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The judge of instruction, the doctor, and M. Plantat exchanged a significant look. What misfortune had befallen M. Courtois, this worthy, and despite his faults, excellent person? Decidedly, this was an ill-omened day!
"If we are to speak of Bertaud's allusions," said M. Lecoq," I have heard two very curious stories, though I have been here but a few hours. It seems that this Mademoiselle Laurence - "
M. Plantat abruptly interrupted the detective.
"Calumnies! odious calumnies! The lower classes, to annoy the rich, do not hesitate to say all sorts of things against them. Don't you know it? Is it not always so? The gentry, above all, those of a provincial town, live in glass houses. The lynx eyes of envy watch them steadily night and day, spy on them, surprise what they regard as their most secret actions to arm themselves against them. The bourgeois goes on, proud and content; his business prospers; he possesses the esteem and friendship of his own class; all this while, he is vilified by the lower classes, his name dragged in the dust, soiled by, suppositions the most mischievous. Envy, Monsieur, respects nothing, no one."
"If Laurence has bee slandered," observed Dr. Gendron, smiling, "she has a good advocate to defend her."
The old justice of the peace (the man of bronze, as M. Courtois called him) blushed slightly, a little embarrassed.
"There are causes," said he, quietly, "which defend themselves. Mademoiselle Courtois is one of those young girls who has a right to all respect. But there are evils which no laws can cure, and which revolt me. Think of it, monsieurs, our reputations, the honor of our wives and daughters, are at the mercy of the first petty rascal who has imagination enough to invent a slander. It is not believed, perhaps; but it is repeated, and spreads. What can be done? How can we know what is secretly said against us; will we ever know it?"
"Eh! " replied the doctor, "what matters it? There is only one voice, to my mind, worth listening to - that of conscience. As to what is called 'public opinion,' as it is the aggregate opinion of thousands of fools and rogues, I only despise it."
This discussion might have been prolonged, if the judge of instruction had not pulled out his watch, and made an impatient gesture.
"While we are talking, time is flying," said he. "We must hasten to the work that still remains."
It was then agreed that while the doctor proceeded to his autopsy, the judge should draw up his report of the case. M. Plantat was charged with watching Lecoq's investigations.
As soon as the detective found himself alone with M. Plantat:
"Well," he said, drawing a long breath, as if relieved of a heavy burden, "now we can get on."
Plantat smiled; the detective munched a lozenge, and added:
"It was very annoying to find the investigation already going on when I reached here. Those who were here before me have had time to get up a theory, and if I don't adopt it at once, there is the deuce to pay!"
M. Domini's voice was heard in the entry, calling out to his clerk.
"Now there's the judge of instruction," continued Lecoq, "who thinks this a very simple affair; while I, Lecoq, the equal at least of Gevrol, the favorite pupil of Papa Tabaret - I do not see it at all clearly yet."
He stopped; and after apparently going over in his mind the result of his discoveries, went on: " No; I'm off the track, and have almost lost my way. I see something underneath all this - but what? what?"
M. Plantat's face remained placid, but his eyes shone.
"Perhaps you are right," said he, carelessly; "perhaps there is something underneath." The detective looked at him; he didn't stir. His face seemed the most undisturbed in the world. There was a long silence, by which M. Lecoq profited to confide to the portrait of the defunct the reflections which burdened his brain.
"See here, my dear darling," said he, "this worthy person seems a shrewd old customer, and I must watch his actions and gestures carefully. He does not argue with the judge; he's got an idea that he doesn't dare to tell, and we must find it out. At the very first he guessed me out, despite these pretty blond locks. As long as he thought he could, by misleading me, make me follow M. Domini's tack, he followed and aided me showing me the way. Now that he sees me on the scent, he crosses his arms and retires. He wants to leave me the honor of the discovery. Why? He lives here - perhaps he is afraid of making enemies. No. He isn't a man to fear much of anything. What then? He shrinks from his own thoughts. He has found something so amazing, that he dares not explain himself."
A sudden reflection changed the course of M. Lecoq's confidences.
A thousand imps!" thought he. "Suppose I'm wrong! Suppose this old fellow is not shrewd at all! Suppose he hasn't discovered anything, and only obeys the inspirations of chance! I've seen stranger things. I've known so many of these folks whose eyes seem so very mysterious, and announce such wonders; after all, I found nothing, and was cheated. But I intend to sound this old fellow well."
And, assuming his most idiotic manner, he said aloud:
"On reflection, Monsieur, little remains to be done. Two of the principals are in custody, and when they make up their minds to talk - they'll do it, sooner or later, if the judge is determined they shall - we shall know all."
A bucket of ice-water falling on M. Plantat's head could not have surprised him more, or more disagreeably, than this speech.
"What! " stammered he, with an air of frank amazement, "do you, a man of experience, who - "
Delighted with the success of his ruse, Lecoq could not keep his countenance, and Plantat, who perceived that he had been caught in the snare, laughed heartily. Not a word, however, was exchanged between these two men, both subtle in the science of life, and equally cunning in its mysteries. They quite understood each other.
"My worthy old buck," said the detective to himself, " you've got something in your sack ; only it's so big, so monstrous, that you won't exhibit it, not for a cannon-ball. You wish your hand forced, do you? Ve-ry well!"
"He's sly," thought M. Plantat. "He knows that I've got an idea; he's trying to get at it - and I believe he will."
M. Lecoq had restored his lozenge-box to his pocket, as he always did when he went seriously to work. His amour-propre was enlisted; he played a part-and he was a rare comedian.
"Now," cried he, "let's to horse. According to the mayor's account, the instrument with which all these things were broken has been found."
"In the room in the second story," answered M. Plantat, "overlooking the garden, we found a hatchet on the floor, near a piece of furniture which had been assailed, but not broken open; I forbade anyone to touch it."
"And you did well. Is it a heavy hatchet?"
"It weighs about two pounds."
"Good. Let's see it."
They ascended to the room in question, and M. Lecoq, forgetting his part of a haberdasher, and regardless of his clothes, went down flat on his stomach, alternately scrutinizing the hatchet - which was a heavy, terrible weapon-and the slippery and well-waxed oaken floor.
"I suppose," observed M. Plantat, "that the assassins brought this hatchet up here and assailed this cupboard, for the sole purpose of putting us off our scent, and to complicate the mystery. This weapon, you see, was by no means necessary for breaking open the cupboard, which I could smash with my fist. They gave one blow - only one - and quietly put the hatchet down."
The detective got up and brushed himself.
"I think you are mistaken," said he. "This hatchet wasn't put on the floor gently; it was thrown with a violence betraying either great terror or great anger. Look here; do you see these three marks, near each other, on the floor? When the assassin threw the hatchet, it first fell on the edge - hence this sharp cut; then it fell over on one side; and the flat, or hammer end left this mark here, under my finger. Therefore, it was thrown with such violence that it turned over itself and that its edge a second time cut in the floor, where you see it now."
"True," answered M. Plantat. The detective's conjectures doubtless refuted his own theory, for he added, with a perplexed air:
"I don't understand anything about it."
M. Lecoq went on:
"Were the windows open this morning as they are now?"
"Ah! The wretches heard some noise or other in the garden, and they went and looked out. What did they see? I can't tell. But I do know that what they saw terrified them, that they threw down the hatchet furiously, and made off. Look at the position of these cuts - they are slanting of course - and you will see that the hatchet was thrown by a man who was standing, not by the cupboard, but close by the open window."
Plantat in his turn knelt down, and looked long and carefully. The detective was right. He got up confused, and after meditating a moment, said:
"This perplexes me a little; however - "
He stopped, motionless, in a revery, with one of his hands on his forehead.
"All might yet be explained," he muttered, mentally searching for a solution of the mystery, "and in that case the time indicated by the clock would be true."
M. Lecoq did not think of questioning his companion. He knew that he would not answer, for pride's sake.
This matter of the hatchet puzzles me, too," said he. "I thought that these assassins had worked leisurely; but that can't be so. I see they were surprised and interrupted."
Plantat was all ears.
"True," pursued M. Lecoq, slowly, "we ought to divide these indications into two classes. There are the traces left on purpose to mislead us - the jumbled-up bed, for instance; then there are the real traces, undesigned, as are these hatchet cuts. But here I hesitate. Is the trace of the hatchet true or false, good or bad? I thought myself sure of the character of these assassins: but now - He paused; the wrinkles on his face, the contraction of his mouth, betrayed his mental effort.
"But now?" asked M. Plantat.
M. Lecoq, at this question, seemed like a man just roused from sleep.
"I beg your pardon," said he. " I forgot myself. I've a bad habit of reflecting aloud. That's why I almost always insist on working alone. My uncertainty, hesitation, the vacillation of my suspicions, lose me the credit of being an astute detective - of being an agent for whom there's no such thing as a mystery."
Worthy M. Plantat gave the detective an indulgent smile.
"I don't usually open my mouth," pursued M. Lecoq, "until my mind is satisfied; then I speak in a peremptory tone, and say - this is thus, or this is so. But to-day I am acting without too much restraint, in the company of a man who knows that a problem such as this seems to me to he, is not solved at the first attempt. So I permit my gropings to be seen without shame. You cannot always reach the truth at a bound, but by a series of diverse calculations, by deductions and inductions. Well, just now my logic is at fault."
"Oh, it's very simple. I thought I understood the rascals, and knew them by heart; and yet I have only recognized imaginary adversaries. Are they fools, or are they mighty sly? That's what I ask myself. The tricks played with the bed and clock had, I supposed, given me the measure and extent of their intelligence and invention. Making deductions from the known to the unknown, I arrived, by a series of very simple consequences, at the point of foreseeing all that they could have imagined, to throw us off the scent. My point of departure admitted, I had only, in order to reach the truth, to take the contrary of that which appearances indicated. I said to myself:
"A hatchet has been found in the second story; therefore the assassins carried it there, and designedly forgot it.
"They left five glasses on the dining-room table; therefore they were more or less than five, but they were not five.
"There were the remains of a supper on the table; therefore they neither drank nor ate.
"The countess's body was on the river-bank; therefore it was placed there deliberately. A piece of cloth was found in the victim's hand; therefore it was put there by the murderers themselves.
"Madame de Tremorel's body is disfigured by many dagger-strokes, and horribly mutilated; therefore she was killed by a single blow - "
"Bravo, yes, bravo," cried M. Plantat, visibly charmed.
"Eh! no, not bravo yet," returned M. Lecoq. "For here my thread is broken; I have reached a gap. If my deductions were sound, this hatchet would have been very carefully placed on the floor."
"Once more, bravo," added the other, "for this does not at all affect our general theory. It is clear, nay certain, that the assassins intended to act as you say. An unlooked-for event interrupted them."
"Perhaps; perhaps that's true. But I see something else - "
"Nothing - at least, for the moment. Before all, I must see the dining-room and the garden."
They descended at once, and Plantat pointed out the glasses and bottles, which he had put one side. The detective took the glasses, one after another, held them level with his eye, toward the light, and scrutinized the moist places left on them.
"No one has drank from these glasses," said he, firmly.
"What, from neither one of them?"
The detective fixed a penetrating look upon his companion, and in a measured tone, said:
"From neither one."
M. Plantat only answered by a movement of the lips, as if to say, " You are going too far."
The other smiled, opened the door, and called:
The valet hastened to obey the call. His face was suffused with tears; he actually bewailed the loss of his master.
"Hear what I've got to say, my lad," said M. Lecoq, with true detective-like familiarity. "And be sure and answer me exactly, frankly, and briefly."
"I will, sir."
"Was it customary here at the chateau, to bring up the wine before it was wanted?"
"No, sir; before each meal, I myself went down to the cellar for it."
"Then no full bottles were ever kept in the dining-room?"
"But some of the wine might sometimes remain in draught?"
"No; the count permitted me to carry the dessert wine to the servants' table."
"And where were the empty bottles put?"
"I put them in this corner cupboard, and when they amounted to a certain number, I carried them down cellar."
"When did you last do so?"
"Oh" - Francois reflected - "at least five or six days ago."
"Good. Now, what liqueurs did the count drink?"
"The count scarcely ever drank liqueurs. If, by chance, he took a notion to have a small glass of eau-de-vie, he got it from the liqueur closet, there, over the stove."
"There were no decanters of rum or cognac in any of the cupboards?"
"Thanks; you may retire."
As Francois was going out, M. Lecoq called him back.
"While we are about it, look in the bottom of the closet, and see if you find the right number of empty bottles."
The valet obeyed, and looked into the closet.
"There isn't one there."
"Just so," returned M. Lecoq. "This time, show us your heels for good."
As soon as Francois had shut the door, M. Lecoq turned to Plantat and asked:
"What do you think now?"
"You were perfectly right."
The detective then smelt successively each glass and bottle.
"Good again! Another proof in aid of my guess."
"It was not wine that was at the bottom of these glasses. Among all the empty bottles put away in the bottom of that closet, there was one - here it is - which contained vinegar; and it was from this bottle that they turned what they thought to be wine into the glasses."
Seizing a glass, he put it to M. Plantat's nose, adding:
"See for yourself."
There was no disputing it; the vinegar was good, its odor of the strongest; the villains, in their haste, had left behind them an incontestable proof of their intention to mislead the officers of justice. While they were capable of shrewd inventions, they did not have the art to perform them well. All their oversights could, however, be accounted for by their sudden haste, caused by the occurrence of an unlooked-for incident. "The floors of a house where a crime has just been committed," said a famous detective, "burn the feet." M. Lecoq seemed exasperated, like a true artist, before the gross, pretentious, and ridiculous work of some green and bungling scholar.
"These are a parcel of vulgar ruffians, truly! able ones, certainly; but they don't know their trade yet, the wretches."
M. Lecoq, indignant, ate three or four lozenges at a mouthful.
"Come, now," said Plantat, in a paternally severe tone. "Don't let's get angry. The people have failed in address, no doubt; but reflect that they could not, in their calculations, take account of the craft of a man like you."
M. Lecoq, who had the vanity which all actors possess, was flattered by the compliment, and but poorly dissimulated an expression of pleasure.
"We must be indulgent; come now," pursued Plantat. "Besides," he paused a moment to give more weight to what he was going to say, "besides, you haven't seen everything yet."
No one could tell when M. Lecoq was playing a comedy. He did not always know, himself. This great artist, devoted to his art, practised the feigning of all the emotions of the human soul, just as he accustomed himself to wearing all sorts of costumes. He was very indignant against the assassins, and gesticulated about in great excitement; but he never ceased to watch Plantat slyly, and the last words of the latter made him prick up his ears.
"Let's see the rest, then," said he.
As he followed his worthy comrade to the garden, he renewed his confidences to the dear defunct.
"Confound this old bundle of mystery! We can't take this obstinate fellow by surprise, that's clear. He'll give us the word of the riddle when we have guessed it; not before. He is as strong as we, my darling; he only needs a little practice. But look you - if he has found something which has escaped us, he must have previous information, that we don't know of."
Nothing had been disturbed in the garden.
"See here, Monsieur Lecoq," said the old justice of the peace, as he followed a winding pathway which led to the river. "It was here that one of the count's slippers was found;, below there, a little to the right of these geraniums, his silk handkerchief was picked up."
They reached the river-bank, and lifted, with great care, the planks which had been placed there to preserve the foot-prints.
"We suppose," said M. Plantat, "that the countess, in her flight, succeeded in getting to this spot; and that here they caught up with her and gave her a finishing blow."
Was this really Plantat's opinion, or did he only report the morning's theory? M. Lecoq could not tell.
"According to my calculations," he said, "the countess could not have fled, but was brought here already dead, or logic is not logic. However, let us examine this spot carefully."
He knelt down and studied the sand on the path, the stagnant water, and the reeds and water-plants. Then going along a little distance, he threw a stone, approaching again to see the effect produced on the mud. He next returned to the house, and came back again under the willows, crossing the lawn, where were still clearly visible traces of a heavy burden having been dragged over it. Without the least respect for his pantaloons, he crossed the lawn on all-fours, scrutinizing the smallest blades of grass, pulling away the thick tufts to see the earth better, and minutely observing the direction of the broken stems. This done, he said:
"My conclusions are confirmed. The countess was carried across here."
"Are you sure of it?" asked Plantat.
There was no mistaking the old man's hesitation this time; he was clearly undecided, and leaned on the other's judgment for guidance.
"There can be no error, possibly."
The detective smiled, as he added:
"Only, as two heads are better than one, I will ask you to listen to me, and then, you will tell me what you think."
M. Lecoq had, in searching about, picked up a little flexible stick, and while he talked, he used it to point out this and that object, like the lecturer at the panorama.
"No," said he, "Madame de Tremorel did not fly from her murderers. Had she been struck down here, she would have fallen violently; her weight, therefore, would have made the water spirt to some distance, as well as the mud; and we should certainly have found some splashes."
"But don't you think that, since morning, the sun - "
"The sun would have absorbed the water; but the stain of dry mud would have remained. I have found nothing of the sort anywhere. You might object, that the water and mud would have spirted right and left; but just look at the tufts of these flags, lilies, and stems of cane - you find a light dust on every one. Do you find the least trace of a drop of water? No. There was then no splash, therefore no violent fall; therefore the countess was not killed here; therefore her body was brought here, and carefully deposited where you found it."
M. Plantat did not seem to be quite convinced yet.
But there are the traces of a struggle in the sand," said he.
His companion made a gesture of protest.
"Monsieur deigns to have his joke; those marks would not deceive a school-boy.
"It appears to me, however - "
"There can be no mistake, Monsieur Plantat. Certain it is that the sand has been disturbed and thrown about. But all these trails that lay bare the earth which was covered by the sand, were made by the same foot. Perhaps you don't believe it. They were made, too, with the end of the foot; that you may see for yourself."
"Yes, I perceive it."
"Very well, then; when there has been a struggle on ground like this, there are always two distinct kinds of traces - those of the assailant and those of the victim. The assailant, throwing himself forward, necessarily supports himself on his toes, and imprints the fore part of his feet on the earth. The victim, on the contrary, falling back, and trying to avoid the assault, props himself on his heels, and therefore buries the heels in the soil. If the adversaries are equally strong, the number of imprints of the toes and the heels will be nearly equal, according to the chances of the struggle. But what do we find here?"
M. Plantat interrupted:
"Enough; the most incredulous would now be convinced." After thinking a moment, he added:
"No, there is no longer any possible doubt of it."
M. Lecoq thought that his argument deserved a reward, and treated himself to two lozenges at a mouthful.
"I haven't done yet," he resumed. "Granted, that the countess could not have been murdered here; let's add that she was not carried hither, but dragged along. There are only two ways of dragging a body; by the shoulders, and in this case the feet, scraping along the earth, leave two parallel trails; or by the legs - in which case the head, lying on the earth, leaves a single furrow, and that a wide one."
Plantat nodded assent.
"When I examined the lawn," pursued M. Lecoq, "I found the parallel trails of the feet, but yet the grass was crushed over a rather wide space. How was that? Because it was the body, not of a man, but of a woman, which was dragged across the lawn - of a woman full-dressed, with heavy petticoats; that, in short, of the countess, and not of the count."
M. Lecoq paused, in expectation of a question, or a remark.
But the old justice of the peace did not seem to be listening, and appeared to be plunged in the deepest meditation. Night was falling; a light fog hung like smoke over the Seine.
"We must go in," said M. Plantat, abruptly, "and see how the doctor has got on with his autopsy."
They slowly approached the house. The judge of instruction awaited them on the steps. He appeared to have a satisfied air.
"I am going to leave you in charge," said he to M. Plantat, "for if I am to see the procureur, I must go at once. When you sent for him this morning, he was absent."
M. Plantat bowed.
"I shall be much obliged if you will watch this affair to the end. The doctor will have finished in a few minutes, he says, and will report to-morrow morning. I count on your co-operation to put seals wherever they are necessary, and to select the guard over the chateau. I shall send an architect to draw up an exact plan of the house and garden. Well, sir," asked M. Domini, turning to the detective, "have you made any fresh discoveries?"
"I have found some important facts; but I cannot speak decisively till I have seen everything by daylight. If you will permit me, I will postpone making my report till to-morrow afternoon. I think I may say, however, that complicated as this affair is - "
M. Domini did not let him finish.
"I see nothing complicated in the affair at all; everything strikes me as very simple."
"But," objected M. Lecoq, "I thought - "
I sincerely regret," continued the judge, "that you were so hastily called, when there was really no serious reason for it. The evidences against the arrested men are very conclusive.
Plantat and Lecoq exchanged a long look, betraying their great surprise.
"What!" exclaimed the former, "have, you discovered any new indications?"
"More than indications, I believe," responded M. Domini. "Old Bertaud, whom I have again questioned, begins to be uneasy. He has quite lost his arrogant manner. I succeeded in making him contradict himself several times, and he finished by confessing that he saw the assassins."
"The assassins!" exclaimed M. Plantat. "Did he say assassins?"
"He saw at least one of them. He persists in declaring that he did not recognize him. That's where we are. But prison walls have salutary terrors. Tomorrow after a sleepless night, the fellow will be more explicit, if I mistake not."
"But Guespin," anxiously asked the old man, " have you questioned him?"
"Oh, as for him, everything is clear."
"Has he confessed? "asked M. Lecoq, stupefied.
The judge half turned toward the detective, as if he were displeased that M. Lecoq should dare to question him.
"Guespin has not confessed," he answered, "but his case is none the better for that. Our searchers have returned. They haven't' yet found the count's body, and I think it has been carried down by the current. But they found at the end of the park, the count's other slipper, among the roses; and under the bridge, in the middle of the river, they discovered a thick vest which still bears the marks of blood."
" And that vest is Guespin's?"
"Exactly so. It was recognized by all the domestics, and Guespin himself did not hesitate to admit that it belonged to him. But that is not all - "
M. Domini stopped as if to take breath, but really to keep Plantat in suspense. As they differed in their theories, he thought Plantat betrayed a stupid opposition to him; and he was not sorry to have a chance for a little triumph.
"That is not all," he went on; "this vest had, in the right pocket, a large rent, and a piece of it had been torn off. Do you know what became of that piece of Guespin's vest?"
"Ah," muttered M. Plantat, "it was that which we found in the countess's hand."
"You are right, Monsieur. And what think you of this proof, pray, of the prisoner's guilt?"
M. Plantat seemed amazed; his arms fell at his side. As for M. Lecoq, who, in presence of the judge, had resumed his haberdasher manner, he was so much surprised that he nearly strangled himself with a lozenge.
"A thousand devils!" exclaimed he. "That's tough, that is!" He smiled sillily, and added in a low tone, meant only for Plantat's ear.
"Mighty tough! Though quite foreseen in our calculations. The countess held a piece of cloth tightly in her hand; therefore it was put there, intentionally, by the murderers."
M. Domini did not hear this remark. He shook hands with M. Plantat and made an appointment to meet him on the morrow, at the court-house. Then he went away with his clerk.
Guespin and old Bertaud, handcuffed, had a few minutes before being led off to the prison of Corbeil, under the guard of the Orcival gendarmes.
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