The Eight Strokes of the Clock
Chapter 4: The Tell-Tale Film
"Do look at the man who's playing the butler," said Serge Renine.
"What is there peculiar about him?" asked Hortense.
They were sitting in the balcony at a picture-palace, to which Hortense had asked to be taken so that she might see on the screen the daughter of a lady, now dead, who used to give her piano-lessons. Rose Andree, a lovely girl with lissome movements and a smiling face, was that evening figuring in a new film, The Happy Princess, which she lit up with her high spirits and her warm, glowing beauty.
Renine made no direct reply, but, during a pause in the performance, continued:
"I sometimes console myself for an indifferent film by watching the subordinate characters. It seems to me that those poor devils, who are made to rehearse certain scenes ten or twenty times over, must often be thinking of other things than their parts at the time of the final exposure. And it's great fun noting those little moments of distraction which reveal something of their temperament, of their instinct self. As, for instance, in the case of that butler: look!"
The screen now showed a luxuriously served table. The Happy Princess sat at the head, surrounded by all her suitors. Half-a-dozen footmen moved about the room, under the orders of the butler, a big fellow with a dull, coarse face, a common appearance and a pair of enormous eyebrows which met across his forehead in a single line.
"He looks a brute," said Hortense, "but what do you see in him that's peculiar?"
"Just note how he gazes at the princess and tell me if he doesn't stare at her oftener than he ought to."
"I really haven't noticed anything, so far," said Hortense.
"Why, of course he does!" Serge Renine declared. "It is quite obvious that in actual life he entertains for Rose Andree personal feelings which are quite out of place in a nameless servant. It is possible that, in real life, no one has any idea of such a thing; but, on the screen, when he is not watching himself, or when he thinks that the actors at rehearsal cannot see him, his secret escapes him. Look..."
The man was standing still. It was the end of dinner. The princess was drinking a glass of champagne and he was gloating over her with his glittering eyes half-hidden behind their heavy lids.
Twice again they surprised in his face those strange expressions to which Renine ascribed an emotional meaning which Hortense refused to see:
"It's just his way of looking at people," she said.
The first part of the film ended. There were two parts, divided by an entr'acte. The notice on the programme stated that "a year had elapsed and that the Happy Princess was living in a pretty Norman cottage, all hung with creepers, together with her husband, a poor musician."
The princess was still happy, as was evident on the screen, still as attractive as ever and still besieged by the greatest variety of suitors. Nobles and commoners, peasants and financiers, men of all kinds fell swooning at her feet; and prominent among them was a sort of boorish solitary, a shaggy, half-wild woodcutter, whom she met whenever she went out for a walk. Armed with his axe, a formidable, crafty being, he prowled around the cottage; and the spectators felt with a sense of dismay that a peril was hanging over the Happy Princess' head.
"Look at that!" whispered Renine. "Do you realise who the man of the woods is?"
"Simply the butler. The same actor is doubling the two parts."
In fact, notwithstanding the new figure which he cut, the butler's movements and postures were apparent under the heavy gait and rounded shoulders of the woodcutter, even as under the unkempt beard and long, thick hair the once clean-shaven face was visible with the cruel expression and the bushy line of the eyebrows.
The princess, in the background, was seen to emerge from the thatched cottage. The man hid himself behind a clump of trees. From time to time, the screen displayed, on an enormously enlarged scale, his fiercely rolling eyes or his murderous hands with their huge thumbs.
"The man frightens me," said Hortense. "He is really terrifying."
"Because he's acting on his own account," said Renine. "You must understand that, in the space of three or four months that appears to separate the dates at which the two films were made, his passion has made progress; and to him it is not the princess who is coming but Rose Andree."
The man crouched low. The victim approached, gaily and unsuspectingly. She passed, heard a sound, stopped and looked about her with a smiling air which became attentive, then uneasy, and then more and more anxious. The woodcutter had pushed aside the branches and was coming through the copse.
They were now standing face to face. He opened his arms as though to seize her. She tried to scream, to call out for help; but the arms closed around her before she could offer the slightest resistance. Then he threw her over his shoulder and began to run.
"Are you satisfied?" whispered Renine. "Do you think that this fourth-rate actor would have had all that strength and energy if it had been any other woman than Rose Andree?"
Meanwhile the woodcutter was crossing the skirt of a forest and plunging through great trees and masses of rocks. After setting the princess down, he cleared the entrance to a cave which the daylight entered by a slanting crevice.
A succession of views displayed the husband's despair, the search and the discovery of some small branches which had been broken by the princess and which showed the path that had been taken. Then came the final scene, with the terrible struggle between the man and the woman when the woman, vanquished and exhausted, is flung to the ground, the sudden arrival of the husband and the shot that puts an end to the brute's life...
"Well," said Renine, when they had left the picture-palace--and he spoke with a certain gravity--"I maintain that the daughter of your old piano-teacher has been in danger ever since the day when that last scene was filmed. I maintain that this scene represents not so much an assault by the man of the woods on the Happy Princess as a violent and frantic attack by an actor on the woman he desires. Certainly it all happened within the bounds prescribed by the part and nobody saw anything in it--nobody except perhaps Rose Andree herself--but I, for my part, have detected flashes of passion which leave not a doubt in my mind. I have seen glances that betrayed the wish and even the intention to commit murder. I have seen clenched hands, ready to strangle, in short, a score of details which prove to me that, at that time, the man's instinct was urging him to kill the woman who could never be his."
"And it all amounts to what?"
"We must protect Rose Andree if she is still in danger and if it is not too late."
"And to do this?"
"We must get hold of further information."
"From the World's Cinema Company, which made the film. I will go to them to-morrow morning. Will you wait for me in your flat about lunch-time?"
At heart, Hortense was still sceptical. All these manifestations of passion, of which she denied neither the ardour nor the ferocity, seemed to her to be the rational behaviour of a good actor. She had seen nothing of the terrible tragedy which Renine contended that he had divined; and she wondered whether he was not erring through an excess of imagination.
"Well," she asked, next day, not without a touch of irony, "how far have you got? Have you made a good bag? Anything mysterious? Anything thrilling?"
"Oh, really? And your so-called lover..."
"Is one Dalbreque, originally a scene-painter, who played the butler in the first part of the film and the man of the woods in the second and was so much appreciated that they engaged him for a new film. Consequently, he has been acting lately. He was acting near Paris. But, on the morning of Friday the 18th of September, he broke into the garage of the World's Cinema Company and made off with a magnificent car and forty thousand francs in money. Information was lodged with the police; and on the Sunday the car was found a little way outside Dreux. And up to now the enquiry has revealed two things, which will appear in the papers to-morrow: first, Dalbreque is alleged to have committed a murder which created a great stir last year, the murder of Bourguet, the jeweller; secondly, on the day after his two robberies, Dalbreque was driving through Le Havre in a motor-car with two men who helped him to carry off, in broad daylight and in a crowded street, a lady whose identity has not yet been discovered."
"Rose Andree?" asked Hortense, uneasily.
"I have just been to Rose Andree's: the World's Cinema Company gave me her address. Rose Andree spent this summer travelling and then stayed for a fortnight in the Seine-inferieure, where she has a small place of her own, the actual cottage in The Happy Princess. On receiving an invitation from America to do a film there, she came back to Paris, registered her luggage at the Gare Saint-Lazare and left on Friday the 18th of September, intending to sleep at Le Havre and take Saturday's boat."
"Friday the 18th," muttered Hortense, "the same day on which that man..."
"And it was on the Saturday that a woman was carried off by him at Le Havre. I looked in at the Compagnie Transatlantique and a brief investigation showed that Rose Andree had booked a cabin but that the cabin remained unoccupied. The passenger did not turn up."
"This is frightful. She has been carried off. You were right."
"I fear so."
"What have you decided to do?"
"Adolphe, my chauffeur, is outside with the car. Let us go to Le Havre. Up to the present, Rose Andree's disappearance does not seem to have become known. Before it does and before the police identify the woman carried off by Dalbreque with the woman who did not turn up to claim her cabin, we will get on Rose Andree's track."
There was not much said on the journey. At four o'clock Hortense and Renine reached Rouen. But here Renine changed his road.
"Adolphe, take the left bank of the Seine."
He unfolded a motoring-map on his knees and, tracing the route with his finger, showed Hortense that, if you draw a line from Le Havre, or rather from Quillebeuf, where the road crosses the Seine, to Dreux, where the stolen car was found, this line passes through Routot, a market-town lying west of the forest of Brotonne:
"Now it was in the forest of Brotonne," he continued, "according to what I heard, that the second part of The Happy Princess was filmed. And the question that arises is this: having got hold of Rose Andree, would it not occur to Dalbreque, when passing near the forest on the Saturday night, to hide his prey there, while his two accomplices went on to Dreux and from there returned to Paris? The cave was quite near. Was he not bound to go to it? How should he do otherwise? Wasn't it while running to this cave, a few months ago, that he held in his arms, against his breast, within reach of his lips, the woman whom he loved and whom he has now conquered? By every rule of fate and logic, the adventure is being repeated all over again ... but this time in reality. Rose Andree is a captive. There is no hope of rescue. The forest is vast and lonely. That night, or on one of the following nights, Rose Andree must surrender ... or die."
Hortense gave a shudder:
"We shall be too late. Besides, you don't suppose that he's keeping her a prisoner?"
"Certainly not. The place I have in mind is at a cross-roads and is not a safe retreat. But we may discover some clue or other."
The shades of night were falling from the tall trees when they entered the ancient forest of Brotonne, full of Roman remains and mediaeval relics. Renine knew the forest well and remembered that near a famous oak, known as the Wine-cask, there was a cave which must be the cave of the Happy Princess. He found it easily, switched on his electric torch, rummaged in the dark corners and brought Hortense back to the entrance:
"There's nothing inside," he said, "but here is the evidence which I was looking for. Dalbreque was obsessed by the recollection of the film, but so was Rose Andree. The Happy Princess had broken off the tips of the branches on the way through the forest. Rose Andree has managed to break off some to the right of this opening, in the hope that she would be discovered as on the first occasion."
"Yes," said Hortense, "it's a proof that she has been here; but the proof is three weeks old. Since that time..."
"Since that time, she is either dead and buried under a heap of leaves or else alive in some hole even lonelier than this."
"If so, where is he?"
Renine pricked up his ears. Repeated blows of the axe were sounding from some distance, no doubt coming from a part of the forest that was being cleared.
"He?" said Renine, "I wonder whether he may not have continued to behave under the influence of the film and whether the man of the woods in The Happy Princess has not quite naturally resumed his calling. For how is the man to live, to obtain his food, without attracting attention? He will have found a job."
"We can't make sure of that."
"We might, by questioning the woodcutters whom we can hear."
The car took them by a forest-road to another cross-roads where they entered on foot a track which was deeply rutted by waggon-wheels. The sound of axes ceased. After walking for a quarter of an hour, they met a dozen men who, having finished work for the day, were returning to the villages near by.
"Will this path take us to Routot?" ask Renine, in order to open a conversation with them.
"No, you're turning your backs on it," said one of the men, gruffly.
And he went on, accompanied by his mates.
Hortense and Renine stood rooted to the spot. They had recognized the butler. His cheeks and chin were shaved, but his upper lip was covered by a black moustache, evidently dyed. The eyebrows no longer met and were reduced to normal dimensions.
Thus, in less than twenty hours, acting on the vague hints supplied by the bearing of a film-actor, Serge Renine had touched the very heart of the tragedy by means of purely psychological arguments.
"Rose Andree is alive," he said. "Otherwise Dalbreque would have left the country. The poor thing must be imprisoned and bound up; and he takes her some food at night."
"We will save her, won't we?"
"Certainly, by keeping a watch on him and, if necessary, but in the last resort, compelling him by force to give up his secret."
They followed the woodcutter at a distance and, on the pretext that the car needed overhauling, engaged rooms in the principal inn at Routot.
Attached to the inn was a small cafe from which they were separated by the entrance to the yard and above which were two rooms, reached by a wooden outer staircase, at one side. Dalbreque occupied one of these rooms and Renine took the other for his chauffeur.
Next morning he learnt from Adolphe that Dalbreque, on the previous evening, after all the lights were out, had carried down a bicycle from his room and mounted it and had not returned until shortly before sunrise.
The bicycle tracks led Renine to the uninhabited Chateau des Landes, five miles from the village. They disappeared in a rocky path which ran beside the park down to the Seine, opposite the Jumieges peninsula.
Next night, he took up his position there. At eleven o'clock, Dalbreque climbed a bank, scrambled over a wire fence, hid his bicycle under the branches and moved away. It seemed impossible to follow him in the pitchy darkness, on a mossy soil that muffled the sound of footsteps. Renine did not make the attempt; but, at daybreak, he came with his chauffeur and hunted through the park all the morning. Though the park, which covered the side of a hill and was bounded below by the river, was not very large, he found no clue which gave him any reason to suppose that Rose Andree was imprisoned there.
He therefore went back to the village, with the firm intention of taking action that evening and employing force:
"This state of things cannot go on," he said to Hortense. "I must rescue Rose Andree at all costs and save her from that ruffian's clutches. He must be made to speak. He must. Otherwise there's a danger that we may be too late."
That day was Sunday; and Dalbreque did not go to work. He did not leave his room except for lunch and went upstairs again immediately afterwards. But at three o'clock Renine and Hortense, who were keeping a watch on him from the inn, saw him come down the wooden staircase, with his bicycle on his shoulder. Leaning it against the bottom step, he inflated the tires and fastened to the handle-bar a rather bulky object wrapped in a newspaper.
"By Jove!" muttered Renine.
"What's the matter?"
In front of the cafe was a small terrace bordered on the right and left by spindle-trees planted in boxes, which were connected by a paling. Behind the shrubs, sitting on a bank but stooping forward so that they could see Dalbreque through the branches, were four men.
"Police!" said Renine. "What bad luck! If those fellows take a hand, they will spoil everything."
"Why? On the contrary, I should have thought..."
"Yes, they will. They will put Dalbreque out of the way ... and then? Will that give us Rose Andree?"
Dalbreque had finished his preparations. Just as he was mounting his bicycle, the detectives rose in a body, ready to make a dash for him. But Dalbreque, though quite unconscious of their presence, changed his mind and went back to his room as though he had forgotten something.
"Now's the time!" said Renine. "I'm going to risk it. But it's a difficult situation and I've no great hopes."
He went out into the yard and, at a moment when the detectives were not looking, ran up the staircase, as was only natural if he wished to give an order to his chauffeur. But he had no sooner reached the rustic balcony at the back of the house, which gave admission to the two bedrooms than he stopped. Dalbreque's door was open. Renine walked in.
Dalbreque stepped back, at once assuming the defensive:
"What do you want? Who said you could..."
"Silence!" whispered Renine, with an imperious gesture. "It's all up with you!"
"What are you talking about?" growled the man, angrily.
"Lean out of your window. There are four men below on the watch for you to leave, four detectives."
Dalbreque leant over the terrace and muttered an oath:
"On the watch for me?" he said, turning round. "What do I care?"
"They have a warrant."
He folded his arms:
"Shut up with your piffle! A warrant! What's that to me?"
"Listen," said Renine, "and let us waste no time. It's urgent. Your name's Dalbreque, or, at least, that's the name under which you acted in The Happy Princess and under which the police are looking for you as being the murderer of Bourguet the jeweller, the man who stole a motor-car and forty thousand francs from the World's Cinema Company and the man who abducted a woman at Le Havre. All this is known and proved ... and here's the upshot. Four men downstairs. Myself here, my chauffeur in the next room. You're done for. Do you want me to save you?"
Dalbreque gave his adversary a long look:
"Who are you?"
"A friend of Rose Andree's," said Renine.
The other started and, to some extent dropping his mask, retorted:
"What are your conditions?"
"Rose Andree, whom you have abducted and tormented, is dying in some hole or corner. Where is she?"
A strange thing occurred and impressed Renine. Dalbreque's face, usually so common, was lit up by a smile that made it almost attractive. But this was only a flashing vision: the man immediately resumed his hard and impassive expression.
"And suppose I refuse to speak?" he said.
"So much the worse for you. It means your arrest."
"I dare say; but it means the death of Rose Andree. Who will release her?"
"You. You will speak now, or in an hour, or two hours hence at least. You will never have the heart to keep silent and let her die."
Dalbreque shrugged his shoulders. Then, raising his hand, he said:
"I swear on my life that, if they arrest me, not a word will leave my lips."
"Then save me. We will meet this evening at the entrance to the Parc des Landes and say what we have to say."
"Why not at once?"
"I have spoken."
"Will you be there?"
"I shall be there."
Renine reflected. There was something in all this that he failed to grasp. In any case, the frightful danger that threatened Rose Andree dominated the whole situation; and Renine was not the man to despise this threat and to persist out of vanity in a perilous course. Rose Andree's life came before everything.
He struck several blows on the wall of the next bedroom and called his chauffeur.
"Adolphe, is the car ready?"
"Set her going and pull her up in front of the terrace outside the cafe, right against the boxes so as to block the exit. As for you," he continued, addressing Dalbreque, "you're to jump on your machine and, instead of making off along the road, cross the yard. At the end of the yard is a passage leading into a lane. There you will be free. But no hesitation and no blundering ... else you'll get yourself nabbed. Good luck to you."
He waited till the car was drawn up in accordance with his instructions and, when he reached it, he began to question his chauffeur, in order to attract the detectives' attention.