Calmer now, he examined the case more soundly. As a whole, thank heaven! there was nothing done which could not be repaired. He accused himself, however, none the less harshly. Chance alone had stopped him. At that moment he resolved that he would never undertake another investigation. His profession henceforth inspired him with an unconquerable loathing. Then his interview with Claire had re-opened all the old wounds in his heart, and they bled more painfully than ever. He felt, in despair, that his life was broken, ruined. A man may well feel so, when all women are as nothing to him except one, whom he may never dare hope to possess. Too pious a man to think of suicide, he asked himself with anguish what would become of him when he threw aside his magistrate’s robes.
Then he turned again to the business in hand. In any case, innocent or guilty, Albert was really the Viscount de Commarin, the count’s legitimate son. But was he guilty? Evidently he was not.
“I think,” exclaimed M. Daburon suddenly, “I must speak to the Count de Commarin. Constant, send to his house a message for him to come here at once; if he is not at home, he must be sought for.”
M. Daburon felt that an unpleasant duty was before him. He would be obliged to say to the old nobleman: “Sir, your legitimate son is not Noel, but Albert.” What a position, not only painful, but bordering on the ridiculous! As a compensation, though, he could tell him that Albert was innocent.
To Noel he would also have to tell the truth: hurl him to earth, after having raised him among the clouds. What a blow it would be! But, without a doubt, the count would make him some compensation; at least, he ought to.
“Now,” murmured the magistrate, “who can be the criminal?”
An idea crossed his mind, at first it seemed to him absurd. He rejected it, then thought of it again. He examined it in all its various aspects. He had almost adopted it, when M. de Commarin entered. M. Daburon’s messenger had arrived just as the count was alighting from his carriage, on returning with Claire from Madame Gerdy’s.
Old Tabaret talked, but he acted also.
Abandoned by the investigating magistrate to his own resources, he set to work without losing a minute and without taking a moment’s rest.
The story of the cabriolet, drawn by a swift horse, was exact in every particular.
Lavish with his money, the old fellow had gathered together a dozen detectives on leave or rogues out of work; and at the head of these worthy assistants, seconded by his friend Lecoq, he had gone to Bougival.
He had actually searched the country, house by house, with the obstinacy and the patience of a maniac hunting for a needle in a hay-stack.
His efforts were not absolutely wasted.
After three days’ investigation, he felt comparatively certain that the assassin had not left the train at Rueil, as all the people of Bougival, La Jonchere, and Marly do, but had gone on as far as Chatou.