Chapter XXI




The old justice of the peace ceased reading his voluminous record. His hearers, the detective and the doctor remained silent under the influence of this distressing narrative. M. Plantat had read it impressively, throwing himself into the recital as if he had been personally an actor in the scenes described.

M. Lecoq was the first to recover himself.

"A strange man, Sauvresy," said he.

It was Sauvresy's extraordinary idea of vengeance which struck him in the story. He admired his "good playing" in a drama in which he knew he was going to yield up his life.

"I don't know many people," pursued the detective, "capable of so fearful a firmness. To let himself be poisoned so slowly and gently by his wife! Brrr! It makes a man shiver all over!"

"He knew how to avenge himself," muttered the doctor.

"Yes," answered M. Plantat, "yes, Doctor; he knew how to avenge himself, and more terribly than he supposed, or than you can imagine.

The detective rose from his seat. He had remained motionless, glued to his chair for more than three hours, and his legs were benumbed.

"For my part," said he, "I can very well conceive what an infernal existence the murderers began to suffer the day after their victim's death. You have depicted them, Monsieur Plantat, with the hand of a master. I know them as well after your description as if I had studied them face to face for ten years."

He spoke deliberately, and watched for the effect of what he said in M. Plantat's countenance.

"Where on earth did this old fellow get all these details?" he asked himself. "Did he write this narrative, and if not, who did? How was it, if he had all this information, that he has said nothing?"

M. Plantat appeared to be unconscious of the detective's searching look.

"I know that Sauvresy's body was not cold," said he, "before his murderers began to threaten each other with death."

"Unhappily for them," observed Dr. Gendron, "Sauvresy had foreseen the probability of his widow's using up the rest of the vial of poison."

"Ah, he was shrewd," said M. Lecoq, in a tone of conviction, "very shrewd."

"Bertha could not pardon Hector," continued M. Plantat, "for refusing to take the revolver and blow his brains out; Sauvresy, you see, had foreseen that. Bertha thought that if her lover were dead, her husband would have forgotten all; and it is impossible to tell whether she was mistaken or not."

"And nobody knew anything of this horrible struggle that was going on in the house?"

"No one ever suspected anything."

"It's marvellous!"

"Say, Monsieur Lecoq, that is scarcely credible. Never was dissimulation so crafty, and above all, so wonderfully sustained. If you should question the first person you met in Orcival, he would tell you, as our worthy Courtois this morning told Monsieur Domini, that the count and countess were a model pair and adored each other. Why I, who knew - or suspected, I should say - what had passed, was deceived myself."

Promptly as M. Plantat had corrected himself, his slip of the tongue did not escape M. Lecoq.

"Was it really a slip, or not? " he asked himself.

"These wretches have been terribly punished," pursued M. Plantat, "and it is impossible to pity them; all would have gone rightly if Sauvresy, intoxicated by his hatred, had not committed a blunder which was almost a crime."

"A crime! "exclaimed the doctor.

M. Lecoq smiled and muttered in a low tone:

"Laurence."

But low as he had spoken, M. Plantat heard him.

"Yes, Monsieur Lecoq," said he severely. "Yes, Laurence. Sauvresy did a detestable thing when he thought of making this poor girl the accomplice, or I should say, the instrument of his wrath. He piteously threw her between these two wretches, without asking himself whether she would be broken. It was by using Laurence's name that he persuaded Bertha not to kill herself. Yet he knew of Tremorel's passion for her, he knew her love for him, and he knew that his friend was capable of anything. He, who had so well foreseen all that could serve his vengeance, did not deign to foresee that Laurence might be dishonored; and yet he left her disarmed before this most cowardly and infamous of men!"

The detective reflected.

"There is one thing," said he, "that I can't explain. Why was it that these two, who execrated each other, and whom the implacable will of their victim chained together despite themselves, did not separate of one accord the day after their marriage, when they had fulfilled the condition which had established their crime?"

The old justice of the peace shook his head.

"I see," he answered, "that I have not yet made you understand Bertha's resolute character. Hector would have been delighted with a separation; his wife could not consent to it. Ah, Sauvresy knew her well! She saw her life ruined, a horrible remorse lacerated her; she must have a victim upon whom to expiate her errors and crimes; this victim was Hector. Ravenous for her prey, she would not let him go for anything in the world."

"I' faith," observed Dr. Gendron, "your Tremorel was a chicken-hearted wretch. What had he to fear when Sauvresy's manuscript was once destroyed?"

"Who told you it had been destroyed?" interrupted M. Plantat.

M. Lecoq at this stopped promenading up and down the room, and sat down opposite M. Plantat.

"The whole case lies there," said he, "Whether these proofs have or have not been destroyed."

M. Plantat did not choose to answer directly.

"Do you know," asked he, "to whom Sauvresy confided them for keeping?"

"Ah," cried the detective, as if a sudden idea had enlightened him, "it was you."

He added to himself, "Now, my good man, I begin to see where all your information comes from."

"Yes, it was I," resumed M. Plantat. "On the day of the marriage of Madame Sauvresy and Count Hector, in conformity with the last wishes of my dying friend, I went to Valfeuillu and asked to see Monsieur and Madame de Tremorel. Although they were full of company, they received me at once in the little room on the ground-floor where Sauvresy was murdered. They were both very pale and terribly troubled. They evidently guessed the purpose of my visit, for they lost no time in admitting me to an interview. After saluting them I addressed myself to Bertha, being enjoined to do so by the written instructions I had received; this was another instance of Sauvresy's foresight. 'Madame,' said I, 'I was charged by your late husband to hand to you, on the day of your second marriage, this package, which he confided to my care.' She took the package, in which the bottle and the manuscript were enclosed, with a smiling, even joyous air, thanked me warmly, and went out. The count's expression instantly changed; he appeared very restless and agitated; he seemed to be on coals. I saw well enough that he burned to rush after his wife, but dared not; I was going to retire; but he stopped me. 'Pardon me,' said he, abruptly, 'you will permit me, will you not? I will return immediately,' with which he ran out. When I saw him and his wife a few minutes afterward, they were both very red; their eyes had a strange expression and their voices trembled, as they accompanied me to the door. They had certainly been having a violent altercation."

"The rest may he conjectured," interrupted M. Lecoq. "She had gone to secrete the manuscript in some safe place; and when her new husband asked her to give it up to him, she replied, 'Look for it.'"

"Sauvresy had enjoined on me to give it only into her hands."

"Oh, he knew how to work his revenge. He had it given to his wife so that she might hold a terrible arm against Tremorel, all ready to crush him. If he revolted, she always had this instrument of torture at hand. Ah, the man was a miserable wretch, and she must have made him suffer terribly."

"Yes," said Dr. Gendron, "up to the very day he killed her."

The detective had resumed his promenade up and down the library.

"The question as to the poison," said he, " remains. It is a simple one to resolve, because we've got the man who sold it to her in that closet."

Besides," returned the doctor," I can tell something about the poison. This rascal of a Robelot stole it from my laboratory, and I know only too well what it is, even if the symptoms, so well described by our friend Plantat, had not indicated its name to me. I was at work upon aconite when Sauvresy died; and he was poisoned with aconitine."

"Ah, with aconitine," said M. Lecoq, surprised. "It's the first time that I ever met with that poison. Is it a new thing?"

"Not exactly. Medea is said to have extracted her deadliest poisons from aconite, and it was employed in Rome and Greece in criminal executions."

"And I did not know of it! But I have very little time to study. Besides, this poison of Medea's was perhaps lost, as was that of the Borgias; so many of these things are!"

"No, it was not lost, be assured. But we only know of it nowadays by Mathiole's experiments on felons sentenced to death, in the sixteenth century; by Hers, who isolated the active principle, the alkaloid, in 1833 and lastly by certain experiments made by Bouchardat, who pretends - "

Unfortunately, when Dr. Gendron was set agoing on poisons, it was difficult to stop him; but M. Lecoq, on the other hand, never lost sight of the end he had in view.

"Pardon me for interrupting you, Doctor," said he. "But would traces of aconitine be found in a body which had been two years buried? For Monsieur Domini is going to order the exhumation of Sauvresy."

"The tests of aconitine are not sufficiently well known to permit of the isolation of it in a body. Bouchardat tried ioduret of potassium, but his experiment was not successful."

"The deuce!" said M. Lecoq. "That's annoying."

The doctor smiled benignly.

"Reassure yourself," said he. "No such process was in existence - so I invented one."

"Ah," cried Plantat. "Your sensitive paper!"

"Precisely."

"And could you find aconitine in Sauvresy's body?"

"Undoubtedly."

M. Lecoq was radiant, as if he were now certain of fulfilling what had seemed to him a very difficult task.

"Very well," said he. "Our inquest seems to be complete. The history of the victims imparted to us by Monsieur Plantat gives us the key to all the events which have followed the unhappy Sauvresy's death. Thus, the hatred of this pair, who were in appearance so united, is explained; and it is also clear why Hector has ruined a charming young girl with a splendid dowry, instead of making her his wife. There is nothing surprising in Tremorel's casting aside his name and personality to reappear under another guise; he killed his wife because he was constrained to do so by the logic of events. He could not fly while she was alive, and yet he could not continue to live at Valfeuillu. And above all, the paper for which he searched with such desperation, when every moment was an affair of life and death to him, was none other than Sauvresy's manuscript, his condemnation and the proof of his first crime.

M. Lecoq talked eagerly, as if he had a personal animosity against the Count de Tremorel; such was his nature; and he always avowed laughingly that he could not help having a grudge against the criminals whom he purstied. There was an account to settle between him and them; hence the ardor of his pursuit. Perhaps it was a simple matter of instinct with him, like that which impels the hunting hound on the track of his game.

"It is clear enough now," he went on, "that it was Mademoiselle Courtois who put an end to his hesitation and eternal delay. His passion for her, irritated by obstacles, goaded him to delirium. On learning her condition, he lost his head and forgot all prudence and reason. He was wearied, too, of a punishment which began anew each morning; he saw himself lost, and his wife sacrificing herself for the malignant pleasure of sacrificing him. Terrified, he took the resolution to commit this murder."

Many of the circumstances which had established M. Lecoq's conviction had escaped Dr. Gendron.

"What!" cried he, stupefied. "Do you believe in Mademoiselle Laurence's complicity?"

The'detective earnestly protested by a gesture.

"No, Doctor, certainly not; heaven forbid that I should have such an idea. Mademoiselle Courtois was and is still ignorant of this crime. But she knew that Tremorel would abandon his wife for her. This flight had been discussed, planned, and agreed upon between them; they made an appointment to meet at a certain place, on a certain day."

"But this letter," said the doctor.

M. Plantat could scarcely conceal his emotion whet Laurence was being talked about.

"This letter," cried he, "which has plunged her family into the deepest grief, and which will perhaps kill poor Courtois, is only one more scene of the infamous drama which the count has planned."

"Oh," said the doctor, " is it possible?

"I am firmly of Monsieur Plantat's opinion," said the detective. "Last evening we had the same suspicion at the same moment at the mayor's. I read and re-read her letter, and could have sworn that it did not emanate from herself. The count gave her a rough draft from which she copied it. We mustn't deceive ourselves ; this letter was meditated, pondered on, and composed at leisure. Those were not the expressions of an unhappy young girl of twenty who was going to kill herself to escape dishonor."

"Perhaps you are right," remarked the doctor visibly moved. "But how can you imagine that Tremorel succeeded in persuading her to do this wretched act?"

"How? See here, Doctor, I am not much experienced in such things, having seldom had occasion to study the characters of well-brought-up young girls; yet it seems to me very simple. Mademoiselle Courtois saw the time coming when her disgrace would be public, and so prepared for it, and was even ready to die if necessary."

M. Plantat shuddered; a conversation which he had had with Laurence occurred to him. She had asked him, he remembered, about certain poisonous plants which he was cultivating, and had been anxious to know how the poisonous juices could be extracted from them.

"Yes," said he, "she has thought of dying."

"Well," resumed the detective, "the count took her in one of the moods when these sad thoughts haunted the poor girl, and was easily able to complete his work of ruin. She undoubtedly told him that she preferred death to shame, and he proved to her that, being in the condition in which she was, she had no right to kill herself. He said that he was very unhappy; and that not being free, he could not repair his fault; but he offered to sacrifice his life for her. What should she do to save both of them? Abandon her parents, make them believe that she had committed suicide, while he, on his side, would desert his house and his wife. Doubtless she resisted for awhile; but she finally consented to everything; she fled, and copied and posted the infamous letter dictated by her lover."

The doctor was convinced.

"Yes," he muttered, "those are doubtless the means he employed."

"But what an idiot he was," resumed M. Lecoq, "not to perceive that the strange coincidence between his disappearance and Laurence's suicide would be remarked! He said to himself, 'Probably people will think that I, as well as my wife, have been murdered; and the law, having its victim in Guespin, will not look for any other.'"

M. Plantat made a gesture of impotent rage.

"Ah," cried he, "and we know not where the wretch has hid himself and Laurence."

The detective took him by the arm and pressed it.

"Reassure yourself," said he, coolly. "We'll find him, or my name's not Lecoq ; and to be honest, I must say that our task does not seem to me a difficult one."

Several timid knocks at the door interrupted the speaker. It was late, and the household was already awake and about. Mme. Petit in her anxiety and curiosity had put her ear to the key-hole at least ten times, but in vain.

"What can they be up to in there?" said she to Louis. "Here they've been shut up these twelve hours without eating or drinking. At all events I'll get breakfast."

It was not Mme. Petit, however, who dared to knock on the door; but Louis, the gardener, who came to tell his master of the ravages which had been made in his flower-pots and shrubs. At the same time he brought in certain singular articles which he had picked up on the sward, and which M. Lecoq recognized at once.

"Heavens! " cried he, "I forgot myself. Here I go on quietly talking with my face exposed, as if it was not broad daylight; and people might come in at any moment!" And turning to Louis, who was very much surprised to see this dark young man whom he had certainly not admitted the night before, he added:

"Give me those little toilet articles, my good fellow; they belong to me."

Then, by a turn of his hand, he readjusted his physiognomy of last night, while the master of the house went out to give some orders, which M. Lecoq did so deftly, that when M. Plantat returned, he could scarcely believe his eyes.

They sat down to breakfast and ate their meal as silently as they had done the dinner of the evening before, losing no time about it. They appreciated the value of the passing moments; M. Domini was waiting for them at Corbeil, and was doubtless getting impatient at their delay.

Louis had just placed a sumptuous dish of fruit upon the table, when it occurred to M. Lecoq that Robelot was still shut up in the closet.

"Probably the rascal needs something," said he.

M. Plantat wished to send his servant to him; but M. Lecoq objected.

"He's a dangerous rogue," said he. "I'll go myself."

He went out, but almost instantly his voice was heard:

"Messieurs! Messieurs, see here!"

The doctor and M. Plantat hastened into the library.

Across the threshold of the closet was stretched the body of the bone-setter. He had killed himself.



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