The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
Albert scarcely noticed his removal from home to the seclusion of the prison. Snatched away from his painful thoughts by the harsh voice of the commissary, saying. "In the name of the law I arrest you," his mind, completely upset, was a long time in recovering its equilibrium, Everything that followed appeared to him to float indistinctly in a thick mist, like those dream-scenes represented on the stage behind a quadruple curtain of gauze.
To the questions put to him he replied, without knowing what he said. Two police agents took hold of his arms, and helped him down the stairs. He could not have walked down alone. His limbs, which bent beneath him, refused their support. The only thing he understood of all that was said around him was that the count had been struck with apoplexy; but even that he soon forgot.
They lifted him into the cab, which was waiting in the court-yard at the foot of the steps, rather ashamed at finding itself in such a place; and they placed him on the back seat. Two police agents installed themselves in front of him while a third mounted the box by the side of the driver. During the drive, he did not at all realize his situation. He lay perfectly motionless in the dirty, greasy vehicle. His body, which followed every jolt, scarcely allayed by the worn-out springs, rolled from one side to the other and his head oscillated on his shoulders, as if the muse of his neck were broken. He thought of Widow Lerouge. He recalled her as she was when he went with his father to La Jonchere. It was in the spring-time; and the hawthorn blossoms scented the air. The old woman, in a white cap, stood at her garden gate: she spoke beseechingly. The count looked sternly at her as he listened, then, taking some gold from his purse, he gave it to her.
On arriving at their destination they lifted him out of the cab, the same way as they had lifted him in at starting.
During the formality of entering his name in the jail-book in the dingy, stinking record office, and whilst replying mechanically to everything, he gave himself up with delight to recollections of Claire. He went back to the time of the early days of their love, when he doubted whether he would ever have the happiness of being loved by her in return; when they used to meet at Mademoiselle Goello's.
This old maid had a house on the left bank of the Seine furnished in the most eccentric manner. On all the dining-room furniture, and on the mantel-piece, were placed a dozen or fifteen stuffed dogs, of various breeds, which together or successively had helped to cheer the maiden's lonely hours. She loved to relate stories of these pets whose affection had never failed her. Some were grotesque, others horrible. One especially, outrageously stuffed seemed ready to burst. How many times he and Claire had laughed at it until the tears came!
The officials next began to search him. This crowning humiliation, these rough hands passing all over his body brought him somewhat to himself, and roused his anger. But it was already over; and they at once dragged him along the dark corridors, over the filthy, slippery floor. They opened a door, and pushed him into a small cell. He then heard them lock and bolt the door.
He was a prisoner, and, in accordance with special orders, in solitary confinement. He immediately felt a marked sensation of comfort. He was alone.
No more stifled whispers, harsh voices, implacable questions, sounded in his ears. A profound silence reigned around. It seemed to him that he had forever escaped from society; and he rejoiced at it. He would have felt relieved, had this even been the silence of the grave. His body, as well as his mind, was weighed down with weariness. He wanted to sit down, when he perceived a small bed, to the right, in front of the grated window, which let in the little light there was. This bed was as welcome to him as a plank would be to a drowning man. He threw himself upon it, and lay down with delight; but he felt cold, so he unfolded the coarse woollen coverlid, and wrapping it about him, was soon sound asleep.
In the corridor, two detectives, one still young, the other rather old, applied alternately their eyes and ears to the peep-hole in the door, watching every movement of the prisoner; "What a fellow he is!" murmured the younger officer. "If a man has no more nerve than that, he ought to remain honest. He won't care much about his looks the morning of his execution, eh, M. Balan?"
"That depends," replied the other. "We must wait and see. Lecoq told me that he was a terrible rascal."
"Ah! look he arranges his bed, and lies down. Can he be going to sleep? That's good! It's the first time I ever saw such a thing."
"It is because, comrade, you have only had dealings with the smaller rogues. All rascals of position--and I have had to do with more than one--are this sort. At the moment of arrest, they are incapable of anything; their heart fails them; but they recover themselves next day."
"Upon my word, one would say he has gone to sleep! What a joke!"
"I tell you, my friend," added the old man, pointedly, "that nothing is more natural. I am sure that, since the blow was struck, this young fellow has hardly lived: his body has been all on fire. Now he knows that his secret is out; and that quiets him."
"Ha, ha! M. Balan, you are joking: you say that that quiets him?"
"Certainly. There is no greater punishment, remember, than anxiety; everything is preferable. If you only possessed an income of ten thousand francs, I would show you a way to prove this. I would tell you to go to Hamburg and risk your entire fortune on one chance at rouge et noir. You could relate to me, afterwards, what your feelings were while the ball was rolling. It is, my boy, as though your brain was being torn with pincers, as though molten lead was being poured into your bones, in place of marrow. This anxiety is so strong, that one feels relieved, one breathes again, even when one has lost. It is ruin; but then the anxiety is over."
"Really, M. Balan, one would think that you yourself had had just such an experience."
"Alas! sighed the old detective, "it is to my love for the queen of spades, my unhappy love, that you owe the honour of looking through this peephole in my company. But this fellow will sleep for a couple of hours, do not lose sight of him; I am going to smoke a cigarette in the courtyard."
Albert slept four hours. On awaking his head seemed clearer than it had been ever since his interview with Noel. It was a terrible moment for him, when, for the first time he became fully aware of his situation.
"Now, indeed," said he, "I require all my courage."
He longed to see some one, to speak, to be questioned, to explain. He felt a desire to call out.
"But what good would that be?" he asked himself. "Some one will be coming soon." He looked for his watch, to see what time it was, and found that they had taken it away. He felt this deeply; they were treating him like the most abandoned of villains. He felt in his pockets: they had all been carefully emptied. He thought now of his personal appearance; and, getting up, he repaired as much as possible the disorder of his toilet. He put his clothes in order, and dusted them; he straightened his collar, and re-tied his cravat. Then pouring a little water on his handkerchief, he passed it over his face, bathing his eyes which were greatly inflamed. Then he endeavoured to smooth his beard and hair. He had no idea that four lynx eyes were fixed upon him all the while.
"Good!" murmured the young detective: "see how our cock sticks up his comb, and smooths his feathers!
"I told you," put in Balan, "that he was only staggered. Hush! he is speaking, I believe."
But they neither surprised one of those disordered gestures nor one of those incoherent speeches, which almost always escape from the feeble when excited by fear, or from the imprudent ones who believe in the discretion of their cells. One word alone, "honour," reached the ears of the two spies.
"These rascals of rank," grumbled Balan, "always have this word in their mouths. That which they most fear is the opinion of some dozen friends, and several thousand strangers, who read the 'Gazette des Tribunaux.' They only think of their own heads later on."
When the gendarmes came to conduct Albert before the investigating magistrate, they found him seated on the side of his bed, his feet pressed upon the iron rail, his elbows on his knees, and his head buried in his hands. He rose, as they entered, and took a few steps towards them; but his throat was so dry that he was scarcely able to speak. He asked for a moment, and, turning towards the little table, he filled and drank two large glassfuls of water in succession.
"I am ready!" he then said. And, with a firm step, he followed the gendarmes along the passage which led to the Palais de Justice.
M. Daburon was just then in great anguish. He walked furiously up and down his office, awaiting the prisoner. Again, and for the twentieth time since morning, he regretted having engaged in the business.
"Curse this absurd point of honour, which I have obeyed," he inwardly exclaimed. "I have in vain attempted to reassure myself by the aid of sophisms. I was wrong in not withdrawing. Nothing in the world can change my feelings towards this young man. I hate him. I am his judge; and it is no less true, that at one time I longed to assassinate him. I faced him with a revolver in my hand: why did I not present it and fire? Do I know why? What power held my finger, when an almost insensible pressure would have sufficed to kill him? I cannot say. Why is not he the judge, I the assassin? If the intention was as punishable as the deed, I ought to be guillotined. And it is under such conditions that I dare examine him!"
Passing before the door he heard the heavy footsteps of the gendarmes in the passage.
"It is he," he said aloud and then hastily seated himself at his table, bending over his portfolios, as though striving to hide himself. If the tall clerk had used his eyes, he would have noticed the singular spectacle of an investigating magistrate more agitated than the prisoner he was about to examine. But he was blind to all around him; and, at this moment, he was only aware of an error of fifteen centimes, which had slipped into his accounts, and which he was unable to rectify.
Albert entered the magistrate's office with his head erect. His features bore traces of great fatigue and of sleepless nights. He was very pale; but his eyes were clear and sparkling.
The usual questions which open such examinations gave M. Daburon an opportunity to recover himself. Fortunately, he had found time in the morning to prepare a plan, which he had now simply to follow.
"You are aware, sir," he commenced in a tone of perfect politeness, "that you have no right to the name you bear?"
"I know, sir," replied Albert, "that I am the natural son of M. de Commarin. I know further that my father would be unable to recognise me, even if he wished to, since I was born during his married life."
"What were your feelings upon learning this?"
"I should speak falsely, sir, if I said I did not feel very bitterly. When one is in the high position I occupied, the fall is terrible. However, I never for a moment entertained the thought of contesting M. Noel Gerdy's rights. I always purposed, and still purpose, to yield, I have so informed M. de Commarin."
M. Daburon expected just such a reply; and it only strengthened his suspicions. Did it not enter into the line of defence which he had foreseen? It was now his duty to seek some way of demolishing this defence, in which the prisoner evidently meant to shut himself up like a tortoise in its shell.
"You could not oppose M. Gerdy," continued the magistrate, "with any chance of success. You had, indeed on your side, the count, and your mother; but M. Gerdy was in possession of evidence that was certain to win his cause, that of Widow Lerouge."
"I have never doubted that, sir."
"Now," continued the magistrate, seeking to hide the look which he fastened upon Albert, "justice supposes that, to do away with the only existing proof, you have assassinated Widow Lerouge."
This terrible accusation, terribly emphasised, caused no change in Albert's features. He preserved the same firm bearing, without bravado.
"Before God," he answered, "and by all that is most sacred on earth, I swear to you, sir, that I am innocent! I am at this moment a close prisoner, without communication with the outer world, reduced consequently to the most absolute helplessness. It is through your probity that I hope to demonstrate my innocence."
"What an actor!" thought the magistrate. "Can crime be so strong as this?"
He glanced over his papers, reading certain passages of the preceding depositions, turning down the corners of certain pages which contained important information. Then suddenly he resumed, "When you were arrested, you cried out, 'I am lost,' what did you mean by that?"
"Sir," replied Albert, "I remember having uttered those words. When I knew of what crime I was accused, I was overwhelmed with consternation. My mind was, as it were, enlightened by a glimpse of the future. In a moment, I perceived all the horror of my situation. I understood the weight of the accusation, its probability, and the difficulties I should have in defending myself. A voice cried out to me, 'Who was most interested in Claudine's death?' And the knowledge of my imminent peril forced from me the exclamation you speak of."
His explanation was more than plausible, was possible, and even likely. It had the advantage, too, of anticipating the axiom, "Search out the one whom the crime will benefit!" Tabaret had spoken truly, when he said that they would not easily make the prisoner confess.
M. Daburon admired Albert's presence of mind, and the resources of his perverse imagination.
"You do indeed," continued the magistrate, "appear to have had the greatest interest in this death. Moreover, I will inform you that robbery was not the object of the crime. The things thrown into the Seine have been recovered. We know, also, that all the widow's papers were burnt. Could they compromise any one but yourself? If you know of any one, speak."
"What can I answer, sir? Nothing."
"Have you often gone to see this woman?"
"Three or four times with my father."
"One of your coachmen pretends to have driven you there at least ten times."
"The man is mistaken. But what matters the number of visits?"
"Do you recollect the arrangements of the rooms? Can you describe them?"
"Perfectly, sir: there were two. Claudine slept in the back room."
"You were in no way a stranger to Widow Lerouge. If you had knocked one evening at her window-shutter, do you think she would have let you in?"
"Certainly, sir, and eagerly."
"You have been unwell these last few days?"
"Very unwell, to say the least, sir. My body bent under the weight of a burden too great for my strength. It was not, however, for want of courage."
"Why did you forbid your valet, Lubin, to call in the doctor?"
"Ah, sir, how could the doctor cure my disease? All his science could not make me the legitimate son of the Count de Commarin."
"Some very singular remarks made by you were overheard. You seemed to be no longer interested in anything concerning your home. You destroyed a large number of papers and letters."
"I had decided to leave the count, sir. My resolution explains my conduct."
Albert replied promptly to the magistrate's questions, without the least embarrassment, and in a confident tone. His voice, which was very pleasant to the ear, did not tremble. It concealed no emotion; it retained its pure and vibrating sound.
M. Daburon deemed it wise to suspend the examination for a short time. With so cunning an adversary, he was evidently pursuing a false course. To proceed in detail was folly, he neither intimidated the prisoner, nor made him break through his reserve. It was necessary to take him unawares.
"Sir," resumed the magistrate, abruptly, "tell me exactly how you passed your time last Tuesday evening, from six o'clock until midnight?"
For the first time, Albert seemed disconcerted. His glance, which had, till then, been fixed upon the magistrate, wavered.
"During Tuesday evening," he stammered, repeating the phrase to gain time.
"I have him," thought the magistrate, starting with joy, and then added aloud, "yes, from six o'clock until midnight."
"I am afraid, sir," answered Albert, "it will be difficult for me to satisfy you. I haven't a very good memory."
"Oh, don't tell me that!" interrupted the magistrate. "If I had asked what you were doing three months ago, on a certain evening, and at a certain hour, I could understand your hesitation; but this is about Tuesday, and it is now Friday. Moreover, this day, so close, was the last of the carnival; it was Shrove Tuesday. That circumstance ought to help your memory."
"That evening, I went out walking," murmured Albert.
"Now," continued the magistrate, "where did you dine?"
"At home, as usual."
"No, not as usual. At the end of your meal, you asked for a bottle of Bordeaux, of which you drank the whole. You doubtless had need of some extra excitement for your subsequent plans."
"I had no plans," replied the prisoner with very evident uneasiness.
"You make a mistake. Two friends came to seek you. You replied to them, before sitting down to dinner, that you had a very important engagement to keep,"
"That was only a polite way of getting rid of them."
"Can you not understand, sir? I was resigned, but not comforted. I was learning to get accustomed to the terrible blow. Would not one seek solitude in the great crisis of one's life?"
"The prosecution pretends that you wished to be left alone, that you might go to La Jonchere. During the day, you said, 'She can not resist me.' Of whom were you speaking?"
"Of some one to whom I had written the evening before, and who had replied to me. I spoke the words, with her letter still in my hands."
"This letter was, then, from a woman?"
"What have you done with it?"
"I have burnt it."
"This precaution leads one to suppose that you considered the letter compromising."
"Not at all, sir; it treated entirely of private matters."
M. Daburon was sure that this letter came from Mademoiselle d'Arlange. Should he nevertheless ask the question, and again hear pronounced the name of Claire, which always aroused such painful emotions within him? He ventured to do so, leaning over his papers, so that the prisoner could not detect his emotion.
"From whom did this letter come?" he asked.
"From one whom I can not name."
"Sir," said the magistrate severely, "I will not conceal from you that your position is greatly compromised. Do not aggravate it by this culpable reticence. You are here to tell everything, sir."
"My own affairs, yes, not those of others."
Albert gave this last answer in a dry tone. He was giddy, flurried, exasperated, by the prying and irritating mode of the examination, which scarcely gave him time to breathe. The magistrate's questions fell upon him more thickly than the blows of the blacksmith's hammer upon the red-hot iron which he is anxious to beat into shape before it cools.
The apparent rebellion of his prisoner troubled M. Daburon a great deal. He was further extremely surprised to find the discernment of the old detective at fault; just as though Tabaret were infallible. Tabaret had predicted an unexceptionable alibi; and this alibi was not forthcoming. Why? Had this subtle villain something better than that? What artful defence had he to fall back upon? Doubtless he kept in reserve some unforeseen stroke, perhaps irresistible.
"Gently," thought the magistrate. "I have not got him yet." Then he quickly added aloud: "Continue. After dinner what did you do?"
"I went out for a walk."
"Not immediately. The bottle emptied, you smoked a cigar in the dining-room, which was so unusual as to be noticed. What kind of cigars do you usually smoke?"
"Do you not use a cigar-holder, to keep your lips from contact with the tobacco?"
"Yes, sir," replied Albert, much surprised at this series of questions.
"At what time did you go out?"
"About eight o'clock."
"Did you carry an umbrella?"
"Where did you go?"
"I walked about."
"Alone, without any object, all the evening?"
"Now trace out your wanderings for me very carefully."
"Ah, sir, that is very difficult to do! I went out simply to walk about, for the sake of exercise, to drive away the torpor which had depressed me for three days. I don't know whether you can picture to yourself my exact condition. I was half out of my mind. I walked about at hazard along the quays. I wandered through the streets,--"
"All that is very improbable," interrupted the magistrate. M. Daburon, however, knew that it was at least possible. Had not he himself, one night, in a similar condition, traversed all Paris? What reply could he have made, had some one asked him next morning where he had been, except that he had not paid attention, and did not know? But he had forgotten this; and his previous hesitations, too, had all vanished.
As the inquiry advanced, the fever of investigation took possession of him. He enjoyed the emotions of the struggle, his passion for his calling became stronger than ever.
He was again an investigating magistrate, like the fencing master, who, once practising with his dearest friend, became excited by the clash of the weapons, and, forgetting himself, killed him.
"So," resumed M. Daburon, "you met absolutely no one who can affirm that he saw you? You did not speak to a living soul? You entered no place, not even a cafe or a theatre, or a tobacconist's to light one of your favourite trabucos?"
"Well, it is a great misfortune for you, yes, a very great misfortune; for I must inform you, that it was precisely during this Tuesday evening, between eight o'clock and midnight, that Widow Lerouge was assassinated. Justice can point out the exact hour. Again, sir, in your own interest, I recommend you to reflect,--to make a strong appeal to your memory."
This pointing out of the exact day and hour of the murder seemed to astound Albert. He raised his hand to his forehead with a despairing gesture. However he replied in a calm voice,--"I am very unfortunate, sir: but I can recollect nothing."
M. Daburon's surprise was immense. What, not an alibi? Nothing? This could be no snare nor system of defence. Was, then, this man as cunning as he had imagined? Doubtless. Only he had been taken unawares. He had never imagined it possible for the accusation to fall upon him; and it was almost by a miracle it had done so.
The magistrate slowly raised, one by one, the large pieces of paper that covered the articles seized in Albert's rooms.
"We will pass," he continued, "to the examination of the charges which weigh against you. Will you please come nearer? Do you recognize these articles as belonging to yourself?"
"Yes, sir, they are all mine."
"Well, take this foil. Who broke it?"
"I, sir, in fencing with M. de Courtivois, who can bear witness to it."
"He will be heard. Where is the broken end?"
"I do not know. You must ask Lubin, my valet."
"Exactly. He declares that he has hunted for it, and cannot find it. I must tell you that the victim received the fatal blow from the sharpened end of a broken foil. This piece of stuff, on which the assassin wiped his weapon, is a proof of what I state."
"I beseech you, sir, to order a most minute search to be made. It is impossible that the other half of the foil is not to be found."
"Orders shall be given to that effect. Look, here is the exact imprint of the murderer's foot traced on this sheet of paper. I will place one of your boots upon it and the sole, as you perceive, fits the tracing with the utmost precision. This plaster was poured into the hollow left by the heel: you observe that it is, in all respects, similar in shape to the heels of your own boots. I perceive, too, the mark of a peg, which appears in both."
Albert followed with marked anxiety every movement of the magistrate. It was plain that he was struggling against a growing terror. Was he attacked by that fright which overpowers the guilty when they see themselves on the point of being confounded. To all the magistrate's remarks, he answered in a low voice,--"It is true--perfectly true."
"That is so," continued M. Daburon; "yet listen further, before attempting to defend yourself. The criminal had an umbrella. The end of this umbrella sank in the clayey soil; the round of wood which is placed at the end of the silk, was found moulded in the clay. Look at this clod of clay, raised with the utmost care; and now look at your umbrella. Compare the rounds. Are they alike, or not?"
"These things, sir," attempted Albert, "are manufactured in large quantities."
"Well, we will pass over that proof. Look at this cigar end, found on the scene of the crime, and tell me of what brand it is, and how it was smoked."
"It is a trabucos, and was smoked in a cigar-holder."
"Like these?" persisted the magistrate, pointing to the cigars and the amber and meerschaum-holders found in the viscount's library.
"Yes!" murmured Albert, "it is a fatality--a strange coincidence."
"Patience, that is nothing, as yet. The assassin wore gloves. The victim, in the death struggle, seized his hands; and some pieces of kid remained in her nails. These have been preserved, and are here. They are of a lavender colour, are they not? Now, here are the gloves which you wore on Tuesday. They, too, are lavender, and they are frayed. Compare these pieces of kid with your own gloves. Do they not correspond? Are they not of the same colour, the same skin?"
It was useless to deny it, equivocate, or seek subterfuges. The evidence was there, and it was irrefutable. While appearing to occupy himself solely with the objects lying upon his table, M. Daburon did not lose sight of the prisoner. Albert was terrified. A cold perspiration bathed his temples, and glided drop by drop down his cheeks. His hands trembled so much that they were of no use to him. In a chilling voice he kept repeating: "It is horrible, horrible!"
"Finally," pursued the inexorable magistrate, "here are the trousers you wore on the evening of the murder. It is plain that not long ago they were very wet; and, besides the mud on them, there are traces of earth. Besides that they are torn at the knees. We will admit, for the moment that you might not remember where you went on that evening; but who would believe that you do not know when you tore your trousers and how you frayed your gloves?"
What courage could resist such assaults? Albert's firmness and energy were at an end. His brain whirled. He fell heavily into a chair, exclaiming,--"It is enough to drive me mad!"
"Do you admit," insisted the magistrate, whose gaze had become firmly fixed upon the prisoner, "do you admit that Widow Lerouge could only have been stabbed by you?"
"I admit," protested Albert, "that I am the victim of one of those terrible fatalities which make men doubt the evidence of their reason. I am innocent."
"Then tell me where you passed Tuesday evening."
"Ah, sir!" cried the prisoner, "I should have to--" But, restraining himself, he added in a faint voice, "I have made the only answer that I can make."
M. Daburon rose, having now reached his grand stroke.
"It is, then, my duty," said he, with a shade of irony, "to supply your failure of memory. I am going to remind you of where you went and what you did. On Tuesday evening at eight o'clock, after having obtained from the wine you drank, the dreadful energy you needed, you left your home. At thirty-five minutes past eight, you took the train at the St. Lazare station. At nine o'clock, you alighted at the station at Rueil."
And, not disdaining to employ Tabaret's ideas, the investigating magistrate repeated nearly word for word the tirade improvised the night before by the amateur detective.
He had every reason, while speaking, to admire the old fellow's penetration. In all his life, his eloquence had never produced so striking an effect. Every sentence, every word, told. The prisoner's assurance, already shaken, fell little by little, just like the outer coating of a wall when riddled with bullets.
Albert was, as the magistrate perceived, like a man, who, rolling to the bottom of a precipice, sees every branch and every projecture which might retard his fall fail him, and who feels a new and more painful bruise each time his body comes in contact with them.
"And now," concluded the investigating magistrate, "listen to good advice: do not persist in a system of denying, impossible to sustain. Give in. Justice, rest assured, is ignorant of nothing which it is important to know. Believe me; seek to deserve the indulgence of your judges, confess your guilt."
M. Daburon did not believe that his prisoner would still persist in asserting his innocence. He imagined he would be overwhelmed and confounded, that he would throw himself at his feet, begging for mercy. But he was mistaken.
Albert, in spite of his great prostration, found, in one last effort of his will, sufficient strength to recover himself and again protest, --"You are right, sir," he said in a sad, but firm voice; "everything seems to prove me guilty. In your place, I should have spoken as you have done; yet all the same, I swear to you that I am innocent."
"Come now, do you really--" began the magistrate.
"I am innocent," interrupted Albert; "and I repeat it, without the least hope of changing in any way your conviction. Yes, everything speaks against me, everything, even my own bearing before you. It is true, my courage has been shaken by these incredible, miraculous, overwhelming coincidences. I am overcome, because I feel the impossibility of proving my innocence. But I do not despair. My honour and my life are in the hands of God. At this very hour when to you I appear lost,--for I in no way deceive myself, sir,--I do not despair of a complete justification. I await confidently."
"What do you mean?" asked the magistrate.
"Nothing but what I say, sir."
"So you persist in denying your guilt?"
"I am innocent."
"But this is folly--"
"I am innocent."
"Very well," said M. Daburon; "that is enough for to-day. You will hear the official report of your examination read, and will then be taken back to solitary confinement. I exhort you to reflect. Night will perhaps bring on a better feeling; if you wish at any time to speak to me, send word, and I will come to you. I will give orders to that effect. You may read now, Constant."
When Albert had departed under the escort of the gendarmes, the magistrate muttered in a low tone, "There's an obstinate fellow for you." He certainly no longer entertained the shadow of a doubt. To him, Albert was as surely the murderer as if he had admitted his guilt Even if he should persist in his system of denial to the end of the investigation, it was impossible, that, with the proofs already in the possession of the police, a true bill should not be found against him. He was therefore certain of being committed for trial at the assizes. It was a hundred to one, that the jury would bring in a verdict of guilty.
Left to himself, however, M. Daburon did not experience that intense satisfaction, mixed with vanity, which he ordinarily felt after he had successfully conducted an examination, and had succeeded in getting his prisoner into the same position as Albert. Something disturbed and shocked him. At the bottom of his heart, he felt ill at ease. He had triumphed; but his victory gave him only uneasiness, pain, and vexation. A reflection so simple that he could hardly understand why it had not occurred to him at first, increased his discontent, and made him angry with himself.
"Something told me," he muttered, "that I was wrong to undertake this business. I am punished for not having obeyed that inner voice. I ought to have declined to proceed with the investigation. The Viscount de Commarin, was, all the same, certain to be arrested, imprisoned, examined, confounded, tried, and probably condemned. Then, being in no way connected with the trial, I could have reappeared before Claire. Her grief will be great. As her friend, I could have soothed her, mingled my tears with hers, calmed her regrets. With time, she might have been consoled, and perhaps have forgotten him. She could not have helped feeling grateful to me, and then who knows--? While now, whatever may happen, I shall be an object of loathing to her: she will never be able to endure the sight of me. In her eyes I shall always be her lover's assassin. I have with my own hands opened an abyss! I have lost her a second time, and by my own fault."
The unhappy man heaped the bitterest reproaches upon himself. He was in despair. He had never so hated Albert,--that wretch, who, stained with a crime, stood in the way of his happiness. Then too he cursed old Tabaret! Alone, he would not have decided so quickly. He would have waited, thought over the matter, matured his decision, and certainly have perceived the inconveniences, which now occurred to him. The old fellow, always carried away like a badly trained bloodhound, and full of stupid enthusiasm, had confused him, and led him to do what he now so much regretted.
It was precisely this unfavorable moment that M. Tabaret chose for reappearing before the magistrate. He had just been informed of the termination of the inquiry; and he arrived, impatient to know what had passed, swelling with curiosity, and full of the sweet hope of hearing of the fulfilment of his predictions.
"What answers did he make?" he asked even before he had closed the door.
"He is evidently guilty," replied the magistrate, with a harshness very different to his usual manner.
Old Tabaret, who expected to receive praises by the basketful, was astounded at this tone! It was therefore, with great hesitancy that he offered his further services.
"I have come," he said modestly, "to know if any investigations are necessary to demolish the alibi pleaded by the prisoner."
"He pleaded no alibi," replied the magistrate, dryly.
"How," cried the detective, "no alibi? Pshaw! I ask pardon: he has of course then confessed everything."
"No," said the magistrate impatiently, "he has confessed nothing. He acknowledges that the proofs are decisive: he cannot give an account of how he spent his time; but he protests his innocence."
In the centre of the room, M. Tabaret stood with his mouth wide open, and his eyes staring wildly, and altogether in the most grotesque attitude his astonishment could effect. He was literally thunderstruck. In spite of his anger, M. Daburon could not help smiling; and even Constant gave a grin, which on his lips was equivalent to a paroxysm of laughter.
"Not an alibi, nothing?" murmured the old fellow. "No explanations? The idea! It is inconceivable! Not an alibi? We must then be mistaken: he cannot be the criminal. That is certain!"
The investigating magistrate felt that the old amateur must have been waiting the result of the examination at the wine shop round the corner, or else that he had gone mad.
"Unfortunately," said he, "we are not mistaken. It is but too clearly shown that M. de Commarin is the murderer. However, if you like, you can ask Constant for his report of the examination, and read it over while I put these papers in order."
"Very well," said the old fellow with feverish anxiety.
He sat down in Constant's chair, and, leaning his elbows on the table, thrusting his hands in his hair, he in less than no time read the report through. When he had finished, he arose with pale and distorted features.
"Sir," said he to the magistrate in a strange voice, "I have been the involuntary cause of a terrible mistake. This man is innocent."
"Come, come," said M. Daburon, without stopping his preparations for departure, "you are going out of your mind, my dear M. Tabaret. How, after all that you have read there, can--"
"Yes, sir, yes: it is because I have read this that I entreat you to pause, or we shall add one more mistake to the sad list of judicial errors. Read this examination over carefully; there is not a reply but which declares this unfortunate man innocent, not a word but which throws out a ray of light. And he is still in prison, still in solitary confinement?"
"He is; and there he will remain, if you please," interrupted the magistrate. "It becomes you well to talk in this manner, after the way you spoke last night, when I hesitated so much."
"But, sir," cried the old detective, "I still say precisely the same. Ah, wretched Tabaret! all is lost; no one understands you. Pardon me, sir, if I lack the respect due to you; but you have not grasped my method. It is, however, very simple. Given a crime, with all the circumstances and details, I construct, bit by bit, a plan of accusation, which I do not guarantee until it is entire and perfect. If a man is found to whom this plan applies exactly in every particular the author of the crime is found: otherwise, one has laid hands upon an innocent person. It is not sufficient that such and such particulars seem to point to him; it must be all or nothing. This is infallible. Now, in this case, how have I reached the culprit? Through proceeding by inference from the known to the unknown. I have examined his work; and I have formed an idea of the worker. Reason and logic lead us to what? To a villain, determined, audacious, and prudent, versed in the business. And do you think that such a man would neglect a precaution that would not be omitted by the stupidest tyro? It is inconceivable. What! this man is so skillful as to leave such feeble traces that they escape Gevrol's practised eye, and you think he would risk his safety by leaving an entire night unaccounted for? It's impossible! I am as sure of my system as of a sum that has been proved. The assassin has an alibi. Albert has pleaded none; then he is innocent."
M. Daburon surveyed the detective pityingly, much as he would have looked at a remarkable monomaniac. When the old fellow had finished,-- "My worthy M. Tabaret," the magistrate said to him: "you have but one fault. You err through an excess of subtlety, you accord too freely to others the wonderful sagacity with which you yourself are endowed. Our man has failed in prudence, simply because he believed his rank would place him above suspicion."
"No, sir, no, a thousand times no. My culprit,--the true one,--he whom we have missed catching, feared everything. Besides, does Albert defend himself? No. He is overwhelmed because he perceives coincidences so fatal that they appear to condemn him, without a chance of escape. Does he try to excuse himself? No. He simply replies, 'It is terrible.' And yet all through his examination I feel reticence that I cannot explain."
"I can explain it very easily; and I am as confident as though he had confessed everything. I have more than sufficient proofs for that."
"Ah, sir, proofs! There are always enough of those against an arrested man. They existed against every innocent man who was ever condemned. Proofs! Why, I had them in quantities against Kaiser, the poor little tailor, who--"
"Well," interrupted the magistrate, hastily, "if it is not he, the most interested one, who committed the crime, who then is it? His father, the Count de Commarin?"
"No: the true assassin is a young man."
M. Daburon had arranged his papers, and finished his preparations. He took up his hat, and, as he prepared to leave, replied: "You must then see that I am right. Come and see me by-and-by, M. Tabaret, and make haste and get rid of all your foolish ideas. To-morrow we will talk the whole matter over again. I am rather tired to-night." Then he added, addressing his clerk, "Constant, look in at the record office, in case the prisoner Commarin should wish to speak to me."
He moved towards the door; but M. Tabaret barred his exit.
"Sir," said the old man, "in the name of heaven listen to me! He is innocent, I swear to you. Help me, then, to find the real culprit. Sir, think of your remorse should you cause an--"
But the magistrate would not hear more. He pushed old Tabaret quickly aside, and hurried out.
The old man now turned to Constant. He wished to convince him. Lost trouble: the tall clerk hastened to put his things away, thinking of his soup, which was getting cold.
So that M. Tabaret soon found himself locked out of the room and alone in the dark passage. All the usual sounds of the Palais had ceased: the place was silent as the tomb. The old detective desperately tore his hair with both hands.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "Albert is innocent; and it is I who have cast suspicion upon him. It is I, fool that I am, who have infused into the obstinate spirit of this magistrate a conviction that I can no longer destroy. He is innocent and is yet enduring the most horrible anguish. Suppose he should commit suicide! There have been instances of wretched men, who in despair at being falsely accused have killed themselves in their cells. Poor boy! But I will not abandon him. I have ruined him: I will save him! I must, I will find the culprit; and he shall pay dearly for my mistake, the scoundrel!"