Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

VIII

Lecoq did not sleep that night, although he had been on his feet for more than forty hours, and had scarcely paused either to eat or drink. Anxiety, hope, and even fatigue itself, had imparted to his body the fictitious strength of fever, and to his intellect the unhealthy acuteness which is so often the result of intense mental effort.

He no longer had to occupy himself with imaginary deductions, as in former times when in the employ of his patron, the astronomer. Once again did the fact prove stranger than fiction. Here was reality — a terrible reality personified by the corpses of three victims lying on the marble slabs at the Morgue. Still, if the catastrophe itself was a patent fact, its motive, its surroundings, could only be conjectured. Who could tell what circumstances had preceded and paved the way for this tragical denouement?

It is true that all doubt might be dispelled by one discovery — the identity of the murderer. Who was he? Who was right, Gevrol or Lecoq? The former’s views were shared by the officials at the prison; the latter stood alone. Again, the former’s opinion was based upon formidable proof, the evidence of sight; while Lecoq’s hypothesis rested only on a series of subtle observations and deductions, starting from a single sentence that had fallen from the prisoner’s lips.

And yet Lecoq resolutely persisted in his theory, guided by the following reasons. He learnt from M. d’Escorval’s clerk that when the magistrate had examined the prisoner, the latter not only refused to confess, but answered all the questions put to him in the most evasive fashion. In several instances, moreover, he had not replied at all. If the magistrate had not insisted, it was because this first examination was a mere formality, solely intended to justify the somewhat premature delivery of the order to imprison the accused.

Now, under these circumstances, how was one to explain the prisoner’s attempt at self-destruction? Prison statistics show that habitual offenders do not commit suicide. When apprehended for a criminal act, they are sometimes seized with a wild frenzy and suffer repeated nervous attacks; at others they fall into a dull stupor, just as some glutted beast succumbs to sleep with the blood of his prey still dripping from his lips. However, such men never think of putting an end to their days. They hold fast to life, no matter how seriously they may be compromised. In truth, they are cowards.

On the other hand, the unfortunate fellow who, in a moment of frenzy, commits a crime, not unfrequently seeks to avoid the consequences of his act by self-destruction.

Hence, the prisoner’s frustrated attempt at suicide was a strong argument in favor of Lecoq’s theory. This wretched man’s secret must be a terrible one since he held it dearer than life, since he had tried to destroy himself that he might take it unrevealed to the grave.

Four o’clock was striking when Lecoq sprang from his bed on which he had thrown himself without undressing; and five minutes later he was walking down the Rue Montmartre. The weather was still cold and muggy; and a thick fog hung over the city. But the young detective was too engrossed with his own thoughts to pay attention to any atmospherical unpleasantness. Walking with a brisk stride, he had just reached the church of Saint Eustache, when a coarse, mocking voice accosted him with the exclamation: “Ah, ha! my fine fellow!”

He looked up and perceived Gevrol, who, with three of his men, had come to cast his nets round about the markets, whence the police generally return with a good haul of thieves and vagabonds.

“You are up very early this morning, Monsieur Lecoq,” continued the inspector; “you are still trying to discover our man’s identity, I suppose?”

“Still trying.”

“Is he a prince in disguise, or only a marquis?”

“One or the other, I am quite certain.”

“All right then. In that case you will not refuse us the opportunity to drink to your success.”

Lecoq consented, and the party entered a wine-shop close by. When the glasses were filled, Lecoq turned to Gevrol and exclaimed: “Upon my word, General, our meeting will save me a long walk. I was going to the prefecture to request you, on M. d’Escorval’s behalf, to send one of our comrades to the Morgue this morning. The affair at the Poivriere has been noised about, and all the world will be there, so he desires some officer to be present to watch the crowd and listen to the remarks of the visitors.”

“All right; Father Absinthe shall be there when the doors open.”

To send Father Absinthe where a shrewd and subtle agent was required was a mockery. Still Lecoq did not protest, for it was better to be badly served than to be betrayed; and he could at least trust Father Absinthe.

“It doesn’t much matter,” continued Gevrol; “but you should have informed me of this last evening. However, when I reached the prefecture you had gone.”

“I had some work to do.”

“Yes?”

“At the station-house near the Barriere d’Italie. I wanted to know whether the floor of the cell was paved or tiled.” So saying, Lecoq paid the score, saluted his superior officer, and went out.

“Thunder!” exclaimed Gevrol, striking his glass violently upon the counter. “Thunder! how that fellow provokes me! He does not know the A B C of his profession. When he can’t discover anything, he invents wonderful stories, and then misleads the magistrates with his high-sounding phrases, in the hope of gaining promotion. I’ll give him advancement with a vengeance! I’ll teach him to set himself above me!”

Lecoq had not been deceived. The evening before, he had visited the station-house where the prisoner had first been confined, and had compared the soil of the cell floor with the dust he had placed in his pocket; and he carried away with him, as he believed, one of those crushing proofs that often suffice to extort from the most obstinate criminal a complete confession. If Lecoq was in haste to part company with Gevrol, it was because he was anxious to pursue his investigations still further, before appearing in M. d’Escorval’s presence. He was determined to find the cab-driver who had been stopped by the two women in the Rue du Chevaleret; and with this object in view, he had obtained at the prefecture the names and addresses of all the cab-owners hiring between the road to Fontainebleau and the Seine.

His earlier efforts at investigation proved unsuccessful. At the first establishment he visited, the stable boys, who were not yet up, swore at him roundly. In the second, he found the grooms at work, but none of the drivers had as yet put in an appearance. Moreover, the owner refused to show him the books upon which are recorded — or should be recorded — each driver’s daily engagements. Lecoq was beginning to despair, when at about half-past seven o’clock he reached an establishment just beyond the fortifications belonging to a man named Trigault. Here he learned that on Sunday night, or rather, early on Monday morning, one of the drivers had been accosted on his way home by some persons who succeeded in persuading him to drive them back into Paris.

This driver, who was then in the courtyard harnessing his horse, proved to be a little old man, with a ruddy complexion, and a pair of small eyes full of cunning. Lecoq walked up to him at once.

“Was it you,” he asked, “who, on Sunday night or rather on Monday, between one and two in the morning, drove a couple of women from the Rue du Chevaleret into Paris?”

The driver looked up, and surveying Lecoq attentively, cautiously replied: “Perhaps.”

“It is a positive answer that I want.”

“Aha!” said the old man sneeringly, “you know two ladies who have lost something in a cab, and so —”

The young detective trembled with satisfaction. This man was certainly the one he was looking for. “Have you heard anything about a crime that has been committed in the neighborhood?” he interrupted.

“Yes; a murder in a low wine-shop.”

“Well, then, I will tell you that these two women are mixed up in it; they fled when we entered the place. I am trying to find them. I am a detective; here is my card. Now, can you give me any information?”

The driver had grown very pale. “Ah! the wretches!” he exclaimed. “I am no longer surprised at the luck-money they gave me — a louis and two five-franc pieces for the fare — thirty francs in all. Cursed money! If I hadn’t spent it, I’d throw it away!”

“And where did you drive them?”

“To the Rue de Bourgogne. I have forgotten the number, but I should recognize the house.”

“Unfortunately, they would not have let you drive them to their own door.”

“Who knows? I saw them ring the bell, and I think they went in just as I drove away. Shall I take you there?”

Lecoq’s sole response was to spring on to the box, exclaiming: “Let us be off.”

It was not to be supposed that the women who had escaped from the Widow Chupin’s drinking-den at the moment of the murder were utterly devoid of intelligence. Nor was it at all likely that these two fugitives, conscious as they were of their perilous situation, had gone straight to their real home in a vehicle hired on the public highway. Hence, the driver’s hope of finding them in the Rue de Bourgogne was purely chimerical. Lecoq was fully aware of this, and yet he did not hesitate to jump on to the box and give the signal for starting. In so doing, he obeyed a maxim which he had framed in his early days of meditation — a maxim intended to assure his after-fame, and which ran as follows: “Always suspect that which seems probable; and begin by believing what appears incredible.”

As soon as the vehicle was well under way, the young detective proceeded to ingratiate himself into the driver’s good graces, being anxious to obtain all the information that this worthy was able to impart.

In a tone that implied that all trifling would be useless the cabman cried: “Hey up, hey up, Cocotte!” and his mare pricked up her ears and quickened her pace, so that the Rue de Choisy was speedily reached. Then it was that Lecoq resumed his inquiries.

“Well, my good fellow,” he began, “you have told me the principal facts, now I should like the details. How did these two women attract your attention?”

“Oh, it was very simple. I had been having a most unfortunate day — six hours on a stand on the Boulevards, with the rain pouring all the time. It was simply awful. At midnight I had not made more than a franc and a half for myself, but I was so wet and miserable and the horse seemed so done up that I decided to go home. I did grumble, I can tell you. Well, I had just passed the corner of the Rue Picard, in the Rue du Chevaleret, when I saw two women standing under a lamp, some little distance off. I did not pay any attention to them; for when a man is as old as I am, women —”

“Go on!” said Lecoq, who could not restrain his impatience.

“I had already passed them, when they began to call after me. I pretended I did not hear them; but one of them ran after the cab, crying: ‘A louis! a louis for yourself!’ I hesitated for a moment, when the woman added: ‘And ten francs for the fare!’ I then drew up.”

Lecoq was boiling over with impatience; but he felt that the wisest course was not to interrupt the driver with questions, but to listen to all he had to say.

“As you may suppose,” continued the coachman, “I wasn’t inclined to trust two such suspicious characters, alone at that hour and in that part of the city. So, just as they were about to get into the cab, I called to them: ‘Wait a bit, my little friends, you have promised papa some sous; where are they?” The one who had called after the cab at once handed me thirty francs, saying: ‘Above all, make haste!’”

“Your recital could not be more minute,” exclaimed Lecoq, approvingly. “Now, how about these two women?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what kind of women did they seem to be; what did you take them for?”

“Oh, for nothing very good!” replied the driver, with a knowing smile.

“Ah! and how were they dressed?”

“Like most of the girls who go to dance at the Rainbow. One of them, however, was very neat and prim, while the other — well! she was a terrible dowdy.”

“Which ran after you?”

“The girl who was neatly dressed, the one who —” The driver suddenly paused: some vivid remembrance passed through his brain, and, abruptly jerking the rains, he brought his horse to a standstill.

“Thunder!” he exclaimed. “Now I think of it, I did notice something strange. One of the two women called the other ‘Madame’ as large as life, while the other said ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’ and spoke as if she were somebody.”

“Oh! oh! oh!” exclaimed the young detective, in three different keys. “And which was it that said ‘thee’ and ‘thou’?”

“Why, the dowdy one. She with shabby dress and shoes as big as a gouty man’s. You should have seen her shake the prim-looking girl, as if she had been a plum tree. ‘You little fool!’ said she, ‘do you want to ruin us? You will have time to faint when we get home; now come along. And then she began to sob: ‘Indeed, madame, indeed I can’t!’ she said, and really she seemed quite unable to move: in fact, she appeared to be so ill that I said to myself: ‘Here is a young woman who has drunk more than is good for her!’”

These facts confirmed even if they corrected Lecoq’s first suppositions. As he had suspected, the social position of the two women was not the same. He had been mistaken, however, in attributing the higher standing to the woman wearing the shoes with the high heels, the marks of which he had so particularly noticed in the snow, with all the attendant signs of precipitation, terror, and weakness. In reality, social preeminence belonged to the woman who had left the large, broad footprints behind her. And not merely was she of a superior rank, but she had also shown superior energy. Contrary to Lecoq’s original idea, it now seemed evident that she was the mistress, and her companion the servant.

“Is that all, my good fellow?” he asked the driver, who during the last few minutes had been busy with his horses.

“Yes,” replied the cabman, “except that I noticed that the shabbily dressed woman who paid me had a hand as small as a child’s, and in spite of her anger, her voice was as sweet as music.”

“Did you see her face?”

“I just caught a glimpse of it.”

“Could you tell if she were pretty, or whether she was a blonde or brunette?”

So many questions at a time confused the driver. “Stop a minute!” he replied. “In my opinion she wasn’t pretty, and I don’t believe she was young, but she certainly was a blonde, and with plenty of hair too.”

“Was she tall or short, stout or slender?”

“Between the two.”

This was very vague. “And the other,” asked Lecoq, “the neatly dressed one?”

“The deuce! As for her, I did not notice her at all; all I know about her is that she was very small.”

“Would you recognize her if you met her again?”

“Good heavens! no.”

The vehicle was now rolling along the Rue de Bourgogne. Half-way down the street the driver pulled up, and, turning to Lecoq, exclaimed: “Here we are. That’s the house the hussies went into.”

To draw off the silk handkerchief that served him as a muffler, to fold it and slip it into his pocket, to spring to the ground and enter the house indicated, was only the work of an instant for the young detective.

In the concierge’s little room he found an old woman knitting. Lecoq bowed to her politely, and, displaying the silk handkerchief, exclaimed: “Madame, I have come to return this article to one of your lodgers.”

“To which one?”

“Really, I don’t exactly know.”

In a moment the worthy dame imagined that this polite young man was making fun of her. “You scamp —!” she began.

“Excuse me,” interrupted Lecoq; “allow me to finish. I must tell you that at about three o’clock in the morning, of the day before yesterday, I was quietly returning home, when two ladies, who were seemingly in a great hurry, overtook me and passed on. One of them dropped this handkerchief, which I picked up. I hastened after her to restore it, but before I could overtake them they had rung the bell at your door and were already in the house. I did not like to ring at such an unearthly hour for fear of disturbing you. Yesterday I was so busy I couldn’t come; however, here I am at last, and here’s the handkerchief.” So saying, Lecoq laid the handkerchief on the table, and turned as if to go, when the concierge detained him.

“Many thanks for your kindness,” said she, “but you can keep it. We have no ladies in this house who are in the habit of coming home alone after midnight.”

“Still I have eyes,” insisted Lecoq, “and I certainly saw —”

“Ah! I had forgotten,” exclaimed the old woman. “The night you speak of some one certainly did ring the bell here. I pulled the string that opens the door and listened, but not hearing any one close the door or come upstairs, I said to myself: ‘Some mischievous fellow has been playing a trick on me.’ I slipped on my dress and went out into the hall, where I saw two women hastening toward the door. Before I could reach them they slammed the door in my face. I opened it again as quickly as I could and looked out into the street. But they were hurrying away as fast as they could.”

“In what direction?”

“Oh! they were running toward the Rue de Varennes.”

Lecoq was baffled again; however, he bowed civilly to the concierge, whom he might possibly have need of at another time, and then went back to the cab. “As I had supposed, they do not live here,” he remarked to the driver.

The latter shrugged his shoulders in evident vexation, which would inevitably have vent in a torrent of words, if Lecoq, who had consulted his watch, had not forestalled the outburst by saying: “Nine o’clock — I am an hour behind time already: still I shall have some news to tell. Now take me to the Morgue as quickly as possible.”

When a mysterious crime has been perpetrated, or a great catastrophe has happened, and the identity of the victims has not been established, “a great day” invariably follows at the Morgue. The attendants are so accustomed to the horrors of the place that the most sickly sight fails to impress them; and even under the most distressing circumstances, they hasten gaily to and fro, exchanging jests well calculated to make an ordinary mortal’s flesh creep. As a rule, they are far less interested in the corpses laid out for public view on the marble slabs in the principal hall than in the people of every age and station in life who congregate here all day long; at times coming in search of some lost relative or friend, but far more frequently impelled by idle curiosity.

As the vehicle conveying Lecoq reached the quay, the young detective perceived that a large, excited crowd was gathered outside the building. The newspapers had reported the tragedy at the Widow Chupin’s drinking-den, of course, more or less correctly, and everybody wished to see the victims.

On drawing near the Pont Notre Dame, Lecoq told the driver to pull up. “I prefer to alight here, rather than in front of the Morgue,” he said, springing to the ground. Then, producing first his watch, and next his purse, he added: “We have been an hour and forty minutes, my good fellow, consequently I owe you —”

“Nothing at all,” replied the driver, decidedly.

“But —”

“No — not a sou. I am too worried already to think that I took the money these hussies offered me. It would only have served me right if the liquor I bought with it had given me the gripes. Don’t be uneasy about the score, and if you need a trap use mine for nothing, till you have caught the jades.” As Lecoq’s purse was low, he did not insist. “You will, at least, take my name and address?” continued the driver.

“Certainly. The magistrate will want your evidence, and a summons will be sent you.”

“All right, then. Address it to Papillon (Eugene), driver, care of M. Trigault. I lodge at his place, because I have some small interest in the business, you see.”

The young detective was hastening away, when Papillon called him back. “When you leave the Morgue you will want to go somewhere else,” he said, “you told me that you had another appointment, and that you were already late.”

“Yes, I ought to be at the Palais de Justice; but it is only a few steps from here.”

“No matter. I will wait for you at the corner of the bridge. It’s useless to say ‘no’; I’ve made up my mind, and I’m a Breton, you know. I want you to ride out the thirty francs that those jades paid me.”

It would have been cruel to refuse such a request. Accordingly, Lecoq made a gesture of assent, and then hurried toward the Morgue.

If there was a crowd on the roadway outside, it was because the gloomy building itself was crammed full of people. Indeed, the sightseers, most of whom could see nothing at all, were packed as closely as sardines, and it was only by dint of well-nigh superhuman efforts that Lecoq managed to effect an entrance. As usual, he found among the mob a large number of girls and women; for, strange to say, the Parisian fair sex is rather partial to the disgusting sights and horrible emotions that repay a visit to the Morgue.

The shop and work girls who reside in the neighborhood readily go out of their way to catch a glimpse of the corpses which crime, accident, and suicide bring to this horrible place. A few, the more sensitive among them, may come no further than the door, but the others enter, and after a long stare return and recount their impressions to their less courageous companions.

If there should be no corpse exhibited; if all the marble slabs are unoccupied, strange as it may seem, the visitors turn hastily away with an expression of disappointment or discontent. There was no fear of their doing so, however, on the morrow of the tragedy at Poivriere, for the mysterious murderer whose identity Lecoq was trying to establish had furnished three victims for their delectation. Panting with curiosity, they paid but little attention to the unhealthy atmosphere: and yet a damp chill came from beyond the iron railings, while from the crowd itself rose an infectious vapor, impregnated with the stench of the chloride of lime used as a disinfectant.

As a continuous accompaniment to the exclamations, sighs, and whispered comments of the bystanders came the murmur of the water trickling from a spigot at the head of each slab; a tiny stream that flowed forth only to fall in fine spray upon the marble. Through the small arched windows a gray light stole in on the exposed bodies, bringing each muscle into bold relief, revealing the ghastly tints of the lifeless flesh, and imparting a sinister aspect to the tattered clothing hung around the room to aid in the identification of the corpses. This clothing, after a certain time, is sold — for nothing is wasted at the Morgue.

However, Lecoq was too occupied with his own thoughts to remark the horrors of the scene. He scarcely bestowed a glance on the three victims. He was looking for Father Absinthe, whom he could not perceive. Had Gevrol intentionally or unintentionally failed to fulfil his promise, or had Father Absinthe forgotten his duty in his morning dram?

Unable to explain the cause of his comrade’s absence, Lecoq addressed himself to the head keeper: “It would seem that no one has recognized the victims,” he remarked.

“No one. And yet, ever since opening, we have had an immense crowd. If I were master here, on days like this, I would charge an admission fee of two sous a head, with half-price for children. It would bring in a round sum, more than enough to cover the expenses.”

The keeper’s reply seemed to offer an inducement to conversation, but Lecoq did not seize it. “Excuse me,” he interrupted, “didn’t a detective come here this morning?”

“Yes, there was one here.”

“Has he gone away then? I don’t see him anywhere?”

The keeper glanced suspiciously at his eager questioner, but after a moment’s hesitation, he ventured to inquire: “Are you one of them?”

“Yes, I am,” replied Lecoq, exhibiting his card in support of his assertion.

“And your name?”

“Is Lecoq.”

The keeper’s face brightened up. “In that case,” said he, “I have a letter for you, written by your comrade, who was obliged to go away. Here it is.”

The young detective at once tore open the envelope and read: “Monsieur Lecoq —”

“Monsieur?” This simple formula of politeness brought a faint smile to his lips. Was it not, on Father Absinthe’s part, an evident recognition of his colleague’s superiority. Indeed, our hero accepted it as a token of unquestioning devotion which it would be his duty to repay with a master’s kind protection toward his first disciple. However, he had no time to waste in thought, and accordingly at once proceeded to peruse the note, which ran as follows:

“Monsieur Lecoq — I had been standing on duty since the opening of the Morgue, when at about nine o’clock three young men entered, arm-in-arm. From their manner and appearance, I judged them to be clerks in some store or warehouse. Suddenly I noticed that one of them turned as white as his shirt; and calling the attention of his companions to one of the unknown victims, he whispered: ‘Gustave!’

“His comrades put their hands over his mouth, and one of them exclaimed: ‘What are you about, you fool, to mix yourself up with this affair! Do you want to get us into trouble?’

“Thereupon they went out, and I followed them. But the person who had first spoken was so overcome that he could scarcely drag himself along; and his companions were obliged to take him to a little restaurant close by. I entered it myself, and it is there I write this letter, in the mean time watching them out of the corner of my eye. I send this note, explaining my absence, to the head keeper, who will give it you. You will understand that I am going to follow these men. A. B. S.”

The handwriting of this letter was almost illegible; and there were mistakes in spelling in well-nigh every line; still, its meaning was clear and exact, and could not fail to excite the most flattering hopes.

Lecoq’s face was so radiant when he returned to the cab that, as the old coachman urged on his horse, he could not refrain from saying: “Things are going on to suit you.”

A friendly “hush!” was the only response. It required all Lecoq’s attention to classify this new information. When he alighted from the cab in front of the Palais de Justice, he experienced considerable difficulty in dismissing the old cabman, who insisted upon remaining at his orders. He succeeded at last, however, but even when he had reached the portico on the left side of the building, the worthy fellow, standing up, still shouted at the top of his voice: “At M. Trigault’s house — don’t forget — Father Papillon — No. 998 — 1,000 less 2 —”

Lecoq had entered the left wing of the Palais. He climbed the stairs till he had reached the third floor, and was about to enter the long, narrow, badly-lighted corridor known as the Galerie de l’Instruction, when, finding a doorkeeper installed behind a heavy oaken desk, he remarked: “M. d’Escorval is, of course, in his office?”

The man shook his head. “No,” said he, “M. d’Escorval is not here this morning, and he won’t be here for several weeks.”

“Why not! What do you mean?”

“Last night, as he was alighting from his carriage, at his own door, he had a most unfortunate fall, and broke his leg.”

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