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A long silence followed the detective's discourse. Perhaps his hearers were casting about for objections. At last Dr. Gendron spoke:
"I don't see Guespin's part in all this."
"Nor I, very clearly," answered M. Legoq. "And here I ought to confess to you not only the strength, but the weakness also, of the theory I have adopted. By this method, which consists of reconstructing the crime before discovering the criminal, I can be neither right nor wrong by halves. Either all my inferences are correct, or not one of them is. It's all, or nothing. If I am right, Guespin has not been mixed up with this crime, at least directly; for there isn't a single circumstance which suggests outside aid. If, on the other hand, I am wrong - "
M. Lecoq paused. He seemed to have heard some unexpected noise in the garden.
"But I am not wrong. I have still another charge against the count, of which I haven't spoken, but which seems to be conclusive."
"Oh," cried the doctor, "what now?"
"Two certainties are better than one, and I always doubt. When I was left alone a moment with Francois, the valet, I asked him if he knew exactly the number of the count's shoes; he said yes, and took me to a closet where the shoes are kept. A pair of boots, with green Russia leather tops, which Francois was sure the count had put on the previous morning, was missing. I looked for them carefully everywhere, but could not find them. Again, the blue cravat with white stripes which the count wore on the 8th, had also disappeared."
"There," cried M. Plantat, "that is indisputable proof that your supposition about the slippers and handkerchief was right."
"I think that the facts are sufficiently established to enable us to go forward. Let's now consider the events which must have decided - "
M. Lecoq again stopped, and seemed to be listening. All of a sudden, without a word he jumped on the window-sill and from thence into the garden, with the bound of a cat which pounces on a mouse. The noise of a fall, a stifled cry, an oath, were heard, and then a stamping as if a struggle were going on. The doctor and M. Plantat hastened to the window. Day was breaking, the trees shivered in the fresh wind of the early morning, - objects were vaguely visible without distinct forms across the white mist which hangs, on summer nights, over the valley of the Seine. In the middle of the lawn, at rapid intervals, they heard the blunt noise of a clinched fist striking a living body, and saw two men, or rather two phantoms, furiously swinging their arms. Presently the two shapes formed but one, then they separated, again to unite; one of the two fell, rose at once, and fell again.
"Don't disturb yourselves," cried M. Lecoq's voice. "I've got the rogue."
The shadow of the detective, which was upright, bent over, and the conflict was recommenced. The shadow stretched on the ground defended itself with the dangerous strength of despair; his body formed a large brown spot in the middle of the lawn, and his legs, kicking furiously, convulsively stretched and contracted. Then there was a moment when the lookers-on could not make out which was the detective. They rose again and struggled; suddenly a cry of pain escaped, with a ferocious oath.
And almost immediately a loud shout rent the air, and the detective's mocking tones were heard:
"There he is! I've persuaded him to pay his respects to us - light me up a little."
The doctor and his host hastened to the lamp; their zeal caused a delay, and at the moment that the doctor raised the lamp, the door was rudely pushed open.
"I beg to present to you," said M. Lecoq, "Master Robelot, bone-setter of Orcival, herborist by prudence, and poisoner by vocation."
The stupefaction of the others was such that neither could speak.
It was really the bone-setter, working his jaws nervously. His adversary had thrown him down by the famous knee-stroke which is the last resort of the worst prowlers about the Parisian barriers. But it was not so much Robelot's presence which surprised M. Plantat and his friend. Their stupor was caused by the detective's appearance; who, with his wrist of steel - as rigid as handcuffs - held the doctor's ex-assistant, and pushed him forward. The voice was certainly Lecoq 's; there was his costume, his big-knotted ravat, his yellow-haired watch-chain - still it was no longer Lecoq. He was blond, with highly cultivated whiskers, when he jumped out the window; he returned, brown, with a smooth face. The man who had jumped out was a middle-aged person, with an expressive face which was in turn idiotic and intelligent; the man who returned by the door was a fine young fellow of thirty-five, with a beaming eye and a sensitive lip; a splendid head of curly black hair, brought out vividly the pallor of his complexion, and the firm outline of his head and face. A wound appeared on his neck, just below the chin.
"Monsieur Lecoq!" cried M. Plantat, recovering his voice.
"Himself," answered the detective, "and this time the true Lecoq." Turning to Robelot, he slapped him on the shoulder and added:
"Go on, you."
Robelot fell upon a sofa, but the detective continued to hold him fast.
"Yes," he continued, "this rascal has robbed me of my blond locks. Thanks to him and in spite of myself, you see me as I am, with the head the Creator gave me, and which is really my own." He gave a careless gesture, half angry, half good-humored. "I am the true Lecoq; and to tell the truth, only three persons besides yourselves really know him - two trust-ed friends, and one who is infinitely less so - she of whom I spoke a while ago."
The eyes of the other two met as if to question each other, and M. Lecoq continued:
"What can a fellow do? All is not rose color in my trade. We run such dangers, in protecting society, as should entitle us to the esteem, if not the affection of our fellow-men: Why, I am condemned to death, at this moment, by seven of the most dangerous criminals in France. I have caught them, you see, and they have sworn - they are men of their word, too - that I should only die by their hands. Where are these wretches? Four at Cayenne, one at Brest; I've had news of them. But the other two? I've lost their track. Who knows whether one of them hasn't followed me here, and whether to-morrow, at the turning of some obscure road, I shall not get six inches of cold steel in my stomach?"
He smiled sadly.
"And no reward," pursued he, "for the perils which we brave. If I should fall to-morrow, they would take up my body, carry it to my house, and that would be the end." The detective's tone had become bitter, the irritation of his voice betrayed his rancor. "My precautions happily are taken. While I am performing my duties, I suspect everything, and when I am on my guard I fear no one. But there are days when one is tired of being on his guard, and would like to be able to turn a street corner without looking for a dagger. On such days I again become myself; I take off my false beard, throw down my mask, and my real self emerges from the hundred disguises which I assume in turn. I have been a detective fifteen years, and no one at the prefecture knows either my true face or the color of my hair."
Master Robelot, ill at ease on his lounge, attempted to move.
"Ah, look out!" cried M. Lecoq, suddenly changing his tone. "Now get up here, and tell us what you were about in the garden?"
"But you are wounded!" exclaimed Plantat, observing stains of blood on M. Lecoq's shirt.
"Oh, that's nothing-only a scratch that this fellow gave me with a big cutlass he had."
M. Plantat insisted on examining the wound, and was not satisfied until the doctor declared it to be a very slight one.
"Come, Master Robelot," said the old man, "what were you doing here?"
The bone-setter did not reply.
"Take care," insisted M. Plantat, "your silence will confirm us in the idea that you came with the worst designs."
But it was in vain that M. Plantat wasted his persuasive eloquence. Robelot shut himself up in a ferocious and dogged silence. M. Gendron, hoping, not without reason, that he might have some influence over his former assistant, spoke:
"Answer us; what did you come for?"
Robelot made an effort; it was painful, with his broken jaw, to speak.
"I came to rob; I confess it."
"I don't know."
"But you didn't scale a wall and risk the jail without a definite object?"
"Well, then, I wanted - "
"What? Go on."
"To get some rare flowers in the conservatory."
"With your cutlass, hey?" said M. Lecoq. Robelot gave him a terrible look; the detective continued:
"You needn't look at me that way - you don't scare me. And don't talk like a fool, either. If you think we are duller than you, you are mistaken - I warn you of it."
"I wanted the flower-pots," stammered the man.
"Oh, come now," cried M. Lecoq, shrugging his shoulders, "don't repeat such nonsense. You, a man that buys large estates for cash, steal flower-pots! Tell that to somebody else. You've been turned over to-night, my boy, like an old glove. You've let out in spite of yourself a secret that tormented you furiously, and you came here to get it back again. You thought that perhaps Monsieur Plantat had not told it to anybody, and you wanted to prevent him from speaking again forever."
Robelot made a sign of protesting.
"Shut up now," said M. Lecoq. "And your cutlass?"
While this conversation was going on, M. Plantat reflected.
"Perhaps," he murmured, "I've spoken too soon."
"Why so?" asked M. Lecoq. "I wanted a palpable proof for Monsieur Domini; we'll give him this rascal, and if he isn't satisfied, he's difficult to please."
"But what shall we do with him?"
"Shut him up somewhere in the house; if necessary, I'll tie him up."
"Here's a dark closet."
"Is it secure?"
"There are thick walls on three sides of it, and the fourth is closed with a double door; no openings, no windows, nothing."
"Just the place."
M. Plantat opened the closet, a black-looking hole, damp, narrow, and full of old books and papers.
"There," said M. Lecoq to his prisoner, "in here you'll be like a little king," and he pushed him into the closet. Robelot did not resist, but he asked for some water and a light. They gave him a bottle of water and a glass.
"As for a light," said M. Lecoq, "you may dispense with it. You'll be playing us some dirty trick."
M. Plantat, having shut the closet-door, took the detective's hand.
"Monsieur," said he, earnestly, "you have probably just saved my life at the peril of your own; I will not thank you. The day will come, I trust, when I may - "
The detective interrupted him with a gesture.
"You know how I constantly expose myself," said he, "once more or less does not matter much. Besides, it does not always serve a man to save his life." He was pensive a moment, then added: "You will thank me after awhile, when I have gained other titles to your gratitude."
M. Gendron also cordially shook the detective's hand, saying:
"Permit me to express my admiration of you. I had no idea what the resources of such a man as you were. You got here this morning without information, without details, and by the mere scrutiny of the scene of the crime, by the sole force of reasoning, have found the criminal: more, you have proved to us that the criminal could be no other than he whom you have named."
M. Lecoq bowed modestly. These praises evidently pleased him greatly.
Still," he answered, "I am not yet quite satisfied. The guilt of the Count de Tremorel is of course abundantly clear to me. But what motives urged him? How was he led to this terrible impulse to kill his wife, and make it appear that he, too, had been murdered?"
"Might we not conclude," remarked the doctor, "that, disgusted with Madame de Tremorel, he has got rid of her to rejoin another woman, adored by him to madness?"
M. Lecoq shook his head.
"People don't kill their wives for the sole reason that they are tired of them and love others. They quit their wives, live with the new loves - that's all. That happens every day, and neither the law nor public opinion condemns such people with great severity."
"But it was the wife who had the fortune."
"That wasn't the case here. I have been posting myself up. M. de Tremorel had a hundred thousand crowns, the remains of a colossal fortune saved by his friend Sauvresy; and his wife by the marriage contract made over a half million to him. A man can live in ease anywhere on eight hundred thousand francs. Besides, the count was master of all the funds of the estate. He could sell, buy, realize, borrow, deposit, and draw funds at will."
The doctor had nothing to reply. M. Lecoq went on, speaking with a certain hesitation, while his eyes interrogated M. Plantat.
"We must find the reasons of this murder, and the motives of the assassin's terrible resolution - in the past. Some crime so indissolubly linked the count and countess, that only the death of one of them could free the other. I suspected this crime the first thing this morning, and have seen it all the way through; and the man that we have just shut up in there - Robelot - who wanted to murder Monsieur Plantat, was either the agent or the accomplice of this crime.
The doctor had not been present at the various episodes which, during the day at Valfeuillu and in the evening at the mayor's, had established a tacit understanding between Plantat and Lecoq. He needed all the shrewdness he possessed to fill up the gaps and understand the hidden meanings of the conversation to which he had been listening for two hours. M. Lecoq's last words shed a ray of light upon it all, and the doctor cried, "Sauvresy!"
"Yes - Sauvresy," answered M. Lecoq. "And the paper which the murderer hunted for so eagerly, for which he neglected his safety and risked his life, must contain the certain proof of the crime."
M. Plantat, despite the most significant looks and the direct provocation to make an explanation, was silent. He seemed a hundred leagues off in his thoughts, and his eyes, wandering in space, seemed to follow forgotten episodes in the mists of the past. M. Lecoq, after a brief pause, decided to strike a bold blow.
"What a past that must have been," exclaimed he, "which could drive a young, rich, happy man like Hector de Tremorel to plan in cool blood such a crime, to resign himself to disappear after it, to cease to exist, as it were to lose all at once his personality, his position, his honor and his name! What a past must be that which drives a young girl of twenty to suicide!"
M. Plantat started up, pale, more moved than he had yet appeared.
"Ah," cried he, in an altered voice, "you don't believe what you say! Laurence never knew about it, never!"
The doctor, who was narrowly watching the detective, thought he saw a faint smile light up his mobile features. The old justice of the peace went on, now calmly and with dignity, in a somewhat haughty tone:
"You didn't need tricks or subterfuge, Monsieur Lecoq, to induce me to tell what I know. I have evinced enough esteem and confidence in you to deprive you of the right to arm yourself against me with the sad secret which you have surprised."
M. Lecoq, despite his cool-headedness, was disconcerted.
"Yes," pursued M. Plantat, "your astonishing genius for penetrating dramas like this has led you to the truth. But you do not know all, and even now I would hold my tongue, had not the reasons which compelled me to be silent ceased to exist."
He opened a secret drawer in an old oaken desk near the fireplace and took out a large paper package, which he laid on the table.
"For four years," he resumed, "I have followed, day by day - I might say, hour by hour - the various phases of the dreadful drama which ended in blood last night at Valfeuillu. At first, the curiosity of an old retired attorney prompted me. Later, I hoped to save the life and honor of one very dear to me. Why did I say nothing of my discoveries? That, my friends, is the secret of my conscience - it does not reproach me. Besides, I shut my eyes to the evidence even up to yesterday; I needed the brutal testimony of this deed!"
Day had come. The frightened blackbirds flew whistling by. The pavement resounded with the wooden shoes of the workmen going fieldward. No noise troubled the sad stillness of the library, unless it were the rustling of the leaves which M. Plantat was turning over, or now and then a groan from Robelot.
"Before commencing," said the old man, "I ought to consider your weariness; we have been up twenty-four hours - "
But the others protested that they did not need repose. The fever of curiosity had chased away their exhaustion. They were at last to know the key of the mystery.
"Very well," said their host, "listen to me."
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