The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
Greatly troubled and perplexed by Mademoiselle d'Arlange's revelations, M. Daburon was ascending the stairs that led to the offices of the investigating magistrates, when he saw old Tabaret coming towards him. The sight pleased him, and he at once called out: "M. Tabaret!"
But the old fellow, who showed signs of the most intense agitation, was scarcely disposed to stop, or to lose a single minute.
"You must excuse me, sir," he said, bowing, "but I am expected at home."
"I hope, however--"
"Oh, he is innocent," interrupted old Tabaret. "I have already some proofs; and before three days-- But you are going to see Gevrol's man with the earrings. He is very cunning, Gevrol; I misjudged him."
And without listening to another word, he hurried away, jumping down three steps at a times, at the risk of breaking his neck.
M. Daburon, greatly disappointed, also hastened on.
In the passage, on a bench of rough wood before his office door, Albert sat awaiting him, under the charge of a Garde de Paris.
"You will be summoned immediately, sir," said the magistrate to the prisoner, as he opened his door.
In the office, Constant was talking with a skinny little man, who might have been taken, from his dress, for a well-to-do inhabitant of Batignolles, had it not been for the enormous pin in imitation gold which shone in his cravat, and betrayed the detective.
"You received my letters?" asked M. Daburon of his clerk.
"Your orders have been executed, sir; the prisoner is without, and here is M. Martin, who this moment arrived from the neighbourhood of the Invalides."
"That is well," said the magistrate in a satisfied tone. And, turning towards the detective, "Well, M. Martin," he asked, "what did you see?"
"The walls had been scaled, sir."
"Five or six days ago."
"You are sure of this?"
"As sure as I am that I see M. Constant at this moment mending his pen."
"The marks are plain?"
"As plain as the nose on my face, sir, if I may so express myself. The thief--it was done by a thief, I imagine," continued M. Martin, who was a great talker--"the thief entered the garden before the rain, and went away after it, as you had conjectured. This circumstance is easy to establish by examining the marks on the wall of the ascent and the descent on the side towards the street. These marks are several abrasions, evidently made by feet of some one climbing. The first are clean; the others, muddy. The scamp--he was a nimble fellow--in getting in, pulled himself up by the strength of his wrists; but when going away, he enjoyed the luxury of a ladder, which he threw down as soon as he was on the top of the wall. It is to see where he placed it, by holes made in the ground by the fellow's weight; and also by the mortar which has been knocked away from the top of the wall."
"Is that all?" asked the magistrate.
"Not yet, sir. Three of the pieces of glass which cover the top of the wall have been removed. Several of the acacia branches, which extend over the wall have been twisted or broken. Adhering to the thorns of one of these branches, I found this little piece of lavender kid, which appears to me to belong to a glove."
The magistrate eagerly seized the piece of kid.
It had evidently come from a glove.
"You took care, I hope, M. Martin," said M. Daburon, "not to attract attention at the house where you made this investigation?"
"Certainly, sir. I first of all examined the exterior of the wall at my leisure. After that, leaving my hat at a wine shop round the corner, I called at the Marchioness d'Arlange's house, pretending to be the servant of a neighbouring duchess, who was in despair at having lost a favourite, and, if I may so speak, an eloquent parrot. I was very kindly given permission to explore the garden; and, as I spoke as disrespectfully as possible of my pretended mistress they, no doubt, took me for a genuine servant."
"You are an adroit and prompt fellow, M. Martin," interrupted the magistrate. "I am well satisfied with you; and I will report you favourably at headquarters."
He rang his bell, while the detective, delighted at the praise he had received, moved backwards to the door, bowing the while.
Albert was then brought in.
"Have you decided, sir," asked the investigating magistrate without preamble, "to give me a true account of how you spent last Tuesday evening?"
"I have already told you, sir."
"No, sir, you have not; and I regret to say that you lied to me."
Albert, at this apparent insult, turned red, and his eyes flashed.
"I know all that you did on that evening," continued the magistrate, "because justice, as I have already told you, is ignorant of nothing that it is important for it to know."
Then, looking straight into Albert's eyes, he continued slowly: "I have seen Mademoiselle Claire d'Arlange."
On hearing that name, the prisoner's features, contracted by a firm resolve not to give way, relaxed.
It seemed as though he experienced an immense sensation of delight, like a man who escapes almost by a miracle from an imminent danger which he had despaired of avoiding. However, he made no reply.
"Mademoiselle d'Arlange," continued the magistrate, "has told me where you were on Tuesday evening."
Albert still hesitated.
"I am not setting a trap for you," added M. Daburon; "I give you my word of honour. She has told me all, you understand?"
This time Albert decided to speak.
His explanations corresponded exactly with Claire's; not one detail more. Henceforth, doubt was impossible.
Mademoiselle d'Arlange had not been imposed upon. Either Albert was innocent, or she was his accomplice.
Could she knowingly be the accomplice of such an odious crime? No; she could not even be suspected of it.
But who then was the assassin?
For, when a crime has been committed, justice demands a culprit.
"You see, sir," said the magistrate severely to Albert, "you did deceive me. You risked your life, sir, and, what is also very serious, you exposed me, you exposed justice, to commit a most deplorable mistake. Why did you not tell me the truth at once?"
"Mademoiselle d'Arlange, sir," replied Albert, "in according me a meeting, trusted in my honour."
"And you would have died sooner than mention that interview?" interrupted M. Daburon with a touch of irony. "That is all very fine, sir, and worthy of the days of chivalry!"
"I am not the hero that you suppose, sir," replied the prisoner simply. "If I told you that I did not count on Claire, I should be telling a falsehood. I was waiting for her. I knew that, on learning of my arrest, she would brave everything to save me. But her friends might have hid it from her; and that was what I feared. In that event, I do not think, so far as one can answer for oneself, that I should have mentioned her name."
There was no appearance of bravado. What Albert said, he thought and felt. M. Daburon regretted his irony.
"Sir," he said kindly, "you must return to your prison. I cannot release you yet; but you will be no longer in solitary confinement. You will be treated with every attention due to a prisoner whose innocence appears probable."
Albert bowed, and thanked him; and was then removed.
"We are now ready for Gevrol," said the magistrate to his clerk.
The chief of detectives was absent: he had been sent for from the Prefecture of Police; but his witness, the man with the earrings, was waiting in the passage.
He was told to enter.
He was one of those short, thick-set men, powerful as oaks, who look as though they could carry almost any weight on their broad shoulders.
His white hair and whiskers set off his features, hardened and tanned by the inclemency of the weather, the sea winds and the heat of the tropics.
He had large callous black hands, with big sinewy fingers which must have possessed the strength of a vice.
Great earrings in the form of anchors hung from his ears. He was dressed in the costume of a well-to-do Normandy fisherman, out for a holiday.
The clerk was obliged to push him into the office, for this son of the ocean was timid and abashed when on shore.
He advanced, balancing himself first on one leg, then on the other, with that irregular walk of the sailor, who, used to the rolling and tossing of the waves, is surprised to find anything immovable beneath his feet.
To give himself confidence, he fumbled over his soft felt hat, decorated with little lead medals, like the cap of king Louis XI. of devout memory, and also adorned with some if that worsted twist made by the young country girls, on a primitive frame composed of four or five pins stuck in a hollow cork.
M. Daburon examined him, and estimated him at a glance. There was no doubt but that he was the sunburnt man described by one of the witnesses at La Jonchere.
It was also impossible to doubt his honesty. His open countenance displayed sincerity and good nature.
"Your name?" demanded the investigating magistrate.
"Marie Pierre Lerouge."
"Are you, then, related to Claudine Lerouge?"
"I am her husband, sir."
What, the husband of the victim alive, and the police ignorant of his existence!
Thus thought M. Daburon.
What, then, does this wonderful progress in invention accomplish?
To-day, precisely as twenty years ago, when Justice is in doubt, it requires the same inordinate loss of time and money to obtain the slightest information.
On Friday, they had written to inquire about Claudine's past life; it was now Monday, and no reply had arrived.
And yet photography was in existence, and the electric telegraph. They had at their service a thousand means, formerly unknown; and they made no use of them.
"Every one," said the magistrate, "believed her a widow. She herself pretended to be one."
"Yes, for in that way she partly excused her conduct. Besides, it was an arrangement between ourselves. I had told her that I would have nothing more to do with her."
"Indeed? Well, you know that she is dead, victim of an odious crime?"
"The detective who brought me here told me of it, sir," replied the sailor, his face darkening. "She was a wretch!" he added in a hollow voice.
"How? You, her husband, accuse her?"
"I have but too good reason to do so, sir. Ah, my dead father, who foresaw it all at the time, warned me! I laughed, when he said, 'Take care, or she will dishonour us all.' He was right. Through her, I have been hunted down by the police, just like some skulking thief. Everywhere that they inquired after me with their warrant, people must have said 'Ah, ha, he has then committed some crime!' And here I am before a magistrate! Ah, sir, what a disgrace! The Lerouges have been honest people, from father to son, ever since the world began. Inquire of all who have ever had dealings with me, they will tell you, 'Lerouge's word is as good as another man's writing.' Yes, she was a wicked woman; and I have often told her that she would come to a bad end."
"You told her that?"
"More than a hundred times, sir."
"Why? Come, my friend, do not be uneasy, your honour is not at stake here, no one questions it. When did you warn her so wisely?"
"Ah, a long time ago, sir," replied the sailor, "the first time was more than thirty years back. She had ambition even in her blood; she wished to mix herself up in the intrigues of the great. It was that that ruined her. She said that one got money for keeping secrets; and I said that one got disgraced and that was all. To help the great to hide their villainies, and to expect happiness from it, is like making your bed of thorns, in the hope of sleeping well. But she had a will of her own."
"You were her husband, though," objected M. Daburon, "you had the right to command her obedience."
The sailor shook his head, and heaved a deep sigh.
"Alas, sir! it was I who obeyed."
To proceed by short inquiries with a witness, when you have no idea of the information he brings, is but to lose time in attempting to gain it. When you think you are approaching the important fact, you may be just avoiding it. It is much better to give the witness the rein, and to listen carefully, putting him back on the track should he get too far away. It is the surest and easiest method. This was the course M. Daburon adopted, all the time cursing Gevrol's absence, as he by a single word could have shortened by a good half the examination, the importance of which, by the way, the magistrate did not even suspect.
"In what intrigues did your wife mingle?" asked he. "Go on, my friend, tell me everything exactly; here, you know, we must have not only the truth, but the whole truth."
Lerouge placed his hat on a chair. Then he began alternately to pull his fingers, making them crack almost sufficiently to break them, and ultimately scratched his head violently. It was his way of arranging his ideas.
"I must tell you," he began, "that it will be thirty-five years on St. John's day since I fell in love with Claudine. She was a pretty, neat, fascinating girl, with a voice sweeter than honey. She was the most beautiful girl in our part of the country, straight as a mast, supple as a willow, graceful and strong as a racing boat. Her eyes sparkled like old cider; her hair was black, her teeth as white as pearls, and her breath was as fresh as the sea breeze. The misfortune was, that she hadn't a sou, while we were in easy circumstances. Her mother, who was the widow of I can't say how many husbands, was, saving your presence, a bad woman, and my father was the worthiest man alive. When I spoke to the old fellow of marrying Claudine he swore fiercely, and eight days after, he sent me to Porto on a schooner belonging to one of our neighbours, just to give me a change of air. I came back, at the end of six months, thinner than a marling spike, but more in love than ever. Recollections of Claudine scorched me like a fire. I could scarcely eat or drink; but I felt that she loved me a little in return, for I was a fine young fellow, and more than one girl had set her cap at me. Then my father, seeing that he could do nothing, that I was wasting away, and was on the road to join my mother in the cemetery, decided to let me complete my folly. So one evening, after we had returned from fishing and I got up from supper without tasting it, he said to me, 'Marry the hag's daughter, and let's have no more of this.' I remember it distinctly, because, when I heard the old fellow call my love such a name, I flew into a great passion, and almost wanted to kill him. Ah, one never gains anything by marrying in opposition to one's parents!"
The worthy fellow was lost in the midst of his recollections. He was very far from his story. The investigating magistrate attempted to bring him back into the right path, "Come to the point," he said.
"I am going to, sir; but it was necessary to begin at the beginning. I married. The evening after the wedding, and when the relatives and guests had departed, I was about to join my wife, when I perceived my father all alone in a corner weeping. The sight touched my heart, and I had a foreboding of evil; but it quickly passed away. It is so delightful during the first six months one passes with a dearly loved wife! One seems to be surrounded by mists that change the very rocks into palaces and temples so completely that novices are taken in. For two years, in spite of a few little quarrels, everything went on nicely. Claudine managed me like a child. Ah, she was cunning! She might have seized and bound me, and carried me to market and sold me, without my noticing it. Her great fault was her love of finery. All that I earned, and my business was very prosperous, she put on her back. Every week there was something new, dresses, jewels, bonnets, the devil's baubles, which the dealers invent for the perdition of the female sex. The neighbors chattered, but I thought it was all right. At the baptism of our son, who was called Jacques after my father, to please her, I squandered all I had economized during my youth, more than three hundred pistoles, with which I had intended purchasing a meadow that lay in the midst of our property."
M. Daburon was boiling over with impatience, but he could do nothing.
"Go on, go on," he said every time Lerouge seemed inclined to stop.
"I was well enough pleased," continued the sailor, "until one morning I saw one of the Count de Commarin's servants entering our house; the count's chateau is only about a mile from where I lived on the other side of the town. It was a fellow named Germain whom I didn't like at all. It was said about the country that he had been mixed up in the seduction of poor Thomassine, a fine young girl who lived near us; she appears to have pleased the count, and one day suddenly disappeared. I asked my wife what the fellow wanted; she replied that he had come to ask her to take a child to nurse. I would not hear of it at first, for our means were sufficient to allow Claudine to keep all her milk for our own child. But she gave me the very best of reasons. She said she regretted her past flirtations and her extravagance. She wished to earn a little money, being ashamed of doing nothing while I was killing myself with work. She wanted to save, to economize, so that our child should not be obliged in his turn to go to sea. She was to get a very good price, that we could save up to go towards the three hundred pistoles. That confounded meadow, to which she alluded, decided me."
"Did she not tell you of the commission with which she was charged?" asked the magistrate.
This question astonished Lerouge. He thought that there was good reason to say that justice sees and knows everything.
"Not then," he answered, "but you will see. Eight days after, the postman brought a letter, asking her to go to Paris to fetch the child. It arrived in the evening. 'Very well,' said she, 'I will start to-morrow by the diligence.' I didn't say a word then; but next morning, when she was about to take her seat in the diligence, I declared that I was going with her. She didn't seem at all angry, on the contrary. She kissed me, and I was delighted. At Paris, she was to call for the little one at a Madame Gerdy's, who lived on the Boulevard. We arranged that she should go alone, while I awaited for her at our inn. After she had gone, I grew uneasy. I went out soon after, and prowled about near Madame Gerdy's house, making inquiries of the servants and others; I soon discovered that she was the Count de Commarin's mistress. I felt so annoyed that, if I had been master, my wife should have come away without the little bastard. I am only a poor sailor, and I know that a man sometimes forgets himself. One takes too much to drink, for instance, or goes out on the loose with some friends; but that a man with a wife and children should live with another woman and give her what really belongs to his legitimate offspring, I think is bad--very bad. Is it not so, sir?"
The investigating magistrate moved impatiently in his chair. "Will this man never come to the point," he muttered. "Yes, you are perfectly right," he added aloud; "but never mind your thoughts. Go on, go on!"
"Claudine, sir, was more obstinate than a mule. After three days of violent discussion, she obtained from me a reluctant consent, between two kisses. Then she told me that we were not going to return home by the diligence. The lady, who feared the fatigue of the journey for her child, had arranged that we should travel back by short stages, in her carriage, and drawn by her horses. For she was kept in grand style. I was ass enough to be delighted, because it gave me a chance to see the country at my leisure. We were, therefore, installed with the children, mine and the other, in an elegant carriage, drawn by magnificent animals, and driven by a coachman in livery. My wife was mad with joy; she kissed me over and over again, and chinked handfuls of gold in my face. I felt as foolish as an honest husband who finds money in his house which he didn't earn himself. Seeing how I felt, Claudine, hoping to pacify me, resolved to tell me the whole truth. 'See here,' she said to me,--"
Lerouge stopped, and, changing his tone, said, "You understand that it is my wife who is speaking?"
"Yes, yes. Go on."
"She said to me, shaking her pocket full of money, 'See here, my man, we shall always have as much of this as ever we may want, and this is why: The count, who also had a legitimate child at the same time as this bastard, wishes that this one shall bear his name instead of the other; and this can be accomplished, thanks to me. On the road, we shall meet at the inn, where we are to sleep, M. Germain and the nurse to whom they have entrusted the legitimate son. We shall be put in the same room, and, during the night, I am to change the little ones, who have been purposely dressed alike. For this the count gives me eight thousand francs down, and a life annuity of a thousand francs.'"
"And you!" exclaimed the magistrate, "you, who call yourself an honest man, permitted such villainy, when one word would have been sufficient to prevent it?"
"Sir, I beg of you," entreated Lerouge, "permit me to finish."
"I could say nothing at first, I was so choked with rage. I must have looked terrible. But she, who was generally afraid of me when I was in a passion, burst out laughing, and said, 'What a fool you are! Listen, before turning sour like a bowl of milk. The count is the only one who wants this change made; and he is the one that's to pay for it. His mistress, this little one's mother, doesn't want it at all; she merely pretended to consent, so as not to quarrel with her lover, and because she has got a plan of her own. She took me aside, during my visit in her room, and, after having made me swear secrecy on a crucifix, she told me that she couldn't bear the idea of separating herself from her babe forever, and of bringing up another's child. She added that, if I would agree not to change the children, and not to tell the count, she would give me ten thousand francs down, and guarantee me an annuity equal to the one the count had promised me. She declared, also, that she could easily find out whether I kept my word, as she had made a mark of recognition on her little one. She didn't show me the mark; and I have examined him carefully, but can't find it. Do you understand now? I merely take care of this little fellow here. I tell the count that I have changed the children; we receive from both sides, and Jacques will be rich. Now kiss your little wife who has more sense than you, you old dear!' That, sir, is word for word what Claudine said to me."
The rough sailor drew from his pocket a large blue-checked handkerchief, and blew his nose so violently that the windows shook. It was his way of weeping.
M. Daburon was confounded. Since the beginning of this sad affair, he had encountered surprise after surprise. Scarcely had he got his ideas in order on one point, when all his attention was directed to another.
He felt himself utterly routed. What was he about to learn now? He longed to interrogate quickly, but he saw that Lerouge told his story with difficulty, laboriously disentangling his recollections; he was guided by a single thread which the least interruption might seriously entangle.
"What Claudine proposed to me," continued the sailor, "was villainous; and I am an honest man. But she kneaded me to her will as easily as a baker kneads dough. She turned my heart topsy-turvy: she made me see white as snow that which was really as black as ink. How I loved her! She proved to me that we were wronging no one, that we were making little Jacques's fortune, and I was silenced. At evening we arrived at some village; and the coachman, stopping the carriage before an inn, told us we were to sleep there. We entered, and who do you think we saw? That scamp, Germain, with a nurse carrying a child dressed so exactly like the one we had that I was startled. They had journeyed there, like ourselves, in one of the count's carriages. A suspicion crossed my mind. How could I be sure that Claudine had not invented the second story to pacify me? She was certainly capable of it. I was enraged. I had consented to the one wickedness, but not to the other. I resolved not to lose sight of the little bastard, swearing that they shouldn't change it; so I kept him all the evening on my knees, and to be all the more sure, I tied my handkerchief about his waist. Ah! the plan had been well laid. After supper, some one spoke of retiring, and then it turned out that there were only two double-bedded rooms in the house. It seemed as though it had been built expressly for the scheme. The innkeeper said that the two nurses might sleep in one room, and Germain and myself in the other. Do you understand, sir? Add to this, that during the evening I had surprised looks of intelligence passing between my wife and that rascally servant, and you can imagine how furious I was. It was conscience that spoke; and I was trying to silence it. I knew very well that I was doing wrong; and I almost wished myself dead. Why is it that women can turn an honest man's conscience about like a weather-cock with their wheedling?"
M. Daburon's only reply was a heavy blow of his fist on the table.
Lerouge proceeded more quickly.
"As for me, I upset that arrangement, pretending to be too jealous to leave my wife a minute. They were obliged to give way to me. The other nurse went up to bed first. Claudine and I followed soon afterwards. My wife undressed and got into bed with our son and the little bastard. I did not undress. Under the pretext that I should be in the way of the children, I installed myself in a chair near the bed, determined not to shut my eyes, and to keep close watch. I put out the candle, in order to let the women sleep, though I could not think of doing so myself; and I thought of my father, and of what he would say, if he ever heard of my behaviour. Towards midnight, I heard Claudine moving. I held my breath. She was getting out of bed. Was she going to change the children? Now, I knew that she was not; then, I felt sure that she was. I was beside myself, and seizing her by the arm, I commenced to beat her roughly, giving free vent to all that I had on my heart. I spoke in a loud voice, the same as when I am on board ship in a storm; I swore like a fiend, I raised a frightful disturbance. The other nurse cried out as though she were being murdered. At this uproar, Germain rushed in with a lighted candle. The sight of him finished me. Not knowing what I was doing, I drew from my pocket a long Spanish knife, which I always carried, and seizing the cursed bastard, I thrust the blade through his arm, crying, 'This way, at least, he can't be changed without my knowing it; he is marked for life!'"
Lerouge could scarcely utter another word. Great drops of sweat stood out upon his brow, then, trickling down his cheeks, lodged in the deep wrinkles of his face. He panted; but the magistrate's stern glance harassed him, and urged him on, like the whip which flogs the negro slave overcome with fatigue.
"The little fellow's wound," he resumed, "was terrible. It bled dreadfully, and he might have died; but I didn't think of that. I was only troubled about the future, about what might happen afterwards. I declared that I would write out all that had occurred, and that everyone should sign it. This was done; we could all four write. Germain didn't dare resist; for I spoke with knife in hand. He wrote his name first, begging me to say nothing about it to the count, swearing that, for his part, he would never breathe a word of it, and pledging the other nurse to a like secrecy."
"And have you kept this paper?" asked M. Daburon.
"Yes, sir, and as the detective to whom I confessed all, advised me to bring it with me, I went to take it from the place where I always kept it, and I have it here."
"Give it to me."
Lerouge took from his coat pocket an old parchment pocket-book, fastened with a leather thong, and withdrew from it a paper yellowed by age and carefully sealed.
"Here it is," said he. "The paper hasn't been opened since that accursed night."
And, in fact, when the magistrate unfolded it, some dust fell out, which had been used to keep the writing, when wet, from blotting.
It was really a brief description of the scene, described by the old sailor. The four signatures were there.
"What has become of the witnesses who signed this declaration?" murmured the magistrate, speaking to himself.
Lerouge, who thought the question was put to him, replied, "Germain is dead. I have been told that he was drowned when out rowing. Claudine has just been assassinated; but the other nurse still lives. I even know that she spoke of the affair to her husband, for he hinted as much to me. His name is Brosette, and she lives in the village of Commarin itself."
"And what next?" asked the magistrate, after having taken down the name and address.
"The next day, sir, Claudine managed to pacify me, and extorted a promise of secrecy. The child was scarcely ill at all; but he retained an enormous scar on his arm."
"Was Madame Gerdy informed of what took place?"
"I do not think so, sir. But I would rather say that I do not know."
"What! you do not know?"
"Yes, sir, I swear it. You see my ignorance comes from what happened afterwards."
"What happened, then?"
The sailor hesitated.
"That, sir, concerns only myself, and--"
"My friend," interrupted the magistrate, "you are an honest man, I believe; in fact, I am sure of it. But once in your life, influenced by a wicked woman, you did wrong, you became an accomplice in a very guilty action. Repair that error by speaking truly now. All that is said here, and which is not directly connected with the crime, will remain secret; even I will forget it immediately. Fear nothing, therefore; and, if you experience some humiliation, think that it is your punishment for the past."
"Alas, sir," answered the sailor, "I have been already greatly punished; and it is a long time since my troubles began. Money, wickedly acquired, brings no good. On arriving home, I bought the wretched meadow for much more than it was worth; and the day I walked over it, feeling that is was actually mine, closed my happiness. Claudine was a coquette; but she had a great many other vices. When she realised how much money we had these vices showed themselves, just like a fire, smouldering at the bottom of the hold, bursts forth when you open the hatches. From slightly greedy as she had been, she became a regular glutton. In our house there was feasting without end. Whenever I went to sea, she would entertain the worst women in the place; and there was nothing too good or too expensive for them. She would get so drunk that she would have to be put to bed. Well, one night, when she thought me at Rouen, I returned unexpectedly. I entered, and found her with a man. And such a man, sir! A miserable looking wretch, ugly, dirty, stinking; shunned by everyone; in a word the bailiff's clerk. I should have killed him, like the vermin that he was; it was my right, but he was such a pitiful object. I took him by the neck and pitched him out of the window, without opening it! It didn't kill him. Then I fell upon my wife, and beat her until she couldn't stir."
Lerouge spoke in a hoarse voice, every now and then thrusting his fists into his eyes.
"I pardoned her," he continued; "but the man who beats his wife and then pardons her is lost. In the future, she took better precautions, became a greater hypocrite, and that was all. In the meanwhile, Madame Gerdy took back her child; and Claudine had nothing more to restrain her. Protected and counselled by her mother, whom she had taken to live with us, on the pretence of looking after Jacques, she managed to deceive me for more than a year. I thought she had given up her bad habits, but not at all; she lived a most disgraceful life. My house became the resort of all the good-for-nothing rogues in the country, for whom my wife brought out bottles of wine and brandy, whenever I was away at sea, and they got drunk promiscuously. When money failed, she wrote to the count or his mistress, and the orgies continued. Occasionally I had doubts which disturbed me; and then without reason, for a simple yes or no, I would beat her until I was tired, and then I would forgive her, like a coward, like a fool. It was a cursed life. I don't know which gave me the most pleasure, embracing her or beating her. My neighbors despised me, and turned their backs on me; they believed me an accomplice or a willing dupe. I heard, afterwards, that they believed I profited by my wife's misconduct; while in reality she paid her lovers. At all events, people wondered where all the money came from that was spent in my house. To distinguish me from a cousin of mine, also named Lerouge, they tacked an infamous word on to my name. What disgrace! And I knew nothing of all the scandal, no, nothing. Was I not the husband? Fortunately, though, my poor father was dead."
M. Daburon pitied the speaker sincerely.
"Rest a while, my friend," he said; "compose yourself."
"No," replied the sailor, "I would rather get through with it quickly. One man, the priest, had the charity to tell me of it. If ever he should want Lerouge! Without losing a minute, I went and saw a lawyer, and asked him how an honest sailor who had had the misfortune to marry a hussy ought to act. He said that nothing could be done. To go to law was simply to publish abroad one's own dishonour, while a separation would accomplish nothing. When once a man has given his name to a woman, he told me, he cannot take it back; it belongs to her for the rest of her days, and she has a right to dispose of it. She may sully it, cover it with mire, drag it from wine shop to wine shop, and her husband can do nothing. That being the case, my course was soon taken. That same day, I sold the fatal meadow, and sent the proceeds of it to Claudine, wishing to keep nothing of the price of shame. I then had a document drawn up, authorising her to administer our property, but not allowing her either to sell or mortgage it. Then I wrote her a letter in which I told her that she need never expect to hear of me again, that I was nothing more to her, and that she might look upon herself as a widow. That same night I went away with my son."
"And what became of your wife after your departure?"
"I cannot say, sir; I only know that she quitted the neighbourhood a year after I did."
"You have never lived with her since?"
"But you were at her house three days before the crime was committed."
"That is true, but it was absolutely necessary. I had had much trouble to find her, no one knew what had become of her. Fortunately my notary was able to procure Madame Gerdy's address; he wrote to her, and that is how I learnt that Claudine was living at La Jonchere. I was then at Rome. Captain Gervais, who is a friend of mine, offered to take me to Paris on his boat, and I accepted. Ah, sir, what a shock I experienced when I entered her house! My wife did not know me! By constantly telling everyone that I was dead, she had without a doubt ended by believing it herself. When I told her my name, she fell back in her chair. The wretched woman had not changed in the least; she had by her side a glass and a bottle of brandy--"
"All this doesn't explain why you went to seek your wife."
"It was on Jacques's account, sir, that I went. The youngster has grown to be a man; and he wants to marry. For that, his mother's consent was necessary; and I was taking to Claudine a document which the notary had drawn up, and which she signed. This is it."
M. Daburon took the paper, and appeared to read it attentively. After a moment he asked: "Have you thought who could have assassinated your wife?"
Lerouge made no reply.
"Do you suspect any one?" persisted the magistrate.
"Well, sir," replied the sailor, "what can I say? I thought that Claudine had wearied out the people from whom she drew money, like water from a well; or else getting drunk one day, she had blabbed too freely."
The testimony being as complete as possible, M. Daburon dismissed Lerouge, at the same time telling him to wait for Gevrol, who would take him to a hotel, where he might wait, at the disposal of justice, until further orders.
"All your expenses will be paid you," added the magistrate.
Lerouge had scarcely left, when an extraordinary, unheard of, unprecedented event took place in the magistrate's office. Constant, the serious, impressive, immovable, deaf and dumb Constant, rose from his seat and spoke.
He broke a silence of fifteen years. He forgot himself so far as to offer an opinion.
"This, sir," said he, "is a most extraordinary affair."
Very extraordinary, truly, thought M. Daburon, and calculated to rout all predictions, all preconceived opinions.
Why had he, the magistrate, moved with such deplorable haste? Why before risking anything, had he not waited to possess all the elements of this important case, to hold all the threads of this complicated drama?
Justice is accused of slowness; but it is this very slowness that constitutes its strength and surety, its almost infallibility. One scarcely knows what a time evidence takes to produce itself. There is no knowing what important testimony investigations apparently useless may reveal.
When the entanglement of the various passions and motives seems hopeless, an unknown personage presents himself, coming from no one knows where, and it is he who explains everything.
M. Daburon, usually the most prudent of men, had considered as simple one of the most complex of cases. He had acted in a mysterious crime, which demanded the utmost caution, as carelessly as though it were a case of simple misdemeanour. Why? Because his memory had not left him his free deliberation, judgment, and discernment. He had feared equally appearing weak and being revengeful. Thinking himself sure of his facts, he had been carried away by his animosity. And yet how often had he not asked himself: Where is duty? But then, when one is at all doubtful about duty, one is on the wrong road.
The singular part of it all was that the magistrate's faults sprang from his very honesty. He had been led astray by a too great refinement of conscience. The scruples which troubled him had filled his mind with phantoms, and had prompted in him the passionate animosity he had displayed at a certain moment.
Calmer now, he examined the case more soundly. As a whole, thank heaven! there was nothing done which could not be repaired. He accused himself, however, none the less harshly. Chance alone had stopped him. At that moment he resolved that he would never undertake another investigation. His profession henceforth inspired him with an unconquerable loathing. Then his interview with Claire had re-opened all the old wounds in his heart, and they bled more painfully than ever. He felt, in despair, that his life was broken, ruined. A man may well feel so, when all women are as nothing to him except one, whom he may never dare hope to possess. Too pious a man to think of suicide, he asked himself with anguish what would become of him when he threw aside his magistrate's robes.
Then he turned again to the business in hand. In any case, innocent or guilty, Albert was really the Viscount de Commarin, the count's legitimate son. But was he guilty? Evidently he was not.
"I think," exclaimed M. Daburon suddenly, "I must speak to the Count de Commarin. Constant, send to his house a message for him to come here at once; if he is not at home, he must be sought for."
M. Daburon felt that an unpleasant duty was before him. He would be obliged to say to the old nobleman: "Sir, your legitimate son is not Noel, but Albert." What a position, not only painful, but bordering on the ridiculous! As a compensation, though, he could tell him that Albert was innocent.
To Noel he would also have to tell the truth: hurl him to earth, after having raised him among the clouds. What a blow it would be! But, without a doubt, the count would make him some compensation; at least, he ought to.
"Now," murmured the magistrate, "who can be the criminal?"
An idea crossed his mind, at first it seemed to him absurd. He rejected it, then thought of it again. He examined it in all its various aspects. He had almost adopted it, when M. de Commarin entered. M. Daburon's messenger had arrived just as the count was alighting from his carriage, on returning with Claire from Madame Gerdy's.