Read CHAPTER XXXII - M. LECOQ of The Champdoce Mystery , free online book, by Emile Gaboriau, on ReadCentral.com.

The Marquis de Croisenois lived in a fine new house on the Boulevard Malesherbes near the church of St. Augustine, and in a suite of rooms the rental of which was four thousand francs per annum.  He had collected together sufficient relics of his former splendor to dazzle the eyes of the superficial observer.  The apartment and the furniture stood in the name of his body-servant, while his horse and brougham were by the same fiction supposed to be the property of his coachman, for even in the midst of his ruin the Marquis de Croisenois could not go on foot like common people.

The Marquis had two servants only in his modest establishment — a coachman, who did a certain amount of indoor work, and a valet, who knew enough of cookery to prepare a bachelor breakfast.  This valet Mascarin had seen once, and the man had then produced so unpleasant an impression on the astute proprietor of the Servants’ Registry Office that he had set every means at work to discover who he was and from whence he came.  Croisenois said that he had taken him into his service on the recommendation of an English baronet of his acquaintance, a certain Sir Richard Wakefield.  The man was a Frenchman, but he had resided for some time in England, for he spoke that language with tolerable fluency.  Andre knew nothing of these details, but he had heard of the existence of the valet from M. de Breulh, when he had asked where the Marquis lived.

At eight o’clock on the morning after he had surreptitiously left his home in the manner described, Andre took up his position in a small wine-shop not far from the abode of the Marquis de Croisenois.  He had done this designedly, for he knew enough of the manner and customs of Parisian society to know that this was the hour usually selected by domestics in fashionable quarters to come out for a gossip while their masters were still in bed.  Andre had more confidence in himself than heretofore, for he had succeeded in saving Gaston; and these were the means he had employed.  After much trouble, and even by the use of threats, he had persuaded the boy to return to his father’s house.  He had gone with him; and though it was two in the morning, he had not hesitated to arouse M. Gandelu, senior, and tell him how his son had been led on to commit the forgery, and how he threatened to commit suicide.

The poor old man was much moved.

“Tell him to come to me at once,” said he, “and let him know that we two will save him.”

Andre had not far to go, for Gaston was waiting in the next room in an agony of suspense.

As soon as he came into the old man’s presence he fell upon his knees, with many promises of amendment for the future.

“I do not believe,” remarked old Gandelu, “that these miscreants will venture to carry their threats into execution and place the matter in the hands of the police; but for all that, my son must not remain in a state of suspense.  I will file a complaint against the Mutual Loan Society before twelve to-day, and we will see how an association will be dealt with that lends money to minors and urges them to forge signatures as security.  It will, however, be as well for my son to leave for Belgium by the first train this morning; but, as you will see, he will not remain very many days.”

Andre remained for the rest of the hours of darkness at the kind old man’s house, and it was in Gaston’s room that he renewed his “make-up” before leaving.  The future looked very bright to him as he walked gayly up the Boulevard Malesherbes.  The wine-shop in which he had taken up his position was admirably adapted for keeping watch on De Croisenois, for he could not avoid seeing all who came in and went out of the house; and as there was no other wine-shop in the neighborhood, Andre felt sure that all the servants in the vicinity, and those of the Marquis, of course, among the number, would come there in the course of the morning; so that here he could get into conversation with them, offer them a glass of wine, and, perhaps, get some information from them.  The room was large and airy, and was full of customers, most of whom were servants.  Andre was racking his brain for a means of getting into conversation with the proprietor, when two new-comers entered the room.  These men were in full livery, while all the other servants had on morning jackets.  As soon as they entered, an old man, with a calm expression of face, who was struggling perseveringly with a tough beefsteak at the same table as that by which Andre was seated, observed, —

“Ah! here comes the De Croisenois’ lot.”

“If they would only sit here,” thought Andre, “by the side of this fellow, who evidently knows them, I could hear all they said.”

By good luck they did so, begging that they might be served at once, as they were in a tremendous hurry.

“What is the haste this morning?” asked the old man who had recognized them.

“I have to drive the master to his office, for he has one now.  He is chairman of a Copper Mining Company, and a fine thing it is, too.  If you have any money laid by, M. Benoit, this is a grand chance for you.”

Benoit shook his head gravely.

“All is not gold that glitters,” said he sententiously; “nor, on the other hand, are things as bad as they are painted.”

Benoit was evidently a prudent man, and was not likely to commit himself.

“But if your master is going out, you, M. Mouret, will be free, and we can have a game at cards together.”

“No, sir,” answered the valet.

“What! are you engaged too?”

“Yes; I have to carry a bouquet of flowers to the young lady my master is engaged to.  I have seen the young lady; she seems to be rather haughty.”

The man, who wore an enormously high and stiff collar, was absolutely speaking of Sabine, and Andre could have twisted his neck with pleasure.

“Let us hope,” remarked the coachman, as he hastily swallowed his breakfast, “that the Marquis does not intend to invest his wife’s dowry in this new venture of his.”

The men then ceased to speak of their master, and began to busy themselves with their own affairs, and went out again without alluding to him any further, leaving Andre to reflect what a difficult business the detective line was.

The customers looked upon him with distrustful eyes, for it must be confessed that his appearance was decidedly against him, and he had not yet acquired the necessary art of seeing and hearing while affecting to be doing neither; and it was easy for the dullest observer to be certain that it was not for the sake of obtaining a breakfast that he had entered the establishment.  Andre had penetration enough to see the effect he had produced, and he became more and more embarrassed.  He had finished his meal now and had lighted a cigar, and had ordered a small glass of brandy.  Nearly all the customers had withdrawn, leaving only five or six, who were playing cards at a table near the door.  Andre was anxious to see Croisenois enter his carriage, and so he lingered, ordering another glass of brandy as an excuse.

He had just been served, when a man, whose dress very much resembled his own, lounged into the wine-shop.  He was a tall, clumsily built fellow, with an insolent expression upon his beardless face.  His coat and cap were in an equally dilapidated condition; and in the squeaky voice of the rough, he ordered a plate of beef and half a bottle of wine, and, as he brushed past Andre, upset his glass of brandy.  The artist made no remark, though he felt quite sure that this act was intentional, as the fellow laughed impudently when he saw the damage that he had done.  When his breakfast was served, he carelessly spit upon Andre’s boots.  The insult was so apparent that Andre began to reflect.

“Had he not succeeded in eluding his spies, as he thought that he had done?  And was it not quite possible that this man had been sent to pick a quarrel with him, and deal him a disabling, or even a fatal blow?”

Prudence counselled him to leave the place at once, but he felt that he could not go until he had found out the real truth.  There seemed to be but little doubt on the matter, however; for as the fellow cut up his meat, he jerked every bit of skin and gristle into his neighbor’s lap; then, after finishing up his wine, he managed to upset the few drops remaining on to Andre’s arm and shoulder.  This was the finishing stroke.

“Please, remember,” remarked Andre calmly, “that there is some one at the table besides yourself.”

“Do you think I’m blind, mate?” returned the fellow brutally.  “Mind your own business, or — ” And to conclude the sentence, he shook his fist threateningly in the young man’s face.

Andre started to his feet, and, with a well-directed blow in the chest, sent the fellow rolling under the table.

At the sound of the scuffle, the card-players turned round, and saw Andre standing erect, with quivering lips and eyes flashing with rage, while his antagonist was lying on the floor among the overturned chairs.

“Come, come!  No squabbling here!” remarked one of the players.

The fellow scrambled to his feet, and made a savage rush at the young man, who, using his right foot skilfully, tripped his antagonist up, and sent him again rolling on the ground.  It was most adroitly done, and secured the applause of the lookers-on, who now complained no longer, and were evidently interested in the scene.

Again the rough came up, but Andre contented himself with standing on the defensive.  Some tables, a stool, and a glass were injured, and at last the proprietor came upon the scene of action.

“Get out of this,” cried he, “and take care that I don’t see your faces here again.”

At these words, the rough burst out into a torrent of foul language.

“Don’t put up with his cheek,” said one of the customers; “give him in charge at once.”

Hardly, however, had the manager started to summon the police, than, as if by magic, a body of them appeared; and Andre found himself walking down the boulevard between a couple, while his late antagonist followed in the safe custody of two more.  To have attempted any resistance would have been utter folly, and the young man resigned himself to what he felt he could not help.  But as he went on, he reflected on the strange scene through which he had just passed.  All had gone on so rapidly that he could hardly recall the events to his memory.  He was, however, quite sure that this unprovoked assault concealed some motive with which at present he was unacquainted.

The police led their prisoners through the doorway of a dingy-looking old house, and then Andre saw that he was not at the regular police-station.  The whole party entered an office, where a superintendent and two clerks were at work.  The ruffian who had assaulted Andre changed his manner directly he entered the office; he threw his tattered cap upon a bench, passed his fingers through his hair, and shook hands with the superintendent; he then turned to Andre.

“Permit me, sir,” said he, “to compliment you on being so handy with your fists.  You precious nearly did for me, I can tell you.”

At that moment a door opened at the other end of the room, and a voice was heard to say, “Send them in.”

Andre and his late antagonist soon found themselves in an office evidently sacred to some one high up in the police.  At a desk near the window was seated a man, with a rather distinguished air, wearing a white necktie and a pair of gold glasses.

“Have the goodness to take a seat,” said this gentleman, addressing Andre with the most perfect urbanity.

He took a chair, half stupefied by the strangeness of the whole affair, and waited.  Could he be awake, or was he dreaming?  He could hardly tell.

“Before I say anything,” remarked the gentleman in the gold spectacles, “I ought to apologize for a proceeding which is — well, what shall I call it? — a little rough, perhaps; but it was necessary to make use of it to obtain this interview with you.  Really, however, I had no choice.  You are closely watched, and I did not wish the persons who had set spies on you to have any knowledge of this conference.”

“Do you say I am watched?” stammered Andre.

“Yes, by a certain La Candele, as sharp a fellow at that kind of work as you could find in Paris.  Are you surprised at this?”

“Yes, for I had thought — ”

The gentleman’s features softened into a benevolent smile.

“You thought,” he said, “that you had succeeded in throwing them off the scent.  So I had imagined this morning, when I saw you in your present disguise.  But permit me, my dear M. Andre, to assure you that there is great room for improvement in it.  I admit that a first attempt is always to be looked on leniently; but it did not deceive La Candele, and even at this distance I can plainly see your whole makeup; and what I can see, of course, is patent to others.”

He rose from his seat, and came closer to Andre.

“Why on earth,” asked he, “should you daub all this color on your face, which makes you look like an Indian warrior in his war-paint?  Only two colors are necessary to change the whole face — red and black — at the eyebrows, the nostrils, and the corners of the mouth.  Look here;” and taking from his pocket a gold pencil-case, he corrected the faults in the young artist’s work.

As soon as he had finished, Andre went up to the mirror over the chimney-piece, and was surprised at the result.

“Now,” said the strange gentleman, “you see the futility of your attempts.  La Candele knew you at once.  I wished to speak to you; so I sent for Palot, one of my men, and instructed him to pick a quarrel with you.  The policemen arrested you, and we have met without any one being at all the wiser.  Be kind enough to efface my little corrections, as they will be noticed in the street.”

Andre obeyed, and as he rubbed away with the corner of his handkerchief, he vainly sought for some elucidation of this mystery.

The man with the gold spectacles had resumed his seat, and was refreshing himself with a pinch of snuff.

“And now,” resumed he, “we will, if you please, have a little talk together.  As you see, I know you.  Doctor Loulleux tells me that he knows no one so high-minded and amiable as yourself.  He declares that your honor is without a stain, and your courage undoubted.”

“Ah! my dear sir!” interposed the painter, with a deep blush.

“Pray let me go on.  M. Gandelu says that he would trust you with all he possessed, while all your comrades, with Vignol at their head, have the greatest respect and regard for you.  So much for the present.  As for your future, two of the greatest ornaments of the artistic world say that you will one day occupy a very high place in the profession.  You gain now about fifteen francs a day.  Am I correct?”

“Certainly,” answered Andre, more bewildered than ever.

The gentleman smiled.

“Unfortunately,” he went on, “my information ends here, for the means of inquiry possessed by the police are, of course, very limited.  They can only act upon facts, not on intentions, and so long as these are not displayed in open acts, the hands of the police are tied.  It is only forty-eight hours since I heard of you for the first time, and I have already your biography in my pocket.  I hear that the day before yesterday you were dining with M. de Breulh-Faverlay, and that this morning you were walking with young Gandelu, and that La Candele was following you like a shadow.  These are all facts, but — ”

He paused, and cast a keen glance upon Andre, then, in a slow and measured voice, he continued, —

“But no one has been able to tell me why you dogged Verminet’s footsteps, or why you went to Mascarin’s house, or why, finally, you disguised yourself to keep a watch on the movements of the most honorable the Marquis de Croisenois.  It is the motive that we cannot arrive at, for the facts are perfectly clear.”

Andre fidgeted uneasily in his chair beneath the spell of those magnetic glasses, which seemed to draw the truth from him.

“I cannot tell you, sir,” faltered he at last, “for the secret is not mine to divulge.”

“You will not trust me?  Well, then, I must speak.  Remember, all that I have told you was the account of what I knew positively; but, in addition to this, I have drawn my own inferences.  You are watching De Croisenois because he is going to marry a wealthy heiress.”

Andre blushed crimson.

“We assume, therefore, that you wish to prevent this marriage; and why, pray?  I have heard that Mademoiselle de Mussidan was formerly engaged to M. de Breulh-Faverlay.  How comes it that the Count and Countess de Mussidan prefer a ruined spendthrift to a wealthy and strictly honorable man?  It is for you to answer this question.  It is perfectly plain to me that they hand over their daughter to De Croisenois under pressure of some kind, and that means that a terrible secret exists with which Croisenois threatens them.”

“Your deduction is wrong, sir,” exclaimed Andre eagerly, “and you are quite wrong.”

“Very good,” was the calm reply.  “Your emphatic denial shows that I am in the right.  I want no further proofs.  M. de Mussidan paid you a visit yesterday, and one of my agents reported that his face was much happier on leaving you than when he was on his way to your house.  I therefore infer that you promised to release him from Croisenois’ persécutions, and in return he promised you his daughter’s hand in marriage.  This, of course, explains your present disguise, and now tell me again that I am wrong, if you dare.”

Andre would not lie, and therefore kept silence.

“And now,” continued the gentleman, “how about the secret?  Did not the Count tell it you?  I do not know it; and yet I think that if I were to search for it, I could find it.  I can call to my mind certain crimes which three generations of detective have striven to find out.  Did you ever hear that De Croisenois had an elder brother named George, who disappeared in a most wonderful manner?  What became of him?  This very George, twenty-three years back, was a friend of Madame de Mussidan’s.  Might not his disappearance have something to do with this marriage?”

“Are you the fiend himself?” cried the young man.

“I am M. Lecoq.”

Andre started back in absolute dread at the name of this celebrated detective.

“M.  Lecoq!” repeated he.

The vanity of the great detective was much flattered when he saw the impression that his name had produced.

“And now, my dear M. Andre,” said he blandly, “now that you know who I am, may I not hope that you will be more communicative?”

M. de Mussidan had not told his secret to the young artist, but he had said enough for him to feel that the detective was correct in his inference.

“Surely,” continued Lecoq, “we ought to be able to come to a more definite understanding, and I think that my openness should elicit some frankness on your side.  I saw that you were watched by the very person that I was watching.  For three days my men have followed you, and to-day I made up my mind that you could furnish me with the clue I am seeking.”

“I, sir?”

“For many years,” continued Lecoq, “I have been certain that an organized association of blackmailers exists in Paris; family differences, sin, shame, and sorrow are worked by these wretches like veritable gold mines, and bring them in enormous annual revenues.”

“Ah,” returned Andre, “I expected something of this kind.”

“Of course, when I was quite sure of these facts,” continued Lecoq, “I said to myself, ‘I will break up this gang;’ but it was easier said than done.  There is one very peculiar thing about blackmailing.  Those who carry it on are almost certain of doing so with impunity, for the victims will pay and not complain.  Yes, I tell you that I have often found out these unhappy pigeons, but never could get one to speak.”

The detective was so indignant and acrimonious withal in his indignation, that Andre could not repress a smile.

“Very soon,” continued Lecoq, “I recognized the futility of my attempts, and the impossibility of reaching these scoundrels through their victims, and then I determined to strike at the plunderers themselves, but this was a scheme that took patience and time.  I have waited my chance for three years, and for eighteen months one of my men has been in the service of the Marquis de Croisenois, and up to now this band of villains has cost the government over ten thousand francs.  That superlative scoundrel, Mascarin, has put several white threads in my hair.  I believe him to be Tantaine; yes, and Martin Rigal too.  The idea of there being a means of communication between the banker’s house in the Rue Montmartre and the Servants’ Registry Office in the Rue Montorgueil only came into my head this morning.  But this time they have gone too far, and I have them.  I know them all, from the chief, Mascarin-Tantaine-Rigal, down to their lowest agent, Toto Chupin, and Paul Violaine, the docile puppet of their will.  We will get hold of the whole gang, and neither Van Klopen nor Catenac will escape.  Just now the latter is travelling about with the Duke de Champdoce and a fellow named Perpignan, and two of my sweet lads are close upon them, and send in almost hourly reports of what is going on.  My trap has a tempting bait, the spring is strong, and we shall catch every one of them.  And now do you still hesitate to confide all you know to me?  I swear on my honor that I will respect as sacred what you tell me, no matter what may occur.”

Andre yielded, as did every person who came under the influence of this remarkable man and his strange and inexplicable fascination.  If he hid anything from him to-day, would not Lecoq be acquainted with it to-morrow?  And so, with the most perfect frankness, he told his story and everything that he knew.

“Now,” cried Lecoq, “I see it all clearly.  Aha, they want to force young Gandelu to disappear with Rose, do they?”

Beneath his gold-rimmed spectacles his eyes flashed fiercely.  He seemed to be occupied in drawing out his plan of campaign.

“From this moment,” said he, “be at ease.  In another month Mademoiselle de Mussidan shall be your wife; this I promise you, and the promises of Lecoq are never broken.”

He paused for an instant, as though to collect his thoughts, and then continued, —

“I can answer for all, except for your life.  So many are interested in your disappearance from this world, that every effort will be made to get rid of you.  Do not cease your caution for an instant.  Never eat twice running at the same restaurant, throw away food that has the slightest strange taste.  Avoid crowds in the street; do not get into a cab; never lean from a window before ascertaining that its supports are solid; in a word, fear and suspect everything.”

For a moment longer Lecoq detained the young artist.

“Tell me,” said he, “have you the mark of a wound on your shoulder or arm?”

“I have, sir; the scar of a very severe scald.”

“I thought so; yes, I was almost certain of it,” said Lecoq thoughtfully; and as he conducted the young man to the door, he took leave of him with the same words that Mascarin had often used to Paul, —

“Farewell for the present, Duke de Champdoce.”