M. Lecoq, despite his cool-headedness, was disconcerted.
“Yes,” pursued M. Plantat, “your astonishing genius for penetrating dramas like this has led you to the truth. But you do not know all, and even now I would hold my tongue, had not the reasons which compelled me to be silent ceased to exist.”
He opened a secret drawer in an old oaken desk near the fireplace and took out a large paper package, which he laid on the table.
“For four years,” he resumed, “I have followed, day by day—I might say, hour by hour—the various phases of the dreadful drama which ended in blood last night at Valfeuillu. At first, the curiosity of an old retired attorney prompted me. Later, I hoped to save the life and honor of one very dear to me. Why did I say nothing of my discoveries? That, my friends, is the secret of my conscience—it does not reproach me. Besides, I shut my eyes to the evidence even up to yesterday; I needed the brutal testimony of this deed!”
Day had come. The frightened blackbirds flew whistling by. The pavement resounded with the wooden shoes of the workmen going fieldward. No noise troubled the sad stillness of the library, unless it were the rustling of the leaves which M. Plantat was turning over, or now and then a groan from Robelot.
“Before commencing,” said the old man, “I ought to consider your weariness; we have been up twenty-four hours—”
But the others protested that they did not need repose. The fever of curiosity had chased away their exhaustion. They were at last to know the key of the mystery.
“Very well,” said their host, “listen to me.”
The Count Hector de Tremorel, at twenty-six, was the model and ideal of the polished man of the world, proper to our age; a man useless alike to himself and to others, harmful even, seeming to have been placed on earth expressly to play at the expense of all. Young, noble, elegant, rich by millions, endowed with vigorous health, this last descendant of a great family squandered most foolishly and ignobly both his youth and his patrimony. He acquired by excesses of all kinds a wide and unenviable celebrity. People talked of his stables, his carriages, his servants, his furniture, his dogs, his favorite loves. His cast-off horses still took prizes, and a jade distinguished by his notice was eagerly sought by the young bloods of the town. Do not think, however, that he was naturally vicious; he had a warm heart, and even generous emotions at twenty. Six years of unhealthy pleasures had spoiled him to the marrow. Foolishly vain, he was ready to do anything to maintain his notoriety. He had the bold and determined egotism of one who has never had to think of anyone but himself, and has never suffered. Intoxicated by the flatteries of the so-called friends who drew his money from him, he admired himself, mistaking his brutal cynicism for wit, and his lofty disdain of all morality and his idiotic scepticism, for character. He was also feeble; he had caprices, but never a will; feeble as a child, a woman, a girl. His biography was to be found in the petty journals of the day, which retailed his sayings—or what he might have said; his least actions and gestures were reported.