Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

III

Obstinate men of Father Absinthe’s stamp, who are at first always inclined to differ from other people’s opinions, are the very individuals who end in madly adopting them. When an idea has at last penetrated their empty brains, they twist and turn it, dwell upon it, and develop it until it exceeds the bounds of reason.

Hence, the police veteran was now much more strongly convinced than his companion that the usually clever Gevrol had been mistaken, and accordingly he laughed the inspector to scorn. On hearing Lecoq affirm that women had taken part in the horrible scene at the Poivriere, his joy was extreme —“A fine affair!” he exclaimed; “an excellent case!” And suddenly recollecting a maxim that has been handed down from the time of Cicero, he added in sententious tones: “Who holds the woman holds the cause!”

Lecoq did not deign to reply. He was standing upon the threshold, leaning against the framework of the door, his hand pressed to his forehead, as motionless as a statue. The discovery he had just made, and which so delighted Father Absinthe, filled him with consternation. It was the death of his hopes, the annihilation of the ingenious structure which his imagination had built upon the foundation of a single sentence.

There was no longer any mystery — so celebrity was not to be gained by a brilliant stroke!

For the presence of two women in this vile den explained everything in the most natural and commonplace fashion. Their presence explained the quarrel, the testimony of Widow Chupin, the dying declaration of the pretended soldier. The behavior of the murderer was also explained. He had remained to cover the retreat of the two women; he had sacrificed himself in order to save them, an act of gallantry so common in the French character, that any scoundrel of the barrieres might have performed it.

Still, the strange allusion to the battle of Waterloo remained unexplained. But what did that prove now? Nothing, simply nothing. However, who could say how low an unworthy passion might cause a man even of birth and breeding to descend? And the carnival afforded an opportunity for the parties to disguise themselves.

But while Lecoq was turning and twisting all these probabilities in his mind, Father Absinthe became impatient. “Are we going to remain here until doomsday?” he asked. “Are we to pause just at the moment when our search has been productive of such brilliant results?”

“Brilliant results!” These words stung the young man as deeply as the keenest irony could have done. “Leave me alone,” he replied gruffly; “and, above all, don’t walk about the garden, as by doing so, you’ll damage any footprints.”

His companion swore a little; but soon became silent in his turn. He was constrained to submit to the irresistible ascendency of superior will and intelligence.

Lecoq was engaged in following out his course of reasoning. “The murderer, leaving the ball at the Rainbow, a dancing-house not far from here, near the fortifications, came to this wine-shop, accompanied by two women. He found three men drinking here, who either began teasing him, or who displayed too much gallantry toward his companions. He became angry. The others threatened him; he was one against three; he was armed; he became wild with rage, and fired —”

He checked himself, and an instant after added, aloud: “But was it the murderer who brought these women here? If he is tried, this will be the important point. It is necessary to obtain information regarding it.”

He immediately went back into the house, closely followed by his colleague, and began an examination of the footprints round about the door that Gevrol had forced open. Labor lost. There was but little snow on the ground near the entrance of the hovel, and so many persons had passed in and out that Lecoq could discover nothing. What a disappointment after his patient hopes! Lecoq could have cried with rage. He saw the opportunity for which he had sighed so long indefinitely postponed. He fancied he could hear Gevrol’s coarse sarcasms. “Enough of this,” he murmured, under his breath. “The General was right, and I am a fool!”

He was so positively convinced that one could do no more than discover the circumstances of some commonplace, vulgar broil, that he began to wonder if it would not be wise to renounce his search and take a nap, while awaiting the coming of the commissary of police.

But Father Absinthe was no longer of this opinion. This worthy man, who was far from suspecting the nature of his companion’s reflections could not explain his inaction. “Come! my boy,” said he, “have you lost your wits? This is losing time, it seems to me. The authorities will arrive in a few hours, and what report shall we be able to give them! As for me, if you desire to go to sleep, I shall pursue the investigation alone.”

Disappointed as he was, the young police officer could not repress a smile. He recognized his own exhortation of a few moments before. It was the old man who had suddenly become intrepid. “To work, then!” he sighed, like a man who, while foreseeing defeat, wishes, at least, to have no cause for self-reproach.

He found it, however, extremely difficult to follow the footprints in the open air by the uncertain light of a candle, which was extinguished by the least breath of wind. “I wonder if there is a lantern in the house,” he said. “If we could only lay our hands upon one!”

They searched everywhere, and, at last, upstairs in the Widow Chupin’s own room, they found a well-trimmed lantern, so small and compact that it certainly had never been intended for honest purposes.

“A regular burglar’s implement,” said Father Absinthe, with a coarse laugh.

The implement was useful in any case; as both men agreed when they returned to the garden and recommenced their investigations systematically. They advanced very slowly and with extreme caution. The old man carefully held the lantern in the best position, while Lecoq, on his knees, studied each footprint with the attention of a chiromancer professing to read the future in the hand of a rich client. This new examination assured Lecoq that he had been correct in his first supposition. It was plain that two women had left the Poivriere by the back door. They had started off running, as was proved by the length of the steps and the shape of the footprints.

The difference in the tracks left by the two fugitives was so remarkable that it did not escape Father Absinthe’s eyes. “Sapristi!” he muttered; “one of these jades can boast of having a pretty foot at the end of her leg!”

He was right. One of the tracks betrayed a small, coquettish, slender foot, clad in an elegant high-heeled boot with a narrow sole and an arched instep. The other denoted a broad, short foot growing wider toward the end. It had evidently been incased in a strong, low shoe.

This was indeed a clue. Lecoq’s hopes at once revived; so eagerly does a man welcome any supposition that is in accordance with his desires. Trembling with anxiety, he went to examine some other footprints a short distance from these; and an excited exclamation at once escaped his lips.

“What is it?” eagerly inquired the other agent: “what do you see?”

“Come and look for yourself, see there!” cried Lecoq.

The old man bent down, and his surprise was so great that he almost dropped the lantern. “Oh!” said he in a stifled voice, “a man’s footprint!”

“Exactly. And this fellow wore the finest of boots. See that imprint, how clear, how neat it is!”

Worthy Father Absinthe was scratching his ear furiously, his usual method of quickening his rather slow wits. “But it seems to me,” he ventured to say at last, “that this individual was not coming from this ill-fated hovel.”

“Of course not; the direction of the foot tells you that. No, he was not going away, he was coming here. But he did not pass beyond the spot where we are now standing. He was standing on tiptoe with outstretched neck and listening ears, when, on reaching this spot, he heard some noise, fear seized him, and he fled.”

“Or rather, the women were going out as he was coming, and —”

“No, the women were outside the garden when he entered it.”

This assertion seemed far too audacious to suit Lecoq’s companion, who remarked: “One can not be sure of that.”

“I am sure of it, however; and can prove it conclusively. If you doubt it, it is because your eyes are growing old. Bring your lantern a little nearer — yes, here it is — our man placed his large foot upon one of the marks made by the woman with the small foot and almost effaced it.” This unexceptionable piece of circumstantial evidence stupefied the old police agent.

“Now,” continued Lecoq, “could this man have been the accomplice whom the murderer was expecting? Might it not have been some strolling vagrant whose attention was attracted by the two pistol shots? This is what we must ascertain. And we will ascertain it. Come!”

A wooden fence of lattice-work, rather more than three feet high, was all that separated the Widow Chupin’s garden from the waste land surrounding it. When Lecoq made the circuit of the house to cut off the murderer’s escape he had encountered this obstacle, and, fearing lest he should arrive too late, he had leaped the fence to the great detriment of his pantaloons, without even asking himself if there was a gate or not. There was one, however — a light gate of lattice-work similar to the fence, turning upon iron hinges, and closed by a wooden button. Now it was straight toward this gate that these footprints in the snow led the two police agents. Some now thought must have struck the younger man, for he suddenly paused. “Ah!” he murmured, “these two women did not come to the Poivriere this evening for the first time.”

“Why do you think that, my boy?” inquired Father Absinthe.

“I could almost swear it. How, unless they were in the habit of coming to this den, could they have been aware of the existence of this gate? Could they have discovered it on such a dark, foggy night? No; for I, who can, without boasting, say that I have good eyes — I did not see it.”

“Ah! yes, that is true!”

“These two women, however, came here without hesitating, in a straight line; and note that to do this, it was necessary for them to cross the garden diagonally.”

The veteran would have given something if he could have found some objection to offer; but unfortunately he could find none. “Upon my word!” he exclaimed, “yours is a droll way of proceeding. You are only a conscript; I am a veteran in the service, and have assisted in more affairs of this sort than you are years old, but never have I seen —”

“Nonsense!” interrupted Lecoq, “you will see much more. For example, I can prove to you that although the women knew the exact position of the gate, the man knew it only by hearsay.”

“The proof!”

“The fact is easily demonstrated. Study the man’s footprints, and you, who are very sharp, will see at once that he deviated greatly from the straight course. He was in such doubt that he was obliged to search for the gate with his hand stretched out before him — and his fingers have left their imprint on the thin covering of snow that lies upon the upper railing of the fence.”

The old man would have been glad to verify this statement for himself, as he said, but Lecoq was in a hurry. “Let us go on, let us go on!” said he. “You can verify my assertions some other time.”

They left the garden and followed the footprints which led them toward the outer boulevards, inclining somewhat in the direction of the Rue de Patay. There was now no longer any need of close attention. No one save the fugitives had crossed this lonely waste since the last fall of snow. A child could have followed the track, so clear and distinct it was. Four series of footprints, very unlike in character, formed the track; two of these had evidently been left by the women; the other two, one going and one returning, had been made by the man. On several occasions the latter had placed his foot exactly on the footprints left by the two women, half effacing them, thus dispelling all doubt as to the precise moment of his approach.

About a hundred yards from the Poivriere, Lecoq suddenly seized his colleague’s arm. “Halt!” he exclaimed, “we have reached a good place; I can see unmistakable proofs.”

The spot, all unenclosed as it was, was evidently utilized by some builder for the storage of various kinds of lumber. The ground was strewn with large blocks of granite, some chiseled, some in the rough, with numerous long planks and logs of wood in their midst. In front of one of these logs, the surface of which had been evidently wiped, all the various footprints came together, mingling confusedly.

“Here,” declared the young detective, “our fugitives met the man and took counsel with him. One of the women, the one with the little feet, sat down upon this log.”

“We ought to make quite sure of that,” said Father Absinthe, in an oracular tone.

But his companion cut short his desire for verification. “You, my old friend,” said he, “are going to do me the kindness to keep perfectly still: pass me the lantern and do not move.”

Lecoq’s modest tone had suddenly become so imperious that his colleague dared offer no resistance. Like a soldier at the command to halt, he remained erect, motionless, and mute, following his colleague’s movements with an inquisitive, wondering eye.

Quick in his motions, and understanding how to maneuvre the lantern in accordance with his wishes, the young police agent explored the surroundings in a very short space of time. A bloodhound in pursuit of his prey would have been less alert, less discerning, less agile. He came and went, now turning, now pausing, now retreating, now hurrying on again without any apparent reason; he scrutinized, he questioned every surrounding object: the ground, the logs of wood, the blocks of stone, in a word, nothing escaped his glance. For a moment he would remain standing, then fall upon his knees, and at times lie flat upon his stomach with his face so near the ground that his breath must have melted the snow. He had drawn a tape-line from his pocket, and using it with a carpenter’s dexterity, he measured, measured, and measured.

And all his movements were accompanied with the wild gestures of a madman, interspersed with oaths or short laughs, with exclamations of disappointment or delight. After a quarter of an hour of this strange exercise, he turned to Father Absinthe, placed the lantern on a stone, wiped his hands with his pocket-handkerchief, and said: “Now I know everything!”

“Well, that is saying a great deal!”

“When I say everything, I mean all that is connected with the episode of the drama which ended in that bloody bout in the hovel. This expanse of earth covered with snow is a white page upon which the people we are in search of have written, not only their movements, their goings, and comings, but also their secret thoughts, their alternate hopes and anxieties. What do these footprints say to you, Papa Absinthe? To me they are alive like the persons who made them; they breathe, speak, accuse!”

The old agent was saying to himself: “Certainly, this fellow is intelligent, undeniably shrewd; but he is very disagreeable.”

“These are the facts as I have read them,” pursued Lecoq. “When the murderer repaired to the Poivriere with the two women, his companion — I should say his accomplice — came here to wait. He was a tall man of middle age; he wore a soft hat and a shaggy brown overcoat; he was, moreover, probably married, or had been so, as he had a wedding-ring on the little finger of his right hand —”

His companion’s despairing gestures obliged the speaker to pause. This description of a person whose existence had but just now been demonstrated, these precise details given in a tone of absolute certainty, completely upset all Father Absinthe’s ideas, increasing his perplexity beyond all bounds.

“This is not right,” he growled, “this is not kind. You are poking fun at me. I take the thing seriously; I listen to you, I obey you in everything, and then you mock me in this way. We find a clue, and instead of following it up, you stop to relate all these absurd stories.”

“No,” replied his companion, “I am not jesting, and I have told you nothing of which I am not absolutely sure, nothing that is not strictly and indisputably true.”

“And you would have me believe —”

“Fear nothing, papa; I would not have you do violence to your convictions. When I have told you my reasons, and my means of information, you will laugh at the simplicity of the theory that seems so incomprehensible to you now.”

“Go on, then,” said the good man, in a tone of resignation.

“We had decided,” rejoined Lecoq, “that the accomplice mounted guard here. The time seemed long, and, growing impatient, he paced to and fro — the length of this log of wood — occasionally pausing to listen. Hearing nothing, he stamped his foot, doubtless exclaiming: ‘What the deuce has happened to him down there!’ He had made about thirty turns (I have counted them), when a sound broke the stillness — the two women were coming.”

On hearing Lecoq’s recital, all the conflicting sentiments that are awakened in a child’s mind by a fairy tale — doubt, faith, anxiety, and hope — filled Father Absinthe’s heart. What should he believe? what should he refuse to believe? He did not know. How was he to separate the true from the false among all these equally surprising assertions? On the other hand, the gravity of his companion, which certainly was not feigned, dismissed all idea of pleasantry.

Finally, curiosity began to torture him. “We had reached the point where the women made their appearance,” said he.

“Yes, indeed,” responded Lecoq, “but here all certainty ceases; no more proofs, only suppositions. Still, I have every reason to believe that our fugitives left the drinking den before the beginning of the fight, before the cries that attracted our attention. Who were they? I can only conjecture. I suspect, however, that they were not equals in rank. I am inclined to think that one was the mistress, the other her servant.”

“That is proved,” ventured the old man, “by the great difference in their feet and in their shoes.”

This shrewd observation elicited a smile from Lecoq. “That difference,” he replied, seriously, “is something, of course; but it was not that which decided me in my opinion. If greater or less perfection of the extremities regulated social distinctions, many mistresses would be servants. What struck me was this: when the two women rushed wildly from Mother Chupin’s house, the woman with the small feet sprang across the garden with one bound, she darted on some distance in advance of the other. The terror of the situation, the vileness of the den, the horror of the scandal, the thought of safety, inspired her with marvelous energy. But her strength, as often happens with delicate and nervous women, lasted only a few seconds. She was not half-way from the Poivriere when her speed relaxed, her limbs trembled. Ten steps farther on she tottered and almost fell. Some steps farther, and she became so exhausted that she let go her hold upon her skirts; they trailed upon the snow, tracing a faint circle there. Then the woman with the broad feet came to aid her. She seized her companion round the waist; she dragged her along; their footprints here are mingled confusedly; then, seeing that her friend was about to fall, she caught her up in her strong arms and carried her — for you will see that the footprints made by the woman with the small feet suddenly cease at this point.”

Was Lecoq merely amusing himself by inventing this story? Was this scene anything but a work of imagination? Was the accent of deep and sincere conviction which he imparted to his words only feigned?

Father Absinthe was still in doubt, but he thought of a way in which he might satisfy his uncertainty. He caught up the lantern and hurried off to examine these footprints which he had not known how to read, which had been speechless to him, but which yielded their secret to another. He was obliged to agree with his companion. All that Lecoq had described was written there; he saw the confused footprints, the circle made by the sweeping skirts, the cessation of the tiny imprints.

On his return, his countenance betrayed a respectful and astonished admiration, and it was with a shade of embarrassment that he said: “You can scarcely blame an old man for being a little like St. Thomas. ‘I have touched it with my fingers,’ and now I am content to follow you.”

The young police agent could not, indeed, blame his colleague for his incredulity. Resuming his recital, he continued: “Then the accomplice, who had heard the fugitives coming, ran to meet them, and he aided the woman with large feet in carrying her companion. The latter must have been really ill, for the accomplice took off his hat and used it in brushing the snow off this log. Then, thinking the surface was not yet dry enough, he wiped it with the skirt of his overcoat. Were these civilities pure gallantry, or the usual attentions of an inferior? I have asked myself that question. This much, however, is certain, while the woman with the small feet was recovering her strength, half reclining upon this board, the other took the accomplice a little on one side, five or six steps away to the left, just beside that enormous block of granite. There she talked with him, and, as he listened, the man leaned upon the snow-covered stone. His hand left a very distinct imprint there. Then, as the conversation continued, he rested his elbow upon the snowy surface.”

Like all men of limited intelligence, Father Absinthe had suddenly passed from unreasoning distrust to unquestioning confidence. Henceforth, he could believe anything for the very same reason that had, at first, made him believe nothing. Having no idea of the bounds of human reasoning and penetration, he saw no limits to the conjectural genius of his companion. With perfect faith, therefore, he inquired: “And what was the accomplice saying to the woman with the broad shoes?”

Lecoq smiled at this simplicity, but the other did not see him do so. “It is rather difficult for me to answer that question,” replied the young detective, “I think, however, that the woman was explaining to the man the immensity and imminence of the danger that threatened his companion, and that they were trying to devise some means to rescue him from it. Perhaps she brought him orders given by the murderer. It is certain that she ended by beseeching the accomplice to run to the Poivriere and see what was passing there. And he did so, for his tracks start from this block of granite.”

“And only to think,” exclaimed Father Absinthe, “that we were in the hovel at that very moment. A word from Gevrol, and we might have had handcuffs on the whole gang! How unfortunate!”

Lecoq was not sufficiently disinterested to share his companion’s regret. On the contrary, he was very thankful for Gevrol’s blunder. Had it not been for that, how would he ever have found an opportunity of investigating an affair that grew more and more mysterious as his search proceeded, but which he hoped to fathom finally.

“To conclude,” he resumed, “the accomplice soon returned, he had witnessed the scene, and was evidently afraid. He feared that the thought of exploring the premises might enter the minds of the police. It was to the lady with small feet that he addressed himself. He explained the necessity of flight, and told her that even a moment’s delay might be fatal. At his words, she summoned all her energy; she rose and hastened away, clinging to the arm of her companion. Did the man indicate the route they were to take, or did they know it themselves? This much is certain, he accompanied them some distance, in order to watch over them. But besides protecting these women, he had a still more sacred duty to perform — that of succoring his accomplice, if possible. He retraced his steps, passed by here once more, and the last footprint that I can discover leads in the direction of the Rue du Chateau des Rentiers. He wished to know what would become of the murderer, and went to place himself where he might see him pass by with his captors.”

Like a dilettante who can scarcely restrain his applause until the close of the aria that delights him, Father Absinthe had been unable during the recital to entirely suppress his admiration. But it was not until Lecoq ceased speaking that he gave full vent to his enthusiasm: “Here is a detective if you like!” he exclaimed. “And they pretend that Gevrol is shrewd! What has he ever done to compare with this? Ah! shall I tell you what I think? Why, in comparison with you, the General is a more John the Baptist.”

Certainly the flattery was gross, but it was impossible to doubt its sincerity. This was the first time that the balmy dew of praise had fallen upon Lecoq’s vanity, and it greatly delighted him, although he modestly replied: “Nonsense, you are too kind, papa. After all, what have I done that is so very clever? I told you that the man was of middle age. It was not difficult to see that after one had examined his heavy, dragging step. I told you that he was tall — an easy matter. When I saw that he had been leaning upon that block of granite there to the left, I measured the block in question. It is almost five feet five inches in height, consequently a man who could rest his elbow upon it must be at least six feet high. The mark of his hand proves that I am not mistaken. On seeing that he had brushed away the snow which covered the plank, I asked myself what he had used; I thought that it might be his cap, and the mark left by the peak proves that I was right. Finally, if I have discovered the color and the material of his overcoat, it is only because when he wiped the wet board, some splinters of the wood tore off a few tiny flakes of brown wool, which I have found, and which will figure in the trial. But what does this amount to, after all? Nothing. We have only discovered the first clues of the affair. Still, we are on the right scent — so, forward then!”

The old officer was electrified, and, like an echo, he repeated: “Forward!”

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