The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
M. Tabaret's house was in fact not more than four minutes' walk from the railway terminus of St. Lazare. It was a fine building carefully kept, and which probably yielded a fine income though the rents were not too high. The old fellow found plenty of room in it. He occupied on the first floor, overlooking the street, some handsome apartments, well arranged and comfortably furnished, the principal of which was his collection of books. He lived very simply from taste, as well as habit, waited on by an old servant, to whom on great occasions the concierge lent a helping hand.
No one in the house had the slightest suspicion of the avocations of the proprietor. Besides, even the humblest agent of police would be expected to possess a degree of acuteness for which no one gave M. Tabaret credit. Indeed, they mistook for incipient idiocy his continual abstraction of mind.
It is true that all who knew him remarked the singularity of his habits. His frequent absenses from home had given to his proceedings an appearance at once eccentric and mysterious. Never was young libertine more irregular in his habits than this old man. He came or failed to come home to his meals, ate it mattered not what or when. He went out at every hour of the day and night, often slept abroad, and even disappeared for entire weeks at a time. Then too he received the strangest visitors, odd looking men of suspicious appearance, and fellows of ill-favoured and sinister aspect.
This irregular way of living had robbed the old fellow of much consideration. Many believed they saw in him a shameless libertine, who squandered his income in disreputable places. They would remark to one another, "Is it not disgraceful, a man of his age?"
He was aware of all this tittle-tattle, and laughed at it. This did not, however, prevent many of his tenants from seeking his society and paying court to him. They would invite him to dinner, but he almost invariably refused.
He seldom visited but one person of the house, but with that one he was very intimate, so much so indeed, that he was more often in her apartment, than in his own. She was a widow lady, who for fifteen years had occupied an apartment on the third floor. Her name was Madame Gerdy, and she lived with her son Noel, whom she adored.
Noel Gerdy was a man thirty-three years of age, but looking older; tall and well made, with a noble and intelligent face, large black eyes, and black hair which curled naturally. An advocate, he passed for having great talent, and greater industry, and had already gained a certain amount of notoriety. He was an obstinate worker, cold and meditative, though devoted to his profession, and affected, with some ostentation, perhaps, a great rigidity of principle, and austerity of manners.
In Madame Gerdy's apartment, old Tabaret felt himself quite at home. He considered her as a relation, and looked upon Noel as a son. In spite of her fifty years, he had often thought of asking the hand of this charming widow, and was restrained less by the fear of a refusal than its consequence. To propose and to be rejected would sever the existing relations, so pleasurable to him. However, he had by his will, which was deposited with his notary constituted this young advocate his sole legatee; with the single condition of founding an annual prize of two thousand francs to be bestowed on the police agent who during the year had unravelled the most obscure and mysterious crime.
Short as was the distance to his house, old Tabaret was a good quarter of an hour in reaching it. On leaving M. Daburon his thoughts reverted to the scene of the murder; and, so blinded was the old fellow to external objects, that he moved along the street, first jostled on the right, then on the left, by the busy passers by, advancing one step and receding two. He repeated to himself for the fiftieth time the words uttered by Widow Lerouge, as reported by the milk-woman. "If I wished for any more, I could have it."
"All is in that," murmured he. "Widow Lerouge possessed some important secret, which persons rich and powerful had the strongest motives for concealing. She had them in her power, and that was her fortune. She made them sing to her tune; she probably went too far, and so they suppressed her. But of what nature was this secret, and how did she become possessed of it? Most likely she was in her youth a servant in some great family; and whilst there, she saw, heard, or discovered, something-- What? Evidently there is a woman at the bottom of it. Did she assist her mistress in some love intrigue? What more probable? And in that case the affair becomes even more complicated. Not only must the woman be found but her lover also; for it is the lover who has moved in this affair. He is, or I am greatly deceived, a man of noble birth. A person of inferior rank would have simply hired an assassin. This man has not hung back; he himself has struck the blow and by that means avoiding the indiscretion or the stupidity of an accomplice. He is a courageous rascal, full of audacity and coolness, for the crime has been admirably executed. The fellow left nothing behind of a nature to compromise him seriously. But for me, Gevrol, believing in the robbery, would have seen nothing. Fortunately, however, I was there. But yet it can hardly be that," continued the old man. "It must be something worse than a mere love affair."
Old Tabaret entered the porch of the house. The concierge seated by the window of his lodge saw him as he passed beneath the gas lamp.
"Ah," said he, "the proprietor has returned at last."
"So he has," replied his wife, "but it looks as though his princess would have nothing to do with him to-night. He seems more loose than ever."
"Is it not positively indecent," said the concierge, "and isn't he in a state! His fair ones do treat him well! One of these fine mornings I shall have to take him to a lunatic asylum in a straight waistcoat."
"Look at him now!" interrupted his wife, "just look at him now, in the middle of the courtyard!"
The old fellow had stopped at the extremity of the porch. He had taken off his hat, and, while talking to himself, gesticulated violently.
"No," said he, "I have not yet got hold of the clue, I am getting near it; but have not yet found it out."
He mounted the staircase, and rang his bell, forgetting that he had his latch-key in his pocket. His housekeeper opened the door.
"What, is it you, sir," said she, "and at this hour!"
"What's that you say?" asked the old fellow.
"I say," replied the housekeeper, "that it is more than half-past eight o'clock. I thought you were not coming back this evening. Have you at least dined?"
"No, not yet."
"Well, fortunately I have kept your dinner warm. You can sit down to it at once."
Old Tabaret took his place at the table, and helped himself to soup, but mounting his hobby-horse again, he forgot to eat, and remained, his spoon in the air, as though suddenly struck by an idea.
"He is certainly touched in the head," thought Manette, the housekeeper. "Look at that stupid expression. Who in his senses would lead the life he does?" She touched him on the shoulder, and bawled in his ear, as if he were deaf,--"You do not eat. Are you not hungry?"
"Yes, yes," muttered he, trying mechanically to escape the voice that sounded in his ears, "I am very hungry, for since the morning I have been obliged--" He interrupted himself, remaining with his mouth open, his eyes fixed on vacancy.
"You were obliged--?" repeated Manette.
"Thunder!" cried he, raising his clenched fists towards the ceiling,-- "heaven's thunder! I have it!"
His movement was so violent and sudden that the housekeeper was a little alarmed, and retired to the further end of the dining-room, near the door.
"Yes," continued he, "it is certain there is a child!"
Manette approached him quickly. "A child?" she asked in astonishment.
"What next!" cried he in a furious tone. "What are you doing there? Has your hardihood come to this that you pick up the words which escape me? Do me the pleasure to retire to your kitchen, and stay there until I call you."
"He is going crazy!" thought Manette, as she disappeared very quickly.
Old Tabaret resumed his seat. He hastily swallowed his soup which was completely cold. "Why," said he to himself, "did I not think of it before? Poor humanity! I am growing old, and my brain is worn out. For it is clear as day; the circumstances all point to that conclusion."
He rang the bell placed on the table beside him; the servant reappeared.
"Bring the roast," he said, "and leave me to myself."
"Yes," continued he furiously carving a leg of Presale mutton--"Yes, there is a child, and here is his history! The Widow Lerouge, when a young woman, is in the service of a great lady, immensely rich. Her husband, a sailor, probably had departed on a long voyage. The lady had a lover--found herself enciente. She confided in the Widow Lerouge, and, with her assistance, accomplished a clandestine accouchement."
He called again.
"Manette, the dessert, and get out!"
Certainly such a master was unworthy of so excellent a cook as Manette. He would have been puzzled to say what he had eaten for diner, or even what he was eating at this moment; it was a preserve of pears.
"But what," murmured he, "has become of the child? Has it been destroyed? No; for the Widow Lerouge, an accomplice in an infanticide, would be no longer formidable. The child has been preserved, and confided to the care of our widow, by whom it has been reared. They have been able to take the infant away from her, but not the proofs of its birth and its existence. Here is the opening. The father is the man of the fine carriage; the mother is the lady who came with the handsome young man. Ha! ha! I can well believe the dear old dame wanted for nothing. She had a secret worth a farm in Brie. But the old lady was extravagant; her expenses and her demands have increased year by year. Poor humanity! She has leaned upon the staff too heavily, and broken it. She has threatened. They have been frightened, and said, 'Let there be an end of this!' But who has charged himself with the commission? The papa? No; he is too old. By jupiter! The son,--the child himself! He would save his mother, the brave boy! He has slain the witness and burnt the proofs!"
Manette all this time, her ear to the keyhole, listened with all her soul; from time to time she gleaned a word, an oath, the noise of a blow upon the table; but that was all.
"For certain," thought she, "his women are running in his head."
Her curiosity overcame her prudence. Hearing no more, she ventured to open the door a little way. The old fellow caught her in the very act.
"Monsieur wants his coffee?" stammered she timidly.
"Yes, you may bring it to me," he answered.
He attempted to swallow his coffee at a gulp, but scalded himself so severely that the pain brought him suddenly from speculation to reality.
"Thunder!" growled he; "but it is hot! Devil take the case! it has set me beside myself. They are right when they say I am too enthusiastic. But who amongst the whole lot of them could have, by the sole exercise of observation and reason, established the whole history of the assassination? Certainly not Gevrol, poor man! Won't he feel vexed and humiliated, being altogether out of it. Shall I seek M. Daburon? No, not yet. The night is necessary to me to sift to the bottom all the particulars, and arrange my ideas systematically. But, on the other hand, if I sit here all alone, this confounded case will keep me in a fever of speculation, and as I have just eaten a great deal, I may get an attack of indigestion. My faith! I will call upon Madame Gerdy: she has been ailing for some days past. I will have a chat with Noel, and that will change the course of my ideas."
He got up from the table, put on his overcoat, and took his hat and cane.
"Are you going out, sir?" asked Manette.
"Shall you be late?"
"But you will return to-night?"
"I do not know."
One minute later, M. Tabaret was ringing his friend's bell.
Madame Gerdy lived in respectable style. She possessed sufficient for her wants; and her son's practice, already large, had made them almost rich. She lived very quietly, and with the exception of one or two friends, whom Noel occasionally invited to dinner, received very few visitors. During more than fifteen years that M. Tabaret came familiarly to the apartments, he had only met the cure of the parish, one of Noel's old professors, and Madame Gerdy's brother, a retired colonel. When these three visitors happened to call on the same evening, an event somewhat rare, they played at a round game called Boston; on other evenings piquet or all-fours was the rule. Noel, however, seldom remained in the drawing-room, but shut himself up after dinner in his study, which with his bedroom formed a separate apartment to his mother's, and immersed himself in his law papers. He was supposed to work far into the night. Often in winter his lamp was not extinguished before dawn.
Mother and son absolutely lived for one another, as all who knew them took pleasure in repeating. They loved and honoured Noel for the care he bestowed upon his mother, for his more than filial devotion, for the sacrifices which all supposed he made in living at his age like an old man.
The neighbours were in the habit of contrasting the conduct of this exemplary young man with that of M. Tabaret, the incorrigible old rake, the hairless dangler.
As for Madame Gerdy, she saw nothing but her son in all the world. Her love had actually taken the form of worship. In Noel she believed she saw united all the physical and moral perfections. To her he seemed of a superior order to the rest of humanity. If he spoke, she was silent and listened: his word was a command, his advice a decree of Providence. To care for her son, study his tastes, anticipate his wishes, was the sole aim of her life. She was a mother.
"Is Madame Gerdy visible?" asked old Tabaret of the girl who opened the door; and, without waiting for an answer, he walked into the room like a man assured that his presence cannot be inopportune, and ought to be agreeable.
A single candle lighted the drawing-room, which was not in its accustomed order. The small marble-top table, usually in the middle of the room, had been rolled into a corner. Madame Gerdy's large arm- chair was near the window; a newspaper, all crumpled, lay before it on the carpet.
The amateur detective took in the whole at a glance.
"Has any accident happened?" he asked of the girl.
"Do not speak of it, sir: we have just had a fright! oh, such a fright!"
"What was it? tell me quickly!"
"You know that madame has been ailing for the last month. She has eaten I may say almost nothing. This morning, even, she said to me--"
"Yes, yes! but this evening?"
"After her dinner, madame went into the drawing-room as usual. She sat down and took up one of M. Noel's newspapers. Scarcely had she begun to read, when she uttered a great cry,--oh, a terrible cry! We hastened to her; madame had fallen on to the floor, as one dead. M. Noel raised her in his arms, and carried her into her room. I wanted to fetch the doctor, sir, but he said there was no need; he knew what was the matter with her."
"And how is she now?"
"She has come to her senses; that is to say, I suppose so; for M. Noel made me leave the room. All that I do know is, that a little while ago she was talking, and talking very loudly too, for I heard her. Ah, sir, it is all the same, very strange!"
"What is strange?"
"What I heard Madame Gerdy say to M. Noel."
"Ah ha! my girl!" sneered old Tabaret; "so you listen at key-holes, do you?"
"No, sir, I assure you; but madame cried out like one lost. She said,--"
"My girl!" interrupted old Tabaret severely, "one always hears wrong through key-holes. Ask Manette if that is not so."
The poor girl, thoroughly confused, sought to excuse herself.
"Enough, enough!" said the old man. "Return to your work: you need not disturb M. Noel; I can wait for him very well here."
And satisfied with the reproof he had administered, he picked up the newspaper, and seated himself beside the fire, placing the candle near him so as to read with ease. A minute had scarcely elapsed when he in his turn bounded in his chair, and stifled a cry of instinctive terror and surprise. These were the first words that met his eye.
"Thunder!" said old Tabaret to himself, "can it be that Madame Gerdy?--"
The idea but flashed across his mind; he fell back into his chair, and, shrugging his shoulders, murmured,--
"Really this affair of La Jonchere is driving me out of my senses! I can think of nothing but this Widow Lerouge. I shall be seeing her in everything now."
In the mean while, an uncontrollable curiosity made him peruse the entire newspaper. He found nothing with the exception of these lines, to justify or explain even the slightest emotion.
"It is an extremely singular coincidence, at the same time," thought the incorrigible police agent. Then, remarking that the newspaper was slightly torn at the lower part, and crushed, as if by a convulsive grasp, he repeated,--
"It is strange!"
At this moment the door of Madame Gerdy's room opened, and Noel appeared on the threshold.
Without doubt the accident to his mother had greatly excited him; for he was very pale and his countenance, ordinarily so calm, wore an expression of profound sorrow. He appeared surprised to see old Tabaret.
"Ah, my dear Noel!" cried the old fellow. "Calm my inquietude. How is your mother?"
"Madame Gerdy is as well as can be expected."
"Madame Gerdy!" repeated the old fellow with an air of astonishment; but he continued, "It is plain you have been seriously alarmed."
"In truth," replied the advocate, seating himself, "I have experienced a rude shock."
Noel was making visibly the greatest efforts to appear calm, to listen to the old fellow, and to answer him. Old Tabaret, as much disquieted on his side, perceived nothing.
"At least, my dear boy," said he, "tell me how this happened?"
The young man hesitated a moment, as if consulting with himself. No doubt he was unprepared for this point blank question, and knew not what answer to make; at last he replied,--
"Madame Gerdy has suffered a severe shock in learning from a paragraph in this newspaper that a woman in whom she takes a strong interest has been assassinated."
"Ah!" replied old Tabaret.
The old fellow was in a fever of embarrassment. He wanted to question Noel, but was restrained by the fear of revealing the secret of his association with the police. Indeed he had almost betrayed himself by the eagerness with which he exclaimed,--
"What! your mother knew the Widow Lerouge?"
By an effort he restrained himself, and with difficulty dissembled his satisfaction; for he was delighted to find himself so unexpectedly on the trace of the antecedents of the victim of La Jonchere.
"She was," continued Noel, "the slave of Madame Gerdy, devoted to her in every way! She would have sacrificed herself for her at a sign from her hand."
"Then you, my dear friend, you knew this poor woman!"
"I had not seen her for a very long time," replied Noel, whose voice seemed broken by emotion, "but I knew her well. I ought even to say I loved her tenderly. She was my nurse."
"She, this woman?" stammered old Tabaret.
This time he was thunderstruck. Widow Lerouge Noel's nurse? He was most unfortunate. Providence had evidently chosen him for its instrument, and was leading him by the hand. He was about to obtain all the information, which half an hour ago he had almost despaired of procuring. He remained seated before Noel amazed and speechless. Yet he understood, that, unless he would compromise himself, he must speak.
"It is a great misfortune," he murmured at last.
"What it is for Madame Gerdy, I cannot say," replied Noel with a gloomy air; "but, for me, it is an overwhelming misfortune! I am struck to the heart by the blow which has slain this poor woman. Her death, M. Tabaret, has annihilated all my dreams of the future, and probably overthrown my most cherished hopes. I had to avenge myself for cruel injuries; her death breaks the weapon in my hands, and reduces me to despair, to impotence. Alas! I am indeed unfortunate."
"You unfortunate?" cried old Tabaret, singularly affected by his dear Noel's sadness. "In heaven's name, what has happened to you?"
"I suffer," murmured the advocate, "and very cruelly. Not only do I fear that the injustice is irreparable; but here am I totally without defence delivered over to the shafts of calumny. I may be accused of inventing falsehood, of being an ambitious intriguer, having no regard for truth, no scruples of conscience."
Old Tabaret was puzzled. What connection could possibly exist between Noel's honour and the assassination at La Jonchere? His brain was in a whirl. A thousand troubled and confused ideas jostled one another in inextricable confusion.
"Come, come, Noel," said he, "compose yourself. Who would believe any calumny uttered about you? Take courage, have you not friends? am I not here? Have confidence, tell me what troubles you, and it will be strange, indeed if between us two--"
The advocate started to his feet, impressed by a sudden resolution.
"Well! yes," interrupted he, "yes, you shall know all. In fact, I am tired of carrying all alone a secret that is stifling me. The part I have been playing irritates and wearies me. I have need of a friend to console me. I require a counsellor whose voice will encourage me, for one is a bad judge of his own cause, and this crime has plunged me into an abyss of hesitations."
"You know," replied M. Tabaret kindly, "that I regard you as my own son. Do not scruple to let me serve you."
"Know then," commenced the advocate,--"but no, not here: what I have to say must not be overheard. Let us go into my study."