This explanation, though rather slow in coming, was none the less ingenious. At least, M. Segmuller appeared to be perfectly satisfied. “That’s very plausible,” said he; “but there is one circumstance that passes my comprehension. Were you freed from your assailants before the police entered the place? Answer me, yes or no.”
“Then why, instead of making your escape by the back door, the existence of which you had divined, did you remain on the threshold of the door leading into the back room, with a table before you to serve as a barricade, and your revolver leveled at the police, as if to keep them at bay?”
The prisoner hung his head, and the magistrate had to wait for his answer. “I was a fool,” he stammered at last. “I didn’t know whether these men were police agents or friends of the fellows I had killed.”
“In either case your own interest should have induced you to fly.”
The prisoner remained silent.
“Ah, well!” resumed M. Segmuller, “let me tell you my opinion. I believe you designedly and voluntarily exposed yourself to the danger of being arrested in order to protect the retreat of the two women who had just left.”
“Why should I have risked my own safety for two hussies I did not even know?”
“Excuse me. The prosecution is strongly inclined to believe that you know these two women very well.”
“I should like to see any one prove that!” So saying, the prisoner smiled sneeringly, but at once changed countenance when the magistrate retorted in a tone of assurance: “I will prove it.”
M. Segmuller certainly wished that a number had been branded upon the enigmatical prisoner before him. And yet he did not by any means despair, and his confidence, exaggerated though it might be, was not at all feigned. He was of opinion that the weakest point of the prisoner’s defense so far was his pretended ignorance concerning the two women. He proposed to return to this subject later on. In the mean while, however, there were other matters to be dealt with.
When he felt that his threat as regards the women had had time to produce its full effect, the magistrate continued: “So, prisoner, you assert that you were acquainted with none of the persons you met at the Poivriere.”
“I swear it.”
“Have you never had occasion to meet a person called Lacheneur, an individual whose name is connected with this unfortunate affair?”
“I heard the name for the first time when it was pronounced by the dying soldier. Poor fellow! I had just dealt him his death blow; and yet his last words testified to my innocence.”
This sentimental outburst produced no impression whatever upon the magistrate. “In that case,” said he, “I suppose you are willing to accept this soldier’s statement.”
The man hesitated, as if conscious that he had fallen into a snare, and that he would be obliged to weigh each answer carefully. “I accept it,” said he at last. “Of course I accept it.”