The young police agent to whom Gevrol abandoned what he thought an unnecessary investigation was a debutant in his profession. His name was Lecoq. He was some twenty-five or twenty-six years of age, almost beardless, very pale, with red lips, and an abundance of wavy black hair. He was rather short but well proportioned; and each of his movements betrayed unusual energy. There was nothing remarkable about his appearance, if we except his eyes, which sparkled brilliantly or grew extremely dull, according to his mood; and his nose, the large full nostrils of which had a surprising mobility.
The son of a respectable, well-to-do Norman family, Lecoq had received a good and solid education. He was prosecuting his law studies in Paris, when in the same week, blow following blow, he learned that his father had died, financially ruined, and that his mother had survived him only a few hours. He was left alone in the world, destitute of resources, obliged to earn his living. But how? He had an opportunity of learning his true value, and found that it amounted to nothing; for the university, on bestowing its diploma of bachelor, does not give an annuity with it. Hence of what use is a college education to a poor orphan boy? He envied the lot of those who, with a trade at the ends of their fingers, could boldly enter the office of any manufacturer, and say: “I would like to work.” Such men were working and eating. Lecoq sought bread by all the methods employed by people who are in reduced circumstances! Fruitless labor! There are a hundred thousand people in Paris who have seen better days. No matter! He gave proofs of undaunted energy. He gave lessons, and copied documents for a lawyer. He made his appearance in a new character almost every day, and left no means untried to earn an honest livelihood. At last he obtained employment from a well-known astronomer, the Baron Moser, and spent his days in solving bewildering and intricate problems, at the rate of a hundred francs a month.
But a season of discouragement came. After five years of constant toil, he found himself at the same point from which he had started. He was nearly crazed with rage and disappointment when he recapitulated his blighted hopes, his fruitless efforts, and the insults he had endured. The past had been sad, the present was intolerable, the future threatened to be terrible. Condemned to constant privations, he tried to escape from the horrors of his real life by taking refuge in dreams.
Alone in his garret, after a day of unremitting toil, assailed by the thousand longings of youth, Lecoq endeavored to devise some means of suddenly making himself rich. All reasonable methods being beyond his reach, it was not long before he was engaged in devising the worst expedients. In short, this naturally moral and honest young man spent much of his time in perpetrating — in fancy — the most abominable crimes. Sometimes he himself was frightened by the work of his imagination: for an hour of recklessness might suffice to make him pass from the idea to the fact, from theory to practise. This is the case with all monomaniacs; an hour comes in which the strange conceptions that have filled their brains can be no longer held in check.
One day he could not refrain from exposing to his patron a little plan he had conceived, which would enable him to obtain five or six hundred francs from London. Two letters and a telegram were all that was necessary, and the game was won. It was impossible to fail, and there was no danger of arousing suspicion.
The astronomer, amazed at the simplicity of the plan, could but admire it. On reflection, however, he concluded that it would not be prudent for him to retain so ingenious a secretary in his service. This was why, on the following day, he gave him a month’s pay in advance, and dismissed him, saying: “When one has your disposition, and is poor, one may either become a famous thief or a great detective. Choose.”
Lecoq retired in confusion; but the astronomer’s words bore fruit in his mind. “Why should I not follow good advice?” he asked himself. Police service did not inspire him with repugnance — far from it. He had often admired that mysterious power whose hand is everywhere, and which, although unseen and unheard, still manages to hear and see everything. He was delighted with the prospect of being the instrument of such a power. He considered that the profession of detective would enable him to employ the talents with which he had been endowed in a useful and honorable fashion; besides opening out a life of thrilling adventure with fame as its goal.
In short, this profession had a wonderful charm for him. So much so, that on the following week, thanks to a letter from Baron Moser, he was admitted into the service. A cruel disenchantment awaited him. He had seen the results, but not the means. His surprise was like that of a simple-minded frequenter of the theatre, when he is admitted for the first time behind the scenes, and is able to pry into the decorations and tinsel that are so dazzling at a distance.
However, the opportunity for which he had so ardently longed, for which he had been waiting during many weary months, had come, he thought, at last, as he reached the Poivriere with Gevrol and the other police agents. While he was clinging to the window shutters he saw by the light of his ambition a pathway to success. It was at first only a presentiment, but it soon became a supposition, and then a conviction based upon actual facts, which had escaped his companions, but which he had observed and carefully noted. He recognized that fortune had, at last, turned in his favor when he saw Gevrol neglect all but the merest formalities of examination, and when he heard him declare peremptorily that this triple murder was merely the result of one of those ferocious quarrels so frequent among vagrants in the outskirts of the city.
“Ah, well!” he thought; “have it your own way — trust in appearances, since you will see nothing beneath them! But I will prove to you that my youthful theory is better than all your experience.”
The inspector’s carelessness gave Lecoq a perfect right to secretly seek information on his own account; but by warning his superior officers before attempting anything on his own responsibility, he would protect himself against any accusation of ambition or of unduly taking advantage of his comrade. Such charges might prove most dangerous for his future prospects in a profession where so much rivalry is seen, and where wounded vanity has so many opportunities to avenge itself by resorting to all sorts of petty treason. Accordingly, he spoke to his superior officer — saying just enough to be able to remark, in case of success: “Ah! I warned you!”— just enough so as not to dispel any of Gevrol’s doubts.
The permission which Lecoq obtained to remain in charge of the bodies was his first triumph of the best possible augury; but he knew how to dissimulate, and it was in a tone of the utmost indifference that he requested one of his comrades to remain with him. Then, while the others were making ready to depart, he seated himself upon the corner of the table, apparently oblivious of all that was passing around. He did not dare to lift his head, for fear of betraying his joy, so much did he fear that his companions might read his hopes and plans in the expression of his face.
Inwardly he was wild with impatience. Though the murderer submitted with good grace to the precautions that were taken to prevent his escape, it required some time to bind the hands of the Widow Chupin, who fought and howled as if they were burning her alive. “They will never go!” Lecoq murmured to himself.
They did so at last, however. Gevrol gave the order to start, and left the house, addressing a laughing good-by to his subordinate. The latter made no reply. He followed his comrades as far as the threshold to make sure that they were really going, for he trembled at the thought that Gevrol might reflect, change his mind, and return to solve the mystery, as was his right.
His anxiety was needless, however. The squad gradually faded away in the distance, and the cries of Widow Chupin died away in the stillness of the night. It was only then that Lecoq reentered the room. He could no longer conceal his delight; his eyes sparkled as might those of a conqueror taking possession of some vast empire: he stamped his foot upon the floor and exclaimed with exultation: “Now the mystery belongs to us two alone!”
Authorized by Gevrol to choose one of his comrades to remain with him at the Poivriere, Lecoq had requested the least intelligent of the party to keep him company. He was not influenced by a fear of being obliged to share the fruits of success with his companion, but by the necessity of having an assistant from whom he could, in case of need, exact implicit obedience.
The comrade Lecoq selected was a man of about fifty, who, after a term of cavalry service, had become an agent of the prefecture. In the humble office that he occupied he had seen prefect succeed prefect, and might probably have filled an entire prison with the culprits he had arrested with his own hands. Experience had not, however, made him any the shrewder or any the more zealous. Still he had this merit, when he received an order he executed it with military exactitude, so far as he understood it. Of course if he had failed to understand it, so much the worse. It might, indeed, be said of him, that he discharged his duties like a blind man, like an old horse trained for a riding school.
When he had a moment’s leisure, and a little money in his pocket, he invariably got drunk. Indeed, he spent his life between two fits of intoxication, without ever rising above a condition of semi-lucidity. His comrades had known, but had forgotten, his name, and his partiality for a certain beverage had accordingly induced them to call him “Father Absinthe.”
With his limited powers of observation, he naturally did not observe the tone of triumph in his young companion’s voice. “Upon my word,” he remarked, when they were alone, “your idea of keeping me here was a good one, and I thank you for it. While the others spend the night paddling about in the slush, I shall get a good sleep.”
Here he stood, in a room that was splashed with blood, that was shuddering, so to speak, with crime, and yet face to face with the still warm bodies of three murdered men he could talk of sleep!
But, after all, what did it matter to him? He had seen so many similar scenes in his time. And does not habit infallibly lead to professional indifference, making the soldier cool and composed in the midst of conflict, and rendering the surgeon impassible when the patient shrieks and writhes beneath his operating knife.
“I have been upstairs, looking about,” pursued Father Absinthe; “I saw a bed up there, and we can mount guard here, by turns.”
With an imperious gesture, Lecoq interrupted him. “You must give up that idea, Father Absinthe,” he said, “we are not here to sleep, but to collect information — to make the most careful researches, and to note all the probabilities. In a few hours the commissary of police, the legal physician, and the public prosecutor will be here. I wish to have a report ready for them.”
This proposition seemed anything but pleasing to the old police agent. “Eh! what is the use of that?” he exclaimed. “I know the General. When he goes in search of the commissary, as he has gone this evening, there is nothing more to be done. Do you think you can see anything that he didn’t see?”
“I think that Gevrol, like every one else, is liable to be mistaken. I think that he believes too implicitly in what seems to him evidence. I could swear that this affair is not what it seems to be; and I am sure that if we like we can discover the mystery which is concealed beneath present appearances.”
Although Lecoq’s vehemence was intense, he did not succeed in making any impression upon his companion, who with a yawn that threatened to dislocate his jaws replied: “Perhaps you are right; but I am going to bed. This need not prevent you from searching around, however; and if you find anything you can wake me.”
Lecoq made no sign of impatience: nor in reality was he impatient. These words afforded him the opportunity for which he was longing. “You will give me a moment first,” he remarked. “In five minutes, by your watch, I promise to let you put your finger on the mystery that I suspect here.”
“Well, go on for five minutes.”
“After that you shall be free, Father Absinthe. Only it is clear that if I unravel the mystery alone, I alone ought to pocket the reward that a solution will certainly bring.”
At the word “reward” the old police agent pricked up his ears. He was dazzled by the vision of an infinite number of bottles of the greenish liquor whose name he bore. “Convince me, then,” said he, taking a seat upon a stool, which he had lifted from the floor.
Lecoq remained standing in front of him. “To begin with,” he remarked, “whom do you suppose the person we have just arrested to be?”
“A porter, probably, or a vagabond.”
“That is to say, a man belonging to the lowest class of society: consequently, a fellow without education.”
Lecoq spoke with his eyes fixed upon those of his companion. He distrusted his own powers, as is usual with persons of real merit, but he felt that if he could succeed in making his convictions penetrate his comrade’s obtuse mind, their exactitude would be virtually proved.
“And now,” he continued, “what would you say if I showed you that this young man had received an excellent, even refined, education?”
“I should reply that it was very extraordinary. I should reply that — but what a fool I am! You have not proved it to me yet.”
“But I can do so very easily. Do you remember the words that he uttered as he fell?”
“Yes, I remember them perfectly. He said: ‘It is the Prussians who are coming.’”
“What do you suppose he meant by that?”
“What a question! I should suppose that he did not like the Prussians, and that he supposed he was offering us a terrible insult.”
Lecoq was waiting anxiously for this response. “Ah, well; Father Absinthe,” he said gravely, “you are wrong, quite wrong. And that this man has an education superior to his apparent position is proved by the fact that you did not understand his meaning, nor his intention. It was this single phrase that enlightened me.”
Father Absinthe’s physiognomy expressed the strange and comical perplexity of a man who is so thoroughly mystified that he knows not whether to laugh, or to be angry. After reflecting a little, he decided to adopt the latter course. “You are rather too young to impose upon an old fellow like me,” he remarked. “I don’t like boasters —”
“One moment!” interrupted Lecoq; “allow me to explain. You have certainly heard of a terrible battle which resulted in one of the greatest defeats that ever happened to France — the battle of Waterloo?”
“I don’t see the connection —”
“Answer, if you please.”
“Yes — then! I have heard of it!”
“Very well; you must know then that for some time victory seemed likely to rest with the banners of France. The English began to fall back, and the emperor had already exclaimed: “We have them!” when suddenly on the right, a little in the rear, a large body of troops was seen advancing. It was the Prussian army. The battle of Waterloo was lost.”
In all his life, worthy Father Absinthe had never made such a strenuous effort to understand anything. In this case his perseverance was not wholly useless, for, springing from his stool, and probably in much the same tone that Archimedes cried “Eureka!” he exclaimed, “I understand. The man’s words were only an allusion.”
“It is as you have said,” remarked Lecoq, approvingly. “But I had not finished. If the emperor was thrown into consternation by the appearance of the Prussians, it was because he was momentarily expecting the arrival of one of his own generals from the same direction — Grouchy — with thirty-five thousand men. So if this man’s allusion was exact and complete, he was not expecting an enemy, but a friend. Now draw your own conclusions.”
Father Absinthe was amazed but convinced: and his eyes, heavy with sleep a few moments before, now opened to their widest extent. “Good heavens!” he murmured, “if you put it in that way! But I forget; you must have seen something as you were looking through the shutters.”
The young man shook his head. “Upon my honor,” he declared, “I saw nothing save the struggle between the murderer and the poor devil dressed as a soldier. It was that sentence alone that aroused my attention.”
“Wonderful! prodigious!” exclaimed the astonished old man.
“I will add that reflection has confirmed my suspicions. I ask myself why this man, instead of flying at once, should have waited and remained there, at that door, to parley with us.”
With a bound, Father Absinthe sprang again to his feet. “Why?” he interrupted; “because he had accomplices, and he wished to give them time to escape. Ah! I understand it all now.”
A triumphant smile parted Lecoq’s lips. “That is what I said to myself,” he replied, “and now it is easy to verify my suspicions. There is snow outside, isn’t there?”
It was not necessary to say any more. The elder officer seized the light, and followed by his companion, he hastened to the back door of the house, which opened into a small garden. In this sheltered enclosure the snow had not melted, and upon its white surface the dark stains of numerous footprints presented themselves. Without hesitation, Lecoq threw himself upon his knees in the snow; he rose again almost immediately. “These indentations were not made by the men’s feet,” said he. “There have been women here.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08