Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

IV

That night the vagabonds, who had taken refuge in the neighborhood of the Poivriere, had a very bad time of it; for while those who managed to sleep were disturbed by frightful dreams of a police raid, those who remained awake witnessed some strange incidents, well calculated to fill their minds with terror. On hearing the shots fired inside Mother Chupin’s drinking den, most of the vagrants concluded that there had been a collision between the police and some of their comrades, and they immediately began prowling about, eagerly listening and watching, and ready to take flight at the least sign of danger. At first they could discover no particular reasons for alarm. But later on, at about two o’clock in the morning, just as they were beginning to feel secure again, the fog lifted a little, and they witnessed a phenomenon well calculated to arouse anxiety.

Upon the unoccupied tract of land, which the people of the neighborhood called the “plain,” a small but very bright light was seen describing the most capricious evolutions. It moved here and there without any apparent aim, tracing the most inexplicable zigzags, sometimes sinking to the earth, sometimes rising to a height of four or five feet, at others remaining quite motionless, and the next second flying off like a ball. In spite of the place and the season of the year, the less ignorant among vagabonds believed the light to be some ignis fatuus, one of those luminous meteors that raise from the marshes and float about in the atmosphere at the bidding of the wind. In point of fact, however, this ignis fatuus was the lantern by the light of which the two police agents were pursuing their investigations.

After thus suddenly revealing his capacity to his first disciple, Lecoq found himself involved in a cruel perplexity. He had not the boldness and promptness of decision which is the gift of a prosperous past, and was hesitating between two courses, both equally reasonable, and both offering strong probabilities of success. He stood between two paths, that made by the two women on the one side, and that made by the accomplice on the other. Which should he take? For he could not hope to follow both. Seated upon the log where the women had rested a few moments before, with his hand pressed upon his forehead, he reflected and weighed the chances.

“If I follow the man I shall learn nothing that I do not know already. He has gone to hover round the party; he has followed them at a distance, he has seen them lock up his accomplice, and he is undoubtedly prowling round about the station house. If I hurried in pursuit, could I hope to overtake and capture him? No; too long a time has elapsed.”

Father Absinthe listened to this monologue with intense curiosity, as anxious as an unsophisticated person who, having questioned a clairvoyant in regard to some lost articles, is waiting the oracle’s response.

“To follow the women,” continued the young man, “to what would that lead? Perhaps to an important discovery, perhaps to nothing.”

However, he preferred the unknown, which, with all its chances of failure, had chances of success as well. He rose, his course was decided.

“Father Absinthe,” said he, “we are going to follow the footprints of these two women, and wherever they lead us we will go.”

Inspired with equal ardor they began their walk. At the end of the path upon which they had entered they fancied they observed, as in some magic glass, the one the fruits, the other the glory of success. They hurried forward. At first it was only play to follow the distinct footprints that led toward the Seine. But it was not long before they were obliged to proceed more slowly.

On leaving the waste ground they arrived at the outer limits of civilization, so to speak; and strange footprints mingled constantly with the footprints of the fugitives, at times even effacing them. In many spots, either on account of exposure or the nature of the soil, the thaw had completed its work, and there were large patches of ground entirely free from snow. In such cases they lost the trail, and it required all Lecoq’s sagacity and all his companion’s good-will to find it again.

On such occasions Father Absinthe planted his cane in the earth, near the last footprint that had been discovered, and Lecoq and himself hunted all over the ground around this point, much after the fashion of a couple of bloodhounds thrown off the scent. Then it was that the lantern moved about so strangely. More than a dozen times, in spite of all their efforts, they would have lost the clue entirely had it not been for the elegant shoes worn by the lady with the little feet. These had such small and extremely high heels that the impression they left could not be mistaken. They sank down three or four inches in the snow, or the mud, and their tell-tale impress remained as clear and distinct as that of a seal.

Thanks to these heels, the pursuers were able to discover that the two fugitives had not gone up the Rue de Patay, as might have been supposed. Probably they had considered this street too frequented, and too well lighted. They had only crossed it, just below the Rue de la Croix-Rouge, and had profited by an empty space between two houses to regain the open ground.

“Certainly these women were well acquainted with the locality,” murmured Lecoq.

Indeed, the topography of the district evidently had no secrets for them, for, on quitting the Rue de Patay, they had immediately turned to the right, so as to avoid several large excavations, from which a quantity of brick clay had been dug.

But at last the trail was recovered, and the detectives followed it as far as the Rue du Chevaleret. Here the footprints abruptly ceased. Lecoq discovered eight or ten footmarks left by the woman who wore the broad shoes, but that was all. Hereabout, moreover, the condition of the ground was not calculated to facilitate an exploration of this nature. There had been a great deal of passing to and fro in the Rue du Chevaleret, and not merely was there scarcely any snow left on the footpaths, but the middle of the street was transformed into a river of slush.

“Did these people recollect at last that the snow might betray them? Did they take the middle of the road?” grumbled the young police agent.

Certainly they could not have crossed to a vacant space as they had done just before, for on the other side of the street extended a long factory wall.

“Ah!” sighed Father Absinthe, “we have our labor for our pains.”

But Lecoq possessed a temperament that refused to acknowledge defeat. Animated by the cold anger of a man who sees the object which he was about to seize disappear from before his eyes, he recommenced his search, and was well repaid for his efforts.

“I understand!” he cried suddenly, “I comprehend — I see!”

Father Absinthe drew near. He did not see nor divine anything! but he no longer doubted his companion’s powers.

“Look there,” said Lecoq; “what are those marks?”

“Marks left by the wheels of some carriage that plainly turned here.”

“Very well, papa, these tracks explain everything. When they reached this spot, our fugitives saw the light of an approaching cab, which was returning from the centre of Paris. It was empty, and proved their salvation. They waited, and when it came nearer they hailed the driver. No doubt they promised him a handsome fare; this is indeed evident, since he consented to go back again. He turned round here; they got into the vehicle, and that is why the footprints go no further.”

This explanation did not please Lecoq’s companion. “Have we made any great progress now that we know that?” he asked.

Lecoq could not restrain an impulse to shrug his shoulders. “Did you expect that the tracks made by the fugitives would lead us through Paris and up to their very doors?” he asked.

“No; but —”

“Then what would you ask more? Do you think that I shall not know how to find this driver to-morrow? He was returning with his empty vehicle, his day’s work was ended; hence, his stable is in the neighborhood. Do you suppose that he will have forgotten that he took up two persons in the Rue du Chevaleret? He will tell us where he drove them; but that will not do us any good, for, of course, they will not have given him their real address. But at all events he can probably give us a description of them, tell us how they were dressed, describe their appearance, their manner, and their age. And with that, and what we already know —”

An eloquent gesture expressed the remainder of his thought, then he added: “We must now go back to the Poivriere, and go quickly. And you, my friend, may now extinguish your lantern.”

While doing his best to keep pace with his companion, who was in such haste to get back to the Poivriere that he almost ran, Father Absinthe’s thoughts were as busy as his legs, and an entirely new train of ideas was awakened in his mind.

During the twenty-five years that he had been connected with the police force, the good man — to use his own expression — had seen many of his colleagues walk over him and win, after only a few months’ work, a promotion that his long years of service had not gained for him. In these cases he had not failed to accuse his superiors of injustice, and his fortunate rivals of gross flattery. In his opinion, seniority was the only claim to advancement — the only, the best, the most respectable claim; and he was wont to sum up all his opinions, all his grief and bitterness of mind in one phrase: “It is infamous to pass over an old member of the service.”

To-night, however, Father Absinthe discovered that there is something else in the world besides seniority, and sufficient reasons for what he had formerly regarded as favoritism. He secretly confessed that this newcomer whom he had treated so carelessly had just followed up a clue as he, veteran though he was, would never have succeeded in doing.

But communing with himself was not this good man’s forte; he soon grew weary of reflection; and on reaching a place where they were obliged to proceed more slowly on account of the badness of the road, he deemed it a favorable opportunity to resume the conversation. “You are silent, comrade,” he ventured to remark, “and one might swear that you were not exactly pleased.”

This surprising result of the old man’s reflections would have amazed Lecoq, if his mind had not been a hundred leagues away. “No, I am not pleased,” he responded.

“And why, pray? Only ten minutes ago you were as gay as a lark.”

“Then I did not see the misfortune that threatens us.”

“A misfortune!”

“A very great misfortune. Do you not perceive that the weather has undesirably changed. It is evident that the wind is now coming from the south. The fog has disappeared, but the sky is cloudy and threatening. It will rain in less than an hour.”

“A few drops are falling now; I just felt one.”

These words produced on Lecoq much the same effect as a whip-up on a spirited horse. He sprang forward, and, adopting a still more hurried pace, exclaimed: “Let us make haste! let us make haste!”

The old police agent followed him as in duty bound; but his mind was, if possible, still more troubled by the replies of his young companion. A great misfortune! The wind from the south! Rain! He did not, he could not see the connection.

Greatly puzzled, and not a little anxious, Father Absinthe asked for an explanation, although he had but little more breath than was absolutely necessary to enable him to continue the forced march he was making. “Upon my word,” said he, “I have racked my brains —”

His companion took pity on his anxiety. “What!” he exclaimed, as he still hastened forward, “you do not understand that our investigation, my success, and your reward, are dependent upon those black clouds which the wind is driving toward us!”

“Oh!”

“Twenty minutes of merely gentle rain, and our time and labor will be lost. If it rains, the snow will melt, and then farewell to our proofs. Let us get on — let us get on more quickly! You know very well that in such cases words don’t suffice. If we declare to the public prosecutor that we have seen these footprints, he will ask, where? And what can we say? If we swear by all the gods that we have seen the footprints of a man and of two women, the investigating magistrate will say, ‘Let me see them.’ And who will feel sheepish then? Father Absinthe and Lecoq. Besides, Gevrol would not fail to declare that we were saying what was not true, in order to enhance our own value, and humiliate him.”

“What an idea!”

“Faster, papa, faster; you will have all day to-morrow to be indignant. Perhaps it will not rain. In that case, these perfect, clear, and easily recognizable footprints will prove the culprits’ ruin. How can we preserve them? By what process could we solidify them? I would deluge them with my blood if that could only cause them to congeal.”

Father Absinthe was just then thinking that his share of the labor had hitherto been the least important; for he had merely held the lantern. But here was a chance for him to acquire a real and substantial right to the prospective reward. “I know a method,” said he, “by which one could preserve these marks in the snow.”

At these words the younger man stopped short. “You know — you?” he interrupted.

“Yes, I know,” replied the old detective, with the evident satisfaction of a man who has gained his revenge. “They invented a way at the time of that affair at the Maison Blanche, last December.”

“I recollect.”

“Ah! well, on the snow in the courtyard there was a footprint that attracted a detective’s attention. He said that the whole evidence depended on that mark alone, that it was worth more than ten years’ hard work in following up the case. Naturally, he desired to preserve it. They sent for a great chemist —”

“Go on, go on.”

“I have never seen the method put into practise, but an expert told me all about it, and showed me the mold they obtained. He explained it to me precisely, on account of my profession.”

Lecoq was trembling with impatience. “And how did they obtain the mold?” he asked abruptly.

“Wait: I was just going to explain. They take some of the best gelatine, and allow it to soak in cold water. When it becomes thoroughly softened, they heat it until it forms a liquid, of moderate consistency. Then when it is just cool enough, they pour a nice little covering of it upon the footprint.”

Lecoq felt the irritation that is natural to a person who has just heard a bad joke, or who has lost his time in listening to a fool.

“Enough!” he interrupted, angrily. “That method can be found in all the manuals. It is excellent, no doubt, but how can it serve us? Have you any gelatine about you?”

“No.”

“Nor have I. You might as well have counseled me to pour melted lead upon the footprints to fix them.”

They continued their way, and five minutes later, without having exchanged another word, they reentered the Widow Chupin’s hovel. The first impulse of the older man would have been to rest to breathe, but Lecoq did not give him time to do so.

“Make haste: get me a dish — a plate — anything!” cried the young detective, “and bring me some water; gather together all the boards and old boxes you can find lying about.”

While his companion was obeying him, Lecoq armed himself with a fragment of one of the broken bottles, and began scraping away furiously at the plastered wall that separated the two rooms.

His mind, disconcerted at first by the imminence of this unexpected catastrophe, a fall of rain, had now regained its equilibrium. He had reflected, he had thought of a way by which failure might possibly be averted — and he hoped for ultimate success. When he had accumulated some seven or eight handfuls of fine plaster dust, he mixed one-half with a little water so as to form a thin paste, leaving the rest untouched on the side of the plate.

“Now, papa,” said he, “come and hold the light for me.”

When in the garden, the young man sought for the deepest and most distinct of the footprints, knelt beside it, and began his experiment, trembling with anxiety. He first sprinkled upon the impression a fine coating of dry plaster, and then upon this coating, with infinite care, he poured his liquid solution drop by drop.

What luck! the experiment was successful! The plaster united in a homogeneous mass, forming a perfect model of the impression. Thus, after an hour’s labor, Lecoq possessed half a dozen of these casts, which might, perhaps, be a little wanting in clearness of outline, but which were quite perfect enough to be used as evidence.

The young detective’s alarm had been well founded, for it was already beginning to rain. Still, he had plenty of time to cover a number of the footprints with the boxes and pieces of board which Father Absinthe had collected, thus placing them, as it were, beyond the reach of a thaw. Now he could breathe. The authorities might come, for the most important part of his task was completed.

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