Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

XVII

On his way back to his office, M. Segmuller mentally reviewed the position of affairs; and came to the conclusion that as he had failed to take the citadel of defense by storm, he must resign himself to a regular protracted siege. He was exceedingly annoyed at the constant failures that had attended all Lecoq’s efforts; for time was on the wing, and he knew that in a criminal investigation delay only increased the uncertainty of success. The more promptly a crime is followed by judicial action the easier it is to find the culprit, and prove his guilt. The longer investigation is delayed the more difficult it becomes to adduce conclusive evidence.

In the present instance there were various matters that M. Segmuller might at once attend to. With which should he begin? Ought he not to confront May, the Widow Chupin, and Polyte with the bodies of their victims? Such horrible meetings have at times the most momentous results, and more than one murderer when unsuspectedly brought into the presence of his victim’s lifeless corpse has changed color and lost his assurance.

Then there were other witnesses whom M. Segmuller might examine. Papillon, the cab-driver; the concierge of the house in the Rue de Bourgogne — where the two women flying from the Poivriere had momentarily taken refuge; as well as a certain Madame Milner, landlady of the Hotel de Mariembourg. In addition, it would also be advisable to summon, with the least possible delay, some of the people residing in the vicinity of the Poivriere; together with some of Polyte’s habitual companions, and the landlord of the Rainbow, where the victims and the murderer had apparently passed the evening of the crime. Of course, there was no reason to expect any great revelations from any of these witnesses, still they might know something, they might have an opinion to express, and in the present darkness one single ray of light, however faint, might mean salvation.

Obeying the magistrate’s orders, Goguet, the smiling clerk, had just finished drawing up at least a dozen summonses, when Lecoq returned from the Prefecture. M. Segmuller at once asked him the result of his errand.

“Ah, sir,” replied the young detective, “I have a fresh proof of that mysterious accomplice’s skill. The permit that was used yesterday to see young Chupin was in the name of his mother’s sister, a woman named Rose Pitard. A visiting card was given her more than a week ago, in compliance with a request indorsed by the commissary of police of her district.”

The magistrate’s surprise was so intense that it imparted to his face an almost ludicrous expression. “Is this aunt also in the plot?” he murmured.

“I don’t think so,” replied Lecoq, shaking his head. “At all events, it wasn’t she who went to the prison parlor yesterday. The clerks at the Prefecture remember the widow’s sister very well, and gave me a full description of her. She’s a woman over five feet high, with a very dark complexion; and very wrinkled and weatherbeaten about the face. She’s quite sixty years old; whereas, yesterday’s visitor was short and fair, and not more than forty-five.”

“If that’s the case,” interrupted M. Segmuller, “this visitor must be one of our fugitives.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Who do you suppose she was, then?”

“Why, the landlady of the Hotel de Mariembourg — that clever woman who succeeded so well in deceiving me. But she had better take care! There are means of verifying my suspicions.”

The magistrate scarcely heard Lecoq’s last words, so enraged was he at the inconceivable audacity and devotion displayed by so many people: all of whom were apparently willing to run the greatest risks so long as they could only assure the murderer’s incognito.

“But how could the accomplice have known of the existence of this permit?” he asked after a pause.

“Oh, nothing could be easier, sir,” replied Lecoq. “When the Widow Chupin and the accomplice had that interview at the station-house near the Barriere d’Italie, they both realized the necessity of warning Polyte. While trying to devise some means of getting to him, the old woman remembered her sister’s visiting card, and the man made some excuse to borrow it.”

“Yes, such must be the case,” said M. Segmuller, approvingly. “It will be necessary to ascertain, however —”

“And I will ascertain,” interrupted Lecoq, with a resolute air, “if you will only intrust the matter to me, sir. If you will authorize me I will have two spies on the watch before to-night, one in the Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles, and the other at the door of the Hotel de Mariembourg. If the accomplice ventured to visit Toinon or Madame Milner he would be arrested; and then we should have our turn!”

However, there was no time to waste in vain words and idle boasting. Lecoq therefore checked himself, and took up his hat preparatory to departure. “Now,” said he, “I must ask you, sir, for my liberty; if you have any orders, you will find a trusty messenger in the corridor, Father Absinthe, one of my colleagues. I want to find out something about Lacheneur’s letter and the diamond earring.”

“Go, then,” replied M. Segmuller, “and good luck to you!”

Good luck! Yes, indeed, Lecoq looked for it. If up to the present moment he had taken his successive defeats good-humoredly, it was because he believed that he had a talisman in his pocket which was bound to insure ultimate victory.

“I shall be very stupid if I can’t discover the owner of such a valuable jewel,” he soliloquized, referring to the diamond earring. “And when I find the owner I shall at the same time discover our mysterious prisoner’s identity.”

The first step to be taken was to ascertain whom the earring had been bought from. It would naturally be a tedious process to go from jeweler to jeweler and ask: “Do you know this jewel, was it set by you, and if so whom did you sell it to?” But fortunately Lecoq was acquainted with a man whose knowledge of the trade might at once throw light on the matter. This individual was an old Hollander, named Van Numen, who as a connoisseur in precious stones, was probably without his rival in Paris. He was employed by the Prefecture of Police as an expert in all such matters. He was considered rich. Despite his shabby appearance, he was rightly considered rich, and, in point of fact, he was indeed far more wealthy than people generally supposed. Diamonds were his especial passion, and he always had several in his pocket, in a little box which he would pull out and open at least a dozen times an hour, just as a snuff-taker continually produces his snuffbox.

This worthy man greeted Lecoq very affably. He put on his glasses, examined the jewel with a grimace of satisfaction, and, in the tone of an oracle, remarked: “That stone is worth eight thousand francs, and it was set by Doisty, in the Rue de la Paix.”

Twenty minutes later Lecoq entered this well-known jeweler’s establishment. Van Numen had not been mistaken. Doisty immediately recognized the earring, which had, indeed, come from his shop. But whom had he sold it to? He could not recollect, for it had passed out of his hands three or four years before.

“Wait a moment though,” said he, “I will just ask my wife, who has a wonderful memory.”

Madame Doisty truly deserved this eulogium. A single glance at the jewel enabled her to say that she had seen this earring before, and that the pair had been purchased from them by the Marchioness d’Arlange.

“You must recollect,” she added, turning to her husband, “that the Marchioness only gave us nine thousand francs on account, and that we had all the trouble in the world to make her pay the balance.”

Her husband did remember this circumstance; and in recording his recollection, he exchanged a significant glance with his wife.

“Now,” said the detective, “I should like to have this marchioness’s address.”

“She lives in the Faubourg St. Germain,” replied Madame Doisty, “near the Esplanade des Invalides.”

Lecoq had refrained from any sign of satisfaction while he was in the jeweler’s presence. But directly he had left the shop he evinced such delirious joy that the passers-by asked themselves in amazement if he were not mad. He did not walk, but fairly danced over the stones, gesticulating in the most ridiculous fashion as he addressed this triumphant monologue to the empty air: “At last,” said he, “this affair emerges from the mystery that has enshrouded it. At last I reach the veritable actors in the drama, the exalted personages whose existence I had suspected. Ah! Gevrol, my illustrious General! you talked about a Russian princess, but you will be obliged to content yourself with a simple marchioness.”

But the vertigo that had seized the young detective gradually disappeared. His good sense reasserted itself, and, looking calmly at the situation, he felt that he should need all his presence of mind, penetration, and sagacity to bring the expedition to a successful finish. What course should he pursue, on entering the marchioness’s presence, in order to draw from her a full confession and to obtain full particulars of the murder, as well as the murderer’s name!

“It will be best to threaten her, to frighten her into confession,” he soliloquized. “If I give her time for reflection, I shall learn nothing.”

He paused in his cogitations, for he had reached the residence of the Marchioness d’Arlange — a charming mansion with a courtyard in front and garden in the rear. Before entering, he deemed it advisable to obtain some information concerning the inmates.

“It is here, then,” he murmured, “that I am to find the solution of the enigma! Here, behind these embroidered curtains, dwells the frightened fugitive of the other night. What agony of fear must torture her since she has discovered the loss of her earring!”

For more than an hour, standing under a neighbor’s porte cochere, Lecoq remained watching the house. He would have liked to see the face of any one; but the time passed by and not even a shadow could be detected behind the curtain; not even a servant passed across the courtyard. At last, losing patience, the young detective determined to make inquiries in the neighborhood, for he could not take a decisive step without obtaining some knowledge of the people he was to encounter. While wondering where he could obtain the information he required, he perceived, on the opposite side of the street, the keeper of a wine-shop smoking on his doorstep.

At once approaching and pretending that he had forgotten an address, Lecoq politely asked for the house where Marchioness d’Arlange resided. Without a word, and without condescending to take his pipe from his mouth, the man pointed to the mansion which Lecoq had previously watched.

There was a way, however, to make him more communicative, namely, to enter the shop, call for something to drink, and invite the landlord to drink as well. This was what Lecoq did, and the sight of two well-filled glasses unbound, as by enchantment, the man’s hitherto silent tongue. The young detective could not have found a better person to question, for this same individual had been established in the neighborhood for ten years, and enjoyed among the servants of the aristocratic families here residing a certain amount of confidence.

“I pity you if you are going to the marchioness’s house to collect a bill,” he remarked to Lecoq. “You will have plenty of time to learn the way here before you see your money. You will only be another of the many creditors who never let her bell alone.”

“The deuce! Is she as poor as that?”

“Poor! Why, every one knows that she has a comfortable income, without counting this house. But when one spends double one’s income every year, you know —”

The landlord stopped short, to call Lecoq’s attention to two ladies who were passing along the street, one of them, a woman of forty, dressed in black; the other, a girl half-way through her teens. “There,” quoth the wine-seller, “goes the marchioness’s granddaughter, Mademoiselle Claire, with her governess, Mademoiselle Smith.”

Lecoq’s head whirled. “Her granddaughter!” he stammered.

“Yes — the daughter of her deceased son, if you prefer it.”

“How old is the marchioness, then?”

“At least sixty: but one would never suspect it. She is one of those persons who live a hundred years. And what an old wretch she is too. She would think no more of knocking me over the head than I would of emptying this glass of wine —”

“Excuse me,” interrupted Lecoq, “but does she live alone in that great house?”

“Yes — that is — with her granddaughter, the governess, and two servants. But what is the matter with you?”

This last question was not uncalled for; for Lecoq had turned deadly white. The magic edifice of his hopes had crumbled beneath the weight of this man’s words as completely as if it were some frail house of cards erected by a child. He had only sufficient strength to murmur: “Nothing — nothing at all.”

Then, as he could endure this torture of uncertainty no longer, he went toward the marchioness’s house and rang the bell. The servant who came to open the door examined him attentively, and then announced that Madame d’Arlange was in the country. He evidently fancied that Lecoq was a creditor.

But the young detective insisted so adroitly, giving the lackey to understand so explicitly that he did not come to collect money, and speaking so earnestly of urgent business, that the servant finally admitted him to the hall, saying that he would go and see if madame had really gone out.

Fortunately for Lecoq, she happened to be at home, and an instant afterward the valet returned requesting the young detective to follow him. After passing through a large and magnificently furnished drawing-room, they reached a charming boudoir, hung with rose-colored curtains, where, sitting by the fireside, in a large easy-chair, Lecoq found an old woman, tall, bony, and terrible of aspect, her face loaded with paint, and her person covered with ornaments. The aged coquette was Madame, the Marchioness, who, for the time being, was engaged in knitting a strip of green wool. She turned toward her visitor just enough to show him the rouge on one cheek, and then, as he seemed rather frightened — a fact flattering to her vanity — she spoke in an affable tone. “Ah, well young man,” said she, “what brings you here?”

In point of fact, Lecoq was not frightened, but he was intensely disappointed to find that Madame d’Arlange could not possibly be one of the women who had escaped from the Widow Chupin’s hovel on the night of the murder. There was nothing about her appearance that corresponded in the least degree with the descriptions given by Papillon.

Remembering the small footprints left in the snow by the two fugitives, the young detective glanced, moreover, at the marchioness’s feet, just perceivable beneath her skirt, and his disappointment reached its climax when he found that they were truly colossal in size.

“Well, are you dumb?” inquired the old lady, raising her voice.

Without making a direct reply, Lecoq produced the precious earring, and, placing it upon the table beside the marchioness, remarked: “I bring you this jewel, madame, which I have found, and which, I am told, belongs to you.”

Madame d’Arlange laid down her knitting and proceeded to examine the earring. “It is true,” she said, after a moment, “that this ornament formerly belonged to me. It was a fancy I had, about four years ago, and it cost me dear — at least twenty thousand francs. Ah! Doisty, the man who sold me those diamonds, must make a handsome income. But I had a granddaughter to educate and pressing need of money compelled me to sell them.”

“To whom?” asked Lecoq, eagerly.

“Eh?” exclaimed the old lady, evidently shocked at his audacity, “you are very inquisitive upon my word!”

“Excuse me, madame, but I am anxious to find the owner of this valuable ornament.”

Madame d’Arlange regarded her visitor with an air of mingled curiosity and surprise. “Such honesty!” said she. “Oh, oh! And of course you don’t hope for a sou by way of reward —”

“Madame!”

“Good, good! There is not the least need for you to turn as red as a poppy, young man. I sold these diamonds to a great Austrian lady — the Baroness de Watchau.”

“And where does this lady reside?”

“At the Pere la Chaise, probably, since she died about a year ago. Ah! these women of the present day — an extra waltz, or the merest draft, and it’s all over with them! In my time, after each gallop, we girls used to swallow a tumbler of sweetened wine, and sit down between two open doors. And we did very well, as you see.”

“But, madame,” insisted Lecoq, “the Baroness de Watchau must have left some one behind her — a husband, or children —”

“No one but a brother, who holds a court position at Vienna: and who could not leave even to attend the funeral. He sent orders that all his sister’s personal property should be sold — not even excepting her wardrobe — and the money sent to him.”

Lecoq could not repress an exclamation of disappointment. “How unfortunate!” he murmured.

“Why?” asked the old lady. “Under these circumstances, the diamond will probably remain in your hands, and I am rejoiced that it should be so. It will be a fitting reward for your honesty.”

Madame d’Arlange was naturally not aware that her remark implied the most exquisite torture for Lecoq. Ah! if it should be as she said, if he should never find the lady who had lost this costly jewel! Smarting under the marchioness’s unintended irony, he would have liked to apostrophize her in angry terms; but it could not be, for it was advisable if not absolutely necessary that he should conceal his true identity. Accordingly, he contrived to smile, and even stammered an acknowledgment of Madame d’Arlange’s good wishes. Then, as if he had no more to expect, he made her a low bow and withdrew.

This new misfortune well-nigh overwhelmed him. One by one all the threads upon which he had relied to guide him out of this intricate labyrinth were breaking in his hands. In the present instance he could scarcely be the dupe of some fresh comedy, for if the murderer’s accomplice had taken Doisty, the jeweler, into his confidence he would have instructed him to say that the earring had never come from his establishment, and that he could not consequently tell whom it had been sold to. On the contrary, however, Doisty and his wife had readily given Madame d’Arlange’s name, and all the circumstances pointed in favor of their sincerity. Then, again, there was good reason to believe in the veracity of the marchioness’s assertions. They were sufficiently authenticated by a significant glance which Lecoq had detected between the jeweler and his wife. The meaning of this glance could not be doubted. It implied plainly that both husband and wife were of opinion that in buying these earrings the marchioness engaged in one of those little speculations which are more common than many people might suppose among ladies moving in high-class society. Being in urgent want of ready money, she had bought on credit at a high price to sell for cash at a loss.

As Lecoq was anxious to investigate the matter as far as possible, he returned to Doisty’s establishment, and, by a plausible pretext, succeeded in gaining a sight of the books in which the jeweler recorded his transactions. He soon found the sale of the earrings duly recorded — specified by Madame Doisty at the date — both in the day-book and the ledger. Madame d’Arlange first paid 9,000 francs on account and the balance of the purchase money (an equivalent sum) had been received in instalments at long intervals subsequently. Now, if it had been easy for Madame Milner to make a false entry in her traveler’s registry at the Hotel de Mariembourg, it was absurd to suppose that the jeweler had falsified all his accounts for four years. Hence, the facts were indisputable; and yet, the young detective was not satisfied.

He hurried to the Faubourg Saint Honore, to the house formerly occupied by the Baroness de Watchau, and there found a good-natured concierge, who at once informed him that after the Baroness’s death her furniture and personal effects had been taken to the great auction mart in the Rue Drouot; the sale being conducted by M. Petit, the eminent auctioneer.

Without losing a minute, Lecoq hastened to this individual’s office. M. Petit remembered the Watchau sale very well; it had made quite a sensation at the time, and on searching among his papers he soon found a long catalogue of the various articles sold. Several lots of jewelry were mentioned, with the sums paid, and the names of the purchasers; but there was not the slightest allusion to these particular earrings. When Lecoq produced the diamond he had in his pocket, the auctioneer could not remember that he had ever seen it; though of course this was no evidence to the contrary, for, as he himself remarked — so many articles passed through his hands! However, this much he could declare upon oath; the baroness’s brother, her only heir, had preserved nothing — not so much as a pin’s worth of his sister’s effects: although he had been in a great hurry to receive the proceeds, which amounted to the pleasant sum of one hundred and sixty-seven thousand five hundred and thirty francs, all expenses deducted.

“Everything this lady possessed was sold?” inquired Lecoq.

“Everything.”

“And what is the name of this brother of hers?”

“Watchau, also. The baroness had probably married one of her relatives. Until last year her brother occupied a very prominent diplomatic position. I think he now resides at Berlin.”

Certainly this information would not seem to indicate that the auctioneer had been tampered with; and yet Lecoq was not satisfied. “It is very strange,” he thought, as he walked toward his lodgings, “that whichever side I turn, in this affair, I find mention of Germany. The murderer comes from Leipsic, Madame Milner must be a Bavarian, and now here is an Austrian baroness.”

It was too late to make any further inquiries that evening, and Lecoq went to bed; but the next morning, at an early hour, he resumed his investigations with fresh ardor. There now seemed only one remaining clue to success: the letter signed “Lacheneur,” which had been found in the pocket of the murdered soldier. This letter, judging from the half-effaced heading at the top of the note-paper, must have been written in some cafe on the Boulevard Beaumarchais. To discover which precise cafe would be mere child’s play; and indeed the fourth landlord to whom Lecoq exhibited the letter recognized the paper as his. But neither he, nor his wife, nor the young lady at the counter, nor the waiters, nor any of the customers present at the time, had ever once heard mention made of this singular name — Lacheneur.

And now what was Lecoq to do? Was the case utterly hopeless? Not yet. Had not the spurious soldier declared that this Lacheneur was an old comedian? Seizing upon this frail clue, as a drowning man clutches at the merest fragment of the floating wreck, Lecoq turned his steps in another direction, and hurried from theatre to theatre, asking every one, from doorkeeper to manager: “Don’t you know an actor named Lacheneur?”

Alas! one and all gave a negative reply, at times indulging in some rough joke at the oddity of the name. And when any one asked the young detective what the man he was seeking was like, what could he reply? His answer was necessarily limited to the virtuous Toinon’s phrase: “I thought him a very respectable-looking gentleman.” This was not a very graphic description, however, and, besides, it was rather doubtful what a woman like Polyte Chupin’s wife might mean by the word “respectable.” Did she apply it to the man’s age, to his personal aspect, or to his apparent fortune.

Sometimes those whom Lecoq questioned would ask what parts this comedian of his was in the habit of playing; and then the young detective could make no reply whatever. He kept for himself the harassing thought that the role now being performed by the unknown Lacheneur was driving him — Lecoq — wild with despair.

Eventually our hero had recourse to a method of investigation which, strange to say, the police seldom employ, save in extreme cases, although it is at once sensible and simple, and generally fraught with success. It consists in examining all the hotel and lodging-house registers, in which the landlords are compelled to record the names of their tenants, even should the latter merely sojourn under their roofs for a single night.

Rising long before daybreak and going to bed late at night, Lecoq spent all his time in visiting the countless hotels and furnished lodgings in Paris. But still and ever his search was vain. He never once came across the name of Lacheneur; and at last he began to ask himself if such a name really existed, or if it were not some pseudonym invented for convenience. He had not found it even in Didot’s directory, the so-called “Almanach Boitin,” where one finds all the most singular and absurd names in France — those which are formed of the most fantastic mingling of syllables.

Still, nothing could daunt him or turn him from the almost impossible task he had undertaken, and his obstinate perseverance well-nigh developed into monomania. He was no longer subject to occasional outbursts of anger, quickly repressed; but lived in a state of constant exasperation, which soon impaired the clearness of his mind. No more theories, or ingenious deductions, no more subtle reasoning. He pursued his search without method and without order — much as Father Absinthe might have done when under the influence of alcohol. Perhaps he had come to rely less upon his own shrewdness than upon chance to reveal to him the substance of the mystery, of which he had as yet only detected the shadow.

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