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The staircase had been put under guard, but the vestibule had remained free. People were heard coming and going, tramping and coughing; then rising above this continuous noise, the oaths of the gendarmes trying to keep back the crowd. From time to time, a scared face passed by the dining-room door, which was ajar. These were curious folks who, more daring than the rest, wished to see the "men of justice" eating, and tried to hear a word or two, to report them, and so become important in the eyes of the others. But the "men of justice " - as they said at Orcival - took care to say nothing of moment while the doors were open, and while a servant was passing to and fro. Greatly moved by this frightful crime, disturbed by the mystery which surrounded it, they hid their impressions. Each, on his part, studied the probability of his suspicions, and kept his opinion to himself.
M. Domini, as he ate, put his notes in order, numbering the leaves, marking certain peculiarly significant answers of the suspected persons with a cross. He was, perhaps, the least tormented of the four companions at this funereal repast. The crime did not seem to him one of those which keep judges of instruction sleepless through the night; he saw clearly the motive of it; and he had Bertaud and Guespin, two of the assassins, or at least accomplices, secure.
M. Plantat and Dr. Gendron, seated next each other, were talking of the illness which carried off Sauvresy. M. Courtois listened to the hubbub without.
The news of the double murder was soon noised about the neighborhood, and the crowd increased every minute. It filled the court, and became bolder and bolder; the gendarmes were overwhelmed. Then or never was the time for the mayor to show his authority. "I am going to make these people listen to reason," said he, "and make them retire." And at once, wiping his mouth, he threw his tumbled napkin on the table, and went out.
It was time. The brigadier's injunctions were no longer heeded. Some curious people, more eager than the rest, had flanked the position and were forcing an entrance through the gate leading to the garden. The mayor's presence did not perhaps intimidate the crowd much, but it redoubled the energy of the gendames; the vestibule was cleared, amid murmurings against the arm of the law. What a chance for a speech! M. Courtois was not wanting to the occasion. He believed that his eloquence, endowed with the virtues of a cold showerbath, would calm this unwonted effervescence of his constituency. He stepped forward upon the steps, his left hand resting in the opening of his vest, gesturing with his right in the proud and impassible attitude which the sculptor lends to great orators. It was thus that he posed before his council when, finding unexpected opposition, he undertook to impose his will upon them, and recall the recalcitrant members to their duty.
His speech, in fragments, penetrated to the dining-rooM. According as he turned to the right or to the left, his voice was clear and distinct, or was lost in space. He said:
"Fellow-citizens, an atrocious crime, unheard of before in our commune, has shocked our peaceable and honest neighborhood. I understand and excuse your feverish emotion, your natural indignation. As well as you, my friends, more than you - I cherished and esteemed the noble Count de Tremorel, and his virtuous wife. We mourn them together - "
"I assure you," said Dr. Gendron to M. Plantat, "that the symptoms you describe are not uncommon after pleurisy. From the acute state, the inflammation passes to the chronic state, and becomes complicated with pneumonia."
"But nothing," pursued the mayor, "can justify a curiosity, which by its importunate attempts to be satisfied, embarrasses the investigation, and is, at all events, a punishable interference with the cause of justice. Why this unwonted gathering? Why these rumors and noises? These premature conjectures?"
"There were several consultations," said M. Plantat, "which did not have favorable results. Sauvresy suffered altogether strange and unaccountable tortures. He complained of troubles so unwonted, so absurd, if you'll excuse the word, that he discouraged all the conjectures of the most experienced physicians.
"Was it not R-, of Paris, who attended him?"
"Exactly. He came daily, and often remained overnight. Many times I have seen him ascending the principal street of the village, with troubled countenance, as he went to give his prescription to the apothecary.
"Be wise enough," cried M. Courtois, "to moderate your just anger; be calm; be dignified."
"Surely," continued Dr. Dendron, "your apothecary is an intelligent man; but you have at Orcival a fellow who quite outdoes him, a fellow who knows how to make money; one Robelot - "
"Robelot, the bone-setter?"
"That's the man. I suspect him of giving consultations, and prescribing sub rosa. He is very clever. In fact I educated him. Five or six years ago, he was my laboratory boy, and even now I employ him when I have a delicate operation on hand - "
The doctor stopped, struck by the alteration in the impassible Plantat's features.
"What is the matter, my friend?" he asked. "Are you ill?"
The judge left his notes, to look at him. "Why," said he, "Monsieur Plantat is very pale - "
But M. Plantat speedily resumed his habitual expression.
"'Tis nothing," he answered, "really nothing. With my abominable stomach, as soon as I change my hour of eating - "
Having reached his peroration, M. Courtois raised his voice.
"Return," said he, "to your peaceable homes, your quiet avocations. Rest assured the law protects you. Already justice has begun its work; two of the criminals are in its power, and we are on the track of their accomplices."
"Of all the servants of the chateau," remarked M. Plantat, " there remains not one who knew Sauvresy. The domestics have one by one been replaced."
"No doubt," answered the doctor, "the sight of the old servants would be disagreeable to Monsieur de Tremorel."
He was interrupted by the mayor, who re-entered, his eyes glowing, his face animated, wiping his forehead.
"I have let the people know," said he, "the indecency of their curiosity. They have all gone away. They were anxious to get at Philippe Bertaud, the brigadier says; public opinion has a sharp scent."
Hearing the door open, he turned, and found himself face to face with a man whose features were scarcely visible, so profoundly did he bow, his hat pressed against his breast.
"What do you wish?" sternly asked M. Courtois. "By what right have you come in here? - Who are you?"
The man drew himself up.
"I am Monsieur Lecoq," he replied, with a gracious smile. "Monsieur Lecoq of the detective force, sent by the prefect of police in reply to a telegram, for this affair."
This declaration clearly surprised all present, even the judge of instruction.
In France, each profession has its special externals, as it were, insignia, which betray it at first view. Each profession has its conventional type, and when public opinion has adopted a type, it does not admit it possible that the type should be departed from. What is a doctor? A grave man, all in black, with a white cravat. A gentleman with a capacious stomach, adorned with heavy gold seals, can only be a banker. Everybody knows that the artist is a merry liver, with a peaked hat, a velvet vest, and enormous ruffles. By virtue of this rule, the detective of the prefecture ought to have an eye full of mystery, something suspicious about him, a negligence of dress, and imitation jewelry. The most obtuse shopkeeper is sure that he can scent a detective at twenty paces a big man with mustaches, and a shining felt hat, his throat imprisoned by a collar of hair, dressed in a black, threadbare surtout, carefully buttoned up on account of the entire absence of linen. Such is the type. But, according to this, M. Lecoq, as he entered the dining-room at Valfeuillu, had by no means the air of a detective. True, M. Lecoq can assume whatever air he pleases. His friends declare that he has a physiognomy peculiar to himself, which he resumes when he enters his own house, and which he retains by his own fireside, with his slippers on; but the fact is not well proved. What is certain, is that his mobile face lends itself to strange metamorphoses; that he moulds his features according to his will, as the sculptor moulds clay for modelling. He changes everything, even his look.
"So," said the judge of instruction, "the prefect has sent you to me, in case certain investigations become necessary.
"Yes, Monsieur, quite at your service."
M. Lecoq had on this day assumed a handsome wig of lank hair, of that vague color called Paris blonde, parted on the side by a line pretentiously fanciful; whiskers of the same color puffed out with bad pomade, encircled a pallid face. His big eyes seemed congealed within their red border, an open smile rested on his thick lips, which, in parting, discovered a range of long yellow teeth. His face, otherwise, expressed nothing in particular. It was a nearly equal mixture of timidity, self-sufficiency, and contentment. It was quite impossible to concede the least intelligence to the possessor of such a phiz. One involuntarily looked for a goitre. The retail haberdashers, who, having cheated for thirty years in their threads and needles, retire with large incomes, should have such heads as this. His apparel was as dull as his person. His coat resembled all coats, his trousers all trousers. A hair chain, the same color as his whiskers, was attached to a large silver watch, which bulged out his left waistcoat pocket. While speaking, he fumbled with a confection-box made of transparent horn, full of little square lozenges, and adorned by a portrait of a very homely, well-dressed woman - " the defunct," no doubt. As the conversation proceeded, according as he was satisfied or disturbed, M. Lecoq munched a lozenge, or directed glances toward the portrait which were quite a poem in themselves.
Having examined the man a long time, the judge of instruction shrugged his shoulders. " Well," said M. Domini, finally, "now that you are here, we will explain to you what has occurred."
"Oh, that's quite useless," responded Lecoq, with a satisfied air, "perfectly useless, sir."
"Nevertheless, it is necessary that you should know - "
"What? that which monsieur the judge knows?" interrupted the detective, "for that I already know. Let us agree there has been a murder, with theft as its motive; and start from that point. The countess's body has been found - not so that of the count. What else? Bertaud, an acknowledged rogue, is arrested; he merits a little punishment, doubtless. Guespin came back drunk; ah, there are sad charges against this Guespin!. His past is deplorable; it is not known where he passed the night, he refuses to answer, he brings no alibi - this is indeed grave!"
M. Plantat gazed at the detective with visible pleasure.
"Who has told you about these things?" asked M. Domini.
"Well - everybody has told me a little."
" Here: I've already been here two hours, and even heard the mayor's speech."
And, satisfied with the effect he had produced, M. Lecoq munched a lozenge.
"You were not aware, then," resumed the judge, "that I was waiting for you?"
"Pardon me," said the detective; "I hope you will be kind enough to hear me. You see, it is indispensable to study the ground; one must look about, establish his batteries. I am anxious to catch the general rumor - public opinion, as they say, so as to distrust it."
"All this," answered M. Domini, severely, "does not justify your delay."
M. Lecoq glanced tenderly at the portrait.
"Monsieur the judge," said he, "has only to inquire at the prefecture, and he will learn that I know my profession. The great thing requisite, in order to make an effective search, is to remain unknown. The police are not popular. Now, if they knew who I was, and why I was here, I might go out, but nobody would tell me anything; I might ask questions - they'd serve me a hundred lies; they would distrust me, and hold their tongues."
"Quite true - quite true," murmured Plantat, coming to the support of the detective.
M. Lecoq went on:
"So that when I was told that I was going into the country, I put on my country face and clothes. I arrive here and everybody, on seeing me, says to himself, 'Here's a curious bumpkin, but not a bad fellow.' Then I slip about, listen, talk, make the rest talk! I ask this question and that, and am answered frankly; I inform myself, gather hints,no one troubles himself about me. These Orcival folks are positively charming; why, I've already made several friends, and am invited to dine this very evening."
M. Domini did not like the police, and scarcely concealed it. He rather submitted to their co-operation than accepted it, solely because he could not do without them. While listening to M. Lecoq, he could not but approve of what he said; yet he looked at him with an eye by no means friendly.
"Since you know so much about the matter," observed he, dryly, "we ill proceed to examine the scene of the crime.
"I am quite at Monsieur the judge's orders," returned the detective, laconically. As everyone was getting up, he took the opportunity to offer M. Plantat his lozenge-box.
Monsieur perhaps uses them?
Plantat, unwilling to decline, appropriated a lozenge, and the detective's face became again serene. Public sympathy was necessary to him, as it is to all great comedians.
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