The Duc de Sairmeuse was one of those men who remain superior to all fortuitous circumstances, good or bad. He was a man of vast experience, and great natural shrewdness. His mind was quick to act, and fertile in resources. But when he found himself immured in the damp and loathsome station-house, after the terrible scenes at the Poivriere, he relinquished all hope.
Martial knew that Justice does not trust to appearances, and that when she finds herself confronted by a mystery, she does not rest until she has fathomed it.
Martial knew, only too well, that if his identity was established, the authorities would endeavor to discover the reason of his presence at the Poivriere. That this reason would soon be discovered, he could not doubt, and, in that case, the crime at the Borderie, and the guilt of the duchess, would undoubtedly be made public.
This meant the Court of Assizes, prison, a frightful scandal, dishonor, eternal disgrace!
And the power he had wielded in former days was a positive disadvantage to him now. His place was now filled by his political adversaries. Among them were two personal enemies upon whom he had inflicted those terrible wounds of vanity which are never healed. What an opportunity for revenge this would afford them!
At the thought of this ineffaceable stain upon the great name of Sairmeuse, which was his pride and his glory, reason almost forsook him.
“My God, inspire me,” he murmured. “How shall I save the honor of the name?”
He saw but one chance of salvation — death. They now believed him one of the miserable wretches that haunt the suburbs of Paris; if he were dead they would not trouble themselves about his identity.
“It is the only way!” he thought.
He was endeavoring to find some means of accomplishing his plan of self-destruction, when he heard a bustle and confusion outside. In a few moments the door was opened and a man was thrust into the same cell — a man who staggered a few steps, fell heavily to the floor, and began to snore loudly. It was only a drunken man.
But a gleam of hope illumined Martial’s heart, for in the drunken man he recognized Otto — disguised, almost unrecognizable.
It was a bold ruse and no time must be lost in profiting by it. Martial stretched himself upon a bench, as if to sleep, in such a way that his head was scarcely a yard from that of Otto.
“The duchess is out of danger,” murmured the faithful servant.
“For to-day, perhaps. But to-morrow, through me, all will be known.”
“Have you told them who you are?”
“No; all the policemen but one took me for a vagabond.”
“You must continue to personate this character.”
“What good will it do? Lacheneur will betray me.”
But Martial, though he little knew it, had no need to fear Lacheneur for the present, at least. A few hours before, on his way from the Rainbow to the Poivriere, Jean had been precipitated to the bottom of a stone quarry, and had fractured his skull. The laborers, on returning to their work early in the morning, found him lying there senseless; and at that very moment they were carrying him to the hospital.
Although Otto was ignorant of this circumstance, he did not seem discouraged.
“There will be some way of getting rid of Lacheneur,” said he, “if you will only sustain your present character. An escape is an easy matter when a man has millions at his command.”
“They will ask me who I am, whence I came, how I have lived.”
“You speak English and German; tell them that you have just returned from foreign lands; that you were a foundling and that you have always lived a roving life.”
“How can I prove this?”
Otto drew a little nearer his master, and said, impressively:
“We must agree upon our plans, for our success depends upon a perfect understanding between us. I have a sweetheart in Paris — and no one knows our relations. She is as sharp as steel. Her name is Milner, and she keeps the Hotel de Mariembourg, on the Saint-Quentin. You can say that you arrived here from Leipsic on Sunday; that you went to this hotel; that you left your trunk there, and that this trunk is marked with the name of May, foreign artist.”
“Capital!” said Martial, approvingly.
And then, with extraordinary quickness and precision, they agreed, point by point, upon their plan of defence.
When all had been arranged, Otto pretended to awake from the heavy sleep of intoxication; he clamored to be released, and the keeper finally opened the door and set him at liberty.
Before leaving the station-house, however, he succeeded in throwing a note to the Widow Chupin, who was imprisoned in the other compartment.
So, when Lecoq, after his skilful investigations at the Poivriere, rushed to the Place d’Italie, panting with hope and ambition, he found himself outwitted by these men, who were inferior to him in penetration, but whose finesse was superior to his own.
Martial’s plans being fully formed, he intended to carry them out with absolute perfection of detail, and, after his removal to prison, the Duc de Sairmeuse was preparing himself for the visit of the judge of instruction, when Maurice d’Escorval entered.
They recognized each other. They were both terribly agitated, and the examination was an examination only in name. After the departure of Maurice, Martial attempted to destroy himself. He had no faith in the generosity of his former enemy.
But when he found M. Segmuller occupying Maurice’s place the next morning, Martial believed that he was saved.
Then began that struggle between the judge and Lecoq on one side, and the accused on the other — a struggle from which neither party came out conqueror.
Martial knew that Lecoq was the only person he had to fear, still he bore him no ill-will. Faithful to his nature, which compelled him to be just even to his enemies, he could not help admiring the astonishing penetration and perseverance of this young policeman who, undismayed by the obstacles and discouragements that surrounded him, struggled on, unassisted, to reach the truth.
But Lecoq was always outwitted by Otto, the mysterious accomplice, who seemed to know his every movement in advance.
At the morgue, at the Hotel de Mariembourg, with Toinon, the wife of Polyte Chupin, as well as with Polyte Chupin himself, Lecoq was just a little too late.
Lecoq detected the secret correspondence between the prisoner and his accomplice. He was even ingenious enough to discover the key to it, but this served no purpose. A man, who had seen a rival, or rather, a future master, in Lecoq had betrayed him.
If his efforts to arrive at the truth through the jeweller and the Marquis d’Arlange had failed, it was only because Mme. Blanche had not purchased the diamond ear-rings she wore at the Poivriere at any shop, but from one of her friends, the Baroness de Watchau.
And lastly, if no one at Paris had missed the Duc de Sairmeuse, it was because — thanks to an understanding between the duchess, Otto, and Camille — no other inmate of the Hotel de Sairmeuse suspected his absence. All the servants supposed their master confined to his room by illness. They prepared all sorts of gruels and broths for him, and his breakfast and dinner were taken to his apartments every day.
So the weeks went by, and Martial was expecting to be summoned before the Court of Assizes and condemned under the name of May, when he was afforded an opportunity to escape.
Too shrewd not to discern the trap that had been set for him, he endured some moments of horrible hesitation in the prison-van.
He decided to accept the risk, however, commending himself to his lucky star.
And he decided wisely, for that same night he leaped his own garden-wall, leaving, as a hostage, in the hands of Lecoq, an escaped convict, Joseph Conturier by name, whom he had picked up in a low drinking-saloon.
Warned by Mme. Milner, thanks to a blunder on the part of Lecoq, Otto was awaiting his master.
In the twinkling of an eye Martial’s beard fell under the razor; he plunged into the bath that was awaiting him, and his clothing was burned.
And it was he who, during the search a few minutes later, had the hardihood to call out:
“Otto, by all means allow these men to do their duty.”
But he did not breathe freely until the agents of police had departed.
“At last,” he exclaimed, “honor is saved! We have outwitted Lecoq!”
He had just left the bath, and enveloped himself in a robe de chambre, when Otto handed him a letter from the duchess.
He hastily broke the seal and read:
“You are safe. You know all. I am dying. Farewell. I loved you.”
With two bounds he reached his wife’s apartments. The door was locked; he burst it open. Too late!
Mme. Blanche was dead — poisoned, like Marie-Anne; but she had procured a drug whose effect was instantaneous; and extended upon her couch, clad in her wonted apparel, her hands folded upon her breast, she seemed only asleep.
A tear glittered in Martial’s eye.
“Poor, unhappy woman!” he murmured; “may God forgive you as I forgive you — you whose crime has been so frightfully expiated here below!”
THE FIRST SUCCESS
Safe, in his own princely mansion, and surrounded by an army of retainers, the Duc de Sairmeuse triumphantly exclaimed:
“We have outwitted Lecoq.”
In this he was right.
But he thought himself forever beyond the reach of the wily, keen-witted detective; and in this he was wrong.
Lecoq was not the man to sit down with folded hands and brood over the humiliation of his defeat.
Before he went to Father Tabaret, he was beginning to recover from his stupor and despondency; and when he left that experienced detective’s presence, he had regained his courage, his command over his faculties, and sufficient energy to move the world, if necessary.
“Well, my good man,” he remarked to Father Absinthe, who was trotting along by his side, “you have heard what the great Monsieur Tabaret said, did you not? So you see I was right.”
But his companion evinced no enthusiasm.
“Yes, you were right,” he responded, in woebegone tones.
“Do you think we are ruined by two or three mistakes? Nonsense! I will soon turn our defeat of today into a glorious victory.”
“Ah! you might do so perhaps, if — they do not dismiss us from the force.”
This doleful remark recalled Lecoq to a realizing sense of the present situation.
They had allowed a prisoner to slip through their fingers. That was vexatious, it is true; but they had captured one of the most notorious of criminals — Joseph Conturier. Surely there was some comfort in that.
But while Lecoq could have borne dismissal, he could not endure the thought that he would not be allowed to follow up this affair of the Poivriere.
What would his superior officers say when he told them that May and the Duc de Sairmeuse were one and the same person?
They would, undoubtedly, shrug their shoulders and turn up their noses.
“Still, Monsieur Segmuller will believe me,” he thought. “But will he dare to take any action in the matter without incontrovertible evidence?”
This was very unlikely. Lecoq realized it all too well.
“Could we not make a descent upon the Hotel de Sairmeuse, and, on some pretext or other, compel the duke to show himself, and identify him as the prisoner May?”
He entertained this idea only for an instant, then abruptly dismissed it.
“A stupid expedient!” he exclaimed. “Are two such men as the duke and his accomplice likely to be caught napping? They are prepared for such a visit, and we should only have our labor for our pains.”
He made these reflections sotto voce; and Father Absinthe’s curiosity was aroused.
“Excuse me,” said he, “I did not quite understand you.”
“I say that we must find some tangible proof before asking permission to proceed further.”
He paused with knitted brows.
In seeking a circumstance which would establish the complicity between some member of the duke’s household and the witnesses who had been called upon to give their testimony, Lecoq thought of Mme. Milner, the owner of the Hotel de Mariembourg, and his first meeting with her.
He saw her again, standing upon a chair, her face on a level with a cage, covered with a large piece of black silk, persistently repeating three or four German words to a starling, who as persistently retorted: “Camille! Where is Camille?”
“One thing is certain,” resumed Lecoq; “if Madame Milner — who is a German and who speaks with the strongest possible German accent — had raised this bird, it would either have spoken German or with the same accent as its mistress. Therefore it cannot have been in her possession long, and who gave it to her?”
Father Absinthe began to grow impatient.
“In sober earnest, what are you talking about?” he asked, petulantly.
“I say that if there is someone at the Hotel de Sairmeuse named Camille, I have the proof I desire. Come, Papa Absinthe, let us hurry on.”
And without another word of explanation, he dragged his companion rapidly along.
When they reached the Rue de Crenelle, Lecoq saw a messenger leaning against the door of a wine-shop. Lecoq called him.
“Come, my boy,” said he; “I wish you to go to the Hotel de Sairmeuse and ask for Camille. Tell her that her uncle is waiting her here.”
“But, sir ——”
“What, you have not gone yet?”
The messenger departed; the two policemen entered the wine-shop, and Father Absinthe had scarcely had time to swallow a glass of brandy when the lad returned.
“Monsieur, I was unable to see Mademoiselle Camille. The house is closed from top to bottom. The duchess died very suddenly this morning.”
“Ah! the wretch!” exclaimed the young policeman.
Then, controlling himself, he mentally added:
“He must have killed his wife on returning home, but his fate is sealed. Now, I shall be allowed to continue my investigations.”
In less than twenty minutes they arrived at the Palais de Justice.
M. Segmuller did not seem to be immoderately surprised at Lecoq’s revelations. Still he listened with evident doubt to the young policeman’s ingenious deductions; it was the circumstance of the starling that seemed to decide him.
“Perhaps you are right, my dear Lecoq,” he said, at last; “and to tell the truth, I quite agree with you. But I can take no further action in the matter until you can furnish proof so convincing in its nature that the Duc de Sairmeuse will be unable to think of denying it.”
“Ah! sir, my superior officers will not allow me ——”
“On the contrary,” interrupted the judge, “they will allow you the fullest liberty after I have spoken to them.”
Such action on the part of M. Segmuller required not a little courage. There had been so much laughter about M. Segmuller’s grand seigneur, disguised as a clown, that many men would have sacrificed their convictions to the fear of ridicule.
“And when will you speak to them?” inquired Lecoq, timidly.
The judge had already turned toward the door when the young policeman stopped him.
“I have one more favor to ask, Monsieur,” he said, entreatingly. “You are so good; you are the first person who gave me any encouragement — who had faith in me.”
“Speak, my brave fellow.”
“Ah! Monsieur, will you not give me a message for Monsieur d’Escorval? Any insignificant message — inform him of the prisoner’s escape. I will be the bearer of the message, and then — Oh! fear nothing, Monsieur; I will be prudent.”
“Very well!” replied the judge.
When he left the office of his chief, Lecoq was fully authorized to proceed with his investigations, and in his pocket was a note for M. d’Escorval from M. Segmuller. His joy was so intense that he did not deign to notice the sneers which were bestowed upon him as he passed through the corridors. On the threshold his enemy Gevrol, the so-called general, was watching for him.
“Ah, ha!” he laughed, as Lecoq passed out, “here is one of those simpletons who fish for whales and do not catch even a gudgeon.”
For an instant Lecoq was angry. He turned abruptly and looked Gevrol full in the face.
“That is better than assisting prisoners to carry on a surreptitious correspondence with people outside,” he retorted, in the tone of a man who knows what he is saying.
In his surprise, Gevrol almost lost countenance, and his blush was equivalent to a confession.
But Lecoq said no more. What did it matter to him now if Gevrol had betrayed him! Was he not about to win a glorious revenge?
He spent the remainder of the day in preparing his plan of action, and in thinking what he should say when he took M. Segmuller’s note to Maurice d’Escorval.
The next morning about eleven o’clock he presented himself at the house of M. d’Escorval.
“Monsieur is in his study with a young man,” replied the servant; “but, as he gave me no orders to the contrary, you may go in.”
The study was unoccupied. But from the adjoining room, separated from the study only by a velvet portiere, came a sound of stifled exclamations, and of sobs mingled with kisses.
Not knowing whether to remain or retire, the young policeman stood for a moment undecided; then he observed an open letter lying upon the carpet.
Impelled to do it by an impulse stronger than his own will, Lecoq picked up the letter. It read as follows:
“The bearer of this letter is Marie-Anne’s son, Maurice — your son.
I have given him all the proofs necessary to establish his
identity. It was to his education that I consecrated the heritage
of my poor Marie-Anne.
“Those to whose care I confided him have made a noble man of him.
If I restore him to you, it is only because the life I lead is not
a fitting life for him. Yesterday, the miserable woman who
murdered my sister died from poison administered by her own hand.
Poor Marie-Anne! she would have been far more terribly avenged had
not an accident which happened to me, saved the Duc and the
Duchesse de Sairmeuse from the snare into which I had drawn them.
Lecoq stood as if petrified.
Now he understood the terrible drama which had been enacted in the Widow Chupin’s cabin.
“I must go to Sairmeuse at once,” he said to himself; “there I can discover all.”
He departed without seeing M. d’Escorval. He resisted the temptation to take the letter with him.
It was exactly one month to a day after the death of Mme. Blanche.
Reclining upon a divan in his library the Duc de Sairmeuse was engaged in reading, when Otto, his valet de chambre, came to inform him that a messenger was below, charged with delivering into the duke’s own hands a letter from M. Maurice d’Escorval.
With a bound, Martial was on his feet.
“Is it possible?” he exclaimed.
Then he added, quickly:
“Let the messenger enter.”
A large man, with a very florid complexion, and red hair and beard, timidly handed the duke a letter, he broke the seal, and read:
“I saved you, Monsieur, by not recognizing the prisoner, May. In
your turn, aid me! By noon, day after to-morrow, I must have two
hundred and sixty thousand francs.
“I have sufficient confidence in your honor to apply to you.
For a moment Martial stood bewildered, then, springing to a table, he began writing, without noticing that the messenger was looking over his shoulder:
“Monsieur — Not day after to-morrow, but this evening. My fortune
and my life are at your disposal. It is but a slight return for
the generosity you showed in retiring, when, beneath the rags of
May, you recognized your former enemy, now your devoted friend,
“Martial de Sairmeuse.”
He folded this letter with a feverish hand, and giving it to the messenger with a louis, he said:
“Here is the answer, make haste!”
But the messenger did not go.
He slipped the letter into his pocket, then with a hasty movement he cast his red beard and wig upon the floor.
“Lecoq!” exclaimed Martial, paler than death.
“Lecoq, yes, Monsieur,” replied the young detective. “I was obliged to take my revenge; my future depended upon it, and I ventured to imitate Monsieur d’Escorval’s writing.”
And as Martial made no response:
“I must also say to Monsieur le Duc,” he continued, “that on transmitting to the judge the confession written by the Duke’s own hand, of his presence at the Poivriere, I can and shall, at the same time, furnish proofs of his entire innocence.”
And to show that he was ignorant of nothing, he added:
“As madame is dead, there will be nothing said in regard to what took place at the Borderie.”
A week later a verdict of not guilty was rendered by M. Segmuller in the case of the Duc de Sairmeuse.
Appointed to the position he coveted, Lecoq had the good taste, or perhaps the shrewdness, to wear his honors modestly.
But on the day of his promotion, he ordered a seal, upon which was engraved the exultant rooster, which he had chosen as his armorial design, and a motto to which he ever remained faithful: Semper Vigilan.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54