The Eight Strokes of the Clock
Chapter 5: Therese and Germaine
The weather was so mild that autumn that, on the 12th of October, in the morning, several families still lingering in their villas at Etretat had gone down to the beach. The sea, lying between the cliffs and the clouds on the horizon, might have suggested a mountain-lake slumbering in the hollow of the enclosing rocks, were it not for that crispness in the air and those pale, soft and indefinite colours in the sky which give a special charm to certain days in Normandy.
"It's delicious," murmured Hortense. But the next moment she added: "All the same, we did not come here to enjoy the spectacle of nature or to wonder whether that huge stone Needle on our left was really at one time the home of Arsene Lupin."
"We came here," said Prince Renine, "because of the conversation which I overheard, a fortnight ago, in a dining-car, between a man and a woman."
"A conversation of which I was unable to catch a single word."
"If those two people could have guessed for an instant that it was possible to hear a single word of what they were saying, they would not have spoken, for their conversation was one of extraordinary gravity and importance. But I have very sharp ears; and though I could not follow every sentence, I insist that we may be certain of two things. First, that man and woman, who are brother and sister, have an appointment at a quarter to twelve this morning, the 12th of October, at the spot known as the Trois Mathildes, with a third person, who is married and who wishes at all costs to recover his or her liberty. Secondly, this appointment, at which they will come to a final agreement, is to be followed this evening by a walk along the cliffs, when the third person will bring with him or her the man or woman, I can't definitely say which, whom they want to get rid of. That is the gist of the whole thing. Now, as I know a spot called the Trois Mathildes some way above Etretat and as this is not an everyday name, we came down yesterday to thwart the plan of these objectionable persons."
"What plan?" asked Hortense. "For, after all, it's only your assumption that there's to be a victim and that the victim is to be flung off the top of the cliffs. You yourself told me that you heard no allusion to a possible murder."
"That is so. But I heard some very plain words relating to the marriage of the brother or the sister with the wife or the husband of the third person, which implies the need for a crime."
They were sitting on the terrace of the casino, facing the stairs which run down to the beach. They therefore overlooked the few privately-owned cabins on the shingle, where a party of four men were playing bridge, while a group of ladies sat talking and knitting.
A short distance away and nearer to the sea was another cabin, standing by itself and closed.
Half-a-dozen bare-legged children were paddling in the water.
"No," said Hortense, "all this autumnal sweetness and charm fails to attract me. I have so much faith in all your theories that I can't help thinking, in spite of everything, of this dreadful problem. Which of those people yonder is threatened? Death has already selected its victim. Who is it? Is it that young, fair-haired woman, rocking herself and laughing? Is it that tall man over there, smoking his cigar? And which of them has the thought of murder hidden in his heart? All the people we see are quietly enjoying themselves. Yet death is prowling among them."
"Capital!" said Renine. "You too are becoming enthusiastic. What did I tell you? The whole of life's an adventure; and nothing but adventure is worth while. At the first breath of coming events, there you are, quivering in every nerve. You share in all the tragedies stirring around you; and the feeling of mystery awakens in the depths of your being. See, how closely you are observing that couple who have just arrived. You never can tell: that may be the gentleman who proposes to do away with his wife? Or perhaps the lady contemplates making away with her husband?"
"The d'Ormevals? Never! A perfectly happy couple! Yesterday, at the hotel, I had a long talk with the wife. And you yourself..."
"Oh, I played a round of golf with Jacques d'Ormeval, who rather fancies himself as an athlete, and I played at dolls with their two charming little girls!"
The d'Ormevals came up and exchanged a few words with them. Madame d'Ormeval said that her two daughters had gone back to Paris that morning with their governess. Her husband, a great tall fellow with a yellow beard, carrying his blazer over his arm and puffing out his chest under a cellular shirt, complained of the heat:
"Have you the key of the cabin, Therese?" he asked his wife, when they had left Renine and Hortense and stopped at the top of the stairs, a few yards away.
"Here it is," said the wife. "Are you going to read your papers?"
"Yes. Unless we go for a stroll?..."
"I had rather wait till the afternoon: do you mind? I have a lot of letters to write this morning."
"Very well. We'll go on the cliff."
Hortense and Renine exchanged a glance of surprise. Was this suggestion accidental? Or had they before them, contrary to their expectations, the very couple of whom they were in search?
Hortense tried to laugh:
"My heart is thumping," she said. "Nevertheless, I absolutely refuse to believe in anything so improbable. 'My husband and I have never had the slightest quarrel, ' she said to me. No, it's quite clear that those two get on admirably."
"We shall see presently, at the Trois Mathildes, if one of them comes to meet the brother and sister."
M. d'Ormeval had gone down the stairs, while his wife stood leaning on the balustrade of the terrace. She had a beautiful, slender, supple figure. Her clear-cut profile was emphasized by a rather too prominent chin when at rest; and, when it was not smiling, the face gave an expression of sadness and suffering.
"Have you lost something, Jacques?" she called out to her husband, who was stooping over the shingle.
"Yes, the key," he said. "It slipped out of my hand."
She went down to him and began to look also. For two or three minutes, as they sheered off to the right and remained close to the bottom of the under-cliff, they were invisible to Hortense and Renine. Their voices were covered by the noise of a dispute which had arisen among the bridge-players.
They reappeared almost simultaneously. Madame d'Ormeval slowly climbed a few steps of the stairs and then stopped and turned her face towards the sea. Her husband had thrown his blazer over his shoulders and was making for the isolated cabin. As he passed the bridge-players, they asked him for a decision, pointing to their cards spread out upon the table. But, with a wave of the hand, he refused to give an opinion and walked on, covered the thirty yards which divided them from the cabin, opened the door and went in.
Therese d'Ormeval came back to the terrace and remained for ten minutes sitting on a bench. Then she came out through the casino. Hortense, on leaning forward, saw her entering one of the chalets annexed to the Hotel Hauville and, a moment later, caught sight of her again on the balcony.
"Eleven o'clock," said Renine. "Whoever it is, he or she, or one of the card-players, or one of their wives, it won't be long before some one goes to the appointed place."
Nevertheless, twenty minutes passed and twenty-five; and no one stirred.
"Perhaps Madame d'Ormeval has gone." Hortense suggested, anxiously. "She is no longer on her balcony."
"If she is at the Trois Mathildes," said Renine, "we will go and catch her there."
He was rising to his feet, when a fresh discussion broke out among the bridge-players and one of them exclaimed:
"Let's put it to d'Ormeval."
"Very well," said his adversary. "I'll accept his decision ... if he consents to act as umpire. He was rather huffy just now."
They called out:
They then saw that d'Ormeval must have shut the door behind him, which kept him in the half dark, the cabin being one of the sort that has no window.
"He's asleep," cried one. "Let's wake him up."
All four went to the cabin, began by calling to him and, on receiving no answer, thumped on the door:
"Hi! D'Ormeval! Are you asleep?"
On the terrace Serge Renine suddenly leapt to his feet with so uneasy an air that Hortense was astonished. He muttered:
"If only it's not too late!"
And, when Hortense asked him what he meant, he tore down the steps and started running to the cabin. He reached it just as the bridge-players were trying to break in the door:
"Stop!" he ordered. "Things must be done in the regular fashion."
"What things?" they asked.
He examined the Venetian shutters at the top of each of the folding-doors and, on finding that one of the upper slats was partly broken, hung on as best he could to the roof of the cabin and cast a glance inside. Then he said to the four men:
"I was right in thinking that, if M. d'Ormeval did not reply, he must have been prevented by some serious cause. There is every reason to believe that M. d'Ormeval is wounded ... or dead."
"Dead!" they cried. "What do you mean? He has only just left us."
Renine took out his knife, prized open the lock and pulled back the two doors.
There were shouts of dismay. M. d'Ormeval was lying flat on his face, clutching his jacket and his newspaper in his hands. Blood was flowing from his back and staining his shirt.
"Oh!" said some one. "He has killed himself!"
"How can he have killed himself?" said Renine. "The wound is right in the middle of the back, at a place which the hand can't reach. And, besides, there's not a knife in the cabin."
The others protested:
"If so, he has been murdered. But that's impossible! There has been nobody here. We should have seen, if there had been. Nobody could have passed us without our seeing..."
The other men, all the ladies and the children paddling in the sea had come running up. Renine allowed no one to enter the cabin, except a doctor who was present. But the doctor could only say that M. d'Ormeval was dead, stabbed with a dagger.
At that moment, the mayor and the policeman arrived, together with some people of the village. After the usual enquiries, they carried away the body.
A few persons went on ahead to break the news to Therese d'Ormeval, who was once more to be seen on her balcony.
And so the tragedy had taken place without any clue to explain how a man, protected by a closed door with an uninjured lock, could have been murdered in the space of a few minutes and in front of twenty witnesses, one might almost say, twenty spectators. No one had entered the cabin. No one had come out of it. As for the dagger with which M. d'Ormeval had been stabbed between the shoulders, it could not be traced. And all this would have suggested the idea of a trick of sleight-of-hand performed by a clever conjuror, had it not concerned a terrible murder, committed under the most mysterious conditions.
Hortense was unable to follow, as Renine would have liked, the small party who were making for Madame d'Ormeval; she was paralysed with excitement and incapable of moving. It was the first time that her adventures with Renine had taken her into the very heart of the action and that, instead of noting the consequences of a murder, or assisting in the pursuit of the criminals, she found herself confronted with the murder itself.
It left her trembling all over; and she stammered: "How horrible! ... The poor fellow! ... Ah, Renine, you couldn't save him this time! ... And that's what upsets me more than anything, that we could and should have saved him, since we knew of the plot..."
Renine made her sniff at a bottle of salts; and when she had quite recovered her composure, he said, while observing her attentively:
"So you think that there is some connection between the murder and the plot which we were trying to frustrate?"
"Certainly," said she, astonished at the question.
"Then, as that plot was hatched by a husband against his wife or by a wife against her husband, you admit that Madame d'Ormeval... ?"
"Oh, no, impossible!" she said. "To begin with, Madame d'Ormeval did not leave her rooms ... and then I shall never believe that pretty woman capable ... No, no, of course there was something else..."
"I don't know ... You may have misunderstood what the brother and sister were saying to each other ... You see, the murder has been committed under quite different conditions ... at another hour and another place..."
"And therefore," concluded Renine, "the two cases are not in any way related?"
"Oh," she said, "there's no making it out! It's all so strange!"
Renine became a little satirical:
"My pupil is doing me no credit to-day," he said. "Why, here is a perfectly simple story, unfolded before your eyes. You have seen it reeled off like a scene in the cinema; and it all remains as obscure to you as though you were hearing of an affair that happened in a cave a hundred miles away!"
Hortense was confounded:
"What are you saying? Do you mean that you have understood it? What clues have you to go by?"
Renine looked at his watch:
"I have not understood everything," he said. "The murder itself, the mere brutal murder, yes. But the essential thing, that is to say, the psychology of the crime: I've no clue to that. Only, it is twelve o'clock. The brother and sister, seeing no one come to the appointment at the Trois Mathildes, will go down to the beach. Don't you think that we shall learn something then of the accomplice whom I accuse them of having and of the connection between the two cases?"
They reached the esplanade in front of the Hauville chalets, with the capstans by which the fishermen haul up their boats to the beach. A number of inquisitive persons were standing outside the door of one of the chalets. Two coastguards, posted at the door, prevented them from entering.
The mayor shouldered his way eagerly through the crowd. He was back from the post-office, where he had been telephoning to Le Havre, to the office of the procurator-general, and had been told that the public prosecutor and an examining-magistrate would come on to Etretat in the course of the afternoon.
"That leaves us plenty of time for lunch," said Renine. "The tragedy will not be enacted before two or three o'clock. And I have an idea that it will be sensational."
They hurried nevertheless. Hortense, overwrought by fatigue and her desire to know what was happening, continually questioned Renine, who replied evasively, with his eyes turned to the esplanade, which they could see through the windows of the coffee-room.
"Are you watching for those two?" asked Hortense.
"Yes, the brother and sister."
"Are you sure that they will venture?..."
"Look out! Here they come!"
He went out quickly.
Where the main street opened on the sea-front, a lady and gentleman were advancing with hesitating steps, as though unfamiliar with the place. The brother was a puny little man, with a sallow complexion. He was wearing a motoring-cap. The sister too was short, but rather stout, and was wrapped in a large cloak. She struck them as a woman of a certain age, but still good-looking under the thin veil that covered her face.
They saw the groups of bystanders and drew nearer. Their gait betrayed uneasiness and hesitation.
The sister asked a question of a seaman. At the first words of his answer, which no doubt conveyed the news of d'Ormeval's death, she uttered a cry and tried to force her way through the crowd. The brother, learning in his turn what had happened, made great play with his elbows and shouted to the coast-guards:
"I'm a friend of d'Ormeval's! ... Here's my card! Frederic Astaing ... My sister, Germaine Astaing, knows Madame d'Ormeval intimately! ... They were expecting us ... We had an appointment!..."
They were allowed to pass. Renine, who had slipped behind them, followed them in without a word, accompanied by Hortense.
The d'Ormevals had four bedrooms and a sitting-room on the second floor. The sister rushed into one of the rooms and threw herself on her knees beside the bed on which the corpse lay stretched. Therese d'Ormeval was in the sitting-room and was sobbing in the midst of a small company of silent persons. The brother sat down beside her, eagerly seized her hands and said, in a trembling voice:
"My poor friend! ... My poor friend!..."
Renine and Hortense gazed at the pair of them: and Hortense whispered:
"And she's supposed to have killed him for that? Impossible!"
"Nevertheless," observed Renine, "they are acquaintances; and we know that Astaing and his sister were also acquainted with a third person who was their accomplice. So that..."
"It's impossible!" Hortense repeated.
And, in spite of all presumption, she felt so much attracted by Therese that, when Frederic Astaing stood up, she proceeded straightway to sit down beside her and consoled her in a gentle voice. The unhappy woman's tears distressed her profoundly.
Renine, on the other hand, applied himself from the outset to watching the brother and sister, as though this were the only thing that mattered, and did not take his eyes off Frederic Astaing, who, with an air of indifference, began to make a minute inspection of the premises, examining the sitting-room, going into all the bedrooms, mingling with the various groups of persons present and asking questions about the manner in which the murder had been committed. Twice his sister came up and spoke to him. Then he went back to Madame d'Ormeval and again sat down beside her, full of earnest sympathy. Lastly, in the lobby, he had a long conversation with his sister, after which they parted, like people who have come to a perfect understanding. Frederic then left. These manoeuvers had lasted quite thirty or forty minutes.
It was at this moment that the motor-car containing the examining-magistrate and the public prosecutor pulled up outside the chalets. Renine, who did not expect them until later, said to Hortense:
"We must be quick. On no account leave Madame d'Ormeval."
Word was sent up to the persons whose evidence might be of any service that they were to go to the beach, where the magistrate was beginning a preliminary investigation. He would call on Madame d'Ormeval afterwards. Accordingly, all who were present left the chalet. No one remained behind except the two guards and Germaine Astaing.
Germaine knelt down for the last time beside the dead man and, bending low, with her face in her hands, prayed for a long time. Then she rose and was opening the door on the landing, when Renine came forward:
"I should like a few words with you, madame."
She seemed surprised and replied:
"What is it, monsieur? I am listening."
"Where then, monsieur?"
"Next door, in the sitting-room."
"No," she said, sharply.
"Why not? Though you did not even shake hands with her, I presume that Madame d'Ormeval is your friend?"
He gave her no time to reflect, drew her into the next room, closed the door and, at once pouncing upon Madame d'Ormeval, who was trying to go out and return to her own room, said:
"No, madame, listen, I implore you. Madame Astaing's presence need not drive you away. We have very serious matters to discuss, without losing a minute."
The two women, standing face to face, were looking at each other with the same expression of implacable hatred, in which might be read the same confusion of spirit and the same restrained anger. Hortense, who believed them to be friends and who might, up to a certain point, have believed them to be accomplices, foresaw with terror the hostile encounter which she felt to be inevitable. She compelled Madame d'Ormeval to resume her seat, while Renine took up his position in the middle of the room and spoke in resolute tones:
"Chance, which has placed me in possession of part of the truth, will enable me to save you both, if you are willing to assist me with a frank explanation that will give me the particulars which I still need. Each of you knows the danger in which she stands, because each of you is conscious in her heart of the evil for which she is responsible. But you are carried away by hatred; and it is for me to see clearly and to act. The examining-magistrate will be here in half-an-hour. By that time, you must have come to an agreement."
They both started, as though offended by such a word.
"Yes, an agreement," he repeated, in a more imperious tone. "Whether you like it or not, you will come to an agreement. You are not the only ones to be considered. There are your two little daughters, Madame d'Ormeval. Since circumstances have set me in their path, I am intervening in their defence and for their safety. A blunder, a word too much; and they are ruined. That must not happen."
At the mention of her children, Madame d'Ormeval broke down and sobbed. Germaine Astaing shrugged her shoulders and made a movement towards the door. Renine once more blocked the way:
"Where are you going?"
"I have been summoned by the examining-magistrate."
"No, you have not."
"Yes, I have. Just as all those have been who have any evidence to give."
"You were not on the spot. You know nothing of what happened. Nobody knows anything of the murder."
"I know who committed it."
"It was Therese d'Ormeval."
The accusation was hurled forth in an outburst of rage and with a fiercely threatening gesture.
"You wretched creature!" exclaimed madame d'Ormeval, rushing at her. "Go! Leave the room! Oh, what a wretch the woman is!"
Hortense was trying to restrain her, but Renine whispered:
"Let them be. It's what I wanted ... to pitch them one against the other and so to let in the day-light."
Madame Astaing had made a convulsive effort to ward off the insult with a jest; and she sniggered:
"A wretched creature? Why? Because I have accused you?"
"Why? For every reason! You're a wretched creature! You hear what I say, Germaine: you're a wretch!"
Therese d'Ormeval was repeating the insult as though it afforded her some relief. Her anger was abating. Very likely also she no longer had the strength to keep up the struggle; and it was Madame Astaing who returned to the attack, with her fists clenched and her face distorted and suddenly aged by fully twenty years:
"You! You dare to insult me, you! You after the murder you have committed! You dare to lift up your head when the man whom you killed is lying in there on his death-bed! Ah, if one of us is a wretched creature, it's you, Therese, and you know it! You have killed your husband! You have killed your husband!"
She leapt forward, in the excitement of the terrible words which she was uttering; and her finger-nails were almost touching her friend's face.
"Oh, don't tell me you didn't kill him!" she cried. "Don't say that: I won't let you. Don't say it. The dagger is there, in your bag. My brother felt it, while he was talking to you; and his hand came out with stains of blood upon it: your husband's blood, Therese. And then, even if I had not discovered anything, do you think that I should not have guessed, in the first few minutes? Why, I knew the truth at once, Therese! When a sailor down there answered, 'M. d'Ormeval? He has been murdered, ' I said to myself then and there, 'It's she, it's Therese, she killed him.'"
Therese did not reply. She had abandoned her attitude of protest. Hortense, who was watching her with anguish, thought that she could perceive in her the despondency of those who know themselves to be lost. Her cheeks had fallen in and she wore such an expression of despair that Hortense, moved to compassion, implored her to defend herself:
"Please, please, explain things. When the murder was committed, you were here, on the balcony ... But then the dagger ... how did you come to have it... ? How do you explain it?..."
"Explanations!" sneered Germaine Astaing. "How could she possibly explain? What do outward appearances matter? What does it matter what any one saw or did not see? The proof is the thing that tells ... The dagger is there, in your bag, Therese: that's a fact ... Yes, yes, it was you who did it! You killed him! You killed him in the end! ... Ah, how often I've told my brother, 'She will kill him yet!' Frederic used to try to defend you. He always had a weakness for you. But in his innermost heart he foresaw what would happen ... And now the horrible thing has been done. A stab in the back! Coward! Coward! ... And you would have me say nothing? Why, I didn't hesitate a moment! Nor did Frederic. We looked for proofs at once ... And I've denounced you of my own free will, perfectly well aware of what I was doing ... And it's over, Therese. You're done for. Nothing can save you now. The dagger is in that bag which you are clutching in your hand. The magistrate is coming; and the dagger will be found, stained with the blood of your husband. So will your pocket-book. They're both there. And they will be found..."
Her rage had incensed her so vehemently that she was unable to continue and stood with her hand outstretched and her chin twitching with nervous tremors.
Renine gently took hold of Madame d'Ormeval's bag. She clung to it, but he insisted and said:
"Please allow me, madame. Your friend Germaine is right. The examining-magistrate will be here presently; and the fact that the dagger and the pocket-book are in your possession will lead to your immediate arrest. This must not happen. Please allow me."
His insinuating voice diminished Therese d'Ormeval's resistance. She released her fingers, one by one. He took the bag, opened it, produced a little dagger with an ebony handle and a grey leather pocket-book and quietly slipped the two into the inside pocket of his jacket.
Germaine Astaing gazed at him in amazement: "You're mad, monsieur! What right have you... ?"
"These things must not be left lying about. I sha'n't worry now. The magistrate will never look for them in my pocket."
"But I shall denounce you to the police," she exclaimed, indignantly. "They shall be told!"
"No, no," he said, laughing, "you won't say anything! The police have nothing to do with this. The quarrel between you must be settled in private. What an idea, to go dragging the police into every incident of one's life!"
Madame Astaing was choking with fury:
"But you have no right to talk like this, monsieur! Who are you, after all? A friend of that woman's?"
"Since you have been attacking her, yes."
"But I'm only attacking her because she's guilty. For you can't deny it: she has killed her husband."
"I don't deny it," said Renine, calmly. "We are all agreed on that point. Jacques d'Ormeval was killed by his wife. But, I repeat, the police must not know the truth."