Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

XXIV

Lecoq’s confidence in the oracle he was consulting was very great; but even old Tirauclair might be mistaken, and what he had just said seemed such an enormity, so completely beyond the bounds of possibility, that the young man could not conceal a gesture of incredulous surprise.

“So, Monsieur Tabaret, you are ready to affirm that M. d’Escorval is in quite as good health as Father Absinthe or myself; and that he has confined himself to his room for a couple of months to give a semblance of truth to a falsehood?”

“I would be willing to swear it.”

“But what could possibly have been his object?”

Tabaret lifted his hands to heaven, as if imploring forgiveness for the young man’s stupidity. “And it was in you,” he exclaimed, “in you that I saw a successor, a disciple to whom I might transmit my method of induction; and now, you ask me such a question as that! Reflect a moment. Must I give you an example to assist you? Very well. Let it be so. Suppose yourself a magistrate. A crime is committed; you are charged with the duty of investigating it, and you visit the prisoner to question him. Very well. This prisoner has, hitherto, succeeded in concealing his identity — this was the case in the present instance, was it not? Very well. Now, what would you do if, at the very first glance, you recognized under the prisoner’s disguise your best friend, or your worst enemy? What would you do, I ask?”

“I should say to myself that a magistrate who is obliged to hesitate between his duty and his inclinations, is placed in a very trying position, and I should endeavor to avoid the responsibility.”

“I understand that; but would you reveal this prisoner’s identity — remember, he might be your friend or your enemy?”

The question was so delicate that Lecoq remained silent for a moment, reflecting before he replied.

The pause was interrupted by Father Absinthe. “I should reveal nothing whatever!” he exclaimed. “I should remain absolutely neutral. I should say to myself others are trying to discover this man’s identity. Let them do so if they can; but let my conscience be clear.”

This was the cry of honesty; not the counsel of a casuist.

“I also should be silent,” Lecoq at last replied; “and it seems to me that, in holding my tongue, I should not fail in my duty as a magistrate.”

On hearing these words, Tabaret rubbed his hands together, as he always did when he was about to present some overwhelming argument. “Such being the case,” said he, “do me the favor to tell me what pretext you would invent in order to withdraw from the case without exciting suspicion?”

“I don’t know; I can’t say now. But if I were placed in such a position I should find some excuse — invent something —”

“And if you could find nothing better,” interrupted Tabaret, “you would adopt M. d’Escorval’s expedient; you would pretend you had broken a limb. Only, as you are a clever fellow, you would sacrifice your arm; it would be less inconvenient than your leg; and you wouldn’t be condemned to seclusion for several months.”

“So, Monsieur Tabaret, you are convinced that M. d’Escorval knows who May really is.”

Old Tirauclair turned so suddenly in his bed that his forgotten gout drew from him a terrible groan. “Can you doubt?” he exclaimed. “Can you possibly doubt it? What proofs do you want then? What connection do you see between the magistrate’s fall and the prisoner’s attempt at suicide? I wasn’t there as you were; I only know the story as you have told it to me. I can’t look at the facts with my own eyes, but according to your statements, which are I suppose correct, this is what I understand. When M. d’Escorval has completed his task at the Widow Chupin’s house, he comes to the prison to examine the supposed murderer. The two men recognize each other. Had they been alone, mutual explanations might have ensued, and affairs taken quite a different turn. But they were not alone; a third party was present — M. d’Escorval’s clerk. So they could say nothing. The magistrate asked a few common-place questions, in a troubled voice, and the prisoner, terribly agitated, replied as best he could. Now, after leaving the cell, M. d’Escorval no doubt said to himself: ‘I can’t investigate the offenses of a man I hate!’ He was certainly terribly perplexed. When you tried to speak to him, as he was leaving the prison, he harshly told you to wait till the next day; and a quarter of an hour later he pretended to fall down and break his leg.”

“Then you think that M. d’Escorval and May are enemies?” inquired Lecoq.

“Don’t the facts prove that beyond a doubt?” retorted Tabaret. “If they had been friends, the magistrate might have acted in the same manner; but then the prisoner wouldn’t have attempted to strangle himself. But thanks to you; his life was saved; for he owes his life to you. During the night, confined in a straight-waistcoat, he was powerless to injure himself. Ah! how he must have suffered that night! What agony! So, in the morning, when he was conducted to the magistrate’s room for examination, it was with a sort of frenzy that he dashed into the dreaded presence of his enemy. He expected to find M. d’Escorval there, ready to triumph over his misfortunes; and he intended to say: ‘Yes, it’s I. There is a fatality in it. I have killed three men, and I am in your power. But there is a mortal feud between us, and for that very reason you haven’t the right to prolong my tortures! It would be infamous cowardice if you did so.’ However, instead of M. d’Escorval, he sees M. Segmuller. Then what happens? He is surprised, and his eyes betray the astonishment he feels when he realizes the generosity of his enemy — an enemy from whom he had expected no indulgence. Then a smile comes to his lips — a smile of hope; for he thinks, since M. d’Escorval has not betrayed his secret, that he may be able to keep it, and emerge, perhaps, from this shadow of shame and crime with his name and honor still untarnished.”

Old Tabaret paused, and then, with a sudden change of tone and an ironical gesture, he added: “And that — is my explanation.”

Father Absinthe had risen, frantic with delight. “Cristi!” he exclaimed, “that’s it! that’s it!”

Lecoq’s approbation was none the less evident although unspoken. He could appreciate this rapid and wonderful work of induction far better than his companion.

For a moment or two old Tabaret reclined upon his pillows enjoying the sweets of admiration; then he continued: “Do you wish for further proofs, my boy? Recollect the perseverance M. d’Escorval displayed in sending to M. Segmuller for information. I admit that a man may have a passion for his profession; but not to such an extent as that. You believed that his leg was broken. Then were you not surprised to find a magistrate, with a broken limb, suffering mortal anguish, taking such wonderful interest in a miserable murderer? I haven’t any broken bones, I’ve only got the gout; but I know very well that when I’m suffering, half the world might be judging the other half, and yet the idea of sending Mariette for information would never occur to me. Ah! a moment’s reflection would have enabled you to understand the reason of his solicitude, and would probably have given you the key to the whole mystery.”

Lecoq, who was such a brilliant casuist in the Widow Chupin’s hovel, who was so full of confidence in himself, and so earnest in expounding his theories to simple Father Absinthe — Lecoq hung his head abashed and did not utter a word. But he felt neither anger nor impatience.

He had come to ask advice, and was glad that it should be given him. He had made many mistakes, as he now saw only too plainly; and when they were pointed out to him he neither fumed nor fretted, nor tried to prove that he had been right when he had been wrong. This was certainly an excellent trait in his character.

Meanwhile, M. Tabaret had poured out a great glass of some cooling drink and drained it. He now resumed: “I need not remind you of the mistake you made in not compelling Toinon Chupin to tell you all she knew about this affair while she was in your power. ‘A bird in the hand’— you know the proverb.”

“Be assured, Monsieur Tabaret, that this mistake has cost me enough to make me realize the danger of allowing a well-disposed witness’s zeal to cool down.”

“We will say no more about that, then. But I must tell you that three or four times, at least, it has been in your power to clear up this mystery.”

The oracle paused, awaiting some protestation from his disciple. None came, however. “If he says this,” thought the young detective, “it must indeed be so.”

This discretion made a great impression on old Tabaret, and increased the esteem he had conceived for Lecoq. “The first time that you were lacking in discretion,” said he, “was when you tried to discover the owner of the diamond earring found at the Poivriere.”

“I made every effort to discover the last owner.”

“You tried very hard, I don’t deny it; but as for making every effort — that’s quite another thing. For instance, when you heard that the Baroness de Watchau was dead, and that all her property had been sold, what did you do?”

“You know; I went immediately to the person who had charge of the sale.”

“Very well! and afterwards?”

“I examined the catalogue; and as, among the jewels mentioned, I could find none that answered the description of these diamonds, I knew that the clue was quite lost.”

“There is precisely where you are mistaken!” exclaimed old Tirauclair, exultantly. “If such valuable jewels are not mentioned in the catalogue of the sale, the Baroness de Watchau could not have possessed them at the time of her death. And if she no longer possessed them she must have given them away or sold them. And who could she have sold them to? To one of her lady friends, very probably. For this reason, had I been in your place, I should have found out the names of her intimate friends; this would have been a very easy task; and then, I should have tried to win the favor of all the lady’s-maids in the service of these friends. This would have only been a pastime for a good-looking young fellow like you. Then, I should have shown this earring to each maid in succession until I found one who said: ‘That diamond belongs to my mistress,’ or one who was seized with a nervous trembling.”

“And to think that this idea did not once occur to me!” ejaculated Lecoq.

“Wait, wait, I am coming to the second mistake you made,” retorted the oracle. “What did you do when you obtained possession of the trunk which May pretended was his? Why you played directly into this cunning adversary’s hand. How could you fail to see that this trunk was only an accessory article; a bit of ‘property’ got ready in ‘mounting’ the ‘comedy’? You should have known that it could only have been deposited with Madame Milner by the accomplice, and that all its contents must have been purchased for the occasion.”

“I knew this, of course; but even under these circumstances, what could I do?”

“What could you do, my boy? Well, I am only a poor old man, but I should have interviewed every clothier in Paris; and at last some one would have exclaimed: ‘Those articles! Why, I sold them to an individual like this or that — who purchased them for one of his friends whose measure he brought with him.’”

Angry with himself, Lecoq struck his clenched hand violently upon the table beside him. “Sacrebleu!” he exclaimed, “that method was infallible, and so simple too! Ah! I shall never forgive myself for my stupidity as long as I live!”

“Gently, gently!” interrupted old Tirauclair. “You are going too far, my dear boy. Stupidity is not the proper word at all; you should say carelessness, thoughtlessness. You are young — what else could one expect? What is far less inexcusable is the manner in which you conducted the chase, after the prisoner was allowed to escape.”

“Alas!” murmured the young man, now completely discouraged; “did I blunder in that?”

“Terribly, my son; and here is where I really blame you. What diabolical influence induced you to follow May, step by step, like a common policeman?”

This time Lecoq was stupefied. “Ought I to have allowed him to escape me?” he inquired.

“No; but if I had been by your side in the gallery of the Odeon, when you so clearly divined the prisoner’s intentions, I should have said to you: ‘This fellow, friend Lecoq, will hasten to Madame Milner’s house to inform her of his escape. Let us run after him.’ I shouldn’t have tried to prevent his seeing her, mind. But when he had left the Hotel de Mariembourg, I should have added: ‘Now, let him go where he chooses; but attach yourself to Madame Milner; don’t lose sight of her; cling to her as closely as her own shadow, for she will lead you to the accomplice — that is to say — to the solution of the mystery.’”

“That’s the truth; I see it now.”

“But instead of that, what did you do? You ran to the hotel, you terrified the boy! When a fisherman has cast his bait and the fish are swimming near, he doesn’t sound a gong to frighten them all away!”

Thus it was that old Tabaret reviewed the entire course of investigation and pursuit, remodeling it in accordance with his own method of induction. Lecoq had originally had a magnificent inspiration. In his first investigations he had displayed remarkable talent; and yet he had not succeeded. Why? Simply because he had neglected the axiom with which he started: “Always distrust what seems probable!”

But the young man listened to the oracle’s “summing up” with divided attention. A thousand projects were darting through his brain, and at length he could no longer restrain himself. “You have saved me from despair,” he exclaimed, “I thought everything was lost; but I see that my blunders can be repaired. What I neglected to do, I can do now; there is still time. Haven’t I the diamond earring, as well as various effects belonging to the prisoner, still in my possession? Madame Milner still owns the Hotel de Mariembourg, and I will watch her.”

“And what for, my boy?”

“What for? Why, to find my fugitive, to be sure!”

Had the young detective been less engrossed with his idea, he would have detected a slight smile that curved Papa Tirauclair’s thick lips.

“Ah, my son! is it possible that you don’t suspect the real name of this pretended buffoon?” inquired the oracle somewhat despondently.

Lecoq trembled and averted his face. He did not wish Tabaret to see his eyes. “No,” he replied, “I don’t suspect —”

“You are uttering a falsehood!” interrupted the sick man. “You know as well as I do, that May resides in the Rue de Grenelle-Saint-Germain, and that he is known as the Duc de Sairmeuse.”

On hearing these words, Father Absinthe indulged in a hearty laugh: “Ah! that’s a good joke!” he exclaimed. “Ah, ha!”

Such was not Lecoq’s opinion, however. “Well, yes, Monsieur Tabaret,” said he, “the idea did occur to me; but I drove it away.”

“And why, if you please?”

“Because — because —”

“Because you would not believe in the logical sequence of your premises; but I am consistent, and I say that it seems impossible the murderer arrested in the Widow Chupin’s drinking den should be the Duc de Sairmeuse. Hence, the murderer arrested there, May, the pretended buffoon, is the Duc de Sairmeuse!”

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