night a terrible accident." Nobody at the time attached any significance to these words.
"The man with the rings in his ears becomes more and important," said the magistrate, when the woman had retired. "To find him again is indispensable: you must see to this, M. Gevrol."
"Before eight days, I shall have him," replied the chief of detective police, "if I have to search every boat on the Seine, from its source to the ocean. I know the name of the captain, Gervais. The navigation office will tell me something."
He was interrupted by Lecoq, who rushed into the house breathless. "Here is old Tabaret," he said. "I met him just as he was going out. What a man! He wouldn't wait for the train, but gave I don't know how much to a cabman; and we drove here in fifty minutes!"
Almost immediately, a man appeared at the door, whose aspect it must be admitted was not at all what one would have expected of a person who had joined the police for honour alone. He was certainly sixty years old and did not look a bit younger. Short, thin, and rather bent, he leant on the carved ivory handle of a stout cane. His round face wore that expression of perpetual astonishment, mingled with uneasiness, which has made the fortunes of two comic actors of the Palais-Royal theatre. Scrupulously shaved, he presented a very short chin, large and good natured lips, and a nose disagreeably elevated, like the broad end of one of Sax's horns. His eyes of a dull gray, were small and red at the lids, and absolutely void of expression; yet they fatigued the observer by their insupportable restlessness. A few straight hairs shaded his forehead, which receded like that of a greyhound, and through their scantiness barely concealed his long ugly ears. He was very comfortably dressed, clean as a new franc piece, displaying linen of dazzling whiteness, and wearing silk gloves and leather gaiters. A long and massive gold chain, very vulgar-looking, was twisted thrice round his neck, and fell in cascades into the pocket of his waistcoat.
M. Tabaret, surnamed Tirauclair, stood at the threshold, and bowed almost to the ground, bending his old back into an arch, and in the humblest of voices asked, "The investigating magistrate has deigned to send for me?"
"Yes!" replied M. Daburon, adding under his breath; "and if you are a man of any ability, there is at least nothing to indicate it in your appearance."
"I am here," continued the old fellow, "completely at the service of justice."
"I wish to know," said M. Daburon, "whether you can discover some clue that will put us upon the track of the assassin. I will explain the—"
"Oh, I know enough of it!" interrupted old Tabaret. "Lecoq has told me the principal facts, just as much as I desire to know."
"Nevertheless—" commenced the commissary of police.
"If you will permit me, I prefer to proceed without receiving any details, in order to be more fully master of my own impressions. When one knows another's opinion it can't help influencing one's judgment. I will, if you please, at once commence my researches, with Lecoq's assistance."
As the old fellow spoke, his little gray eyes dilated, and became brilliant as carbuncles. His face reflected an internal satisfaction; even his wrinkles seemed to laugh. His figure became erect, and his step was almost elastic, as he darted into the inner chamber.
He remained there about half an hour; then came out running, then re-entered and then again came out; once more he disappeared and reappeared again almost immediately. The magistrate could not help comparing him to a pointer on the scent, his turned-up nose even moved about as if to discover some subtle odour left by the assassin. All the while he talked loudly and with much gesticulation, apostrophising himself, scolding himself, uttering little cries of triumph or self-encouragement. He did not allow Lecoq to have a moment's rest. He wanted this or that or the other thing. He demanded paper and a pencil. Then he wanted a spade; and finally he cried out for plaster of Paris, some water and a bottle of oil.
When more than an hour had elapsed, the investigating magistrate began to grow impatient, and asked what had become of the amateur detective.
"He is on the road," replied the corporal, "lying flat in the mud, and mixing some plaster in a plate. He says he has nearly finished, and that he is coming back presently."
He did in fact return almost instantly, joyous, triumphant, looking at least twenty years younger. Lecoq followed him, carrying with the utmost precaution a large basket.
"I have solved the riddle!" said Tabaret to the magistrate. "It is all clear now, and as plain as noon-day. Lecoq, my lad, put the basket on the table."
Gevrol at this moment returned from his expedition equally delighted.
"I am on the track of the man with the earrings," said he; "the boat went down the river. I have obtained an exact description of the master Gervais."
"What have you discovered, M. Tabaret!" asked the magistrate.
The old fellow carefully emptied upon the table the contents of the basket,—a big lump of clay, several large sheets of paper, and three or four small lumps of plaster yet damp. Standing behind this table, he presented a grotesque resemblance to those mountebank conjurers who in the public squares juggle the money of the lookers-on. His clothes had greatly suffered; he was covered with mud up to the chin.
"In the first place," said he, at last, in a tone of affected modesty, "robbery has had nothing to do with the crime that occupies our attention."
"Oh! of course not!" muttered Gevrol.
"I shall prove it," continued old Tabaret, "by the evidence. By-and-by I shall offer my humble opinion as to the real motive. In the second place, the assassin arrived here before half-past nine; that is to say, before the rain fell. No more than M. Gevrol have I been able to discover traces of muddy footsteps; but under the table, on the spot where his feet rested, I find dust. We are thus assured of the hour. The widow did not in the least expect her visitor. She had commenced undressing, and was winding up her cuckoo clock when he knocked."
"These are absolute details!" cried the commissary.
"But easily established," replied the amateur. "You see this cuckoo clock above the secretary; it is one of those which run fourteen or fifteen hours at most, for I have examined it. Now it is more than probable, it is certain, that the widow wound it up every evening before going to bed. How, then, is it that the clock has stopped at five? Because she must have touched it. As she was drawing the chain, the assassin knocked. In proof, I show this chair standing under the clock, and on the seat a very plain foot-mark. Now look at the dress of the victim; the body of it is off. In order to open the door more quickly, she did not wait to put it on again, but hastily threw this old shawl over her shoulders."
"By Jove!" exclaimed the corporal, evidently struck.
"The widow," continued the old fellow, "knew the person who knocked. Her haste to open the door gives rise to this conjecture; what follows proves it. The assassin then gained admission without difficulty. He is a young man, a little above the middle height, elegantly dressed. He wore on that evening a high hat. He carried an umbrella, and smoked a trabucos cigar in a holder."
"Ridiculous!" cried Gevrol. "This is too much."
"Too much, perhaps," retorted old Tabaret. "At all events, it is the truth. If you are not minute in your investigations, I cannot help it; anyhow, I am, I search, and I find. Too much, say you? Well deign to glance at these lumps of damp plaster. They represent the heels of the boots worn by the assassin, of which I found a most perfect impression near the ditch, where the key was picked up. On these sheets of paper, I have marked in outline the imprint of the foot which I cannot take up, because it is on some sand. Look! heel high, instep pronounced, sole small and narrow,—an elegant