Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

VI

No consultation held at the bedside of a dying man ever took place in the presence of two physicians so utterly unlike each other as those who accompanied the commissary of police to the Poivriere.

One of them, a tall old man with a bald head, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, and an overcoat of antique cut, was evidently one of those modest savants encountered occasionally in the byways of Paris — one of those healers devoted to their art, who too often die in obscurity, after rendering immense services to mankind. He had the gracious calmness of a man who, having seen so much of human misery, has nothing left to learn, and no troubled conscience could have possibly sustained his searching glance, which was as keen as his lancet.

His colleague — young, fresh-looking, light-haired, and jovial — was somewhat foppishly attired; and his white hands were encased in handsome fur gloves. There was a soft self-satisfied smile on his face, and he had the manners of those practitioners who, for profit’s sake, invariably recommend the infallible panaceas invented each month in chemical laboratories and advertised ad nauseam in the back pages of newspapers. He had probably written more than one article upon “Medicine for the use of the people”; puffing various mixtures, pills, ointments, and plasters for the benefit of their respective inventors.

“I will request you, gentlemen,” said the commissary of police, “to begin your duties by examining the victim who wears a military costume. Here is a sergeant-major summoned to answer a question of identity, whom I must send back to his quarters as soon as possible.”

The two physicians responded with a gesture of assent, and aided by Father Absinthe and another agent of police, they lifted the body and laid it upon two tables, which had previously been placed end to end. They were not obliged to make any note of the attitude in which they found the body, since the unfortunate man, who was still alive when the police entered the cabin, had been moved before he expired.

“Approach, sergeant,” ordered the commissary, “and look carefully at this man.”

It was with very evident repugnance that the old soldier obeyed.

“What is the uniform that he wears?”

“It is the uniform of the 2d battalion of the 53d regiment of the line.”

“Do you recognize him?”

“Not at all.”

“Are you sure that he does not belong to your regiment?”

“I can not say for certain: there are some conscripts at the Depot whom I have never seen. But I am ready to swear that he had never formed part of the 2d battalion — which, by the way, is mine, and in which I am sergeant-major.”

Lecoq, who had hitherto remained in the background, now stepped forward. “It might be as well,” he suggested, “to note the numbers marked on the other articles of clothing.”

“That is a very good idea,” said the commissary, approvingly.

“Here is his shako,” added the young police agent. “It bears the number 3,129.”

The officials followed Lecoq’s advice, and soon discovered that each article of clothing worn by the unfortunate man bore a different number.

“The deuce!” murmured the sergeant; “there is every indication — But it is very singular.”

Invited to consider what he was going to say, the brave trooper evidently made an effort to collect his intellectual faculties. “I would stake my epaulets that this fellow never was a soldier,” he said at last. “He must have disguised himself to take part in the Shrove Sunday carnival.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Oh, I know it better than I can explain it. I know it by his hair, by his nails, by his whole appearance, by a certain je ne sais quoi; in short, I know it by everything and by nothing. Why look, the poor devil did not even know how to put on his shoes; he has laced his gaiters wrong side outwards.” Evidently further doubt was impossible after this evidence, which confirmed the truth of Lecoq’s first remark to Inspector Gevrol.

“Still, if this person was a civilian, how could he have procured this clothing?” insisted the commissary. “Could he have borrowed it from the men in your company?”

“Yes, that is possible; but it is difficult to believe.”

“Is there no way by which you could ascertain?”

“Oh! very easily. I have only to run over to the fort and order an inspection of clothing.”

“Do so,” approved the commissary; “it would be an excellent way of getting at the truth.”

But Lecoq had just thought of a method quite as convincing, and much more prompt. “One word, sergeant,” said he, “isn’t cast off military clothing sold by public auction?”

“Yes; at least once a year, after the inspection.”

“And are not the articles thus sold marked in some way?”

“Assuredly.”

“Then see if there isn’t some mark of the kind on this poor wretch’s uniform.”

The sergeant turned up the collar of the coat and examined the waist-band of the pantaloons. “You are right,” he said, “these are condemned garments.”

The eyes of the young police agent sparkled. “We must then believe that the poor devil purchased this costume,” he observed. “Where? Necessarily at the Temple, from one of the dealers in military clothing. There are only five or six of these establishments. I will go from one to another of them, and the person who sold these clothes will certainly recognize them by some trade mark.”

“And that will assist us very much,” growled Gevrol. The sergeant-major, to his great relief, now received permission to retire, but not without having been warned that very probably the commissary would require his deposition. The moment had come to search the garments of the pretended soldier, and the commissary, who performed this duty himself, hoped that some clue as to the man’s identity would be forthcoming. He proceeded with his task, at the same time dictating to one of the men a proces-verbal of the search; that is to say, a minute description of all the articles he found upon the dead man’s person. In the right hand trousers pocket some tobacco, a pipe, and a few matches were found; in the left hand one, a linen handkerchief of good quality, but unmarked, and a soiled leather pocket-book, containing seven francs and sixty centimes.

There appeared to be nothing more, and the commissary was expressing his regret, when, on carefully examining the pocket-book he found a compartment which had at first escaped his notice, being hidden by a leather flap. This compartment contained a carefully folded paper. The commissary unfolded it and read the contents aloud:

“My dear Gustave — To-morrow, Sunday evening, do not fail to come to the ball at the Rainbow, according to our agreement. If you have no money pass by my house, and I will leave some with the concierge, who will give it to you.

“Be at the ball by eight o’clock. If I am not already there, it will not be long before I make my appearance. Everything is going on satisfactorily.

“Lacheneur.”

Alas! what did this letter reveal? Only that the dead man’s name was Gustave; that he had some connection with a man named Lacheneur, who had advanced him money for a certain object; and that they had met at the Rainbow some hours before the murder.

It was little — very little — but still it was something. It was a clue; and in this absolute darkness even the faintest gleam of light was eagerly welcomed.

“Lacheneur!” growled Gevrol; “the poor devil uttered that name in his last agony.”

“Precisely,” insisted Father Absinthe, “and he declared that he wished to revenge himself upon him. He accused him of having drawn him into a trap. Unfortunately, death cut his story short.”

Lecoq was silent. The commissary of police had handed him the letter, and he was studying it with the closest attention. The paper on which it was written was of the ordinary kind; the ink was blue. In one of the corners was a half-effaced stamp, of which one could just distinguish the word — Beaumarchais.

This was enough for Lecoq. “This letter,” he thought, “was certainly written in a cafe on the Boulevard Beaumarchais. In which one? I must ascertain that point, for this Lacheneur must be found.”

While the agents of the prefecture were gathered around the commissary, holding council and deliberating, the physicians began their delicate and disagreeable task. With the assistance of Father Absinthe, they removed the clothing of the pretended soldier, and then, with sleeves rolled up, they bent over their “subject” like surgeons in the schools of anatomy, and examined, inspected, and appraised him physically. Very willingly would the younger doctor have dispensed with these formalities, which he considered very ridiculous, and entirely unnecessary; but the old physician had too high a regard for his profession, and for the duty he had been called upon to fulfil, to neglect the slightest detail. Minutely, and with the most scrupulous exactitude, he noted the height of the dead man, his supposed age, the nature of his temperament, the color and length of his hair, and the degree of development of his muscular system.

Then the doctors passed to an examination of the wound. Lecoq had judged correctly. The medical men declared it to be a fracture of the base of the skull. It could, they stated, only have been caused by some instrument with a very broad surface, or by a violent knock of the head against some hard substance of considerable magnitude.

But no weapon, other than the revolver, had been found; and it was evidently not heavy enough to produce such a wound. There must, then, necessarily, have been a hand-to-hand struggle between the pretended soldier and the murderer; and the latter, seizing his adversary by the throat, had dashed him violently against the wall. The presence of some very tiny but very numerous spots of extravasated blood about the neck made this theory extremely plausible.

No other wound, not even a bruise or a scratch, was to be found. Hence, it became evident that this terrible struggle must have been exceedingly short. The murder of the pretended soldier must have been consummated between the moment when the squad of police heard the shrieks of despair and the moment when Lecoq peered through the shutter and saw the victim fall.

The examination of the other murdered man required different but even greater precautions than those adopted by the doctors in their inspection of the pseudo soldier. The position of these two victims had been respected; they were still lying across the hearth as they had fallen, and their attitude was a matter of great importance, since it might have decisive bearing on the case. Now, this attitude was such that one could not fail to be impressed with the idea that with both these men death had been instantaneous. They were both stretched out upon their backs, their limbs extended, and their hands wide open.

No contraction or extension of the muscles, no trace of conflict could be perceived; it seemed evident that they had been taken unawares, the more so as their faces expressed the most intense terror.

“Thus,” said the old doctor, “we may reasonably suppose that they were stupefied by some entirely unexpected, strange, and frightful spectacle. I have come across this terrified expression depicted upon the faces of dead people more than once. I recollect noticing it upon the features of a woman who died suddenly from the shock she experienced when one of her neighbors, with the view of playing her a trick, entered her house disguised as a ghost.”

Lecoq followed the physician’s explanations, and tried to make them agree with the vague hypotheses that were revolving in his own brain. But who could these individuals be? Would they, in death, guard the secret of their identity, as the other victim had done?

The first subject examined by the physicians was over fifty years of age. His hair was very thin and quite gray and his face was closely shaven, excepting a thick tuft of hair on his rather prominent chin. He was very poorly clad, wearing a soiled woolen blouse and a pair of dilapidated trousers hanging in rags over his boots, which were very much trodden down at the heels. The old doctor declared that this man must have been instantly killed by a bullet. The size of the circular wound, the absence of blood around its edge, and the blackened and burnt state of the flesh demonstrated this fact with almost mathematical precision.

The great difference that exists in wounds made by firearms, according to the distance from which the death-dealing missile comes, was seen when the physicians began to examine the last of the murdered men. The ball that had caused the latter’s death had scarcely crossed a yard of space before reaching him, and his wound was not nearly so hideous in aspect as the other’s. This individual, who was at least fifteen years younger than his companion, was short and remarkably ugly; his face, which was quite beardless, being pitted all over by the smallpox. His garb was such as is worn by the worst frequenters of the barriere. His trousers were of a gray checked material, and his blouse, turned back at the throat, was blue. It was noticed that his boots had been blackened quite recently. The smart glazed cap that lay on the floor beside him was in harmony with his carefully curled hair and gaudy necktie.

These were the only facts that the physicians’ report set forth in technical terms, this was the only information obtained by the most careful investigation. The two men’s pockets were explored and turned inside out; but they contained nothing that gave the slightest clue to their identity, either as regards name, social position, or profession. There was not even the slightest indication on any of these points, not a letter, nor an address, not a fragment of paper, nothing — not even such common articles of personal use, as a tobacco pouch, a knife, or a pipe which might be recognized, and thus establish the owner’s identity. A little tobacco in a paper bag, a couple of pocket handkerchiefs that were unmarked, a packet of cigarettes — these were the only articles discovered beyond the money which the victims carried loose in their pockets. On this point, it should be mentioned that the elder man had sixty-seven francs about him, and the younger one, two louis.

Rarely had the police found themselves in the presence of so strange an affair, without the slightest clue to guide them. Of course, there was the fact itself, as evidenced by the bodies of the three victims; but the authorities were quite ignorant of the circumstances that had attended and of the motive that had inspired the crime. Certainly, they might hope with the powerful means of investigation at their disposal to finally arrive at the truth in the course of time, and after repeated efforts. But, in the mean while, all was mystery, and so strangely did the case present itself that it could not safely be said who was really responsible for the horrible tragedy at the Poivriere.

The murderer had certainly been arrested; but if he persisted in his obstinacy, how were they to ascertain his name? He protested that he had merely killed in self-defense. How could it be shown that such was not the case? Nothing was known concerning the victims; one of whom had with his dying breath accused himself. Then again, an inexplicable influence tied the Widow Chupin’s tongue. Two women, one of whom had lost an earring valued at 5,000 francs, had witnessed the struggle — then disappeared. An accomplice, after two acts of unheard-of audacity, had also made his escape. And all these people — the women, the murderer, the keeper of the saloon, the accomplice, and the victims — were equally strange and mysterious, equally liable not to be what they seemed.

Perhaps the commissary of police thought he would spend a very unpleasant quarter of an hour at the prefecture when he reported the case. Certainly, he spoke of the crime in a very despondent tone.

“It will now be best,” he said at last, “to transport these three bodies to the Morgue. There they will doubtless be identified.” He reflected for a moment, and then added: “And to think that one of these dead men is perhaps Lacheneur himself!”

“That is scarcely possible,” said Lecoq. “The spurious soldier, being the last to die, had seen his companions fall. If he had supposed Lacheneur to be dead, he would not have spoken of vengeance.”

Gevrol, who for the past two hours had pretended to pay no attention to the proceedings, now approached. He was not the man to yield even to the strongest evidence. “If Monsieur, the Commissary, will listen to me, he shall hear my opinion, which is a trifle more definite than M. Lecoq’s fancies.”

Before he could say any more, the sound of a vehicle stopping before the door of the cabin interrupted him, and an instant afterward the investigating magistrate entered the room.

All the officials assembled at the Poivriere knew at least by sight the magistrate who now made his appearance, and Gevrol, an old habitue of the Palais de Justice, mechanically murmured his name: “M. Maurice d’Escorval.”

He was the son of that famous Baron d’Escorval, who, in 1815, sealed his devotion to the empire with his blood, and upon whom Napoleon, in the Memorial of St. Helena, pronounced this magnificent eulogium: “Men as honest as he may, I believe, exist; but more honest, no, it is not possible.”

Having entered upon his duties as magistrate early in life, and being endowed with remarkable talents, it was at first supposed that the younger D’Escorval would rise to the most exalted rank in his profession. But he had disappointed all such prognostications by resolutely refusing the more elevated positions that were offered to him, in order to retain his modest but useful functions in the public prosecutor’s offices at Paris. To explain his repeated refusals, he said that life in the capital had more charms for him than the most enviable advancement in provincial centres. But it was hard to understand this declaration, for in spite of his brilliant connections and large fortune, he had, ever since the death of his eldest brother, led a most retired life, his existence merely being revealed by his untiring labors and the good he did to those around him.

He was now about forty-two years of age, but appeared much younger, although a few furrows already crossed his brow. One would have admired his face, had it not been for the puzzling immobility that marred its beauty, the sarcastic curl of his thin lips, and the gloomy expression of his pale-blue eyes. To say that he was cold and grave, did not express the truth, it was saying too little. He was gravity and coldness personified, with a shade of hauteur added.

Impressed by the horror of the scene the instant he placed his foot upon the threshold, M. d’Escorval acknowledged the presence of the physicians and the commissary by a slight nod of the head. The others in the room had no existence so far as he was concerned. At once his faculties went to work. He studied the ground, and carefully noted all the surroundings with the attentive sagacity of a magistrate who realizes the immense weight of even the slightest detail, and who fully appreciates the eloquence of circumstantial evidence.

“This is a serious affair,” he said gravely; “very serious.”

The commissary’s only response was to lift his eyes to heaven. A gesture that plainly implied, “I quite agree with you!” The fact is, that for the past two hours the worthy commissary’s responsibility had weighed heavily upon him, and he secretly blessed the investigating magistrate for relieving him of it.

“The public prosecutor was unable to accompany me,” resumed M. d’Escorval, “he has not the gift of omnipresence, and I doubt if it will be possible for him to join me here. Let us, therefore, begin operations at once.”

The curiosity of those present had become intense; and the commissary only expressed the general feeling when he said: “You have undoubtedly questioned the murderer, sir, and have learnt —”

“I have learnt nothing,” interrupted M. d’Escorval, apparently much astonished at the interruption.

He took a chair and sat himself down, and while his clerk was busy in authenticating the commissary’s proces-verbal, he began to read the report prepared by Lecoq.

Pale, agitated, and nervous, the young police agent tried to read upon the magistrate’s impassive face the impression produced by the document. His future depended upon the magistrate’s approval or disapproval; and it was not with a fuddled mind like that of Father Absinthe that he had now to deal, but with a superior intelligence.

“If I could only plead my own cause,” he thought. “What are cold written phrases in comparison with spoken, living words, palpitating with emotion and imbued with the convictions of the speaker.”

However, he was soon reassured. The magistrate’s face retained its immobility, but again and again did M. d’Escorval nod his head in token of approval, and occasionally some point more ingenious than the others extorted from his lips the exclamations: “Not bad — very good!”

When he had finished the perusal he turned to the commissary and remarked: “All this is very unlike your report of this morning, which represented the affair as a low broil between a party of miserable vagabonds.”

The observation was only too just and fair; and the commissary deeply regretted that he had trusted to Gevrol’s representations, and remained in bed. “This morning,” he responded evasively, “I only gave you my first impressions. These have been modified by subsequent researches, so that —”

“Oh!” interrupted the magistrate, “I did not intend to reproach you; on the contrary, I must congratulate you. One could not have done better nor acted more promptly. The investigation that has been carried out shows great penetration and research, and the results are given with unusual clearness, and wonderful precision.”

Lecoq’s head whirled.

The commissary hesitated for an instant. At first he was sorely tempted to confiscate this praise to his own profit. If he drove away the unworthy thought, it was because he was an honest man, and more than that, because he was not displeased to have the opportunity to do Gevrol a bad turn and punish him for his presumptuous folly.

“I must confess,” he said with some embarrassment, “that the merit of this investigation does not belong to me.”

“To whom, then, shall I attribute it — to the inspector?” thought M. d’Escorval, not without surprise, for having occasionally employed Gevrol, he did not expect from him such ingenuity and sagacity as was displayed in this report. “Is it you, then, who have conducted this investigation so ably?” he asked.

“Upon my word, no!” responded Inspector Gevrol. “I, myself, am not so clever as all that. I content myself with telling what I actually discover; and I only give proofs when I have them in hand. May I be hung if the grounds of this report have any existence save in the brains of the man who imagined them.” Perhaps the inspector really believed what he said, being one of those persons who are blinded by vanity to such a degree that, with the most convincing evidence before their eyes, they obstinately deny it.

“And yet,” insisted the magistrate, “these women whose footprints have been detected must have existed. The accomplice who left the flakes of wool adhering to the plank is a real being. This earring is a positive, palpable proof.”

Gevrol had hard work to refrain from shrugging his shoulders. “All this can be satisfactorily explained,” he said, “without a search of twelve or fourteen hours. That the murderer had an accomplice is possible. The presence of the women is very natural. Wherever there are male thieves, you will find female thieves as well. As for the diamond — what does that prove? That the scoundrels had just met with a stroke of good luck, that they had come here to divide their booty, and that the quarrel arose from the division.”

This was an explanation, and such a plausable one, that M. d’Escorval was silent, reflecting before he announced his decision. “Decidedly,” he declared at last, “decidedly, I adopt the hypothesis set forth in the report. Who prepared it?”

Gevrol’s face turned red with anger. “One of my men,” he replied, “a clever, adroit fellow, Monsieur Lecoq. Come forward, Lecoq, that the magistrate may see you.”

The young man advanced, his lips tightly compressed so as to conceal a smile of satisfaction which almost betrayed itself.

“My report, sir, is only a summary,” he began, “but I have certain ideas —”

“Which you will acquaint me with, when I ask for them,” interrupted the magistrate. And oblivious of Lecoq’s chagrin, he drew from his clerk’s portfolio two forms, which he filled up and handed to Gevrol, saying: “Here are two orders; take them to the station, where the murderer and the landlady of this cabin are confined, and have them conducted to the prefecture, where they will be privately examined.”

Having given these directions, M. d’Escorval was turning toward the physicians, when Lecoq, at the risk of a second rebuff, interposed. “May I venture, sir, to beg of you to confide this message to me?” he asked of the investigating magistrate.

“Impossible, I may have need of you here.”

“I desired, sir, to collect certain evidence and an opportunity to do so may not present itself again.”

The magistrate perhaps fathomed the young man’s motive. “Then, let it be so,” he replied, “but after your task is completed you must wait for me at the prefecture, where I shall proceed as soon as I have finished here. You may go.”

Lecoq did not wait for the order to be repeated. He snatched up the papers, and hastened away.

He literally flew over the ground, and strange to say he no longer experienced any fatigue from the labors of the preceding night. Never had he felt so strong and alert, either in body or mind. He was very hopeful of success. He had every confidence in himself, and his happiness would indeed have been complete if he had had another judge to deal with. But M. d’Escorval overawed him to such a degree that he became almost paralyzed in his presence. With what a disdainful glance the magistrate had surveyed him! With what an imperious tone he had imposed silence upon him — and that, too, when he had found his work deserving of commendation.

“Still, never mind,” the young detective mentally exclaimed, “no one ever tastes perfect happiness here below.”

And concentrating all his thoughts on the task before him, he hurried on his way.

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