The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
The visitor who risks himself in the labyrinth of galleries and stairways in the Palais de Justice, and mounts to the third story in the left wing, will find himself in a long, low-studded gallery, badly lighted by narrow windows, and pierced at short intervals by little doors, like a hall at the ministry or at a lodging-house.
It is a place difficult to view calmly, the imagination makes it appear so dark and dismal.
It needs a Dante to compose an inscription to place above the doors which lead from it. From morning to night, the flagstones resound under the heavy tread of the gendarmes, who accompany the prisoners. You can scarcely recall anything but sad figures there. There are the parents or friends of the accused, the witnesses, the detectives. In this gallery, far from the sight of men, the judicial curriculum is gone through with.
Each one of the little doors, which has its number painted over it in black, opens into the office of a judge of inquiry. All the rooms are just alike: if you see one, you have seen them all. They have nothing terrible nor sad in themselves; and yet it is difficult to enter one of them without a shudder. They are cold. The walls all seem moist with the tears which have been shed there. You shudder, at thinking of the avowals wrested from the criminals, of the confessions broken with sobs murmured there.
In the office of the judge of inquiry, Justice clothes herself in none of that apparel which she afterwards dons in order to strike fear into the masses. She is still simple, and almost disposed to kindness. She says to the prisoner,--
"I have strong reasons for thinking you guilty; but prove to me your innocence, and I will release you."
On entering one of these rooms, a stranger would imagine that he got into a cheap shop by mistake. The furniture is of the most primitive sort, as is the case in all places where important matters are transacted. Of what consequence are surroundings to the judge hunting down the author of a crime, or to the accused who is defending his life?
A desk full of documents for the judge, a table for the clerk, an arm- chair, and one or two chairs besides comprise the entire furniture of the antechamber of the court of assize. The walls are hung with green paper; the curtains are green, and the floors are carpeted in the same color. Monsieur Daburon's office bore the number fifteen.
M. Daburon had arrived at his office in the Palais de Justice at nine o'clock in the morning, and was waiting. His course resolved upon, he had not lost an instant, understanding as well as old Tabaret the necessity for rapid action. He had already had an interview with the public prosecutor, and had arranged everything with the police.
Besides issuing the warrant against Albert, he had summoned the Count de Commarin, Madame Gerdy, Noel, and some of Albert's servants, to appear before him with as little delay as possible.
He thought it essential to question all these persons before examining the prisoner. Several detectives had started off to execute his orders, and he himself sat in his office, like a general commanding an army, who sends off his aide-de-camp to begin the battle, and who hopes that victory will crown his combinations.
Often, at this same hour, he had sat in this office, under circumstances almost identical. A crime had been committed, and, believing he had discovered the criminal, he had given orders for his arrest. Was not that his duty? But he had never before experienced the anxiety of mind which disturbed him now. Many a time had he issued warrants of arrest, without possessing even half the proofs which guided him in the present case. He kept repeating this to himself; and yet he could not quiet his dreadful anxiety, which would not allow him a moment's rest.
He wondered why his people were so long in making their appearance. He walked up and down the room, counting the minutes, drawing out his watch three times within a quarter of an hour, to compare it with the clock. Every time he heard a step in the passage, almost deserted at that hour, he moved near the door, stopped and listened. At length some one knocked. It was his clerk, whom he had sent for. There was nothing particular in this man; he was tall rather than big, and very slim. His gait was precise, his gestures were methodical, and his face was as impassive as if it had been cut out of a piece of yellow wood. He was thirty-four years of age and during fifteen years had acted as clerk to four investigating magistrates in succession. He could hear the most astonishing things without moving a muscle. His name was Constant.
He bowed to the magistrate, and excused himself for his tardiness. He had been busy with some book-keeping, which he did every morning; and his wife had had to send after him.
"You are still in good time," said M. Daburon: "but we shall soon have plenty of work: so you had better get your paper ready."
Five minutes later, the usher introduced M. Noel Gerdy. He entered with an easy manner, like an advocate who was well acquainted with the Palais, and who knew its winding ways. He in no wise resembled, this morning, old Tabaret's friend; still less could he have been recognized as Madame Juliette's lover. He was entirely another being, or rather he had resumed his every-day bearing. From his firm step, his placid face, one would never imagine that, after an evening of emotion and excitement, after a secret visit to his mistress, he had passed the night by the pillow of a dying woman, and that woman his mother, or at least one who had filled his mother's place.
What a contrast between him and the magistrate!
M. Daburon had not slept either: but one could easily see that in his feebleness, in his anxious look, in the dark, circles about his eyes. His shirt-front was all rumpled, and his cuffs were far from clean. Carried away by the course of events, the mind had forgotten the body. Noel's well-shaved chin, on the contrary, rested upon an irreproachably white cravat; his collar did not show a crease; his hair and his whiskers had been most carefully brushed. He bowed to M. Daburon, and held out the summons he had received.
"You summoned me, sir," he said; "and I am here awaiting your orders."
The investigating magistrate had met the young advocate several times in the lobbies of the Palais; and he knew him well by sight. He remembered having heard M. Gerdy spoken of as a man of talent and promise, whose reputation was fast rising. He therefore welcomed him as a fellow-workman, and invited him to be seated.
The preliminaries common in the examinations of all witnesses ended; the name, surname, age, place of business, and so on having been written down, the magistrate, who had followed his clerk with his eyes while he was writing, turned towards Noel.
"I presume you know, M. Gerdy," he began, "the matters in connection with which you are troubled with appearing before me?"
"Yes, sir, the murder of that poor old woman at La Jonchere."
"Precisely," replied M. Daburon. Then, calling to mind his promise to old Tabaret, he added, "If justice has summoned you so promptly, it is because we have found your name often mentioned in Widow Lerouge's papers."
"I am not surprised at that," replied the advocate: "we were greatly interested in that poor woman, who was my nurse; and I know that Madame Gerdy wrote to her frequently."
"Very well; then you can give me some information about her."
"I fear, sir, that it will be very incomplete. I know very little about this poor old Madame Lerouge. I was taken from her at a very early age; and, since I have been a man, I have thought but little about her, except to send her occasionally a little aid."
"You never went to visit her?"
"Excuse me. I have gone there to see her many times, but I remained only a few minutes. Madame Gerdy, who has often seen her, and to whom she talked of all her affairs, could have enlightened you much better than I."
"But," said the magistrate, "I expect shortly to see Madame Gerdy here; she, too, must have received a summons."
"I know it, sir, but it is impossible for her to appear. She is ill in bed."
"So seriously that you will be obliged, I think, to give up all hope of her testimony. She is attacked with a disease which, in the words of my friend, Dr. Herve, never forgives. It is something like inflammation of the brain, if I am not mistaken. It may be that her life will be saved, but she will never recover her reason. If she does not die, she will be insane."
M. Daburon appeared greatly vexed. "This is very annoying," he muttered. "And you think, my dear sir, that it will be impossible to obtain any information from her?"
"It is useless even to hope for it. She has completely lost her reason. She was, when I left her, in such a state of utter prostration that I fear she can not live through the day."
"And when was she attacked by this illness?"
"Yes, sir; at least, apparently so, though I myself think she has been unwell for the last three weeks at least. Yesterday, however, on rising from dinner, after having eaten but little, she took up a newspaper; and, by a most unfortunate hazard, her eyes fell exactly upon the lines which gave an account of this crime. She at once uttered a loud cry, fell back in her chair, and thence slipped to the floor, murmuring, 'Oh, the unhappy man, the unhappy man!'"
"The unhappy woman, you mean."
"No, sir. She uttered the words I have just repeated. Evidently the exclamation did not refer to my poor nurse."
Upon this reply, so important and yet made in the most unconscious tone, M. Daburon raised his eyes to the witness. The advocate lowered his head.
"And then?" asked the magistrate, after a moment's silence, during which he had taken a few notes.
"Those words, sir, were the last spoken by Madame Gerdy. Assisted by our servant, I carried her to her bed. The doctor was sent for; and, since then, she has not recovered consciousness. The doctor--"
"It is well," interrupted M. Daburon. "Let us leave that for the present. Do you know, sir, whether Widow Lerouge had any enemies?"
"None that I know of, sir."
"She had no enemies? Well, now tell me, does there exist to your knowledge any one having the least interest in the death of this poor woman?"
As he asked this question the investigating magistrate kept his eyes fixed on Noel's, not wishing him to turn or lower his head.
The advocate started, and seemed deeply moved. He was disconcerted; he hesitated, as if a struggle was going on within him.
Finally, in a voice which was by no means firm, he replied, "No, no one."
"Is that really true?" asked the magistrate, looking at him more searchingly. "You know no one whom this crime benefits, or whom it might benefit,--absolutely no one?"
"I know only one thing, sir," replied Noel; "and that is, that, as far as I am concerned, it has caused me an irreparable injury."
"At last," thought M. Daburon, "we have got at the letters; and I have not betrayed poor old Tabaret. It would be too bad to cause the least trouble to that zealous and invaluable man." He then added aloud: "An injury to you, my dear sir? You will, I hope, explain yourself."
Noel's embarrassment, of which he had already given some signs, appeared much more marked.
"I am aware, sir," he replied, "that I owe justice not merely the truth, but the whole truth; but there are circumstances involved so delicate that the conscience of a man of honour sees danger in them. Besides, it is very hard to be obliged to unveil such sad secrets, the revelation of which may sometimes--"
M. Daburon interrupted with a gesture. Noel's sad tone impressed him. Knowing, beforehand, what he was about to hear, he felt for the young advocate. He turned to his clerk.
"Constant!" said he in a peculiar tone. This was evidently a signal; for the tall clerk rose methodically, put his pen behind his ear, and went out in his measured tread.
Noel appeared sensible of this kindness. His face expressed the strongest gratitude; his look returned thanks.
"I am very much obliged to you, sir," he said with suppressed warmth, "for your considerateness. What I have to say is very painful; but it will be scarcely an effort to speak before you now."
"Fear nothing," replied the magistrate; "I will only retain of your deposition, my dear sir, what seems to me absolutely indispensable."
"I feel scarcely master of myself, sir," began Noel; "so pray pardon my emotion. If any words escape me that seem charged with bitterness, excuse them; they will be involuntary. Up to the past few days, I always believed that I was the offspring of illicit love. My history is short. I have been honourably ambitious; I have worked hard. He who has no name must make one, you know. I have passed a quiet life, retired and austere, as people must, who, starting at the foot of the ladder, wish to reach the top. I worshipped her whom I believed to be my mother; and I felt convinced that she loved me in return. The stain of my birth had some humiliations attached to it; but I despised them. Comparing my lot with that of so many others, I felt that I had more than common advantages. One day, Providence placed in my hands all the letters which my father, the Count de Commarin, had written to Madame Gerdy during the time she was his mistress. On reading these letters, I was convinced that I was not what I had hitherto believed myself to be,--that Madame Gerdy was not my mother!"
And, without giving M. Daburon time to reply, he laid before him the facts which, twelve hours before, he had related to M. Tabaret. It was the same story, with the same circumstances, the same abundance of precise and conclusive details; but the tone in which it was told was entirely changed. When speaking to the old detective, the young advocate had been emphatic and violent; but now, in the presence of the investigating magistrate, he restrained his vehement emotions.
One might imagine that he adapted his style to his auditors, wishing to produce the same effect on both, and using the method which would best accomplish his purpose.
To an ordinary mind like M. Tabaret's he used the exaggeration of anger; but to a man of superior intelligence like M. Daburon, he employed the exaggeration of restraint. With the detective he had rebelled against his unjust lot; but with the magistrate he seemed to bow, full of resignation, before a blind fatality.
With genuine eloquence and rare facility of expression, he related his feelings on the day following the discovery,--his grief, his perplexity, his doubts.
To support this moral certainty, some positive testimony was needed. Could he hope for this from the count or from Madame Gerdy, both interested in concealing the truth? No. But he had counted upon that of his nurse,--the poor old woman who loved him, and who, near the close of her life, would be glad to free her conscience from this heavy load. She was dead now; and the letters became mere waste paper in his hands.
Then he passed on to his explanation with Madame Gerdy, and he gave the magistrate even fuller details than he had given his old neighbour.
She had, he said, at first utterly denied the substitution, but he insinuated that, plied with questions, and overcome by the evidence, she had, in a moment of despair, confessed all, declaring, soon after, that she would retract and deny this confession, being resolved at all hazards that her son should preserve his position.
From this scene, in the advocate's judgment, might be dated the first attacks of the illness, to which she was now succumbing.
Noel then described his interview with the Viscount de Commarin. A few inaccuracies occurred in his narrative, but so slight that it would have been difficult to charge him with them. Besides, there was nothing in them at all unfavourable to Albert.
He insisted, on the contrary, upon the excellent impression which that young man had made on him. Albert had received the revelation with a certain distrust, it is true, but with a noble firmness at the same time, and, like a brave heart, was ready to bow before the justification of right.
In fact, he drew an almost enthusiastic portrait of this rival, who had not been spoiled by prosperity, who had left him without a look of hatred, towards whom he felt himself drawn, and who after all was his brother.
M. Daburon listened to Noel with the most unremitting attention, without allowing a word, a movement, or a frown, to betray his feelings.
"How, sir," observed the magistrate when the young man ceased speaking, "could you have told me that, in your opinion, no one was interested in Widow Lerouge's death?"
The advocate made no reply.
"It seems to me," continued M. Daburon, "that the Viscount de Commarin's position has thereby become almost impregnable. Madame Gerdy is insane; the count will deny all; your letters prove nothing. It is evident that the crime is of the greatest service to this young man, and that it was committed at a singularly favourable moment."
"Oh sir!" cried Noel, protesting with all his energy, "this insinuation is dreadful."
The magistrate watched the advocate's face narrowly. Was he speaking frankly, or was he but playing at being generous? Could it really be that he had never had any suspicion of this?
Noel did not flinch under the gaze, but almost immediately continued, --"What reason could this young man have for trembling, or fearing for his position? I did not utter one threatening word, even indirectly. I did not present myself like a man who, furious at being robbed, demands that everything which had been taken from him should be restored on the spot. I merely presented the facts to Albert, saying, 'Here is the truth? what do you think we ought to do? Be the judge.'"
"And he asked you for time?"
"Yes. I had suggested his accompanying me to see Widow Lerouge, whose testimony might dispel all doubts; he did not seem to understand me. But he was well acquainted with her, having visited her with the count, who supplied her, I have since learned, liberally with money."
"Did not this generosity appear to you very singular?"
"Can you explain why the viscount did not appear disposed to accompany you?"
"Certainly. He had just said that he wished, before all, to have an explanation with his father, who was then absent, but who would return in a few days."
The truth, as all the world knows, and delights in proclaiming, has an accent which no one can mistake. M. Daburon had not the slightest doubt of his witness's good faith. Noel continued with the ingenuous candour of an honest heart which suspicion has never touched with its bat's wing: "The idea of treating at once with my father pleased me exceedingly. I thought it so much better to wash all one's dirty linen at home, I had never desired anything but an amicable arrangement. With my hands full of proofs, I should still recoil from a public trial."
"Would you not have brought an action?"
"Never, sir, not at any price. Could I," he added proudly, "to regain my rightful name, begin by dishonouring it?"
This time M. Daburon could not conceal his sincere admiration.
"A most praiseworthy feeling, sir," he said.
"I think," replied Noel, "that it is but natural. If things came to the worst, I had determined to leave my title with Albert. No doubt the name of Commarin is an illustrious one; but I hope that, in ten years time, mine will be more known. I would, however, have demanded a large pecuniary compensation. I possess nothing: and I have often been hampered in my career by the want of money. That which Madame Gerdy owed to the generosity of my father was almost entirely spent. My education had absorbed a great part of it; and it was long before my profession covered my expenses. Madame Gerdy and I live very quietly; but, unfortunately, though simple in her tastes, she lacks economy and system; and no one can imagine how great our expenses have been. But I have nothing to reproach myself with, whatever happens. At the commencement, I could not keep my anger well under control; but now I bear no ill-will. On learning of the death of my nurse, though, I cast all my hopes into the sea."
"You were wrong, my dear sir," said the magistrate. "I advise you to still hope. Perhaps, before the end of the day, you will enter into possession of your rights. Justice, I will not conceal from you, thinks she has found Widow Lerouge's assassin. At this moment, Viscount Albert is doubtless under arrest."
"What!" exclaimed Noel, with a sort of stupor: "I was not, then, mistaken, sir, in the meaning of your words. I dreaded to understand them."
"You have not mistaken me, sir," said M. Daburon. "I thank you for your sincere straightforward explanations; they have eased my task materially. To-morrow,--for today my time is all taken up,--we will write down your deposition together if you like. I have nothing more to say, I believe, except to ask you for the letters in your possession, and which are indispensable to me."
"Within an hour, sir, you shall have them," replied Noel. And he retired, after having warmly expressed his gratitude to the investigating magistrate.
Had he been less preoccupied, the advocate might have perceived at the end of the gallery old Tabaret, who had just arrived, eager and happy, like a bearer of great news as he was.
His cab had scarcely stopped at the gate of the Palais de Justice before he was in the courtyard and rushing towards the porch. To see him jumping more nimbly than a fifth-rate lawyer's clerk up the steep flight of stairs leading to the magistrate's office, one would never have believed that he was many years on the shady side of fifty. Even he himself had forgotten it. He did not remember how he had passed the night; he had never before felt so fresh, so agile, in such spirits; he seemed to have springs of steel in his limbs.
He burst like a cannon-shot into the magistrate's office, knocking up against the methodical clerk in the rudest of ways, without even asking his pardon.
"Caught!" he cried, while yet on the threshold, "caught, nipped, squeezed, strung, trapped, locked! We have got the man."
Old Tabaret, more Tirauclair than ever, gesticulated with such comical vehemence and such remarkable contortions that even the tall clerk smiled, for which, however, he took himself severely to task on going to bed that night.
But M. Daburon, still under the influence of Noel's deposition, was shocked at this apparently unseasonable joy; although he felt the safer for it. He looked severely at old Tabaret, saying,--"Hush, sir; be decent, compose yourself."
At any other time, the old fellow would have felt ashamed at having deserved such a reprimand. Now, it made no impression on him.
"I can't be quiet," he replied. "Never has anything like this been known before. All that I mentioned has been found. Broken foil, lavender kid gloves slightly frayed, cigar-holder; nothing is wanting. You shall have them, sir, and many other things besides. I have a little system of my own, which appears by no means a bad one. Just see the triumph of my method of induction, which Gevrol ridiculed so much. I'd give a hundred francs if he were only here now. But no; my Gevrol wants to nab the man with the earrings; he is just capable of doing that. He is a fine fellow, this Gevrol, a famous fellow! How much do you give him a year for his skill?"
"Come, my dear M. Tabaret," said the magistrate, as soon as he could get in a word, "be serious, if you can, and let us proceed in order."
"Pooh!" replied the old fellow, "what good will that do? It is a clear case now. When they bring the fellow before you, merely show him the particles of kid taken from behind the nails of the victim, side by side with his torn gloves, and you will overwhelm him. I wager that he will confess all, hic et nunc,--yes, I wager my head against his; although that's pretty risky; for he may get off yet! Those milk-sops on the jury are just capable of according him extenuating circumstances. Ah! all those delays are fatal to justice! Why if all the world were of my mind, the punishment of rascals wouldn't take such a time. They should be hanged as soon as caught. That's my opinion."
M. Daburon resigned himself to this shower of words. As soon as the old fellow's excitement had cooled down a little, he began questioning him. He even then had great trouble in obtaining the exact details of the arrest; details which later on were confirmed by the commissary's official report.
The magistrate appeared very surprised when he heard that Albert had exclaimed, "I am lost!" at sight of the warrant. "That," muttered he, "is a terrible proof against him."
"I should think so," replied old Tabaret. "In his ordinary state, he would never have allowed himself to utter such words; for they in fact destroy him. We arrested him when he was scarcely awake. He hadn't been in bed, but was lying in a troubled sleep, upon a sofa, when we arrived. I took good care to let a frightened servant ran in advance, and to follow closely upon him myself, to see the effect. All my arrangements were made. But, never fear, he will find a plausible excuse for this fatal exclamation. By the way, I should add that we found on the floor, near by, a crumpled copy of last evening's 'Gazette de France,' which contained an account of the assassination. This is the first time that a piece of news in the papers ever helped to nab a criminal."
"Yes," murmured the magistrate, deep in thought, "yes, you are a valuable man, M. Tabaret." Then, louder, he added, "I am thoroughly convinced; for M. Gerdy has just this moment left me."
"You have seen Noel!" cried the old fellow. On the instant all his proud self-satisfaction disappeared. A cloud of anxiety spread itself like a veil over his beaming countenance. "Noel here," he repeated. Then he timidly added: "And does he know?"
"Nothing," replied M. Daburon. "I had no need of mentioning your name. Besides, had I not promised absolute secrecy?"
"Ah, that's all right," cried old Tabaret. "And what do you think sir, of Noel?"
"His is, I am sure, a noble, worthy heart," said the magistrate; "a nature both strong and tender. The sentiments which I heard him express here, and the genuineness of which it is impossible to doubt, manifested an elevation of soul, unhappily, very rare. Seldom in my life have I met with a man who so won my sympathy from the first. I can well understand one's pride in being among his friends."
"Just what I said; he has precisely the same effect upon every one. I love him as though he were my own child; and, whatever happens, he will inherit almost the whole of my fortune: yes, I intend leaving him everything. My will is made, and is in the hands of M. Baron, my notary. There is a small legacy, too, for Madame Gerdy; but I am going to have the paragraph that relates to that taken out at once."
"Madame Gerdy, M. Tabaret, will soon be beyond all need of worldly goods."
"How, what do you mean? Has the count--"
"She is dying, and is not likely to live through the day; M. Gerdy told me so himself."
"Ah! heavens!" cried the old fellow, "what is that you say? Dying? Noel will be distracted; but no: since she is not his mother, how can it affect him? Dying! I thought so much of her before this discovery. Poor humanity! It seems as though all the accomplices are passing away at the same time; for I forgot to tell you, that, just as I was leaving the Commarin mansion, I heard a servant tell another that the count had fallen down in a fit on learning the news of his son's arrest."
"That will be a great misfortune for M. Gerdy."
"I had counted upon M. de Commarin's testimony to recover for him all that he so well deserves. The count dead, Widow Lerouge dead, Madame Gerdy dying, or in any event insane, who then can tell us whether the substitution alluded to in the letters was ever carried into execution?"
"True," murmured old Tabaret; "it is true! And I did not think of it. What fatality! For I am not deceived; I am certain that--"
He did not finish. The door of M. Daburon's office opened, and the Count de Commarin himself appeared on the threshold, as rigid as one of those old portraits which look as though they were frozen in their gilded frames. The nobleman motioned with his hand, and the two servants who had helped him up as far as the door, retired.