young man, afflicted with a terrible squint, and whose repulsive mouth was partially concealed by a faint mustache. This rake of the barrieres was Polyte Chupin. And yet despite his unprepossessing aspect there was no mistaking the fact that this unfortunate woman loved him — had always loved him; besides, he was her husband.

A moment’s silence followed her indication of the portrait — an act which clearly revealed how deeply she worshiped her persecutor; and during this pause the attic door slowly and softly opened. Not of itself, however, for suddenly a man’s head peered in. The intruder, whoever he was, instantly withdrew, uttering as he did so a low exclamation. The door was swiftly closed again; the key — which had been left on the outside — grated in the lock, and the occupants of the garret could hear hurried steps descending the stairs.

Lecoq was sitting with his back to the door, and could not, therefore, see the intruder’s face. Quickly as he had turned, he had failed to see who it was: and yet he was far from being surprised at the incident. Intuition explained its meaning.

“That must have been the accomplice!” he cried.

Thanks to his position, Father Absinthe had seen the man’s face. “Yes,” said he, “yes, it was the same man who made me drink with him yesterday.”

With a bound, both detectives threw themselves against the door, exhausting their strength in vain attempts to open it. It resisted all their efforts, for it was of solid oak, having been purchased by the landlord from some public building in process of demolition, and it was, moreover, furnished with a strong and massive fastening.

“Help us!” cried Father Absinthe to the woman, who stood petrified with astonishment; “give us a bar, a piece of iron, a nail — anything!”

The younger man was making frantic efforts to push back the bolt, or to force the lock from the wood. He was wild with rage. At last, having succeeded in forcing the door open, they dashed out in pursuit of their mysterious adversary. On reaching the street, they eagerly questioned the bystanders. Having described the man as best they could, they found two persons who had seen him enter the house of Toinon the Virtuous, and a third who had seen him as he left. Some children who were playing in the middle of the street added that he had run off in the direction of the Rue du Moulin-des-Pres as fast as his legs could carry him. It was in this street, near the corner of the Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles, that Lecoq had left old Papillon waiting with the cab.

“Let us hasten there!” proposed Father Absinthe; “perhaps Papillon can give us some information.”

But Lecoq shook his head despondently. He would go no further. “It would be of no use,” he said. “He had sufficient presence of mind to turn the key in the lock, and that saved him. He is at least ten minutes in advance of us, and we should never overtake him.”

Father Absinthe could not restrain his anger. He looked upon this mysterious accomplice who had so cruelly duped him as a personal enemy, and he would willingly have given a month’s pay to be able to lay his hand on his shoulder. Lecoq was quite as angry as his subordinate, and his vanity was likewise wounded; he felt, however, that coolness and deliberation were necessary.

“Yes,” said he thoughtfully, “he’s a shrewd and daring fellow — a perfect demon. He doesn’t remain idle. If we are working, he’s at work too. No matter what side I turn, I find him on the defensive. He foiled you, papa, in your effort to obtain a clue concerning Gustave’s identity; and he made me appear a fool in arranging that little comedy at the Hotel de Mariembourg. His diligence has been wonderful. He has hitherto been in advance of us everywhere, and this fact explains the failures that have attended all my efforts. Here we arrive before him. But if he came here, it was because he scented danger. Hence, we may hope. Now let us get back and question Polyte’s wife.”

Alas! poor Toinon the Virtuous did not understand the affair at all. She had remained upstairs, holding her child by the hand, and leaning over the baluster; her mind in great perplexity and her eyes and ears on the alert. As soon as she perceived the two detectives coming up the stairs again, she hastened down to meet them. “In the name of heaven, what does this all mean?” she asked. “Whatever has happened?”

But Lecoq was not the man to tell his business on a landing, with inquisitive ears all around him, and before he answered Toinon he made her go up into her own garret, and securely close the door.

“We started in pursuit of a man who is implicated in the murders at the Poivriere,” he said; “one who came here hoping to find you alone, who was frightened at seeing us.”

“A murderer!” faltered Toinon, with clasped hands. “What could he want of me?”

“Who knows? It is very probable that he is one of your husband’s friends.”

“Oh! sir.”

“Why, did you not tell me just now that Polyte had some very undesirable acquaintances? But don’t be alarmed; this does not compromise him in the least. Besides, you can very easily clear him of all suspicion.”

“How? In what way? Oh, tell me at once.”

“Merely by answering me frankly, and by assisting me to find the guilty party. Now, among your husband’s friends, don’t you know any who might be capable of such a deed? Give me the names of his acquaintances.”

The poor woman’s hesitation was evident; undoubtedly she had been present at many sinister cabals, and had been threatened with terrible punishment if she dared to disclose the plans formed by Polyte or his associates.

“You have nothing to fear,” said Lecoq, encouragingly, “and I promise you no one shall ever know that you have told me a word. Very probably you can tell me nothing more than I know already. I have heard a great deal about your former life, and the brutality with which Polyte and his mother have treated you.”

“My husband has never treated me brutally,” said the young woman, indignantly; “besides, that matter would only concern myself.”

“And your mother-in-law?”

“She is, perhaps, a trifle quick-tempered; but in reality she has a good heart.”

“Then, if you were so happy at the Widow Chupin’s house, why did you fly from it?”

Toinon the Virtuous turned scarlet to the very roots of her hair. “I left for other reasons,” she replied. “There were always a great many drunken men about the house; and, sometimes, when I was alone, some of them tried to carry their pleasantry too far. You may say that I have a solid fist of my own, and that I am quite capable of protecting myself. That’s true. But while I was away one day some fellows were wicked enough to make this child drink to such an excess that when I came home I found him as stiff and cold as if he were dead. It was necessary to fetch a doctor or else —”

She suddenly paused; her eyes dilated. From red she turned livid, and in a hoarse, unnatural voice, she cried: “Toto! wretched child!”

Lecoq looked behind him, and shuddered. He understood everything. This child — not yet five years old — had stolen up behind him, and, ferreting in the pockets of his overcoat, had rifled them of their contents.

“Ah, well — yes!” exclaimed the unfortunate mother, bursting into tears. “That’s how it was. Directly the child was out of my sight, they used to take him into town. They took him into the crowded streets, and taught him to pick people’s pockets, and bring them everything he could lay his hands on. If the child was detected they were angry with him and beat him; and if he succeeded they gave him a sou to buy some sweets, and kept what he had taken.”

The luckless Toinon hid her face in her hands, and sobbed in an almost unintelligible voice: “Ah, I did not wish my little one to be a thief.”

But what this poor creature did not tell was that the man who had led the child out into the streets, to teach him to steal, was his own father, and her husband — the ruffian, Polyte Chupin. The two detectives plainly understood, however, that such was the case, and the father’s crime was so horrible, and the woman’s grief so great, that, familiar as they were with all the phases of crime, their very hearts were touched. Lecoq’s main thought, however, was to shorten this painful scene. The poor mother’s emotion was a sufficient guarantee of her sincerity.

“Listen,” said he, with affected harshness. “Two questions only, and then I will leave you. Was there a man named Gustave among the frequenters of the Poivriere?”

“No, sir, I’m quite sure there wasn’t.”

“Very well. But Lacheneur — you must know Lacheneur!”

“Yes, sir; I know him.”

The young police agent could not repress an exclamation of delight. “At last,” thought he, “I have a clue that may lead me to the truth. What kind of man is he?” he asked with intense anxiety.

“Oh! he is not at all like the other men who come to drink at my mother-in-law’s shop. I have only seen him once; but I remember him perfectly. It was on a Sunday. He was in a cab. He stopped at the corner of the waste ground and spoke to Polyte. When he went away, my husband said to me: ‘Do you see that old man there? He will make all our fortunes.’ I thought him a very respectable-looking gentleman —”

“That’s enough,” interrupted Lecoq. “Now it is necessary for you to tell the investigating magistrate all you know about him. I have a cab downstairs. Take your child with you, if you like; but make haste; come, come quickly!”

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