The Eight Strokes of the Clock
Chapter 2: The Water-Bottle
Four days after she had settled down in Paris, Hortense Daniel agreed to meet Prince Renine in the Bois. It was a glorious morning and they sat down on the terrace of the Restaurant Imperial, a little to one side.
Hortense, feeling glad to be alive, was in a playful mood, full of attractive grace. Renine, lest he should startle her, refrained from alluding to the compact into which they had entered at his suggestion. She told him how she had left La Mareze and said that she had not heard of Rossigny.
"I have," said Renine. "I've heard of him."
"Yes, he sent me a challenge. We fought a duel this morning. Rossigny got a scratch in the shoulder. That finished the duel. Let's talk of something else."
There was no further mention of Rossigny. Renine at once expounded to Hortense the plan of two enterprises which he had in view and in which he offered, with no great enthusiasm, to let her share:
"The finest adventure," he declared, "is that which we do not foresee. It comes unexpectedly, unannounced; and no one, save the initiated, realizes that an opportunity to act and to expend one's energies is close at hand. It has to be seized at once. A moment's hesitation may mean that we are too late. We are warned by a special sense, like that of a sleuth-hound which distinguishes the right scent from all the others that cross it."
The terrace was beginning to fill up around them. At the next table sat a young man reading a newspaper. They were able to see his insignificant profile and his long, dark moustache. From behind them, through an open window of the restaurant, came the distant strains of a band; in one of the rooms a few couples were dancing.
As Renine was paying for the refreshments, the young man with the long moustache stifled a cry and, in a choking voice, called one of the waiters:
"What do I owe you? ... No change? Oh, good Lord, hurry up!"
Renine, without a moment's hesitation, had picked up the paper. After casting a swift glance down the page, he read, under his breath:
"Maitre Dourdens, the counsel for the defence in the trial of Jacques
Aubrieux, has been received at the Elysee. We are informed that the
President of the Republic has refused to reprieve the condemned man
and that the execution will take place to-morrow morning."
After crossing the terrace, the young man found himself faced, at the entrance to the garden, by a lady and gentleman who blocked his way; and the latter said:
"Excuse me, sir, but I noticed your agitation. It's about Jacques Aubrieux, isn't it?"
"Yes, yes, Jacques Aubrieux," the young man stammered. "Jacques, the friend of my childhood. I'm hurrying to see his wife. She must be beside herself with grief."
"Can I offer you my assistance? I am Prince Renine. This lady and I would be happy to call on Madame Aubrieux and to place our services at her disposal."
The young man, upset by the news which he had read, seemed not to understand. He introduced himself awkwardly:
"My name is Dutreuil, Gaston Dutreuil."
Renine beckoned to his chauffeur, who was waiting at some little distance, and pushed Gaston Dutreuil into the car, asking:
"What address? Where does Madame Aubrieux live?"
"23 bis, Avenue du Roule."
After helping Hortense in, Renine repeated the address to the chauffeur and, as soon as they drove off, tried to question Gaston Dutreuil:
"I know very little of the case," he said. "Tell it to me as briefly as you can. Jacques Aubrieux killed one of his near relations, didn't he?"
"He is innocent, sir," replied the young man, who seemed incapable of giving the least explanation. "Innocent, I swear it. I've been Jacques' friend for twenty years ... He is innocent ... and it would be monstrous..."
There was nothing to be got out of him. Besides, it was only a short drive. They entered Neuilly through the Porte des Sablons and, two minutes later, stopped before a long, narrow passage between high walls which led them to a small, one-storeyed house.
Gaston Dutreuil rang.
"Madame is in the drawing-room, with her mother," said the maid who opened the door.
"I'll go in to the ladies," he said, taking Renine and Hortense with him.
It was a fair-sized, prettily-furnished room, which, in ordinary times, must have been used also as a study. Two women sat weeping, one of whom, elderly and grey-haired, came up to Gaston Dutreuil. He explained the reason for Renine's presence and she at once cried, amid her sobs:
"My daughter's husband is innocent, sir. Jacques? A better man never lived. He was so good-hearted! Murder his cousin? But he worshipped his cousin! I swear that he's not guilty, sir! And they are going to commit the infamy of putting him to death? Oh, sir, it will kill my daughter!"
Renine realized that all these people had been living for months under the obsession of that innocence and in the certainty that an innocent man could never be executed. The news of the execution, which was now inevitable, was driving them mad.
He went up to a poor creature bent in two whose face, a quite young face, framed in pretty, flaxen hair, was convulsed with desperate grief. Hortense, who had already taken a seat beside her, gently drew her head against her shoulder. Renine said to her:
"Madame, I do not know what I can do for you. But I give you my word of honour that, if any one in this world can be of use to you, it is myself. I therefore implore you to answer my questions as though the clear and definite wording of your replies were able to alter the aspect of things and as though you wished to make me share your opinion of Jacques Aubrieux. For he is innocent, is he not?"
"Oh, sir, indeed he is!" she exclaimed; and the woman's whole soul was in the words.
"You are certain of it. But you were unable to communicate your certainty to the court. Well, you must now compel me to share it. I am not asking you to go into details and to live again through the hideous torment which you have suffered, but merely to answer certain questions. Will you do this?"
Renine's influence over her was complete. With a few sentences Renine had succeeded in subduing her and inspiring her with the will to obey. And once more Hortense realized all the man's power, authority and persuasion.
"What was your husband?" he asked, after begging the mother and Gaston Dutreuil to preserve absolute silence.
"Lucky in business?"
"Until last year, yes."
"So there have been financial difficulties during the past few months?"
"And the murder was committed when?"
"Last March, on a Sunday."
"Who was the victim?"
"A distant cousin, M. Guillaume, who lived at Suresnes."
"What was the sum stolen?"
"Sixty thousand-franc notes, which this cousin had received the day before, in payment of a long-outstanding debt."
"Did your husband know that?"
"Yes. His cousin told him of it on the Sunday, in the course of a conversation on the telephone, and Jacques insisted that his cousin ought not to keep so large a sum in the house and that he ought to pay it into a bank next day."
"Was this in the morning?"
"At one o'clock in the afternoon. Jacques was to have gone to M. Guillaume on his motor-cycle. But he felt tired and told him that he would not go out. So he remained here all day."
"Yes. The two servants were out. I went to the Cinema des Ternes with my mother and our friend Dutreuil. In the evening, we learnt that M. Guillaume had been murdered. Next morning, Jacques was arrested."
"On what evidence?"
The poor creature hesitated to reply: the evidence of guilt had evidently been overwhelming. Then, obeying a sign from Renine, she answered without a pause:
"The murderer went to Suresnes on a motorcycle and the tracks discovered were those of my husband's machine. They found a handkerchief with my husband's initials; and the revolver which was used belonged to him. Lastly, one of our neighbours maintains that he saw my husband go out on his bicycle at three o'clock and another that he saw him come in at half-past four. The murder was committed at four o'clock."
"And what does Jacques Aubrieux say in his defence?"
"He declares that he slept all the afternoon. During that time, some one came who managed to unlock the cycle-shed and take the motor-cycle to go to Suresnes. As for the handkerchief and the revolver, they were in the tool-bag. There would be nothing surprising in the murderer's using them."
"It seems a plausible explanation."
"Yes, but the prosecution raised two objections. In the first place, nobody, absolutely nobody, knew that my husband was going to stay at home all day, because, on the contrary, it was his habit to go out on his motor-cycle every Sunday afternoon."
"And the second objection?"
She flushed and murmured:
"The murderer went to the pantry at M. Guillaume's and drank half a bottle of wine straight out of the bottle, which shows my husband's fingerprints."
It seemed as though her strength was exhausted and as though, at the same time, the unconscious hope which Renine's intervention had awakened in her had suddenly vanished before the accumulation of adverse facts. Again she collapsed, withdrawn into a sort of silent meditation from which Hortense's affectionate attentions were unable to distract her.
The mother stammered:
"He's not guilty, is he, sir? And they can't punish an innocent man. They haven't the right to kill my daughter. Oh dear, oh dear, what have we done to be tortured like this? My poor little Madeleine!"
"She will kill herself," said Dutreuil, in a scared voice. "She will never be able to endure the idea that they are guillotining Jacques. She will kill herself presently ... this very night..."
Renine was striding up and down the room.
"You can do nothing for her, can you?" asked Hortense.
"It's half-past eleven now," he replied, in an anxious tone, "and it's to happen to-morrow morning."
"Do you think he's guilty?"
"I don't know ... I don't know ... The poor woman's conviction is too impressive to be neglected. When two people have lived together for years, they can hardly be mistaken about each other to that degree. And yet..."
He stretched himself out on a sofa and lit a cigarette. He smoked three in succession, without a word from any one to interrupt his train of thought. From time to time he looked at his watch. Every minute was of such importance!
At last he went back to Madeleine Aubrieux, took her hands and said, very gently:
"You must not kill yourself. There is hope left until the last minute has come; and I promise you that, for my part, I will not be disheartened until that last minute. But I need your calmness and your confidence."
"I will be calm," she said, with a pitiable air.
"Well, wait for me. I shall be back in two hours from now. Will you come with us, M. Dutreuil?"
As they were stepping into his car, he asked the young man:
"Do you know any small, unfrequented restaurant, not too far inside Paris?"
"There's the Brasserie Lutetia, on the ground-floor of the house in which I live, on the Place des Ternes."
"Capital. That will be very handy."
They scarcely spoke on the way. Renine, however, said to Gaston Dutreuil:
"So far as I remember, the numbers of the notes are known, aren't they?"
"Yes. M. Guillaume had entered the sixty numbers in his pocket-book."
Renine muttered, a moment later:
"That's where the whole problem lies. Where are the notes? If we could lay our hands on them, we should know everything."
At the Brasserie Lutetia there was a telephone in the private room where he asked to have lunch served. When the waiter had left him alone with Hortense and Dutreuil, he took down the receiver with a resolute air:
"Hullo! ... Prefecture of police, please ... Hullo! Hullo! ... Is that the Prefecture of police? Please put me on to the criminal investigation department. I have a very important communication to make. You can say it's Prince Renine."
Holding the receiver in his hand, he turned to Gaston Dutreuil:
"I can ask some one to come here, I suppose? We shall be quite undisturbed?"
He listened again:
"The secretary to the head of the criminal investigation department? Oh, excellent! Mr. Secretary, I have on several occasions been in communication with M. Dudouis and have given him information which has been of great use to him. He is sure to remember Prince Renine. I may be able to-day to show him where the sixty thousand-franc notes are hidden which Aubrieux the murderer stole from his cousin. If he's interested in the proposal, beg him to send an inspector to the Brasserie Lutetia, Place des Ternes. I shall be there with a lady and M. Dutreuil, Aubrieux's friend. Good day, Mr. Secretary."
When Renine hung up the instrument, he saw the amazed faces of Hortense and of Gaston Dutreuil confronting him.
"Then you know? You've discovered... ?"
"Nothing," he said, laughing.
"Well, I'm acting as though I knew. It's not a bad method. Let's have some lunch, shall we?"
The clock marked a quarter to one.
"The man from the prefecture will be here," he said, "in twenty minutes at latest."
"And if no one comes?" Hortense objected.
"That would surprise me. Of course, if I had sent a message to M. Dudouis saying, 'Aubrieux is innocent, ' I should have failed to make any impression. It's not the least use, on the eve of an execution, to attempt to convince the gentry of the police or of the law that a man condemned to death is innocent. No. From henceforth Jacques Aubrieux belongs to the executioner. But the prospect of securing the sixty bank-notes is a windfall worth taking a little trouble over. Just think: that was the weak point in the indictment, those sixty notes which they were unable to trace."
"But, as you know nothing of their whereabouts..."
"My dear girl--I hope you don't mind my calling you so?--my dear girl, when a man can't explain this or that physical phenomenon, he adopts some sort of theory which explains the various manifestations of the phenomenon and says that everything happened as though the theory were correct. That's what I am doing."
"That amounts to saying that you are going upon a supposition?"
Renine did not reply. Not until some time later, when lunch was over, did he say:
"Obviously I am going upon a supposition. If I had several days before me, I should take the trouble of first verifying my theory, which is based upon intuition quite as much as upon a few scattered facts. But I have only two hours; and I am embarking on the unknown path as though I were certain that it would lead me to the truth."
"And suppose you are wrong?"
"I have no choice. Besides, it is too late. There's a knock. Oh, one word more! Whatever I may say, don't contradict me. Nor you, M. Dutreuil."
He opened the door. A thin man, with a red imperial, entered:
"Yes, sir. You, of course, are from M. Dudouis?"
And the newcomer gave his name:
"I am obliged to you for coming so promptly, Mr. Chief-inspector," said Prince Renine, "and I hope that M. Dudouis will not regret having placed you at my disposal."
"At your entire disposal, in addition to two inspectors whom I have left in the square outside and who have been in the case, with me, from the first."
"I shall not detain you for any length of time," said Renine, "and I will not even ask you to sit down. We have only a few minutes in which to settle everything. You know what it's all about?"
"The sixty thousand-franc notes stolen from M. Guillaume. I have the numbers here."
Renine ran his eyes down the slip of paper which the chief-inspector handed him and said:
"That's right. The two lists agree."
Inspector Morisseau seemed greatly excited:
"The chief attaches the greatest importance to your discovery. So you will be able to show me?..."
Renine was silent for a moment and then declared:
"Mr. Chief-inspector, a personal investigation--and a most exhaustive investigation it was, as I will explain to you presently--has revealed the fact that, on his return from Suresnes, the murderer, after replacing the motor-cycle in the shed in the Avenue du Roule, ran to the Ternes and entered this house."
"But what did he come here for?"
"To hide the proceeds of his theft, the sixty bank-notes."
"How do you mean? Where?"
"In a flat of which he had the key, on the fifth floor."
Gaston Dutreuil exclaimed, in amazement:
"But there's only one flat on the fifth floor and that's the one I live in!"
"Exactly; and, as you were at the cinema with Madame Aubrieux and her mother, advantage was taken of your absence..."
"Impossible! No one has the key except myself."
"One can get in without a key."
"But I have seen no marks of any kind."
"Come, let us understand one another. You say the bank-notes were hidden in M. Dutreuil's flat?"
"Then, as Jacques Aubrieux was arrested the next morning, the notes ought to be there still?"
"That's my opinion."
Gaston Dutreuil could not help laughing:
"But that's absurd! I should have found them!"
"Did you look for them?"
"No. But I should have come across them at any moment. The place isn't big enough to swing a cat in. Would you care to see it?"
"However small it may be, it's large enough to hold sixty bits of paper."
"Of course, everything is possible," said Dutreuil. "Still, I must repeat that nobody, to my knowledge, has been to my rooms; that there is only one key; that I am my own housekeeper; and that I can't quite understand..."
Hortense too could not understand. With her eyes fixed on Prince Renine's, she was trying to read his innermost thoughts. What game was he playing? Was it her duty to support his statements? She ended by saying:
"Mr. Chief-inspector, since Prince Renine maintains that the notes have been put away upstairs, wouldn't the simplest thing be to go and look? M. Dutreuil will take us up, won't you?"
"This minute," said the young man. "As you say, that will be simplest."
They all four climbed the five storys of the house and, after Dutreuil had opened the door, entered a tiny set of chambers consisting of a sitting-room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, all arranged with fastidious neatness. It was easy to see that every chair in the sitting-room occupied a definite place. The pipes had a rack to themselves; so had the matches. Three walking-sticks, arranged according to their length, hung from three nails. On a little table before the window a hat-box, filled with tissue-paper, awaited the felt hat which Dutreuil carefully placed in it. He laid his gloves beside it, on the lid.
He did all this with sedate and mechanical movements, like a man who loves to see things in the places which he has chosen for them. Indeed, no sooner did Renine shift something than Dutreuil made a slight gesture of protest, took out his hat again, stuck it on his head, opened the window and rested his elbows on the sill, with his back turned to the room, as though he were unable to bear the sight of such vandalism.
"You're positive, are you not?" the inspector asked Renine.
"Yes, yes, I'm positive that the sixty notes were brought here after the murder."
"Let's look for them."
This was easy and soon done. In half an hour, not a corner remained unexplored, not a knick-knack unlifted.
"Nothing," said Inspector Morisseau. "Shall we continue?"
"No," replied Renine, "The notes are no longer here."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that they have been removed."
"By whom? Can't you make a more definite accusation?"
Renine did not reply. But Gaston Dutreuil wheeled round. He was choking and spluttered:
"Mr. Inspector, would you like me to make the accusation more definite, as conveyed by this gentleman's remarks? It all means that there's a dishonest man here, that the notes hidden by the murderer were discovered and stolen by that dishonest man and deposited in another and safer place. That is your idea, sir, is it not? And you accuse me of committing this theft don't you?"
He came forward, drumming his chest with his fists: "Me! Me! I found the notes, did I, and kept them for myself? You dare to suggest that!"
Renine still made no reply. Dutreuil flew into a rage and, taking Inspector Morisseau aside, exclaimed:
"Mr. Inspector, I strongly protest against all this farce and against the part which you are unconsciously playing in it. Before your arrival, Prince Renine told this lady and myself that he knew nothing, that he was venturing into this affair at random and that he was following the first road that offered, trusting to luck. Do you deny it, sir?"
Renine did not open his lips.
"Answer me, will you? Explain yourself; for, really, you are putting forward the most improbable facts without any proof whatever. It's easy enough to say that I stole the notes. And how were you to know that they were here at all? Who brought them here? Why should the murderer choose this flat to hide them in? It's all so stupid, so illogical and absurd! ... Give us your proofs, sir ... one single proof!"
Inspector Morisseau seemed perplexed. He questioned Renine with a glance. Renine said:
"Since you want specific details, we will get them from Madame Aubrieux herself. She's on the telephone. Let's go downstairs. We shall know all about it in a minute."
Dutreuil shrugged his shoulders:
"As you please; but what a waste of time!"
He seemed greatly irritated. His long wait at the window, under a blazing sun, had thrown him into a sweat. He went to his bedroom and returned with a bottle of water, of which he took a few sips, afterwards placing the bottle on the window-sill:
"Come along," he said.
Prince Renine chuckled.
"You seem to be in a hurry to leave the place."