The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
The two last depositions awakened in M. Daburon's mind some slight gleams of hope. In the midst of darkness, the humblest rush-light acquires brilliancy.
"I will go at once to Bougival, sir, if you approve of this step," suggested Gevrol.
"Perhaps you would do well to wait a little," answered M. Daburon. "This man was seen on Sunday morning; we will inquire into Widow Lerouge's movements on that day."
Three neighbours were called. They all declared that the widow had kept her bed all Sunday. To one woman who, hearing she was unwell, had visited her, she said, "Ah! I had last night a terrible accident." Nobody at the time attached any significance to these words.
"The man with the rings in his ears becomes more and important," said the magistrate, when the woman had retired. "To find him again is indispensable: you must see to this, M. Gevrol."
"Before eight days, I shall have him," replied the chief of detective police, "if I have to search every boat on the Seine, from its source to the ocean. I know the name of the captain, Gervais. The navigation office will tell me something."
He was interrupted by Lecoq, who rushed into the house breathless. "Here is old Tabaret," he said. "I met him just as he was going out. What a man! He wouldn't wait for the train, but gave I don't know how much to a cabman; and we drove here in fifty minutes!"
Almost immediately, a man appeared at the door, whose aspect it must be admitted was not at all what one would have expected of a person who had joined the police for honour alone. He was certainly sixty years old and did not look a bit younger. Short, thin, and rather bent, he leant on the carved ivory handle of a stout cane. His round face wore that expression of perpetual astonishment, mingled with uneasiness, which has made the fortunes of two comic actors of the Palais-Royal theatre. Scrupulously shaved, he presented a very short chin, large and good natured lips, and a nose disagreeably elevated, like the broad end of one of Sax's horns. His eyes of a dull gray, were small and red at the lids, and absolutely void of expression; yet they fatigued the observer by their insupportable restlessness. A few straight hairs shaded his forehead, which receded like that of a greyhound, and through their scantiness barely concealed his long ugly ears. He was very comfortably dressed, clean as a new franc piece, displaying linen of dazzling whiteness, and wearing silk gloves and leather gaiters. A long and massive gold chain, very vulgar-looking, was twisted thrice round his neck, and fell in cascades into the pocket of his waistcoat.
M. Tabaret, surnamed Tirauclair, stood at the threshold, and bowed almost to the ground, bending his old back into an arch, and in the humblest of voices asked, "The investigating magistrate has deigned to send for me?"
"Yes!" replied M. Daburon, adding under his breath; "and if you are a man of any ability, there is at least nothing to indicate it in your appearance."
"I am here," continued the old fellow, "completely at the service of justice."
"I wish to know," said M. Daburon, "whether you can discover some clue that will put us upon the track of the assassin. I will explain the--"
"Oh, I know enough of it!" interrupted old Tabaret. "Lecoq has told me the principal facts, just as much as I desire to know."
"Nevertheless--" commenced the commissary of police.
"If you will permit me, I prefer to proceed without receiving any details, in order to be more fully master of my own impressions. When one knows another's opinion it can't help influencing one's judgment. I will, if you please, at once commence my researches, with Lecoq's assistance."
As the old fellow spoke, his little gray eyes dilated, and became brilliant as carbuncles. His face reflected an internal satisfaction; even his wrinkles seemed to laugh. His figure became erect, and his step was almost elastic, as he darted into the inner chamber.
He remained there about half an hour; then came out running, then re-entered and then again came out; once more he disappeared and reappeared again almost immediately. The magistrate could not help comparing him to a pointer on the scent, his turned-up nose even moved about as if to discover some subtle odour left by the assassin. All the while he talked loudly and with much gesticulation, apostrophising himself, scolding himself, uttering little cries of triumph or self- encouragement. He did not allow Lecoq to have a moment's rest. He wanted this or that or the other thing. He demanded paper and a pencil. Then he wanted a spade; and finally he cried out for plaster of Paris, some water and a bottle of oil.
When more than an hour had elapsed, the investigating magistrate began to grow impatient, and asked what had become of the amateur detective.
"He is on the road," replied the corporal, "lying flat in the mud, and mixing some plaster in a plate. He says he has nearly finished, and that he is coming back presently."
He did in fact return almost instantly, joyous, triumphant, looking at least twenty years younger. Lecoq followed him, carrying with the utmost precaution a large basket.
"I have solved the riddle!" said Tabaret to the magistrate. "It is all clear now, and as plain as noon-day. Lecoq, my lad, put the basket on the table."
Gevrol at this moment returned from his expedition equally delighted.
"I am on the track of the man with the earrings," said he; "the boat went down the river. I have obtained an exact description of the master Gervais."
"What have you discovered, M. Tabaret!" asked the magistrate.
The old fellow carefully emptied upon the table the contents of the basket,--a big lump of clay, several large sheets of paper, and three or four small lumps of plaster yet damp. Standing behind this table, he presented a grotesque resemblance to those mountebank conjurers who in the public squares juggle the money of the lookers-on. His clothes had greatly suffered; he was covered with mud up to the chin.
"In the first place," said he, at last, in a tone of affected modesty, "robbery has had nothing to do with the crime that occupies our attention."
"Oh! of course not!" muttered Gevrol.
"I shall prove it," continued old Tabaret, "by the evidence. By-and-by I shall offer my humble opinion as to the real motive. In the second place, the assassin arrived here before half-past nine; that is to say, before the rain fell. No more than M. Gevrol have I been able to discover traces of muddy footsteps; but under the table, on the spot where his feet rested, I find dust. We are thus assured of the hour. The widow did not in the least expect her visitor. She had commenced undressing, and was winding up her cuckoo clock when he knocked."
"These are absolute details!" cried the commissary.
"But easily established," replied the amateur. "You see this cuckoo clock above the secretary; it is one of those which run fourteen or fifteen hours at most, for I have examined it. Now it is more than probable, it is certain, that the widow wound it up every evening before going to bed. How, then, is it that the clock has stopped at five? Because she must have touched it. As she was drawing the chain, the assassin knocked. In proof, I show this chair standing under the clock, and on the seat a very plain foot-mark. Now look at the dress of the victim; the body of it is off. In order to open the door more quickly, she did not wait to put it on again, but hastily threw this old shawl over her shoulders."
"By Jove!" exclaimed the corporal, evidently struck.
"The widow," continued the old fellow, "knew the person who knocked. Her haste to open the door gives rise to this conjecture; what follows proves it. The assassin then gained admission without difficulty. He is a young man, a little above the middle height, elegantly dressed. He wore on that evening a high hat. He carried an umbrella, and smoked a trabucos cigar in a holder."
"Ridiculous!" cried Gevrol. "This is too much."
"Too much, perhaps," retorted old Tabaret. "At all events, it is the truth. If you are not minute in your investigations, I cannot help it; anyhow, I am, I search, and I find. Too much, say you? Well deign to glance at these lumps of damp plaster. They represent the heels of the boots worn by the assassin, of which I found a most perfect impression near the ditch, where the key was picked up. On these sheets of paper, I have marked in outline the imprint of the foot which I cannot take up, because it is on some sand. Look! heel high, instep pronounced, sole small and narrow,--an elegant boot, belonging to a foot well cared for evidently. Look for this impression all along the path; and you will find it again twice. Then you will find it five times repeated in the garden where no one else had been; and these footprints prove, by the way, that the stranger knocked not at the door, but at the window-shutter, beneath which shone a gleam of light. At the entrance to the garden, the man leapt to avoid a flower bed! the point of the foot, more deeply imprinted than usual, shows it. He leapt more than two yards with ease, proving that he is active, and therefore young."
Old Tabaret spoke in a low voice, clear and penetrating: and his eye glanced from one to the other of his auditors, watching the impression he was making.
"Does the hat astonish you, M. Gevrol?" he pursued. "Just look at the circle traced in the dust on the marble top of the secretary. Is it because I have mentioned his height that you are surprised? Take the trouble to examine the tops of the wardrobes and you will see that the assassin passed his hands across them. Therefore he is taller than I am. Do not say that he got on a chair, for in that case, he would have seen and would not have been obliged to feel. Are you astonished about the umbrella? This lump of earth shows an admirable impression not only of the end of the stick, but even of the little round piece of wood which is always placed at the end of the silk. Perhaps you cannot get over the statement that he smoked a cigar? Here is the end of a trabucos that I found amongst the ashes. Has the end been bitten? No. Has it been moistened with saliva? No. Then he who smoked it used a cigar-holder."
Lecoq was unable to conceal his enthusiastic admiration, and noiselessly rubbed his hands together. The commissary appeared stupefied, while M. Daburon was delighted. Gevrol's face, on the contrary, was sensibly elongated. As for the corporal, he was overwhelmed.
"Now," continued the old fellow, "follow me closely. We have traced the young man into the house. How he explained his presence at this hour, I do not know; this much is certain, he told the widow he had not dined. The worthy woman was delighted to hear it, and at once set to work to prepare a meal. This meal was not for herself; for in the cupboard I have found the remains of her own dinner. She had dined off fish; the autopsy will confirm the truth of this statement. Besides you can see yourselves, there is but one glass on the table, and one knife. But who is this young man? Evidently the widow looked upon him as a man of superior rank to her own; for in the cupboard is a table- cloth still very clean. Did she use it? No. For her guest she brought out a clean linen one, her very best. It is for him this magnificent glass, a present, no doubt, and it is evident she did not often use this knife with the ivory handle."
"That is all true," murmured M. Daburon, "very true."
"Now, then we have got the young man seated. He began by drinking a glass of wine, while the widow was putting her pan on the fire. Then, his heart failing him, he asked for brandy, and swallowed about five small glassfuls. After an internal struggle of ten minutes (the time it must have taken to cook the ham and eggs as much as they are), the young man arose and approached the widow, who was squatting down and leaning forward over her cooking. He stabbed her twice on the back; but she was not killed instantly. She half arose seizing the assassin by the hands; while he drew back, lifting her suddenly, and then hurling her down in the position in which you see her. This short struggle is indicated by the posture of the body; for, squatting down and being struck in the back, it is naturally on her back that she ought to have fallen. The murderer used a sharp narrow weapon, which was, unless I am deceived, the end of a foil, sharpened, and with the button broken off. By wiping the weapon upon his victim's skirt, the assassin leaves us this indication. He was not, however, hurt in the struggle. The victim must have clung with a death-grip to his hands; but, as he had not taken off his lavender kid gloves,--"
"Gloves! Why this is romance," exclaimed Gevrol.
"Have you examined the dead woman's finger-nails, M. Gevrol? No. Well, do so, and then tell me whether I am mistaken. The woman, now dead, we come to the object of her assassination. What did this well-dressed young gentleman want? Money? Valuables? No! no! a hundred times no! What he wanted, what he sought, and what he found, were papers, documents, letters, which he knew to be in the possession of the victim. To find them, he overturned everything, upset the cupboards, unfolded the linen, broke open the secretary, of which he could not find the key, and even emptied the mattress of the bed. At last he found these documents. And then do you know what he did with them? Why, burned them, of course; not in the fire-place, but in the little stove in the front room. His end accomplished, what does he do next? He flies, carrying with him all that he finds valuable, to baffle detection, by suggesting a robbery. He wrapped everything he found worth taking in the napkin which was to have served him at dinner, and blowing out the candle, he fled, locking the door on the outside, and throwing the key into a ditch. And that is all."
"M. Tabaret," said the magistrate, "your investigation is admirable; and I am persuaded your inferences are correct."
"Ah!" cried Lecoq. "is he not colossal, my old Tirauclair?"
"Pyramidal!" cried Gevrol ironically. "I fear, however, your well- dressed young man must have been just a little embarrassed in carrying a bundle covered with a snow white napkin, which could be so easily seen from a distance.
"He did not carry it a hundred leagues," responded old Tabaret. "You may well believe, that, to reach the railway station, he was not fool enough to take the omnibus. No, he returned on foot by the shortest way, which borders the river. Now on reaching the Seine, unless he is more knowing than I take him to be, his first care was to throw this tell-tale bundle into the water."
"Do you believe so, M. Tirauclair?" asked Gevrol.
"I don't mind making a bet on it; and the best evidence of my belief is, that I have sent three men, under the surveillance of a gendarme, to drag the Seine at the nearest spot from here. If they succeed in finding the bundle, I have promised them a recompense."
"Out of your own pocket, old enthusiast?"
"Yes, M. Gevrol, out of my own pocket."
"If they should however find this bundle!" murmured M. Daburon.
He was interrupted by the entrance of a gendarme, who said: "Here is a soiled table-napkin, filled with plate, money, and jewels, which these men have found; they claim the hundred francs' reward, promised them."
Old Tabaret took from his pocket-book a bank note, which he handed to the gendarme. "Now," demanded he, crushing Gevrol with one disdainful glance, "what thinks the investigating magistrate after this?"
"That, thanks to your remarkable penetration, we shall discover--"
He did not finish. The doctor summoned to make the post-mortem examination entered the room. That unpleasant task accomplished, it only confirmed the assertions and conjectures of old Tabaret. The doctor explained, as the old man had done, the position of the body. In his opinion also, there had been a struggle. He pointed out a bluish circle, hardly perceptible, round the neck of the victim, produced apparently by the powerful grasp of the murderer; finally he declared that Widow Lerouge had eaten about three hours before being struck.
Nothing now remained except to collect the different objects which would be useful for the prosecution, and might at a later period confound the culprit. Old Tabaret examined with extreme care the dead woman's finger-nails; and, using infinite precaution, he even extracted from behind them several small particles of kid. The largest of these pieces was not above the twenty-fifth part of an inch in length; but all the same their colour was easily distinguishable. He put aside also the part of the dress upon which the assassin had wiped his weapon. These with the bundle recovered from the Seine, and the different casts taken by the old fellow, were all the traces the murderer had left behind him.
It was not much; but this little was enormous in the eyes of M. Daburon; and he had strong hopes of discovering the culprit. The greatest obstacle to success in the unravelling of mysterious crimes is in mistaking the motive. If the researches take at the first step a false direction, they are diverted further and further from the truth, in proportion to the length they are followed. Thanks to old Tabaret, the magistrate felt confident that he was in the right path.
Night had come on. M. Daburon had now nothing more to do at La Jonchere; but Gevrol, who still clung to his own opinion of the guilt of the man with the rings in his ears, declared he would remain at Bougival. He determined to employ the evening in visiting the different wine shops, and finding if possible new witnesses. At the moment of departure, after the commissary and the entire party had wished M. Daburon good-night, the latter asked M. Tabaret to accompany him.
"I was about to solicit that honour," replied the old fellow. They set out together; and naturally the crime which had been discovered, and with which they were mutually preoccupied, formed the subject of their conversation.
"Shall we, or shall we not, ascertain the antecedents of this woman!" repeated old Tabaret. "All depends upon that now!"
"We shall ascertain them, if the grocer's wife has told the truth," replied M. Daburon. "If the husband of Widow Lerouge was a sailor, and if her son Jacques is in the navy, the minister of marine can furnish information that will soon lead to their discovery. I will write to the minister this very night."
They reached the station at Rueil, and took their places in the train. They were fortunate enough to secure a 1st class carriage to themselves. But old Tabaret was no longer disposed for conversation. He reflected, he sought, he combined; and in his face might easily be read the working of his thoughts. M. Daburon watched him curiously and felt singularly attracted by this eccentric old man, whose very original taste had led him to devote his services to the secret police of the Rue de Jerusalem.
"M Tabaret," he suddenly asked, "have you been long associated with the police?"
"Nine years, M. Daburon, more than nine years; and permit me to confess I am a little surprised that you have never before heard of me."
"I certainly knew you by reputation," answered M. Daburon; "but your name did not occur to me, and it was only in consequence of hearing you praised that I had the excellent idea of asking your assistance. But what, I should like to know, is your reason for adopting this employment?"
"Sorrow, sir, loneliness, weariness. Ah! I have not always been happy!"
"I have been told, though, that you are rich."
The old fellow heaved a deep sigh, which revealed the most cruel deceptions. "I am well off, sir," he replied; "but I have not always been so. Until I was forty-five years old, my life was a series of absurd and useless privations. I had a father who wasted my youth, ruined my life, and made me the most pitiable of human creatures."
There are men who can never divest themselves of their professional habits. M. Daburon was at all times and seasons more or less an investigating magistrate.
"How, M. Tabaret," he inquired, "your father the author of all your misfortunes?"
"Alas, yes, sir! I have forgiven him at last; but I used to curse him heartily. In the first transports of my resentment, I heaped upon his memory all the insults that can be inspired by the most violent hatred, when I learnt,-- But I will confide my history to you, M. Daburon. When I was five and twenty years of age. I was earning two thousand francs a year, as a clerk at the Monte de Piete. One morning my father entered my lodging, and abruptly announced to me that he was ruined, and without food or shelter. He appeared in despair, and talked of killing himself. I loved my father. Naturally, I strove to reassure him; I boasted of my situation, and explained to him at some length, that, while I earned the means for living, he should want for nothing; and, to commence, I insisted that henceforth we should live together. No sooner said than done, and during twenty years I was encumbered with the old--"
"What! you repent of your admirable conduct, M. Tabaret?"
"Do I repent of it! That is to say he deserved to be poisoned by the bread I gave him."
M. Daburon was unable to repress a gesture of surprise, which did not escape the old fellow's notice.
"Hear, before you condemn me," he continued. "There was I at twenty- five, imposing upon myself the severest privations for the sake of my father,--no more friends, no more flirtations, nothing. In the evenings, to augment our scanty revenues, I worked at copying law papers for a notary. I denied myself even the luxury of tobacco. Notwithstanding this, the old fellow complained without ceasing; he regretted his lost fortune; he must have pocket-money, with which to buy this, or that; my utmost exertions failed to satisfy him. Ah, heaven alone knows what I suffered! I was not born to live alone and grow old, like a dog. I longed for the pleasures of a home and a family. My dream was to marry, to adore a good wife, by whom I might be loved a little, and to see innocent healthy little ones gambolling about my knees. But pshaw! when such thoughts entered my heart and forced a tear or two from my eyes, I rebelled against myself. I said: 'My lad, when you earn but three thousand francs a year, and have an old and cherished father to support, it is your duty to stifle such desires, and remain a bachelor.' And yet I met a young girl. It is thirty years now since that time; well! just look at me, I am sure I am blushing as red as a tomato. Her name was Hortense. Who can tell what has become of her? She was beautiful and poor. Well, I was quite an old man when my father died, the wretch, the--"
"M. Tabaret!" interrupted the magistrate, "for shame, M. Tabaret!"
"But I have already told you, I have forgiven him, sir. However, you will soon understand my anger. On the day of his death, looking in his secretary, I found a memorandum of an income of twenty thousand francs!"
"How so! was he rich?"
"Yes, very rich; for that was not all: he owned near Orleans a property leased for six thousand francs a year. He owned, besides, the house I now live in, where we lived together; and I, fool, sot, imbecile, stupid animal that I was, used to pay the rent every three months to the concierge!"
"That was too much!" M. Daburon could not help saying.
"Was it not, sir? I was robbing myself of my own money! To crown his hypocrisy, he left a will wherein he declared, in the name of Holy Trinity, that he had no other aim in view, in thus acting, than my own advantage. He wished, so he wrote, to habituate me to habits of good order and economy, and keep me from the commission of follies. And I was forty-five years old, and for twenty years I had been reproaching myself if ever I spent a single sou uselessly. In short, he had speculated on my good heart, he had . . . Bah! on my word, it is enough to disgust the human race with filial piety!"
M. Tabaret's anger, albeit very real and justified, was so highly ludicrous, that M. Daburon had much difficulty to restrain his laughter, in spite of the real sadness of the recital.
"At least," said he, "this fortune must have given you pleasure."
"Not at all, sir, it came too late. Of what avail to have the bread when one has no longer the teeth? The marriageable age had passed. I resigned my situation, however, to make way for some one poorer than myself. At the end of a month I was sick and tired of life; and, to replace the affections that had been denied me, I resolved to give myself a passion, a hobby, a mania. I became a collector of books. You think, sir, perhaps that to take an interest in books a man must have studied, must be learned?"
"I know, dear M. Tabaret, that he must have money. I am acquainted with an illustrious bibliomaniac who may be able to read, but who is most certainly unable to sign his own name."
"This is very likely. I, too, can read; and I read all the books I bought. I collected all I could find which related, no matter how little, to the police. Memoirs, reports, pamphlets, speeches, letters, novels,--all suited me; and I devoured them. So much so, that little by little I became attracted towards the mysterious power which, from the obscurity of the Rue de Jerusalem, watches over and protects society, which penetrates everywhere, lifts the most impervious veils, sees through every plot, divines what is kept hidden, knows exactly the value of a man, the price of a conscience, and which accumulates in its portfolios the most terrible, as well as the most shameful secrets! In reading the memoirs of celebrated detectives, more attractive to me than the fables of our best authors I became inspired by an enthusiastic admiration for those men, so keen scented, so subtle, flexible as steel, artful and penetrating, fertile in expedients, who follow crime on the trail, armed with the law, through the rushwood of legality, as relentlessly as the savages of Cooper pursue their enemies in the depths of the American forests. The desire seized me to become a wheel of this admirable machine,--a small assistance in the punishment of crime and the triumph of innocence. I made the essay; and I found I did not succeed too badly."
"And does this employment please you?"
"I owe to it, sir, my liveliest enjoyments. Adieu weariness! since I have abandoned the search for books to the search for men. I shrug my shoulders when I see a foolish fellow pay twenty-five francs for the right of hunting a hare. What a prize! Give me the hunting of a man! That, at least, calls the faculties into play, and the victory is not inglorious! The game in my sport is equal to the hunter; they both possess intelligence, strength, and cunning. The arms are nearly equal. Ah! if people but knew the excitement of these games of hide and seek which are played between the criminal and the detective, everybody would be wanting employment at the office of the Rue de Jerusalem. The misfortune is, that the art is becoming lost. Great crimes are now so rare. The race of strong fearless criminals has given place to the mob of vulgar pick-pockets. The few rascals who are heard of occasionally are as cowardly as foolish. They sign their names to their misdeeds, and even leave their cards lying about. There is no merit in catching them. Their crime found out, you have only to go and arrest them,--"
"It seems to me, though," interrupted M. Daburon, smiling, "that our assassin is not such a bungler."
"He, sir, is an exception; and I shall have greater delight in tracking him. I will do everything for that, I will even compromise myself if necessary. For I ought to confess, M. Daburon," added he, slightly embarrassed, "that I do not boast to my friends of my exploits; I even conceal them as carefully as possible. They would perhaps shake hands with me less warmly did they know that Tirauclair and Tabaret were one and the same."
Insensibly the crime became again the subject of conversation. It was agreed, that, the first thing in the morning, M. Tabaret should install himself at Bougival. He boasted that in eight days he should examine all the people round about. On his side M. Daburon promised to keep him advised of the least evidence that transpired, and recall him, if by any chance he should procure the papers of Widow Lerouge.
"To you, M. Tabaret," said the magistrate in conclusion, "I shall be always at home. If you have any occasion to speak to me, do not hesitate to come at night as well as during the day. I rarely go out, and you will always find me either at my home, Rue Jacob, or in my office at the Palais de Justice. I will give orders for your admittance whenever you present yourself."
The train entered the station at this moment. M. Daburon, having called a cab, offered a seat to M. Tabaret. The old fellow declined.
"It is not worth while," he replied, "for I live, as I have had the honour of telling you, in the Rue St. Lazare, only a few steps from here."
"Till to-morrow, then!" said M. Daburon.
"Till to-morrow," replied old Tabaret; and he added, "We shall succeed."