The Mystery of Orcival - Émile Gaboriau - ebook
Kategoria: Sensacja, thriller, horror Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1867

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Émile Gaboriau

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Opis ebooka The Mystery of Orcival - Émile Gaboriau

A classic detective story, the second one in the "Monsieur Lecoq" series.

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Fragment ebooka The Mystery of Orcival - Émile Gaboriau

About
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

About Gaboriau:

Émile Gaboriau (November 9, 1832 - September 28, 1873), was a French writer, novelist, and journalist, and a pioneer of modern detective fiction. Gaboriau was born in the small town of Saujon, Charente-Maritime. He became a secretary to Paul Féval, and after publishing some novels and miscellaneous writings, found his real gift in L'Affaire Lerouge (1866). The book, which was Gaboriau's first detective novel, introduced an amateur detective. It also introduced a young police officer named Monsieur Lecoq, who was the hero in three of Gaboriau's later detective novels. Monsieur Lecoq was based on a real-life thief turned police officer, Eugene François Vidocq (1775-1857), whose memoirs, Les Vrais Mémoires de Vidocq, mixed fiction and fact. It may also have been influenced by the villainous Monsieur Lecoq, one of the main protagonists of Féval's Les Habits Noirs book series. The book was published in the Pays and at once made his reputation. Gaboriau gained a huge following, but when Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, Monsieur Lecoq's international fame declined. The story was produced on the stage in 1872. A long series of novels dealing with the annals of the police court followed, and proved very popular. Gaboriau died in Paris of pulmonary apoplexy.

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Chapter 1

 

On Thursday, the 9th of July, 186-, Jean Bertaud and his son, well known at Orcival as living by poaching and marauding, rose at three o’clock in the morning, just at daybreak, to go fishing.

Taking their tackle, they descended the charming pathway, shaded by acacias, which you see from the station at Évry, and which leads from the burg of Orcival to the Seine.

They made their way to their boat, moored as usual some fifty yards above the wire bridge, across a field adjoining Valfeuillu, the imposing estate of the Count de Tremorel.

Having reached the river-bank, they laid down their tackle, and Jean jumped into the boat to bail out the water in the bottom.

While he was skilfully using the scoop, he perceived that one of the oar-pins of the old craft, worn by the oar, was on the point of breaking.

“Philippe,” cried he, to his son, who was occupied in unravelling a net, “bring me a bit of wood to make a new oar-pin.”

“All right,” answered Philippe.

There was no tree in the field. The young man bent his steps toward the park of Valfeuillu, a few rods distant; and, neglectful of Article 391 of the Penal Code, jumped across the wide ditch which surrounds M. de Tremorel’s domain. He thought he would cut off a branch of one of the old willows, which at this place touch the water with their drooping branches.

He had scarcely drawn his knife from his pocket, while looking about him with the poacher’s unquiet glance, when he uttered a low cry, “Father! Here! Father!”

“What’s the matter?” responded the old marauder, without pausing from his work.

“Father, come here!” continued Philippe. “In Heaven’s name, come here, quick!”

Jean knew by the tone of his son’s voice that something unusual had happened. He threw down his scoop, and, anxiety quickening him, in three leaps was in the park. He also stood still, horror-struck, before the spectacle which had terrified Philippe.

On the bank of the river, among the stumps and flags, was stretched a woman’s body. Her long, dishevelled locks lay among the water-shrubs; her dress— of gray silk— was soiled with mire and blood. All the upper part of the body lay in shallow water, and her face had sunk in the mud.

“A murder!” muttered Philippe, whose voice trembled.

“That’s certain,” responded Jean, in an indifferent tone. “But who can this woman be? Really one would say, the countess.”

“We’ll see,” said the young man. He stepped toward the body; his father caught him by the arm.

“What would you do, fool?” said he. “You ought never to touch the body of a murdered person without legal authority.”

“You think so?”

“Certainly. There are penalties for it.”

“Then, come along and let’s inform the Mayor.”

“Why? as if people hereabouts were not against us enough already! Who knows that they would not accuse us— ”

“But, father— ”

“If we go and inform Monsieur Courtois, he will ask us how and why we came to be in Monsieur de Tremorel’s park to find this out. What is it to you, that the countess has been killed? They’ll find her body without you. Come, let’s go away.”

But Philippe did not budge. Hanging his head, his chin resting upon his palm, he reflected.

“We must make this known,” said he, firmly. “We are not savages; we will tell Monsieur Courtois that in passing along by the park in our boat, we perceived the body.”

Old Jean resisted at first; then, seeing that his son would, if need be, go without him, yielded.

They re-crossed the ditch, and leaving their fishing-tackle in the field, directed their steps hastily toward the mayor’s house.

Orcival, situated a mile or more from Corbeil, on the right bank of the Seine, is one of the most charming villages in the environs of Paris, despite the infernal etymology of its name. The gay and thoughtless Parisian, who, on Sunday, wanders about the fields, more destructive than the rook, has not yet discovered this smiling country. The distressing odor of the frying from coffee-gardens does not there stifle the perfume of the honeysuckles. The refrains of bargemen, the brazen voices of boat-horns, have never awakened echoes there. Lazily situated on the gentle slopes of a bank washed by the Seine, the houses of Orcival are white, and there are delicious shades, and a bell-tower which is the pride of the place. On all sides vast pleasure domains, kept up at great cost, surround it. From the upper part, the weathercocks of twenty chateaux may be seen. On the right is the forest of Mauprevoir, and the pretty country-house of the Countess de la Breche; opposite, on the other side of the river, is Mousseaux and Petit-Bourg, the ancient domain of Aguado, now the property of a famous coach-maker; on the left, those beautiful copses belong to the Count de Tremorel, that large park is d’Etiolles, and in the distance beyond is Corbeil; that vast building, whose roofs are higher than the oaks, is the Darblay mill.

The mayor of Orcival occupies a handsome, pleasant mansion, at the upper end of the village. Formerly a manufacturer of dry goods, M. Courtois entered business without a penny, and after thirty years of absorbing toil, he retired with four round millions of francs.

Then he proposed to live tranquilly with his wife and children, passing the winter at Paris and the summer at his country-house.

But all of a sudden he was observed to be disturbed and agitated. Ambition stirred his heart. He took vigorous measures to be forced to accept the mayoralty of Orcival. And he accepted it, quite in self-defence, as he will himself tell you. This office was at once his happiness and his despair; apparent despair, interior and real happiness.

It quite befits him, with clouded brow, to rail at the cares of power; he appears yet better when, his waist encircled with the gold-laced scarf, he goes in triumph at the head of the municipal body.

Everybody was sound asleep at the mayor’s when the two Bertauds rapped the heavy knocker of the door. After a moment, a servant, half asleep, appeared at one of the ground-floor windows.

“What’s the matter, you rascals?” asked he, growling.

Jean did not think it best to revenge an insult which his reputation in the village too well justified.

“We want to speak to Monsieur the Mayor,” he answered. “There is terrible need of it. Go call him, Monsieur Baptiste; he won’t blame you.”

“I’d like to see anybody blame me,” snapped out Baptiste.

It took ten minutes of talking and explaining to persuade the servant. Finally, the Bertauds were admitted to a little man, fat and red, very much annoyed at being dragged from his bed so early. It was M. Courtois.

They had decided that Philippe should speak.

“Monsieur Mayor,” he said, “we have come to announce to you a great misfortune. A crime has been committed at Monsieur de Tremorel’s.”

M. Courtois was a friend of the count’s; he became whiter than his shirt at this sudden news.

“My God!” stammered he, unable to control his emotion, “what do you say— a crime!”

“Yes; we have just discovered a body; and as sure as you are here, I believe it to be that of the countess.”

The worthy man raised his arms heavenward, with a wandering air.

“But where, when?”

“Just now, at the foot of the park, as we were going to take up our nets.”

“It is horrible!” exclaimed the good M. Courtois; “what a calamity! So worthy a lady! But it is not possible— you must be mistaken; I should have been informed— ”

“We saw it distinctly, Monsieur Mayor.”

“Such a crime in my village! Well, you have done wisely to come here. I will dress at once, and will hasten off— no, wait.” He reflected a moment, then called:

“Baptiste!”

The valet was not far off. With ear and eye alternately pressed against the key-hole, he heard and looked with all his might. At the sound of his master’s voice he had only to stretch out his hand and open the door.

“Monsieur called me?”

“Run to the justice of the peace,” said the mayor. “There is not a moment to lose. A crime has been committed— perhaps a murder — you must go quickly. And you,” addressing the poachers, “await me here while I slip on my coat.”

The justice of the peace at Orcival, M. Plantat— “Papa Plantat,” as he was called— was formerly an attorney at Melun. At fifty, Mr. Plantat, whose career had been one of unbroken prosperity, lost in the same month, his wife, whom he adored, and his two sons, charming youths, one eighteen, the other twenty-two years old. These successive losses crushed a man whom thirty years of happiness left without defence against misfortune. For a long time his reason was despaired of. Even the sight of a client, coming to trouble his grief, to recount stupid tales of self-interest, exasperated him. It was not surprising that he sold out his professional effects and good-will at half price. He wished to establish himself at his ease in his grief, with the certainty of not being disturbed in its indulgence.

But the intensity of his mourning diminished, and the ills of idleness came. The justiceship of the peace at Orcival was vacant, and M. Plantat applied for and obtained it. Once installed in this office, he suffered less from ennui. This man, who saw his life drawing to an end, undertook to interest himself in the thousand diverse cases which came before him. He applied to these all the forces of a superior intelligence, the resources of a mind admirably fitted to separate the false from the true among the lies he was forced to hear. He persisted, besides, in living alone, despite the urging of M. Courtois; pretending that society fatigued him, and that an unhappy man is a bore in company.

Misfortune, which modifies characters, for good or bad, had made him, apparently, a great egotist. He declared that he was only interested in the affairs of life as a critic tired of its active scenes. He loved to make a parade of his profound indifference for everything, swearing that a rain of fire descending upon Paris, would not even make him turn his head. To move him seemed impossible. “What’s that to me?” was his invariable exclamation.

Such was the man who, a quarter of an hour after Baptiste’s departure, entered the mayor’s house.

M. Plantat was tall, thin, and nervous. His physiognomy was not striking. His hair was short, his restless eyes seemed always to be seeking something, his very long nose was narrow and sharp. After his affliction, his mouth, formerly well shaped, became deformed; his lower lip had sunk, and gave him a deceptive look of simplicity.

“They tell me,” said he, at the threshold, “that Madame de Tremorel has been murdered.”

“These men here, at least, pretend so,” answered the mayor, who had just reappeared.

M. Courtois was no longer the same man. He had had time to make his toilet a little. His face attempted to express a haughty coldness. He had been reproaching himself for having been wanting in dignity, in showing his grief before the Bertauds. “Nothing ought to agitate a man in my position,” said he to himself. And, being terribly agitated, he forced himself to be calm, cold, and impassible.

M. Plantat was so naturally.

“This is a very sad event,” said he, in a tone which he forced himself to make perfectly disinterested; “but after all, how does it concern us? We must, however, hurry and ascertain whether it is true. I have sent for the brigadier, and he will join us.”

“Let us go,” said M. Courtois; “I have my scarf in my pocket.”

They hastened off. Philippe and his father went first, the young man eager and impatient, the old one sombre and thoughtful. The mayor, at each step, made some exclamation.

“I can’t understand it,” muttered he; “a murder in my commune! a commune where, in the memory of men, no crime has been committed!”

And he directed a suspicious glance toward the two Bertauds. The road which led toward the chateau of M. de Tremorel was an unpleasant one, shut in by walls a dozen feet high. On one side is the park of the Marchioness de Lanascol; on the other the spacious garden of Saint Jouan. The going and coming had taken time; it was nearly eight o’clock when the mayor, the justice, and their guides stopped before the gate of M. de Tremorel.

The mayor rang. The bell was very large; only a small gravelled court of five or six yards separated the gate from the house; nevertheless no one appeared.

The mayor rang more vigorously, then with all his strength; but in vain.

Before the gate of Mme. de Lanascol’s chateau, nearly opposite, a groom was standing, occupied in cleaning and polishing a bridle-bit. “It’s of no use to ring, gentlemen,” said this man; “there’s nobody in the chateau.”

“How! nobody?” asked the mayor, surprised.

“I mean,” said the groom, “that there is no one there but the master and mistress. The servants all went away last evening by the 8.40 train to Paris, to the wedding of the old cook, Madame Denis. They ought to return this morning by the first train. I was invited myself— ”

“Great God!” interrupted M. Courtois, “then the count and countess remained alone last night?”

“Entirely alone, Monsieur Mayor.”

“It is horrible!”

M. Plantat seemed to grow impatient during this dialogue. “Come,” said he, “we cannot stay forever at the gate. The gendarmes do not come; let us send for the locksmith.” Philippe was about to hasten off, when, at the end of the road, singing and laughing were heard. Five persons, three women and two men, soon appeared.

“Ah, there are the people of the chateau,” cried the groom, whom this morning visit seemed to annoy, “they ought to have a key.”

The domestics, seeing the group about the gate, became silent and hastened their steps. One of them began to run ahead of the others; it was the count’s valet de chambre.

“These gentlemen perhaps wish to speak to Monsieur the Count?” asked he, having bowed to M. Plantat.

“We have rung five times, as hard as we could,” said the mayor.

“It is surprising,” said the valet de chambre, “the count sleeps very lightly. Perhaps he has gone out.”

“Horror!” cried Philippe. “Both of them have been murdered!” These words shocked the servants, whose gayety announced a reasonable number of healths drunk to the happiness of the newly wedded pair. M. Courtois seemed to be studying the attitude of old Bertaud.

“A murder!” muttered the valet de chambre. “It was for money then; it must have been known— ”

“What?” asked the mayor.

“Monsieur the Count received a very large sum yesterday morning.”

“Large! yes,” added a chambermaid. “He had a large package of bank-bills. Madame even said to Monsieur that she should not shut her eyes the whole night, with this immense sum in the house.”

There was a silence; each one looked at the others with a frightened air. M. Courtois reflected.

“At what hour did you leave the chateau last evening?” asked he of the servants.

“At eight o’clock; we had dinner early.”

“You went away all together?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You did not leave each other?”

“Not a minute.”

“And you returned all together?”

The servants exchanged a significant look.

“All,” responded a chambermaid— “that is to say, no. One left us on reaching the Lyons station at Paris; it was Guespin.”

“Yes, sir; he went away, saying that he would rejoin us at Wepler’s, in the Batignolles, where the wedding took place.” The mayor nudged the justice with his elbow, as if to attract his attention, and continued to question the chambermaid.

“And this Guespin, as you call him— did you see him again?”

“No, sir. I asked several times during the evening in vain, what had become of him; his absence seemed to me suspicious.” Evidently the chambermaid tried to show superior perspicacity. A little more, and she would have talked of presentiments.

“Has this Guespin been long in the house?”

“Since spring.”

“What were his duties?”

“He was sent from Paris by the house of the ‘Skilful Gardener,’ to take care of the rare flowers in Madame’s conservatory.”

“And did he know of this money?”

The domestics again exchanged significant glances.

“Yes,” they answered in chorus, “we had talked a great deal about it among ourselves.”

The chambermaid added: “He even said to me, ’To think that Monsieur the Count has enough money in his cabinet to make all our fortunes.’”

“What kind of a man is this?”

This question absolutely extinguished the talkativeness of the servants. No one dared to speak, perceiving that the least word might serve as the basis of a terrible accusation. But the groom of the house opposite, who burned to mix himself up in the affair, had none of these scruples. “Guespin,” answered he, “is a good fellow. Lord, what jolly things he knows! He knows everything you can imagine. It appears he has been rich in times past, and if he wished— But dame! he loves to have his work all finished, and go off on sprees. He’s a crack billiard-player, I can tell you.”

Papa Plantat, while listening in an apparently absent-minded way to these depositions, or rather these scandals, carefully examined the wall and the gate. He now turned, and interrupting the groom:

“Enough of this,” said he, to the great scandal of M. Courtois. “Before pursuing this interrogatory, let us ascertain the crime, if crime there is; for it is not proved. Let whoever has the key, open the gate.”

The valet de chambre had the key; he opened the gate, and all entered the little court. The gendarmes had just arrived. The mayor told the brigadier to follow him, and placed two men at the gate, ordering them not to permit anyone to enter or go out, unless by his orders. Then the valet de chambre opened the door of the house.


Chapter 2

 

If there had been no crime, at least something extraordinary had taken place at the chateau; the impassible justice might have been convinced of it, as soon as he had stepped into the vestibule. The glass door leading to the garden was wide open, and three of the panes were shattered into a thousand pieces. The carpeting of waxed canvas between the doors had been torn up, and on the white marble slabs large drops of blood were visible. At the foot of the staircase was a stain larger than the rest, and upon the lowest step a splash hideous to behold.

Unfitted for such spectacles, or for the mission he had now to perform, M. Courtois became faint. Luckily, he borrowed from the idea of his official importance, an energy foreign to his character. The more difficult the preliminary examination of this affair seemed, the more determined he was to carry it on with dignity.

“Conduct us to the place where you saw the body,” said he to Bertaud. But Papa Plantat intervened.

“It would be wiser, I think,” he objected, “and more methodical, to begin by going through the house.”

“Perhaps— yes— true, that’s my own view,” said the mayor, grasping at the other’s counsel, as a drowning man clings to a plank. And he made all retire excepting the brigadier and the valet de chambre, the latter remaining to serve as guide. “Gendarmes,” cried he to the men guarding the gate, “see to it that no one goes out; prevent anybody from entering the house, and above all, let no one go into the garden.”

Then they ascended the staircase. Drops of blood were sprinkled all along the stairs. There was also blood on the baluster, and M. Courtois perceived, with horror, that his hands were stained.

When they had reached the first landing-stage, the mayor said to the valet de chambre:

“Tell me, my friend, did your master and mistress occupy the same chamber?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And where is their chamber?”

“There, sir.”

As he spoke, the valet de chambre staggered back terrified, and pointed to a door, the upper panel of which betrayed the imprint of a bloody hand. Drops of perspiration overspread the poor mayor’s forehead. He too was terrified, and could hardly keep on his feet. Alas, authority brings with it terrible obligations! The brigadier, an old soldier of the Crimea, visibly moved, hesitated.

M. Plantat alone, as tranquil as if he were in his garden, retained his coolness, and looked around upon the others.

“We must decide,” said he.

He entered the room; the rest followed.

There was nothing unusual in the apartment; it was a boudoir hung in blue satin, furnished with a couch and four arm-chairs, covered also with blue satin. One of the chairs was overturned.

They passed on to the bed-chamber.

A frightful disorder appeared in this room. There was not an article of furniture, not an ornament, which did not betray that a terrible, enraged and merciless struggle had taken place between the assassins and their victims. In the middle of the chamber a small table was overturned, and all about it were scattered lumps of sugar, vermilion cups, and pieces of porcelain.

“Ah!” said the valet de chambre, “Monsieur and Madame were taking tea when the wretches came in!”

The mantel ornaments had been thrown upon the floor; the clock, in falling, had stopped at twenty minutes past three. Near the clock were the lamps; the globes were in pieces, the oil had been spilled.

The canopy of the bed had been torn down, and covered the bed. Someone must have clutched desperately at the draperies. All the furniture was overturned. The coverings of the chairs had been hacked by strokes of a knife, and in places the stuffing protruded. The secretary had been broken open; the writing-slide, dislocated, hung by its hinges; the drawers were open and empty, and everywhere, blood— blood upon the carpet, the furniture, the curtains— above all, upon the bed-curtains.

“Poor wretches!” stammered the mayor. “They were murdered here.”

Every one for a moment was appalled. But meanwhile, the justice of the peace devoted himself to a minute scrutiny, taking notes upon his tablets, and looking into every corner. When he had finished:

“Come,” said he, “let us go into the other rooms.”

Everywhere there was the same disorder. A band of furious maniacs, or criminals seized with a frenzy, had certainly passed the night in the house.

The count’s library, especially, had been turned topsy-turvy. The assassins had not taken the trouble to force the locks; they had gone to work with a hatchet. Surely they were confident of not being overheard; for they must have struck tremendous blows to make the massive oaken bureau fly in pieces.

Neither parlor nor smoking-room had been respected. Couches, chairs, canopies were cut and torn as if they had been lunged at with swords. Two spare chambers for guests were all in confusion.

They then ascended to the second story.

There, in the first room which they penetrated, they found, beside a trunk which had been assaulted, but which was not opened, a hatchet for splitting wood which the valet de chambre recognized as belonging to the house.

“Do you understand now?” said the mayor to M. Plantat. “The assassins were in force, that’s clear. The murder accomplished, they scattered through the chateau, seeking everywhere the money they knew they would find here. One of them was engaged in breaking open this trunk, when the others, below, found the money; they called him; he hastened down, and thinking all further search useless, he left the hatchet here.”

“I see it,” said the brigadier, “just as if I had been here.”

The ground-floor, which they next visited, had been respected. Only, after the crime had been committed, and the money secured, the murderers had felt the necessity of refreshing themselves. They found the remains of their supper in the dining-room. They had eaten up all the cold meats left in the cupboard. On the table, beside eight empty bottles of wine and liqueurs, were ranged five glasses.

“There were five of them,” said the mayor.

By force of will, M. Courtois had recovered his self-possession.

“Before going to view the bodies,” said he, “I will send word to the procureur of Corbeil. In an hour, we will have a judge of instruction, who will finish our painful task.”

A gendarme was instructed to harness the count’s buggy, and to hasten to the procureur. Then the mayor and the justice, followed by the brigadier, the valet de chambre, and the two Bertauds, took their way toward the river.

The park of Valfeuillu was very wide from right to left. From the house to the Seine it was almost two hundred steps. Before the house was a grassy lawn, interspersed with flower-beds. Two paths led across the lawn to the river-bank.

But the murderers had not followed the paths. Making a short cut, they had gone straight across the lawn. Their traces were perfectly visible. The grass was trampled and stamped down as if a heavy load had been dragged over it. In the midst of the lawn they perceived something red; M. Plantat went and picked it up. It was a slipper, which the valet de chambre recognized as the count’s. Farther on, they found a white silk handkerchief, which the valet declared he had often seen around the count’s neck. This handkerchief was stained with blood.

At last they arrived at the river-bank, under the willows from which Philippe had intended to cut off a branch; there they saw the body. The sand at this place was much indented by feet seeking a firm support. Everything indicated that here had been the supreme struggle.

M. Courtois understood all the importance of these traces.

“Let no one advance,” said he, and, followed by the justice of the peace, he approached the corpse. Although the face could not be distinguished, both recognized the countess. Both had seen her in this gray robe, adorned with blue trimmings.

Now, how came she there?

The mayor thought that having succeeded in escaping from the hands of the murderers, she had fled wildly. They had pursued her, had caught up with her there, and she had fallen to rise no more. This version explained the traces of the struggle. It must have been the count’s body that they had dragged across the lawn.

M. Courtois talked excitedly, trying to impose his ideas on the justice. But M. Plantat hardly listened; you might have thought him a hundred leagues from Valfeuillu; he only responded by monosyllables— yes, no, perhaps. And the worthy mayor gave himself great pains; he went and came, measured steps, minutely scrutinized the ground.

There was not at this place more than a foot of water. A mud-bank, upon which grew some clumps of flags and some water-lilies, descended by a gentle decline from the bank to the middle of the river. The water was very clear, and there was no current; the slippery and slimy mire could be distinctly seen.

M. Courtois had gone thus far in his investigations, when he was struck by a sudden idea.

“Bertaud,” said he, “come here.”

The old poacher obeyed.

“You say that you saw the body from your boat?”

“Yes, Monsieur Mayor.”

“Where is your boat?”

“There, hauled up to that field.”

“Well, lead us to it.”

It was clear to all that this order had a great effect upon the man. He trembled and turned pale under his rough skin, tanned as it was by sun and storm. He was even seen to cast a menacing look toward his son.

“Let us go,” said he at last.

They were returning to the house when the valet proposed to pass over the ditch. “That will be the quickest way,” said he, “I will go for a ladder which we will put across.”

He went off, and quickly reappeared with his improvised foot-bridge. But at the moment he was adjusting it, the mayor cried out to him:

“Stop!”

The imprints left by the Bertauds on both sides of the ditch had just caught his eye.

“What is this?” said he; “evidently someone has crossed here, and not long ago; for the traces of the steps are quite fresh.”

After an examination of some minutes he ordered that the ladder should be placed farther off. When they had reached the boat, he said to Jean, “Is this the boat with which you went to take up your nets this morning?”

“Yes.”

“Then,” resumed M. Courtois, “what implements did you use? your cast net is perfectly dry; this boat-hook and these oars have not been wet for twenty-four hours.”

The distress of the father and son became more and more evident.

“Do you persist in what you say, Bertaud?” said the mayor.

“Certainly.”

“And you, Philippe?”

“Monsieur,” stammered the young man, “we have told the truth.”

“Really!” said M. Courtois, in an ironical tone. “Then you will explain to the proper authorities how it was that you could see anything from a boat which you had not entered. It will be proved to you, also, that the body is in a position where it is impossible to see it from the middle of the river. Then you will still have to tell what these foot-prints on the grass are, which go from your boat to the place where the ditch has been crossed several times and by several persons.”

The two Bertauds hung their heads.

“Brigadier,” ordered the mayor, “arrest these two men in the name of the law, and prevent all communication between them.”

Philippe seemed to be ill. As for old Jean, he contented himself with shrugging his shoulders and saying to his son:

“Well, you would have it so, wouldn’t you?”

While the brigadier led the two poachers away, and shut them up separately, and under the guard of his men, the justice and the mayor returned to the park. “With all this,” muttered M. Courtois, “no traces of the count.”

They proceeded to take up the body of the countess. The mayor sent for two planks, which, with a thousand precautions, they placed on the ground, being able thus to move the countess without effacing the imprints necessary for the legal examination. Alas! it was indeed she who had been the beautiful, the charming Countess de Tremorel! Here were her smiling face, her lovely, speaking eyes, her fine, sensitive mouth.

There remained nothing of her former self. The face was unrecognizable, so soiled and wounded was it. Her clothes were in tatters. Surely a furious frenzy had moved the monsters who had slain the poor lady! She had received more than twenty knife-wounds, and must have been struck with a stick, or rather with a hammer; she had been dragged by her feet and by her hair!

In her left hand she grasped a strip of common cloth, torn, doubtless, from the clothes of one of the assassins. The mayor, in viewing the spectacle, felt his legs fail him, and supported himself on the arm of the impassible Plantat.

“Let us carry her to the house,” said the justice, “and then we will search for the count.”

The valet and brigadier (who had now returned) called on the domestics for assistance. The women rushed into the garden. There was then a terrible concert of cries, lamentations, and imprecations.

“The wretches! So noble a mistress! So good a lady!”

M. and Mme. de Tremorel, one could see, were adored by their people.

The countess had just been laid upon the billiard-table, on the ground-floor, when the judge of instruction and a physician were announced.

“At last!” sighed the worthy mayor; and in a lower tone he added, “the finest medals have their reverse.”

For the first time in his life, he seriously cursed his ambition, and regretted being the most important personage in Orcival.


Chapter 3

 

The judge of instruction of the tribunal at Corbeil, was M. Antoine Domini, a remarkable man, since called to higher functions. He was forty years of age, of a prepossessing person, and endowed with a very expressive, but too grave physiognomy. In him seemed typified the somewhat stiff solemnity of the magistracy. Penetrated with the dignity of his office, he sacrificed his life to it, rejecting the most simple distractions, and the most innocent pleasures.

He lived alone, seldom showing himself abroad; rarely received his friends, not wishing, as he said, that the weaknesses of the man should derogate from the sacred character of the judge. This latter reason had deterred him from marrying, though he felt the need of a domestic sphere.

Always and everywhere he was the magistrate— that is, the representative, even to fanaticism, of what he thought the most august institution on the earth. Naturally gay, he would double-lock himself in when he wished to laugh. He was witty; but if a bright sally escaped him, you may be sure he repented of it. Body and soul he gave to his vocation; and no one could bring more conscientiousness to the discharge of what he thought to be his duty. He was also inflexible. It was monstrous, in his eyes, to discuss an article of the code. The law spoke; it was enough; he shut his eyes, covered his ears, and obeyed.

From the day when a legal investigation commenced, he did not sleep, and he employed every means to discover the truth. Yet he was not regarded as a good judge of instruction; to contend by tricks with a prisoner was repugnant to him; to lay a snare for a rogue he thought debasing; in short, he was obstinate— obstinate to foolishness, sometimes to absurdity; even to denying the existence of the sun at mid-day.

The mayor and Papa Plantat hastened to meet M. Domini. He bowed to them gravely, as if he had not known them, and presenting to them a man of some sixty years who accompanied him:

“Messieurs,” said he, “this is Doctor Gendron.”

Papa Plantat shook hands with the doctor; the mayor smiled graciously at him, for Dr. Gendron was well-known in those parts; he was even celebrated, despite the nearness of Paris. Loving his art and exercising it with a passionate energy, he yet owed his renown less to his science than his manners. People said: “He is an original;” they admired his affectation of independence, of scepticism, and rudeness. He made his visits from five to nine in the morning— all the worse for those for whom these hours were inconvenient. After nine o’clock the doctor was not to be had. The doctor was working for himself, the doctor was in his laboratory, the doctor was inspecting his cellar. It was rumored that he sought for secrets of practical chemistry, to augment still more his twenty thousand livres of income. And he did not deny it; for in truth he was engaged on poisons, and was perfecting an invention by which could be discovered traces of all the alkaloids which up to that time had escaped analysis. If his friends reproached him, even jokingly, on sending away sick people in the afternoon, he grew red with rage.

“Parbleu!” he answered, “I find you superb! I am a doctor four hours in the day. I am paid by hardly a quarter of my patients — that’s three hours I give daily to humanity, which I despise. Let each of you do as much, and we shall see.”

The mayor conducted the new-comers into the drawing-room, where he installed himself to write down the results of his examination.

“What a misfortune for my town, this crime!” said he to M. Domini. “What shame! Orcival has lost its reputation.”

“I know nothing of the affair,” returned the judge. “The gendarme who went for me knew little about it.”

M. Courtois recounted at length what his investigation had discovered, not forgetting the minutest detail, dwelling especially on the excellent precautions which he had had the sagacity to take. He told how the conduct of the Bertauds had at first awakened his suspicions; how he had detected them, at least in a pointblank lie; how, finally, he had determined to arrest them. He spoke standing, his head thrown back, with wordy emphasis. The pleasure of speaking partially rewarded him for his recent distress.

“And now,” he concluded, “I have just ordered the most exact search, so that doubtless we shall find the count’s body. Five men, detailed by me, and all the people of the house, are searching the park. If their efforts are not crowned with success, I have here some fishermen who will drag the river.”

M. Domini held his tongue, only nodding his head from time to time, as a sign of approbation. He was studying, weighing the details told him, building up in his mind a plan of proceeding.

“You have acted wisely,” said he, at last. “The misfortune is a great one, but I agree with you that we are on the track of the criminals. These poachers, or the gardener who has disappeared, have something, perhaps, to do with this abominable crime.”

Already, for some minutes, M. Plantat had rather awkwardly concealed some signs of impatience.

“The misfortune is,” said he, “that if Guespin is guilty, he will not be such a fool as to show himself here.”

“Oh, we’ll find him,” returned M. Domini. “Before leaving Corbeil, I sent a despatch to the prefecture of police at Paris, to ask for a police agent, who will doubtless be here shortly.”

“While waiting,” proposed the mayor, “perhaps you would like to see the scene of the crime?”

M. Domini made a motion as if to rise; then sat down again.

“In fact, no,” said he; “we will see nothing till the agent arrives. But I must have some information concerning the Count and Countess de Tremorel.”

The worthy mayor again triumphed.

“Oh, I can give it to you,” answered he quickly, “better than anybody. Ever since their advent here, I may say, I have been one of their best friends. Ah, sir, what charming people! excellent, and affable, and devoted— ”

And at the remembrance of all his friends’ good qualities, M. Courtois choked in his utterance.

“The Count de Tremorel,” he resumed, “was a man of thirty-four years, handsome, witty to the tips of his nails. He had sometimes, however, periods of melancholy, during which he did not wish to see anybody; but he was ordinarily so affable, so polite, so obliging; he knew so well how to be noble without haughtiness, that everybody here esteemed and loved him.”

“And the countess?” asked the judge of instruction.

“An angel, Monsieur, an angel on earth! Poor lady! You will soon see her remains, and surely you would not guess that she has been the queen of the country, by reason of her beauty.”

“Were they rich?”

“Yes; they must have had, together, more than a hundred thousand francs income— oh, yes, much more; for within five or six months the count, who had not the bucolic tastes of poor Sauvresy, sold some lands to buy consols.”

“Have they been married long?”

M. Courtois scratched his head; it was his appeal to memory.

“Faith,” he answered, “it was in September of last year; just six months ago. I married them myself. Poor Sauvresy had been dead a year.”

The judge of instruction looked up from his notes with a surprised air.

“Who is this Sauvresy,” he inquired, “of whom you speak?”

Papa Plantat, who was furiously biting his nails in a corner, apparently a stranger to what was passing, rose abruptly.

“Monsieur Sauvresy,” said he, “was the first husband of Madame de Tremorel. My friend Courtois has omitted this fact.”

“Oh!” said the mayor, in a wounded tone, “it seems to me that under present circumstances— ”

“Pardon me,” interrupted the judge. “It is a detail such as may well become valuable, though apparently foreign to the case, and at the first view, insignificant.”

“Hum!” grunted Papa Plantat. “Insignificant— foreign to it!”

His tone was so singular, his air so strange, that M. Domini was struck by it.

“Do you share,” he asked, “the opinion of the mayor regarding the Tremorels?”

Plantat shrugged his shoulders.

“I haven’t any opinions,” he answered: “I live alone— see nobody; don’t disturb myself about anything. But— ”

“It seems to me,” said M. Courtois, “that nobody should be better acquainted with people who were my friends than I myself.”

“Then, you are telling the story clumsily,” said M. Plantat, dryly.

The judge of instruction pressed him to explain himself. So M. Plantat, without more ado, to the great scandal of the mayor, who was thus put into the background, proceeded to dilate upon the main features of the count’s and countess’s biography.

“The Countess de Tremorel, nee Bertha Lechaillu, was the daughter of a poor village school-master. At eighteen, her beauty was famous for three leagues around, but as she only had for dowry her great blue eyes and blond ringlets, but few serious lovers presented themselves. Already Bertha, by advice of her family, had resigned herself to take a place as a governess— a sad position for so beautiful a maid— when the heir of one of the richest domains in the neighborhood happened to see her, and fell in love with her.

“Clement Sauvresy was just thirty; he had no longer any family, and possessed nearly a hundred thousand livres income from lands absolutely free of incumbrance. Clearly, he had the best right in the world to choose a wife to his taste. He did not hesitate. He asked for Bertha’s hand, won it, and, a month after, wedded her at mid-day, to the great scandal of the neighboring aristocracy, who went about saying: ’What folly! what good is there in being rich, if it is not to double one’s fortune by a good marriage!’

“Nearly a month before the marriage, Sauvresy set the laborers to work at Valfeuillu, and in no long time had spent, in repairs and furniture, a trifle of thirty thousand crowns. The newly married pair chose this beautiful spot in which to spend their honeymoon. They were so well-contented there that they established themselves permanently at Valfeuillu, to the great satisfaction of the neighborhood.

“Bertha was one of those persons, it seemed, who are born especially to marry millionnaires. Without awkwardness or embarrassment, she passed easily from the humble school-room, where she had assisted her father, to the splendid drawing-room of Valfeuillu. And when she did the honors of her chateau to all the neighboring aristocracy, it seemed as though she had never done anything else. She knew how to remain simple, approachable, modest, all the while that she took the tone of the highest society. She was beloved.”

“But it appears to me,” interrupted the mayor, “that I said the same thing, and it was really not worth while— ”

A gesture from M. Domini closed his mouth, and M. Plantat continued:

“Sauvresy was also liked, for he was one of those golden hearts which know not how to suspect evil. He was one of those men with a robust faith, with obstinate illusions, whom doubts never disturb. He was one of those who thoroughly confide in the sincerity of their friends, in the love of their mistresses. This new domestic household ought to be happy; it was so. Bertha adored her husband — that frank man, who, before speaking to her a word of love, offered her his hand. Sauvresy professed for his wife a worship which few thought foolish. They lived in great style at Valfeuillu. They received a great deal. When autumn came all the numerous spare chambers were filled. The turnouts were magnificent.

“Sauvresy had been married two years, when one evening he brought from Paris one of his old and intimate friends, a college comrade of whom he had often spoken, Count Hector de Tremorel. The count intended to remain but a short time at Valfeuillu; but weeks passed and then months, and he still remained. It was not surprising. Hector had passed a very stormy youth, full of debauchery, of clubs, of gambling, and of amours. He had thrown to the winds of his caprices an immense fortune; the relatively calm life of Valfeuillu was a relief. At first people said to him, ’You will soon have enough of the country.’ He smiled, but said nothing. It was then thought, and rightly, perhaps, that having become poor, he cared little to display his ruin before those who had obscured his splendor. He absented himself rarely, and then only to go to Corbeil, almost always on foot. There he frequented the Belle Image hotel, the best in the town, and met, as if by chance, a young lady from Paris. They spent the afternoon together, and separated when the last train left.”

“Peste!” growled the mayor, “for a man who lives alone, who sees nobody, who would not for the world have anything to do with other people’s business, it seems to me our dear Monsieur Plantat is pretty well informed.”

Evidently M. Courtois was jealous. How was it that he, the first personage in the place, had been absolutely ignorant of these meetings? His ill-humor was increasing, when Dr. Gendron answered:

“Pah! all Corbeil prated about that at the time.”

M. Plantat made a movement with his lips as if to say, “I know other things besides.” He went on, however, with his story.

“The visit of Count Hector made no change in the habits at the chateau. Monsieur and Madame Sauvresy had a brother; that was all. Sauvresy at this time made several journeys to Paris, where, as everybody knew, he was engaged in arranging his friend’s affairs.

“This charming existence lasted a year. Happiness seemed to be fixed forever beneath the delightful shades of Valfeuillu. But alas! one evening on returning from the hunt, Sauvresy became so ill that he was forced to take to his bed. A doctor was called; inflammation of the chest had set in. Sauvresy was young, vigorous as an oak; his state did not at first cause anxiety. A fortnight afterward, in fact, he was up and about. But he was imprudent and had a relapse. He again nearly recovered; a week afterward there was another relapse, and this time so serious, that a fatal end of his illness was foreseen. During this long sickness, the love of Bertha and the affection of Tremorel for Sauvresy were tenderly shown. Never was an invalid tended with such solicitude— surrounded with so many proofs of the purest devotion. His wife and his friend were always at his couch, night and day. He had hours of suffering, but never a second of weariness. He repeated to all who went to see him, that he had come to bless his illness. He said to himself, ’If I had not fallen ill, I should never have known how much I was beloved.’”

“He said the same thing to me,” interrupted the mayor, “more than a hundred times. He also said so to Madame Courtois, to Laurence, my eldest daughter— ”

“Naturally,” continued M. Plantat. “But Sauvresy’s distemper was one against which the science of the most skilful physicians and the most constant care contend in vain.

“He said that he did not suffer much, but he faded perceptibly, and was no more than the shadow of his former self. At last, one night, toward two or three o’clock, he died in the arms of his wife and his friend. Up to the last moment, he had preserved the full force of his faculties. Less than an hour before expiring, he wished everyone to be awakened, and that all the servants of the castle should be summoned. When they were all gathered about the bedside, he took his wife’s hand, placed it in that of the Count de Tremorel, and made them swear to marry each other when he was no more. Bertha and Hector began to protest, but he insisted in such a manner as to compel assent, praying and adjuring them, and declaring that their refusal would embitter his last moments. This idea of the marriage between his widow and his friend seems, besides, to have singularly possessed his thoughts toward the close of his life. In the preamble of his will, dictated the night before his death, to M. Bury, notary of Orcival, he says formally that their union is his dearest wish, certain as he is of their happiness, and knowing well that his memory will be piously kept.”

“Had Monsieur and Madame Sauvresy no children?” asked the judge of instruction.

“No,” answered the mayor.

M. Plantat continued:

“The grief of the count and the young widow was intense. M. de Tremorel, especially, seemed absolutely desperate, and acted like a madman. The countess shut herself up, forbidding even those whom she loved best from entering her chamber— even Madame Courtois. When the count and Madame Bertha reappeared, they were scarcely to be recognized, so much had both changed. Monsieur Hector seemed to have grown twenty years older. Would they keep the oath made at the death-bed of Sauvresy, of which everyone was apprised? This was asked with all the more curiosity, because their profound sorrow for a man who well merited it, was admired.”

The judge of instruction stopped M. Plantat with a motion of his hand.

“Do you know,” asked he, “whether the rendezvous at the Hotel Belle Image had ceased?”

“I suppose so, sir; I think so.”

“I am almost sure of it,” said Dr. Gendron. “I have often heard it said— they know everything at Corbeil— that there was a heated explanation between M. de Tremorel and the pretty Parisian lady. After this quarrel, they were no longer seen at the Belle Image.”

The old justice of the peace smiled.

“Melun is not at the end of the world,” said he, “and there are hotels at Melun. With a good horse, one is soon at Fontainebleau, at Versailles, even at Paris. Madame de Tremorel might have been jealous; her husband had some first-rate trotters in his stables.”

Did M. Plantat give an absolutely disinterested opinion, or did he make an insinuation? The judge of instruction looked at him attentively, to reassure himself, but his visage expressed nothing but a profound serenity. He told the story as he would any other, no matter what.

“Please go on, Monsieur,” resumed M. Domini.

“Alas!” said M. Plantat, “nothing here below is eternal, not even grief. I know it better than anybody. Soon, to the tears of the first days, to violent despair, there succeeded, in the count and Madame Bertha, a reasonable sadness, then a soft melancholy. And in one year after Sauvresy’s death Monsieur de Tremorel espoused his widow.”

During this long narrative the mayor had several times exhibited marks of impatience. At the end, being able to hold in no longer, he exclaimed:

“There, those are surely exact details; but I question whether they have advanced us a step in this grave matter which occupies us all — to find the murderers of the count and countess.”

M. Plantat, at these words, bent on the judge of instruction his clear and deep look, as if to search his conscience to the bottom.

“These details were indispensable,” returned M. Domini, “and they are very clear. Those rendezvous at the hotel struck me; one knows not to what extremities jealousy might lead a woman— ”

He stopped abruptly, seeking, no doubt, some connection between the pretty Parisian and the murderers; then resumed:

“Now that I know the Tremorels as if I had lived with them intimately, let us proceed to the actual facts.”

The brilliant eye of M. Plantat immediately grew dim; he opened his lips as if to speak; but kept his peace. The doctor alone, who had not ceased to study the old justice of the peace, remarked the sudden change of his features.

“It only remains,” said M. Domini, “to know how the new couple lived.”

M. Courtois thought it due to his dignity to anticipate M. Plantat.

“You ask how the new couple lived,” said he hastily; “they lived in perfect concord; nobody knows better about it than I, who was most intimate with them. The memory of poor Sauvresy was a bond of happiness between them; if they liked me so well, it was because I often talked of him. Never a cloud, never a cross word. Hector — I called him so, familiarly, this poor, dear count— gave his wife the tender attentions of a lover; those delicate cares, which I fear most married people soon dispense with.”

“And the countess?” asked M. Plantat, in a tone too marked not to be ironical.

“Bertha?” replied the worthy mayor— “she permitted me to call her thus, paternally— I have cited her many and many a time as an example and model, to Madame Courtois. She was worthy of Hector and of Sauvresy, the two most worthy men I have ever met!”

Then, perceiving that his enthusiasm somewhat surprised his hearers, he added, more softly:

“I have my reasons for expressing myself thus; and I do not hesitate to do so before men whose profession and character will justify my discretion. Sauvresy, when living, did me a great service— when I was forced to take the mayoralty. As for Hector, I knew well that he had departed— from the dissipations of his youth, and thought I discerned that he was not indifferent to my eldest daughter, Laurence; and I dreamed of a marriage all the more proper, as, if the Count Hector had a great name, I would give to my daughter a dowry large enough to gild any escutcheon. Only events modified my projects.”

The mayor would have gone on singing the praises of the Tremorels, and his own family, if the judge of instruction had not interposed.

“Here I am fixed,” he commenced, “now, it seems to me— ”

He was interrupted by a loud noise in the vestibule. It seemed like a struggle, and cries and shouts reached the drawing-room. Everybody rose.

“I know what it is,” said the mayor, “only too well. They have just found the body of the Count de Tremorel.”