The Eight Strokes of the Clock
Chapter 3: The Case of Jean Louis
"Monsieur," continued the young girl, addressing Serge Renine, "it was while I was spending the Easter holidays at Nice with my father that I made the acquaintance of Jean Louis d'Imbleval..."
Renine interrupted her:
"Excuse me, mademoiselle, but just now you spoke of this young man as Jean Louis Vaurois."
"That's his name also," she said.
"Has he two names then?"
"I don't know ... I don't know anything about it," she said, with some embarrassment, "and that is why, by Hortense's advice, I came to ask for your help."
This conversation was taking place in Renine's flat on the Boulevard Haussmann, to which Hortense had brought her friend Genevieve Aymard, a slender, pretty little creature with a face over-shadowed by an expression of the greatest melancholy.
"Renine will be successful, take my word for it, Genevieve. You will, Renine, won't you?"
"Please tell me the rest of the story, mademoiselle," he said.
"I was already engaged at the time to a man whom I loathe and detest. My father was trying to force me to marry him and is still trying to do so. Jean Louis and I felt the keenest sympathy for each other, a sympathy that soon developed into a profound and passionate affection which, I can assure you, was equally sincere on both sides. On my return to Paris, Jean Louis, who lives in the country with his mother and his aunt, took rooms in our part of the town; and, as I am allowed to go out by myself, we used to see each other daily. I need not tell you that we were engaged to be married. I told my father so. And this is what he said: 'I don't particularly like the fellow. But, whether it's he or another, what I want is that you should get married. So let him come and ask for your hand. If not, you must do as I say.' In the middle of June, Jean Louis went home to arrange matters with his mother and aunt. I received some passionate letters; and then just these few words:
'There are too many obstacles in the way of our happiness. I give up.
I am mad with despair. I love you more than ever. Good-bye and forgive
"Since then, I have received nothing: no reply to my letters and telegrams."
"Perhaps he has fallen in love with somebody else?" asked Renine. "Or there may be some old connection which he is unable to shake off."
Genevieve shook her head:
"Monsieur, believe me, if our engagement had been broken off for an ordinary reason, I should not have allowed Hortense to trouble you. But it is something quite different, I am absolutely convinced. There's a mystery in Jean Louis' life, or rather an endless number of mysteries which hamper and pursue him. I never saw such distress in a human face; and, from the first moment of our meeting, I was conscious in him of a grief and melancholy which have always persisted, even at times when he was giving himself to our love with the greatest confidence."
"But your impression must have been confirmed by minor details, by things which happened to strike you as peculiar?"
"I don't quite know what to say."
"These two names, for instance?"
"Yes, there was certainly that."
"By what name did he introduce himself to you?"
"Jean Louis d'Imbleval."
"But Jean Louis Vaurois?"
"That's what my father calls him."
"Because that was how he was introduced to my father, at Nice, by a gentleman who knew him. Besides, he carries visiting-cards which describe him under either name."
"Have you never questioned him on this point?"
"Yes, I have, twice. The first time, he said that his aunt's name was Vaurois and his mother's d'Imbleval."
"And the second time?"
"He told me the contrary: he spoke of his mother as Vaurois and of his aunt as d'Imbleval. I pointed this out. He coloured up and I thought it better not to question him any further."
"Does he live far from Paris?"
"Right down in Brittany: at the Manoir d'Elseven, five miles from Carhaix."
Renine rose and asked the girl, seriously:
"Are you quite certain that he loves you, mademoiselle?"
"I am certain of it and I know too that he represents all my life and all my happiness. He alone can save me. If he can't, then I shall be married in a week's time to a man whom I hate. I have promised my father; and the banns have been published."
"We shall leave for Carhaix, Madame Daniel and I, this evening," said Renine.
That evening he and Hortense took the train for Brittany. They reached Carhaix at ten o'clock in the morning; and, after lunch, at half past twelve o'clock they stepped into a car borrowed from a leading resident of the district.
"You're looking a little pale, my dear," said Renine, with a laugh, as they alighted by the gate of the garden at Elseven.
"I'm very fond of Genevieve," she said. "She's the only friend I have. And I'm feeling frightened."
He called her attention to the fact that the central gate was flanked by two wickets bearing the names of Madame d'Imbleval and Madame Vaurois respectively. Each of these wickets opened on a narrow path which ran among the shrubberies of box and aucuba to the left and right of the main avenue. The avenue itself led to an old manor-house, long, low and picturesque, but provided with two clumsily-built, ugly wings, each in a different style of architecture and each forming the destination of one of the side-paths. Madame d'Imbleval evidently lived on the left and Madame Vaurois on the right.
Hortense and Renine listened. Shrill, hasty voices were disputing inside the house. The sound came through one of the windows of the ground-floor, which was level with the garden and covered throughout its length with red creepers and white roses.
"We can't go any farther," said Hortense. "It would be indiscreet."
"All the more reason," whispered Renine. "Look here: if we walk straight ahead, we shan't be seen by the people who are quarrelling."
The sounds of conflict were by no means abating; and, when they reached the window next to the front-door, through the roses and creepers they could both see and hear two old ladies shrieking at the tops of their voices and shaking their fists at each other.
The women were standing in the foreground, in a large dining-room where the table was not yet cleared; and at the farther side of the table sat a young man, doubtless Jean Louis himself, smoking his pipe and reading a newspaper, without appearing to trouble about the two old harridans.
One of these, a thin, tall woman, was wearing a purple silk dress; and her hair was dressed in a mass of curls much too yellow for the ravaged face around which they tumbled. The other, who was still thinner, but quite short, was bustling round the room in a cotton dressing-gown and displayed a red, painted face blazing with anger:
"A baggage, that's what you are!" she yelped. "The wickedest woman in the world and a thief into the bargain!"
"I, a thief!" screamed the other.
"What about that business with the ducks at ten francs apiece: don't you call that thieving?"
"Hold your tongue, you low creature! Who stole the fifty-franc note from my dressing-table? Lord, that I should have to live with such a wretch!"
The other started with fury at the outrage and, addressing the young man, cried:
"Jean, are you going to sit there and let me be insulted by your hussy of a d'Imbleval?"
And the tall one retorted, furiously:
"Hussy! Do you hear that, Louis? Look at her, your Vaurois! She's got the airs of a superannuated barmaid! Make her stop, can't you?"
Suddenly Jean Louis banged his fist upon the table, making the plates and dishes jump, and shouted:
"Be quiet, both of you, you old lunatics!"
They turned upon him at once and loaded him with abuse:
"Coward! ... Hypocrite! ... Liar! ... A pretty sort of son you are! ... The son of a slut and not much better yourself!..."
The insults rained down upon him. He stopped his ears with his fingers and writhed as he sat at table like a man who has lost all patience and has need to restrain himself lest he should fall upon his enemy.
"Now's the time to go in."
"In among all those infuriated people?" protested Hortense.
"Exactly. We shall see them better with their masks off."
And, with a determined step, he walked to the door, opened it and entered the room, followed by Hortense.
His advent gave rise to a feeling of stupefaction. The two women stopped yelling, but were still scarlet in the face and trembling with rage. Jean Louis, who was very pale, stood up.
Profiting by the general confusion, Renine said briskly:
"Allow me to introduce myself. I am Prince Renine. This is Madame Daniel. We are friends of Mlle. Genevieve Aymard and we have come in her name. I have a letter from her addressed to you, monsieur."
Jean Louis, already disconcerted by the newcomers' arrival, lost countenance entirely on hearing the name of Genevieve. Without quite knowing what he was saying and with the intention of responding to Renine's courteous behaviour, he tried in his turn to introduce the two ladies and let fall the astounding words:
"My mother, Madame d'Imbleval; my mother, Madame Vaurois."
For some time no one spoke. Renine bowed. Hortense did not know with whom she should shake hands, with Madame d'Imbleval, the mother, or with Madame Vaurois, the mother. But what happened was that Madame d'Imbleval and Madame Vaurois both at the same time attempted to snatch the letter which Renine was holding out to Jean Louis, while both at the same time mumbled:
"Mlle. Aymard! ... She has had the coolness ... she has had the audacity... !"
Then Jean Louis, recovering his self-possession, laid hold of his mother d'Imbleval and pushed her out of the room by a door on the left and next of his mother Vaurois and pushed her out of the room by a door on the right. Then, returning to his two visitors, he opened the envelope and read, in an undertone:
"I am to be married in a week, Jean Louis. Come to my rescue, I beseech
you. My friend Hortense and Prince Renine will help you to overcome the
obstacles that baffle you. Trust them. I love you.
He was a rather dull-looking young man, whose very swarthy, lean and bony face certainly bore the expression of melancholy and distress described by Genevieve. Indeed, the marks of suffering were visible in all his harassed features, as well as in his sad and anxious eyes.
He repeated Genevieve's name over and over again, while looking about him with a distracted air. He seemed to be seeking a course of conduct.
He seemed on the point of offering an explanation but could find nothing to say. The sudden intervention had taken him at a disadvantage, like an unforseen attack which he did not know how to meet.
Renine felt that the adversary would capitulate at the first summons. The man had been fighting so desperately during the last few months and had suffered so severely in the retirement and obstinate silence in which he had taken refuge that he was not thinking of defending himself. Moreover, how could he do so, now that they had forced their way into the privacy of his odious existence?
"Take my word for it, monsieur," declared Renine, "that it is in your best interests to confide in us. We are Genevieve Aymard's friends. Do not hesitate to speak."
"I can hardly hesitate," he said, "after what you have just heard. This is the life I lead, monsieur. I will tell you the whole secret, so that you may tell it to Genevieve. She will then understand why I have not gone back to her ... and why I have not the right to do so."
He pushed a chair forward for Hortense. The two men sat down, and, without any need of further persuasion, rather as though he himself felt a certain relief in unburdening himself, he said:
"You must not be surprised, monsieur, if I tell my story with a certain flippancy, for, as a matter of fact, it is a frankly comical story and cannot fail to make you laugh. Fate often amuses itself by playing these imbecile tricks, these monstrous farces which seem as though they must have been invented by the brain of a madman or a drunkard. Judge for yourself. Twenty-seven years ago, the Manoir d'Elseven, which at that time consisted only of the main building, was occupied by an old doctor who, to increase his modest means, used to receive one or two paying guests. In this way, Madame d'Imbleval spent the summer here one year and Madame Vaurois the following summer. Now these two ladies did not know each other. One of them was married to a Breton of a merchant-vessel and the other to a commercial traveller from the Vendee.
"It so happened that they lost their husbands at the same time, at a period when each of them was expecting a baby. And, as they both lived in the country, at places some distance from any town, they wrote to the old doctor that they intended to come to his house for their confinement ... He agreed. They arrived almost on the same day, in the autumn. Two small bedrooms were prepared for them, behind the room in which we are sitting. The doctor had engaged a nurse, who slept in this very room. Everything was perfectly satisfactory. The ladies were putting the finishing touches to their baby-clothes and were getting on together splendidly. They were determined that their children should be boys and had chosen the names of Jean and Louis respectively ... One evening the doctor was called out to a case and drove off in his gig with the man-servant, saying that he would not be back till next day. In her master's absence, a little girl who served as maid-of-all-work ran out to keep company with her sweetheart. These accidents destiny turned to account with diabolical malignity. At about midnight, Madame d'Imbleval was seized with the first pains. The nurse, Mlle. Boussignol, had had some training as a midwife and did not lose her head. But, an hour later, Madame Vaurois' turn came; and the tragedy, or I might rather say the tragi-comedy, was enacted amid the screams and moans of the two patients and the bewildered agitation of the nurse running from one to the other, bewailing her fate, opening the window to call out for the doctor or falling on her knees to implore the aid of Providence ... Madame Vaurois was the first to bring a son into the world. Mlle. Boussignol hurriedly carried him in here, washed and tended him and laid him in the cradle prepared for him ... But Madame d'Imbleval was screaming with pain; and the nurse had to attend to her while the newborn child was yelling like a stuck pig and the terrified mother, unable to stir from her bed, fainted ... Add to this all the wretchedness of darkness and disorder, the only lamp, without any oil, for the servant had neglected to fill it, the candles burning out, the moaning of the wind, the screeching of the owls, and you will understand that Mlle. Boussignol was scared out of her wits. However, at five o'clock in the morning, after many tragic incidents, she came in here with the d'Imbleval baby, likewise a boy, washed and tended him, laid him in his cradle and went off to help Madame Vaurois, who had come to herself and was crying out, while Madame d'Imbleval had fainted in her turn. And, when Mlle. Boussignol, having settled the two mothers, but half-crazed with fatigue, her brain in a whirl, returned to the new-born children, she realized with horror that she had wrapped them in similar binders, thrust their feet into similar woolen socks and laid them both, side by side, in the same cradle, so that it was impossible to tell Louis d'Imbleval from Jean Vaurois! ... To make matters worse, when she lifted one of them out of the cradle, she found that his hands were cold as ice and that he had ceased to breathe. He was dead. What was his name and what the survivor's? ... Three hours later, the doctor found the two women in a condition of frenzied delirium, while the nurse was dragging herself from one bed to the other, entreating the two mothers to forgive her. She held me out first to one, then to the other, to receive their caresses--for I was the surviving child--and they first kissed me and then pushed me away; for, after all, who was I? The son of the widowed Madame d'Imbleval and the late merchant-captain or the son of the widowed Madame Vaurois and the late commercial traveller? There was not a clue by which they could tell ... The doctor begged each of the two mothers to sacrifice her rights, at least from the legal point of view, so that I might be called either Louis d'Imbleval or Jean Vaurois. They refused absolutely. 'Why Jean Vaurois, if he's a d'Imbleval?' protested the one. 'Why Louis d'Imbleval, if he's a Vaurois?' retorted the other. And I was registered under the name of Jean Louis, the son of an unknown father and mother."
Prince Renine had listened in silence. But Hortense, as the story approached its conclusion, had given way to a hilarity which she could no longer restrain and suddenly, in spite of all her efforts, she burst into a fit of the wildest laughter:
"Forgive me," she said, her eyes filled with tears, "do forgive me; it's too much for my nerves..."
"Don't apologize, madame," said the young man, gently, in a voice free from resentment. "I warned you that my story was laughable; I, better than any one, know how absurd, how nonsensical it is. Yes, the whole thing is perfectly grotesque. But believe me when I tell you that it was no fun in reality. It seems a humorous situation and it remains humorous by the force of circumstances; but it is also horrible. You can see that for yourself, can't you? The two mothers, neither of whom was certain of being a mother, but neither of whom was certain that she was not one, both clung to Jean Louis. He might be a stranger; on the other hand, he might be their own flesh and blood. They loved him to excess and fought for him furiously. And, above all, they both came to hate each other with a deadly hatred. Differing completely in character and education and obliged to live together because neither was willing to forego the advantage of her possible maternity, they lived the life of irreconcilable enemies who can never lay their weapons aside ... I grew up in the midst of this hatred and had it instilled into me by both of them. When my childish heart, hungering for affection, inclined me to one of them, the other would seek to inspire me with loathing and contempt for her. In this manor-house, which they bought on the old doctor's death and to which they added the two wings, I was the involuntary torturer and their daily victim. Tormented as a child, and, as a young man, leading the most hideous of lives, I doubt if any one on earth ever suffered more than I did."
"You ought to have left them!" exclaimed Hortense, who had stopped laughing.
"One can't leave one's mother; and one of those two women was my mother. And a woman can't abandon her son; and each of them was entitled to believe that I was her son. We were all three chained together like convicts, with chains of sorrow, compassion, doubt and also of hope that the truth might one day become apparent. And here we still are, all three, insulting one another and blaming one another for our wasted lives. Oh, what a hell! And there was no escaping it. I tried often enough ... but in vain. The broken bonds became tied again. Only this summer, under the stimulus of my love for Genevieve, I tried to free myself and did my utmost to persuade the two women whom I call mother. And then ... and then! I was up against their complaints, their immediate hatred of the wife, of the stranger, whom I was proposing to force upon them ... I gave way. What sort of a life would Genevieve have had here, between Madame d'Imbleval and Madame Vaurois? I had no right to victimize her."
Jean Louis, who had been gradually becoming excited, uttered these last words in a firm voice, as though he would have wished his conduct to be ascribed to conscientious motives and a sense of duty. In reality, as Renine and Hortense clearly saw, his was an unusually weak nature, incapable of reacting against a ridiculous position from which he had suffered ever since he was a child and which he had come to look upon as final and irremediable. He endured it as a man bears a cross which he has no right to cast aside; and at the same time he was ashamed of it. He had never spoken of it to Genevieve, from dread of ridicule; and afterwards, on returning to his prison, he had remained there out of habit and weakness.
He sat down to a writing-table and quickly wrote a letter which he handed to Renine:
"Would you be kind enough to give this note to Mlle. Aymard and beg her once more to forgive me?"
Renine did not move and, when the other pressed the letter upon him, he took it and tore it up.
"What does this mean?" asked the young man.
"It means that I will not charge myself with any message."
"Because you are coming with us."
"Yes. You will see Mlle. Aymard to-morrow and ask for her hand in marriage."
Jean Louis looked at Renine with a rather disdainful air, as though he were thinking:
"Here's a man who has not understood a word of what I've been explaining to him."
But Hortense went up to Renine:
"Why do you say that?"
"Because it will be as I say."
"But you must have your reasons?"
"One only; but it will be enough, provided this gentleman is so kind as to help me in my enquiries."
"Enquiries? With what object?" asked the young man.
"With the object of proving that your story is not quite accurate."
Jean Louis took umbrage at this:
"I must ask you to believe, monsieur, that I have not said a word which is not the exact truth."
"I expressed myself badly," said Renine, with great kindliness. "Certainly you have not said a word that does not agree with what you believe to be the exact truth. But the truth is not, cannot be what you believe it to be."
The young man folded his arms:
"In any case, monsieur, it seems likely that I should know the truth better than you do."
"Why better? What happened on that tragic night can obviously be known to you only at secondhand. You have no proofs. Neither have Madame d'Imbleval and Madame Vaurois."
"No proofs of what?" exclaimed Jean Louis, losing patience.
"No proofs of the confusion that took place."
"What! Why, it's an absolute certainty! The two children were laid in the same cradle, with no marks to distinguish one from the other; and the nurse was unable to tell..."
"At least, that's her version of it," interrupted Renine.
"What's that? Her version? But you're accusing the woman."
"I'm accusing her of nothing."
"Yes, you are: you're accusing her of lying. And why should she lie? She had no interest in doing so; and her tears and despair are so much evidence of her good faith. For, after all, the two mothers were there ... they saw the woman weeping ... they questioned her ... And then, I repeat, what interest had she... ?"
Jean Louis was greatly excited. Close beside him, Madame d'Imbleval and Madame Vaurois, who had no doubt been listening behind the doors and who had stealthily entered the room, stood stammering, in amazement:
"No, no ... it's impossible ... We've questioned her over and over again. Why should she tell a lie?..."
"Speak, monsieur, speak," Jean Louis enjoined. "Explain yourself. Give your reasons for trying to cast doubt upon an absolute truth!"