Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

VII

When, after a rapid walk of twenty minutes, Lecoq reached the police station near the Barriere d’Italie, the doorkeeper, with his pipe in his mouth, was pacing slowly to and fro before the guard-house. His thoughtful air, and the anxious glances he cast every now and then toward one of the little grated windows of the building sufficed to indicate that some very rare bird indeed had been entrusted to his keeping. As soon as he recognized Lecoq, his brow cleared, and he paused in his promenade.

“Ah, well!” he inquired, “what news do you bring?”

“I have an order to conduct the prisoners to the prefecture.”

The keeper rubbed his hands, and his smile of satisfaction plainly implied that he felt a load the less on his shoulders.

“Capital! capital!” he exclaimed. “The Black Maria, the prison van, will pass here in less than an hour; we will throw them in, and hurry the driver off —”

Lecoq was obliged to interrupt the keeper’s transports of satisfaction. “Are the prisoners alone?” he inquired.

“Quite alone: the woman in one cell, and the man in the other. This has been a remarkably quiet night, for Shrove Sunday! Quite surprising indeed! It is true your hunt was interrupted.”

“You had a drunken man here, however.”

“No — yes — that’s true — this morning just at daybreak. A poor devil, who is under a great obligation to Gevrol.”

The involuntary irony of this remark did not escape Lecoq. “Yes, under a great obligation, indeed!” he said with a derisive laugh.

“You may laugh as much as you like,” retorted the keeper, “but such is really the case; if it hadn’t been for Gevrol the man would certainly have been run over.”

“And what has become of him?”

The keeper shrugged his shoulders. “You ask me too much,” he responded. He was a worthy fellow who had been spending the night at a friend’s house, and on coming out into the open air, the wine flew into his head. He told us all about it when he got sober, half an hour afterward. I never saw a man so vexed as he was. He wept, and stammered: “The father of a family, and at my age too! Oh! it is shameful! What shall I say to my wife? What will the children think?”

“Did he talk much about his wife?”

“He talked about nothing else. He mentioned her name — Eudosia Leocadie, or some name of that sort. He declared that he should be ruined if we kept him here. He begged us to send for the commissary, to go to his house, and when we set him free, I thought he would go mad with joy; he kissed our hands, and thanked us again and again!”

“And did you place him in the same cage as the murderer?” inquired Lecoq.

“Of course.”

“Then they talked with each other.”

“Talked? Why, the drunkard was so ‘gone’ I tell you, that he couldn’t have said ‘bread’ distinctly. When he was placed in a cell, bang! He fell down like a log of wood. As soon as he recovered, we let him out. I’m sure, they didn’t talk to each other.”

The young police agent had grown very thoughtful. “I was evidently right,” he murmured.

“What did you say?” inquired the keeper.

“Nothing,” replied Lecoq, who was not inclined to communicate his reflections to the custodian of the guard-house. These reflections of his were by no means pleasant ones. “I was right,” he thought; “this pretended drunkard was none other than the accomplice. He is evidently an adroit, audacious, cool-headed fellow. While we were tracking his footprints he was watching us. When we had got to some distance, he was bold enough to enter the hovel. Then he came here and compelled them to arrest him; and thanks to an assumption of childish simplicity, he succeeded in finding an opportunity to speak with the murderer. He played his part perfectly. Still, I know that he did play a part, and that is something. I know that one must believe exactly the opposite of what he said. He talked of his family, his wife and children — hence, he has neither children, wife, nor family.”

Lecoq suddenly checked himself, remembering that he had no time to waste in conjectures. “What kind of fellow was this drunkard?” he inquired.

“He was tall and stout, with full ruddy cheeks, a pair of white whiskers, small eyes, a broad flat nose, and a good-natured, jovial manner.”

“How old would you suppose him to be?”

“Between forty and fifty.”

“Did you form any idea of his profession?”

“It’s my opinion, that what with his soft cap and his heavy brown overcoat, he must be either a clerk or the keeper of some little shop.”

Having obtained this description, which agreed with the result of his investigations, Lecoq was about to enter the station house when a sudden thought brought him to a standstill. “I hope this man has had no communication with this Widow Chupin!” he exclaimed.

The keeper laughed heartily. “How could he have had any?” he responded. “Isn’t the old woman alone in her cell? Ah, the old wretch! She has been cursing and threatening ever since she arrived. Never in my whole life have I heard such language as she has used. It has been enough to make the very stones blush; even the drunken man was so shocked that he went to the grating in the door, and told her to be quiet.”

Lecoq’s glance and gesture were so expressive of impatience and wrath that the keeper paused in his recital much perturbed. “What is the matter?” he stammered. “Why are you angry?”

“Because,” replied Lecoq, furiously, “because —” Not wishing to disclose the real cause of his anger, he entered the station house, saying that he wanted to see the prisoner.

Left alone, the keeper began to swear in his turn. “These police agents are all alike,” he grumbled. “They question you, you tell them all they desire to know; and afterward, if you venture to ask them anything, they reply: ‘nothing,’ or ‘because.’ They have too much authority; it makes them proud.”

Looking through the little latticed window in the door, by which the men on guard watch the prisoners, Lecoq eagerly examined the appearance of the assumed murderer. He was obliged to ask himself if this was really the same man he had seen some hours previously at the Poivriere, standing on the threshold of the inner door, and holding the whole squad of police agents in check by the intense fury of his attitude. Now, on the contrary, he seemed, as it were, the personification of weakness and despondency. He was seated on a bench opposite the grating in the door, his elbows resting on his knees, his chin upon his hand, his under lip hanging low and his eyes fixed upon vacancy.

“No,” murmured Lecoq, “no, this man is not what he seems to be.”

So saying he entered the cell, the culprit raised his head, gave the detective an indifferent glance, but did not utter a word.

“Well, how goes it?” asked Lecoq.

“I am innocent!” responded the prisoner, in a hoarse, discordant voice.

“I hope so, I am sure — but that is for the magistrate to decide. I came to see if you wanted anything.”

“No,” replied the murderer, but a second later he changed his mind. “All the same,” he said, “I shouldn’t mind a crust and a drink of wine.”

“You shall have them,” replied Lecoq, who at once went out to forage in the neighborhood for eatables of some sort. In his opinion, if the murderer had asked for a drink after at first refusing to partake of anything, it was solely with the view of conveying the idea that he was really the kind of man he pretended to be.

At all events, whoever he might be, the prisoner ate with an excellent appetite. He then took up the large glass of wine that had been brought him, drained it slowly, and remarked: “That’s capital! There can be nothing to beat that!”

This seeming satisfaction greatly disappointed Lecoq, who had selected, as a test, one of those horribly thick, bluish, nauseous mixtures in vogue around the barrieres — hoping, nay, almost expecting, that the murderer would not drink it without some sign of repugnance. And yet the contrary proved the case. However, the young detective had no time to ponder over the circumstance, for a rumble of wheels now announced the approach of that lugubrious vehicle, the Black Maria.

When the Widow Chupin was removed from her cell she fought and scratched and cried “Murder!” at the top of her voice; and it was only by sheer force that she was at length got into the van. Then it was that the officials turned to the assassin. Lecoq certainly expected some sign of repugnance now, and he watched the prisoner closely. But he was again doomed to disappointment. The culprit entered the vehicle in the most unconcerned manner, and took possession of his compartment like one accustomed to it, knowing the most comfortable position to assume in such close quarters.

“Ah! what an unfortunate morning,” murmured Lecoq, disconsolately. “Still I will lie in wait for him at the prefecture.”

When the door of the prison-van had been securely closed, the driver cracked his whip, and the sturdy horses started off at a brisk trot. Lecoq had taken his seat in front, between the driver and the guard; but his mind was so engrossed with his own thoughts that he heard nothing of their conversation, which was very jovial, although frequently interrupted by the shrill voice of the Widow Chupin, who sang and yelled her imprecations alternately.

It is needless, however, to recapitulate her oaths; let us rather follow the train of Lecoq’s meditation. By what means could he secure some clue to the murderer’s identity? He was still convinced that the prisoner must belong to the higher ranks of society. After all, it was not so extraordinary that he should have succeeded in feigning an appetite, that he should have concealed his distaste for a nauseous beverage, and that he should have entered the Black Maria without hesitation. Such conduct was quite possible, indeed almost probable on the part of a man, endowed with considerable strength of will, and realizing the imminence of his peril. But granting this, would he be equally able to hide his feelings when he was obliged to submit to the humiliating formalities that awaited him — formalities which in certain cases can, and must, be pushed even to the verge of insult and outrage?

No; Lecoq could not believe that this would be possible. He felt sure that the disgraceful position in which the prisoner would find himself would cause him to revolt, to lose his self-control, to utter some word that might give the desired clue.

It was not until the gloomy vehicle had turned off the Pont Neuf on to the Quai de l’Horloge that the young detective became conscious of what was transpiring around him. Soon the van passed through an open gateway, and drew up in a small, damp courtyard.

Lecoq immediately alighted, and opened the door of the compartment in which the supposed murderer was confined, exclaiming as he did so: “Here we are, get out.” There was no fear of the prisoner escaping. The iron gate had been closed, and at least a dozen agents were standing near at hand, waiting to have a look at the new arrivals.

The prisoner slowly stepped to the ground. His expression of face remained unchanged, and each gesture evinced the perfect indifference of a man accustomed to such ordeals.

Lecoq scrutinized his demeanor as attentively as an anatomist might have watched the action of a muscle. He noted that the prisoner seemed to experience a sensation of satisfaction directly his foot touched the pavement of the courtyard, that he drew a long breath, and then stretched and shook himself, as if to regain the elasticity of his limbs, cramped by confinement in the narrow compartment from which he had just emerged. Then he glanced around him, and a scarcely perceptible smile played upon his lips. One might have sworn that the place was familiar to him, that he was well acquainted with these high grim walls, these grated windows, these heavy doors — in short, with all the sinister belongings of a prison.

“Good Lord!” murmured Lecoq, greatly chagrined, “does he indeed recognize the place?”

And his sense of disappointment and disquietude increased when, without waiting for a word, a motion, or a sign, the prisoner turned toward one of the five or six doors that opened into the courtyard. Without an instant’s hesitation he walked straight toward the very doorway he was expected to enter — Lecoq asked himself was it chance? But his amazement and disappointment increased tenfold when, after entering the gloomy corridor, he saw the culprit proceed some little distance, resolutely turn to the left, pass by the keeper’s room, and finally enter the registrar’s office. An old offender could not have done better.

Big drops of perspiration stood on Lecoq’s forehead. “This man,” thought he, “has certainly been here before; he knows the ropes.”

The registrar’s office was a large room heated almost to suffocation by an immense stove, and badly lighted by three small windows, the panes of which were covered with a thick coating of dust. There sat the clerk reading a newspaper, spread out over the open register — that fatal book in which are inscribed the names of all those whom misconduct, crime, misfortune, madness, or error have brought to these grim portals.

Three or four attendants, who were awaiting the hour for entering upon their duties, reclined half asleep upon the wooden benches that lined three sides of the room. These benches, with a couple of tables, and some dilapidated chairs, constituted the entire furniture of the office, in one corner of which stood a measuring machine, under which each culprit was obliged to pass, the exact height of the prisoners being recorded in order that the description of their persons might be complete in every respect.

At the entrance of the culprit accompanied by Lecoq, the clerk raised his head. “Ah!” said he, “has the van arrived?”

“Yes,” responded Lecoq. And showing the orders signed by M. d’Escorval, he added: “Here are this man’s papers.”

The registrar took the documents and read them. “Oh!” he exclaimed, “a triple assassination! Oh! oh!” The glance he gave the prisoner was positively deferential. This was no common culprit, no ordinary vagabond, no vulgar thief.

“The investigating magistrate orders a private examination,” continued the clerk, “and I must get the prisoner other clothing, as the things he is wearing now will be used as evidence. Let some one go at once and tell the superintendent that the other occupants of the van must wait.”

At this moment, the governor of the Depot entered the office. The clerk at once dipped his pen in the ink, and turning to the prisoner he asked: “What is your name?”

“May.”

“Your Christian name?”

“I have none.”

“What, have you no Christian name?”

The prisoner seemed to reflect for a moment, and then answered, sulkily: “I may as well tell you that you need not tire yourself by questioning me. I shan’t answer any one else but the magistrate. You would like to make me cut my own throat, wouldn’t you? A very clever trick, of course, but one that won’t do for me.”

“You must see that you only aggravate your situation,” observed the governor.

“Not in the least. I am innocent; you wish to ruin me. I only defend myself. Get anything more out of me now, if you can. But you had better give me back what they took from me at the station-house. My hundred and thirty-six francs and eight sous. I shall need them when I get out of this place. I want you to make a note of them on the register. Where are they?”

The money had been given to Lecoq by the keeper of the station-house, who had found it upon the prisoner when he was placed in his custody. Lecoq now laid it upon the table.

“Here are your hundred and thirty-six francs and eight sous,” said he, “and also your knife, your handkerchief, and four cigars.”

An expression of lively contentment was discernible on the prisoner’s features.

“Now,” resumed the clerk, “will you answer?”

But the governor perceived the futility of further questioning; and silencing the clerk by a gesture, he told the prisoner to take off his boots.

Lecoq thought the assassin’s glance wavered as he heard this order. Was it only a fancy?”

“Why must I do that?” asked the culprit.

“To pass under the beam,” replied the clerk. “We must make a note of your exact height.”

The prisoner made no reply, but sat down and drew off his heavy boots. The heel of the right one was worn down on the inside. It was, moreover, noticed that the prisoner wore no socks, and that his feet were coated with mud.

“You only wear boots on Sundays, then?” remarked Lecoq.

“Why do you think that?”

“By the mud with which your feet are covered, as high as the ankle-bone.”

“What of that?” exclaimed the prisoner, in an insolent tone. “Is it a crime not to have a marchioness’s feet?”

“It is a crime you are not guilty of, at all events,” said the young detective slowly. “Do you think I can’t see that if the mud were picked off your feet would be white and neat? The nails have been carefully cut and polished —”

He paused. A new idea inspired by his genius for investigation had just crossed Lecoq’s mind. Pushing a chair in front of the prisoner, and spreading a newspaper over it, he said: “Will you place your foot there?”

The man did not comply with the request.

“It is useless to resist,” exclaimed the governor, “we are in force.”

The prisoner delayed no longer. He placed his foot on the chair, as he had been ordered, and Lecoq, with the aid of a knife, proceeded to remove the fragments of mud that adhered to the skin.

Anywhere else so strange and grotesque a proceeding would have excited laughter, but here, in this gloomy chamber, the anteroom of the assize court, an otherwise trivial act is fraught with serious import. Nothing astonishes; and should a smile threaten to curve one’s lips, it is instantly repressed.

All the spectators, from the governor of the prison to the keepers, had witnessed many other incidents equally absurd; and no one thought of inquiring the detective’s motive. This much was known already; that the prisoner was trying to conceal his identity. Now it was necessary to establish it, at any cost, and Lecoq had probably discovered some means of attaining this end.

The operation was soon concluded; and Lecoq swept the dust off the paper into the palm of his hand. He divided it into two parts, enclosing one portion in a scrap of paper, and slipping it into his own pocket. With the remainder he formed a package which he handed to the governor, saying: “I beg you, sir, to take charge of this, and to seal it up here, in presence of the prisoner. This formality is necessary, so that by and by he may not pretend that the dust has been changed.”

The governor complied with the request, and as he placed this “bit of proof” (as he styled it) in a small satchel for safe keeping, the prisoner shrugged his shoulders with a sneering laugh. Still, beneath this cynical gaiety Lecoq thought he could detect poignant anxiety. Chance owed him the compensation of this slight triumph; for previous events had deceived all his calculations.

The prisoner did not offer the slightest objection when he was ordered to undress, and to exchange his soiled and bloodstained garments for the clothing furnished by the Government. Not a muscle of his face moved while he submitted his person to one of those ignominous examinations which make the blood rush to the forehead of the lowest criminal. It was with perfect indifference that he allowed an inspector to comb his hair and beard, and to examine the inside of his mouth, so as to make sure that he had not concealed either some fragment of glass, by the aid of which captives can sever the strongest bars, or one of those microscopical bits of lead with which prisoners write the notes they exchange, rolled up in a morsel of bread, and called “postilions.”

These formalities having been concluded, the superintendent rang for one of the keepers. “Conduct this man to No. 3 of the secret cells,” he ordered.

There was no need to drag the prisoner away. He walked out, as he had entered, preceding the guard, like some old habitue, who knows where he is going.

“What a rascal!” exclaimed the clerk.

“Then you think —” began Lecoq, baffled but not convinced,

“Ah! there can be no doubt of it,” declared the governor. “This man is certainly a dangerous criminal — an old offender — I think I have seen him before — I could almost swear to it.”

Thus it was evident these people, with their long, varied experience, shared Gevrol’s opinion; Lecoq stood alone. He did not discuss the matter — what good would it have done? Besides, the Widow Chupin was just being brought in.

The journey must have calmed her nerves, for she had become as gentle as a lamb. It was in a wheedling voice, and with tearful eyes, that she called upon these “good gentlemen” to witness the shameful injustice with which she was treated — she, an honest woman. Was she not the mainstay of her family (since her son Polyte was in custody, charged with pocket-picking), hence what would become of her daughter-in-law, and of her grandson Toto, who had no one to look after them but her?

Still, when her name had been taken, and a keeper was ordered to remove her, nature reasserted itself, and scarcely had she entered the corridor than she was heard quarreling with the guard.

“You are wrong not to be polite,” she said; “you are losing a good fee, without counting many a good drink I would stand you when I get out of here.”

Lecoq was now free until M. d’Escorval’s arrival. He wandered through the gloomy corridors, from office to office, but finding himself assailed with questions by every one he came across, he eventually left the Depot, and went and sat down on one of the benches beside the quay. Here he tried to collect his thoughts. His convictions were unchanged. He was more than ever convinced that the prisoner was concealing his real social standing, but, on the other hand, it was evident that he was well acquainted with the prison and its usages.

He had also proved himself to be endowed with far more cleverness than Lecoq had supposed. What self-control! What powers of dissimulation he had displayed! He had not so much as frowned while undergoing the severest ordeals, and he had managed to deceive the most experienced eyes in Paris.

The young detective had waited during nearly three hours, as motionless as the bench on which he was seated, and so absorbed in studying his case that he had thought neither of the cold nor of the flight of time, when a carriage drew up before the entrance of the prison, and M. d’Escorval alighted, followed by his clerk.

Lecoq rose and hastened, well-nigh breathless with anxiety, toward the magistrate.

“My researches on the spot,” said this functionary, “confirm me in the belief that you are right. Is there anything fresh?”

“Yes, sir; a fact that is apparently very trivial, though, in truth, it is of importance that —”

“Very well!” interrupted the magistrate. “You will explain it to me by and by. First of all, I must summarily examine the prisoners. A mere matter of form for to-day. Wait for me here.”

Although the magistrate promised to make haste, Lecoq expected that at least an hour would elapse before he reappeared. In this he was mistaken. Twenty minutes later, M. d’Escorval emerged from the prison without his clerk.

He was walking very fast, and instead of approaching the young detective, he called to him at some little distance. “I must return home at once,” he said, “instantly; I can not listen to you.”

“But, sir —”

“Enough! the bodies of the victims have been taken to the Morgue. Keep a sharp lookout there. Then, this evening make — well — do whatever you think best.”

“But, sir, I must —”

“To-morrow! — to-morrow, at nine o’clock, in my office in the Palais de Justice.”

Lecoq wished to insist upon a hearing, but M. d’Escorval had entered, or rather thrown himself into, his carriage, and the coachman was already whipping up the horse.

“And to think that he’s an investigating magistrate,” panted Lecoq, left spellbound on the quay. “Has he gone mad?” As he spoke, an uncharitable thought took possession of his mind. “Can it be,” he murmured, “that M. d’Escorval holds the key to the mystery? Perhaps he wishes to get rid of me.”

This suspicion was so terrible that Lecoq hastened back to the prison, hoping that the prisoner’s bearing might help to solve his doubts. On peering through the grated aperture in the door of the cell, he perceived the prisoner lying on the pallet that stood opposite the door. His face was turned toward the wall, and he was enveloped in the coverlid up to his eyes. He was not asleep, for Lecoq could detect a strange movement of the body, which puzzled and annoyed him. On applying his ear instead of his eye to the aperture, he distinguished a stifled moan. There could no longer be any doubt. The death rattle was sounding in the prisoner’s throat.

“Help! help!” cried Lecoq, greatly excited. “The prisoner is killing himself!”

A dozen keepers hastened to the spot. The door was quickly opened, and it was then ascertained that the prisoner, having torn a strip of binding from his clothes, had fastened it round his neck and tried to strangle himself with the assistance of a spoon that had been left him with his food. He was already unconscious, and the prison doctor, who immediately bled him, declared that had another ten minutes elapsed, help would have arrived too late.

When the prisoner regained his senses, he gazed around him with a wild, puzzled stare. One might have supposed that he was amazed to find himself still alive. Suddenly a couple of big tears welled from his swollen eyelids, and rolled down his cheeks. He was pressed with questions, but did not vouchsafe so much as a single word in response. As he was in such a desperate frame of mind, and as the orders to keep him in solitary confinement prevented the governor giving him a companion, it was decided to put a straight waistcoat on him. Lecoq assisted at this operation, and then walked away, puzzled, thoughtful, and agitated. Intuition told him that these mysterious occurrences concealed some terrible drama.

“Still, what can have occurred since the prisoner’s arrival here?” he murmured. “Has he confessed his guilt to the magistrate, or what is his reason for attempting so desperate an act?”

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