acute, he knew with singular skill how to disentangle the skein of the most complicated affair, and from the midst of a thousand threads lay hold to the right one. None better than he, armed with an implacable logic, could solve those terrible problems in which X—in algebra, the unknown quantity—represents the criminal. Clever in deducing the unknown from the known, he excelled in collecting facts, and in uniting in a bundle of overwhelming proofs circumstances the most trifling, and in appearance the most insignificant.
Although possessed of qualifications for his office so numerous and valuable, he was tremblingly distrustful of his own abilities and exercised his terrible functions with diffidence and hesitation. He wanted audacity to risk those sudden surprises so often resorted to by his colleagues in the pursuit of truth.
Thus it was repugnant to his feelings to deceive even an accused person, or to lay snares for him; in fact the mere idea of the possibility of a judicial error terrified him. They said of him in the courts, "He is a trembler." What he sought was not conviction, nor the most probable presumptions, but the most absolute certainty. No rest for him until the day when the accused was forced to bow before the evidence; so much so that he had been jestingly reproached with seeking not to discover criminals but innocents.
The chief of detective police was none other than the celebrated Gevrol. He is really an able man, but wanting in perseverance, and liable to be blinded by an incredible obstinacy. If he loses a clue, he cannot bring himself to acknowledge it, still less to retrace his steps. His audacity and coolness, however, render it impossible to disconcert him; and being possessed of immense personal strength, hidden under a most meagre appearance, he has never hesitated to confront the most daring of malefactors.
But his specialty, his triumph, his glory, is a memory of faces, so prodigious as to exceed belief. Let him see a face for five minutes, and it is enough. Its possessor is catalogued, and will be recognised at any time. The impossibilities of place, the unlikelihood of circumstances, the most incredible disguises will not lead him astray. The reason for this, so he pretends, is because he only looks at a man's eyes, without noticing any other features.
This faculty was severely tested some months back at Poissy, by the following experiment. Three prisoners were draped in coverings so as to completely disguise their height. Over their faces were thick veils, allowing nothing of the features to be seen except the eyes, for which holes had been made; and in this state they were shown to Gevrol.
Without the slightest hesitation he recognised the prisoners and named them. Had chance alone assisted him?
The subordinate Gevrol had brought with him, was an old offender, reconciled to the law. A smart fellow in his profession, crafty as a fox, and jealous of his chief, whose abilities he held in light estimation. His name was Lecoq.
The commissary, by this time heartily tired of his responsibilities, welcomed the investigating magistrate and his agents as liberators. He rapidly related the facts collected and read his official report.
"You have proceeded very well," observed the investigating magistrate. "All is stated clearly; yet there is one fact you have omitted to ascertain."
"What is that, sir?" inquired the commissary.
"On what day was Widow Lerouge last seen, and at what hour?"
"I was coming to that presently. She was last seen and spoken to on the evening of Shrove Tuesday, at twenty minutes past five. She was then returning from Bougival with a basketful of purchases."
"You are sure of the hour, sir?" inquired Gevrol.
"Perfectly, and for this reason; the two witnesses who furnished me with this fact, a woman named Tellier and a cooper who lives hard by, alighted from the omnibus which leaves Marly every hour, when they perceived the widow in the cross-road, and hastened to overtake her. They conversed with her and only left her when they reached the door of her own house."
"And what had she in her basket?" asked the investigating magistrate.
"The witnesses cannot say. They only know that she carried two sealed bottles of wine, and another of brandy. She complained to them of headache, and said, 'Though it is customary to enjoy oneself on Shrove Tuesday, I am going to bed.'"
"So, so!" exclaimed the chief of detective police. "I know where to search!"
"You think so?" inquired M. Daburon.
"Why, it is clear enough. We must find the tall sunburnt man, the gallant in the blouse. The brandy and the wine were intended for his entertainment. The widow expected him to supper. He came, sure enough, the amiable gallant!"
"Oh!" cried the corporal of gendarmes, evidently scandalised, "she was very old, and terribly ugly!"
Gevrol surveyed the honest fellow with an expression of contemptuous pity. "Know, corporal," said he, "that a woman who has money is always young and pretty, if she desires to be thought so!"
"Perhaps there is something in that," remarked the magistrate; "but it is not what strikes me most. I am more impressed by the remark of this unfortunate woman. 'If I wished for more, I could have it.'"
"That also attracted my attention," acquiesced the commissary.
But Gevrol no longer took the trouble to listen. He stuck to his own opinion, and began to inspect minutely every corner of the room. Suddenly he turned towards the commissary. "Now that I think of it," cried he, "was it not on Tuesday that the weather changed? It had been freezing for a fortnight past, and on that evening it rained. At what time did the rain commence here?"
"At half-past nine," answered the corporal. "I went out from supper to make my circuit of the dancing halls, when I was overtaken opposite the Rue des Pecheurs by a heavy shower. In less than ten minutes there was half an inch of water in the road."
"Very well," said Gevrol. "Then if the man came after half-past nine his shoes must have been very muddy. If they were dry, he arrived sooner. This must have been noticed, for the floor is a polished one. Were there any imprints of footsteps, M. Commissary?"
"I must confess we never thought of looking for them."
"Ah!" exclaimed the chief detective, in a tone of irritation, "that is vexatious!"
"Wait," added the commissary; "there is yet time to see if there are any, not in this room, but in the other. We have disturbed absolutely nothing there. My footsteps and the corporal's will be easily distinguished. Let us see."
As the commissary opened the door of the second chamber, Gevrol stopped him. "I ask permission, sir," said he to the investigating magistrate, "to examine the apartment before any one else is permitted to enter. It is very important for me."
"Certainly," approved M. Daburon.
Gevrol passed in first, the others remaining on the threshold. They all took in at a glance the scene of the crime. Everything, as the commissary had stated, seemed to have been overturned by some furious madman. In the middle of the room was a table covered with a fine linen cloth, white as snow. Upon this was placed a magnificent wineglass of the rarest manufacture, a very handsome knife, and a plate of the finest porcelain. There was an opened bottle of wine, hardly touched, and another of brandy, from which about five or six small glassfuls had been taken.
On the right, against the wall, stood two handsome walnut-wood wardrobes, with ornamental locks; they were placed one on each side of the window; both were empty, and the contents scattered about on all sides. There were clothing, linen, and other effects unfolded, tossed about, and crumpled. At the end of the room, near the fireplace, a large cupboard used for keeping the crockery was wide open. On the other side of the fireplace, an old secretary with a marble top had been forced, broken, smashed into bits, and rummaged, no doubt, to its inmost recesses. The