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The mayor was mistaken. The drawing-room door opened suddenly, and a man of slender form, who was struggling furiously, and with an energy which would not have been suspected, appeared, held on one side by a gendarme, and on the other by a domestic.
Thc struggle had already lasted long, and his clothes were in great disorder. His new coat was torn, his cravat floated in strips, the button of his collar had been wrenched off, and his open shirt left his breast bare. In the vestibule and court were heard the frantic cries of the servants and the curious crowd - of whom there were more than a hundred, whom the news of the crime had collected about the gate, and who burned to hear, and above all to see.
This enraged crowd cried:
It is he! Death to the assassin! It is Guespin! See him!"
And the wretch, inspired by an immense fright, continued to struggle.
"Help!" shouted he hoarsely. "Leave me alone. I am innocent!"
He had posted himself against the drawing-room door, and they could not force him forward.
"Push him," ordered the mayor, "push him."
It was easier to command than to execute. Terror lent to Guespin enormous force. But it occurred to the doctor to open the second wing of the door; the support failed the wretch, and he fell, or rather rolled at the foot of the table at which the judge of instruction was seated. He was straightway on his feet again, and his eyes sought a chance to escape. Seeing none - for the windows and doors were crowded with the lookers-on - he fell into a chair. The fellow appeared the image of terror, wrought up to paroxysm. On his livid face, black and blue, were visible the marks of the blows he had received in the struggle; his white lips trembled, and he moved his jaws as if he sought a little saliva for his burning tongue; his staring eyes were bloodshot, and expressed the wildest distress; his body was bent with convulsive spasms. So terrible was this spectacle, that the mayor thought it might be an example of great moral force. He turned toward the crowd, and pointing to Guespin, said in a tragic tone:
"See what crime is!"
The others exchanged surprised looks.
"If he is guilty," muttered M. Plantat, "why on earth has he returned?"
It was with difficulty that the crowd was kept back; the brigadier was forced to call in the aid of his men. Then he returned and placed himself beside Guespin, thinking it not prudent to leave him alone with unarmed men.
But the man was little to be feared. The reaction came; his over-excited energy became exhausted, his strained muscles flaccid, and his prostration resembled the agony of brain fever. Meanwhile the brigadier recounted what had happened.
"Some of the servants of the chateau and the neighboring houses were chatting near the gate, about the crime, and the disappearance of Guespin last night, when all of a sudden, someone perceived him at a distance, staggering, and singing boisterously, as if he were drunk."
"Was he really drunk?" asked M. Domini.
"Very," returned the brigadier.
"Then we owe it to the wine that we have caught him, and thus all will be explained."
"On perceiving this wretch," pursued the gendarme, who seemed not to have the shadow of a doubt of Guespin's guilt, "Francois, the count's valet de chambre, and Baptiste, the mayor's servant, who were there, hastened to meet him, and seized him. He was so tipsy that he thought they were fooling with him. When he saw my men, he was undeceived. Just then one of the women cried out, 'Brigand, it was you who have this night assassinated the count and the countess!' He immediately became paler than death, and remained motionless and dumb. Then he began to struggle so violently that he nearly escaped. Ah! he's strong, the rogue, although he does not look like it."
"And he said nothing?" said Plantat.
"Not a word; his teeth were so tightly shut with rage that I'm sure he couldn't say 'bread.' But we've got him. I've searched him, and this is what I have found in his pockets: a handkerchief, a pruning-knife, two small keys, a scrap of paper covered with figures, and an address of the establishment of 'Vulcan's Forges.' But that's not all - "
The brigadier took a step, and eyed his auditors mysteriously; he was preparing his effect.
"That's not all. While they were bringing him along in the court-yard, he tried to get rid of his wallet. Happily I had my eyes open, and saw the dodge. I picked up the wallet, which he had thrown among the flowers near the door; here it is. In it are a one-hundred-franc note, three napoleons, and seven francs in change. Yesterday the rascal hadn't a sou - "
"How do you know that?" asked M. Domini.
"Dame! Monsieur Judge, he borrowed of the valet Francois (who told me of it) twenty-five francs, pretending that it was to pay his share of the wedding expenses."
"Tell Francois to come here," said the judge of instruction. " Now, sir," he continued, when the valet presented himself, "do you know whether Guespin had any money yesterday?"
"He had so little, Monsieur," answered Francois promptly, "that he asked me to lend him twenty-five francs during the day, saying that otherwise he could not go to the wedding, not having enough even to pay his railway fare."
"But he might have some savings - a hundred-franc note, for instance, which he didn't like to change."
Francois shook his head with an incredulous smile.
"Guespin isn't the man to have savings," said he; "Women and cards exhaust all his wages. No longer ago than last week, the keeper of the Cafe du Commerce came here and made a row on account of what he owed him, and threatened to go to the count about it."
Perceiving the effect of what he said, the valet, as if to correct himself, hastened to add:
"I have no ill-will toward Guespin; before to-day I've always considered him a clever fellow, though he was too much of a practical joker; he was, perhaps, a little proud, considering his bringing up - "
"You may go," said the judge, cutting the disquisition of M. Francois short; the valet retired.
During this colloquy, Guespin had little by little come to himself. The judge of instruction, Plantat, and the mayor narrowly watched the play of his countenance, which he had not the coolness to compose, while the doctor held his pulse and counted its beating.
"Remorse, and fear of punishment," muttered the mayor.
"Innocence, and the impossibility of proving it," responded Plantat in a low tone.
M. Domini heard both these exclamations, but did not appear to take notice of them. His opinion was not formed, and he did not wish that anyone should be able to foretell, by any word of his, what it would be.
"Are you better, my friend?" asked Dr. Gendron, of Guespin.
The poor fellow made an affirmative sign. Then, having looked around with the anxious glance of a man who calculates a precipice over which he has fallen, he passed his hand across his eyes and stammered:
"Something to drink!"
A glass of water was brought, and he drank it at a draught, with an expression of intense satisfaction. Then he got upon his feet.
"Are you now in a fit state to answer me? "asked the judge.
Guespin staggered a little, then drew himself up. He continued erect before the judge, supporting himself against a table. The nervous trembling of his hands diminished, the blood returned to his cheeks, and as he listened, he arranged the disorder of his clothes.
"You know the events of this night, don't you?" commenced the judge; "the Count and Countess de Tremorel have been murdered. You went away yesterday with all the servants of the chateau; you left them at the Lyons station about nine o'clock; you have just returned, alone. Where have you passed the night?"
Guespin hung his head and remained silent.
"That is not all," continued M. Domini; "yesterday you had no money, the fact is well known; one of your fellow-servants has just proved it. To-day, one hundred and sixty-seven francs are found in your wallet. Where did you get this money?"
The unhappy creature's lip moved as if he wished to answer; a sudden thought seemed to check him, for he did not speak.
"More yet. What is this card of a hardware establishment that has been found in your pocket?"
Guespin made a sign of desperation, and stammered:
"I am innocent."
"I have not as yet accused you," said the judge of instruction, quickly. "You knew, perhaps, that the count received a considerable sum yesterday?"
A bitter smile parted Guespin's lips as he answered:
"I know well enough that everything is against me."
There was a profound silence. The doctor, the mayor, and Plantat, seized with a keen curiosity, dared not move. Perhaps nothing in the world is more thrilling than one of these merciless duels between justice and a man suspected of a crime. The questions may seem insignificant, the answers irrelevant; both questions and answers envelop terrible, hidden meanings. The smallest gesture, the most rapid movement of physiognomy may acquire deep significance, a fugitive light in the eye betray an advantage gained; an imperceptible change in the voice may be confession.
The coolness of M. Domini was disheartening.
"Let us see," said he after a pause: "where did you pass the night? How did you get this money? And what does this address mean?"
"Eh!" cried Guespin, with the rage of powerlessness, "I should tell you what you would not believe."
The judge was about to ask another question, but Guespin cut him short.
"No; you wouldn't believe me," he repeated, his eyes glistening with anger. "Do men like you believe men like me? I have a past, you know, of antecedents, as you would say. The past! They throw that in my face, as if, the future depended on the past. Well, yes; it's true, I'm a debauchee, a gambler, a drunkard, an idler, but what of it? It's true I have been before the police court, and condemned for night poaching - what does that prove? I have wasted my life, but whom have I wronged if not myself? My past! Have I not sufficiently expiated it?"
Guespin was self-possessed, and finding in himself sensations which awoke a sort of eloquence, he expressed himself with a savage energy well calculated to strike his hearers.
"I have not always served others," he continued; "my father was in easy circumstances - almost rich. He had large gardens, near Saumur, and he passed for one of the best gardeners of that region. I was educated, and when sixteen years old, began to study law. Four years later they thought me a talented youth. Unhappily for me, my father died. He left me a landed property worth a hundred thousand francs: I sold it out for sixty thousand and went to Paris. I was a fool then. I had the fever of pleasure-seeking, a thirst for all sorts of pastimes, perfect health, plenty of money. I found Paris a narrow limit for my vices; it seemed to me that the objects of my desires were wanting. I thought my sixty thousand francs would last forever."
Guespin paused; a thousand memories of those times rushed into his thoughts and he muttered:
"Those were good times."
"My sixty thousand francs," he resumed, "held out eight years. Then I hadn't a sou, yet I longed to continue my way of living. You understand, don't you? About this time, the police, one night, arrested me. I was 'detained' six months. You will find the records of the affair at the prefecture. Do you know what it will tell you? It will tell you that on leaving prison I fell into that shameful and abominable misery which exists in Paris. It will tell you that I have lived among the worst and lowest outcasts of Paris - and it is the truth."
The worthy mayor was filled with consternation.
"Good Heaven!" thought he, "what an audacious and cynical rascal! and to think that one is liable at any time to admit such servants into his house!"
The judge held his tongue. He knew that Guespin was in such a state that, under the irresistible impulse of passion, he might betray his innermost thoughts.
"But there is one thing," continued the suspected man, "that the record will not tell you; that, disgusted with this abject life, I was tempted to suicide. It will not tell you anything of my desperate attempts, my repentance, my relapses. At last, I was able in part to reforM. I got work; and after being in four situations, engaged myself here. I found myself well off. I always spent my month's wages in advance, it's true - but what would you have? And ask if anyone has ever had to complain of me."
It is well known that among the most intelligent criminals, those who have had a certain degree of education, and enjoyed some good fortune, are the most redoubtable. According to this, Guespin was decidedly dangerous. So thought those who heard hi. Meanwhile, exhausted by his excitement, he paused and wiped his face, covered with perspiration.
M. Domini had not lost sight of his plan of attack.
"All that is very well," said he, "we will return to your confession at the proper time and place. But just now the question is, how you spent your night, and where you got this money."
This persistency seemed to exasperate Guespin.
"Eh!" cried he, "how do you want me to answer? The truth? You wouldn't credit it. As well keep silent. It is a fatality."
"I warn you for your own sake," resumed the judge, "that if you persist in refusing to answer, the charges which weigh upon you are such that I will have you arrested as suspected of this murder."
This menace seemed to have a remarkable effect on Guespin. Great tears filled his eyes, up to that time dry and flashing, and silently rolled down his cheeks. His energy was exhausted; he fell on his knees, crying:
"Mercy! I beg you, Monsieur, not to arrest me; I swear I am innocent, I swear it!"
"You wish it," said Guespin, rising. Then he suddenly changed his tone. "No, I will not speak, I cannot! One man alone could save me; it is the count; and he is dead. I am innocent; yet if the guilty are not found, I am lost. Everything is against me. I know it too well. Now, do with me as you please; I will not say another word."
Guespin's determination, confirmed by his look, did not surprise the judge.
"You will reflect," said he, quietly, "only, when you have reflected, I shall not have the same confidence in what you say as I should have now. Possibly," and the judge spoke slowly and with emphasis, "you have only had an indirect part in this crime; if so - "
"Neither indirect nor direct," interrupted Guespin; and he added, violently, "what misery! To be innocent, and not able to defend myself."
"Since it is so," resumed M. Domini, "you should not object to be placed before Mme. de Tremorel's body?"
The accused did not seem affected by this menace. He was conducted into the hall whither they had fetched the countess. There, he examined the body with a cold and calm eye. He said, simply:
"She is happier than I; she is dead, she suffers no longer; and I, who am not guilty, am accused of her death."
M. Domini made one more effort.
"Come, Guespin; if in any way you know of this crime, I conjure you, tell me. If you know the murderers, name them. Try to merit some indulgence for your frankness and repentance."
Guespin made a gesture as if resigned to persecution. "By all that is most sacred," he answered, "I am innocent. Yet I see clearly that if the murderer is not found, I am lost."
Little by little M. Domini's conviction was formed and confirmed. An inquest of this sort is not so difficult as may be imagined. The difficulty is to seize at the beginning; in the entangled skein, the main thread, which must lead to the truth through all the mazes, the ruses, silence, falsehoods of the guilty. M. Domini was certain that he held this precious thread. Having one of the assassins, he knew well that he would secure the others. Our prisons, where good soup is eaten, and good beds are provided, have tongues, as well as the dungeons of the medieval ages.
The judge ordered the brigadier to arrest Guespin, and told him not to lose sight of him. He then sent for old Bertaud. This worthy personage was not one of the people who worry themselves. He had had so many affairs with the men of law, that one inquisition the more disturbed him little.
"This man has a bad reputation in my commune," whispered the mayor to M. Domini.
Bertaud heard it, however, and smiled.
Questioned by the judge of instruction, he recounted very clearly and exactly what had happened in the morning, his resistance, and his son's determination. He explained the reason for the falsehood they told; and here again the chapter of antecedents came up.
"Look here; I'm better than my reputation, after all," said he. "There are many folks who can't say as much. You see many things when you go about at night - enough."
He was urged to explain his allusions, but in vain.
When he was asked where and how he had passed the night, he answered, that having left the cabaret at ten o'clock, he went to put down some traps in Mauprevoir wood; and had gone home and to bed about one o'clock.
"By the bye," added he, "there ought to be some game in those traps by this time."
"Can you bring a witness to prove that you went home at one?" asked the mayor, who bethought him of the count's clock, stopped at twenty minutes past three.
"Don't know, I'm sure," carelessly responded the poacher, "it's quite likely that my son didn't wake up when I went to bed."
He added, seeing the judge reflect:
"I suspect that you are going to imprison me until the murderers are discovered. If it was winter, I wouldn't complain much; a fellow is well off in prison then, for it's warm there. But just at the time for hunting, it's provoking. It will be a good lesson for that Philippe; it'll teach him what it costs to render a service to gentlefolks."
"Enough.!" interrupted M. Domini, sternly. "Do you know Guespin?"
This name suddenly subdued the careless insolence of the marauder; his little gray eyes experienced a singular restlessness.
"Certainly," he answered in an embarrassed tone, "we have often made a party at cards, you understand, while sipping our 'gloria.'"* [* Coffee and brandy.]
The man's inquietude struck the four who heard him. Plantat, especially, betrayed profound surprise. The old vagabond was too shrewd not to perceive the effect which he produced.
Faith, so much the worse!" cried he: "I'll tell you everything. Every man for himself, isn't it? If Guespin has done the deed, it will not blacken him any more, nor make him any the worse off. I know him, simply because he used to sell me the grapes and strawberries from the count's conservatories; I suppose he stole them; we divided the money, and I left."
Plantat could not refrain from an exclamation of satisfaction, as if to say, "Good luck! I knew it well enough!"
When he said he would be sent to prison, Bertaud was not wrong. The judge ordered his arrest.
It was now Philippe's turn.
The poor fellow was in a pitiable state; he was crying bitterly.
"To accuse me of such a crime, me!" he kept repeating.
On being questioned he told the pure and simple truth, excusing himself, however, for having dared to penetrate into the park. When he was asked at what hour his father reached home, he said he knew nothing about it; he had gone to bed about nine, and had not awoke until morning. He knew Guespin, from having seen him at his father's several times. He knew that the old man had some transactions with the gardener, but he was ignorant as to what they were. He had never spoken four times to Guespin. The judge ordered Philippe to be set at liberty, not that he was wholly convinced of his innocence, but because if the crime had been committed by several persons, it was well to have one of them free; he could be watched, and he would betray the whereabouts of the rest.
Meanwhile the count's body was nowhere to be found. The park had been rigidly searched, but in vain. The mayor suggested that he had been thrown into the river, which was also M. Domini's opinion; and some fishermen were sent to drag the Seine, commencing their search a little above the place where the countess was found.
It was then nearly three o'clock. M. Plantat remarked that probably no one had eaten anything during the day. Would it not be wise to take something, he suggested, if the investigations were to be pursued till night? This appeal to the trivial necessities of our rail humanity highly displeased the worthy mayor; but the rest readily assented to the suggestion, and M. Courtois, though not in the least hungry, followed the general example. Around the table which was yet wet with the wine spilt by the assassins, the judge, M. Plantat, the mayor, and the doctor sat down, and partook of an improvised collation.
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