The Eight Strokes of the Clock
Chapter 1: 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 gross red 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. They absolutely refuse to sign the document of which my lawyer sent them the draft, 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'm ready to run risks ... Here's my luggage: catch!"
She let down from the window a couple of large leather kit-bags. Rossigny caught them in his arms.
"The die is cast," she whispered. "Go and wait for me with your car at the If 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 whom nobody seems to know?"
"I don't know much about him. My uncle met him at a friend's shoot and asked him here to stay."
"You seem to have made a great impression on him. You went for a long ride with 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 will cool 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 weight of her traps as he moved away in the shelter of an empty avenue. Then she closed the window.
Outside, in the park, the huntsmen's horns were sounding the reveille. The hounds burst into frantic baying. It was the opening day of the hunt that morning at the Chateau de la Mareze, where, every year, in the first week in September, the Comte d'Aigleroche, a mighty hunter before the Lord, and his countess were accustomed to invite a few personal friends and the neighbouring landowners.
Hortense slowly finished dressing, put on a riding-habit, which revealed the lines of her supple figure, and a wide-brimmed felt hat, which encircled her lovely face and auburn hair, and sat down to her writing-desk, at which she wrote to her uncle, M. d'Aigleroche, a farewell letter to be delivered to him that evening. It was a difficult letter to word; and, after beginning it several times, she ended by giving up the idea.
"I will write to him later," she said to herself, "when his anger has cooled down."
And she went downstairs to the dining-room.
Enormous logs were blazing in the hearth of the lofty room. The walls were hung with trophies of rifles and shotguns. The guests were flocking in from every side, shaking hands with the Comte d'Aigleroche, one of those typical country squires, heavily and powerfully built, who lives only for hunting and shooting. He was standing before the fire, with a large glass of old brandy 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 a year!..."
"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 smartly dressed, with a narrow and rather pale face, whose eyes held by turns the gentlest and the harshest, the most friendly and the most satirical expression. 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 yesterday and try to go over that old boarded-up place the look of which made us so curious. 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 feeling a little done up. I shall go for a canter in the park and come indoors again."
There was a pause. Then Serge Renine said, smiling, with his eyes fixed on hers 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 with you. 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 people around her and left the room.
A groom was holding the horse at the foot of the steps. She mounted and set off 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 winding avenues which in half an hour brought her to a country-side of ravines and bluffs intersected by the high-road.
She stopped. There was not a sound. Rossigny must have stopped his engine and concealed the car in the thickets around the If cross-roads.
She was five hundred yards at most from that circular space. After hesitating for a few seconds, she dismounted, tied her horse carelessly, so that 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 and walked on.
As she expected, she saw Rossigny directly she reached the first turn in the 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 even change 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 all the money you can wish for."
"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 of delight, started the engine. Hortense stepped in and wrapped herself in a wide cloak. The car followed the narrow, grassy path which led back to the cross-roads and Rossigny was accelerating the speed, when he was suddenly forced to pull up. A shot had rung out from the neighbouring wood, on the right. 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 were heard, 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's name, 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, the leaves of the coppice blocked the view.
"Damn it! Damn it!" he swore. "You were right: somebody was firing at the car! Oh, this is a bit thick! We shall be held up for hours! Three tires to mend! ... But what are you doing, dear girl?"
Hortense herself had alighted from the car. She ran to him, greatly excited:
"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 things with you ... And good-bye for the present."
She hurried, left him, had the good luck to find her horse and set off at a gallop in a direction leading away from La Mareze.
There was not the least doubt in her mind that the three shots had been fired by Prince Renine.
"It was he," she muttered, angrily, "it was he. No one else would be capable of such behaviour."
Besides, he had warned her, in his smiling, masterful way, that he would expect her.
She was weeping with rage and humiliation. At that moment, had she found herself face to face with Prince Renine, she could have struck him with her riding-whip.
Before her was the rugged and picturesque stretch of country which lies between the Orne and the Sarthe, above Alencon, and which is known as Little Switzerland. Steep hills compelled her frequently to moderate her pace, the more so as she had to cover some six miles before reaching her destination. But, though the speed at which she rode became less headlong, though her physical effort gradually slackened, she nevertheless persisted in her indignation against Prince Renine. She bore him a grudge not only for the unspeakable action of which he had been guilty, but also for his behaviour to her during the last three days, his persistent attentions, his assurance, his air of excessive politeness.
She was nearly there. In the bottom of a valley, an old park-wall, full of cracks and covered with moss and weeds, revealed the ball-turret of a chateau and a few windows with closed shutters. This was the Domaine de Halingre.
She followed the wall and turned a corner. In the middle of the crescent-shaped space before which lay the entrance-gates, Serge Renine stood waiting beside his horse.
She sprang to the ground, and, as he stepped forward, hat in hand, thanking her for coming, she cried:
"One word, monsieur, to begin with. Something quite inexplicable happened just now. Three shots were fired at a motor-car in which I was sitting. Did you 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 your troubles."
"I forbid you to speak like that. I am responsible for my own actions, and I decided upon them in perfect liberty."
"Madame, I overheard your conversation with M. Rossigny this morning and it did not appear to me that you were accompanying him with a light heart. I admit the ruthlessness and bad taste of my interference and I apologise for it humbly; but I risked being taken for a ruffian in order to give you a few hours for reflection."
"I have reflected fully, monsieur. When I have once made up my mind to a thing, I do not change it."
"Yes, madame, you do, sometimes. If not, why are you here instead of there?"
Hortense was confused for a moment. All her anger had subsided. She looked at Renine with the surprise which one experiences when confronted with certain persons who are unlike their fellows, more capable of performing unusual actions, more generous and disinterested. She realised perfectly that 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 who has taken the wrong turning.
Speaking very gently, he said:
"I know very little about you, madame, but enough to make me wish to be of use 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 by marriage, who proved to be of unsound mind, half insane indeed, and had to be confined. This made it impossible for you to obtain a divorce and compelled you, since your dowry had been squandered, to live with your uncle and at his expense. It's a depressing environment. The count and countess do not agree. Years ago, the count was deserted by his first wife, who ran away with the countess' first husband. The abandoned husband and wife decided out of spite to unite their fortunes, but found nothing but disappointment and ill-will in this second marriage. And you suffer the consequences. They lead a monotonous, narrow, lonely life for eleven months or more out of the year. One day, you met M. Rossigny, who fell in love with you and suggested an elopement. You did not care for him. But you were bored, your youth was being wasted, you longed for the unexpected, for adventure ... in a word, you accepted with the very definite intention of keeping your admirer at arm's length, but also with the rather ingenuous hope that the scandal would force your uncle's hand and make him account for his trusteeship and assure you of an independent existence. That is how you 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 this offer which he made so seriously, like a friend who asks nothing but to prove his devotion?
After a moment's silence, he took the two horses by the bridle and tied them up. Then he examined the heavy gates, each of which was strengthened by two planks nailed cross-wise. An electoral poster, dated twenty years earlier, showed that no one had entered the domain since that time.
Renine tore up one of the iron posts which supported a railing that ran round the crescent and used it as a lever. The rotten planks gave way. One of them uncovered the lock, which he attacked with a big knife, containing a number of blades and implements. A minute later, the gate opened on a waste of bracken which led up to a long, dilapidated building, with a turret 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 give you my word of honour that I shall not cross your path. Until then, grant me the privilege of your company. We made up our minds yesterday to inspect the chateau. Let us do so. Will you? It is as good a way as any of passing the time and I have a notion that it will not be uninteresting."
He had a way of talking which compelled obedience. He seemed to be commanding and entreating at the same time. Hortense did not even seek to shake off the enervation into which her will was slowly sinking. She followed him to a half-demolished flight of steps at the top of which was a 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 spacious hall paved with white and black flagstones, furnished with old sideboards and choir-stalls and adorned with a carved escutcheon which displayed the remains of armorial bearings, representing an eagle standing on a block of stone, all half-hidden behind a veil of cobwebs which hung down over a pair of folding-doors.
"The door of the drawing-room, evidently," said Renine.
He found this more difficult to open; and it was only by repeatedly charging 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 this series of forcible entries, which were accomplished with a really masterly skill. 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 sound of a light tap recurring at regular intervals; and they had only to listen attentively to recognise the ticking of a clock. Yes, it was this and nothing else that broke the profound silence of the dark room; it was indeed the deliberate ticking, rhythmical as the beat of a metronome, produced by a heavy brass pendulum. That was it! And nothing could be more impressive than the measured pulsation of this trivial mechanism, which by some miracle, some inexplicable phenomenon, had continued to live in the heart of the dead chateau.
"And yet," stammered Hortense, without daring to raise her voice, "no one has entered the house?"
"And it is quite impossible for that clock to have kept going for twenty years 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 room showed not the least sign of disorder. The chairs were in their places. Not a piece of furniture was missing. The people who had lived there and who had made it the most individual room in their house had gone away leaving everything just as it was, the books which they used to read, the knick-knacks on the tables and consoles.
Renine examined the old grandfather's clock, contained in its tall carved case 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 at their lowest point.
At that moment there was a click. The clock struck eight with a serious note which Hortense was never to forget.
"How extraordinary!" she said.
"Extraordinary indeed," said he, "for the works are exceedingly simple and would 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 was concealed by the weights. Holding it up to the light:
"A telescope," he said, thoughtfully. "Why did they hide it? ... And they left 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, sounding eight strokes. Renine closed the case and continued his inspection without putting his telescope down. A wide arch led from the drawing-room to a smaller apartment, a sort of smoking-room. This also was furnished, but contained a glass case for guns of which the rack was empty. Hanging on a 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! ... They tore off the leaves until the 5th of September ... And this is the anniversary! 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, at the last moment. I wonder what it was used for ... From the ground-floor windows you see nothing but the trees in the garden ... and the same, I expect, from all the windows ... We are in a valley, without the least open horizon ... To use the telescope, one would have to go up to the top of the house ... Shall we go up?"
She did not hesitate. The mystery surrounding the whole adventure excited her curiosity so keenly that she could think of nothing but accompanying Renine and assisting him in his investigations.
They went upstairs accordingly, and, on the second floor, came to a landing where they found the spiral staircase leading to the belvedere.
At the top of this was a platform in the open air, but surrounded by a parapet 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. They may have been blocked."
"In any case," she said, "the telescope was of no use up here either and we may as well go down again."
"I don't agree," he said. "Logic tells us that there must have been some gap through which the country could be seen and this was the spot where the telescope was used."
He hoisted himself by his wrists to the top of the parapet and then saw that this point of vantage commanded the whole of the valley, including the park, with its tall trees marking the horizon; and, beyond, a depression in a wood surmounting a hill, at a distance of some seven or eight hundred yards, stood another tower, squat and in ruins, covered with ivy from top to bottom.
Renine resumed his inspection. He seemed to consider that the key to the problem lay in the use to which the telescope was put and that the problem would be solved if only they could discover this use.
He studied the loop-holes one after the other. One of them, or rather the place which it had occupied, attracted his attention above the rest. In the middle of the layer of plaster, which had served to block it, there was a hollow filled with earth in which plants had grown. He pulled out the plants and removed the earth, thus clearing the mouth of a hole some five inches in diameter, which completely penetrated the wall. On bending forward, Renine perceived that this deep and narrow opening inevitably carried the eye, above the dense tops of the trees and through the depression in the hill, to the ivy-clad tower.
At the bottom of this channel, in a sort of groove which ran through it like a gutter, the telescope fitted so exactly that it was quite impossible to shift it, however little, either to the right or to the left.
Renine, after wiping the outside of the lenses, while taking care not to disturb the lie of the instrument by a hair's breadth, put his eye to the small 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 to be 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 ... the faces..."
"Oh!" she cried, turning faint with horror, "how awful!"
The field of the telescope, like the circular picture shown by a magic lantern, presented this spectacle: the platform of a broken tower, the walls of which were higher in the more distant part and formed as it were a back-drop, over which surged waves of ivy. In front, amid a cluster of bushes, were two human beings, a man and a woman, leaning back against a heap 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--or rather shreds of clothes and remnants of hats--but had lost their eyes, their cheeks, their chins, every particle of flesh, until they were actually and positively nothing more than two skeletons.
"Two skeletons," stammered Hortense. "Two skeletons with clothes on. Who carried them up there?"
"That man and that woman must have died at the top of the tower, years and years ago ... and their flesh rotted under their clothes and the ravens ate them."
"But it's hideous, hideous!" cried Hortense, pale as death, her face drawn with horror.
Half an hour later, Hortense Daniel and Renine left the Chateau de Halingre. Before their departure, they had gone as far as the ivy-grown tower, the remains of an old donjon-keep more than half demolished. The inside 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 ladders which now lay broken and scattered over the ground. The tower backed against the wall which marked the end of the park.
A curious fact, which surprised Hortense, was that Prince Renine had neglected to pursue a more minute enquiry, as though the matter had lost all interest for him. He did not even speak of it any longer; and, in the inn at which they stopped and took a light meal in the nearest village, it was she who asked the landlord about the abandoned chateau. But she learnt nothing from him, for the man was new to the district and could give her no particulars. He did not even know the name of the owner.
They turned their horses' heads towards La Mareze. Again and again Hortense recalled the squalid sight which had met their eyes. But Renine, who was in a lively mood and full of attentions to his companion, seemed utterly indifferent to those questions.
"But, after all," she exclaimed, impatiently, "we can't leave the matter there! It calls for a solution."
"As you say," he replied, "a solution is called for. M. Rossigny has to know 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. The thing 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 now the 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 terrible tragedy."
"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 he seemed quite serious.
"Well?" she asked, quivering with curiosity.
The light was beginning to wane. They had trotted at a good pace; and the hunt was returning as they neared La Mareze.
"Well," he said, "we shall get the rest of our information from people living round about ... from your uncle, for instance; and you will see how logically 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 the greatest fun in the world."
Once in the house, they separated. On going to her room, Hortense found her luggage and a furious letter from Rossigny in which he bade her good-bye and announced his departure.
Then Renine knocked at her door:
"Your uncle is in the library," he said. "Will you go down with me? I've sent word that I am coming."
She went with him. He added:
"One word more. This morning, when I thwarted your plans and begged you to trust me, I naturally undertook an obligation towards you which I mean to fulfill without delay. I want to give you a positive proof of this."
"The only obligation which you took upon yourself was to satisfy my curiosity."
"It shall be satisfied," he assured her, gravely, "and more fully than you can possibly imagine."
M. d'Aigleroche was alone. He was smoking his pipe and drinking sherry. He offered a glass to Renine, who refused.
"Well, Hortense!" he said, in a rather thick voice. "You know that it's pretty dull here, except in these September days. You must make the most of them. Have you had a pleasant ride with Renine?"
"That's just what I wanted to talk about, my dear sir," interrupted the prince.
"You must excuse me, but I have to go to the station in ten minutes, to meet 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, lit it and said:
"I must tell you that our ride happened to take us to an old domain which you are sure to know, the Domaine de Halingre."
"Certainly I know it. But it has been closed, boarded up for twenty-five years 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, two skeletons rather ... a man and a woman still wearing the clothes which they had on when they were murdered."
"Come, come, now! Murdered?"
"Yes; and that is what we have come to trouble you about. The tragedy must date 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 or disappearance."
"Oh, really!" said Renine, looking a little disappointed. "I hoped to obtain a few particulars."
"In that case, I apologise."
He consulted Hortense with a glance and moved towards the door. But on second thought:
"Could you not at least, my dear sir, bring me into touch with some persons in the neighbourhood, some members of your family, who might know more about it?"
"Of my family? And why?"
"Because the Domaine de Halingre used to belong and no doubt still belongs to 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 his glass of sherry and said:
"What's this you're telling me? I had no idea that we had any such neighbours."
Renine shook his head and smiled:
"I should be more inclined to believe, sir, that you were not very eager to admit any relationship between yourself ... and the unknown owner of the property."
"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 was done 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 be killed."
Prince Renine was making none but positive statements and his method suggested the belief that he supported by the strongest proofs.
M. d'Aigleroche strode up and down the room, with his hands behind his back. He ended by saying:
"I always had an instinctive feeling that something had happened, but I never 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 de Halingre. 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:
"I am sorry to have to amend that phrase, my dear sir. The truth, on the contrary, is that your cousin took his victims' lives in cold blood and in a cowardly manner. I never heard of a crime more deliberately and craftily planned."
"What is it that you know?"
The moment had come for Renine to explain himself, a solemn and anguish-stricken moment, the full gravity of which Hortense understood, though she had not yet divined any part of the tragedy which the prince unfolded step by step."
"It's a very simple story," he said. "There is every reason to believe that M. d'Aigleroche was married and that there was another couple living in the neighbourhood with whom the owner of the Domaine de Halingre were on friendly terms. What happened one day, which of these four persons first disturbed the relations between the two households, I am unable to say. But a likely version, which at once occurs to the mind, is that your cousin's wife, Madame d'Aigleroche, was in the habit of meeting the other husband in the ivy-covered tower, which had a door opening outside the estate. On discovering the intrigue, your cousin d'Aigleroche resolved to be revenged, but in such a manner that there should be no scandal and that no one even should ever know that the guilty pair had been killed. Now he had ascertained--as I did just now--that there was a part of the house, the belvedere, from which you can see, over the trees and the undulations of the park, the tower standing eight hundred yards away, and that this was the only place that overlooked the top of the tower. He therefore pierced a hole in the parapet, through one of the former loopholes, and from there, by using a telescope which fitted exactly in the grove which he had hollowed out, he watched the meetings of the two lovers. And it was from there, also, that, after carefully taking all his measurements, and calculating all his distances, on a Sunday, the 5th of September, when the house was empty, he killed them with two shots."
The truth was becoming apparent. The light of day was breaking. The count muttered:
"Yes, that's what must have happened. I expect that my cousin d'Aigleroche..."
"The murderer," Renine continued, "stopped up the loophole neatly with a clod of earth. No one would ever know that two dead bodies were decaying on the top of that tower which was never visited and of which he took the precaution to demolish the wooden stairs. Nothing therefore remained for him to do but to explain the disappearance of his wife and his friend. This presented no difficulty. He accused them of having eloped together."
Hortense gave a start. Suddenly, as though the last sentence were a complete and to her an absolutely unexpected revelation, she understood what Renine was trying to convey:
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I mean that M. d'Aigleroche accused his wife and his friend of eloping together."
"No, no!" she cried. "I can't allow that! ... You are speaking of a cousin of my uncle's? Why mix up the two stories?"
"Why mix up this story with another which took place at that time?" said the prince. "But I am not mixing them up, my dear madame; there is only one story and I am telling it as it happened."
Hortense turned to her uncle. He sat silent, with his arms folded; and his head remained in the shadow cast by the lamp-shade. Why had he not protested?
Renine repeated in a firm tone:
"There is only one story. On the evening of that very day, the 5th of September at eight o'clock, M. d'Aigleroche, doubtless alleging as his reason that he was going in pursuit of the runaway couple, left his house after boarding up the entrance. He went away, leaving all the rooms as they were and removing only the firearms from their glass case. At the last minute, he had a presentiment, which has been justified to-day, that the discovery of the telescope which had played so great a part in the preparation of his crime might serve as a clue to an enquiry; and he threw it into the clock-case, where, as luck would have it, it interrupted the swing of the pendulum. This unreflecting action, one of those which every criminal inevitably commits, was to betray him twenty years later. Just now, the blows which I struck to force the door of the drawing-room released the pendulum. The clock was set going, struck eight o'clock ... and I possessed the clue of thread which was to lead me through the labyrinth."
"Proofs!" stammered Hortense. "Proofs!"
"Proofs?" replied Renine, in a loud voice. "Why, there are any number of proofs; and you know them as well as I do. Who could have killed at that distance of eight hundred yards, except an expert shot, an ardent sportsman? You agree, M. d'Aigleroche, do you not? ... Proofs? Why was nothing removed from the house, nothing except the guns, those guns which an ardent sportsman cannot afford to leave behind--you agree, M. d'Aigleroche--those guns which we find here, hanging in trophies on the walls! ... Proofs? What about that date, the 5th of September, which was the date of the crime and which has left such a horrible memory in the criminal's mind that every year at this time--at this time alone--he surrounds himself with distractions and that every year, on this same 5th of September, he forgets his habits of temperance? Well, to-day, is the 5th of September ... Proofs? Why, if there weren't any others, would that not be 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 and was 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 against him.
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 for avenging 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 his own hands, as I charitably supposed. It may be a matter of a ruined man who covets his friend's money and his friend's wife and who, with this object in view, to secure his freedom, to get rid of his friend and of his own wife, draws them into a trap, suggests to them that they should visit that lonely tower and kills them by shooting them from a distance safely under cover."
"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 on intuitions and arguments which up to now have been extremely accurate. All the same, I admit that the second version may be incorrect. But, if so, why feel 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, is the 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 wife rich? Or were they both in love with each other and did M. d'Aigleroche plan 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 interest for the moment; but the police, with all the means at their disposal, would have no great difficulty in elucidating them."
M. d'Aigleroche staggered and had to steady himself against the back of a chair. Livid in the face, he spluttered:
"Are you going to inform the police?"
"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 will pursue the criminal to his dying hour, accompanied no doubt by domestic discord, hatred, a daily hell ... and, in the end, the necessity of returning to the tower and removing the traces of the two murders, the frightful punishment of climbing that tower, of touching those skeletons, of undressing them and burying them. That will be enough. We will not ask for more. We will not give it to the public to batten on and create a scandal which would recoil upon M. d'Aigleroche's niece. No, let us leave this disgraceful business alone."
The count resumed his seat at the table, with his hands clutching his forehead, and asked:
"Then why... ?"
"Why do I interfere?" said Renine. "What you mean is that I must have had some object in speaking. That is so. There must indeed be a penalty, however slight, and our interview must lead to some practical result. But have no fear: M. d'Aigleroche will be let off lightly."
The contest was ended. The count felt that he had only a small formality to fulfil, 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 me into 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 draft agreement between you and your niece Hortense Daniel, relating to her private fortune, which fortune was squandered and for which you are responsible. 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 document on 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'm convinced 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 the house were dressing for dinner, Renine handed the deed to Hortense. She seemed dazed by all that she had heard; and the thing that bewildered her even more than the relentless light shed upon her uncle's past was the miraculous insight and amazing lucidity displayed by this man: the man who for some hours had controlled events and conjured up before her eyes the actual 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 my independence. I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"Oh, that's not what I am asking you to say!" he answered. "My first and main object was to amuse you. Your life seemed so humdrum and lacking in the unexpected. Has it been so to-day?"
"How can you ask such a question? I have had the strangest and most stirring experiences."
"That is life," he said. "When one knows how to use one's eyes. Adventure exists everywhere, in the meanest hovel, under the mask of the wisest of men. Everywhere, if you are only willing, you will find an excuse for excitement, 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 worth living except in moments of adventure, the adventures of others or personal adventures. To-day's has upset you because it affected the innermost depths of your being. But those of others are no less stimulating. Would you like to 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 or the 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 a trifle sceptical. What you are saying to yourself is, 'How far does that lover of adventures want to make me go? It is quite obvious that I attract him; and sooner or later he would not be sorry to receive payment for his services.' You are quite right. We must have a formal contract."
"Very formal," said Hortense, preferring to give a jesting tone to the conversation. "Let me hear your proposals."
He reflected for a moment and continued:
"Well, we'll say this. The clock at Halingre gave eight strokes this afternoon, the day of the first adventure. Will you accept its decree and agree to carry out seven more of these delightful enterprises with me, during a period, for instance, of three months? And shall we say that, at the 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 I do not succeed in interesting you. But, if you accompany me to the end, if you allow me to begin and complete the eighth enterprise with you, in three months, on the 5th of December, at the very moment when the eighth stroke of that clock sounds--and it will sound, you may be sure of that, for the old brass pendulum will not stop swinging again--you will be pledged to grant me..."
"What?" she repeated, a little unnerved by waiting.
He was silent. He looked at the beautiful lips which he had meant to claim as his reward. He felt perfectly certain that Hortense had understood and he thought it unnecessary to speak more plainly:
"The mere delight of seeing you will be enough to satisfy me. It is not for me 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 on winning you."
Then she said:
"I demand that you shall restore to me a small, antique clasp, made of a cornelian set in a silver mount. It came to me from my mother and everyone knew that it used to bring her happiness and me too. Since the day when it vanished from my jewel-case, I have had nothing but unhappiness. Restore it to 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't know where ... I don't know how ... I know nothing about it..."
"I will find it," Renine declared, "and you shall be happy."