Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau

IX

Some men are wealthy. They own a carriage drawn by a pair of high-stepping horses, and driven by a coachman in stylish livery; and as they pass by, leaning back on comfortable cushions, they become the object of many an envious glance. Sometimes, however, the coachman has taken a drop too much, and upsets the carriage; perhaps the horses run away and a general smash ensues; or, maybe, the hitherto fortunate owner, in a moment of absent-mindedness, misses the step, and fractures his leg on the curbstone. Such accidents occur every day; and their long list should make humble foot-passengers bless the lowly lot which preserves them from such peril.

On learning the misfortune that had befallen M. d’Escorval, Lecoq’s face wore such an expression of consternation that the doorkeeper could not help laughing. “What is there so very extraordinary about that I’ve told you?” he asked.

“I— oh! nothing —”

The detective did not speak the truth. The fact is, he had just been struck by the strange coincidence of two events — the supposed murderer’s attempted suicide, and the magistrate’s fall. Still, he did not allow the vague presentiment that flitted through his mind to assume any definite form. For after all, what possible connection could there be between the two occurrences? Then again, he never allowed himself to be governed by prejudice, nor had he as yet enriched his formulary with an axiom he afterward professed: “Distrust all circumstances that seem to favor your secret wishes.”

Of course, Lecoq did not rejoice at M. d’Escorval’s accident; could he have prevented it, he would have gladly done so. Still, he could not help saying to himself that this stroke of misfortune would free him from all further connection with a man whose superciliousness and disdain had been painfully disagreeable to his feelings.

This thought caused a sensation of relief — almost one of light-heartedness. “In that case,” said the young detective to the doorkeeper, “I shall have nothing to do here this morning.”

“You must be joking,” was the reply. “Does the world stop moving because one man is disabled? The news only arrived an hour ago; but all the urgent business that M. d’Escorval had in charge has already been divided among the other magistrates.”

“I came here about that terrible affair that occurred the other night just beyond the Barriere de Fontainebleau.”

“Eh! Why didn’t you say so at once? A messenger has been sent to the prefecture after you already. M. Segmuller has charge of the case, and he’s waiting for you.”

Doubt and perplexity were plainly written on Lecoq’s forehead. He was trying to remember the magistrate that bore this name, and wondered whether he was a likely man to espouse his views.

“Yes,” resumed the doorkeeper, who seemed to be in a talkative mood, “M. Segmuller — you don’t seem to know him. He is a worthy man, not quite so grim as most of our gentlemen. A prisoner he had examined said one day: ‘That devil there has pumped me so well that I shall certainly have my head chopped off; but, nevertheless, he’s a good fellow!”

His heart somewhat lightened by these favorable reports, Lecoq went and tapped at a door that was indicated to him, and which bore the number — 22.

“Come in!” called out a pleasant voice.

The young detective entered, and found himself face to face with a man of some forty years of age, tall and rather corpulent, who at once exclaimed: “Ah! you are Lecoq. Very well — take a seat. I am busy just now looking over the papers of the case, but I will attend to you in five minutes.”

Lecoq obeyed, at the same time glancing furtively at the magistrate with whom he was about to work. M. Segmuller’s appearance corresponded perfectly with the description given by the doorkeeper. His plump face wore an air of frankness and benevolence, and his blue eyes had a most pleasant expression. Nevertheless, Lecoq distrusted these appearances, and in so doing he was right.

Born near Strasbourg, M. Segmuller possessed that candid physiognomy common to most of the natives of blonde Alsace — a deceitful mask, which, behind seeming simplicity, not unfrequently conceals a Gascon cunning, rendered all the more dangerous since it is allied with extreme caution. He had a wonderfully alert, penetrating mind; but his system — every magistrate has his own — was mainly good-humor. Unlike most of his colleagues, who were as stiff and cutting in manner as the sword which the statue of Justice usually holds in her hand, he made simplicity and kindness of demeanor his leading trait, though, of course, without ever losing sight of his magisterial duties.

Still, the tone of his voice was so paternal, and the subtle purport of his questions so veiled by his seeming frankness, that most of those whom he examined forgot the necessity of protecting themselves, and unawares confessed their guilt. Thus, it frequently happened that while some unsuspecting culprit was complacently congratulating himself upon getting the best of the judge, the poor wretch was really being turned inside out like a glove.

By the side of such a man as M. Segmuller a grave and slender clerk would have excited distrust; so he had chosen one who was a caricature of himself. This clerk’s name was Goguet. He was short but corpulent, and his broad, beardless face habitually wore a silly smile, not out of keeping with his intellect, which was none of the brightest.

As stated above, when Lecoq entered M. Segmuller’s room the latter was busy studying the case which had so unexpectedly fallen into his hands. All the articles which the young detective had collected, from the flakes of wool to the diamond earring, were spread out upon the magistrate’s desk. With the greatest attention, he perused the report prepared by Lecoq, and according to the different phases of the affair, he examined one or another of the objects before him, or else consulted the plan of the ground.

“A good half-hour elapsed before he had completed his inspection, when he threw himself back in his armchair. Monsieur Lecoq,” he said, slowly, “Monsieur d’Escorval has informed me by a note on the margin of this file of papers that you are an intelligent man, and that we can trust you.”

“I am willing, at all events.”

“You speak too slightingly of yourself; this is the first time that an agent has brought me a report as complete as yours. You are young, and if you persevere, I think you will be able to accomplish great things in your profession.”

Nervous with delight, Lecoq bowed and stammered his thanks.

“Your opinion in this matter coincides with mine,” continued M. Segmuller, “and the public prosecutor informs me that M. d’Escorval shares the same views. An enigma is before us; and it ought to be solved.”

“Oh! — we’ll solve it, I am certain, sir,” exclaimed Lecoq, who at this moment felt capable of the most extraordinary achievements. Indeed, he would have gone through fire and water for the magistrate who had received him so kindly, and his enthusiasm sparkled so plainly in his eyes that M. Segmuller could not restrain a smile.

“I have strong hopes of it myself,” he responded; “but we are far from the end. Now, what have you been doing since yesterday? Did M. d’Escorval give you any orders? Have you obtained any fresh information?”

“I don’t think I have wasted my time,” replied Lecoq, who at once proceeded to relate the various facts that had come to his knowledge since his departure from the Poivriere.

With rare precision and that happiness of expression which seldom fails a man well acquainted with his subject, he recounted the daring feats of the presumed accomplice, the points he had noted in the supposed murderer’s conduct, the latter’s unsuccessful attempt at self-destruction. He repeated the testimony given by the cab-driver, and by the concierge in the Rue de Bourgogne, and then read the letter he had received from Father Absinthe.

In conclusion, he placed on the magistrate’s desk some of the dirt he had scraped from the prisoner’s feet; at the same time depositing beside it a similar parcel of dust collected on the floor of the cell in which the murderer was confined at the Barriere d’Italie.

When Lecoq had explained the reasons that had led him to collect this soil, and the conclusions that might be drawn from a comparison of the two parcels, M. Segmuller, who had been listening attentively, at once exclaimed: “You are right. It may be that you have discovered a means to confound all the prisoner’s denials. At all events, this is certainly a proof of surprising sagacity on your part.”

So it must have been, for Goguet, the clerk, nodded approvingly. “Capital!” he murmured. “I should never have thought of that.”

While he was talking, M. Segmuller had carefully placed all the so-called “articles of conviction” in a large drawer, from which they would not emerge until the trial. “Now,” said he, “I understand the case well enough to examine the Widow Chupin. We may gain some information from her.”

He was laying his hand upon the bell, when Lecoq stopped him with an almost supplicating gesture. “I have one great favor to ask you, sir,” he observed.

“What is it? — speak.”

“I should very much like to be present at this examination. It takes so little, sometimes, to awaken a happy inspiration.”

Although the law says that the accused shall first of all be privately examined by the investigating magistrate assisted by his clerk, it also allows the presence of police agents. Accordingly, M. Segmuller told Lecoq that he might remain. At the same time he rang his bell; which was speedily answered by a messenger.

“Has the Widow Chupin been brought here, in compliance with my orders?” asked M. Segmuller.

“Yes, sir; she is in the gallery outside.”

“Let her come in then.”

An instant later the hostess of the Poivriere entered the room, bowing to the right and to the left. This was not her first appearance before a magistrate, and she was not ignorant of the respect that is due to justice. Accordingly, she had arrayed herself for her examination with the utmost care. She had arranged her rebellious gray locks in smooth bandeaux, and her garments, although of common material, looked positively neat. She had even persuaded one of the prison warders to buy her — with the money she had about her at the time of her arrest — a black crape cap, and a couple of white pocket-handkerchiefs, intending to deluge the latter with her tears, should the situation call for a pathetic display.

She was indeed far too knowing to rely solely on the mere artifices of dress; hence, she had also drawn upon her repertoire of grimaces for an innocent, sad, and yet resigned expression, well fitted, in her opinion, to win the sympathy and indulgence of the magistrate upon whom her fate would depend.

Thus disguised, with downcast eyes and honeyed voice, she looked so unlike the terrible termagant of the Poivriere, that her customers would scarcely have recognized her. Indeed, an honest old bachelor might have offered her twenty francs a month to take charge of his chambers — solely on the strength of her good looks. But M. Segmuller had unmasked so many hypocrites that he was not deceived for a moment. “What an old actress!” he muttered to himself, and, glancing at Lecoq, he perceived the same thought sparkling in the young detective’s eyes. It is true that the magistrate’s penetration may have been due to some notes he had just perused — notes containing an abstract of the woman’s former life, and furnished by the chief of police at the magistrate’s request.

With a gesture of authority M. Segmuller warned Goguet, the clerk with the silly smile, to get his writing materials ready. He then turned toward the Widow Chupin. “Your name?” he asked in a sharp tone.

“Aspasie Claperdty, my maiden name,” replied the old woman, “and to-day, the Widow Chupin, at your service, sir;” so saying, she made a low courtesy, and then added: “A lawful widow, you understand, sir; I have my marriage papers safe in my chest at home; and if you wish to send any one —”

“Your age?” interrupted the magistrate.

“Fifty-four.”

“Your profession?”

“Dealer in wines and spirits outside of Paris, near the Rue du Chateau-des-Rentiers, just beyond the fortifications.”

A prisoner’s examination always begins with these questions as to individuality, which gives both the magistrate and the culprit time to study each other, to try, as it were, each other’s strength, before joining in a serious struggle; just as two duelists, about to engage in mortal combat, first try a few passes with the foils.

“Now,” resumed M. Segmuller, “we will note your antecedents. Have you not already been found guilty of several offenses?”

The Widow Chupin was too well versed in criminal procedure to be ignorant of those famous records which render the denial of identity such a difficult matter in France. “I have been unfortunate, my good judge,” she whined.

“Yes, several times. First of all, you were arrested on a charge of receiving stolen goods.”

“But it was proved that I was innocent, that my character was whiter than snow. My poor, dear husband had been deceived by his comrades; that was all.”

“Possibly. But while your husband was undergoing his sentence, you were condemned, first to one month’s and then to three months’ imprisonment for stealing.”

“Oh, I had some enemies who did their best to ruin me.”

“Next you were imprisoned for having led some young girls astray.”

“They were good-for-nothing hussies, my kind sir, heartless, unprincipled creatures. I did them many favors, and then they went and related a batch of falsehoods to ruin me. I have always been too kind and considerate toward others.”

The list of the woman’s offenses was not exhausted, but M. Segmuller thought it useless to continue. “Such is your past,” he resumed. “At the present time your wine-shop is the resort of rogues and criminals. Your son is undergoing his fourth term of imprisonment; and it has been clearly proved that you abetted and assisted him in his evil deeds. Your daughter-in-law, by some miracle, has remained honest and industrious, hence you have tormented and abused her to such an extent that the authorities have been obliged to interfere. When she left your house you tried to keep her child — no doubt meaning to bring it up after the same fashion as its father.”

“This,” thought the Widow Chupin, “is the right moment to try and soften the magistrate’s heart.” Accordingly, she drew one of her new handkerchiefs from her pocket, and, by dint of rubbing her eyes, endeavored to extract a tear. “Oh, unhappy me,” she groaned. “How can any one imagine that I would harm my grandson, my poor little Toto! Why, I should be worse than a wild beast to try and bring my own flesh and blood to perdition.”

She soon perceived, however, that her lamentations did not much affect M. Segmuller, hence, suddenly changing both her tone and manner, she began her justification. She did not positively deny her past; but she threw all the blame on the injustice of destiny, which, while favoring a few, generally the less deserving, showed no mercy to others. Alas! she was one of those who had had no luck in life, having always been persecuted, despite her innocence. In this last affair, for instance, how was she to blame? A triple murder had stained her shop with blood; but the most respectable establishments are not exempt from similar catastrophes. During her solitary confinement, she had, said she, dived down into the deepest recesses of her conscience, and she was still unable to discover what blame could justly be laid at her door.

“I can tell you,” interrupted the magistrate. “You are accused of impeding the action of the law.”

“Good heavens! Is it possible?”

“And of seeking to defeat justice. This is equivalent to complicity, Widow Chupin; take care. When the police entered your cabin, after this crime had been committed, you refused to answer their questions.”

“I told them all that I knew.”

“Very well, then, you must repeat what you told them to me.”

M. Segmuller had reason to feel satisfied. He had conducted the examination in such a way that the Widow Chupin would now have to initiate a narrative of the tragedy. This excellent point gained; for this shrewd old woman, possessed of all her coolness, would naturally have been on her guard against any direct questions. Now, it was essential that she should not suspect either what the magistrate knew of the affair, or what he was ignorant of. By leaving her to her own devices she might, in the course of the version which she proposed to substitute for the truth, not merely strengthen Lecoq’s theories, but also let fall some remark calculated to facilitate the task of future investigation. Both M. Segmuller and Lecoq were of opinion that the version of the crime which they were about to hear had been concocted at the station-house of the Place d’Italie while the murderer and the spurious drunkard were left together, and that it had been transmitted by the accomplice to the widow during the brief conversation they were allowed to have through the wicket of the latter’s cell.

Invited by the magistrate to recount the circumstances of the tragedy, Mother Chupin did not hesitate for a moment. “Oh, it was a very simple affair, my good sir,” she began. “I was sitting by my fireside on Sunday evening, when suddenly the door opened, and three men and two women came in.”

M. Segmuller and the young detective exchanged glances. The accomplice had evidently seen Lecoq and his comrade examining the footprints, and accordingly the presence of the two women was not to be denied.

“What time was this?” asked the magistrate.

“About eleven o’clock.”

“Go on.”

“As soon as they sat down they ordered a bowl of wine, a la Frangaise. Without boasting, I may say that I haven’t an equal in preparing that drink. Of course, I waited on them, and afterward, having a blouse to mend for my boy, I went upstairs to my room, which is just over the shop.”

“Leaving the people alone?”

“Yes, my judge.”

“That showed a great deal of confidence on your part.”

The widow sadly shook her head. “People as poor as I am don’t fear the thieves,” she sighed.

“Go on — go on.”

“Well, I had been upstairs about half an hour, when I heard some one below call out: ‘Eh! old woman!’ So I went down, and found a tall, big-bearded man, who had just come in. He asked for a glass of brandy, which I brought to a table where he had sat down by himself.”

“And then did you go upstairs again?” interrupted the magistrate.

The exclamation was ironical, of course, but no one could have told from the Widow Chupin’s placid countenance whether she was aware that such was the case.

“Precisely, my good sir,” she replied in the most composed manner. “Only this time I had scarcely taken up my needle when I heard a terrible uproar in the shop. I hurried downstairs to put a stop to it — but heaven knows my interference would have been of little use. The three men who had come in first of all had fallen upon the newcomer, and they were beating him, my good sir, they were killing him. I screamed. Just then the man who had come in alone drew a revolver from his pocket; he fired and killed one of his assailants, who fell to the ground. I was so frightened that I crouched on the staircase and threw my apron over my head that I might not see the blood run. An instant later Monsieur Gevrol arrived with his men; they forced open the door, and behold —”

The Widow Chupin here stopped short. These wretched old women, who have trafficked in every sort of vice, and who have tasted every disgrace, at times attain a perfection of hypocrisy calculated to deceive the most subtle penetration. Any one unacquainted with the antecedents of the landlady of the Poivriere would certainly have been impressed by her apparent candor, so skillfully did she affect a display of frankness, surprise, and fear. Her expression would have been simply perfect, had it not been for her eyes, her small gray eyes, as restless as those of a caged animal, and gleaming at intervals with craftiness and cunning.

There she stood, mentally rejoicing at the success of her narrative, for she was convinced that the magistrate placed implicit confidence in her revelations, although during her recital, delivered, by the way, with conjurer-like volubility, not a muscle of M. Segmuller’s face had betrayed what was passing in his mind. When she paused, out of breath, he rose from his seat, and without a word approached his clerk to inspect the notes taken during the earlier part of the examination.

From the corner where he was quietly seated, Lecoq did not cease watching the prisoner. “She thinks that it’s all over,” he muttered to himself; “she fancies that her deposition is accepted without question.”

If such were, indeed, the widow’s opinion, she was soon to be undeceived; for, after addressing a few low-spoken words to the smiling Goguet, M. Segmuller took a seat near the fireplace, convinced that the moment had now come to abandon defensive tactics, and open fire on the enemy’s position.

“So, Widow Chupin,” he began, “you tell us that you didn’t remain for a single moment with the people who came into your shop that evening!”

“Not a moment.”

“They came in and ordered what they wanted; you waited on them, and then left them to themselves?”

“Yes, my good sir.”

“It seems to me impossible that you didn’t overhear some words of their conversation. What were they talking about?”

“I am not in the habit of playing spy over my customers.”

“Didn’t you hear anything?”

“Nothing at all.”

The magistrate shrugged his shoulders with an air of commiseration. “In other words,” he remarked, “you refuse to inform justice —”

“Oh, my good sir!”

“Allow me to finish. All these improbable stories about leaving the shop and mending your son’s clothes in your bedroom are so many inventions. You have concocted them so as to be able to say to me: ‘I didn’t see anything; I didn’t hear anything.’ If such is your system of defense, I warn you that it will be impossible for you to maintain it, and I may add that it would not be admitted by any tribunal.”

“It is not a system of defense; it is the truth.”

M. Segmuller seemed to reflect for a moment; then, suddenly, he exclaimed: “Then you have nothing to tell me about this miserable assassin?”

“But he is not an assassin, my good sir.”

“What do you mean by such an assertion?”

“I mean that he only killed the others in protecting himself. They picked a quarrel with him; he was alone against three, and saw very plainly that he could expect no mercy from brigands who —”

The color rose to the Widow Chupin’s cheeks, and she suddenly checked herself, greatly embarrassed, and evidently regretting that she had not bridled her tongue. It is true she might reasonably hope, that the magistrate had imperfectly heard her words, and had failed to seize their full purport, for two or three red-hot coals having fallen from the grate on the hearth, he had taken up the tongs, and seemed to be engrossed in the task of artistically arranging the fire.

“Who can tell me — who can prove to me that, on the contrary, it was not this man who first attacked the others?” he murmured, thoughtfully.

“I can,” stoutly declared the widow, already forgetful of her prudent hesitation, “I can swear it.”

M. Segmuller looked up, intense astonishment written upon his face. “How can you know that?” he said slowly. “How can you swear it? You were in your bedroom when the quarrel began.”

Silent and motionless in his corner, Lecoq was inwardly jubilant. This was a most happy result, he thought, but a few questions more, and the old woman would be obliged to contradict herself. What she had already said sufficed to show that she must have a secret interest in the matter, or else she would never have been so imprudently earnest in defending the prisoner.

“However, you have probably been led to this conclusion by your knowledge of the murderer’s character,” remarked M. Segmuller, “you are apparently well acquainted with him.”

“Oh, I had never set eyes on him before that evening.”

“But he must have been in your establishment before?”

“Never in his life.”

“Oh, oh! Then how do you explain that on entering the shop while you were upstairs, this unknown person — this stranger — should have called out: ‘Here, old woman!’ Did he merely guess that the establishment was kept by a woman; and that this woman was no longer young?”

“He did not say that.”

“Reflect a moment; you, yourself just told me so.”

“Oh, I didn’t say that, I’m sure, my good sir.”

“Yes, you did, and I will prove it by having your evidence read. Goguet, read the passage, if you please.”

The smiling clerk looked back through his minutes and then, in his clearest voice, he read these words, taken down as they fell from the Widow Chupin’s lips: “I had been upstairs about half an hour, when I heard some one below call out ‘Eh! old woman.’ So I went down,” etc., etc.

“Are you convinced?” asked M. Segmuller.

The old offender’s assurance was sensibly diminished by this proof of her prevarication. However, instead of discussing the subject any further, the magistrate glided over it as if he did not attach much importance to the incident.

“And the other men,” he resumed, “those who were killed: did you know them?”

“No, good sir, no more than I knew Adam and Eve.”

“And were you not surprised to see three men utterly unknown to you, and accompanied by two women, enter your establishment?”

“Sometimes chance —”

“Come! you do not think of what you are saying. It was not chance that brought these customers, in the middle of the night, to a wine-shop with a reputation like yours — an establishment situated far from any frequented route in the midst of a desolate waste.”

“I’m not a sorceress; I say what I think.”

“Then you did not even know the youngest of the victims, the man who was attired as a soldier, he who was named Gustave?”

“Not at all.”

M. Segmuller noted the intonation of this response, and then slowly added: “But you must have heard of one of Gustave’s friends, a man called Lacheneur?”

On hearing this name, the landlady of the Poivriere became visibly embarrassed, and it was in an altered voice that she stammered: “Lacheneur! Lacheneur! no, I have never heard that name mentioned.”

Still despite her denial, the effect of M. Segmuller’s remark was evident, and Lecoq secretly vowed that he would find this Lacheneur, at any cost. Did not the “articles of conviction” comprise a letter sent by this man to Gustave, and written, so Lecoq had reason to believe, in a cafe on the Boulevard Beaumarchais? With such a clue and a little patience, the mysterious Lacheneur might yet be discovered.

“Now,” continued M. Segmuller, “let us speak of the women who accompanied these unfortunate men. What sort of women were they?”

“Oh! women of no account whatever!”

“Were they well dressed?”

“On the contrary, very miserably.”

“Well, give me a description of them.”

“They were tall and powerfully built, and indeed, as it was Shrove Sunday, I first of all took them for men in disguise. They had hands like shoulders of mutton, gruff voices, and very black hair. They were as dark as mulattoes —”

“Enough!” interrupted the magistrate, “I require no further proof of your mendacity. These women were short, and one of them was remarkably fair.”

“I swear to you, my good sir —”

“Do not declare it upon oath. I shall be forced to confront you with an honest man, who will tell you to your face that you are a liar!”

The widow did not reply, and there was a moment’s silence. M. Segmuller determined to deal a decisive blow. “Do you also affirm that you had nothing of a compromising character in the pocket of your apron?” he asked.

“Nothing — you may have it examined; it was left in the house.”

“Then you still persist in your system,” resumed M. Segmuller. “Believe me, you are wrong. Reflect — it rests with you to go to the Assize Court as a witness, or an accomplice.”

Although the widow seemed crushed by this unexpected blow, the magistrate did not add another word. Her deposition was read over to her, she signed it, and was then led away.

M. Segmuller immediately seated himself at his desk, filled up a blank form and handed it to his clerk, saying: “This is an order for the governor of the Depot. Tell him to send the supposed murderer here at once.”

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