Monsieur Lecoq, by Émile Gaboriau


When a heavy stone is thrown into a lake a considerable commotion ensues, the water spouts and seethes and bubbles and frequently a tall jet leaps into the air. But all this agitation only lasts for a moment; the bubbling subsides as the circles of the passing whirlpool grow larger and larger; the surface regains at last its customary smoothness; and soon no trace remains of the passage of the stone, now buried in the depths below.

So it is with the events of our daily life, however momentous they may appear at the hour of their occurrence. It seems as if their impressions would last for years; but no, they speedily sink into the depths of the past, and time obliterates their passage — just as the water of the lake closes over and hides the stone, for an instant the cause of such commotion. Thus it was that at the end of a fortnight the frightful crime committed in the Widow Chupin’s drinking-den, the triple murder which had made all Paris shudder, which had furnished the material for so many newspaper articles, and the topic for such indignant comments, was completely forgotten. Indeed, had the tragedy at the Poivriere occurred in the times of Charlemagne, it could not have passed more thoroughly out of people’s minds. It was remembered only in three places, at the Depot, at the Prefecture de Police, and at the Palais de Justice.

M. Segmuller’s repeated efforts had proved as unsuccessful as Lecoq’s. Skilful questioning, ingenious insinuations, forcible threats, and seductive promises had proved powerless to overcome the dogged spirit of absolute denial which persistently animated, not merely the prisoner May, but also the Widow Chupin, her son Polyte, Toinon the Virtuous, and Madame Milner. The evidence of these various witnesses showed plainly enough that they were all in league with the mysterious accomplice; but what did this knowledge avail? Their attitude never varied! And, even if at times their looks gave the lie to their denials, one could always read in their eyes an unshaken determination to conceal the truth.

There were moments when the magistrate, overpowered by a sense of the insufficiency of the purely moral weapons at his disposal, almost regretted that the Inquisition was suppressed. Yes, in presence of the lies that were told him, lies so impudent that they were almost insults, he no longer wondered at the judicial cruelties of the Middle Ages, or at the use of the muscle-breaking rack, the flesh-burning, red-hot pincers, and other horrible instruments, which, by the physical torture they inflicted, forced the most obstinate culprit to confess. The prisoner May’s manner was virtually unaltered; and far from showing any signs of weakness, his assurance had, if anything, increased, as though he were confident of ultimate victory and as though he had in some way learned that the prosecution had failed to make the slightest progress.

On one occasion, when summoned before M. Segmuller, he ventured to remark in a tone of covert irony: “Why do you keep me confined so long in a secret cell? Am I never to be set at liberty or sent to the assizes. Am I to suffer much longer on account of your fantastic idea that I am some great personage in disguise?”

“I shall keep you until you have confessed,” was M. Segmuller’s answer.

“Confessed what?”

“Oh! you know very well.”

The prisoner shrugged his shoulders at these last words, and then in a tone of mingled despondency and mockery retorted: “In that case there is no hope of my ever leaving this cursed prison!”

It was probably this conviction that induced him to make all seeming preparations for an indefinite stay. He applied for and obtained a portion of the contents of the trunk found at the Hotel de Mariembourg, and evinced great joy when the various knickknacks and articles of clothing were handed over to him. Thanks to the money found upon his person when arrested, and deposited with the prison registrar, he was, moreover, able to procure many little luxuries, which are never denied to unconvicted prisoners, no matter what may be the charges against them, for they have a right to be considered as innocent until a jury has decided to the contrary. To while away the time, May next asked for a volume of Beranger’s songs, and his request being granted, he spent most of the day in learning several of the ditties by heart, singing them in a loud voice and with considerable taste. This fancy having excited some comment, he pretended that he was cultivating a talent which might be useful to him when he was set at liberty. For he had no doubt of his acquittal; at least, so he declared; and if he were anxious about the date of his trial, he did not show the slightest apprehension concerning its result.

He was never despondent save when he spoke of his profession. To all appearance he pined for the stage, and, in fact, he almost wept when he recalled the fantastic, many-colored costumes, clad in which he had once appeared before crowded audiences — audiences that had been convulsed with laughter by his sallies of wit, delivered between bursts of noisy music. He seemed to have become altogether a better fellow; more frank, communicative, and submissive. He eagerly embraced every opportunity to babble about his past, and over and over again did he recount the adventures of the roving life he had led while in the employ of M. Simpson, the showman. He had, of course, traveled a great deal; and he remembered everything he had seen; possessing, moreover, an inexhaustible fund of amusing stories, with which he entertained his custodians. His manner and his words were so natural that head keepers and subordinate turnkeys alike were quite willing to give credit to his assertions.

The governor of the Depot alone remained unconvinced. He had declared that this pretended buffoon must be some dangerous criminal who had escaped from Cayenne, and who for this reason was determined to conceal his antecedents. Such being this functionary’s opinion, he tried every means to substantiate it. Accordingly, during an entire fortnight, May was submitted to the scrutiny of innumerable members of the police force, to whom were added all the more notable private detectives of the capital. No one recognized him, however, and although his photograph was sent to all the prisons and police stations of the empire, not one of the officials could recognize his features.

Other circumstances occurred, each of which had its influence, and one and all of them speaking in the prisoner’s favor. For instance, the second bureau of the Prefecture de Police found positive traces of the existence of a strolling artist, named Tringlot, who was probably the man referred to in May’s story. This Tringlot had been dead several years. Then again, inquiries made in Germany revealed the fact that a certain M. Simpson was very well known in that country, where he had achieved great celebrity as a circus manager.

In presence of this information and the negative result of the scrutiny to which May had been subjected, the governor of the Depot abandoned his views and openly confessed that he had been mistaken. “The prisoner, May,” he wrote to the magistrate, “is really and truly what he pretends to be. There can be no further doubt on the subject.” This message, it may be added, was sent at Gevrol’s instigation.

So thus it was that M. Segmuller and Lecoq alone remained of their opinion. This opinion was at least worthy of consideration, as they alone knew all the details of the investigation which had been conducted with such strict secrecy; and yet this fact was of little import. It is not merely unpleasant, but often extremely dangerous to struggle on against all the world, and unfortunately for truth and logic one man’s opinion, correct though it may be, is nothing in the balance of daily life against the faulty views of a thousand adversaries.

The “May affair” had soon become notorious among the members of the police force; and whenever Lecoq appeared at the Prefecture he had to brave his colleagues’ sarcastic pleasantry. Nor did M. Segmuller escape scot free; for more than one fellow magistrate, meeting him on the stairs or in the corridor, inquired, with a smile, what he was doing with his Casper Hauser, his man in the Iron Mask, in a word, with his mysterious mountebank. When thus assailed, both M. Segmuller and Lecoq could scarcely restrain those movements of angry impatience which come naturally to a person who feels certain he is in the right and yet can not prove it.

“Ah, me!” sometimes exclaimed the magistrate, “why did D’Escorval break his leg? Had it not been for that cursed mishap, he would have been obliged to endure all these perplexities, and I— I should be enjoying myself like other people.”

“And I thought myself so shrewd!” murmured the young detective by his side.

Little by little anxiety did its work. Magistrate and detective both lost their appetites and looked haggard; and yet the idea of yielding never once occurred to them. Although of very different natures, they were both determined to persevere in the task they had set themselves — that of solving this tantalizing enigma. Lecoq, indeed, had resolved to renounce all other claims upon his time, and to devote himself entirely to the study of the case. “Henceforth,” he said to M. Segmuller, “I also will constitute myself a prisoner; and although the suspected murderer will be unable to see me, I shall not lose sight of him!”

It so happened that there was a loft between the cell occupied by May and the roof of the prison, a loft of such diminutive proportions that a man of average height could not stand upright in it. This loft had neither window nor skylight, and the gloom would have been intense, had not a few faint sun-rays struggled through the interstices of some ill-adjusted tiles. In this unattractive garret Lecoq established himself one fine morning, just at the hour when May was taking his daily walk in the courtyard of the prison accompanied by a couple of keepers. Under these circumstances there was no fear of Lecoq’s movements attracting the prisoner’s notice or suspicion. The garret had a paved floor, and first of all the young detective removed one of the stones with a pickax he had brought for the purpose. Beneath this stone he found a timber beam, through which he next proceeded to bore a hole of funnel shape, large at the top and gradually dwindling until on piercing the ceiling of the cell it was no more than two-thirds of an inch in diameter. Prior to commencing his operations, Lecoq had visited the prisoner’s quarters and had skilfully chosen the place of the projected aperture, so that the stains and graining of the beam would hide it from the view of any one below. He was yet at work when the governor of the Depot and his rival Gevrol appeared upon the threshold of the loft.

“So this is to be your observatory, Monsieur Lecoq!” remarked Gevrol, with a sneering laugh.

“Yes, sir.”

“You will not be very comfortable here.”

“I shall be less uncomfortable than you suppose; I have brought a large blanket with me, and I shall stretch myself out on the floor and manage to sleep here.”

“So that, night and day, you will have your eye on the prisoner?”

“Yes, night and day.”

“Without giving yourself time to eat or drink?” inquired Gevrol.

“Excuse me! Father Absinthe will bring me my meals, execute any errand I may have, and relieve me at times if necessary.”

The jealous General laughed; but his laugh, loud as it was, was yet a trifle constrained. “Well, I pity you,” he said.

“Very possibly.”

“Do you know what you will look like, with your eye glued to that hole?”

“Like what? Tell me, we needn’t stand on ceremony.”

“Ah, well! You will look just like one of those silly naturalists who put all sorts of little insects under a magnifying glass, and spend their lives in watching them.”

Lecoq had finished his work; and rose from his kneeling position. “You couldn’t have found a better comparison, General,” said he. “I owe my idea to those very naturalists you speak about so slightingly. By dint of studying those little creatures — as you say — under a microscope, these patient, gifted men discover the habits and instincts of the insect world. Very well, then. What they can do with an insect, I will do with a man!”

“Oh, ho!” said the governor of the prison, considerably astonished.

“Yes; that’s my plan,” continued Lecoq. “I want to learn this prisoner’s secret; and I will do so. That I’ve sworn; and success must be mine, for, however strong his courage may be, he will have his moments of weakness, and then I shall be present at them. I shall be present if ever his will fails him, if, believing himself alone, he lets his mask fall, or forgets his part for an instant, if an indiscreet word escapes him in his sleep, if his despair elicits a groan, a gesture, or a look — I shall be there to take note of it.” The tone of resolution with which the young detective spoke made a deep impression upon the governor’s mind. For an instant he was a believer in Lecoq’s theory; and he was impressed by the strangeness of this conflict between a prisoner, determined to preserve the secret of his identity, and the agent for the prosecution, equally determined to wrest it from him. “Upon my word, my boy, you are not wanting in courage and energy,” said he.

“Misdirected as it may be,” growled Gevrol, who, although he spoke very slowly and deliberately, was in his secret soul by no means convinced of what he said. Faith is contagious, and he was troubled in spite of himself by Lecoq’s imperturbable assurance. What if this debutant in the profession should be right, and he, Gevrol, the oracle of the Prefecture, wrong! What shame and ridicule would be his portion, then! But once again he inwardly swore that this inexperienced youngster could be no match for an old veteran like himself, and then added aloud: “The prefect of police must have more money than he knows what to do with, to pay two men for such a nonsensical job as this.”

Lecoq disdained to reply to this slighting remark. For more than a fortnight the General had profited of every opportunity to make himself as disagreeable as possible, and the young detective feared he would be unable to control his temper if the discussion continued. It would be better to remain silent, and to work and wait for success. To succeed would be revenge enough! Moreover, he was impatient to see these unwelcome visitors depart; believing, perhaps, that Gevrol was quite capable of attracting the prisoner’s attention by some unusual sound.

As soon as they went away, Lecoq hastily spread his blanket over the stones and stretched himself out upon it in such a position that he could alternately apply his eye and his ear to the aperture. In this position he had an admirable view of the cell below. He could see the door, the bed, the table, and the chair; only the small space near the window and the window itself were beyond his range of observation. He had scarcely completed his survey, when he heard the bolts rattle: the prisoner was returning from his walk. He seemed in excellent spirits, and was just completing what was, undoubtedly, a very interesting story, since the keeper who accompanied him lingered for a moment to hear the finish. Lecoq was delighted with the success of his experiment. He could hear as easily as he could see. Each syllable reached his ear distinctly, and he had not lost a single word of the recital, which was amusing, though rather coarse.

The turnkey soon left the cell; the bolts rattled once more, and the key grated in the lock. After walking once or twice across his cell, May took up his volume of Beranger and for an hour or more seemed completely engrossed in its contents. Finally, he threw himself down upon his bed. Here he remained until meal-time in the evening, when he rose and ate with an excellent appetite. He next resumed the study of his book, and did not go to bed until the lights were extinguished.

Lecoq knew well enough that during the night his eyes would not serve him, but he trusted that his ears might prove of use, hoping that some telltale word might escape the prisoner’s lips during his restless slumber. In this expectation he was disappointed. May tossed to and fro upon his pallet; he sighed, and one might have thought he was sobbing, but not a syllable escaped his lips. He remained in bed until very late the next morning; but on hearing the bell sound the hour of breakfast, eleven o’clock, he sprang from his couch with a bound, and after capering about his cell for a few moments, began to sing, in a loud and cheerful voice, the old ditty:

Sous ton manteau, libre et content, Je ris, je bois, sans gene —”

The prisoner did not stop singing until a keeper entered his cell carrying his breakfast. The day now beginning differed in no respect from the one that had preceded it, neither did the night. The same might be said of the next day, and of those which followed. To sing, to eat, to sleep, to attend to his hands and nails — such was the life led by this so-called buffoon. His manner, which never varied, was that of a naturally cheerful man terribly bored.

Such was the perfection of his acting that, after six days and nights of constant surveillance, Lecoq had detected nothing decisive, nor even surprising. And yet he did not despair. He had noticed that every morning, while the employees of the prison were busy distributing the prisoner’s food, May invariably began to sing the same ditty.

“Evidently this song is a signal,” thought Lecoq. “What can be going on there by the window I can’t see? I must know to-morrow.”

Accordingly on the following morning he arranged that May should be taken on his walk at half-past ten o’clock, and he then insisted that the governor should accompany him to the prisoner’s cell. That worthy functionary was not very well pleased with the change in the usual order of things. “What do you wish to show me?” he asked. “What is there so very curious to see?”

“Perhaps nothing,” replied Lecoq, “but perhaps something of great importance.”

Eleven o’clock sounding soon after, he began singing the prisoner’s song, and he had scarcely finished the second line, when a bit of bread, no larger than a bullet, adroitly thrown through the window, dropped at his feet.

A thunderbolt falling in May’s cell would not have terrified the governor as much as did this inoffensive projectile. He stood in silent dismay; his mouth wide open, his eyes starting from their sockets, as if he distrusted the evidence of his own senses. What a disgrace! An instant before he would have staked his life upon the inviolability of the secret cells; and now he beheld his prison dishonored.

“A communication! a communication!” he repeated, with a horrified air.

Quick as lightning, Lecoq picked up the missile. “Ah,” murmured he, “I guessed that this man was in communication with his friends.”

The young detective’s evident delight changed the governor’s stupor into fury. “Ah! my prisoners are writing!” he exclaimed, wild with passion. “My warders are acting as postmen! By my faith, this matter shall be looked into.”

So saying, he was about to rush to the door when Lecoq stopped him. “What are you going to do, sir?” he asked.

“I am going to call all the employees of this prison together, and inform them that there is a traitor among them, and that I must know who he is, as I wish to make an example of him. And if, in twenty-four hours from now, the culprit has not been discovered, every man connected with this prison shall be removed.”

Again he started to leave the room, and Lecoq, this time, had almost to use force to detain him. “Be calm, sir; be calm,” he entreated.

“I will punish —”

“Yes, yes — I understand that — but wait until you have regained your self-possession. It is quite possible that the guilty party may be one of the prisoners who assist in the distribution of food every morning.”

“What does that matter?”

“Excuse me, but it matters a great deal. If you noise this discovery abroad, we shall never discover the truth. The traitor will not be fool enough to confess his guilt. We must be silent and wait. We will keep a close watch and detect the culprit in the very act.”

These objections were so sensible that the governor yielded. “So be it,” he sighed, “I will try and be patient. But let me see the missive that was enclosed in this bit of bread.”

Lecoq could not consent to this proposal. “I warned M. Segmuller,” said he, “that there would probably be something new this morning; and he will be waiting for me in his office. We must only examine the letter in his presence.”

This remark was so correct that the governor assented; and they at once started for the Palais de Justice. On their way, Lecoq endeavored to convince his companion that it was wrong to deplore a circumstance which might be of incalculable benefit to the prosecution. “It was an illusion,” said he, “to imagine that the governor of a prison could be more cunning than the prisoners entrusted to him. A prisoner is almost always a match in ingenuity for his custodians.”

The young detective had not finished speaking when they reached the magistrate’s office. Scarcely had Lecoq opened the door than M. Segmuller and his clerk rose from their seats. They both read important intelligence in our hero’s troubled face. “What is it?” eagerly asked the magistrate. Lecoq’s sole response was to lay the pellet of bread upon M. Segmuller’s desk. In an instant the magistrate had opened it, extracting from the centre a tiny slip of the thinnest tissue paper. This he unfolded, and smoothed upon the palm of his hand. As soon as he glanced at it, his brow contracted. “Ah! this note is written in cipher,” he exclaimed, with a disappointed air.

“We must not lose patience,” said Lecoq quietly. He took the slip of paper from the magistrate and read the numbers inscribed upon it. They ran as follows: “235, 15, 3, 8, 25, 2, 16, 208, 5, 360, 4, 36, 19, 7, 14, 118, 84, 23, 9, 40, 11, 99.”

“And so we shall learn nothing from this note,” murmured the governor.

“Why not?” the smiling clerk ventured to remark. “There is no system of cipher which can not be read with a little skill and patience; there are some people who make it their business.”

“You are right,” said Lecoq, approvingly. “And I, myself, once had the knack of it.”

“What!” exclaimed the magistrate; “do you hope to find the key to this cipher?”

“With time, yes.”

Lecoq was about to place the paper in his breast-pocket, when the magistrate begged him to examine it a little further. He did so; and after a while his face suddenly brightened. Striking his forehead with his open palm, he cried: “I’ve found it!”

An exclamation of incredulous surprise simultaneously escaped the magistrate, the governor, and the clerk.

“At least I think so,” added Lecoq, more cautiously. “If I am not mistaken, the prisoner and his accomplice have adopted a very simple system called the double book-cipher. The correspondents first agree upon some particular book; and both obtain a copy of the same edition. When one desires to communicate with the other, he opens the book haphazard, and begins by writing the number of the page. Then he must find on the same page the words that will express his thoughts. If the first word he wishes to write is the twentieth on the page, he places number 20 after the number of the page; then he begins to count one, two, three, and so on, until he finds the next word he wishes to use. If this word happens to be the sixth, he writes the figure 6, and he continues so on till he has finished his letter. You see, now, how the correspondent who receives the note must begin. He finds the page indicated, and then each figure represents a word.”

“Nothing could be clearer,” said the magistrate, approvingly.

“If this note,” pursued Lecoq, “had been exchanged between two persons at liberty, it would be folly to attempt its translation. This simple system is the only one which has completely baffled inquisitive efforts, simply because there is no way of ascertaining the book agreed upon. But in this instance such is not the case; May is a prisoner, and he has only one book in his possession, ‘The Songs of Beranger.’ Let this book be sent for —”

The governor of the Depot was actually enthusiastic. “I will run and fetch it myself,” he interrupted.

But Lecoq, with a gesture, detained him. “Above all, sir,” said he, “take care that May doesn’t discover his book has been tampered with. If he has returned from his promenade, make some excuse to have him sent out of his cell again; and don’t allow him to return there while we are using his book.”

“Oh, trust me!” replied the governor, hastily leaving the room.

Less than a quarter of an hour afterward he returned, carrying in triumph a little volume in 32mo. With a trembling hand Lecoq turned to page 235, and began to count. The fifteenth word on the page was ‘I’; the third afterward, ‘have’; the eighth following, ‘told’; the twenty-fifth, ‘her’; the second, ‘your’; the sixteenth, ‘wishes.’ Hence, the meaning of those six numbers was: “I have told her your wishes.”

The three persons who had witnessed this display of shrewdness could not restrain their admiration. “Bravo! Lecoq,” exclaimed the magistrate. “I will no longer bet a hundred to one on May,” thought the smiling clerk.

But Lecoq was still busily engaged in deciphering the missive, and soon, in a voice trembling with gratified vanity, he read the entire note aloud. It ran as follows: “I have told her your wishes; she submits. Our safety is assured; we are waiting your orders to act. Hope! Courage!”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54