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Dr. Gendron had just finished his sad task in the billiard-room. He had taken off his long coat, and pulled up his shirt-sleeves above his elbows. His instruments lay on a table near him; he had covered the body with a long white sheet. Night had come, and a large lamp, with a crystal globe, lighted up the gloomy scene. The doctor, leaning over a water-basin, was washing his hands, when the old justice of the peace and the detective entered.
"Ah, it's you, Plantat," said the doctor in a suppressed tone; "where is Monsieur Domini?"
The doctor did not take the trouble to repress a vexed motion.
"I must speak with him, though," said he, "it's absolutely necessary - and the sooner the better; for perhaps I am wrong - I may be mistaken - "
M. Lecoq and M. Plantat approached him, having carefully closed the door. The doctor was paler than the corpse which lay under the sheet. His usually calm features betrayed great distress. This change could not have been caused by the task in which he had been engaged. Of course it was a painful one; but M. Gendron was one of those experienced practitioners who have felt the pulse of every human misery, and whose disgust had become torpid by the most hideous spectacles. He must have discovered something extraordinary.
"I am going to ask you what you asked me a while ago," said M. Plantat. "Are you ill or suffering?"
M. Gendron shook his head sorrowfully, and answered, slowly and emphatically:
"I will answer you, as you did me; 'tis nothing, I am already better."
Then these two, equally profound, turned away their heads, as if fearing to exchange their ideas; they doubted lest their looks should betray them.
M. Lecoq advanced and spoke.
"I believe I know the cause of the doctor's emotion. He has just discovered that Madame de Tremorel was killed by a single blow, and that the assassins afterward set themselves to disfiguring the body, when it was nearly cold."
The doctor's eyes fastened on the detective, with a stupefied expression.
"How could you divine that?" he asked.
"Oh, I didn't guess it alone; I ought to share the honor of the theory which has enabled us to foresee this fact, with Monsieur Plantat."
"Oh," cried the doctor, striking his forehead," now, I recollect your advice; in my worry, I must say, I had quite forgotten it. "Well," he added, " your foresight is confirmed. Perhaps not so much time as you suppose elapsed between the first blow and the rest; but I am convinced that the countess had ceased to live nearly three hours, when the last blows were struck."
M. Gendron went to the billiard-table, and slowly raised the sheet, discovering the head and part of the bust.
"Let us inform ourselves, Plantat," he said.
The old justice of the peace took the lamp, and passed to the other side of the table. His hand trembled so that the globe tingled. The vacillating light cast gloomy shadows upon the walls. The countess's face had been carefully bathed, the blood and mud effaced. The marks of the blows were thus more visible, but they still found upon that livid countenance, the traces of its beauty. M. Lecoq stood at the head of the table, leaning over to see more clearly.
"The countess," said Dr. Gendron, "received eighteen blows from a dagger. Of these, but one is mortal; it is this one, the direction of which is nearly vertical - a little below the shoulder, you see." He pointed out the wound, sustaining the body in his left arm. The eyes had preserved a frightful expression. It seemed as if the half - open mouth were about to cry "Help! Help!"
Plantat, the man with a heart of stone, turned away his head, and the doctor, having mastered his first emotion, continued in a professionally apathetic tone:
"The blade must have been an inch wide, and eight inches long. All the other wounds - those on the arms, breast, and shoulders, are comparatively slight. They must have been inflicted at least two hours after that which caused death."
"Good," said M. Lecoq.
"Observe that I am not positive," returned the doctor quickly. "I merely state a probability. The phenomena on which I base my own conviction are too fugitive, too capricious in their nature, to enable me to be absolutely certain."
This seemed to disturb M. Lecoq.
"But, from the moment when - "
"What I can affirm," interrupted Dr. Gendron, "what I would affirm under oath, is, that all the wounds on the head, excepting one, were inflicted after death. No doubt of that whatever - none whatever. Here, above the eye, is the blow given while the countess was alive."
"It seems to me, Doctor," observed M. Lecoq, "that we may conclude from the proved fact that the countess, after death, was struck by a flat implement, that she had also ceased to live when she was mutilated by the knife."
M. Gendron reflected a moment.
"It is possible that you are right; as for me, I am persuaded of it. Still the conclusions in my report will not be yours. The physician consulted by the law, should only pronounce upon patent, demonstrated facts. If he has a doubt, even the slightest, he should hold his tongue. I will say more; if there is any uncertainty, my opinion is that the accused, and not the prosecution, should have the benefit of it."
This was certainly not the detective's opinion, but he was cautious not to say so. He had followed Dr. Gendron with anxious attention, and the contraction of his face showed the travail of his mind.
"It seems to me now possible," said he, "to determine how and where the countess was struck."
The doctor had covered the body, and Plantat had replaced the lamp on the little table. Both asked M. Lecoq to explain himself.
"Very well," resumed the detective. "The direction of the wound proves to me that the countess was in her chamber taking tea, seated, her body inclined a little forward, when she was murdered. The assassin came up behind her with his arm raised; he chose his position coolly, and struck her with terrific force. The violence of the blow was such that the victim fell forward, and in the fall, her forehead struck the end of the table; she thus gave herself the only fatal blow which we have discovered on the head."
M. Gendron looked from one to the other of his companions, who exchanged significant glances. Perhaps he suspected the game they were playing.
"The crime must evidently have been committed as you say," said he.
There was another embarrassing silence. M. Lecoq's obstinate muteness annoyed Plantat, who finally asked him:
"Have you seen all you want to see?"
"All for to-day; I shall need daylight for what remains. I am confident, indeed, that with the exception of one detail that worries me, I have the key to the mystery."
"We must he here, then, early to-morrow morning."
"I will be here at any hour you will name."
"Your search finished, we will go together to Monsieur Domini, at Corbeil."
"I am quite at your orders."
There was another pause.
M. Plantat perceived that M. Lecoq guessed his thoughts; and did not understand the detective's capriciousness; a little while before, he had been very loquacious, but now held his tongue. M. Lecoq, on the other hand, was delighted to puzzle the old man a little, and formed the intention to astonish him the next morning, by giving him a report which should faithfully reflect all his ideas. Meanwhile he had taken out his lozenge-box, and was intrusting a hundred secrets to the portrait.
"Well," said the doctor, "there remains nothing more to be done except to retire."
"I was just going to ask permission to do so," said M. Lecoq. "I have been fasting ever since morning."
M. Plantat now took a bold step.
"Shall you return to Paris to-night, Monsieur Lecoq?" asked he, abruptly.
"No; I came prepared to remain over-night; I've brought my night-gown, which I left, before coming up here, at the little roadside inn below. I shall sup and sleep there."
"You will be poorly off at the Faithful Grenadier," said the old justice of the peace. "You will do better to come and dine with me."
"You are really too good, Monsieur - "
"Besides, we have a good deal to say, and so you must remain the night with me; we will get your night-clothes as we pass along."
M. Lecoq bowed, flattered and grateful for the invitation.
"And I shall carry you off, too, Doctor," continued M. Plantat, "whether you will or not. Now, don't say no. If you insist on going to Corbeil to-night, we will carry you over after supper."
The operation of fixing the seals was speedily concluded; narrow strips of parchment, held by large waxen seals, were affixed to all the doors, as well as to the bureau in which the articles gathered for the purposes of the investigation had been deposited.
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