Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

V

It was some distance from the Poivriere to the Rue de Chevaleret, even by way of the plain, and fully four hours had been occupied by Lecoq and his colleague in collecting their elements of information.

All this while, the Widow Chupin’s abode had remained open, accessible to any chance visitor. Still, when, on his return, the young police agent remembered this neglect of elementary precautions, he did not feel alarmed. Considering all the circumstances, it was very difficult to believe that any serious harm could have resulted from this carelessness.

For who would have been likely to visit this drinking-den after midnight? Its bad name served the purpose of a bulwark. The most daring vagrants did not drink there without some disquietude, fearing that if the liquor caused them to lose consciousness, they might be robbed or perhaps even murdered. Hence, if any one had been attracted to this notoriously dangerous drinking-shop by the light that streamed through the open door, it could only have been some very reckless person returning late at night from the ball at the Rainbow, with a few sous left in his pocket. But, even then, a single glance inside would have sufficed to put the bravest to flight.

In less than a second the young police agent had weighed all these possibilities, concerning which he did not breathe a word to Father Absinthe. When, little by little, the excitement caused by his successive hopes and disappointments, and by the accomplishment of the experiment with the footprints had died away, and he had regained his usual calm of mind, he made a careful inspection of the abode, and was by no means satisfied with himself. He had experimented upon Father Absinthe with his new system of investigation, just as an aspiring orator tries his powers before his least gifted friends, not before the cleverest. He had certainly overwhelmed the old veteran by his superiority; he had literally crushed him. But what great merit, what wonderful victory was this? Why should he boast of having outwitted Father Absinthe, one of the least sagacious men in the service?

If he could only have given some startling proofs of his energy or of his penetration! But, after all, what had he accomplished? Was the mystery solved? Was his success more than problematical? When one thread is drawn out, the skein is not untangled. This night would undoubtedly decide his future as a detective, so he swore that if he could not conquer his vanity, he would, at least, compel himself to conceal it. Hence, it was in a very modest tone that he said to his companion: “We have done all that we can do outside, now, would it not be wise to busy ourselves with the inside of the house?”

Everything looked exactly in the same state as when the two men left the room. A candle, with a charred smoking wick, cast its flickering light upon the same scene of disorder, revealing to view the rigid features of the three victims. Without losing a moment, Lecoq began to pick up and study the various objects scattered over the floor. Some of these still remained intact. The Widow Chupin had recoiled from the expense of a tiled floor, judging the bare ground upon which the cabin was built quite good enough for the feet of her customers. This ground, which must originally have been well beaten down, had, by constant use and damp, become well-nigh as muddy as the soil outside.

The first fruits of Lecoq’s search were a large salad-bowl and a big iron spoon, the latter so twisted and bent that it had evidently been used as a weapon during the conflict. On inspecting the bowl, it became evident that when the quarrel began the victims were regaling themselves with the familiar mixture of water, wine, and sugar, known round about the barrieres as vin a la Frangaise. After the salad-bowl, the two men picked up five of the weighty glasses ordinarily used in wine-shops, and which, while looking as though they would contain half a bottle, are in point of fact so thick at the bottom that they hold next to nothing. Three of these glasses were broken, two were whole. All of them had contained wine — the same vin a la Frangaise. This was plain, but for greater surety, Lecoq applied his tongue to the bluish mixture remaining in the bottom of each glass. “The deuce!” he muttered, with an astonished air.

Then he examined successively the surfaces of the three overturned tables. Upon one of these, the one nearest the fireplace and the window, the still wet marks of the five glasses, of the salad-bowl, and even of the spoons could be distinguished. Lecoq very properly regarded this circumstance as a matter of the greatest importance, for it proved clearly enough that five persons had emptied the salad-bowl in company. Who were these five persons?

“Oh! oh!” suddenly exclaimed Lecoq in two entirely different tones. “Then the two women could not have been with the murderer!”

A very simple mode of discovery had presented itself to his mind. It was to ascertain if there were any other glasses, and what they had contained. After a fresh search on the floor, a sixth glass was found, similar in form to the others, but much smaller. Its smell showed that it had contained brandy. Then these two women had not been with the murderer, and therefore he could not have fought because the other men had insulted them. This discovery proved the inaccuracy of Lecoq’s original suppositions. It was an unexpected check, and he was mourning over it in silence, when Father Absinthe, who had not ceased ferreting about, uttered a cry of surprise.

The young man turned; he saw that his companion had become very pale. “What is it?” he asked.

“Some one has been here in our absence.”

“Impossible!”

It was not impossible — it was true. When Gevrol had torn the apron off Widow Chupin’s head he had thrown it upon the steps of the stairs; neither of the police agents had since touched it. And yet the pockets of this apron were now turned inside out; this was a proof, this was evidence. At this discovery Lecoq was overcome with consternation, and the contraction of his features revealed the struggle going on in his mind. “Who could have been here?” he murmured. “Robbers? That is improbable.”

Then, after a long silence which his companion took good care not to interrupt, he added: “The person who came here, who dared to penetrate into this abode and face the corpses of these murdered men — this person could have been none other than the accomplice. But it is not enough to suspect this, it is necessary to know it. I must — I will know it!”

They searched for a long time, and it was not until after an hour of earnest work that, in front of the door forced open by the police, they discovered in the mud, just inside the marks made by Gevrol’s tread, a footprint that bore a close resemblance to those left by the man who had entered the garden. They compared the impressions and recognized the same designs formed by the nails upon the sole of the boot.

“It must have been the accomplice!” exclaimed Lecoq. “He watched us, he saw us go away, and then he entered. But why? What pressing, irresistible necessity made him decide to brave such imminent danger?” He seized his companion’s hand, nearly crushing it in his excitement: “Ah! I know why!” continued he, violently. “I understand only too well. Some article that would have served to throw light on this horrible affair had been left or forgotten, or lost here, and to obtain it, to find it, he decided to run this terrible risk. And to think that it was my fault, my fault alone, that this convincing proof escaped us! And I thought myself so shrewd! What a lesson! The door should have been locked; any fool would have thought of it —” Here he checked himself, and remained with open mouth and distended eyes, pointing with his finger to one of the corners of the room.

“What is the matter?” asked his frightened companion.

Lecoq made no reply, but slowly, and with the stiff movements of a somnambulist, he approached the spot to which he had pointed, stooped, picked up something, and said: “My folly is not deserving of such luck.”

The object he had found was an earring composed of a single large diamond. The setting was of marvelous workmanship. “This diamond,” declared Lecoq, after a moment’s examination, “must be worth at least five or six thousand francs.”

“Are you in earnest?”

“I think I could swear to it.”

He would not have troubled about such a preamble as “I think” a few hours before, but the blunder he had made was a lesson that would not be forgotten so long as he lived.

“Perhaps it was that same diamond earring that the accomplice came to seek,” ventured Father Absinthe.

“The supposition is scarcely admissible. In that case, he would not have sought for it in Mother Chupin’s apron. No, he must have been seeking for something else — a letter, for example.”

The older man was not listening; he had taken the earring, and was examining it in his turn. “And to think,” he murmured, astonished by the brilliancy of the stone, “to think that a woman who had ten thousand francs’ worth of jewels in her ears would have come to the Poivriere. Who would have believed it?”

Lecoq shook his head thoughtfully. “Yes, it is very strange, very improbable, very absurd. And yet we shall see many things quite as strange if we ever arrive — which I very much doubt — at a solution of this mysterious affair.”

Day was breaking, cold, cheerless, and gloomy, when Lecoq and his colleague concluded their investigation. There was not an inch of space that had not been explored, carefully examined and studied, one might almost say, with a magnifying glass. There now only remained to draw up the report.

The younger man seated himself at the table, and, with the view of making his recital as intelligible as possible, he began by sketching a plan of the scene of the murder.

[[Graphic Omitted]]

It will be seen that in the memoranda appended to this explanatory diagram, Lecoq had not once written his own name. In noting the things that he had imagined or discovered, he referred to himself simply as one of the police. This was not so much modesty as calculation. By hiding one’s self on well-chosen occasions, one gains greater notoriety when one emerges from the shade. It was also through cunning that he gave Gevrol such a prominent position. These tactics, rather subtle, perhaps, but after all perfectly fair, could not fail to call attention to the man who had shown himself so efficient when the efforts of his chief had been merely confined to breaking open the door.

The document Lecoq drew up was not a proces-verbal, a formal act reserved for the officers of judiciary police; it was a simple report, that would be admitted under the title of an inquiry, and yet the young detective composed it with quite as much care as a general would have displayed in drawing up the bulletin of his first victory.

While Lecoq was drawing and writing, Father Absinthe leaned over his shoulder to watch him. The plan amazed that worthy man. He had seen a great deal; but he had always supposed that it was necessary to be an engineer, an architect, or, at least, a carpenter, to execute such work. Not at all. With a tape-line with which to take some measurements, and a bit of board in place of a rule, his inexperienced colleague had soon accomplished the miracle. Father Absinthe’s respect for Lecoq was thereby greatly augmented. It is true that the worthy veteran had not noticed the explosion of the young police agent’s vanity, nor his return to his former modest demeanor. He had not observed his alarm, nor his perplexity, nor his lack of penetration.

After a few moments, Father Absinthe ceased watching his companion. He felt weary after the labors of the night, his head was burning, and he shivered and his knees trembled. Perhaps, though he was by no means sensitive, he felt the influence of the horrors that surrounded him, and which seemed more sinister than ever in the bleak light of morning. He began to ferret in the cupboards, and at last succeeded in discovering — oh, marvelous fortune! — a bottle of brandy, three parts full. He hesitated for an instant, then he poured out a glass, and drained it at a single draft.

“Will you have some?” he inquired of his companion. “It is not a very famous brand, to be sure; but it is just as good, it makes one’s blood circulate and enlivens one.”

Lecoq refused; he did not need to be enlivened. All his faculties were hard at work. He intended that, after a single perusal of his report, the investigating magistrate should say: “Let the officer who drew up this document be sent for.” It must be remembered that Lecoq’s future depended upon such an order. Accordingly, he took particular care to be brief, clear, and concise, to plainly indicate how his suspicions on the subject of the murder had been aroused, how they had increased, and how they had been confirmed. He explained by what series of deductions he had succeeded in establishing a theory which, if it was not the truth, was at least plausible enough to serve as the basis for further investigation.

Then he enumerated the articles of conviction ranged on the table before him. There were the flakes of brown wool collected upon the plank, the valuable earring, the models of the different footprints in the garden, and the Widow Chupin’s apron with its pockets turned inside out. There was also the murderer’s revolver, with two barrels discharged and three still loaded. This weapon, although not of an ornamental character, was still a specimen of highly finished workmanship. It bore the name of one Stephens, 14 Skinner Street, a well-known London gunsmith.

Lecoq felt convinced that by examining the bodies of the victims he would obtain other and perhaps very valuable information; but he did not dare venture upon such a course. Besides his own inexperience in such a matter, there was Gevrol to be thought of, and the inspector, furious at his own mistake, would not fail to declare that, by changing the attitude of the bodies, Lecoq had rendered a satisfactory examination by the physicians impossible.

The young detective accordingly tried to console himself for his forced inaction in this respect, and he was rereading his report, modifying a few expressions, when Father Absinthe, who was standing upon the threshold of the outer door, called to him.

“Is there anything new?” asked Lecoq.

“Yes,” was the reply. “Here come Gevrol and two of our comrades with the commissary of police and two other gentlemen.”

It was, indeed, the commissary who was approaching, interested but not disturbed by this triple murder which was sure to make his arrondissement the subject of Parisian conversation during the next few days. Why, indeed, should he be troubled about it? For Gevrol, whose opinion in such matters might be regarded as an authority, had taken care to reassure him when he went to arouse him from his slumbers.

“It was only a fight between some old offenders; former jail birds, habitues of the Poivriere,” he had said, adding sententiously: “If all these ruffians would kill one another, we might have some little peace.”

He added that as the murderer had been arrested and placed in confinement, there was nothing urgent about the case. Accordingly, the commissary thought there was no harm in taking another nap and waiting until morning before beginning the inquiry. He had seen the murderer, reported the case to the prefecture, and now he was coming — leisurely enough — accompanied by two physicians, appointed by the authorities to draw up a medico-legal report in all such cases. The party also comprised a sergeant-major of the 53d regiment of infantry of the line, who had been summoned by the commissary to identify, if possible, the murdered man who wore a uniform, for if one might believe the number engraved upon the buttons of his overcoat, he belonged to the 53d regiment, now stationed at the neighboring fort.

As the party approached it was evident that Inspector Gevrol was even less disturbed than the commissary. He whistled as he walked along, flourishing his cane, which never left his hand, and already laughing in his sleeve over the discomfiture of the presumptuous fool who had desired to remain to glean, where he, the experienced and skilful officer, had perceived nothing. As soon as he was within speaking distance, the inspector called to Father Absinthe, who, after warning Lecoq, remained on the threshold, leaning against the door-post, puffing his pipe, as immovable as a sphinx.

“Ah, well, old man!” cried Gevrol, “have you any great melodrama, very dark and very mysterious, to relate to us?”

“I have nothing to relate myself,” replied the old detective, without even drawing his pipe from his lips, “I am too stupid, that is perfectly understood. But Monsieur Lecoq will tell you something that will astonish you.”

The prefix, “monsieur,” which the old police agent used in speaking of his colleague, displeased Gevrol so much that he pretended not to understand. “Who are you speaking of?” he asked abruptly.

“Of my colleague, of course, who is now busy finishing his report — of Monsieur Lecoq.” Quite unintentionally, the worthy fellow had certainly become the young police agent’s godfather. From that day forward, for his enemies as well as for his friends, he was and he remained “Monsieur” Lecoq.

“Ah! ah!” said the inspector, whose hearing was evidently impaired. “Ah, he has discovered —”

“The pot of roses which others did not scent, General.” By this remark, Father Absinthe made an enemy of his superior officer. But he cared little for that: Lecoq had become his deity, and no matter what the future might reserve, the old veteran had resolved to follow his young colleague’s fortunes.

“We’ll see about that,” murmured the inspector, mentally resolving to have an eye on this youth whom success might transform into a rival. He said no more, for the little party which he preceded had now overtaken him, and he stood aside to make way for the commissary of police.

This commissary was far from being a novice. He had served for many years, and yet he could not repress a gesture of horror as he entered the Poivriere. The sergeant-major of the 53d, who followed him, an old soldier, decorated and medaled — who had smelt powder many scores of times — was still more overcome. He grew as pale as the corpses lying on the ground, and was obliged to lean against the wall for support. The two physicians alone retained their stoical indifference.

Lecoq had risen, his report in his hand; he bowed, and assuming a respectful attitude, was waiting to be questioned.

“You must have passed a frightful night,” said the commissary, kindly; “and quite unnecessarily, since any investigation was superfluous.”

“I think, however,” replied the young police agent, having recourse to all his diplomacy, “that my time has not been entirely lost. I have acted according to the instructions of my superior officer; I have searched the premises thoroughly, and I have ascertained many things. I have, for example, acquired the certainty that the murderer had a friend, possibly an accomplice, of whom I can give quite a close description. He must have been of middle age, and wore, if I am not mistaken, a soft cap and a brown woolen overcoat: as for his boots —”

“Zounds!” exclaimed Gevrol, “and I—” He stopped short, like a man whose impulse had exceeded his discretion, and who would have gladly recalled his words.

“And you?” inquired the commissary, “pray, what do you mean?”

The inspector had gone too far to draw back, and, unwittingly, was now obliged to act as his own executioner. “I was about to mention,” he said, “that this morning, an hour or so ago, while I was waiting for you, sir, before the station-house, at the Barriere d’Italie, where the murderer is confined, I noticed close by an individual whose appearance was not unlike that of the man described by Lecoq. This man seemed to be very intoxicated, for he reeled and staggered against the walls. He tried to cross the street, but fell down in the middle of it, in such a position that he would inevitably have been crushed by the first passing vehicle.”

Lecoq turned away his head; he did not wish them to read in his eyes how perfectly he understood the whole game.

“Seeing this,” pursued Gevrol, “I called two men and asked them to aid me in raising the poor devil. We went up to him; he had apparently fallen asleep: we shook him — we made him sit up; we told him that he could not remain there, but he immediately flew into a furious rage. He swore at us, threatened us, and began fighting us. And, on my word, we had to take him to the station-house, and leave him there to recover from the effects of his drunken debauch.”

“Did you shut him up in the same cell with the murderer?” inquired Lecoq.

“Naturally. You know very well that there are only two cages in the station-house at the barriere — one for men and the other for women; consequently —”

The commissary seemed thoughtful. “Ah! that’s very unfortunate,” he stammered; “and there is no remedy.”

“Excuse me, there is one,” observed Gevrol, “I can send one of my men to the station-house with an order to detain the drunken man —”

Lecoq interposed with a gesture: “Trouble lost,” he said coldly. “If this individual is an accomplice, he has got sober by now — rest assured of that, and is already far away.”

“Then what is to be done?” asked the inspector, with an ironical air. “May one be permitted to ask the advice of Monsieur Lecoq.”

“I think chance offered us a splendid opportunity, and we did not know how to seize it; and that the best thing we can do now is to give over mourning, and prepare to profit by the next opportunity that presents itself.”

Gevrol was, however, determined to send one of his men to the station-house; and it was not until the messenger had started that Lecoq commenced the reading of his report. He read it rapidly, refraining as much as possible from placing the decisive proofs in strong relief, reserving these for his own benefit; but so strong was the logic of his deductions that he was frequently interrupted by approving remarks from the commissary and the two physicians.

Gevrol, who alone represented the opposition, shrugged his shoulders till they were well-nigh dislocated, and grew literally green with jealousy.

“I think that you alone, young man, have judged correctly in this affair,” said the commissary when Lecoq had finished reading. “I may be mistaken; but your explanations have made me alter my opinion concerning the murderer’s attitude while I was questioning him (which was only for a moment). He refused, obstinately refused, to answer my questions, and wouldn’t even give me his name.”

The commissary was silent for a moment, reviewing the past circumstances in his mind, and it was in a serious tone that he eventually added: “We are, I feel convinced, in presence of one of those mysterious crimes the causes of which are beyond the reach of human sagacity — this strikes me as being one of those enigmatical cases which human justice never can reach.” Lecoq made no audible rejoinder; but he smiled to himself and thought: “We will see about that.”

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