“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?”
The judge of instruction, the doctor, and M. Plantat exchanged a significant look. What misfortune had befallen M. Courtois, this worthy, and despite his faults, excellent person? Decidedly, this was an ill-omened day!
“If we are to speak of Bertaud’s allusions,” said M. Lecoq, “I have heard two very curious stories, though I have been here but a few hours. It seems that this Mademoiselle Laurence—”
M. Plantat abruptly interrupted the detective.
“Calumnies! odious calumnies! The lower classes, to annoy the rich, do not hesitate to say all sorts of things against them. Don’t you know it? Is it not always so? The gentry, above all, those of a provincial town, live in glass houses. The lynx eyes of envy watch them steadily night and day, spy on them, surprise what they regard as their most secret actions to arm themselves against them. The bourgeois goes on, proud and content; his business prospers; he possesses the esteem and friendship of his own class; all this while, he is vilified by the lower classes, his name dragged in the dust, soiled by, suppositions the most mischievous. Envy, Monsieur, respects nothing, no one.”
“If Laurence has been slandered,” observed Dr. Gendron, smiling, “she has a good advocate to defend her.”
The old justice of the peace (the man of bronze, as M. Courtois called him) blushed slightly, a little embarrassed.
“There are causes,” said he, quietly, “which defend themselves. Mademoiselle Courtois is one of those young girls who has a right to all respect. But there are evils which no laws can cure, and which revolt me. Think of it, monsieurs, our reputations, the honor of our wives and daughters, are at the mercy of the first petty rascal who has imagination enough to invent a slander. It is not believed, perhaps; but it is repeated, and spreads. What can be done? How can we know what is secretly said against us; will we ever know it?”
“Eh!” replied the doctor, “what matters it? There is only one voice, to my mind, worth listening to—that of conscience. As to what is called ‘public opinion,’ as it is the aggregate opinion of thousands of fools and rogues, I only despise it.”
This discussion might have been prolonged, if the judge of instruction had not pulled out his watch, and made an impatient gesture.
“While we are talking, time is flying,” said he. “We must hasten to the work that still remains.”
It was then agreed that while the doctor proceeded to his autopsy, the judge should draw up his report of the case. M. Plantat was charged with watching Lecoq’s investigations.