Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

XXII

It was six o’clock, and the dawn was just breaking when Father Absinthe and his companion reached the station-house, where they found the superintendent seated at a small table, making out his report. He did not move when they entered, failing to recognize them under their disguises. But when they mentioned their names, he rose with evident cordiality, and held out his hand.

“Upon my word!” said he, “I congratulate you on your capture last night.”

Father Absinthe and Lecoq exchanged an anxious look. “What capture?” they both asked in a breath.

“Why, that individual you sent me last night so carefully bound.”

“Well, what about him?”

The superintendent burst into a hearty laugh. “So you are ignorant of your good fortune,” said he. “Ah! luck has favored you, and you will receive a handsome reward.”

“Pray tell us what we’ve captured?” asked Father Absinthe, impatiently.

“A scoundrel of the deepest dye, an escaped convict, who has been missing for three months. You must have a description of him in your pocket — Joseph Couturier, in short.”

On hearing these words, Lecoq became so frightfully pale that Father Absinthe, fearing he was going to faint, raised his arms to prevent his falling. A chair stood close by, however, and on this Lecoq allowed himself to drop. “Joseph Couturier,” he faltered, evidently unconscious of what he was saying. “Joseph Couturier! an escaped convict!”

The superintendent certainly did not understand Lecoq’s agitation any better than Father Absinthe’s discomfited air.

“You have reason to be proud of your work; your success will make a sensation this morning,” he repeated. “You have captured a famous prize. I can see Gevrol’s nose now when he hears the news. Only yesterday he was boasting that he alone was capable of securing this dangerous rascal.”

After such an irreparable failure as that which had overtaken Lecoq, the unintended irony of these compliments was bitter in the extreme. The superintendent’s words of praise fell on his ears like so many blows from a sledge hammer.

“You must be mistaken,” he eventually remarked, rising from his seat and summoning all his energy to his assistance. “That man is not Couturier.”

“Oh, I’m not mistaken; you may be quite sure of that. He fully answers the description appended to the circular ordering his capture, and even the little finger of his left hand is lacking, as is mentioned.”

“Ah! that’s a proof indeed!” groaned Father Absinthe.

“It is indeed. And I know another one more conclusive still. Couturier is an old acquaintance of mine. I have had him in custody before; and he recognized me last night just as I recognized him.”

After this further argument was impossible; hence it was in an entirely different tone that Lecoq remarked: “At least, my friend, you will allow me to address a few questions to your prisoner.”

“Oh! as many as you like. But first of all, let us bar the door and place two of my men before it. This Couturier has a fondness for the open air, and he wouldn’t hesitate to dash out our brains if he only saw a chance of escape.”

After taking these precautions, the man was removed from the cage in which he had been confined. He stepped forward with a smile on his face, having already recovered that nonchalant manner common to old offenders who, when in custody, seem to lose all feeling of anger against the police. They are not unlike those gamblers who, after losing their last halfpenny, nevertheless willingly shake hands with their adversary.

Couturier at once recognized Lecoq. “Ah!” said he, “It was you who did that business last night. You can boast of having a solid fist! You fell upon me very unexpectedly; and the back of my neck is still the worse for your clutch.”

“Then, if I were to ask a favor of you, you wouldn’t be disposed to grant it?”

“Oh, yes! all the same. I have no more malice in my composition than a chicken; and I rather like your face. What do you want of me?”

“I should like to have some information about the man who accompanied you last night.”

Couturier’s face darkened. “I am really unable to give you any,” he replied.

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know him. I never saw him before last night.”

“It’s hard to believe that. A fellow doesn’t enlist the first-comer for an expedition like yours last evening. Before undertaking such a job with a man, one finds out something about him.”

“I don’t say I haven’t been guilty of a stupid blunder,” replied Couturier. “Indeed I could murder myself for it, but there was nothing about the man to make me suspect that he belonged to the secret-service. He spread a net for me, and I jumped into it. It was made for me, of course; but it wasn’t necessary for me to put my foot into it.”

“You are mistaken, my man,” said Lecoq. “The individual in question didn’t belong to the police force. I pledge you my word of honor, he didn’t.”

For a moment Couturier surveyed Lecoq with a knowing air, as if he hoped to discover whether he were speaking the truth or attempting to deceive him. “I believe you,” he said at last. “And to prove it I’ll tell you how it happened. I was dining alone last evening in a restaurant in the Rue Mouffetard, when that man came in and took a seat beside me. Naturally we began to talk; and I thought him a very good sort of a fellow. I forget how it began, but somehow or other he mentioned that he had some clothes he wanted to sell; and being glad to oblige him, I took him to a friend, who bought them from him. It was doing him a good turn, wasn’t it? Well, he offered me something to drink, and I returned the compliment. We had a number of glasses together, and by midnight I began to see double. He then began to propose a plan, which, he swore, would make us both rich. It was to steal the plate from a superb mansion. There would be no risk for me; he would take charge of the whole affair.

“I had only to help him over the wall, and keep watch. The proposal was tempting — was it not? You would have thought so, if you had been in my place, and yet I hesitated. But the fellow insisted. He swore that he was acquainted with the habits of the house; that Monday evening was a grand gala night there, and that on these occasions the servants didn’t lock up the plate. After a little while I consented.”

A fleeting flush tinged Lecoq’s pale cheeks. “Are you sure he told you that the Duc de Sairmeuse received every Monday evening?” he asked, eagerly.

“Certainly; how else could I have known it! He even mentioned the name you uttered just now, a name ending in ‘euse.’”

A strange thought had just flitted through Lecoq’s mind.

“What if May and the Duc de Sairmeuse should be one and the same person?” But the notion seemed so thoroughly absurd, so utterly inadmissible that he quickly dismissed it, despising himself even for having entertained it for a single instant. He cursed his inveterate inclination always to look at events from a romantic impossible side, instead of considering them as natural commonplace incidents. After all there was nothing surprising in the fact that a man of the world, such as he supposed May to be, should know the day set aside by the Duc de Sairmeuse for the reception of his friends.

The young detective had nothing more to expect from Couturier. He thanked him, and after shaking hands with the superintendent, walked away, leaning on Father Absinthe’s arm. For he really had need of support. His legs trembled, his head whirled, and he felt sick both in body and in mind. He had failed miserably, disgracefully. He had flattered himself that he possessed a genius for his calling, and yet he had been easily outwitted.

To rid himself of pursuit, May had only had to invent a pretended accomplice, and this simple stratagem had sufficed to nonplus those who were on his trail.

Father Absinthe was rendered uneasy by his colleague’s evident dejection. “Where are we going?” he inquired; “to the Palais de Justice, or to the Prefecture de Police?”

Lecoq shuddered on hearing this question, which brought him face to face with the horrible reality of his situation. “To the Prefecture!” he responded. “Why should I go there? To expose myself to Gevrol’s insults, perhaps? I haven’t courage enough for that. Nor do I feel that I have strength to go to M. Segmuller and say: ‘Forgive me: you have judged me too favorably. I am a fool!’”

“What are we to do?”

“Ah! I don’t know. Perhaps I shall embark for America — perhaps I shall throw myself into the river.”

He had walked about a hundred yards when suddenly he stopped short. “No!” he exclaimed, with a furious stamp of his foot. “No, this affair shan’t end like this. I have sworn to have the solution of the enigma — and I will have it!” For a moment he reflected; then, in a calmer voice, he added: “There is one man who can save us, a man who will see what I haven’t been able to discern, who will understand things that I couldn’t. Let us go and ask his advice, my course will depend on his reply — come!”

After such a day and such a night, it might have been expected that these two men would have felt an irresistible desire to sleep and rest. But Lecoq was sustained by wounded vanity, intense disappointment, and yet unextinguished hope of revenge: while poor Father Absinthe was not unlike some luckless cab-horse, which, having forgotten there is such a thing as repose, is no longer conscious of fatigue, but travels on until he falls down dead. The old detective felt that his limbs were failing him; but Lecoq said: “It is necessary,” and so he walked on.

They both went to Lecoq’s lodgings, where they laid aside their disguises and made themselves trim. Then after breakfasting they hastily betook themselves to the Rue St. Lazare, where, entering one of the most stylish houses in the street, Lecoq inquired of the concierge: “Is M. Tabaret at home?”

“Yes, but he’s ill,” was the reply.

“Very ill?” asked Lecoq anxiously.

“It is hard to tell,” replied the man: “it is his old complaint — gout.” And with an air of hypocritical commiseration, he added: “M. Tabaret is not wise to lead the life he does. Women are very well in a way, but at his age —”

The two detectives exchanged a meaning glance, and as soon as they were out of hearing burst out laughing. Their hilarity had scarcely ceased when they reached the first floor, and rang the bell at the door of one of the apartments. The buxom-looking woman who appeared in answer to his summons, informed them that her master would receive them, although he was confined to his bed. “However, the doctor is with him now,” she added. “But perhaps the gentlemen would not mind waiting until he has gone?” The gentlemen replying in the affirmative, she then conducted them into a handsome library, and invited them to sit down.

The person whom Lecoq had come to consult was a man celebrated for wonderful shrewdness and penetration, well-nigh exceeding the bounds of possibility. For five-and-forty years he had held a petty post in one of the offices of the Mont de Piete, just managing to exist upon the meagre stipend he received. Suddenly enriched by the death of a relative, of whom he had scarcely ever heard, he immediately resigned his functions, and the very next day began to long for the same employment he had so often anathematized. In his endeavors to divert his mind, he began to collect old books, and heaped up mountains of tattered, worm-eaten volumes in immense oak bookcases. But despite this pastime to many so attractive, he could not shake off his weariness. He grew thin and yellow, and his income of forty thousand francs was literally killing him, when a sudden inspiration came to his relief. It came to him one evening after reading the memoirs of a celebrated detective, one of those men of subtle penetration, soft as silk, and supple as steel, whom justice sometimes sets upon the trail of crime.

“And I also am a detective!” he exclaimed.

This, however, he must prove. From that day forward he perused with feverish interest every book he could find that had any connection with the organization of the police service and the investigation of crime. Reports and pamphlets, letters and memoirs, he eagerly turned from one to the other, in his desire to master his subject. Such learning as he might find in books did not suffice, however, to perfect his education. Hence, whenever a crime came to his knowledge he started out in quest of the particulars and worked up the case by himself.

Soon these platonic investigations did not suffice, and one evening, at dusk, he summoned all his resolution, and, going on foot to the Prefecture de Police, humbly begged employment from the officials there. He was not very favorably received, for applicants were numerous. But he pleaded his cause so adroitly that at last he was charged with some trifling commissions. He performed them admirably. The great difficulty was then overcome. Other matters were entrusted to him, and he soon displayed a wonderful aptitude for his chosen work.

The case of Madame B— — the rich banker’s wife, made him virtually famous. Consulted at a moment when the police had abandoned all hope of solving the mystery, he proved by A plus B— by a mathematical deduction, so to speak — that the dear lady must have stolen her own property; and events soon proved that he had told the truth. After this success he was always called upon to advise in obscure and difficult cases.

It would be difficult to tell his exact status at the Prefecture. When a person is employed, salary or compensation of some kind is understood, but this strange man had never consented to receive a penny. What he did he did for his own pleasure — for the gratification of a passion which had become his very life. When the funds allowed him for expenses seemed insufficient, he at once opened his private purse; and the men who worked with him never went away without some substantial token of his liberality. Of course, such a man had many enemies. He did as much work — and far better work than any two inspectors of police; and he didn’t receive a sou of salary. Hence, in calling him “spoil-trade,” his rivals were not far from right.

Whenever any one ventured to mention his name favorably in Gevrol’s presence, the jealous inspector could scarcely control himself, and retorted by denouncing an unfortunate mistake which this remarkable man once made. Inclined to obstinacy, like all enthusiastic men, he had indeed once effected the conviction of an innocent prisoner — a poor little tailor, who was accused of killing his wife. This single error (a grievous one no doubt), in a career of some duration, had the effect of cooling his ardor perceptibly; and subsequently he seldom visited the Prefecture. But yet he remained “the oracle,” after the fashion of those great advocates who, tired of practise at the bar, still win great and glorious triumphs in their consulting rooms, lending to others the weapons they no longer care to wield themselves.

When the authorities were undecided what course to pursue in some great case, they invariably said: “Let us go and consult Tirauclair.” For this was the name by which he was most generally known: a sobriquet derived from a phrase which was always on his lips. He was constantly saying: “Il faut que cela se tire au clair: That must be brought to light.” Hence, the not altogether inappropriate appellation of “Pere Tirauclair,” or “Father Bring-to-Light.”

Perhaps this sobriquet assisted him in keeping his occupation secret from his friends among the general public. At all events they never suspected them. His disturbed life when he was working up a case, the strange visitors he received, his frequent and prolonged absences from home, were all imputed to a very unreasonable inclination to gallantry. His concierge was deceived as well as his friends, and laughing at his supposed infatuation, disrespectfully called him an old libertine. It was only the officials of the detective force who knew that Tirauclair and Tabaret were one and the same person.

Lecoq was trying to gain hope and courage by reflecting on the career of this eccentric man, when the buxom housekeeper reentered the library and announced that the physician had left. At the same time she opened a door and exclaimed: “This is the room; you gentlemen can enter now.”

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