The Mystery of Orcival

Author: Emile Gaboriau


M. Lecoq was the first to reach the staircase, and the spots of blood at once caught his eye.

"Oh," cried he, at each spot he saw, "oh, oh, the wretches!"

M. Courtois was much moved to find, so much sensibility in a detective. The latter, as he continued to ascend, went on:

"The wretches! They don’t often leave traces like this everywhere - or at least they wipe them out."

On gaining the first landing, and the door of the boudoir which led into the chamber, he stopped, eagerly scanning, before he entered, the position of the rooms.

Then he entered the boudoir, saying:

"Come; I don’t see my way clear yet."

"But it seems to me," remarked the judge, "that we have already important materials to aid your task. It is clear that Guespin, if he is not an accomplice, at least knew something about the crime."

M. Lecoq had recourse to the portrait in the lozenge-box. It was more than a glance, it was a confidence. He evidently said something to the dear defunct, which he dared not say aloud.

"I see that Guespin is seriously compromised," resumed he. "Why didn’t he want to tell where he passed the night? But, then, public opinion is against him, and I naturally distrust that."

The detective stood alone in the middle of the room, the rest, at his request, remained at the threshold, and looking keenly about him, searched for some explanation of the frightful disorder of the apartment.

"Fools!" cried he, in an irritated tone, "double brutes! Because they murder people so as to rob them, is no reason why they should break everything in the house. Sharp folks don’t smash up furniture; they carry pretty picklocks, which work well and make no noise. Idiots! one would say - "

He stopped with his mouth wide open.

"Eh! Not so bungling, after all, perhaps."

The witnesses of this scene remained motionless at the door, following, with an interest mingled with surprise, the detective’s movements.

Kneeling down, he passed his flat palm over the thick carpet, among the broken porcelain.

"It’s damp; very damp. The tea was not all drunk, it seems, when the cups were broken."

"Some tea might have remained in the teapot," suggested Plantat.

"I know it," answered M. Lecoq, "just what I was going to say. So that this dampness cannot tell us the exact moment when the crime was committed."

"But the clock does, and very exactly," interrupted the mayor.

"The mayor," said M. Domini, "in his notes, well explains that the movements of the clock stopped when it fell."

"But see here," said M. Plantat, "it was the odd hour marked by that clock that struck me. The hands point to twenty minutes past three; yet we know that the countess was fully dressed, when she was struck. Was she up taking tea at three in the morning? It’s hardly probable."

I, too, was struck with that circumstance," returned M. Lecoq, "and that’s why I said, ’not so stupid!’ Well, let’s see."

He lifted the clock with great care, and replaced it on the mantel, being cautious to set it exactly upright. The hands continued to point to twenty minutes past three.

"Twenty past three!" muttered he, while slipping a little wedge under the stand. "People don’t take tea at that hour. Still less common is it that people are murdered at daylight."

He opened the clock-case with some difficulty, and pushed the longer hand to the figure of half-past three.

The clock struck eleven!

"Good," cried M. Lecoq, triumphantly. "That is the truth!" and drawing the lozenge-box from his pocket, he excitedly crushed a lozenge between his teeth.

The simplicity of this discovery surprised the spectators; the idea of trying the clock in this way had occurred to no one. M. Courtois, especially, was bewildered.

"There’s a fellow," whispered he to the doctor, "who knows what he’s about."

"Ergo," resumed M. Lecoq (who knew Latin), "we have here, not brutes, as I thought at first, but rascals who looked beyond the end of their knife. They intended to put us off the scent, by deceiving us as to the hour."

"I don’t see their object very clearly," said M. Courtois, timidly.

"Yet it is easy to see it," answered M. Domini. "Was it not for their interest to make it appear that the crime was committed after the last train for Paris had left? Guespin, leaving his companions at the Lyons station at nine, might have reached here at ten, murdered the count and countess, seized the money which he knew to be in the count’s possession, and returned to Paris by the last train."

"These conjectures are very shrewd," interposed M. Plantat; "but how is it that Guespin did not rejoin his comrades in the Batignolles? For in that way, to a certain degree, he might have provided a kind of alibi."

Dr. Gendron had been sitting on the only unbroken chair in the chamber, reflecting on Plantat’s sudden embarrassment, when he had spoken of Robelot the bone-setter. The remarks of the judge drew him from his revery; he got up, and said:

"There is another point; putting forward the time was perhaps useful to Guespin, but it would greatly damage Bertaud, his accomplice."

But," answered M. Domini, " it might be that Bertaud was not consulted. As to Guespin, he had no doubt good reasons for not returning to the wedding. His restlessness, after such a deed, would possibly have betrayed him."

M. Lecoq had not thought fit to speak as yet. Like a doctor at a sick bedside, he wanted to be sure of his diagnosis. He had returned to the mantel, and again pushed forward the hands of the clock. It sounded, successively, half-past eleven, then twelve, then half-past twelve, then one.

As he moved the hands, he kept muttering:

"Apprentices - chance brigands! You are malicious, parbleu, but you don’t think of everything. You give a push to the hands, but don’t remember to put the striking in harmony with them. Then comes along a detective, an old rat who knows things, and the dodge is discovered."

M. Domini and Plantat held their tongues. M. Lecoq walked up to them.

"Monsieur the Judge," said he, "is perhaps now convinced that the deed was done at half-past ten."

"Unless," interrupted M. Plantat, "the machinery of the clock has been out of order."

"That often happens," added M. Courtois. "The clock in my drawing-room is in such a state that I never know the time of day."

M. Lecoq reflected.

"It is possible," said he, "that Monsieur Plantat is right. The probability is in favor of my theory; but probability, in such an affair, is not sufficient; we must have certainty. There happily remains a mode of testing the matter - the bed ; I’ll wager it is rumpled up." Then addressing the mayor, "I shall need a servant to lend me a hand."

I’ll help you," said Plantat, "that will be a quicker way."

They lifted the top of the bed and set it on the floor, at the same time raising the curtains.

"Hum! " cried M. Lecoq, "was I right?"

"True," said M. Domini, surprised, "the bed is rumpled."

"Yes; and yet no one has lain in it."

"But - " objected M. Courtois.

"I am sure of what I say," interrupted the detective. "The sheets, it is true, have been thrown back, perhaps someone has rolled about in the bed; the pillows have been tumbled, the quilts and curtains ruffled, but this bed has not the appearance of having been slept in. It is, perhaps, more difficult to rumple up a bed than to put it in order again. To make it up, the coverings must be taken off, and the mattresses turned. To disarrange it, one must actually lie down in it, and warm it with the body. A bed is one of those terrible witnesses which never misguide, and against which no counter testimony can be given. Nobody has gone to bed in this - "

"The countess," remarked Plantat, "was dressed; but the count might have gone to bed first."

No," answered M. Lecoq, "I’ll prove to the contrary. The proof is easy, indeed, and a child of ten, having heard it, wouldn’t think of being deceived by this intentional disorder of the bedclothes."

M. Lecoq’s auditors drew up to him. He put the coverings back upon the middle of the bed, and went on:

"Both of the pillows are much rumpled, are they not? But look under the bolster-it is all smooth, and you find none of those wrinkles which are made by the weight of the head and the moving about of the arms. That’s not all; look at the bed from the middle to the foot. The sheets being laid carefully, the upper and under lie close together everywhere. Slip your hand underneath-there - you see there is a resistance to your hand which would not occur if the legs had been stretched in that place. Now Monsieur de Tremorel was tall enough to extend the full length of the bed."

This demonstration was so clear, its proof so palpable, that it could not be gainsaid.

"This is nothing," continued M. Lecoq. "Let us examine the second mattress. When a person purposely disarranges a bed, he does not think of the second mattress."

He lifted up the upper mattress, and observed that the covering of the under one was perfectly even.

"H’m, the second mattress," muttered M. Lecoq, as if some memory crossed his mind.

"It appears to be proved," observed the judge, "that Monsieur de Tremorel had not gone to bed."

"Besides," added the doctor, "if he had been murdered in his bed, his clothes would be lying here somewhere."

"Without considering," suggested M. Lecoq, "that some blood must have been found on the sheets. Decidedly, these criminals were not shrewd."

"What seems to me surprising," M. Plantat observed to the judge," is that anybody would succeed in killing, except in his sleep, a young man so vigorous as Count Hector."

"And in a house full of weapons," added Dr. Gendron; "for the count’s cabinet is full of guns, swords and hunting knives; it’s a perfect arsenal."

"Alas!" sighed M. Courtois, "we know of worse catastrophies. There is not a week that the papers don’t - "

He stopped, chagrined, for nobody was listening to him. Plantat claimed the general attention, and continued:

"The confusion in the house seems to you surprising; well now, I’m surprised that it is not worse than it is. I am, so to speak, an old man; I haven’t the energy of a young man of thirty-five; yet it seems to me that if assassins should get into my house, when I was there, and up, it would go hard with them. I don’t know what I would do; probably I should be killed; but surely I would give the alarm. I would defend myself, and cry out, and open the windows, and set the house afire."

"Let us add," insisted the doctor, "that it is not easy to surprise a man who is awake. There is always an unexpected noise which puts one on his guard. Perhaps it is a creaking door, or a cracking stair. However cautious the murderer, he does not surprise his victim."

"They may have used fire-arms;" struck in the worthy mayor, "that has been done. You are quietly sitting in your chamber; it is summer, and your windows are open; you are chatting with your wife, and sipping a cup of tea; outside, the assassins are supplied with a short ladder; one ascends to a level with the window, sights you at his ease, presses the trigger, the bullet speeds - "

"And," continued the doctor, "the whole neighborhood, aroused by it, hastens to the spot."

"Permit me, pardon, permit me," said M. Courtois, testily, "that would be so in a populous town. Here, in the midst of a vast park, no. Think, doctor, of the isolation of this house. The nearest neighbor is a long way off, and between there are many large trees, intercepting the sound. Let us test it by experience. I will fire a pistol in this room, and I’ll wager that you will not hear the echo in the road."

"In the daytime, perhaps, but not in the night."

"Well," said M. Domini, who had been reflecting while M. Courtois was talking, "if against all hope, Guespin does not decide to speak to-night, or to-morrow, the count’s body will afford us a key to the mystery."

During this discussion, M. Lecoq had continued his investigations, lifting the furniture, studying the fractures, examining the smallest pieces, as if they might betray the truth. Now and then, he took out an instrument-case, from which he produced a shank, which he introduced and turned in the locks. He found several keys on the carpet, and on a rack, a towel, which he carefully put one side, as if he deemed it important. He came and went from the bedroom to the count’s cabinet, without losing a word that was said; noting in his memory, not so much the phrases uttered, as the diverse accents and intonations with which they were spoken. In an inquest such as that of the crime of Orcival, when several officials find themselves face to face, they hold a certain reserve toward each other. They know each other to have nearly equal experience, to be shrewd, clear-headed, equally interested in discovering the truth, not disposed to confide in appearances, difficult to surprise. Each one, likely enough, gives a different interpretation to the facts revealed; each may have a different theory of the deed; but a superficial observer would not note these differences. Each, while dissimulating his real thoughts, tries to penetrate those of his neighbor, and if they are opposed to his own, to convert him to his opinion. The great importance of a single word justifies this caution. Men who hold the liberty and lives of others in their hands, a scratch of whose pen condemns to death, are apt to feel heavily the burden of their responsibility. It is an ineffable solace, to feel that this burden is shared by others. This is, why no one dares take the initiative, or express himself openly; but each awaits other opinions, to adopt or oppose them. They exchange fewer affirmations than suggestions. They proceed by insinuation; then they utter commonplaces, ridiculous suppositions, asides, provocative, as it were, of other explanations.

In this instance, the judge of instruction and Plantat were far from being of the same opinion; they knew it before speaking a word. But M. Domini, whose opinion rested on material and palpable facts, which appeared to him indisputable, was not disposed to provoke contradiction. Plantat, on the contrary, whose system seemed to rest on impressions, on a series of logical deductions, would not clearly express himself, without a positive and pressing invitation. His last speech, impressively uttered, had not been replied to; he judged that he had advanced far enough to sound the detective.

"Well, Monsieur Lecoq," asked he, "have you found any new traces?"

M. Lecoq was at that moment curiously examining a large portrait of the Count Hector, which hung opposite the bed. Hearing M. Plantat’s question, he turned.

"I have found nothing decisive," answered he, "and I have found nothing to refute my conjectures. But - "

He did not finish; perhaps he too, recoiled before his share of the responsibility.

"What?" insisted M. Domini, sternly.

"I was going to say," resumed M. Lecoq, "that I am not yet satisfied. I have my lantern and a candle in it; I only need a match - "

"Please preserve your decorum," interrupted the judge severely.

"Very well, then," continued M. Lecoq, in a tone too humble to be serious, " I still hesitate. If the doctor, now, would kindly proceed to examine the countess’s body, he would do me a great service."

"I was just going to ask the same favor, Doctor," said M. Domini.

The doctor answering, "Willingly," directed his steps toward the door.

M. Lecoq caught him by the arm.

"If you please," said he, in a tone totally unlike that he had used up to this time, " I would like to call your attention to the wounds on the head, made by a blunt instrument, which I suppose to be a hammer. I have studied these wounds, and though I am no doctor, they seem to me suspicious."

"And to me," M. Plantat quickly added. "It seemed to me, that in the places struck, there was no emission of blood in the cutaneous vessels."

"The nature of these wounds," continued M. Lecoq, "will be a valuable indication, which will fix my opinion." And, as he felt keenly the brusque manner of the judge, he added:

"It is you, Doctor, who hold the match."

M. Gendron was about to leave the room, when Baptiste, the mayor’s servant - the man who wouldn’t be scolded - appeared. He bowed and said:

I have come for Monsieur the Mayor."

"For me? why?" asked M. Courtois. "What’s the matter? They don’t give me a minute’s rest! Answer that I am busy."

"It’s on account of madame," resumed the placid Baptiste; "she isn’t at all well." The excellent mayor grew slightly pale.

"My wife!" cried he, alarmed. "What do you mean? Explain yourself."

"The postman arrived just now," returned Baptiste with a most tranquil air, "and I carried the letters to madame, who was in the drawing-rooM. Hardly had I turned on my heels when I heard a shriek, and the noise of someone falling to the floor." Baptiste spoke slowly, taking artful pains to prolong his master’s anguish.

"Speak! go on!" cried the mayor, exasperated. "Speak, won’t you?"

"I naturally opened the drawing-room door again. What did I see?
madame, at full length on the floor. I called for help; the chambermaid, cook, and others came hastening up, and we carried madame to her bed. Justine said that it was a letter from Mademoiselle Laurence which overcame my mistress - "

At each word Baptiste hesitated, reflected; his eyes, giving the lie to his solemn face, betrayed the great satisfaction he felt in relating his master’s misfortunes.

His master was full of consternation. As it is with all of us, when we know not exactly what ill is about to befall us, he dared not ask any questions. He stood still, crushed; lamenting, instead of hastening home. M. Plantat profited by the pause to question the servant, with a look which Baptiste dared not disobey.

"What, a letter from Mademoiselle Laurence? Isn’t she here, then?"

"No, sir: she went away a week ago, to pass a month with one of her aunts."

"And how is madame?"

"Better, sir; only she cries piteously."

The unfortunate mayor had now somewhat recovered his presence of mind. He seized Baptiste by the arm.

"Come along," cried he," come along!"

They hastened off.

"Poor man! "said the judge of instruction. "Perhaps his daughter is dead."

M. Plantat shook his head.

" If it were only that! " muttered he. He added, turning to M. Domini:

"Do you recall the allusions of Bertaud, monsieur?"


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Chicago: Emile Gaboriau, "VI," The Mystery of Orcival, ed. Burton, Isabel, Lady, 1831-1896 and trans. Douglas, Robert B. (Robert Bruce) in The Mystery of Orcival (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1921), Original Sources, accessed May 28, 2024,

MLA: Gaboriau, Emile. "VI." The Mystery of Orcival, edited by Burton, Isabel, Lady, 1831-1896, and translated by Douglas, Robert B. (Robert Bruce), in The Mystery of Orcival, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1921, Original Sources. 28 May. 2024.

Harvard: Gaboriau, E, 'VI' in The Mystery of Orcival, ed. and trans. . cited in 1921, The Mystery of Orcival, Henry Holt and Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 28 May 2024, from