The Mystery of Orcival by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview
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"Monsieur Lecoq?" said he to an old woman who was engaged in getting breakfast for three large cats which were mewing around her. The woman scanned him with a surprised and suspicious air. M. Plantat, when he was dressed up, had much more the appearance of a fine old gentleman than of a country attorney; and though the detective received many visits from all sorts of people, it was rarely that the denizens of the Faubourg Saint Germaine rung his bell.
"Monsieur Lecoq's apartments," answered the old woman, "are on the third story, the door facing the stairs."
The justice of the peace slowly ascended the narrow, ill-lighted staircase, which in its dark corners was almost dangerous. He was thinking of the strange step he was about to take. An idea had occurred to him, but he did not know whether it were practicable, and at all events he needed the aid and advice of the detective. He was forced to disclose his most secret thoughts, as it were, to confess himself; and his heart beat fast. The door opposite the staircase on the third story was not like other doors; it was of plain oak, thick, without mouldings, and fastened with iron bars. It would have looked like a prison door had not its sombreness been lightened by a heavily colored engraving of a cock crowing, with the legend "Always Vigilant." Had the detective put his coat of arms up there? Was it not more likely that one of his men had done it? After examining the door more than a minute, and hesitating like a youth before his beloved's gate, he rang the bell. A creaking of locks responded, and through the narrow bars of the peephole he saw the hairy face of an old crone.
"What do you want?" said the woman, in a deep, bass voice.
"What do you want of him?"
"He made an appointment with me for this morning."
"Your name and business?"
"Monsieur Plantat, justice of the peace at Orcival."
"All right. Wait."
The peephole was closed and the old man waited. "Peste!" growled he. "Everybody can't get in here, it seems." Hardly had this reflection passed through his mind when the door opened with a noise as of chains and locks. He entered, and the old crone, after leading him through a dining-room whose sole furniture was a table and six chairs, introduced him to a large room, half toilet-room and half working-room, lighted by two windows looking on the court, and guarded by strong, close bars.
"If you will take the trouble to sit," said the servant, "Monsieur Lecoq will soon be here; he is giving orders to one of his men."
But M. Plantat did not take a seat; he preferred to examine the curious apartment in which he found himself. The whole of one side of the wall was taken up with a long rack, where hung the strangest and most incongruous suits of clothes. There were costumes belonging to all grades of society; and on some wooden pegs above, wigs of all colors were hanging; while boots and shoes of various styles were ranged on the floor. A toilettable, covered with powders, essences, and paints, stood between the fireplace and the window. On the other side of the room was a bookcase full of scientific works, especially of physic and chemistry. The most singular piece of furniture in the apartment, however, was a large ball, shaped like a lozenge, in black velvet, suspended beside the lookingglass. A quantity of pins were stuck in this ball, so as to form the letters composing these two names: HECTOR-JENNY.
These names glittering on the black background attracted the old man's attention at once. This must have been M. Lecoq's reminder. The ball was meant to recall to him perpetually the people of whom he was in pursuit. Many names, doubtless, had in turn glittered on that velvet, for it was much frayed and perforated. An unfinished letter lay open upon the bureau;
M. Plantat leaned over to read it; but he took his trouble for nothing, for it was written in cipher.
He had no sooner finished his inspection of the room than the noise of a door opening made him turn round. He saw before him a man of his own age, of respectable mien, and polite manners, a little bald, with gold spectacles and a light-colored flannel dressinggown.
M. Plantat bowed, saying:
"I am waiting here for Monsieur Lecoq."
The man in gold spectacles burst out laughing, and clapped his hands with glee.
"What, dear sir," said he, " don't you know me? Look at me well - it is I - Monsieur Lecoq!" And to convince him, he took off his spectacles. Those might, indeed, be Lecoq's eyes, and that his voice; M. Plantat was confounded.
"I never should have recognized you," said he.
"It's true, I have changed a little - but what would you have? It's my trade."
And pushing a chair toward his visitor, he pursued:
"I have to beg a thousand pardons for the formalities you've had to endure to get in here; it's a dire necessity, but one I can't help. I have told you of the dangers to which I am exposed; they pursue me to my very door. Why, last week a railway porter brought a package here addressed to me. Janouille - that's my old woman - suspected nothing, though she has a sharp nose, and told him to come in. He held out the package, I went up to take it, when pif! paf! off went two pistol-shots. The package was a revolver wrapped up in oilcloth, and the porter was a convict escaped from Cayenne, caught by me last year. Ah, I put him through for this though!"
He told this adventure carelessly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"But let's not starve ourselves to death," he continued, ringing the bell. The old hag appeared, and he ordered her to bring on breakfast forthwith, and above all, some good wine.
"You are observing my Janouille," remarked he, seeing that M. Plantat looked curiously at the servant. "She's a pearl, my dear friend, who watches over me as if I were her child, and would go through the fire for me. I had a good deal of trouble the other day to prevent her strangling the false railway porter. I picked her out of three or four thousand convicts. She had been convicted of infanticide and arson. I would bet a hundred to one that, during the three years that she has been in my service, she has not even thought of robbing me of so much as a centime."
But M. Plantat only listened to him with one ear; he was trying to find an excuse for cutting Janouille's story short, and to lead the conversation to the events of the day before.
"I have, perhaps, incommoded you a little this morning, Monsieur Lecoq?"
"Me? then you did not see my motto - 'always vigilant?' Why, I've been out ten times this morning; besides marking out work for three of my men. Ah, we have little time to ourselves, I can tell you. I went to the Vulcan's Forges to see what news I could get of that poor devil of a Guespin."
"And what did you hear?"
"That I had guessed right. He changed a five-hundred-franc note there last Wednesday evening at a quarter before ten."
"That is to say, he is saved?" "Well, you may say so. He will be, as soon as we have found Miss Jenny."
The old justice of the peace could not avoid showing his uneasiness.
"That will, perhaps, be long and difficult?"
"Bast! Why so? She is on my black ball there - we shall have her, accidents excepted, before night."
"You really think so?"
"I should say I was sure, to anybody but you. Reflect that this girl has been connected with the Count de Tremorel, a man of the world, a prince of the mode. When a girl falls to the gutter, after having, as they say, dazzled all Paris for six months with her luxury, she does not disappear entirely, like a stone in the mud. When she has lost all her friends there are still her creditors, who follow and watch her, awaiting the day when fortune will smile on her once more. She doesn't trouble herself about them, she thinks they've forgotten her; a mistake! I know a milliner whose head is a perfect dictionary of the fashionable world; she has often done me a good turn. We will go and see her if you say so, after breakfast, and in two hours she will give us Jenny's address. Ah, if I were only as sure of pinching Tremorel!
M. Plantat gave a sigh of relief. The conversation at last took the turn he wished.
"You are thinking of him, then?" asked he.
"Am I?" shouted M. Lecoq, who started from his seat at the question. "Now just look at my black ball there. I haven't thought of anybody else, mark you, since yesterday; I haven't had a wink of sleep all night for thinking of him. I must have him, and I will!"
"I don't doubt it; but when?"
"Ah, there it is! Perhaps to-morrow, perhaps in a month; it depends on the correctness of my calculations and the exactness of my plan."
"What, is your plan made?"
"And decided on."
M. Plantat became attention itself.
I start from the principle that it is impossible for a man, accompanied by a woman, to hide from the police. In this case, the woman is young, pretty, and in a noticeable condition; three impossibilities more. Admit this, and we'll study Hector's character. He isn't a man of superior shrewdness, for we have found out all his dodges. He isn't a fool, because his dodges deceived people who are by no means fools. He is then a medium sort of a man, and his education, reading, relations, and daily conversation have procured him a number of acquaintances whom he will try to use. Now for his mind. We know the weakness of his character; soft, feeble, vacillating, only acting in the last extremity. We have seen him shrinking from decisive steps, trying always to delay matters. He is given to being deceived by illusions, and to taking his desires for accomplished events. In short, he is a coward. And what is his situation? He has killed his wife, he hopes he has created a belief in his own death, he has eloped with a young girl, and he has got nearly or quite a million of francs in his pocket. Now, this position admitted, as well as the man's character and mind, can we by an effort of thought, reasoning from his known actions, discover what he has done in such and such a case? I think so, and I hope I shall prove it to you."
M. Lecoq rose and promenaded, as his habit was, up and down the room. "Now let's see," he continued, "how I ought to proceed in order to discover the probable conduct of a man whose antecedents, traits, and mind are known to me. To begin with, I throw off my own individuality and try to assume his. I substitute his will for my own. I cease to be a detective and become this man, whatever he is. In this case, for instance, I know very well what I should do if I were Tremorel. I should take such measures as would throw all the detectives in the universe off the scent. But I must forget Monsieur Lecoq in order to become Hector de Tremorel. How would a man reason who was base enough to rob his friend of his wife, and then see her poison her husband before his very eyes? We already know that Tremorel hesitated a good while before deciding to commit this crime. The logic of events, which fools call fatality, urged him on. It is certain that he looked upon the murder in every point of view, studied its results, and tried to find means to escape from justice. All his acts were determined on long beforehand, and neither immediate necessity nor unforeseen circumstances disturbed his mind. The moment he had decided on the crime, he said to himself: 'Grant that Bertha has been murdered; thanks to my precautions, they think that I have been killed too; Laurence, with whom I elope, writes a letter in which she announces her suicide; I have money, what must I do?' The problem, it seems to me, is fairly put in this way."
"Perfectly so," approved M. Plantat.
"Naturally, Tremorel would choose from among all the methods of flight of which he had ever heard, or which he could imagine, that which seemed to him the surest and most prompt. Did he meditate leaving the country? That is more than probable. Only, as he was not quite out of his senses, he saw that it was most difficult, in a foreign country, to put justice off the track. If a man flies from France to escape punishment, he acts absurdly. Fancy a man and woman wandering about a country of whose language they are ignorant; they attract attention at once, are observed, talked about, followed. They do not make a purchase which is not remarked; they cannot make any movement without exciting curiosity. The further they go the greater their danger. If they choose to cross the ocean and go to free America, they must go aboard a vessel; and the moment they do that they may be considered as good as lost. You might bet twenty to one they would find, on landing on the other side, a detective on the pier armed with a warrant to arrest them. I would engage to find a Frenchman in eight days, even in London, unless he spoke pure enough English to pass for a citizen of the United Kingdom. Such were Tremorel's reflections. He recollected a thousand futile attempts, a hundred surprising adventures, narrated by the papers; and it is certain that he gave up the idea of going abroad."
"It's clear," cried M. Plantat, "perfectly plain and precise. We must look for the fugitives in France."
"Yes," replied M. Lecoq. "Now let's find out where and how people can hide themselves in France. Would it be in the provinces? Evidently not. In Bordeaux, one of our largest cities, people stare at a man who is not a Bordelais. The shopkeepers on the quays say to their neighbors: 'Eh! do you know that man?' There are two cities, however, where a man may pass unnoticed - Marseilles and Lyons; but both of these are distant, and to reach them a long journey must be risked - and nothing is so dangerous as the railway since the telegraph was established. One can fly quickly, it's true; but on entering a railway carriage a man shuts himself in, and until he gets out of it he remains under the thumb of the police. Tremorel knows all this as well as we do. We will put all the large towns, including Lyons and Marseilles, out of the question."
"In short, it's impossible to hide in the provinces."
"Excuse me - there is one means; that is, simply to buy a modest little place at a distance from towns and railways, and to go and reside on it under a false name. But this excellent project is quite above Tremorel's capacity, and requires preparatory steps which he could not risk, watched as he was by his wife. The field of investigation is thus much narrowed. Putting aside foreign parts, the provinces, the cities, the country, Paris remains. It is in Paris that we must look for Tremorel."
M. Lecoq spoke with the certainty and positiveness of a mathematical professor; the old justice of the peace listened, as do the professor's scholars. But he was already accustomed to the detective's surprising clearness, and was no longer astonished. During the four-and-twenty hours that he had been witnessing M. Lecoq's calculations and gropings, he had seized the process and almost appropriated it to himself. He found this method of reasoning very simple, and could now explain to himself certain exploits of the police which had hitherto seemed to him miraculous. But M. Lecoq's "narrow field" of observation appeared still immense.
"Paris is a large place," observed the old justice.
M. Lecoq smiled loftily.
"Perhaps so; but it is mine. All Paris is under the eye of the police, just as an ant is under that of the naturalist with his microscope. How is it, you may ask, that Paris still holds so many professional rogues? Ah, that is because we are hampered by legal forms. The law compels us to use only polite weapons against those to whom all weapons are serviceable. The courts tie our hands. The rogues are clever, but be sure that our cleverness is much greater than theirs."
"But," interrupted M. Plantat, "Tremorel is now outside the law; we have the warrant."
"What matters it? Does the warrant give me the right to search any house in which I may have reason to suppose he is hiding himself? No. If I should go to the house of one of Hector's old friends he would kick me out of doors. You must know that in France the police have to contend not only with the rogues, but also with the honest people."
M. Lecoq always waxed warm on this subject; he felt a strong resentment against the injustice practised on his profession. Fortunately, at the moment when he was most excited, the black ball suddenly caught his eye.
"The devil!" exclaimed he, "I was forgetting Hector."
M. Plantat, though listening patiently to his companion's indignant utterances, could not help thinking of the murderer.
"You said that we must look for Tremorel in Paris," he remarked.
"And I said truly," responded M. Lecoq in a calmer tone. "I have come to the conclusion that here, perhaps within two streets of us, perhaps in the next house, the fugitives are hid. But let's go on with our calculation of probabilities. Hector knows Paris too well to hope to conceal himself even for a week in a hotel or lodging-house; he knows these are too sharply watched by the police. He had plenty of time before him, and so arranged to hire apartments in some convenient house."
"He came to Paris three or four times some weeks ago."
"Then there's no longer any doubt about it. He hired some apartments under a false name, paid in advance, and to-day he is comfortably ensconced in his new residence."
M. Plantat seemed to feel extremely distressed at this.
"I know it only too well, Monsieur Lecoq," said he, sadly. "You must be right. But is not the wretch thus securely hidden from us? Must we wait till some accident reveals him to us? Can you search one by one all the houses in Paris?"
The detective's nose wriggled under his gold spectacles, and the justice of the peace, who observed it, and took it for a good sign, felt all his hopes reviving in him.
"I've cudgelled my brain in vain - " he began.
"Pardon me," interrupted M. Lecoq. "Having hired apartments, Tremorel naturally set about furnishing them."
"Evidently." "Of course he would furnish them sumptuously, both because he is fond of luxury and has plenty of money, and because he couldn't carry a young girl from a luxurious home to a garret. I'd wager that they have as fine a drawing-room as that at Valfeuillu."
"Alas! How can that help us?"
"Peste! It helps us much, my dear friend, as you shall see. Hector, as he wished for a good deal of expensive furniture, did not have recourse to a broker; nor had he time to go to the Faubourg St. Antoine. Therefore, he simply went to an upholsterer."
Some fashionable upholsterer - "
"No, he would have risked being recognized. It is clear that he assumed a false name, the same in which he had hired his rooms. He chose some shrewd and humble upholsterer, ordered his goods, made sure that they would be delivered on a certain day, and paid for them."
M. Plantat could not repress a joyful exclamation; he began to see M. Lecoq's drift.
"This merchant," pursued the latter, "must have retained his rich customer in his memory, this customer who did not beat him down, and paid cash. If he saw him again, he would recognize him."
"What an idea!" cried M. Plantat, delighted. "Let's get photographs and portraits of Tremorel as quick as we can - let's send a man to Orcival for them."
M. Lecoq smiled shrewdly and proceeded:
"Keep yourself easy; I have done what was necessary. I slipped three of the count's cartes-de-visite in my pocket yesterday during the inquest. This morning I took down, out of the directory, the names of all the upholsterers in Paris, and made three lists of them. At this moment three of my men, each with a list and a photograph, are going from upholsterer to upholsterer showing them the picture and asking them if they recognize it as the portrait of one of their customers. If one of them answers 'yes,' we've got our man."
"And we will get him!" cried the old man, pale with emotion.
"Not yet; don't shout victory too soon. It is possible that Hector was prudent enough not to go to the upholsterer's himself. In this case we are beaten in that direction. But no, he was not so sly as that - "
M. Lecoq checked himself. Janouille, for the third time, opened the door, and said, in a deep bass voice:
"Breakfast is ready." Janouille was a remarkable cook; M. Plantat had ample experience of the fact when he began upon her dishes. But he was not hungry, and could not force himself to eat; he could not think of anything but a plan which he had to propose to his host, and he had that oppressive feeling which is experienced when one is about to do something which has been decided on with hesitation and regret. The detective, who, like all men of great activity, was a great eater, vainly essayed to entertain his guest, and filled his glass with the choicest Chateau Margaux; the old man sat silent and sad, and only responded by monosyllables. He tried to speak out and to struggle against the hesitation he felt. He did not think, when he came, that he should have this reluctance; he had said to himself that he would go in and explain himself. Did he fear to be ridiculed? No. His passion was above the fear of sarcasm or irony. And what did he risk? Nothing. Had not M. Lecoq already divined the secret thoughts he dared not impart to him, and read his heart from the first? He was reflecting thus when the door-bell rang. Janouille went to the door, and speedily returned with the announcement that Goulard begged to speak with M. Lecoq, and asked if she should admit him.
The chains clanked and the locks scraped, and presently Goulard made his appearance. He had donned his best clothes, with spotless linen, and a very high collar. He was respectful, and stood as stiffly as a well-drilled grenadier before his sergeant.
"What the deuce brought you here?" said M. Lecoq, sternly. "And who dared to give you my address?
"Monsieur," said Goulard, visibly intimidated by his reception, "please excuse me; I was sent by Doctor Gendron with this letter for Monsieur Plantat."
"Oh," cried M. Plantat, "I asked the doctor, last evening, to let me know the result of the autopsy, and not knowing where I should put up, took the liberty of giving your address."
M. Lecoq took the letter and handed it to his guest. "Read it, read it," said the latter. "There is nothing in it to conceal."
"All right; but come into the other room. Janouille, give this man some breakfast. Make yourself at home, Goulard, and empty a bottle to my health."
When the door of the other room was closed, M. Lecoq broke the seal of the letter, and read:
"MY DEAR PLANTAT:
"You asked me for a word, so I scratch off a line or two which I shall send to our sorcerer's - "
"Oh, ho," cried M. Lecoq. "Monsieur Gendron is too good, too flattering, really!" No matter, the compliment touched his heart. He resumed the letter:
"At three this morning we exhumed poor Sauvresy's body. I certainly deplore the frightful circumstances of this worthy man's death as much as anyone; but on the other hand, I cannot help rejoicing at this excellent opportunity to test the efficacy of my sensitive paper - "
"Confound these men of science," cried the indignant Plantat. "They are all alike!"
"Why so? I can very well comprehend the doctor's involuntary sensations. Am I not ravished when I encounter a fine crime?"
And without waiting for his guest's reply, he continued reading the letter:
"The experiments promised, to be all the more conclusive as aconitine is one, of those drugs which conceal themselves most obstinately from analysis. I proceed thus: After heating the suspected substances in twice their weight of alcohol, I drop the liquid gently into a vase with edges a little elevated, at the bottom of which is a piece of paper on which I have placed my tests. If my paper retains its color, there is no poison; if it changes, the poison is there. In this case my paper was of a light yellow color, and if we were not mistaken, it ought either to become covered with brown spots, or completely brown. I explained this experiment beforehand to the judge of instruction and the experts who were assisting me. Ah, my friend, what a success I had! When the first drops of alcohol fell, the paper at once became a dark brown; your suspicions are thus proved to be quite correct. The substances which I submitted to the test were liberally saturated with aconitine. I never obtained more decisive results in my laboratory. I expect that my conclusions will be disputed in court; but I have means of verifying them, so that I shall surely confound all the chemists who oppose me. I think, my dear friend, that you will not be indifferent to the satisfaction I feel - "
M. Plantat lost patience.
"This is unheard-of!" cried he. "Incredible! Would you say, now, that this poison which he found in Sauvresy's body was stolen from his own laboratory? Why, that body is nothing more to him than 'suspected matter!' And he already imagines himself discussing the merits of his sensitive paper in court!"
"He has reason to look for antagonists in court."
"And meanwhile he makes his experiments, and analyzes with the coolest blood in the world; he continues his abominable cooking, boiling and filtering, and preparing his arguments - !"
M. Lecoq did not share in his friend's indignation; he was not sorry at the prospect of a bitter struggle in court, and he imagined a great scientific duel, like that between Orfila and Raspail, the provincial and Parisian chemists.
"If Tremorel has the face to deny his part in Sauvresy's murder," said he, "we shall have a superb trial of it."
This word "trial" put an end to M. Plantat's long hesitation.
"We mustn't have any trial," cried he.
The old man's violence, from one who was usually so calm and self-possessed, seemed to amaze M. Lecoq.
"Ah ha," thought he, "I'm going to know all." He added aloud:
"What, no trial?"
M. Plantat had turned whiter than a sheet; he was trembling, and his voice was hoarse, as if broken by sobs.
"I would give my fortune," resumed he to avoid a trial - every centime of it, though it doesn't amount to much. But how can we secure this wretch Tremorel from a conviction? What subterfuge shall we invent? You alone, my friend, can advise me in the frightful extremity to which you see me reduced, and aid me to accomplish what I wish. If there is any way in the world, you will find it and save me - "
"But, my - "
"Pardon-hear me, and you will comprehend me. I am going to be frank with you, as I would be with myself; and you will see the reason of my hesitation, my silence, in short, of all my conduct since the discovery of the crime."
"I am listening."
"It's a sad history, Lecoq. I had reached an age at which a man's career is, as they say, finished, when I suddenly lost my wife and my two sons, my whole joy, my whole hope in this world. I found myself alone in life, more lost than the shipwrecked man in the midst of the sea, without a plank to sustain me. I was a soulless body, when chance brought me to settle down at Orcival. There I saw Laurence; she was just fifteen, and never lived there a creature who united in herself so much intelligence, grace, innocence, and beauty. Courtois became my friend, and soon Laurence was like a daughter to me. I doubtless loved her then, but I did not confess it to myself, for I did not read my heart clearly. She was so young, and I had gray hairs! I persuaded myself that my love for her was like that of a father, and it was as a father that she cherished me. Ah, I passed many a delicious hour listening to her gentle prattle and her innocent confidences; I was happy when I saw her skipping about in my garden, picking the roses I had reared for her, and laying waste my parterres; and I said to myself that existence is a precious gift from God. My dream then was to follow her through life. I fancied her wedded to some good man who made her happy, while I remained the friend of the wife, after having been the confidant of the maiden. I took good care of my fortune, which is considerable, because I thought of her children, and wished to hoard up treasures for them. Poor, poor Laurence!"
M. Lecoq fidgeted in his chair, rubbed his face with his handkerchief, and seemed ill at ease. He was really much more touched than he wished to appear.
"One day," pursued the old man, "my friend Gourtois spoke to me of her marriage with Tremorel; then I measured the depth of my love. I felt terrible agonies which it is impossible to describe; it was like a long-smothered fire which suddenly breaks forth and devours everything. To be old, and to love a child! I thought I was going crazy; I tried to reason, to upbraid myself, but it was of no avail. What can reason or irony do against passion? I kept silent and suffered. To crown all, Laurence selected me as her confidant what torture! She came to me to talk of Hector; she admired in him all that seemed to her superior to other men, so that none could be compared with him. She was enchanted with his bold horseback riding, and thought everything he said sublime."
"Did you know what a wretch Tremorel was?"
"Alas, I did not yet know it. What was this man who lived at Valfeuillu to me? But from the day that I learned that he was going to deprive me of my most precious treasure, I began to study him. I should have been somewhat consoled if I had found him worthy of her; so I dogged him, as you, Monsieur Lecoq, cling to the criminal whom you are pursuing. I went often to Paris to learn what I could of his past life; I became a detective, and went about questioning everybody who had known him, and the more I heard of him the more I despised him. It was thus that I found out his interviews with Jenny and his relations with Bertha."
"Why didn't you divulge them?"
"Honor commanded silence. Had I a right to dishonor my friend and ruin his happiness and life, because of this ridiculous, hopeless love? I kept my own counsel after speaking to Courtois about Jenny, at which he only laughed. When I hinted something against Hector to Laurence, she almost ceased coming to see me."
"Ah! I shouldn't have had either your patience or your generosity."
"Because you are not as old as I, Monsieur Lecoq. Oh, I cruelly hated this Tremorel! I said to myself, when I saw three women of such different characters smitten with him, 'what is there in him to be so loved?'"
"Yes," answered M. Lecoq, responding to a secret thought, "women often err; they don't judge men as we do."
"Many a time," resumed the justice of the peace, "I thought of provoking him to fight with me, that I might kill him; but then Laurence would not have looked at me any more. However, I should perhaps have spoken at last, had not Sauvresy fallen ill and died. I knew that he had made his wife and Tremorel swear to marry each other; I knew that a terrible reason forced them to keep their oath; and I thought Laurence saved. Alas, on the contrary she was lost! One evening, as I was passing the mayor's house, I saw a man getting over the wall into the garden; it was Tremorel. I recognized him perfectly. I was beside myself with rage, and swore that I would wait and murder him. I did wait, but he did not come out that night."
M. Plantat hid his face in his bands; his heart bled at the recollection of that night of anguish, the whole of which he had passed in waiting for a man in order to kill him. M. Lecoq trembled with indignation.
"This Tremorel," cried he, "is the most abominable of scoundrels. There is no excuse for his infamies and crimes. And yet you want to save him from trial, the galleys, the scaffold which await him."
The old man paused a moment before replying. Of the thoughts which now crowded tumultuously in his mind, he did not know which to utter first. Words seemed powerless to betray his sensations; he wanted to express all that he felt in a single sentence.
"What matters Tremorel to me?" said he at last. "Do you think I care about him? I don't care whether he lives or dies, whether he succeeds in flying or ends his life some morning in the Place Roquette."
"Then why have you such a horror of a trial?"
"Because - "
"Are you a friend to his family, and anxious to preserve the great name which he has covered with mud and devoted to infamy?"
"No, but I am anxious for Laurence, my friend; the thought of her never leaves me."
"But she is not his accomplice ; she is totally ignorant - there's no doubt of it - that he has killed his wife."
"Yes," resumed M. Plantat, "Laurence is innocent; she is only the victim of an odious villain. It is none the less true, though, that she would be more cruelly punished than he. If Tremorel is brought before the court, she will have to appear too, as a witness if not as a prisoner. And who knows that her truth will not be suspected? She will be asked whether she really had no knowledge of the project to murder Bertha, and whether she did not encourage it. Bertha was her rival; it were natural to suppose that she hated her. If I were the judge I should not hesitate to include Laurence in the indictment."
"With our aid she will prove victoriously that she was ignorant of all, and has been outrageously deceived."
"May be; but will she be any the less dishonored and forever lost? Must she not, in that case, appear in public, answer the judge's questions, and narrate the story of her shame and misfortunes? Must not she say where, when, and how she fell, and repeat the villain's words to her? Can you imagine that of her own free will she compelled herself to announce her suicide at the risk of killing her parents with grief? No. Then she must explain what menaces forced her to do this, which surely was not her own idea. And worse than all, she will be compelled to confess her love for Tremorel."
"No," answered the detective. "Let us not exaggerate anything. You know as well as I do that justice is most considerate with the innocent victims of affairs of this sort."
"Consideration? Eh! Could justice protect her, even if it would, from the publicity in which trials are conducted? You might touch the magistrates' hearts; but there are fifty journalists who, since this crime, have been cutting their pens and getting their paper ready. Do you think that, to please us, they would suppress the scandalous proceedings which I am anxious to avoid, and which the noble name of the murderer would make a great sensation? Does not this case unite every feature which gives success to judicial dramas? Oh, there's nothing wanting, neither unworthy passion, nor poison, nor vengeance, nor murder. Laurence represents in it the romantic and sentimental element; she - my darling girl - will become a heroine of the assizes; it is she who will attract the readers of the Police Gazette; the reporters will tell when she blushes and when she weeps; they will rival each other in describing her toilet and bearing. Then there will be the photographers besieging her, and if she refuses to sit, portraits of some hussy of the street will be sold as hers. She will yearn to hide herself - but where? Can a few locks and bars shelter her from eager curiosity? She will become famous. What shame and misery! If she is to be saved, Monsieur Lecoq, her name must not be spoken. I ask of you, is it possible? Answer me."
The old man was very violent, yet his speech was simple, devoid of the pompous phrases of passion. Anger lit up his eyes with a strange fire; he seemed young again - he loved, and defended his beloved.
M. Lecoq was silent; his companion insisted.
"Why seek to mislead me? Haven't I as well as you had experience in these things? If Tremorel is brought to trial, all is over with Laurence: And I love her! Yes, I dare to confess it to you, and let you see the depth of my grief, I love her now as I have never loved her. She is dishonored, an object of contempt, perhaps still adores this wretch what matters it? I love her a thousand times more than before her fall, for then I loved her without hope, while now - "
He stopped, shocked at what he was going to say. His eyes fell before M. Lecoq's steady gaze, and he blushed for this shameful yet human hope that he had betrayed.
"You know all, now," resumed he, in a calmer tone; "consent to aid me, won't you? Ah, if you only would, I should not think I had repaid you were I to give you half my fortune and I am rich - "
M. Lecoq stopped him with a haughty gesture.
"Enough, Monsieur Plantat," said he, in a bitter tone, "I can do a service to a person whom I esteem, love and pity with all my soul; but I cannot sell such a service."
"Believe that I did not wish - "
"Yes, yes, you wished to pay me. Oh, don't excuse yourself, don't deny it. There are professions, I know, in which manhood and integrity seem to count for nothing. Why offer me money? What reason have you for judging me so mean as to sell my favors? You are like the rest, who can't fancy what a man in my position is. If I wanted to be rich - richer than you - I could be so in a fortnight. Don't you see that I hold in my hands the honor and lives of fifty people? Do you think I tell all I know? I have here," added he, tapping his forehead, "twenty secrets that I could sell to-morrow, if I would, for a plump hundred thousand apiece."
He was indignant, but beneath his anger a certain sad resignation might be perceived. He had often to reject such offers.
"If you go and resist this prejudice established for ages, and say that a detective is honest and cannot be otherwise, that he is tenfold more honest than any merchant or notary, because he has tenfold the temptations, without the benefits of his honesty; if you say this, they'll laugh in your face. I could get together to-morrow, with impunity, without any risk, at least a million. Who would mistrust it? I have a conscience, it's true; but a little consideration for these things would not be unpleasant. When it would be so easy for me to divulge what I know of those who have been obliged to trust me, or things which I have surprised, there is perhaps a merit in holding my tongue. And still, the first man who should come along to-morrow - a defaulting banker, a ruined merchant, a notary who has gambled on change - would feel himself compromised by walking up the boulevard with me! A policeman - fie! But old Tabaret used to say to me, that the contempt of such people was only one form of fear."
M. Plantat was dismayed. How could he, a man of delicacy, prudence and finesse, have committed such an awkward mistake? He had just cruelly wounded this man, who was so well disposed toward him, and he had everything to fear from his resentment.
"Far be it from me, dear friend," he commenced, "to intend the offence you imagine. You have misunderstood an insignificant phrase, which I let escape carelessly, and had no meaning at all."
M. Lecoq grew calmer.
"Perhaps so. You will forgive my being so susceptible, as I am more exposed to insults than most people. Let's leave the subject, which is a painful one, and return to Tremorel."
M. Plantat was just thinking whether he should dare to broach his projects again, and he was singularly touched by M. Lecoq's delicately resuming the subject of them.
"I have only to await your decision," said the justice of the peace.
"I will not conceal from you," resumed M. Lecoq, "that you are asking a very difficult thing, and one which is contrary to my duty, which commands me to search for Tremorel, to arrest him, and deliver him up to justice. You ask me to protect him from the law - "
"In the name of an innocent creature whom you will thereby save."
"Once in my life I sacrificed my duty. I could not resist the tears of a poor old mother, who clung to my knees and implored pardon for her son. To-day I am going to exceed my right, and to risk an attempt for which my conscience will perhaps reproach me. I yield to your entreaty."
"Oh, my dear Lecoq, how grateful I am!" cried M. Plantat, transported with joy.
But the detective remained grave, almost sad, and reflected.
"Don't let us encourage a hope which may be disappointed," he resumed. "I have but one means of keeping a criminal like Tremorei out of the courts; will it succeed?"
"Yes, yes. If you wish it, it will!"
M. Lecoq could not help smiling at the old man's faith.
"I am certainly a clever detective," said he. "But I am only a man after all, and I can't answer for the actions of another man. All depends upon Hector. If it were another criminal, I should say I was sure. I am doubtful about him, I frankly confess. We ought, above all, to count upon the firmness of Mademoiselle Courtois ; can we, think you?"
" She is firmness itself."
"Then there's hope. But can we really suppress this affair? What will happen when Sauvresy's narrative is found? It must be concealed somewhere in Valfeuillu, and Tremorel, at least, did not find it."
"It will not be found," said M. Plantat, quickly.
"You think so?" "I am sure of it."
M. Lecoq gazed intently at his companion, and simply said:
But this is what he thought: "At last I am going to find out where the manuscript which we heard read the other night, and which is in two handwritings, came from."
After a moment's hesitation, M. Plantat went on:
"I have put my life in your hands, Monsieur Lecoq; I can, of course, confide my honor to you. I know you. I know that, happen what may - "
"I shall keep my mouth shut, on my honor."
" Very Well. The day that I caught Tremorel at the mayor's, I wished to verify the suspicions I had, and so I broke the seal of Sauvresy's package of papers."
"And you did not use them?"
"I was dismayed at my abuse of confidence. Besides, had I the right to deprive poor Sauvresy, who was dying in order to avenge himself, of his vengeance?"
"But you gave the papers to Madame de Tremorel?"
"True; but Bertha had a vague presentiment of the fate that was in store for her. About a fortnight before her death she came and confided to me her husband's manuscript, which she had taken care to complete. I broke the seals and read it, to see if he had died a violent death."
"Why, then, didn't you tell me? Why did you let me hunt, hesitate, grope about - "
"I love Laurence, Monsieur Lecoq, and to deliver up Tremorel was to open an abyss between her and me."
The detective bowed. "The deuce," thought he, "the old justice is shrewd - as shrewd as I am. Well, I like him, and I'm going to give him a surprise."
M. Plantat yearned to question his host and to know what the sole means of which he spoke were, which might be successful in preventing a trial and saving Laurence, but he did not dare to do so.
The detective bent over his desk lost in thought. He held a pencil in his hand and mechanically drew fantastic figures on a large sheet of white paper which lay before him. He suddenly came out of his revery. He had just solved a last difficulty; his plan was now entire and complete. He glanced at the clock.
"Two o'clock," cried he, "and I have an appointment between three and four with Madame Charman about Jenny."
"I am at your disposal," returned his guest.
"All right. When Jenny is disposed of we must look after Tremorel; so let's take our measures to finish it up to-day."
"What! do you hope to do everything to-day - "
"Certainly. Rapidity is above all necessary in our profession. It often takes a month to regain an hour lost. We've a chance now of catching Hector by surprise; to-morrow it will be too late. Either we shall have him within four-and-twenty hours or we must change our batteries. Each of my three men has a carriage and a good horse; they may be able to finish with the upholsterers within an hour from now. If I calculate aright, we shall have the address in an hour, or at most in two hours, and then we will act."
Lecoq, as he spoke, took a sheet of paper surmounted by his arms out of his portfolio, and rapidly wrote several lines.
"See here," said he, "what I've written to one of my lieutenants."
"MONSIEUR JOB- "Get together six or eight of our men at once and take them to the wine merchant's at the corner of the Rue des Martyrs and the Rue Lamartine; await my orders there."
"Why there and not here?"
"Because we must avoid needless excursions. At the place I have designated we are only two steps from Madame Charman's and near Tremorel's retreat; for the, wretch has hired his rooms in the quarter of Notre Dame de Lorette."
M. Plantat gave an exclamation of surprise.
"What makes you think that?"
The detective smiled, as if the question seemed foolish to him.
"Don't you recollect that the envelope of the letter addressed by Mademoiselle Courtois to her family to announce her suicide bore the Paris postmark, and that of the branch office of Rue St. Lazare? Now listen to this: On leaving her aunt's house, Laurence must have gone directly to Tremorel's apartments, the address of which he had given her, and where he had promised to meet her on Thursday morning. She wrote the letter, then, in his apartments. Can we admit that she had the presence of mind to post the letter in another quarter than that in which she was? It is at least probable that she was ignorant of the terrible reasons which Tremorel had to fear a search and pursuit. Had Hector foresight enough to suggest this trick to her? No, for if he wasn't a fool he would have told her to post the letter somewhere outside of Paris. It is therefore scarcely possible that it was posted anywhere else than at the nearest branch office."
These suppositions were so simple that M. Plantat wondered he had not thought of them before. But men do not see clearly in affairs in which they are deeply interested; passion dims the eyes, as heat in a room dims a pair of spectacles. He had lost, with his coolness, a part of his clearsightedness. His anxiety was very great; for he thought M. Lecoq had a singular mode of keeping his promise.
"It seems to me," he could not help remarking, "that if you wish to keep Hector from trial, the men you have summoned together will be more embarrassing than useful."
M. Lecoq thought that his guest's tone and look betrayed a certain doubt, and was irritated by it.
"Do you distrust me, Monsieur Plantat?"
The old man tried to protest.
"Believe me - "
"You have my word," resumed M. Lecoq, "and if you knew me better you would know that I always keep it when I have given it. I have told you that I would do my best to save Mademoiselle Laurence; but remember that I have promised you my assistance, not absolute success. Let me, then, take such measures as I think best."
So saying, he rang for Janouille.
"Here's a letter," said he when she appeared, "which must be sent to Job at once."
"I will carry it."
"By no means. You will be pleased to remain here and wait for the men that I sent out this morning. As they come in, send them to the wine merchant's at the corner of the Rue des Martyrs; you know it - opposite the church. They'll find a numerous company there."
As he gave his orders, he took off his gown, assumed a long black coat, and carefully adjusted his wig.
"Will Monsieur be back this evening?" asked Janouille.
"I don't know." "And if anybody comes from over yonder?"
"Over yonder" with a detective, always means "the house" - otherwise the prefecture of police.
"Say that I am out on the Corbeil affair."
M. Lecoq was soon ready. He had the air, physiognomy, and manners of a highly respectable chief clerk of fifty. Gold spectacles, an umbrella, everything about him exhaled an odor of the ledger.
"Now," said he to M. Plantat. "Let's hurry away." Goulard, who had made a hearty breakfast, was waiting for his hero in the dining-room.
"Ah ha, old fellow," said M. Lecoq. "So you've had a few words with my wine. How do you find it?"
"Delicious, my chief; perfect - that is to say, a true nectar."
"It's cheered you up, I hope."
"Oh, yes, my chief."
"Then you may follow us a few steps and mount guard at the door of the house where you see us go in. I shall probably have to confide a pretty little girl to your care whom you will carry to Monsieur Domini. And open your eyes; for she's a sly creature, and very apt to inveigle you on the way and slip through your fingers."
They went out, and Janouille stoutly barricaded herself behind them.