The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
Noel had promised to use every effort, to attempt even the impossible, to obtain Albert's release. He in fact did interview the Public Prosecutor and some members of the bar, but managed to be repulsed everywhere. At four o'clock, he called at the Count de Commarin's house, to inform his father of the ill success of his efforts.
"The Count has gone out," said Denis; "but if you will take the trouble to wait----"
"I will wait," answered Noel.
"Then," replied the valet, "will you please follow me? I have the count's orders to show you into his private room."
This confidence gave Noel an idea of his new power. He was at home, henceforth, in that magnificent house, he was the master, the heir! His glance, which wandered over the entire room, noticed the genealogical tree, hanging on the wall. He approached it, and read.
It was like a page, and one of the most illustrious, taken from the golden book of French nobility. Every name which has a place in our history was there. The Commarins had mingled their blood with all the great families; two of them had even married daughters of royalty. A warm glow of pride filled the advocate's heart, his pulse beat quicker, he raised his head haughtily, as he murmured, "Viscount de Commarin!"
The door opened. He turned, and saw the count entering. As Noel was about to bow respectfully, he was petrified by the look of hatred, anger, and contempt on his father's face.
A shiver ran through his veins; his teeth chattered; he felt that he was lost.
"Wretch!" cried the count.
And, dreading his own violence, the old nobleman threw his cane into a corner. He was unwilling to strike his son; he considered him unworthy of being struck by his hand. Then there was a moment of mortal silence, which seemed to both of them a century.
At the same time their minds were filled with thoughts, which would require a volume to transcribe.
Noel had the courage to speak first.
"Sir," he began.
"Silence!" exclaimed the count hoarsely; "be silent! Can it be, heaven forgive me! that you are my son? Alas, I cannot doubt it now! Wretch! you knew well that you were Madame Gerdy's son. Infamous villain! you not only committed this murder, but you did everything to cause an innocent man to be charged with your crime! Parricide! you have also killed your mother."
The advocate attempted to stammer forth a protest.
"You killed her," continued the count with increased energy, "if not by poison, at least by your crime. I understand all now; she was not delirious this morning. But you know as well as I do what she was saying. You were listening, and, if you dared to enter at that moment when one word more would have betrayed you, it was because you had calculated the effect of your presence. It was to you that she addressed her last word, 'Assassin!'"
Little by little, Noel had retired to the end of the room, and he stood leaning against the wall, his head thrown back, his hair on end, his look haggard. A convulsive trembling shook his frame. His face betrayed a terror most horrible to see, the terror of the criminal found out.
"I know all, you see," continued the count; "and I am not alone in my knowledge. At this moment, a warrant of arrest is issued against you."
A cry of rage like a hollow rattle burst from the advocate's breast. His lips, which were hanging through terror, now grew firm. Overwhelmed in the very midst of his triumph, he struggled against this fright. He drew himself up with a look of defiance.
M. de Commarin, without seeming to pay any attention to Noel, approached his writing table, and opened a drawer.
"My duty," said he, "would be to leave you to the executioner who awaits you; but I remember that I have the misfortune to be your father. Sit down; write and sign a confession of your crime. You will then find fire-arms in this drawer. May heaven forgive you!"
The old nobleman moved towards the door. Noel with a sign stopped him, and drawing at the same time a revolver from his pocket, he said: "Your fire-arms are needless, sir; my precautions, as you see, are already taken; they will never catch me alive. Only----"
"Only?" repeated the count harshly.
"I must tell you, sir," continued the advocate coldly, "that I do not choose to kill myself--at least, not at present."
"Ah!" cried M. de Commarin in disgust, "you are a coward!"
"No, sir, not a coward; but I will not kill myself until I am sure that every opening is closed against me, that I cannot save myself."
"Miserable wretch!" said the count, threateningly, "must I then do it myself?"
He moved towards the drawer, but Noel closed it with a kick.
"Listen to me, sir," said he, in that hoarse, quick tone, which men use in moments of imminent danger, "do not let us waste in vain words the few moments' respite left me. I have committed a crime, it is true, and I do not attempt to justify it; but who laid the foundation of it, if not yourself? Now, you do me the favor of offering me a pistol. Thanks. I must decline it. This generosity is not through any regard for me. You only wish to avoid the scandal of my trial, and the disgrace which cannot fail to reflect upon your name."
The count was about to reply.
"Permit me," interrupted Noel imperiously. "I do not choose to kill myself; I wish to save my life, if possible. Supply me with the means of escape; and I promise you that I will sooner die than be captured. I say, supply me with means, for I have not twenty francs in the world. My last thousand franc note was nearly all gone the day when-- you understand me. There isn't sufficient money at home to give my mother a decent burial. Therefore, I say, give me some money."
"Then I will deliver myself up to justice, and you will see what will happen to the name you hold so dear!"
The count, mad with rage, rushed to his table for a pistol. Noel placed himself before him.
"Oh, do not let us have any struggle," said he coldly; "I am the strongest."
M. de Commarin recoiled. By thus speaking of the trial, of the scandal and of the disgrace, the advocate had made an impression upon him.
For a moment hesitating between love for his name and his burning desire to see this wretch punished, the old nobleman stood undecided.
Finally his feeling for his rank triumphed.
"Let us end this," he said in a tremulous voice, filled with the utmost contempt; "let us end this disgraceful scene. What do you demand of me?"
"I have already told you, money, all that you have here. But make up your mind quickly."
On the previous Saturday the count had withdrawn from his bankers the sum he had destined for fitting up the apartments of him whom he thought was his legitimate child.
"I have eighty thousand francs here," he replied.
"That's very little," said the advocate; "but give them to me. I will tell you though that I had counted on you for five hundred thousand francs. If I succeed in escaping my pursuers, you must hold at my disposal the balance, four hundred and twenty thousand francs. Will you pledge yourself to give them to me at the first demand? I will find some means of sending for them, without any risk to myself. At that price, you need never fear hearing of me again."
By way of reply, the count opened a little iron chest imbedded in the wall, and took out a roll of bank notes, which he threw at Noel's feet.
An angry look flashed in the advocate's eyes, as he took one step towards his father.
"Oh! take care!" he said threateningly; "people who, like me, have nothing to lose are dangerous. I can yet give myself up, and----"
He stooped down, however, and picked up the notes.
"Will you give me your word," he continued, "to let me have the rest whenever I ask for them?"
"Then I am going. Do not fear, I will be faithful to our compact, they shall not take me alive. Adieu, my father! in all this you are the true criminal, but you alone will go unpunished. Ah, heaven is not just. I curse you!"
When, an hour later, the servants entered the count's room, they found him stretched on the floor with his face against the carpet, and showing scarcely a sign of life.
On leaving the Commarin house, Noel staggered up the Rue de l'Universite.
It seemed to him that the pavement oscillated beneath his feet, and that everything about him was turning round. His mouth was parched, his eyes were burning, and every now and then a sudden fit of sickness overcame him.
But, at the same time, strange to relate, he felt an incredible relief, almost delight. It was ended then, all was over; the game was lost. No more anguish now, no more useless fright and foolish terrors, no more dissembling, no more struggles. Henceforth he had nothing more to fear. His horrible part being played to the bitter end, he could now lay aside his mask and breathe freely.
An irresistible weariness succeeded the desperate energy which, in the presence of the count, had sustained his impudent arrogance. All the springs of his organization, stretched for more than a week past far beyond their ordinary limits, now relaxed and gave way. The fever which for the last few days had kept him up failed him now; and, with the weariness, he felt an imperative need of rest. He experienced a great void, an utter indifference for everything.
His insensibility bore a striking resemblance to that felt by persons afflicted with sea-sickness, who care for nothing, whom no sensations are capable of moving, who have neither strength nor courage to think, and who could not be aroused from their lethargy by the presence of any great danger, not even of death itself.
Had any one come to him then he would never have thought of resisting, nor of defending himself; he would not have taken a step to hide himself, to fly, to save his head.
For a moment he had serious thoughts of giving himself up, in order to secure peace, to gain quiet, to free himself from the anxiety about his safety.
But he struggled against this dull stupor, and at last the reaction came, shaking off this weakness of mind and body.
The consciousness of his position, and of his danger, returned to him. He foresaw, with horror, the scaffold, as one sees the depth of the abyss by the lightning flashes.
"I must save my life," he thought; "but how?"
That mortal terror which deprives the assassin of even ordinary common sense seized him. He looked eagerly about him, and thought he noticed three or four passers-by look at him curiously. His terror increased.
He began running in the direction of the Latin quarter without purpose, without aim, running for the sake of running, to get away, like Crime, as represented in paintings, fleeing under the lashes of the Furies.
He very soon stopped, however, for it occurred to him that this extraordinary behaviour would attract attention.
It seemed to him that everything in him betokened the murderer; he thought he read contempt and horror upon every face, and suspicion in every eye.
He walked along, instinctively repeating to himself: "I must do something."
But he was so agitated that he was incapable of thinking or of planning anything.
When he still hesitated to commit the crime, he had said to himself; "I may be discovered." And with that possibility in view, he had perfected a plan which should put him beyond all fear of pursuit. He would do this and that; he would have recourse to this ruse, he would take that precaution. Useless forethought! Now, nothing he had imagined seemed feasible. The police were seeking him, and he could think of no place in the whole world where he would feel perfectly safe.
He was near the Odeon theatre, when a thought quicker than a flash of lightning lit up the darkness of his brain.
It occurred to him that as the police were doubtless already in pursuit of him, his description would soon be known to everyone, his white cravat and well trimmed whiskers would betray him as surely as though he carried a placard stating who he was.
Seeing a barber's shop, he hurried to the door; but, when on the point of turning the handle, he grew frightened.
The barber might think it strange that he wanted his whiskers shaved off, and supposing he should question him!
He passed on.
He soon saw another barber's shop, but the same fears as before again prevented his entering.
Gradually night had fallen, and, with the darkness, Noel seemed to recover his confidence and boldness.
After this great shipwreck in port, hope rose to the surface. Why should he not save himself? There had been many just such cases. He could go to a foreign country, change his name, begin his life over again, become a new man entirely. He had money; and that was the main thing.
And, besides, as soon as his eighty thousand francs were spent, he had the certainty of receiving, on his first request, five or six times as much more.
He was already thinking of the disguise he should assume, and of the frontier to which he should proceed, when the recollection of Juliette pierced his heart like a red hot iron.
Was he going to leave without her, going away with the certainty of never seeing her again? What! he would fly, pursued by all the police of the civilized world, tracked like a wild beast, and she would remain peaceably in Paris? Was it possible? For whom then had he committed this crime? For her. Who would have reaped the benefits of it? She. Was it not just, then, that she should bear her share of the punishment?
"She does not love me," thought the advocate bitterly, "she never loved me. She would be delighted to be forever free of me. She will not regret me, for I am no longer necessary to her. An empty coffer is a useless piece of furniture. Juliette is prudent; she has managed to save a nice little fortune. Grown rich at my expense, she will take some other lover. She will forget me, she will live happily, while I-- And I was about to go away without her!"
The voice of prudence cried out to him: "Unhappy man! to drag a woman along with you, and a pretty woman too, is but to stupidly attract attention upon you, to render flight impossible, to give yourself up like a fool."
"What of that?" replied passion. "We will be saved or we will perish together. If she does not love me, I love her; I must have her! She will come, otherwise--"
But how to see Juliette, to speak with her, to persuade her. To go to her house, was a great risk for him to run. The police were perhaps there already.
"No," thought Noel; "no one knows that she is my mistress. It will not be found out for two or three days and, besides, it would be more dangerous still to write."
He took a cab not far from the Carrefour de l'Observatoire, and in a low tone told the driver the number of the house in the Rue de Provence, which had proved so fatal to him. Stretched on the cushions of the cab, lulled by its monotonous jolts, Noel gave no thought to the future, he did not even think over what he should say to Juliette. No. He passed involuntarily in review the events which had brought on and hastened the catastrophe, like a man on the point of death, reviews the tragedy or the comedy of his life.
Just one month before, ruined, at the end of his expedients and absolutely without resources, he had determined, cost what it might, to procure money, so as to be able to continue to keep Madame Juliette, when chance placed in his hands Count de Commarin's correspondence. Not only the letters read to old Tabaret, and shown to Albert, but also those, which, written by the count when he believed the substitution an accomplished fact, plainly established it.
The reading of these gave him an hour of mad delight.
He believed himself the legitimate son; but his mother soon undeceived him, told him the truth, proved to him by several letters she had received from Widow Lerouge, called on Claudine to bear witness to it, and demonstrated it to him by the scar he bore.
But a falling man never selects the branch he tries to save himself by. Noel resolved to make use of the letters all the same.
He attempted to induce his mother to leave the count in his ignorance, so that he might thus blackmail him. But Madame Gerdy spurned the proposition with horror.
Then the advocate made a confession of all his follies, laid bare his financial condition, showed himself in his true light, sunk in debt; and he finally begged his mother to have recourse to M. de Commarin.
This also she refused, and prayers and threats availed nothing against her resolution. For a fortnight, there was a terrible struggle between mother and son, in which the advocate was conquered.
It was then that the idea of murdering Claudine occurred to him.
The unhappy woman had not been more frank with Madame Gerdy than with others, so that Noel really thought her a widow. Therefore, her testimony suppressed, who else stood in his way?
Madame Gerdy, and perhaps the count. He feared them but little. If Madame Gerdy spoke, he could always reply: "After stealing my name for your son, you will do everything in the world to enable him to keep it." But how to do away with Claudine without danger to himself?
After long reflection, the advocate thought of a diabolical stratagem.
He burnt all the count's letters establishing the substitution, and he preserved only those which made it probable.
These last he went and showed to Albert, feeling sure, that, should justice ever discover the reason of Claudine's death, it would naturally suspect he who appeared to have most interest in it.
Not that he really wished Albert to be suspected of the crime, it was simply a precaution. He thought that he could so arrange matters that the police would waste their time in the pursuit of an imaginary criminal.
Nor did he think of ousting the Viscount de Commarin and putting himself in his place. His plan was simply this; the crime once committed, he would wait; things would take their own course, there would be negotiations, and ultimately he would compromise the matter at the price of a fortune.
He felt sure of his mother's silence, should she ever suspect him guilty of the assassination.
His plan settled, he decided to strike the fatal blow on the Shrove Tuesday.
To neglect no precaution, he, that very same evening, took Juliette to the theatre, and afterwards to the masked ball at the opera. In case things went against him, he thus secured an unanswerable alibi.
The loss of his overcoat only troubled him for a moment. On reflection, he reassured himself, saying: "Pshaw! who will ever know?"
Everything had resulted in accordance with his calculations; it was, in his opinion, a matter of patience.
But when Madame Gerdy read the account of the murder, the unhappy woman divined her son's work, and, in the first paroxysms of her grief, she declared that she would denounce him.
He was terrified. A frightful delirium had taken possession of his mother. One word from her might destroy him. Putting a bold face on it, however, he acted at once and staked his all.
To put the police on Albert's track was to guarantee his own safety, to insure to himself, in the event of a probable success, Count de Commarin's name and fortune.
Circumstances, as well as his own terror, increased his boldness and his ingenuity.
Old Tabaret's visit occurred just at the right moment.
Noel knew of his connection with the police, and guessed that the old fellow would make a most valuable confidant.
So long as Madame Gerdy lived, Noel trembled. In her delirium she might betray him at any moment. But when she had breathed her last, he believed himself safe. He thought it all over, he could see no further obstacle in his way; he was sure he had triumphed.
And now all was discovered, just as he was about to reach the goal of his ambition. But how? By whom? What fatality had resuscitated a secret which he had believed buried with Madame Gerdy?
But where is the use, when one is at the bottom of an abyss, of knowing which stone gave way, or of asking down what side one fell?
The cab stopped in the Rue de Provence. Noel leaned out of the door, his eyes exploring the neighbourhood and throwing a searching glance into the depths of the hall of the house. Seeing no one, he paid the fare through the front window, before getting out of the cab, and, crossing the pavement with a bound, he rushed up stairs.
Charlotte, at sight of him, gave a shout of joy.
"At last it is you, sir!" she cried. "Ah, madame has been expecting you with the greatest impatience! She has been very anxious."
Juliette expecting him! Juliette anxious!
The advocate did not stop to ask questions. On reaching this spot, he seemed suddenly to recover all his composure. He understood his imprudence; he knew the exact value of every minute he delayed here.
"If any one rings," said he to Charlotte, "don't open the door. No matter what may be said or done, don't open the door!"
On hearing Noel's voice, Juliette ran out to meet him. He pushed her gently into the salon, and followed, closing the door.
There for the first time she saw his face.
He was so changed; his look was so haggard that she could not keep from crying out, "What is the matter?"
Noel made no reply; he advanced towards her and took her hand.
"Juliette," he demanded in a hollow voice, fastening his flashing eyes upon her,--"Juliette, be sincere; do you love me?"
She instinctively felt that something dreadful had occurred: she seemed to breathe an atmosphere of evil; but she, as usual, affected indifference.
"You ill-natured fellow," she replied, pouting her lips most provokingly, "do you deserve--"
"Oh, enough!" broke in Noel, stamping his feet fiercely. "Answer me," he continued, bruising her pretty hands in his grasp, "yes, or no,--do you love me?"
A hundred times had she played with her lover's anger, delighting to excite him into a fury, to enjoy the pleasure of appeasing him with a word; but she had never seen him like this before.
She had wronged him greatly; and she dared not complain of this his first harshness.
"Yes, I love you," she stammered, "do you not know it?"
"Why?" replied the advocate, releasing her hands; "why? Because, if you love me you must prove it; if you love me, you must follow me at once,--abandon everything. Come, fly with me. Time presses----"
The young girl was terrified.
"Great heavens! what has happened?"
"Nothing, except that I have loved you too much, Juliette. When I found I had no more money for your luxury, your caprices, I became wild. To procure money, I,--I committed a crime,--a crime; do you understand? They are pursuing me now. I must fly: will you follow me?"
Juliette's eyes grew wide with astonishment; but she doubted Noel.
"A crime? You?" she began.
"Yes, me! Would you know the truth? I have committed murder, an assassination. But it was all for you."
The advocate felt that Juliette would certainly recoil from him in horror. He expected that terror which a murderer inspires. He was resigned to it in advance. He thought that she would fly from him; perhaps there would be a scene. She might, who knows, have hysterics; might cry out, call for succor, for help, for aid. He was wrong.
With a bound, Juliette flew to him, throwing herself upon him, her arms about his neck, and embraced him as she had never embraced him before.
"Yes, I do love you!" she cried. "Yes, you have committed a crime for my sake, because you loved me. You have a heart. I never really knew you before!"
It had cost him dear to inspire this passion in Madame Juliette; but Noel never thought of that.
He experienced a moment of intense delight: nothing appeared hopeless to him now.
But he had the presence of mind to free himself from her embrace.
"Let us go," he said; "the one great danger is, that I do not know from whence the attack comes. How they have discovered the truth is still a mystery to me."
Juliette remembered her alarming visitor of the afternoon; she understood it all.
"Oh, what a wretched woman I am!" she cried, wringing her hands in despair; "it is I who have betrayed you. It occurred on Tuesday, did it not?"
"Ah, then I have told all, without a doubt, to your friend, the old man I supposed you had sent, Tabaret!"
"Has Tabaret been here?"
"Yes; just a little while ago."
"Come, then," cried Noel, "quickly; it's a miracle that he hasn't been back."
He took her arm, to hurry her away; but she nimbly released herself.
"Wait," said she. "I have some money, some jewels. I will take them."
"It is useless. Leave everything behind. I have a fortune, Juliette; let us fly!"
She had already opened her jewel box, and was throwing everything of value that she possessed pell mell into a little travelling bag.
"Ah, you are ruining me," cried Noel, "you are ruining me!"
He spoke thus; but his heart was overflowing with joy.
"What sublime devotion! She loves me truly," he said to himself; "for my sake, she renounces her happy life without hesitation; for my sake, she sacrifices all!"
Juliette had finished her preparations, and was hastily tying on her bonnet, when the door-bell rang.
"It is the police!" cried Noel, becoming, if possible, even more livid.
The young woman and her lover stood as immovable as two statues, with great drops of perspiration on their foreheads, their eyes dilated, and their ears listening intently. A second ring was heard, then a third.
Charlotte appeared walking on tip-toe.
"There are several," she whispered; "I heard them talking together."
Grown tired of ringing, they knocked loudly on the door. The sound of a voice reached the drawing-room, and the word "law" was plainly heard.
"No more hope!" murmured Noel.
"Don't despair," cried Juliette; "try the servants' staircase!"
"You may be sure they have not forgotten it."
Juliette went to see, and returned dejected and terrified. She bad distinguished heavy foot-steps on the landing, made by some one endeavouring to walk softly.
"There must be some way of escape!" she cried fiercely.
"Yes," replied Noel, "one way. I have given my word. They are picking the lock. Fasten all the doors, and let them break them down; it will give me time."
Juliette and Charlotte ran to carry out his directions. Then Noel, leaning against the mantel piece, seized his revolver and pointed it at his breast.
But Juliette, who had returned, perceiving the movement, threw herself upon her lover, but so violently that the revolver turned aside and went off. The shot took effect, the bullet entering Noel's stomach. He uttered a frightful cry.
Juliette had made his death a terrible punishment; she had prolonged his agony.
He staggered, but remained standing, supporting himself by the mantel piece, while the blood flowed copiously from his wound.
Juliette clung to him, trying to wrest the revolver from his grasp.
"You shall not kill yourself," she cried, "I will not let you. You are mine; I love you! Let them come. What can they do to you? If they put you in prison, you can escape. I will help you, we will bribe the jailors. Ah, we will live so happily together, no matter where, far away in America where no one knows us!"
The outer door had yielded; the police were now picking the lock of the door of the ante-chamber.
"Let me finish!" murmured Noel; "they must not take me alive!"
And, with a supreme effort, triumphing over his dreadful agony, he released himself, and roughly pushed Juliette away. She fell down near the sofa.
Then, he once more aimed his revolver at the place where he felt his heart beating, pulled the trigger and rolled to the floor.
It was full time, for the police at that moment entered the room.
Their first thought was, that before shooting himself, Noel had shot his mistress. They knew of cases where people had romantically desired to quit this world in company; and, moreover, had they not heard two reports? But Juliette was already on her feet again.
"A doctor," she cried, "a doctor! He can not be dead!"
One man ran out; while the others, under old Tabaret's direction, raised the body, and carried it to Madame Juliette's bedroom where they laid it on the bed.
"For his sake, I trust his wounds are mortal!" murmured the old detective, whose anger left him at the sight. "After all, I loved him as though he were my own child; his name is still in my will!"
Old Tabaret stopped. Noel just then uttered a groan, and opened his eyes.
"You see that he will live!" cried Juliette.
The advocate shook his head feebly, and, for a moment, he tossed about painfully on the bed, passing his right hand first under his coat, and then under his pillow. He even succeeded in turning himself half-way towards the wall and then back again.
Upon a sign, which was at once understood, someone placed another pillow under his head. Then in a broken, hissing voice, he uttered a few words: "I am the assassin," he said. "Write it down, I will sign it; it will please Albert. I owe him that at least."
While they were writing, he drew Juliette's head close to his lips.
"My fortune is beneath the pillow," he whispered. "I give it all to you."
A flow of blood rose to his mouth; and they all thought him dead. But he still had strength enough to sign his confession, and to say jestingly to M. Tabaret, "Ah, ha, my friend, so you go in for the detective business, do you! It must be great fun to trap one's friends in person! Ah, I have had a fine game; but, with three women in the play, I was sure to lose."
The death struggle commenced, and, when the doctor arrived, he could only announce the decease of M. Noel Gerdy, advocate.