Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

XVI

The extreme uncertainty of the result was another attraction for M. Segmuller’s investigating mind. Given the magnitude of the difficulties that were to be overcome, he rightly considered that if his efforts proved successful, he would have achieved a really wonderful victory. And, assisted by such a man as Lecoq, who had a positive genius for his calling, and in whom he recognized a most valuable auxiliary, he really felt confident of ultimate success.

Even on returning home after the fatiguing labors of the day he did not think of freeing himself from the burden of responsibility in relation to the business he had on hand, or of driving away care until the morrow. He dined in haste, and as soon as he had swallowed his coffee began to study the case with renewed ardor. He had brought from his office a copy of the prisoner’s narrative, which he attentively perused, not once or twice, but several times, seeking for some weak point that might be attacked with a probability of success. He analyzed every answer, and weighed one expression after another, striving, as he did so, to find some flaw through which he might slip a question calculated to shatter the structure of defense. He worked thus, far into the night, and yet he was on his legs again at an early hour in the morning. By eight o’clock he was not merely dressed and shaved, he had not merely taken his matutinal chocolate and arranged his papers, but he was actually on his way to the Palais de Justice. He had quite forgotten that his own impatience was not shared by others.

In point of fact, the Palais de Justice was scarcely awake when he arrived there. The doors had barely opened. The attendants were busy sweeping and dusting; or changing their ordinary garments for their official costumes. Some of them standing in the windows of the long dressing room were shaking and brushing the judges’ and advocates’ gowns; while in the great hall several clerks stood in a group, chaffing each other while waiting for the arrival of the head registrar and the opening of the investigation offices.

M. Segmuller thought that he had better begin by consulting the public prosecutor, but he discovered that this functionary had not yet arrived. Angry and impatient, he proceeded to his own office; and with his eyes fixed on the clock, growled at the slowness of the minute hand. Just after nine o’clock, Goguet, the smiling clerk, put in an appearance and speedily learned the kind of humor his master was in.

“Ah, you’ve come at last,” gruffly ejaculated M. Segmuller, momentarily oblivious of the fact that he himself scarcely ever arrived before ten, and that a quarter-past nine was certainly early for his clerk.

Goguet’s curiosity had indeed prompted him to hurry to the Palais; still, although well aware that he did not deserve a reprimand, he endeavored to mumble an excuse — an excuse cut short by M. Segmuller in such unusually harsh tones that for once in a way Goguet’s habitual smile faded from his face. “It’s evident,” thought he, “that the wind’s blowing from a bad quarter this morning,” with which reflection he philosophically put on his black sleeves and going to his table pretended to be absorbed in the task of mending his pens and preparing his paper.

In the mean while, M. Segmuller who was usually calmness personified, and dignity par excellence, paced restlessly to and fro. At times he would sit down and then suddenly spring to his feet again, gesticulating impatiently as he did so. Indeed, he seemed unable to remain quiet for a moment.

“The prosecution is evidently making no headway,” thought the clerk. “May’s prospects are encouraging.” Owing to the magistrate’s harsh reception the idea delighted him; and, indeed, letting his rancor have the upper hand, Goguet actually offered up a prayer that the prisoner might get the better of the fight.

From half-past nine till ten o’clock M. Segmuller rang for his messenger at least five times, and each time he asked him the same questions: “Are you sure that M. Lecoq has not been here this morning? Inquire! If he has not been here he must certainly have sent some one, or else have written to me.”

Each time the astonished doorkeeper replied: “No one has been here, and there is no letter for you.”

Five identical negative answers to the same inquiries only increased the magistrate’s wrath and impatience. “It is inconceivable!” he exclaimed. “Here I am upon coals of fire, and that man dares to keep me waiting. Where can he be?”

At last he ordered a messenger to go and see if he could not find Lecoq somewhere in the neighborhood; perhaps in some restaurant or cafe. “At all events, he must be found and brought back immediately,” said he.

When the man had started, M. Segmuller began to recover his composure. “We must not lose valuable time,” he said to his clerk. “I was to examine the widow Chupin’s son. I had better do so now. Go and tell them to bring him to me. Lecoq left the order at the prison.”

In less than a quarter of an hour Polyte entered the room. From head to foot, from his lofty silk cap to his gaudy colored carpet slippers, he was indeed the original of the portrait upon which poor Toinon the Virtuous had lavished such loving glances. And yet the photograph was flattering. The lens had failed to convey the expression of low cunning that distinguished the man’s features, the impudence of his leering smile, and the mingled cowardice and ferocity of his eyes, which never looked another person in the face. Nor could the portrait depict the unwholesome, livid pallor of his skin, the restless blinking of his eyelids, and the constant movement of his thin lips as he drew them tightly over his short, sharp teeth. There was no mistaking his nature; one glance and he was estimated at his worth.

When he had answered the preliminary questions, telling the magistrate that he was thirty years of age, and that he had been born in Paris, he assumed a pretentious attitude and waited to see what else was coming.

But before proceeding with the real matter in hand, M. Segmuller wished to relieve the complacent scoundrel of some of his insulting assurance. Accordingly, he reminded Polyte, in forcible terms, that his sentence in the affair in which he was now implicated would depend very much upon his behavior and answers during the present examination.

Polyte listened with a nonchalant and even ironical air. In fact, this indirect threat scarcely touched him. Having previously made inquiries he had ascertained that he could not be condemned to more than six months’ imprisonment for the offense for which he had been arrested; and what did a month more or less matter to him?

The magistrate, who read this thought in Polyte’s eyes, cut his preamble short. “Justice,” said he, “now requires some information from you concerning the frequenters of your mother’s establishment.”

“There are a great many of them, sir,” answered Polyte in a harsh voice.

“Do you know one of them named Gustave?”

“No, sir.”

To insist would probably awaken suspicion in Polyte’s mind; accordingly, M. Segmuller continued: “You must, however, remember Lacheneur?”

“Lacheneur? No, this is the first time I’ve heard that name.”

“Take care. The police have means of finding out a great many things.”

The scapegrace did not flinch. “I am telling the truth, sir,” he retorted. “What interest could I possibly have in deceiving you?”

Scarcely had he finished speaking than the door suddenly opened and Toinon the Virtuous entered the room, carrying her child in her arms. On perceiving her husband, she uttered a joyful exclamation, and sprang toward him. But Polyte, stepping back, gave her such a threatening glance that she remained rooted to the spot.

“It must be an enemy who pretends that I know any one named Lacheneur!” cried the barriere bully. “I should like to kill the person who uttered such a falsehood. Yes, kill him; I will never forgive it.”

The messenger whom M. Segmuller had instructed to go in search of Lecoq was not at all displeased with the errand; for it enabled him to leave his post and take a pleasant little stroll through the neighborhood. He first of all proceeded to the Prefecture of Police, going the longest way round as a matter of course, but, on reaching his destination, he could find no one who had seen the young detective.

Accordingly, M. Segmuller’s envoy retraced his steps, and leisurely sauntered through the restaurants, cafes, and wine shops installed in the vicinity of the Palais de Justice, and dependent on the customers it brought them. Being of a conscientious turn of mind, he entered each establishment in succession and meeting now and again various acquaintances, he felt compelled to proffer and accept numerous glasses of the favorite morning beverage — white wine. Turn which way he would, however, loiter as long as he might, there were still no signs of Lecoq. He was returning in haste, a trifle uneasy on account of the length of his absence, when he perceived a cab pull up in front of the Palais gateway. A second glance, and oh, great good fortune, he saw Lecoq, Father Absinthe, and the virtuous Toinon alight from this very vehicle. His peace of mind at once returned; and it was in a very important and somewhat husky tone that he delivered the order for Lecoq to follow him without a minute’s delay. “M. Segmuller has asked for you a number of times,” said he, “He has been extremely impatient, and he is in a very bad humor, so you may expect to have your head snapped off in the most expeditious manner.”

Lecoq smiled as he went up the stairs. Was he not bringing with him the most potent of justifications? He thought of the agreeable surprise he had in store for the magistrate, and fancied he could picture the sudden brightening of that functionary’s gloomy face.

And yet, fate so willed it that the doorkeeper’s message and his urgent appeal that Lecoq should not loiter on the way, produced the most unfortunate results. Believing that M. Segmuller was anxiously waiting for him, Lecoq saw nothing wrong in opening the door of the magistrate’s room without previously knocking; and being anxious to justify his absence, he yielded, moreover, to the impulse that led him to push forward the poor woman whose testimony might prove so decisive. When he saw, however, that the magistrate was not alone, and when he recognized Polyte Chupin — the original of the photograph — in the man M. Segmuller was examining, his stupefaction became intense. He instantly perceived his mistake and understood its consequences.

There was only one thing to be done. He must prevent any exchange of words between the two. Accordingly, springing toward Toinon and seizing her roughly by the arm, he ordered her to leave the room at once. But the poor creature was quite overcome, and trembled like a leaf. Her eyes were fixed upon her unworthy husband, and the happiness she felt at seeing him again shone plainly in her anxious gaze. Just for one second; and then she caught his withering glance and heard his words of menace. Terror-stricken, she staggered back, and then Lecoq seized her around the waist, and, lifting her with his strong arms, carried her out into the passage. The whole scene had been so brief that M. Segmuller was still forming the order for Toinon to be removed from the room, when he found the door closed again, and himself and Goguet alone with Polyte.

“Ah, ah!” thought the smiling clerk, in a flutter of delight, “this is something new.” But as these little diversions never made him forget his duties, he leaned toward the magistrate and asked: “Shall I take down the last words the witness uttered?”

“Certainly,” replied M. Segmuller, “and word for word, if you please.”

He paused; the door opened again, this time to admit the magistrate’s messenger, who timidly, and with a rather guilty air, handed his master a note, and then withdrew. This note, scribbled in pencil by Lecoq on a leaf torn from his memorandum book, gave the magistrate the name of the woman who had just entered his room, and recapitulated briefly but clearly the information obtained in the Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles.

“That young fellow thinks of everything!” murmured M. Segmuller. The meaning of the scene that had just occurred was now explained to him. He understood everything.

He bitterly regretted this unfortunate meeting; at the same time casting the blame on his own impatience and lack of caution, which, as soon as the messenger had started in search of Lecoq, had induced him to summon Polyte Chupin. Although he could not conceal from himself the enormous influence this seemingly trivial incident might have, still he would not allow himself to be cast down, but prepared to resume his examination of Polyte Chupin in hopes of yet obtaining the information he desired.

“Let us proceed,” he said to Polyte, who had not moved since his wife had been taken from the room, being to all appearances sublimely indifferent to everything passing around him. To the magistrate’s proposal he carelessly nodded assent.

“Was that your wife who came in just now?” asked M. Segmuller.

“Yes.”

“She wished to embrace you, and you repulsed her.”

“I didn’t repulse her.”

“You kept her at a distance at all events. If you had a spark of affection in your nature, you would at least have looked at your child, which she held out to you. Why did you behave in that manner?”

“It wasn’t the time for sentiment.”

“You are not telling the truth. You simply desired to attract her attention, to influence her evidence.”

“I— I influence her evidence! I don’t understand you.”

“But for that supposition, your words would have been meaningless?”

“What words?”

The magistrate turned to his clerk: “Goguet,” said he, “read the last remark you took down.”

In a monotonous voice, the smiling clerk repeated: “I should like to kill the person who dared to say that I knew Lacheneur.”

“Well, then!” insisted M. Segmuller, “what did you mean by that?”

“It’s very easy to understand, sir.”

M. Segmuller rose. “Don’t prevaricate any longer,” he said. “You certainly ordered your wife not to say anything about Lacheneur. That’s evident. Why did you do so? What are you afraid of her telling us? Do you suppose the police are ignorant of your acquaintance with Lacheneur — of your conversation with him when he came in a cab to the corner of the waste ground near your mother’s wine-shop; and of the hopes of fortune you based upon his promises? Be guided by me; confess everything, while there is yet time; and abandon the present course which may lead you into serious danger. One may be an accomplice in more ways than one.”

As these words fell on Polyte’s ears, it was evident his impudence and indifference had received a severe shock. He seemed confounded, and hung his head as if thoroughly abashed. Still, he preserved an obstinate silence; and the magistrate finding that this last thrust had failed to produce any effect, gave up the fight in despair. He rang the bell, and ordered the guard to conduct the witness back to prison, and to take every precaution to prevent him seeing his wife again.

When Polyte had departed, Lecoq reentered the room. “Ah, sir,” said he, despondently, “to think that I didn’t draw out of this woman everything she knew, when I might have done so easily. But I thought you would be waiting for me, and made haste to bring her here. I thought I was acting for the best —”

“Never mind, the misfortune can be repaired.”

“No, sir, no. Since she has seen her husband, it is quite impossible to get her to speak. She loves that rascal intensely, and he has a wonderful influence over her. You heard what he said. He threatened her with death if she breathed a word about Lacheneur, and she is so terrified that there is no hope of making her speak.”

Lecoq’s apprehension was based on fact, as M, Segmuller himself perceived the instant Toinon the Virtuous again set foot in his office. The poor creature seemed nearly heartbroken, and it was evident she would have given her life to retract the words that had escaped her when first questioned by Lecoq. Polyte’s threat had aroused the most sinister apprehensions in her mind. Not understanding his connection with the affair, she asked herself if her testimony might not prove his death-warrant. Accordingly, she answered all M. Segmuller’s questions with “no” or “I don’t know”; and retracted everything she had previously stated to Lecoq. She swore that she had been misunderstood, that her words had been misconstrued; and vowed on her mother’s memory, that she had never heard the name of Lacheneur before. At last, she burst into wild, despairing sobs, and pressed her frightened child against her breast.

What could be done to overcome this foolish obstinacy, as blind and unreasoning as a brute’s? M. Segmuller hesitated. “You may retire, my good woman,” said he kindly, after a moment’s pause, “but remember that your strange silence injures your husband far more than anything you could say.”

She left the room — or rather she rushed wildly from it as though only too eager to escape — and the magistrate and the detective exchanged glances of dismay and consternation.

“I said so before,” thought Goguet, “the prisoner knows what he’s about. I would be willing to bet a hundred to one in his favor.”

A French investigating magistrate is possessed of almost unlimited powers. No one can hamper him, no one can give him orders. The entire police force is at his disposal. One word from him and twenty agents, or a hundred if need be, search Paris, ransack France, or explore Europe. If there be any one whom he believes able to throw light upon an obscure point, he simply sends an order to that person to appear before him, and the man must come even if he lives a hundred leagues away.

Such is the magistrate, such are his powers. On the other hand, the prisoner charged with a crime, but as yet un-convicted, is confined, unless his offense be of a trivial description, in what is called a “secret cell.” He is, so to say, cut off from the number of the living. He knows nothing of what may be going on in the world outside. He can not tell what witnesses may have been called, or what they may have said, and in his uncertainty he asks himself again and again how far the prosecution has been able to establish the charges against him.

Such is the prisoner’s position, and yet despite the fact that the two adversaries are so unequally armed, the man in the secret cell not unfrequently wins the victory. If he is sure that he has left behind him no proof of his having committed the crime; if he has no guilty antecedents to be afraid of, he can — impregnable in a defense of absolute denial — brave all the attacks of justice.

Such was, at this moment, the situation of May, the mysterious murderer; as both M. Segmuller and Lecoq were forced to admit, with mingled grief and anger. They had hoped to arrive at a solution of the problem by examining Polyte Chupin and his wife, and they had been disappointed; for the prisoner’s identity remained as problematical as ever.

“And yet,” exclaimed the magistrate impatiently, “these people know something about this matter, and if they would only speak —”

“But they won’t.”

“What motive is it that keeps them silent? This is what we must discover. Who will tell us the price that has been promised Polyte Chupin for his silence? What recompense can he count upon? It must be a great one, for he is braving real danger!”

Lecoq did not immediately reply to the magistrate’s successive queries, but it was easy to see from his knit brows that his mind was hard at work. “You ask me, sir,” he eventually remarked, “what reward has been promised Chupin? I ask on my part who can have promised him this reward?”

“Who has promised it? Why, plainly the accomplice who has beaten us on every point.”

“Yes,” rejoined Lecoq, “I suppose it must have been he. It certainly looks like his handiwork — now, what artifice can he have used? We know how he managed to have an interview with the Widow Chupin, but how has he succeeded in getting at Polyte, who is in prison, closely watched?”

The young detective’s insinuation, vague as it was, did not escape M. Segmuller. “What do you mean?” asked the latter, with an air of mingled surprise and indignation. “You can’t suppose that one of the keepers has been bribed?”

Lecoq shook his head, in a somewhat equivocal manner. “I mean nothing,” he replied, “I don’t suspect any one. All I want is information. Has Chupin been forewarned or not?”

“Yes, of course he has.”

“Then if that point is admitted it can only be explained in two ways. Either there are informers in the prison, or else Chupin has been allowed to see some visitor.”

These suppositions evidently worried M. Segmuller, who for a moment seemed to hesitate between the two opinions; then, suddenly making up his mind, he rose from his chair, took up his hat, and said: “This matter must be cleared up. Come with me, Monsieur Lecoq.”

A couple of minutes later, the magistrate and the detective had reached the Depot, which is connected with the Palais de Justice by a narrow passage, especially reserved for official use. The prisoners’ morning rations had just been served to them, and the governor was walking up and down the courtyard, in the company of Inspector Gevrol. As soon as he perceived M. Segmuller he hastened toward him and asked if he had not come about the prisoner May.

As the magistrate nodded assent, the governor at once added: “Well I was only just now telling Inspector Gevrol that I was very well satisfied with May’s behavior. It has not only been quite unnecessary to place him in the strait-waistcoat again, but his mood seems to have changed entirely. He eats with a good appetite; he is as gay as a lark, and he constantly laughs and jests with his keeper.”

Gevrol had pricked up his ears when he heard himself named by the governor, and considering this mention to be a sufficient introduction, he thought there would be no impropriety in his listening to the conversation. Accordingly, he approached the others, and noted with some satisfaction the troubled glances which Lecoq and the magistrate exchanged.

M. Segmuller was plainly perplexed. May’s gay manner to which the governor of the Depot alluded might perhaps have been assumed for the purpose of sustaining his character as a jester and buffoon, it might be due to a certainty of defeating the judicial inquiry, or, who knows? the prisoner had perhaps received some favorable news from outside.

With Lecoq’s last words still ringing in his ears, it is no wonder that the magistrate should have dwelt on this last supposition. “Are you quite sure,” he asked, “that no communication from outside can reach the inmates of the secret cells?”

The governor of the Depot was cut to the quick by M. Segmuller’s implied doubt. What! were his subordinates suspected? Was his own professional honesty impugned? He could not help lifting his hands to heaven in mute protest against such an unjust charge.

“Am I sure?” he exclaimed. “Then you can never have visited the secret cells. You have no idea, then, of their situation; you are unacquainted with the triple bolts that secure the doors; the grating that shuts out the sunlight, to say nothing of the guard who walks beneath the windows day and night. Why, a bird couldn’t even reach the prisoners in those cells.”

Such a description was bound to reassure the most skeptical mind, and M. Segmuller breathed again: “Now that I am easy on that score,” said he, “I should like some information about another prisoner — a fellow named Chupin, who isn’t in the secret cells. I want to know if any visitor came for him yesterday.”

“I must speak to the registrar,” replied the governor, “before I can answer you with certainty. Wait a moment though, here comes a man who can perhaps tell us. He is usually on guard at the entrance. Here, Ferraud, this way!”

The man to whom the governor called hastened to obey the summons.

“Do you know whether any one asked to see the prisoner Chupin yesterday?”

“Yes, sir, I went to fetch Chupin to the parlor myself.”

“And who was his visitor?” eagerly asked Lecoq, “wasn’t he a tall man; very red in the face —”

“Excuse me, sir, the visitor was a lady — his aunt, at least so Chupin told me.”

Neither M. Segmuller nor Lecoq could restrain an exclamation of surprise. “What was she like?” they both asked at the same time.

“She was short,” replied the attendant, “with a very fair complexion and light hair; she seemed to be a very respectable woman.”

“It must have been one of the female fugitives who escaped from the Widow Chupin’s hovel,” exclaimed Lecoq.

Gevrol, hitherto an attentive listener, burst into a loud laugh. “Still that Russian princess,” said he.

Neither the magistrate nor the young detective relished this unseasonable jest. “You forget yourself, sir,” said M. Segmuller severely. “You forget that the sneers you address to your comrade also apply to me!”

The General saw that he had gone too far; and while glancing hatefully at Lecoq, he mumbled an apology to the magistrate. The latter did not apparently hear him, for, bowing to the governor, he motioned Lecoq to follow him away.

“Run to the Prefecture of Police,” he said as soon as they were out of hearing, “and ascertain how and under what pretext this woman obtained permission to see Polyte Chupin.”

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