Produced by Eric Eldred, William Flis and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team.
The girl gasped as Renine (Arsene Lupin) drew forth themysterious telescope.]
THE EIGHT STROKES OF THE CLOCK
MAURICE LE BLANC
These adventures were told to me in the old days by Arsene Lupin, asthough they had happened to a friend of his, named Prince Renine. As forme, considering the way in which they were conducted, the actions, thebehaviour and the very character of the hero, I find it very difficult notto identify the two friends as one and the same person. Arsene Lupin isgifted with a powerful imagination and is quite capable of attributing tohimself adventures which are not his at all and of disowning those whichare really his. The reader will judge for himself.
I ON THE TOP OF THE TOWER
II THE WATER BOTTLE
III THE CASE OF JEAN LOUIS
IV THE TELL-TALE FILM
V THERESE AND GERMAINE
VI THE LADY WITH THE HATCHET
VII FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW
VIII AT THE SIGN OF MERCURY
ON THE TOP OF THE TOWER
Hortense Daniel pushed her window ajar and whispered:
"Are you there, Rossigny?"
"I am here," replied a voice from the shrubbery at the front of the house.
Leaning forward, she saw a rather fat man looking up at her out of a grossred face with its cheeks and chin set in unpleasantly fair whiskers.
"Well?" he asked.
"Well, I had a great argument with my uncle and aunt last night. Theyabsolutely refuse to sign the document of which my lawyer sent them thedraft, or to restore the dowry squandered by my husband."
"But your uncle is responsible by the terms of the marriage-settlement."
"No matter. He refuses."
"Well, what do you propose to do?"
"Are you still determined to run away with me?" she asked, with a laugh.
"More so than ever."
"Your intentions are strictly honourable, remember!"
"Just as you please. You know that I am madly in love with you."
"Unfortunately I am not madly in love with you!"
"Then what made you choose me?"
"Chance. I was bored. I was growing tired of my humdrum existence. So I'mready to run risks.... Here's my luggage: catch!"
She let down from the window a couple of large leather kit-bags. Rossignycaught them in his arms.
"The die is cast," she whispered. "Go and wait for me with your car at theIf cross-roads. I shall come on horseback."
"Hang it, I can't run off with your horse!"
"He will go home by himself."
"Capital!... Oh, by the way...."
"What is it?"
"Who is this Prince Renine, who's been here the last three days and whomnobody seems to know?"
"I don't know much about him. My uncle met him at a friend's shoot andasked him here to stay."
"You seem to have made a great impression on him. You went for a long ridewith him yesterday. He's a man I don't care for."
"In two hours I shall have left the house in your company. The scandal willcool him off.... Well, we've talked long enough. We have no time to lose."
For a few minutes she stood watching the fat man bending under the weightof her traps as he moved away in the shelter of an empty avenue. Then sheclosed the window.
Outside, in the park, the huntsmen's horns were sounding the reveille. Thehounds burst into frantic baying. It was the opening day of the hunt thatmorning at the Chateau de la Mareze, where, every year, in the first weekin September, the Comte d'Aigleroche, a mighty hunter before the Lord,and his countess were accustomed to invite a few personal friends and theneighbouring landowners.
Hortense slowly finished dressing, put on a riding-habit, whichrevealed the lines of her supple figure, and a wide-brimmed felt hat,which encircled her lovely face and auburn hair, and sat down to herwriting-desk, at which she wrote to her uncle, M. d'Aigleroche, a farewellletter to be delivered to him that evening. It was a difficult letter toword; and, after beginning it several times, she ended by giving up theidea.
"I will write to him later," she said to herself, "when his anger hascooled down."
And she went downstairs to the dining-room.
Enormous logs were blazing in the hearth of the lofty room. The walls werehung with trophies of rifles and shotguns. The guests were flocking in fromevery side, shaking hands with the Comte d'Aigleroche, one of those typicalcountry squires, heavily and powerfully built, who lives only for huntingand shooting. He was standing before the fire, with a large glass of oldbrandy in his hand, drinking the health of each new arrival.
Hortense kissed him absently:
"What, uncle! You who are usually so sober!"
"Pooh!" he said. "A man may surely indulge himself a little once ayear!..."
"Aunt will give you a scolding!"
"Your aunt has one of her sick headaches and is not coming down. Besides,"he added, gruffly, "it is not her business ... and still less is it yours,my dear child."
Prince Renine came up to Hortense. He was a young man, very smartlydressed, with a narrow and rather pale face, whose eyes held by turnsthe gentlest and the harshest, the most friendly and the most satiricalexpression. He bowed to her, kissed her hand and said:
"May I remind you of your kind promise, dear madame?"
"Yes, we agreed that we should repeat our delightful excursion of yesterdayand try to go over that old boarded-up place the look of which made us socurious. It seems to be known as the Domaine de Halingre."
She answered a little curtly:
"I'm extremely sorry, monsieur, but it would be rather far and I'm feelinga little done up. I shall go for a canter in the park and come indoorsagain."
There was a pause. Then Serge Renine said, smiling, with his eyes fixed onhers and in a voice which she alone could hear:
"I am sure that you'll keep your promise and that you'll let me come withyou. It would be better."
"For whom? For you, you mean?"
"For you, too, I assure you."
She coloured slightly, but did not reply, shook hands with a few peoplearound her and left the room.
A groom was holding the horse at the foot of the steps. She mounted and setoff towards the woods beyond the park.
It was a cool, still morning. Through the leaves, which barely quivered,the sky showed crystalline blue. Hortense rode at a walk down windingavenues which in half an hour brought her to a country-side of ravines andbluffs intersected by the high-road.
She stopped. There was not a sound. Rossigny must have stopped his engineand concealed the car in the thickets around the If cross-roads.
She was five hundred yards at most from that circular space. Afterhesitating for a few seconds, she dismounted, tied her horse carelessly, sothat he could release himself by the least effort and return to the house,shrouded her face in the long brown veil that hung over her shoulders andwalked on.
As she expected, she saw Rossigny directly she reached the first turn inthe road. He ran up to her and drew her into the coppice!
"Quick, quick! Oh, I was so afraid that you would be late ... or evenchange your mind! And here you are! It seems too good to be true!"
"You appear to be quite happy to do an idiotic thing!"
"I should think I _am_ happy! And so will you be, I swear you will!Your life will be one long fairy-tale. You shall have every luxury, and allthe money you can wish
"I want neither money nor luxuries."
"You can safely leave your happiness to me."
She replied, jestingly:
"I rather doubt the quality of the happiness which you would give me."
"Wait! You'll see! You'll see!"
They had reached the motor. Rossigny, still stammering expressions ofdelight, started the engine. Hortense stepped in and wrapped herself in awide cloak. The car followed the narrow, grassy path which led back to thecross-roads and Rossigny was accelerating the speed, when he was suddenlyforced to pull up. A shot had rung out from the neighbouring wood, on theright. The car was swerving from side to side.
"A front tire burst," shouted Rossigny, leaping to the ground.
"Not a bit of it!" cried Hortense. "Somebody fired!"
"Impossible, my dear! Don't be so absurd!"
At that moment, two slight shocks were felt and two more reports wereheard, one after the other, some way off and still in the wood.
"The back tires burst now ... both of them.... But who, in the devil'sname, can the ruffian be?... Just let me get hold of him, that's all!..."
He clambered up the road-side slope. There was no one there. Moreover, theleaves of the coppice blocked the view.
"Damn it! Damn it!" he swore. "You were right: somebody was firing at thecar! Oh, this is a bit thick! We shall be held up for hours! Three tires tomend!... But what are you doing, dear girl?"
Hortense herself had alighted from the car. She ran to him, greatlyexcited:
"I want to know. Some one fired. I want to know who it was."
"Don't let us separate, please!"
"Do you think I'm going to wait here for you for hours?"
"What about your running away?... All our plans ...?"
"We'll discuss that to-morrow. Go back to the house. Take back my thingswith you.... And good-bye for the present."
She hurried, left him, had the good luck to find her horse and set off at agallop in a direction leading away from La Mareze.
There was not the least doubt in her mind that the three shots had beenfired by Prince Renine.
"It was he," she muttered, angrily, "it was he. No one else would becapable of such behaviour."
Besides, he had warned her, in his smiling, masterful way, that he wouldexpect her.
She was weeping with rage and humiliation. At that moment, had she foundherself face to face with Prince Renine, she could have struck him with herriding-whip.
Before her was the rugged and picturesque stretch of country which liesbetween the Orne and the Sarthe, above Alencon, and which is known asLittle Switzerland. Steep hills compelled her frequently to moderate herpace, the more so as she had to cover some six miles before reaching herdestination. But, though the speed at which she rode became less headlong,though her physical effort gradually slackened, she nevertheless persistedin her indignation against Prince Renine. She bore him a grudge not onlyfor the unspeakable action of which he had been guilty, but also for hisbehaviour to her during the last three days, his persistent attentions, hisassurance, his air of excessive politeness.
She was nearly there. In the bottom of a valley, an old park-wall, fullof cracks and covered with moss and weeds, revealed the ball-turret of achateau and a few windows with closed shutters. This was the Domaine deHalingre.
She followed the wall and turned a corner. In the middle of thecrescent-shaped space before which lay the entrance-gates, Serge Reninestood waiting beside his horse.
She sprang to the ground, and, as he stepped forward, hat in hand, thankingher for coming, she cried:
"One word, monsieur, to begin with. Something quite inexplicable happenedjust now. Three shots were fired at a motor-car in which I was sitting. Didyou fire those shots?"
She seemed dumbfounded:
"Then you confess it?"
"You have asked a question, madame, and I have answered it."
"But how dared you? What gave you the right?"
"I was not exercising a right, madame; I was performing a duty!"
"Indeed! And what duty, pray?"
"The duty of protecting you against a man who is trying to profit by yourtroubles."
"I forbid you to speak like that. I am responsible for my own actions, andI decided upon them in perfect liberty."
"Madame, I overheard your conversation with M. Rossigny this morning and itdid not appear to me that you were accompanying him with a light heart. Iadmit the ruthlessness and bad taste of my interference and I apologise forit humbly; but I risked being taken for a ruffian in order to give you afew hours for reflection."
"I have reflected fully, monsieur. When I have once made up my mind to athing, I do not change it."
"Yes, madame, you do, sometimes. If not, why are you here instead ofthere?"
Hortense was confused for a moment. All her anger had subsided. She lookedat Renine with the surprise which one experiences when confronted withcertain persons who are unlike their fellows, more capable of performingunusual actions, more generous and disinterested. She realised perfectlythat he was acting without any ulterior motive or calculation, that he was,as he had said, merely fulfilling his duty as a gentleman to a woman whohas taken the wrong turning.
Speaking very gently, he said:
"I know very little about you, madame, but enough to make me wish to be ofuse to you. You are twenty-six years old and have lost both your parents.Seven years ago, you became the wife of the Comte d'Aigleroche's nephew bymarriage, who proved to be of unsound mind, half insane indeed, and hadto be confined. This made it impossible for you to obtain a divorce andcompelled you, since your dowry had been squandered, to live with youruncle and at his expense. It's a depressing environment. The count andcountess do not agree. Years ago, the count was deserted by his first wife,who ran away with the countess' first husband. The abandoned husband andwife decided out of spite to unite their fortunes, but found nothing butdisappointment and ill-will in this second marriage. And you suffer theconsequences. They lead a monotonous, narrow, lonely life for eleven monthsor more out of the year. One day, you met M. Rossigny, who fell in lovewith you and suggested an elopement. You did not care for him. But you werebored, your youth was being wasted, you longed for the unexpected, foradventure ... in a word, you accepted with the very definite intention ofkeeping your admirer at arm's length, but also with the rather ingenuoushope that the scandal would force your uncle's hand and make him accountfor his trusteeship and assure you of an independent existence. That is howyou stand. At present you have to choose between placing yourself in M.Rossigny's hands ... or trusting yourself to me."
She raised her eyes to his. What did he mean? What was the purport of thisoffer which he made so seriously, like a friend who asks nothing but toprove his devotion?
After a moment's silence, he took the two horses by the bridle and tiedthem up. Then he examined the heavy gates, each of which was strengthenedby two planks nailed cross-wise. An electoral poster, dated twenty yearsearlier, showed that no one had entered the domain since that time.
Renine tore up one of the iron posts which supported a railing that ranround the crescent and used it as a lever. The rotten planks gave way. Oneof them uncovered the lock, which he attacked with a big knife, containinga number of blades and implements. A minute later, the gate opened on awaste of bracken which led up to a long, dilapidated building, with aturret at each corner and a sort of a belvedere, built on a taller tower,in the middle.
The Prince turned to Hortense:
"You are in no hurry," he said. "You will form your decision this evening;and, if M. Rossigny succeeds in persuading you for the second time, I giveyou my word of honour that I shall not cross your path. Until then, grantme the privilege of your company. We made up our minds yesterday to inspectthe chateau. Let us do so. Will you? It is as good a w
ay as any of passingthe time and I have a notion that it will not be uninteresting."
He had a way of talking which compelled obedience. He seemed to becommanding and entreating at the same time. Hortense did not even seekto shake off the enervation into which her will was slowly sinking. Shefollowed him to a half-demolished flight of steps at the top of which wasa door likewise strengthened by planks nailed in the form of a cross.
Renine went to work in the same way as before. They entered a spacioushall paved with white and black flagstones, furnished with old sideboardsand choir-stalls and adorned with a carved escutcheon which displayed theremains of armorial bearings, representing an eagle standing on a block ofstone, all half-hidden behind a veil of cobwebs which hung down over a pairof folding-doors.
"The door of the drawing-room, evidently," said Renine.
He found this more difficult to open; and it was only by repeatedlycharging it with his shoulder that he was able to move one of the doors.
Hortense had not spoken a word. She watched not without surprise thisseries of forcible entries, which were accomplished with a really masterlyskill. He guessed her thoughts and, turning round, said in a serious voice:
"It's child's-play to me. I was a locksmith once."
She seized his arm and whispered:
"To what?" he asked.
She increased the pressure of her hand, to demand silence. The next moment,he murmured:
"It's really very strange."
"Listen, listen!" Hortense repeated, in bewilderment. "Can it be possible?"
They heard, not far from where they were standing, a sharp sound, the soundof a light tap recurring at regular intervals; and they had only to listenattentively to recognise the ticking of a clock. Yes, it was this andnothing else that broke the profound silence of the dark room; it wasindeed the deliberate ticking, rhythmical as the beat of a metronome,produced by a heavy brass pendulum. That was it! And nothing could be moreimpressive than the measured pulsation of this trivial mechanism, which bysome miracle, some inexplicable phenomenon, had continued to live in theheart of the dead chateau.
"And yet," stammered Hortense, without daring to raise her voice, "no onehas entered the house?"
"And it is quite impossible for that clock to have kept going for twentyyears without being wound up?"
Serge Renine opened the three windows and threw back the shutters.
He and Hortense were in a drawing-room, as he had thought; and the roomshowed not the least sign of disorder. The chairs were in their places. Nota piece of furniture was missing. The people who had lived there and whohad made it the most individual room in their house had gone away leavingeverything just as it was, the books which they used to read, theknick-knacks on the tables and consoles.
Renine examined the old grandfather's clock, contained in its tall carvedcase which showed the disk of the pendulum through an oval pane of glass.He opened the door of the clock. The weights hanging from the cords were attheir lowest point.
At that moment there was a click. The clock struck eight with a seriousnote which Hortense was never to forget.
"How extraordinary!" she said.
"Extraordinary indeed," said he, "for the works are exceedingly simple andwould hardly keep going for a week."
"And do you see nothing out of the common?"
"No, nothing ... or, at least...."
He stooped and, from the back of the case, drew a metal tube which wasconcealed by the weights. Holding it up to the light:
"A telescope," he said, thoughtfully. "Why did they hide it?... And theyleft it drawn out to its full length.... That's odd.... What does it mean?"
The clock, as is sometimes usual, began to strike a second time, soundingeight strokes. Renine closed the case and continued his inspection withoutputting his telescope down. A wide arch led from the drawing-room to asmaller apartment, a sort of smoking-room. This also was furnished, butcontained a glass case for guns of which the rack was empty. Hanging ona panel near by was a calendar with the date of the 5th of September.
"Oh," cried Hortense, in astonishment, "the same date as to-day!... Theytore off the leaves until the 5th of September.... And this is theanniversary! What an astonishing coincidence!"
"Astonishing," he echoed. "It's the anniversary of their departure ...twenty years ago to-day."
"You must admit," she said, "that all this is incomprehensible.
"Yes, of course ... but, all the same ... perhaps not."
"Have you any idea?"
He waited a few seconds before replying:
"What puzzles me is this telescope hidden, dropped in that corner, atthe last moment. I wonder what it was used for.... From the ground-floorwindows you see nothing but the trees in the garden ... and the same, Iexpect, from all the windows.... We are in a valley, without the least openhorizon.... To use the telescope, one would have to go up to the top of thehouse.... Shall we go up?"
She did not hesitate. The mystery surrounding the whole adventure excitedher curiosity so keenly that she could think of nothing but accompanyingRenine and assisting him in his investigations.
They went upstairs accordingly, and, on the second floor, came to a landingwhere they found the spiral staircase leading to the belvedere.
At the top of this was a platform in the open air, but surrounded by aparapet over six feet high.
"There must have been battlements which have been filled in since,"observed Prince Renine. "Look here, there were loop-holes at one time. Theymay have been blocked."
"In any case," she said, "the telescope was of no use up here either and wemay as well go down again."
"I don't agree," he said. "Logic tells us that there must have been somegap through which the country could be seen and this was the spot where thetelescope was used."
He hoisted himself by his wrists to the top of the parapet and then sawthat this point of vantage commanded the whole of the valley, including thepark, with its tall trees marking the horizon; and, beyond, a depressionin a wood surmounting a hill, at a distance of some seven or eight hundredyards, stood another tower, squat and in ruins, covered with ivy from topto bottom.
Renine resumed his inspection. He seemed to consider that the key to theproblem lay in the use to which the telescope was put and that the problemwould be solved if only they could discover this use.
He studied the loop-holes one after the other. One of them, or rather theplace which it had occupied, attracted his attention above the rest. Inthe middle of the layer of plaster, which had served to block it, therewas a hollow filled with earth in which plants had grown. He pulled outthe plants and removed the earth, thus clearing the mouth of a hole somefive inches in diameter, which completely penetrated the wall. On bendingforward, Renine perceived that this deep and narrow opening inevitablycarried the eye, above the dense tops of the trees and through thedepression in the hill, to the ivy-clad tower.
At the bottom of this channel, in a sort of groove which ran through itlike a gutter, the telescope fitted so exactly that it was quite impossibleto shift it, however little, either to the right or to the left.
Renine, after wiping the outside of the lenses, while taking care not todisturb the lie of the instrument by a hair's breadth, put his eye to thesmall end.
He remained for thirty or forty seconds, gazing attentively and silently.Then he drew himself up and said, in a husky voice:
"It's terrible ... it's really terrible."
"What is?" she asked, anxiously.
She bent down but the image was not clear to her and the telescope had tobe focussed to suit her sight. The next moment she shuddered and said:
"It's two scarecrows, isn't it, both stuck up on the top? But why?"
"Look again," he said. "Look more carefully under the hats ... thefaces...."
"Oh!" she cried, turning faint with horror, "how awful!"
The field of the telescope, like the circular picture shown by a magiclantern, presented this spectacle: the platform of a broken tower, thewalls of which were higher in the more distant part and formed as it werea back-drop, over which surged waves of ivy. In front, amid a cluster ofbushes, were two human beings, a man and a woman, leaning back against aheap of fallen stones.
But the words man and woman could hardly be applied to these two forms,these two sinister puppets, which, it is true, wore clothes and hats--orrather shreds of clothes and remnants of hats--but had lost their eyes,their cheeks, their chins, every particle of flesh, until they wereactually and positively nothing more than two skeletons.
"Two skeletons," stammered Hortense. "Two skeletons with clothes on. Whocarried them up there?"
"That man and that woman must have died at the top of the tower, years andyears ago ... and their flesh rotted under their clothes and the ravens atethem."
"But it's hideous, hideous!" cried Hortense, pale as death, her face drawnwith horror.
* * * * *
Half an hour later, Hortense Daniel and Renine left the Chateau deHalingre. Before their departure, they had gone as far as the ivy-growntower, the remains of an old donjon-keep more than half demolished. Theinside was empty. There seemed to have been a way of climbing to the top,at a comparatively recent period, by means of wooden stairs and ladderswhich now lay broken and scattered over the ground. The tower backedagainst the wall which marked the end of the park.
A curious fact, which surprised Hortense, was that Prince Renine hadneglected to pursue a more minute enquiry, as though the matter had lostall interest for him. He did not even speak of it any longer; and, in theinn at which they stopped and took a light meal in the nearest village, itwas she who asked the landlord about the abandoned chateau. But she learntnothing from him, for the man was new to the district and could give her noparticulars. He did not even know the name of the owner.
They turned their horses' heads towards La Mareze. Again and again Hortenserecalled the squalid sight which had met their eyes. But Renine, who wasin a lively mood and full of attentions to his companion, seemed utterlyindifferent to those questions.
"But, after all," she exclaimed, impatiently, "we can't leave the matterthere! It calls for a solution."
"As you say," he replied, "a solution is called for. M. Rossigny has toknow where he stands and you have to decide what to do about him."
She shrugged her shoulders: "He's of no importance for the moment. Thething to-day...."
"Is to know what those two dead bodies are."
"Rossigny can wait. But I can't. You have shown me a mystery which is nowthe only thing that matters. What do you intend to do?"
"Yes. There are two bodies.... You'll inform the police, I suppose."
"Gracious goodness!" he exclaimed, laughing. "What for?"
"Well, there's a riddle that has to be cleared up at all costs, a terribletragedy."
"We don't need any one to do that."
"What! Do you mean to say that you understand it?"
"Almost as plainly as though I had read it in a book, told in full detail,with explanatory illustrations. It's all so simple!"
She looked at him askance, wondering if he was making fun of her. But heseemed quite serious.
"Well?" she asked, quivering with curiosity.
The light was beginning to wane. They had trotted at a good pace; and thehunt was returning as they neared La Mareze.
"Well," he said, "we shall get the rest of our information from peopleliving round about ... from your uncle, for instance; and you will see howlogically all the facts fit in. When you hold the first link of a chain,you are bound, whether you like it or not, to reach the last. It's thegreatest fun in the world."
Once in the house, they separated. On going to her room, Hortense found herluggage and a furious letter from Rossigny in which he bade her good-byeand announced his departure.
Then Renine knocked at her door:
"Your uncle is in the library," he said. "Will you go down with me? I'vesent word that I am coming."
She went with him. He added:
"One word more. This morning, when I thwarted your plans and begged you totrust me, I naturally undertook an obligation towards you which I mean tofulfill without delay. I want to give you a positive proof of this."
"The only obligation which you took upon yourself was to satisfy mycuriosity."
"It shall be satisfied," he assured her, gravely, "and more fully than youcan possibly imagine."
M. d'Aigleroche was alone. He was smoking his pipe and drinking sherry. Heoffered a glass to Renine, who refused.
"Well, Hortense!" he said, in a rather thick voice. "You know that it'spretty dull here, except in these September days. You must make the mostof them. Have you had a pleasant ride with Renine?"
"That's just what I wanted to talk about, my dear sir," interrupted theprince.
"You must excuse me, but I have to go to the station in ten minutes, tomeet a friend of my wife's."
"Oh, ten minutes will be ample!"
"Just the time to smoke a cigarette?"
He took a cigarette from the case which M. d'Aigleroche handed to him, litit and said:
"I must tell you that our ride happened to take us to an old domain whichyou are sure to know, the Domaine de Halingre."
"Certainly I know it. But it has been closed, boarded up for twenty-fiveyears or so. You weren't able to get in, I suppose?"
"Yes, we were."
"Really? Was it interesting?"
"Extremely. We discovered the strangest things."
"What things?" asked the count, looking at his watch.
Renine described what they had seen:
"On a tower some way from the house there were two dead bodies, twoskeletons rather ... a man and a woman still wearing the clothes whichthey had on when they were murdered."
"Come, come, now! Murdered?"
"Yes; and that is what we have come to trouble you about. The tragedy mustdate back to some twenty years ago. Was nothing known of it at the time?"
"Certainly not," declared the count. "I never heard of any such crime ordisappearance."
"Oh, really!" said Renine, looking a little disappointed. "I hoped toobtain a few particulars."
"In that case, I apologise."
He consulted Hortense with a glance and moved towards the door. But onsecond thought:
"Could you not at least, my dear sir, bring me into touch with some personsin the neighbourhood, some members of your family, who might know moreabout it?"
"Of my family? And why?"
"Because the Domaine de Halingre used to belong and no doubt still belongsto the d'Aigleroches. The arms are an eagle on a heap of stones, on a rock.This at once suggested the connection."
This time the count appeared surprised. He pushed back his decanter and hisglass of sherry and said:
"What's this you're telling me? I had no idea that we had any suchneighbours."
Renine shook his head and smiled:
"I should be more inclined to believe, sir, that you were not very eager toadmit any relationship between yourself ... and the unknown owner of theproperty."
"Then he's not a respectable man?"
"The man, to put it plainly, is a murderer."
"What do you mean?"
The count had risen from his chair. Hortense, greatly excited, said:
"Are you really sure that there has been a murder and that the murder wasdone by some one belonging to the house?"
"But why are you so certain?"
"Because I know who the two victims were and what caused them to bekilled."
Prince Renine was making none
but positive statements and his methodsuggested the belief that he supported by the strongest proofs.
M. d'Aigleroche strode up and down the room, with his hands behind hisback. He ended by saying:
"I always had an instinctive feeling that something had happened, but Inever tried to find out.... Now, as a matter of fact, twenty years ago,a relation of mine, a distant cousin, used to live at the Domaine deHalingre. I hoped, because of the name I bear, that this story, which,as I say, I never knew but suspected, would remain hidden for ever."
"So this cousin killed somebody?"
"Yes, he was obliged to."
Renine shook his head:
"What is it that you know?"
The moment had come for Renine to explain himself, a solemn andanguish-stricken moment, the full gravity of which Hortense understood,though she had not yet divined any part of the tragedy which the princeunfolded step by step."
"It's a very simple story," he said. "There is every reason to believe thatM. d'Aigleroche was married and that there was another couple living inthe neighbourhood with whom the owner of the Domaine de Halingre were onfriendly terms. What happened one day, which of these four persons firstdisturbed the relations between the two households, I am unable to say. Buta likely version, which at once occurs to the mind, is that your cousin'swife, Madame d'Aigleroche, was in the habit of meeting the other husbandin the ivy-covered tower, which had a door opening outside the estate. Ondiscovering the intrigue, your cousin d'Aigleroche resolved to be revenged,but in such a manner that there should be no scandal and that no oneeven should ever know that the guilty pair had been killed. Now he hadascertained--as I did just now--that there was a part of the house, thebelvedere, from which you can see, over the trees and the undulations ofthe park, the tower standing eight hundred yards away, and that this wasthe only place that overlooked the top of the tower. He therefore pierceda hole in the parapet, through one of the former loopholes, and fromthere, by using a telescope which fitted exactly in the grove which hehad hollowed out, he watched the meetings of the two lovers. And it wasfrom there, also, that, after carefully taking all his measurements, andcalculating all his distances, on a Sunday, the 5th of September, when thehouse was empty, he killed them with two shots."
The truth was becoming apparent. The light of day was breaking. The countmuttered:
"Yes, that's what must have happened. I expect that my cousind'Aigleroche...."
"The murderer," Renine continued, "stopped up the loophole neatly with aclod of earth. No one would ever know that two dead bodies were decayingon the top of that tower which was never visited and of which he took theprecaution to demolish the wooden stairs. Nothing therefore remained forhim to do but to explain the disappearance of his wife and his friend. Thispresented no difficulty. He accused them of having eloped together."
Hortense gave a start. Suddenly, as though the last sentence were acomplete and to her an absolutely unexpected revelation, she understoodwhat Renine was trying to convey:
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I mean that M. d'Aigleroche accused his wife and his friend of elopingtogether."
"No, no!" she cried. "I can't allow that!... You are speaking of a cousinof my uncle's? Why mix up the two stories?"
"Why mix up this story with another which took place at that time?" saidthe prince. "But I am not mixing them up, my dear madame; there is only onestory and I am telling it as it happened."
Hortense turned to her uncle. He sat silent, with his arms folded; andhis head remained in the shadow cast by the lamp-shade. Why had he notprotested?
Renine repeated in a firm tone:
"There is only one story. On the evening of that very day, the 5th ofSeptember at eight o'clock, M. d'Aigleroche, doubtless alleging as hisreason that he was going in pursuit of the runaway couple, left his houseafter boarding up the entrance. He went away, leaving all the rooms asthey were and removing only the firearms from their glass case. At thelast minute, he had a presentiment, which has been justified to-day, thatthe discovery of the telescope which had played so great a part in thepreparation of his crime might serve as a clue to an enquiry; and he threwit into the clock-case, where, as luck would have it, it interruptedthe swing of the pendulum. This unreflecting action, one of those whichevery criminal inevitably commits, was to betray him twenty years later.Just now, the blows which I struck to force the door of the drawing-roomreleased the pendulum. The clock was set going, struck eight o'clock ...and I possessed the clue of thread which was to lead me through thelabyrinth."
"Proofs!" stammered Hortense. "Proofs!"
"Proofs?" replied Renine, in a loud voice. "Why, there are any numberof proofs; and you know them as well as I do. Who could have killed atthat distance of eight hundred yards, except an expert shot, an ardentsportsman? You agree, M. d'Aigleroche, do you not?... Proofs? Why wasnothing removed from the house, nothing except the guns, those gunswhich an ardent sportsman cannot afford to leave behind--you agree, M.d'Aigleroche--those guns which we find here, hanging in trophies on thewalls!... Proofs? What about that date, the 5th of September, which wasthe date of the crime and which has left such a horrible memory in thecriminal's mind that every year at this time--at this time alone--hesurrounds himself with distractions and that every year, on this same 5thof September, he forgets his habits of temperance? Well, to-day, is the 5thof September.... Proofs? Why, if there weren't any others, would that notbe enough for you?"
And Renine, flinging out his arm, pointed to the Comte d'Aigleroche, who,terrified by this evocation of the past, had sunk huddled into a chair andwas hiding his head in his hands.
Hortense did not attempt to argue with him. She had never liked her uncle,or rather her husband's uncle. She now accepted the accusation laid againsthim.
Sixty seconds passed. Then M. d'Aigleroche walked up to them and said:
"Whether the story be true or not, you can't call a husband a criminal foravenging his honour and killing his faithless wife."
"No," replied Renine, "but I have told only the first version of the story.There is another which is infinitely more serious ... and more probable,one to which a more thorough investigation would be sure to lead."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean this. It may not be a matter of a husband taking the law into hisown hands, as I charitably supposed. It may be a matter of a ruined man whocovets his friend's money and his friend's wife and who, with this objectin view, to secure his freedom, to get rid of his friend and of his ownwife, draws them into a trap, suggests to them that they should visit thatlonely tower and kills them by shooting them from a distance safely undercover."
"No, no," the count protested. "No, all that is untrue."
"I don't say it isn't. I am basing my accusation on proofs, but also onintuitions and arguments which up to now have been extremely accurate. Allthe same, I admit that the second version may be incorrect. But, if so, whyfeel any remorse? One does not feel remorse for punishing guilty people."
"One does for taking life. It is a crushing burden to bear."
"Was it to give himself greater strength to bear this burden that M.d'Aigleroche afterwards married his victim's widow? For that, sir, isthe crux of the question. What was the motive of that marriage? Was M.d'Aigleroche penniless? Was the woman he was taking as his second wiferich? Or were they both in love with each other and did M. d'Aiglerocheplan with her to kill his first wife and the husband of his second wife?These are problems to which I do not know the answer. They have no interestfor the moment; but the police, with all the means at their disposal, wouldhave no great difficulty in elucidating them."
M. d'Aigleroche staggered and had to steady himself against the back of achair. Livid in the face, he spluttered:
"Are you going to inform
"No, no," said Renine. "To begin with, there is the statute of limitations.Then there are twenty years of remorse and dread, a memory which willpursue the criminal to his dying hour, accompanied no doubt by domesticdiscord, hatred, a daily hell ... and, in the end, the necessity ofreturning to the tower and removing the traces of the two murders, thefrightful punishment of climbing that tower, of touching those skeletons,of undressing them and burying them. That will be enough. We will not askfor more. We will not give it to the public to batten on and create ascandal which would recoil upon M. d'Aigleroche's niece. No, let us leavethis disgraceful business alone."
The count resumed his seat at the table, with his hands clutching hisforehead, and asked:
"Then why ...?"
"Why do I interfere?" said Renine. "What you mean is that I must havehad some object in speaking. That is so. There must indeed be a penalty,however slight, and our interview must lead to some practical result. Buthave no fear: M. d'Aigleroche will be let off lightly."
The contest was ended. The count felt that he had only a small formality tofulfil, a sacrifice to accept; and, recovering some of his self-assurance,he said, in an almost sarcastic tone:
"What's your price?"
Renine burst out laughing:
"Splendid! You see the position. Only, you make a mistake in drawing meinto the business. I'm working for the glory of the thing."
"In that case?"
"You will be called upon at most to make restitution."
Renine leant over the table and said:
"In one of those drawers is a deed awaiting your signature. It is a draftagreement between you and your niece Hortense Daniel, relating to herprivate fortune, which fortune was squandered and for which you areresponsible. Sign the deed."
M. d'Aigleroche gave a start:
"Do you know the amount?"
"I don't wish to know it."
"And if I refuse?..."
"I shall ask to see the Comtesse d'Aigleroche."
Without further hesitation, the count opened a drawer, produced a documenton stamped paper and quickly signed it:
"Here you are," he said, "and I hope...."
"You hope, as I do, that you and I may never have any future dealings? I'mconvinced of it. I shall leave this evening; your niece, no doubt,tomorrow. Good-bye."
* * * * *
In the drawing-room, which was still empty, while the guests at thehouse were dressing for dinner, Renine handed the deed to Hortense. Sheseemed dazed by all that she had heard; and the thing that bewildered hereven more than the relentless light shed upon her uncle's past was themiraculous insight and amazing lucidity displayed by this man: the man whofor some hours had controlled events and conjured up before her eyes theactual scenes of a tragedy which no one had beheld.
"Are you satisfied with me?" he asked.
She gave him both her hands:
"You have saved me from Rossigny. You have given me back my freedom and myindependence. I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"Oh, that's not what I am asking you to say!" he answered. "My first andmain object was to amuse you. Your life seemed so humdrum and lacking inthe unexpected. Has it been so to-day?"
"How can you ask such a question? I have had the strangest and moststirring experiences."
"That is life," he said. "When one knows how to use one's eyes. Adventureexists everywhere, in the meanest hovel, under the mask of the wisest ofmen. Everywhere, if you are only willing, you will find an excuse forexcitement, for doing good, for saving a victim, for ending an injustice."
Impressed by his power and authority, she murmured:
"Who are you exactly?"
"An adventurer. Nothing more. A lover of adventures. Life is not worthliving except in moments of adventure, the adventures of others or personaladventures. To-day's has upset you because it affected the innermost depthsof your being. But those of others are no less stimulating. Would you liketo make the experiment?"
"Become the companion of my adventures. If any one calls on me for help,help him with me. If chance or instinct puts me on the track of a crime orthe trace of a sorrow, let us both set out together. Do you consent?"
"Yes," she said, "but...."
She hesitated, as though trying to guess Renine's secret intentions.
"But," he said, expressing her thoughts for her, with a smile, "you are atrifle sceptical. What you are saying to yourself is, 'How far does thatlover of adventures want to make me go? It is quite obvious that I attracthim; and sooner or later he would not be sorry to receive payment for hisservices.' You are quite right. We must have a formal contract."
"Very formal," said Hortense, preferring to give a jesting tone to theconversation. "Let me hear your proposals."
He reflected for a moment and continued:
"Well, we'll say this. The clock at Halingre gave eight strokes thisafternoon, the day of the first adventure. Will you accept its decree andagree to carry out seven more of these delightful enterprises with me,during a period, for instance, of three months? And shall we say that, atthe eighth, you will be pledged to grant me...."
He deferred his answer:
"Observe that you will always be at liberty to leave me on the road if Ido not succeed in interesting you. But, if you accompany me to the end, ifyou allow me to begin and complete the eighth enterprise with you, in threemonths, on the 5th of December, at the very moment when the eighth strokeof that clock sounds--and it will sound, you may be sure of that, for theold brass pendulum will not stop swinging again--you will be pledged togrant me...."
"What?" she repeated, a little unnerved by waiting.
He was silent. He looked at the beautiful lips which he had meant to claimas his reward. He felt perfectly certain that Hortense had understood andhe thought it unnecessary to speak more plainly:
"The mere delight of seeing you will be enough to satisfy me. It is not forme but for you to impose conditions. Name them: what do you demand?"
She was grateful for his respect and said, laughingly:
"What do I demand?"
"Can I demand anything I like, however difficult and impossible?"
"Everything is easy and everything is possible to the man who is bent onwinning you."
Then she said:
"I demand that you shall restore to me a small, antique clasp, made of acornelian set in a silver mount. It came to me from my mother and everyoneknew that it used to bring her happiness and me too. Since the day when itvanished from my jewel-case, I have had nothing but unhappiness. Restore itto me, my good genius."
"When was the clasp stolen?"
She answered gaily:
"Seven years ago ... or eight ... or nine; I don't know exactly ... I don'tknow where ... I don't know how ... I know nothing about it...."
"I will find it," Renine declared, "and you shall be happy."