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Despite the haste they made, it was nearly ten o'clock when M. Plantat and his guests quitted the chateau of Valfeuillu. Instead of taking the high road, they cut across a pathway which ran along beside Mme. de Lanascol's park, and led diagonally to the wire bridge; this was the shortest way to the inn where M. Lecoq had left his slight baggage. As they went along, M. Plantat grew anxious about his good friend, M. Courtois.
"What misfortune can have happened to him?" said he to Dr. Gendron.
"Thanks to the stupidity of that rascal of a servant, we learned nothing at all. This letter from Mademoiselle Laurence has caused the trouble, somehow."
They had now reached the Faithful Grenadier.
A big red-faced fellow was smoking a long pipe at the door, his back against the house. He was talking with a railway employee. It was the landlord.
"Well, Monsieur Plantat," he cried, "what a horrible affair this is! Come in, come in; there are several folks in the hall who saw the assassins. What a villain old Bertaud is! And that Guespin; ah, I would willingly trudge to Corbeil to see them put up the scaffold!
"A little charity, Master Lenfant; you forget that both these men were among your best customers."
Master Lenfant was confused by this reply; but his native impudence soon regained the mastery.
"Fine customers, parbleu!" he answered, "this thief of a Guespin has got thirty francs of mine which I'll never see again."
"Who knows?" said Plantat, ironically. "Besides, you are going to make more than that to-night, there's so much company at the Orcival festival."
During this brief conversation, M. Lecoq entered the inn for his night-gown. His office being no longer a secret, he was not now welcomed as when he was taken for a simple retired haberdasher. Mme. Lenfant, a lady who had no need of her husband's aid to show penniless sots the door, scarcely deigned to answer him. When he asked how much he owed, she responded, with a contemptuous gesture, "Nothing." When he returned to the door, his night-gown in hand, M. Plantat said:
"Let's hurry, for I want to get news of our poor mayor."
The three hastened their steps, and the old justice of the peace, oppressed with sad presentiments, and trying to combat them, continued:
"If anything had happened at the mayor's, I should certainly have been informed of it by this time. Perhaps Laurence has written that she is ill, or a little indisposed. Madame Courtois, who is the best woman in the world, gets excited about nothing; she probably wanted to send her husband for Laurence at once. You'll see that it's some false alarm."
No; some catastrophe had happened. A number of the village women were standing before the mayor's gate. Baptiste, in the midst of the group, was ranting and gesticulating. But at M. Plantat's approach, the women fled like a troop of frightened gulls. The old man's unexpected appearance annoyed the placid Baptiste not a little, for he was interrupted, by the sudden departure of his audience, in the midst of a superb oratorical flight. As he had a great fear of M. Plantat, however, he dissimulated his chagrin with his habitual smile.
"Ah, sir," cried he, when M. Plantat was three steps off, "ah, what an affair! I was going for you - "
"Does your master wish me?"
"More than you can think. He ran so fast from Valfeuillu here, that I could scarcely keep up with him. He's not usually fast, you know; but you ought to have seen him this time, fat as he is!"
M. Plantat stamped impatiently.
"Well, we got here at last," resumed the man, "and monsieur rushed into the drawing-room, where he found madame sobbing like a Magdalene. He was so out of breath he could scarcely speak. His eyes stuck out of his head, and he stuttered like this - 'What's-the-matter? What's the-matter?' Madame, who couldn't speak either, held out mademoiselle's letter, which she had in her hand."
The three auditors were on coals of fire; the rogue perceived it, and spoke more and more slowly.
"Then monsieur took the letter, went to the window, and at a glance read it through. He cried out hoarsely, thus: 'Oh!' then he went to beating the air with his hands, like a swimming dog; then he walked up and down and fell, pouf! like a bag, his face on the floor. That was all."
"Is he dead?" cried all three in the same breath.
"Oh, no; you shall see," responded Baptiste, with a placid smile.
M. Lecoq was a patient marl, but not so patient as you might think. Irritated by the manner of Baptiste's recital, he put down his bundle, seized the man's arm with his right hand, while with the left he whisked a light flexible cane, and said:
Look here, fellow, I want you to hurry up, you know."
That was all he said; the servant was terribly afraid of this little blond man, with a strange voice, and a fist harder than a vice. He went on very rapidly this time, his eye fixed on M. Lecoq's rattan.
"Monsieur had an attack of vertigo. All the house was in confusion; everybody except I, lost their heads; it occurred to me to go for a doctor, and I started off for one - for Doctor Gendron, whom I knew to be at the chateau, or the doctor near by, or the apothecary - it mattered not who. By good luck, at the street corner, I came upon Robelot, the bone-setter - 'Come, follow me,' said I. He did so; sent away those who were tending monsieur, and bled him in both arms. Shortly after, he breathed, then he opened his eyes, and then he spoke. Now he is quite restored, and is lying on one of the drawing-room lounges, crying with all his might. He told me he wanted to see Monsieur Plantat, and I - "
"And - Mademoiselle Laurence?" asked M. Plantat, with a trembling voice. Baptiste assumed a tragic pose.
"Ah, gentlemen," said he, "don't ask me about her - 'tis heartrending!"
The doctor and M. Plantat heard no more, but hurried in; M. Lecoq followed, having confided his night-gown to Baptiste, with, "Carry that to M. Plantat's - quick!"
Misfortune, when it enters a house, seems to leave its fatal imprint on the very threshold. Perhaps it is not really so, but it is the feeling which those who are summoned to it experience. As the physician and the justice of the peace traversed the court-yard, this house, usually so gay and hospitable, presented a mournful aspect. Lights were seen coming and going in the upper story. Mlle. Lucile, the mayor's youngest daughter, had had a nervous attack, and was being tended. A young girl, who served as Laurence's maid, was seated in the vestibule, on the lower stair, weeping bitterly. Several domestics were there also, frightened, motionless, not knowing what to do in all this fright. The drawing-rcom door was wide open; the room was dimly lighted by two candles; Mme. Courtois lay rather than sat in a large arm-chair near the fireplace. Her husband was reclining on a lounge near the windows at the rear of the apartment. They had taken off his coat and had torn away his shirt-sleeves and flannel vest, when he was to be bled. There were strips of cotton wrapped about his naked arms. A small man, habited like a well-to-do Parisian artisan, stood near the door, with an embarrassed expression of countenance. It was Robelot, who had remained, lest any new exigency for his services should arise.
The entrance of his friend startled M. Courtois from the sad stupor into which he had been plunged. He got up and staggered into the arms of the worthy Plantat, saying, in a broken voice:
"Ah, my friend, I am most miserable - most wretched!"
The poor mayor was so changed as scarcely to be recognizable. He was no longer the happy man of the world, with smiling face, firm look, the pride of which betrayed plainly his self-importance and prosperity. In a few hours he had grown twenty years older. He was broken, overwhelmed; his thoughts wandered in a sea of bitterness. He could only repeat, vacantly, again and again:
"Wretched! most wretched!"
M. Plantat was the right sort of a friend for such a time. He led M. Courtois back to the sofa and sat down beside him, and taking his hand in his own, forced him to calm his grief. He recalled to him that his wife, the companion of his life, remained to him, to mourn the dear departed with him. Had he not another daughter to cherish? But the poor man was in no state to listen to all this.
"Ah, my friend," said he shuddering, "you do not know all! If she had died here, in the midst of us, comforted by our tender care, my despair would be great; but nothing compared with that which now tortures me. If you only knew - "
M. Plantat rose, as if terrified by what he was about to hear.
"But who can tell," pursued the wretched man, "where or how she died? Oh, my Laurence, was there no one to hear your last agony and save you? What has become of you, so young and happy?"
He rose, shaking with anguish and cried:
"Let us go, Plantat, and look for her at the Morgue." Then he fell back again, muttering the lugubrious word, "the Morgue."
The witnesses of this scene remained, mute, motionless, rigid, holding their breath. The stifled sobs and groans of Mme. Courtois and the little maid alone broke the silence.
"You know that I am your friend - your best friend," said M. Plantat, softly; "confide in me - tell me all."
"Well," commenced M. Courtois, "know" - but his tears choked his utterance, and he could not go on. Holding out a crumpled letter, wet with tears, he stammered:
"Here, read-it is her last letter."
M. Plantat approached the table, and, not without difficulty, read:
"Dearly beloved parents-
"Forgive, forgive, I beseech you, your unhappy daughter, the distress she is about to cause you. Alas! I have been very guilty, but the punishment is terrible! In a day of wandering, I forgot all - the example and advice of my dear, sainted mother, my most sacred duty, and your tenderness. I could not, no, I could not resist him who wept before me in swearing for me an eternal love - and who has abandoned me. Now, all is over; I am lost, lost. I cannot long conceal my dreadful sin. Oh, dear parents, do not curse me. I am your daughter - I cannot bear to face contempt, I will not survive my dishonor.
"When this letter reaches you, I shall have ceased to live; I shall have quitted my aunt's, and shall have gone far away, where no one will find me. There I shall end my misery and despair. Adieu, then, oh, beloved parents, adieu! I would that I could, for the last time, beg your forgiveness on my knees. My dear mother, my good father, have pity on a poor wanderer; pardon me, forgive me. Never let my sister Lucile know. Once more, adieu - I have courage - honor commands! For you is the last prayer and supreme thought of your poor Laurence."
Great tears rolled silently down the old man's cheeks as he deciphered this sad letter. A cold, mute, terrible anger shrivelled the muscles of his face. When he had finished, he said, in a hoarse voice:
M. Courtois heard this exclamation.
"Ah, yes, wretch indeed," he cried, "this vile villain who has crept in in the dark, and stolen my dearest treasure, my darling child! Alas, she knew nothing of life. He whispered into her ear those fond words which make the hearts of all young girls throb; she had faith in him; and now he abandons her. Oh, if I knew who he was - if I knew - "
He suddenly interrupted himself. A ray of intelligence had just illumined the abyss of despair into which he had fallen.
"No," said he, "a young girl is not thus abandoned, when she has a dowry of a million, unless for some good reason. Love passes away; avarice remains. The infamous wretch was not free - he was married. He could only be the Count de Tremorel. It is he who has killed my child."
The profound silence which succeeded proved to him that his conjecture was shared by those around him.
"I was blind, blind!" cried he. "For I received him at my house, and called him my friend. Oh, have I not a right to a terrible vengeance?"
But the crime at Valfeuillu occurred to him; and it was with a tone of deep disappointment that he resumed:
"And not to be able to revenge myself! I could riot, then, kill him with my own hands, see him suffer for hours, hear him beg for mercy! He is dead. He has fallen under the blows of assassins, less vile than himself."
The doctor and M. Plantat strove to comfort the unhappy man; but he went on, excited more and more by the sound of his own voice.
"Oh, Laurence, my beloved, why did you not confide in me? You feared my anger, as if a father would ever cease to love his child. Lost, degraded, fallen to the ranks of the vilest, I would still love thee. Were you not my own? Alas! you knew not a father's heart. A father does not pardon; he forgets. You might still have been happy, my lost love."
He wept; a thousand memories of the time when Laurence was a child and played about his knees recurred to his mind; it seemed as though it were but yesterday.
"Oh, my daughter, was it that you feared the world - the wicked, hypocritical world? But we should have gone away. I should have left Orcival, resigned my office. We should have settled down far away, in the remotest corner of France, in Germany, in Italy. With money all is possible. All? No! I have millions, and yet my daughter has killed herself."
He concealed his face in his hands; his sobs choked him.
"And not to know what has become of her!" he continued. "Is it not frightful? What death did she choose? You remember, Doctor, and you, Plantat, her beautiful curls about her pure forehead, her great, trembling eyes, her long curved lashes? Her smile - do you know, it was the sun's ray of my life. I so loved her voice, and her mouth so fresh, which gave me such warm, loving kisses. Dead! Lost! And not to know what has become of her sweet form - perhaps abandoned in the mire of some river. Do you recall the countess's body this morning? It will kill me! Oh, my child - that I might see her one hour - one minute - that I might give her cold lips one last kiss!"
M. Lecoq strove in vain to prevent a warm tear which ran from his eyes, from falling. M. Lecoq was a stoic on principle, and by profession. But the desolate words of the poor father overcame him. Forgetting that his emotion would be seen, he came out from the shadow where he had stood, and spoke to M. Courtois:
"I, Monsieur Lecoq, of the detectives, give you my honor that I will find Mademoiselle Laurence's body."
The poor mayor grasped desperately at this promise, as a drowning man to a straw.
"Oh, yes, we will find her, won't we? You will help me. They say that to the police nothing is impossible - that they see and know everything. We will see what has become of my child."
He went toward M. Lecoq, and taking him by the hand:
"Thank you," added he, "you are a good man. I received you ill a while ago, and judged you with foolish pride: forgive me. We will succeed - you will see, we will aid each other, we will put all the police on the scent, we will search through France, money will do it - I have it - I have millions - take them - "
His energies were exhausted: he staggered and fell heavily on the lounge.
"He must not remain here long," muttered the doctor in Plantat's ear, "he must get to bed. A brain fever, after such excitement, would not surprise me."
The old justice of the peace at once approached Mme. Courtois, who still reclined in the arm-chair, apparently having seen or heard nothing of what had passed, and oblivious in her grief.
"Madame!" said he, "Madame!"
She shuddered and rose, with a wandering air.
It is my fault," said she, " my miserable fault! A mother should read her daughter's heart as in a book. I did not suspect Laurence's secret; I am a most unhappy mother."
The doctor also came to her.
"Madame," said he, in an imperious tone, "your husband must be persuaded to go to bed at once. His condition is very serious, and a little sleep is absolutely necessary. I will haye a potion prepared - "
"Oh, my God!" cried the poor lady, wringing her hands, in the fear of a new misfortune, as bitter as the first; which, however, restored her to her presence of mind. She called the servants, who assisted the mayor to regain his chamber. Mme. Courtois also retired, followed by the doctor. Three persons only remained in the drawing-room - Plantat, Lecoq, and Robelot, who still stood near the door.
"Poor Laurence!" murmured Plantat. "Poor girl!"
"It seems to me that her father is most to be pitied," remarked M. Lecoq. "Such a blow, at his age, may be more than he can bear. Even should he recover, his life is broken."
"I had a sort of presentiment," said the other, "that this misfortune would come. I had guessed Laurence's secret, but I guessed it too late."
And you did not try - "
"What? In a delicate case like this, when the honor of a family depends on a word, one must be circumspect. What could I do? Put Courtois on his guard? Clearly not. He would have refused to believe me. He is one of those men who will listen to nothing, and whom the brutal fact alone can undeceive.
"You might have dealt with the Count de Tremorel."
"The count would have denied all. He would have asked what right I had to interfere in his affairs."
But the girl?"
M. Plantat sighed heavily.
"Though I detest mixing up with what does not concern me, I did try one day to talk with her. With infinite precaution and delicacy, and without letting her see that I knew all, I tried to show her the abyss near which she was drawing."
"And what did she reply?"
"Nothing. She laughed and joked, as women who have a secret which they wish to conceal, do. Besides, I could not get a quarter of an hour alone with her, and it was necessary to act, I knew - for I was her best friend - before committing this imprudence of speaking to her. Not a day passed that she did not come to my garden and cull my rarest flowers - and I would not, look you, give one of my flowers to the Pope himself. She had instituted me her florist in ordinary. For her sake I collected my briars of the Cape - "
He was talking on so wide of his subject that M. Lecoq could not repress a roguish smile. The old man was about to proceed when he heard a noise in the hall, and looking up he observed Robelot for the first time. His face at once betrayed his great annoyance.
"You were there, were you? "he said.
The bone-setter smiled obsequiously.
"Yes, Monsieur, quite at your service.
"You have been listening, eh?"
"Oh, as to that, I was waiting to see if Madame Courtois had any commands for me."
A sudden reflection occurred to M. Plantat; the expression of his eye changed. He winked at M. Lecoq to call his attention, and addressing the bone-setter in a milder tone, said: " Come here, Master Robelot."
Lecoq had read the man at a glance. Robelot was a small, insignificant-looking man, but really of herculean strength. His hair, cut short behind, fell over his large, intelligent forehead. His eyes shone with the fire of covetousness, and expressed, when he forgot to guard them, a cynical boldness. A sly smile was always playing about his thin lips, beneath which there was no beard. A little way off, with his slight figure and his beardless face, he looked like a Paris gamin - one of those little wretches who are the essence of all corruption, whose imagination is more soiled than the gutters where they search for lost pennies.
Robelot advanced several steps, smiling and bowing. "Perhaps," said he, " Monsieur has, by chance, need of me?"
"None whatever, Master Robelot, I only wish to congratulate you on happening in so apropos, to bleed Monsieur Courtois. Your lancet has, doubtless, saved his life."
It's quite possible."
"Monsieur Courtois is generous - he will amply recompense this great service."
"Oh, I shall ask him nothing. Thank God, I want nobody's help. If I am paid my due, I am content."
"I know that well enough; you are prosperous - you ought to be satisfied."
M. Plantat's tone was friendly, almost paternal. He was deeply interested, evidently, in Robelot's prosperity.
"Satisfied!" resumed the bone-setter. "Not so much as you might think. Life is very dear for poor people."
"But, haven't you just purchased an estate near d'Evry?"
"And a nice place, too, though a trifle damp. Happily you have stone to fill it in with, on the land that you bought of the widow Frapesle."
Robelot had never seen the old justice of the peace so talkative, so familiar; he seemed a little surprised.
"Three wretched pieces of land!" said he.
"Not so bad as you talk about. Then you've also bought something in the way of mines, at auction, haven't you?"
"Just a bunch of nothing at all."
"True, but it pays well. It isn't so bad, you see, to be a doctor without a diploma."
Robelot had been several times prosecuted for illegal practicing; so he thought he ought to protest against this.
"If I cure people," said he, "I'm not paid for it."
"Then your trade in herbs isn't what has enriched you."
The conversation was becoming a cross-examination. The bone-setter was beginning to be restless.
"Oh, I make something out of the herbs,". he answered.
"And as you are thrifty, you buy land."
"I've also got some cattle and horses, which bring in something. I raise horses, cows, and sheep."
"Also without diploma?"
Robelot waxed disdainful.
"A piece of parchment does not make science. I don't fear the men of the schools. I study animals in the fields and the stable, without bragging. I haven't my equal for raising them, nor for knowing their diseases."
M. Plantat's tone became more and more winning.
"I know that you are a bright fellow, full of experience. Doctor Gendron, with whom you served, was praising your cleverness a moment ago."
The bone-setter shuddered, not so imperceptibly as to escape Plantat, who continued: "Yes, the good doctor said he never had so intelligent an assistant. 'Robelot,' said he, 'has such an aptitude for chemistry, and so much taste for it besides, that he understands as well - as I many of the most delicate operations.'"
"Parbleu! I did my best, for I was well paid, and I was always fond of learning."
"And you were an apt scholar at Doctor Gendron's, Master Robelot; he makes some very curious studies. His work and experience on poisons are above all remarkable."
Robelot's uneasiness became apparent; his look wavered.
"Yes;" returned he, "I have seen some strange experiments."
"Well, you see, you may think yourself lucky - for the doctor is going to have a splendid chance to study this sort of thing, and he will undoubtedly want you to assist him."
But Robelot was too shrewd not to have already guessed that this cross-examination had a purpose. What was M. Plantat after? he asked himself, not without a vague terror. And, going over in his mind the questions which had been asked, and the answers he had given, and to what these questions led, he trembled. He thought to escape further questioning by saying:
"I am always at my old master's orders when he needs me."
"He'll need you, be assured," said M. Plantat, who added, in a careless tone, which his rapid glance at Robelot belied, "The interest attaching to this case will be intense, and the task difficult. Monsieur Sauvresy's body is to be disinterred."
Robelot was certainly prepared for something strange, and he was armed with all his audacity. But the name of Sauvresy fell upon his head like the stroke of a club, and he stammered, in a choked voice:
M. Plantat had already turned his head, and continued in an indifferent tone:
"Yes, Sauvresy is to be exhumed. It is suspected that his death was not wholly a natural one. You see, justice always has its suspicions."
Robelot leaned against the wall so as not to fall. M. Plantat proceeded:
"So Doctor Gendron has been applied to. He has, as you know, found reactive drugs which betray the presence of an alkaloid, whatever it may be, in the substances submitted to him for analysis. He has spoken to me of a certain sensitive paper - "
Appealing to all his energy, Robelot forced himself to stand up and resume a calm countenance.
"I know Doctor Gendron's process," said he, "but I don't see who could be capable of the suspicions of which you speak."
"I think there are more than suspicions," resumed M. Plantat. "Madame de Tremorel, you know, has been murdered: her papers have, of course, been examined; letters have been found, with very damaging revelations, receipts, and so on."
Robelot, apparently, was once more self-possessed; he forced himself to answer:
"Bast! let us hope that justice is in the wrong."
Then, such was this man's self-control, despite a nervous trembling which shook his whole body as the wind does the leaves, that he added, constraining his thin lips to form a smile:
"Madame Courtois does not come down; I am waited for at home, and will drop in again to-morrow. Good-evening, gentlemen."
He walked away, and soon the sand in the court was heard creaking with his steps. As he went, he staggered like a drunken man.
M. Lecoq went up to M. Plantat, and taking off his hat:
"I surrender," said he, "and bow to you; you are great, like my master, the great Tabaret."
The detectives amour-propre was clearly aroused; his professional zeal was inspired; he found himself before a great crime - one of those crimes which triple the sale of the Gazette of the Courts. Doubtless many of its details escaped him: he was ignorant of the starting-point; but he saw the way clearing before him. He had surprised Plantat's theory, and had followed the train of his thought step by step; thus he discovered the complications of the crime which seemed so simple to M. Domini. His subtle mind had connected together all the circumstances which had been disclosed to him during the day, and now he sincerely admired the old justice of the peace. As he gazed at his beloved portrait, he thought, "Between the two of us - this old fox and I - we will unravel the whole web." He would not, however, show himself to be inferior to his companion.
"Monsieur," said he, "while you were questioning this rogue, who will be very useful to us, I did not lose any time. I've been looking about, under the furniture and so on, and have found this slip of paper."
"It is the envelope of the young lady's letter. Do you know where her aunt, whom she was visiting, lives?"
"At Fontainebleau, I believe." "Ah; well, this envelope is stamped 'Paris,' Saint-Lazare branch post-office. I know this stamp proves nothing - "
"It is, of course, an indication."
"That is not all; I have read the letter itself - it was here on the table."
M. Plantat frowned involuntarily.
"It was, perhaps, a liberty," resumed M. Lecoq, "but the end justifies the means. Well, you have read this letter; but have you studied it, examined the hand-writing, weighed the words, remarked the context of the sentences?"
"Ah," cried Plantat, "I was not mistaken then - you had the same idea strike you that occurred to me!"
And, in the energy of his excitement he seized the detective's hands and pressed them as if he were an old friend. They were about to resume talking when a step was heard on the staircase; and presently Dr. Gendron appeared.
Courtois is better," said he, "he is in a doze, and will recover."
"We have nothing more, then, to keep us here," returned M. Plantat. "Let's be off. Monsieur Lecoq must be half dead with hunger."
As they went away, M. Lecoq slipped Laurence's letter, with the envelope, into his pocket.
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