Yet what a disappointment it produced after the fever of anxiety and expectation that had seized hold of everybody present. This strange epistle furnished no clue whatever to the mystery; and the ray of hope that had sparkled for an instant in M. Segmuller’s eyes speedily faded away. As for the versatile Goguet he returned with increased conviction to his former opinion, that the prisoner had the advantage over his accusers.
“How unfortunate,” remarked the governor of the Depot, with a shade of sarcasm in his voice, “that so much trouble, and such marvelous penetration, should be wasted!”
“So you think, sir, that I have wasted my time!” rejoined Lecoq in a tone of angry banter, a scarlet flush mantling at the same time over his features. “Such is not my opinion. This scrap of paper undeniably proves that if any one has been mistaken as regards the prisoner’s identity, it is certainly not I.”
“Very well,” was the reply. “M. Gevrol and myself may have been mistaken: no one is infallible. But have you learned anything more than you knew before? Have you made any progress?”
“Why, yes. Now that people know the prisoner is not what he pretends to be, instead of annoying and hampering me, perhaps they will assist us to discover who he really is.”
Lecoq’s tone, and his allusion to the difficulties he had encountered, cut the governor to the quick. The knowledge that the reproof was not altogether undeserved increased his resentment and determined him to bring this discussion with an inferior to an abrupt close. “You are right,” said he, sarcastically. “This May must be a very great and illustrious personage. Only, my dear Monsieur Lecoq (for there is an only), do me the favor to explain how such an important personage could disappear, and the police not be advised of it? A man of rank, such as you suppose this prisoner to be, usually has a family, friends, relatives, proteges, and numerous connections; and yet not a single person has made any inquiry during the three weeks that this fellow May has been under my charge! Come, admit you never thought of that.”
The governor had just advanced the only serious objection that could be found to the theory adopted by the prosecution. He was wrong, however, in supposing that Lecoq had failed to foresee it; for it had never once been out of the young detective’s mind; and he had racked his brain again and again to find some satisfactory explanation. At the present moment he would undoubtedly have made some angry retort to the governor’s sneering criticism, as people are wont to do when their antagonists discover the weak spot in their armor, had not M. Segmuller opportunely intervened.
“All these recriminations do no good,” he remarked, calmly; “we can make no progress while they continue. It would be much wiser to decide upon the course that is now to be pursued.”
Thus reminded of the present situation of affairs, the young detective smiled; all his rancor was forgotten. “There is, I think, but one course to pursue,” he replied in a modest tone; “and I believe it will be successful by reason of its simplicity. We must substitute a communication of our own composition for this one. That will not be at all difficult, since I have the key to the cipher. I shall only be obliged to purchase a similar volume of Beranger’s songs; and May, believing that he is addressing his accomplice, will reply in all sincerity — will reveal everything perhaps —”
“Excuse me!” interrupted the governor, “but how will you obtain possession of his reply?”
“Ah! you ask me too much. I know the way in which his letters have reached him. For the rest, I will watch and find a way — never fear!”
Goguet, the smiling clerk, could not conceal an approving grin. If he had happened to have ten francs in his pocket just then he would have risked them all on Lecoq without a moment’s hesitation.
“First,” resumed the young detective, “I will replace this missive by one of my own composition. To-morrow, at breakfast time, if the prisoner gives the signal, Father Absinthe shall throw the morsel of bread enclosing my note through the window while I watch the effect through the hole in the ceiling of the cell.”
Lecoq was so delighted with this plan of his that he at once rang the bell, and when the magistrate’s messenger appeared, he gave him half a franc and requested him to go at once and purchase some of the thinnest tissue paper. When this had been procured, Lecoq took his seat at the clerk’s desk, and, provided with the volume of Beranger’s songs, began to compose a fresh note, copying as closely as possible the forms of the figures used by the unknown correspondent. The task did not occupy him more than ten minutes, for, fearing lest he might commit some blunder, he reproduced most of the words of the original letter, giving them, however, an entirely different meaning.
When completed, his note read as follows: “I have told her your wishes; she does not submit. Our safety is threatened. We are awaiting your orders. I tremble.”
Having acquainted the magistrate with the purport of the note, Lecoq next rolled up the paper, and enclosing it in the fragment of bread, remarked: “To-morrow we shall learn something new.”
To-morrow! The twenty-four hours that separated the young man from the decisive moment he looked forward to seemed as it were a century; and he resorted to every possible expedient to hasten the passing of the time. At length, after giving precise instructions to Father Absinthe, he retired to his loft for the night. The hours seemed interminable, and such was his nervous excitement that he found it quite impossible to sleep. On rising at daybreak he discovered that the prisoner was already awake. May was sitting on the foot of his bed, apparently plunged in thought. Suddenly he sprang to his feet and paced restlessly to and fro. He was evidently in an unusually agitated frame of mind: for he gesticulated wildly, and at intervals repeated: “What misery! My God! what misery!”
“Ah! my fine fellow,” thought Lecoq, “you are anxious about the daily letter you failed to receive yesterday. Patience, patience! One of my writing will soon arrive.”
At last the young detective heard the stir usually preceding the distribution of the food. People were running to and fro, sabots clicked noisily in the corridors, and the keepers could be heard engaged in loud conversation. By and by the prison bell began to toll. It was eleven o’clock, and soon afterward the prisoner commenced to sing his favorite song:
“Diogene! Sous ton manteau, libre et content —”
Before he commenced the third line the slight sound caused by the fragment of bread as it fell upon the stone floor caused him to pause abruptly.
Lecoq, at the opening in the ceiling above, was holding his breath and watching with both eyes. He did not miss one of the prisoner’s movements — not so much as the quiver of an eyelid. May looked first at the window, and then all round the cell, as if it were impossible for him to explain the arrival of this projectile. It was not until some little time had elapsed that he decided to pick it up. He held it in the hollow of his hand, and examined it with apparent curiosity. His features expressed intense surprise, and any one would have sworn that he was innocent of all complicity. Soon a smile gathered round his lips, and after a slight shrug of the shoulders, which might be interpreted, “Am I a fool?” he hastily broke the pellet in half. The sight of the paper which it contained seemed to amaze him.
“What does all this mean?” wondered Lecoq.
The prisoner had opened the note, and was examining with knitted brows the figures which were apparently destitute of all meaning to him. Then, suddenly rushing to the door of his cell, and hammering upon it with clenched fists, he cried at the top of his voice: “Here! keeper! here!”
“What do you want?” shouted a turnkey, whose footsteps Lecoq could hear hastening along the adjoining passage.
“I wish to speak to the magistrate.”
“Very well. He shall be informed.”
“Immediately, if you please. I have a revelation to make.”
“He shall be sent for immediately.”
Lecoq waited to hear no more. He tore down the narrow staircase leading from the loft, and rushed to the Palais de Justice to acquaint M. Segmuller with what had happened.
“What can all this mean?” he wondered as he darted over the pavement. “Are we indeed approaching a denouement? This much is certain, the prisoner was not deceived by my note. He could only decipher it with the aid of his volume of Beranger, and he did not even touch the book; plainly, then, he hasn’t read the letter.”
M. Segmuller was no less amazed than the young detective. They both hastened to the prison, followed by the smiling clerk, who was the magistrate’s inevitable shadow. On their way they encountered the governor of the Depot, arriving all in a flutter, having been greatly excited by that important word “revelation.” The worthy official undoubtedly wished to express an opinion, but the magistrate checked him by the abrupt remark, “I know all about it, and I am coming.”
When they had reached the narrow corridor leading to the secret cells, Lecoq passed on in advance of the rest of the party. He said to himself that by stealing upon the prisoner unawares he might possibly find him engaged in surreptitiously reading the note. In any case, he would have an opportunity to glance at the interior of the cell. May was seated beside the table, his head resting on his hands. At the grating of the bolt, drawn by the governor himself, the prisoner rose to his feet, smoothed his hair, and remained standing in a respectful attitude, apparently waiting for the visitors to address him.
“Did you send for me?” inquired the magistrate.
“You have, I understand, some revelation to make to me.”
“I have something of importance to tell you.”
“Very well! these gentlemen will retire.”
M. Segmuller had already turned to Lecoq and the governor to request them to withdraw, when the prisoner motioned him not to do so.
“It is not necessary,” said May, “I am, on the contrary, very well pleased to speak before these gentlemen.”
May did not wait for the injunction to be repeated. Throwing his chest forward, and his head back as had been his wont throughout his examinations, whenever he wished to make an oratorical display, he began as follows: “It shall be for you to say, gentlemen, whether I’m an honest man or not. The profession matters little. One may, perhaps, act as the clown of a traveling show, and yet be an honest man — a man of honor.”
“Oh, spare us your reflections!”
“Very well, sir, that suits me exactly. To be brief, then here is a little paper which was thrown into my cell a few minutes ago. There are some numbers on it which may mean something; but I have examined them, and they are quite Greek to me.”
He paused, and then handing Lecoq’s missive to the magistrate, quietly added: “It was rolled up in a bit of bread.”
This declaration was so unexpected, that it struck all the officials dumb with surprise, but the prisoner, without seeming to notice the effect he had produced, placidly continued: “I suppose the person who threw it, made a mistake in the window. I know very well that it’s a mean piece of business to denounce a companion in prison. It’s a cowardly act and one may get into trouble by doing so; still, a fellow must be prudent when he’s charged with murder as I am, and with something very unpleasant, perhaps, in store for him.”
A terribly significant gesture of severing the head from the body left no doubt whatever as to what May meant by the “something very unpleasant.”
“And yet I am innocent,” continued May, in a sorrowful, reproachful tone.
The magistrate had by this time recovered the full possession of his faculties. Fixing his eyes upon the prisoner and concentrating in one magnetic glance all his power of will, he slowly exclaimed: “You speak falsely! It was for you that this note was intended.”
“For me! Then I must be the greatest of fools, or why should I have sent for you to show it you? For me? In that case, why didn’t I keep it? Who knew, who could know that I had received it?”
These words were uttered with such a marvelous semblance of honesty, May’s gaze was frank and open, his voice rang so true, and his reasoning was so specious, that all the governor’s doubts returned.
“And what if I could prove that you are uttering a falsehood?” insisted M. Segmuller. “What if I could prove it — here and now?”
“You would have to lie to do so! Oh! pardon! Excuse me; I mean —”
But the magistrate was not in a frame of mind to stickle for nicety of expression. He motioned May to be silent; and, turning to Lecoq, exclaimed: “Show the prisoner that you have discovered the key to his secret correspondence.”
A sudden change passed over May’s features. “Ah! it is this agent of police who says the letter was for me,” he remarked in an altered tone. “The same agent who asserts that I am a grand seigneur.” Then, looking disdainfully at Lecoq, he added: “Under these circumstances there’s no hope for me. When the police are absolutely determined that a man shall be found guilty, they contrive to prove his guilt; everybody knows that. And when a prisoner receives no letters, an agent, who wishes to show that he is corresponding knows well enough how to write to him.”
May’s features wore such an expression of marked contempt that Lecoq could scarcely refrain from making an angry reply. He restrained his impulse, however, in obedience to a warning gesture from the magistrate, and taking from the table the volume of Beranger’s songs, he endeavored to prove to the prisoner that each number in the note which he had shown M. Segmuller corresponded with a word on the page indicated, and that these various words formed several intelligible phrases. This overpowering evidence did not seem to trouble May in the least. After expressing the same admiration for this novel system of correspondence that a child would show for a new toy, he declared his belief that no one could equal the police in such machinations.
What could have been done in the face of such obstinacy? M. Segmuller did not even attempt to argue the point, but quietly retired, followed by his companions. Until they reached the governor’s office, he did not utter a word; then, sinking down into an armchair, he exclaimed: “We must confess ourselves beaten. This man will always remain what he is — an inexplicable enigma.”
“But what is the meaning of the comedy he has just played? I do not understand it at all,” remarked the governor.
“Why,” replied Lecoq, “don’t you see that he wished to persuade the magistrate that the first note, the one that fell into the cell while you and I were there yesterday, had been written by me in a mad desire to prove the truth of my theory at any cost? It was a hazardous project; but the importance of the result to be gained must have emboldened him to attempt it. Had he succeeded, I should have been disgraced; and he would have remained May — the stroller, without any further doubt as to his identity. But how could he know that I had discovered his secret correspondence, and that I was watching him from the loft overhead? That will probably never be explained.”
The governor and the young detective exchanged glances of mutual distrust. “Eh! eh!” thought the former, “yes, indeed, that note which fell into the cell while I was there the other day might after all have been this crafty fellow’s work. His Father Absinthe may have served him in the first instance just as he did subsequently.”
While these reflections were flitting through the governor’s mind, Lecoq suspiciously remarked to himself: “Who knows but what this fool of a governor confided everything to Gevrol? If he did so, the General, jealous as he is, would not have scrupled to play one such a damaging trick.”
His thoughts had gone no further when Goguet, the smiling clerk, boldly broke the silence with the trite remark: “What a pity such a clever comedy didn’t succeed.”
These words startled the magistrate from his reverie. “Yes, a shameful farce,” said he, “and one I would never have authorized, had I not been blinded by a mad longing to arrive at the truth. Such tricks only bring the sacred majesty of justice into contempt!”
At these bitter words, Lecoq turned white with anger. This was the second affront within an hour. The prisoner had first insulted him, and now it was the magistrate’s turn. “I am defeated,” thought he. “I must confess it. Fate is against me! Ah! if I had only succeeded!”
Disappointment alone had impelled M. Segmuller to utter these harsh words; they were both cruel and unjust, and the magistrate soon regretted them, and did everything in his power to drive them from Lecoq’s recollection. They met every day after this unfortunate incident; and every morning, when the young detective came to give an account of his investigations, they had a long conference together. For Lecoq still continued his efforts; still labored on with an obstinacy intensified by constant sneers; still pursued his investigations with that cold and determined zeal which keeps one’s faculties on the alert for years.
The magistrate, however, was utterly discouraged. “We must abandon this attempt,” said he. “All the means of detection have been exhausted. I give it up. The prisoner will go to the Assizes, to be acquitted or condemned under the name of May. I will trouble myself no more about the matter.”
He said this, but the anxiety and disappointment caused by defeat, sneering criticism, and perplexity, as to the best course to be pursued, so affected his health that he became really ill — so ill that he had to take to his bed.
He had been confined to his room for a week or so, when one morning Lecoq called to inquire after him.
“You see, my good fellow,” quoth M. Segmuller, despondently, “that this mysterious murderer is fatal to us magistrates. Ah! he is too much for us; he will preserve the secret of his identity.”
“Possibly,” replied Lecoq. “At all events, there is now but one way left to discover his secret; we must allow him to escape — and then track him to his lair.”
This expedient, although at first sight a very startling one, was not of Lecoq’s own invention, nor was it by any means novel. At all times, in cases of necessity, have the police closed their eyes and opened the prison doors for the release of suspected criminals. And not a few, dazzled by liberty and ignorant of being watched, have foolishly betrayed themselves. All prisoners are not like the Marquis de Lavalette, protected by royal connivance; and one might enumerate many individuals who have been released, only to be rearrested after confessing their guilt to police spies or auxiliaries who have won their confidence.
Naturally, however, it is but seldom, and only in special cases, and as a last resort, that such a plan is adopted. Moreover, the authorities only consent to it when they hope to derive some important advantage, such as the capture of a whole band of criminals. For instance, the police perhaps arrest one of a band. Now, despite his criminal propensities the captured culprit often has a certain sense of honor — we all know that there is honor among thieves — which prompts him to refuse all information concerning his accomplices. In such a case what is to be done? Is he to be sent to the Assizes by himself, tried and convicted, while his comrades escape scot free? No; it is best to set him at liberty. The prison doors are opened, and he is told that he is free. But each after step he takes in the streets outside is dogged by skilful detectives; and soon, at the very moment when he is boasting of his good luck and audacity to the comrades he has rejoined, the whole gang find themselves caught in the snare.
M. Segmuller knew all this, and much more, and yet, on hearing Lecoq’s proposition, he made an angry gesture and exclaimed: “Are you mad?”
“I think not, sir.”
“At all events your scheme is a most foolish one!”
“Why so, sir? You will recollect the famous murder of the Chaboiseaus. The police soon succeeded in capturing the guilty parties; but a robbery of a hundred and sixty thousand francs in bank-notes and coin had been committed at the same time, and this large sum of money couldn’t be found. The murderers obstinately refused to say where they had concealed it; for, of course, it would prove a fortune for them, if they ever escaped the gallows. In the mean while, however, the children of the victims were ruined. Now, M. Patrigent, the magistrate who investigated the affair, was the first to convince the authorities that it would be best to set one of the murderers at liberty. His advice was followed; and three days later the culprit was surprised unearthing the money from among a bed of mushrooms. Now, I believe that our prisoner —”
“Enough!” interrupted M. Segmuller. “I wish to hear no more on the matter. I have, it seems to me, forbidden you to broach the subject.”
The young detective hung his head with a hypocritical air of submission. But all the while he watched the magistrate out of the corner of his eye and noted his agitation. “I can afford to be silent,” he thought; “he will return to the subject of his own accord.”
And in fact M. Segmuller did return to it only a moment afterward. “Suppose this man were released from prison,” said he, “what would you do?”
“What would I do, sir! I would follow him like grim death; I would not once let him out of my sight; I would be his shadow.”
“And do you suppose he wouldn’t discover this surveillance?”
“I should take my precautions.”
“But he would recognize you at a single glance.”
“No, sir, he wouldn’t, for I should disguise myself. A detective who can’t equal the most skilful actor in the matter of make-up is no better than an ordinary policeman. I have only practised at it for a twelvemonth, but I can easily make myself look old or young, dark or light, or assume the manner of a man of the world, or of some frightful ruffian of the barrieres.”
“I wasn’t aware that you possessed this talent, Monsieur Lecoq.”
“Oh! I’m very far from the perfection I hope to arrive at; though I may venture to say that in three days from now I could call on you and talk with you for half an hour without being recognized.”
M. Segmuller made no rejoinder; and it was evident to Lecoq that the magistrate had offered this objection rather in the hope of its being overruled, than with the wish to see it prevail.
“I think, my poor fellow,” he at length observed, “that you are strangely deceived. We have both been equally anxious to penetrate the mystery that enshrouds this strange man. We have both admired his wonderful acuteness — for his sagacity is wonderful; so marvelous, indeed, that it exceeds the limits of imagination. Do you believe that a man of his penetration would betray himself like an ordinary prisoner? He will understand at once, if he is set at liberty, that his freedom is only given him so that we may surprise his secret.”
“I don’t deceive myself, sir. May will guess the truth of course. I’m quite aware of that.”
“Very well. Then, what would be the use of attempting what you propose?”
“I have come to this conclusion,” replied Lecoq, “May will find himself strangely embarrassed, even when he’s set free. He won’t have a sou in his pocket; we know he has no trade, so what will he do to earn a living? He may struggle along for a while; but he won’t be willing to suffer long. Man must have food and shelter, and when he finds himself without a roof over his head, without even a crust of bread to break, he will remember that he is rich. Won’t he then try to recover possession of his property? Yes, certainly he will. He will try to obtain money, endeavor to communicate with his friends, and I shall wait till that moment arrives. Months may elapse, before, seeing no signs of my surveillance, he may venture on some decisive step; and then I will spring forward with a warrant for his arrest in my hand.”
“And what if he should leave Paris? What if he should go abroad?”
“Oh, I will follow him. One of my aunts has left me a little land in the provinces worth about twelve thousand francs. I will sell it, and spend the last sou, if necessary, so long as I only have my revenge. This man has outwitted me as if I were a child, and I must have my turn.”
“And what if he should slip through your fingers?”
Lecoq laughed like a man that was sure of himself. “Let him try,” he exclaimed; “I will answer for him with my life.”
“Your idea is not a bad one,” said M. Segmuller, eventually. “But you must understand that law and justice will take no part in such intrigues. All I can promise you is my tacit approval. Go, therefore, to the Prefecture; see your superiors —”
With a really despairing gesture, the young man interrupted M. Segmuller. “What good would it do for me to make such a proposition?” he exclaimed. “They would not only refuse my request, but they would dismiss me on the spot, if my name is not already erased from the roll.”
“What, dismissed, after conducting this case so well?”
“Ah, sir, unfortunately every one is not of that opinion. Tongues have been wagging busily during your illness. Somehow or other, my enemies have heard of the last scene we had with May; and impudently declare that it was I who imagined all the romantic details of this affair, being eager for advancement. They pretend that the only reasons to doubt the prisoner’s identity are those I have invented myself. To hear them talk at the Depot, one might suppose that I invented the scene in the Widow Chupin’s cabin; imagined the accomplices; suborned the witnesses; manufactured the articles of conviction; wrote the first note in cipher as well as the second; duped Father Absinthe, and mystified the governor.”
“The deuce!” exclaimed M. Segmuller; “in that case, what do they think of me?”
The wily detective’s face assumed an expression of intense embarrassment.
“Ah! sir,” he replied with a great show of reluctance, “they pretend that you have allowed yourself to be deceived by me, and that you haven’t weighed at their proper worth the proofs I’ve furnished.”
A fleeting flush mantled over M. Segmuller’s forehead. “In a word,” said he, “they think I’m your dupe — and a fool besides.”
The recollection of certain sarcastic smiles he had often detected on the faces of colleagues and subordinates alike, the memory of numerous covert allusions to Casper Hauser, and the Man with the Iron Mask — allusions which had stung him to the quick — induced him to hesitate no longer.
“Very well! I will aid you, Monsieur Lecoq,” he exclaimed. “I should like you to triumph over your enemies. I will get up at once and accompany you to the Palais de Justice. I will see the public prosecutor myself; I will speak to him, and plead your case for you.”
Lecoq’s joy was intense. Never, no never, had he dared to hope for such assistance. Ah! after this he would willingly go through fire on M. Segmuller’s behalf. And yet, despite his inward exultation, he had sufficient control over his feelings to preserve a sober face. This victory must be concealed under penalty of forfeiting the benefits that might accrue from it. Certainly, the young detective had said nothing that was untrue; but there are different ways of presenting the truth, and he had, perhaps, exaggerated a trifle in order to excite the magistrate’s rancor, and win his needful assistance.
“I suppose,” remarked M. Segmuller, who was now quite calm again — no outward sign of wounded vanity being perceptible —“I suppose you have decided what stratagem must be employed to lull the prisoner’s suspicions if he is permitted to escape.”
“I must confess I haven’t given it a thought,” replied Lecoq. “Besides, what good would any such stratagem do? He knows too well that he is the object of suspicion not to remain on the alert. Still, there is one precaution which I believe absolutely necessary, indispensable indeed, if we wish to be successful.”
“What precaution do you mean?” inquired the magistrate.
“Well, sir, I think an order should be given to have May transferred to another prison. It doesn’t in the least matter which; you can select the one you please.”
“Why should we do that?”
“Because, during the few days preceding his release, it is absolutely necessary he should hold no communication with his friends outside, and that he should be unable to warn his accomplice.”
“Then you think he’s badly guarded where he is?” inquired M. Segmuller with seeming amazement.
“No, sir, I did not say that. I am satisfied that since the affair of the cipher note the governor’s vigilance has been unimpeachable. However, news from outside certainly reaches the suspected murderer at the Depot; we have had material evidence — full proof of that — and besides —”
The young detective paused in evident embarrassment. He plainly had some idea in his head to which he feared to give expression.
“And besides?” repeated the magistrate.
“Ah, well, sir! I will be perfectly frank with you. I find that Gevrol enjoys too much liberty at the Depot; he is perfectly at home there, he comes and goes as he likes, and no one ever thinks of asking what he is doing, where he is going, or what he wants. No pass is necessary for his admission, and he can influence the governor just as he likes. Now, to tell the truth, I distrust Gevrol.”
“Oh! Monsieur Lecoq!”
“Yes, I know very well that it’s a bold accusation, but a man is not master of his presentiments: so there it is, I distrust Gevrol. Did the prisoner know that I was watching him from the loft, and that I had discovered his secret correspondence, was he ignorant of it? To my mind he evidently knew everything, as the last scene we had with him proves.”
“I must say that’s my own opinion,” interrupted M. Segmuller.
“But how could he have known it?” resumed Lecoq. “He could not have discovered it by himself. I endured tortures for a while in the hope of solving the problem. But all my trouble was wasted. Now the supposition of Gevrol’s intervention would explain everything.”
M. Segmuller had turned pale with anger. “Ah! if I could really believe that!” he exclaimed; “if I were sure of it! Have you any proofs?”
The young man shook his head. “No,” said he, “I haven’t; but even if my hands were full of proofs I should not dare to show them. I should ruin my future. Ah, if ever I succeed, I must expect many such acts of treachery. There is hatred and rivalry in every profession. And, mark this, sir — I don’t doubt Gevrol’s honesty. If a hundred thousand francs were counted out upon the table and offered to him, he wouldn’t even try to release a prisoner. But he would rob justice of a dozen criminals in the mere hope of injuring me, jealous as he is, and fearing lest I might obtain advancement.”
How many things these simple words explained. Did they not give the key to many and many an enigma which justice has failed to solve, simply on account of the jealousy and rivalry that animate the detective force? Thus thought M. Segmuller, but he had no time for further reflection.
“That will do,” said he, “go into the drawing-room for a moment. I will dress and join you there. I will send for a cab: for we must make haste if I am to see the public prosecutor to-day.”
Less than a quarter of an hour afterward M. Segmuller, who usually spent considerable time over his toilet, was dressed and ready to start. He and Lecoq were just getting into the cab that had been summoned when a footman in a stylish livery was seen approaching.
“Ah! Jean,” exclaimed the magistrate, “how’s your master?”
“Improving, sir,” was the reply. “He sent me to ask how you were, and to inquire how that affair was progressing?”
“There has been no change since I last wrote to him. Give him my compliments, and tell him that I am out again.”
The servant bowed. Lecoq took a seat beside the magistrate and the cab started off.
“That fellow is one of D’Escorval’s servants,” remarked M. Segmuller. “He’s richer than I, and can well afford to keep a footman.”
“D’Escorval’s,” ejaculated Lecoq, “the magistrate who —”
“Precisely. He sent his man to me two or three days ago to ascertain what we were doing with our mysterious May.”
“Then M. d’Escorval is interested in the case?”
“Prodigiously! I conclude it is because he opened the prosecution, and because the case rightfully belongs to him. Perhaps he regrets that it passed out of his hands, and thinks that he could have managed the investigation better himself. We would have done better with it if we could. I would give a good deal to see him in my place.”
But this change would not have been at all to Lecoq’s taste. “Ah,” thought he, “such a fellow as D’Escorval would never have shown me such confidence as M. Segmuller.” He had, indeed, good reason to congratulate himself: for that very day M. Segmuller, who was a man of his word, a man who never rested until he had carried his plan into execution, actually induced the authorities to allow May to be set at liberty; and the details of this measure only remained to be decided upon. As regards the proposed transfer of the suspected murderer to another prison, this was immediately carried into effect, and May was removed to Mazas, where Lecoq had no fear of Gevrol’s interference.
That same afternoon, moreover, the Widow Chupin received her conditional release. There was no difficulty as regards her son, Polyte. He had, in the mean time, been brought before the correctional court on a charge of theft; and, to his great astonishment, had heard himself sentenced to thirteen months’ imprisonment. After this, M. Segmuller had nothing to do but to wait, and this was the easier as the advent of the Easter holidays gave him an opportunity to seek a little rest and recreation with his family in the provinces.
On the day he returned to Paris — the last of the recess, and by chance a Sunday — he was sitting alone in his library when his cook came to tell him that there was a man in the vestibule who had been sent from a neighboring register office to take the place of a servant he had recently dismissed. The newcomer was ushered into the magistrate’s presence and proved to be a man of forty or thereabouts, very red in the face and with carroty hair and whiskers. He was, moreover, strongly inclined to corpulence, and was clad in clumsy, ill-fitting garments. In a complacent tone, and with a strong Norman accent, he informed the magistrate that during the past twenty years he had been in the employment of various literary men, as well as of a physician, and notary; that he was familiar with the duties that would be required of him at the Palais de Justice, and that he knew how to dust papers without disarranging them. In short, he produced such a favorable impression that, although M. Segmuller reserved twenty-four hours in which to make further inquiries, he drew a twenty-franc piece from his pocket on the spot and tendered it to the Norman valet as the first instalment of his wages.
But instead of pocketing the proffered coin, the man, with a sudden change of voice and attitude, burst into a hearty laugh, exclaiming: “Do you think, sir, that May will recognize me?”
“Monsieur Lecoq!” cried the astonished magistrate.
“The same, sir; and I have come to tell you that if you are ready to release May, all my arrangements are now completed.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08