Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

XXIII

On a large canopied bed, sweating and panting beneath the weight of numerous blankets, lay the two-faced oracle — Tirauclair, of the Prefecture — Tabaret, of the Rue Saint Lazare. It was impossible to believe that the owner of such a face, in which a look of stupidity was mingled with one of perpetual astonishment, could possess superior talent, or even an average amount of intelligence. With his retreating forehead, and his immense ears, his odious turned-up nose, tiny eyes, and coarse, thick lips, M. Tabaret seemed an excellent type of the ignorant, pennywise, petty rentier class. Whenever he took his walks abroad, the juvenile street Arabs would impudently shout after him or try to mimic his favorite grimace. And yet his ungainliness did not seem to worry him in the least, while he appeared to take real pleasure in increasing his appearance of stupidity, solacing himself with the reflection that “he is not really a genius who seems to be one.”

At the sight of the two detectives, whom he knew very well, his eyes sparkled with pleasure. “Good morning, Lecoq, my boy,” said he. “Good morning, my old Absinthe. So you think enough down there of poor Papa Tirauclair to come and see him?”

“We need your advice, Monsieur Tabaret.”

“Ah, ah!”

“We have just been as completely outwitted as if we were babies in long clothes.”

“What! was your man such a very cunning fellow?”

Lecoq heaved a sigh. “So cunning,” he replied, “that, if I were superstitious, I should say he was the devil himself.”

The sick man’s face wore a comical expression of envy. “What! you have found a treasure like that,” said he, “and you complain! Why, it is a magnificent opportunity — a chance to be proud of! You see, my boys, everything has degenerated in these days. The race of great criminals is dying out — those who’ve succeeded the old stock are like counterfeit coins. There’s scarcely anything left outside a crowd of low offenders who are not worth the shoe leather expended in pursuing them. It is enough to disgust a detective, upon my word. No more trouble, emotion, anxiety, or excitement. When a crime is committed nowadays, the criminal is in jail the next morning, you’ve only to take the omnibus, and go to the culprit’s house and arrest him. He’s always found, the more the pity. But what has your fellow been up to?”

“He has killed three men.”

“Oh! oh! oh!” said old Tabaret, in three different tones, plainly implying that this criminal was evidently superior to others of his species. “And where did this happen?”

“In a wine-shop near the barriere.”

“Oh, yes, I recollect: a man named May. The murders were committed in the Widow Chupin’s cabin. I saw the case mentioned in the ‘Gazette des Tribunaux,’ and your comrade, Fanferlot l’Ecureuil, who comes to see me, told me you were strangely puzzled about the prisoner’s identity. So you are charged with investigating the affair? So much the better. Tell me all about it, and I will assist you as well as I can.”

Suddenly checking himself, and lowering his voice, Tirauclair added: “But first of all, just do me the favor to get up. Now, wait a moment, and when I motion you, open that door there, on the left, very suddenly. Mariette, my housekeeper, who is curiosity incarnate, is standing there listening. I hear her hair rubbing against the lock. Now!”

The young detective immediately obeyed, and Mariette, caught in the act, hastened away, pursued by her master’s sarcasms. “You might have known that you couldn’t succeed at that!” he shouted after her.

Although Lecoq and Father Absinthe were much nearer the door than old Tirauclair, neither of them had heard the slightest sound; and they looked at each other in astonishment, wondering whether their host had been playing a little farce for their benefit, or whether his sense of hearing was really so acute as this incident would seem to indicate.

“Now,” said Tabaret, settling himself more comfortably upon his pillows —“now I will listen to you, my boy. Mariette will not come back again.”

On his way to Tabaret’s, Lecoq had busied himself in preparing his story; and it was in the clearest possible manner that he related all the particulars, from the moment when Gevrol opened the door of the Poivriere to the instant when May leaped over the garden wall in the rear of the Hotel de Sairmeuse.

While the young detective was telling his story, old Tabaret seemed completely transformed. His gout was entirely forgotten. According to the different phases of the recital, he either turned and twisted on his bed, uttering little cries of delight or disappointment, or else lay motionless, plunged in the same kind of ecstatic reverie which enthusiastic admirers of classical music yield themselves up to while listening to one of the great Beethoven’s divine sonatas.

“If I had been there! If only I had been there!” he murmured regretfully every now and then through his set teeth, though when Lecoq’s story was finished, enthusiasm seemed decidedly to have gained the upper hand. “It is beautiful! it is grand!” he exclaimed. “And with just that one phrase: ‘It is the Prussians who are coming,’ for a starting point! Lecoq, my boy, I must say that you have conducted this affair like an angel!”

“Don’t you mean to say like a fool?” asked the discouraged detective.

“No, my friend, certainly not. You have rejoiced my old heart. I can die; I shall have a successor. Ah! that Gevrol who betrayed you — for he did betray you, there’s no doubt about it — that obtuse, obstinate ‘General’ is not worthy to blacken your shoes!”

“You overpower me, Monsieur Tabaret!” interrupted Lecoq, as yet uncertain whether his host was poking fun at him or not. “But it is none the less true that May has disappeared, and I have lost my reputation before I had begun to make it.”

“Don’t be in such a hurry to reject my compliments,” replied old Tabaret, with a horrible grimace. “I say that you have conducted this investigation very well; but it could have been done much better, very much better. You have a talent for your work, that’s evident; but you lack experience; you become elated by a trifling advantage, or discouraged by a mere nothing; you fail, and yet persist in holding fast to a fixed idea, as a moth flutters about a candle. Then, you are young. But never mind that, it’s a fault you will outgrow only too soon. And now, to speak frankly, I must tell you that you have made a great many blunders.”

Lecoq hung his head like a schoolboy receiving a reprimand from his teacher. After all was he not a scholar, and was not this old man his master?

“I will now enumerate your mistakes,” continued old Tabaret, “and I will show you how, on at least three occasions, you allowed an opportunity for solving this mystery to escape you.”

“But —”

“Pooh! pooh! my boy, let me talk a little while now. What axiom did you start with? You said: ‘Always distrust appearances; believe precisely the contrary of what appears true, or even probable.’”

“Yes, that is exactly what I said to myself.”

“And it was a very wise conclusion. With that idea in your lantern to light your path, you ought to have gone straight to the truth. But you are young, as I said before; and the very first circumstance you find that seems at all probable you quite forget the rule which, as you yourself admit, should have governed your conduct. As soon as you meet a fact that seems even more than probable, you swallow it as eagerly as a gudgeon swallows an angler’s bait.”

This comparison could but pique the young detective. “I don’t think I’ve been so simple as that,” protested he.

“Bah! What did you think, then, when you heard that M. d’Escorval had broken his leg in getting out of his carriage?”

“Believe! I believed what they told me, because —” He paused, and Tirauclair burst into a hearty fit of laughter.

“You believed it,” he said, “because it was a very plausible story.”

“What would you have believed had you been in my place?”

“Exactly the opposite of what they told me. I might have been mistaken; but it would be the logical conclusion as my first course of reasoning.”

This conclusion was so bold that Lecoq was disconcerted. “What!” he exclaimed; “do you suppose that M. d’Escorval’s fall was only a fiction? that he didn’t break his leg?”

Old Tabaret’s face suddenly assumed a serious expression. “I don’t suppose it,” he replied; “I’m sure of it.”

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