* * * * *
He rubbed his hands. The letter was an invaluable witness to the influence which he had gradually, gently and patiently gained over Hortense Daniel. It betrayed a rather complex feeling, composed of admiration, unbounded confidence, uneasiness at times, fear and almost terror, but also love: he was convinced of that. His companion in adventures which she shared with a good fellowship that excluded any awkwardness between them, she had suddenly taken fright; and a sort of modesty, mingled with a certain coquetry; was impelling her to hold back.
That very evening, Sunday, Rnine took the train.
And, at break of day, after covering by diligence, on a road white with snow, the five miles between the little town of Pompignat, where he alighted, and the village of Bassicourt, he learnt that his journey might prove of some use: three shots had been heard during the night in the direction of the Manoir-au-Puits.
"Three shots, sergeant. I heard them as plainly as I see you standing before me," said a peasant whom the gendarmes were questioning in the parlour of the inn which Rnine had entered.
"So did I," said the waiter. "Three shots. It may have been twelve o'clock at night. The snow, which had been falling since nine, had stopped ... and the shots sounded across the fields, one after the other: bang, bang, bang."
Five more peasants gave their evidence. The sergeant and his men had heard nothing, because the police-station backed on the fields. But a farm-labourer and a woman arrived, who said that they were in Mathias de Gorne's service, that they had been away for two days because of the intervening Sunday and that they had come straight from the manor-house, where they were unable to obtain admission:
"The gate of the grounds is locked, sergeant," said the man. "It's the first time I've known this to happen. M. Mathias comes out to open it himself, every morning at the stroke of six, winter and summer. Well, it's past eight now. I called and shouted. Nobody answered. So we came on here."
"You might have enquired at old M. de Gorne's," said the sergeant. "He lives on the high-road."
"On my word, so I might! I never thought of that."
"We'd better go there now," the sergeant decided. Two of his men went with him, as well as the peasants and a locksmith whose services were called into requisition. Rnine joined the party.
Soon, at the end of the village, they reached old de Gorne's farmyard, which Rnine recognized by Hortense's description of its position.
The old fellow was harnessing his horse and trap. When they told him what had happened, he burst out laughing:
"Three shots? Bang, bang, bang? Why, my dear sergeant, there are only two barrels to Mathias' gun!"
"What about the locked gate?"
"It means that the lad's asleep, that's all. Last night, he came and cracked a bottle with me ... perhaps two ... or even three; and he'll be sleeping it off, I expect ... he and Natalie."
He climbed on to the box of his trap—an old cart with a patched tilt—and cracked his whip:
"Good-bye, gentlemen all. Those three shots of yours won't stop me from going to market at Pompignat, as I do every Monday. I've a couple of calves under the tilt; and they're just fit for the butcher. Good-day to you!"
The others walked on. Rnine went up to the sergeant and gave him his name:
"I'm a friend of Mlle. Ermelin, of La Roncire; and, as it's too early to call on her yet, I shall be glad if you'll allow me to go round by the manor with you. Mlle. Ermelin knows Madame de Gorne; and it will be a satisfaction to me to relieve her mind, for there's nothing wrong at the manor-house, I hope?"
"If there is," replied the sergeant, "we shall read all about it as plainly as on a map, because of the snow."
He was a likable young man and seemed smart and intelligent. From the very first he had shown great acuteness in observing the tracks which Mathias had left behind him, the evening before, on returning home, tracks which soon became confused with the footprints made in going and coming by the farm-labourer and the woman. Meanwhile they came to the walls of a property of which the locksmith readily opened the gate.
From here onward, a single trail appeared upon the spotless snow, that of Mathias; and it was easy to perceive that the son must have shared largely in the father's libations, as the line of footprints described sudden curves which made it swerve right up to the trees of the avenue.
Two hundred yards farther stood the dilapidated two-storeyed building of the Manoir-au-Puits. The principal door was open.
"Let's go in," said the sergeant.
And, the moment he had crossed the threshold, he muttered:
"Oho! Old de Gorne made a mistake in not coming. They've been fighting in here."
The big room was in disorder. Two shattered chairs, the overturned table and much broken glass and china bore witness to the violence of the struggle. The tall clock, lying on the ground, had stopped at twenty past eleven.
With the farm-girl showing them the way, they ran up to the first floor. Neither Mathias nor his wife was there. But the door of their bedroom had been broken down with a hammer which they discovered under the bed.
Rnine and the sergeant went downstairs again. The living-room had a passage communicating with the kitchen, which lay at the back of the house and opened on a small yard fenced off from the orchard. At the end of this enclosure was a well near which one was bound to pass.
Now, from the door of the kitchen to the well, the snow, which was not very thick, had been pressed down to this side and that, as though a body had been dragged over it. And all around the well were tangled traces of trampling feet, showing that the struggle must have been resumed at this spot. The sergeant again discovered Mathias' footprints, together with others which were shapelier and lighter.
These latter went straight into the orchard, by themselves. And, thirty yards on, near the footprints, a revolver was picked up and recognized by one of the peasants as resembling that which Jrme Vignal had produced in the inn two days before.
The sergeant examined the cylinder. Three of the seven bullets had been fired.
And so the tragedy was little by little reconstructed in its main outlines; and the sergeant, who had ordered everybody to stand aside and not to step on the site of the footprints, came back to the well, leant over, put a few questions to the farm-girl and, going up to Rnine, whispered:
"It all seems fairly clear to me."
Rnine took his arm:
"Let's speak out plainly, sergeant. I understand the business pretty well, for, as I told you, I know Mlle. Ermelin, who is a friend of Jrme Vignal's and also knows Madame de Gorne. Do you suppose ...?"
"I don't want to suppose anything. I simply declare that some one came there last night...."
"By which way? The only tracks of a person coming towards the manor are those of M. de Gorne."
"That's because the other person arrived before the snowfall, that is to say, before nine o'clock."
"Then he must have hidden in a corner of the living-room and waited for the return of M. de Gorne, who came after the snow?"
"Just so. As soon as Mathias came in, the man went for him. There was a fight. Mathias made his escape through the kitchen. The man ran after him to the well and fired three revolver-shots."
"And where's the body?"
"Down the well."
"Oh, I say! Aren't you taking a lot for granted?"
"Why, sir, the snow's there, to tell the story; and the snow plainly says that, after the struggle, after the three shots, one man alone walked away and left the farm, one man only, and his footprints are not those of Mathias de Gorne. Then where can Mathias de Gorne be?"
"But the well ... can be dragged?"
"No. The well is practically bottomless. It is known all over the district and gives its name to the manor."
"So you really believe ...?"
"I repeat what I said. Before the snowfall, a single arrival, Mathias, and a single departure, the stranger."
"And Madame de Gorne? Was she too killed and thrown down the well like her husband?"
"No, carried off."
"Remember that her bedroom was broken down with a hammer."
"Come, come, sergeant! You yourself declare that there was only one departure, the stranger's."
"Stoop down. Look at the man's footprints. See how they sink into the snow, until they actually touch the ground. Those are the footprints of a man, laden with a heavy burden. The stranger was carrying Madame de Gorne on his shoulder."
"Then there's an outlet this way?"
"Yes, a little door of which Mathias de Gorne always had the key on him. The man must have taken it from him."
"A way out into the open fields?"
"Yes, a road which joins the departmental highway three quarters of a mile from here.... And do you know where?"
"At the corner of the chteau."
"Jrme Vignal's chteau?"
"By Jove, this is beginning to look serious! If the trail leads to the chteau and stops there, we shall know where we stand."
The trail did continue to the chteau, as they were able to perceive after following it across the undulating fields, on which the snow lay heaped in places. The approach to the main gates had been swept, but they saw that another trail, formed by the two wheels of a vehicle, was running in the opposite direction to the village.
The sergeant rang the bell. The porter, who had also been sweeping the drive, came to the gates, with a broom in his hand. In answer to a question, the man said that M. Vignal had gone away that morning before anyone else was up and that he himself had harnessed the horse to the trap.
"In that case," said Rnine, when they had moved away, "all we have to do is to follow the tracks of the wheels."
"That will be no use," said the sergeant. "They have taken the railway."
"At Pompignat station, where I came from? But they would have passed through the village."
"They have gone just the other way, because it leads to the town, where the express trains stop. The procurator-general has an office in the town. I'll telephone; and, as there's no train before eleven o'clock, all that they need do is to keep a watch at the station."
"I think you're doing the right thing, sergeant," said Rnine, "and I congratulate you on the way in which you have carried out your investigation."
They parted. Rnine went back to the inn in the village and sent a note to Hortense Daniel by hand:
"MY VERY DEAR FRIEND,
"I seemed to gather from your letter that, touched as always by anything that concerns the heart, you were anxious to protect the love-affair of Jrme and Natalie. Now there is every reason to suppose that these two, without consulting their fair protectress, have run away, after throwing Mathias de Gorne down a well.
"Forgive me for not coming to see you. The whole thing is extremely obscure; and, if I were with you, I should not have the detachment of mind which is needed to think the case over."
It was then half-past ten. Rnine went for a walk into the country, with his hands clasped behind his back and without vouchsafing a glance at the exquisite spectacle of the white meadows. He came back for lunch, still absorbed in his thoughts and indifferent to the talk of the customers of the inn, who on all sides were discussing recent events.
He went up to his room and had been asleep some time when he was awakened by a tapping at the door. He got up and opened it:
"Is it you?... Is it you?" he whispered.
Hortense and he stood gazing at each other for some seconds in silence, holding each other's hands, as though nothing, no irrelevant thought and no utterance, must be allowed to interfere with the joy of their meeting. Then he asked:
"Was I right in coming?"
"Yes," she said, gently, "I expected you."
"Perhaps it would have been better if you had sent for me sooner, instead of waiting.... Events did not wait, you see, and I don't quite know what's to become of Jrme Vignal and Natalie de Gorne."
"What, haven't you heard?" she said, quickly. "They've been arrested. They were going to travel by the express."
"Arrested? No." Rnine objected. "People are not arrested like that. They have to be questioned first."
"That's what's being done now. The authorities are making a search."
"At the chteau. And, as they are innocent.... For they are innocent, aren't they? You don't admit that they are guilty, any more than I do?"
"I admit nothing, I can admit nothing, my dear. Nevertheless, I am bound to say that everything is against them ... except one fact, which is that everything is too much against them. It is not normal for so many proofs to be heaped up one on top of the other and for the man who commits a murder to tell his story so frankly. Apart from this, there's nothing but mystery and discrepancy."
"Well, I am greatly puzzled."
"But you have a plan?"
"None at all, so far. Ah, if I could see him, Jrme Vignal, and her, Natalie de Gorne, and hear them and know what they are saying in their own defence! But you can understand that I sha'n't be permitted either to ask them any questions or to be present at their examination. Besides, it must be finished by this time."
"It's finished at the chteau," she said, "but it's going to be continued at the manor-house."
"Are they taking them to the manor-house?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes ... at least, judging by what was said to the chauffeur of one of the procurator's two cars."
"Oh, in that case," exclaimed Rnine, "the thing's done! The manor-house! Why, we shall be in the front row of the stalls! We shall see and hear everything; and, as a word, a tone of the voice, a quiver of the eyelids will be enough to give me the tiny clue I need, we may entertain some hope. Come along."
He took her by the direct route which he had followed that morning, leading to the gate which the locksmith had opened. The gendarmes on duty at the manor-house had made a passage through the snow, beside the line of footprints and around the house. Chance enabled Rnine and Hortense to approach unseen and through a side-window to enter a corridor near a back-staircase. A few steps up was a little chamber which received its only light through a sort of bull's-eye, from the large room on the ground-floor. Rnine, during the morning visit, had noticed the bull's-eye, which was covered on the inside with a piece of cloth. He removed the cloth and cut out one of the panes.
A few minutes later, a sound of voices rose from the other side of the house, no doubt near the well. The sound grew more distinct. A number of people flocked into the house. Some of them went up stairs to the first floor, while the sergeant arrived with a young man of whom Rnine and Hortense were able to distinguish only the tall figure:
"Jrme Vignal," said she.
"Yes," said Rnine. "They are examining Madame de Gorne first, upstairs, in her bedroom."
A quarter of an hour passed. Then the persons on the first floor came downstairs and went in. They were the procurator's deputy, his clerk, a commissary of police and two detectives.
Madame de Gorne was shown in and the deputy asked Jrme Vignal to step forward.
Jrme Vignal's face was certainly that of the strong man whom Hortense had depicted in her letter. He displayed no uneasiness, but rather decision and a resolute will. Natalie, who was short and very slight, with a feverish light in her eyes, nevertheless produced the same impression of quiet confidence.
The deputy, who was examining the disordered furniture and the traces of the struggle, invited her to sit down and said to Jrme:
"Monsieur, I have not asked you many questions so far. This is a summary enquiry which I am conducting in your presence and which will be continued later by the examining-magistrate; and I wished above all to explain to you the very serious reasons for which I asked you to interrupt your journey and to come back here with Madame de Gorne. You are now in a position to refute the truly distressing charges that are hanging over you. I therefore ask you to tell me the exact truth."
"Mr. Deputy," replied Jrme, "the charges in question trouble me very little. The truth for which you are asking will defeat all the lies which chance has accumulated against me. It is this."
He reflected for an instant and then, in clear, frank tones, said:
"I love Madame de Gorne. The first time I met her, I conceived the greatest sympathy and admiration for her. But my affection has always been directed by the sole thought of her happiness. I love her, but I respect her even more. Madame de Gorne must have told you and I tell you again that she and I exchanged our first few words last night."
He continued, in a lower voice:
"I respect her the more inasmuch as she is exceedingly unhappy. All the world knows that every minute of her life was a martyrdom. Her husband persecuted her with ferocious hatred and frantic jealousy. Ask the servants. They will tell you of the long suffering of Natalie de Gorne, of the blows which she received and the insults which she had to endure. I tried to stop this torture by restoring to the rights of appeal which the merest stranger may claim when unhappiness and injustice pass a certain limit. I went three times to old de Gorne and begged him to interfere; but I found in him an almost equal hatred towards his daughter-in-law, the hatred which many people feel for anything beautiful and noble. At last I resolved on direct action and last night I took a step with regard to Mathias de Gorne which was ... a little unusual, I admit, but which seemed likely to succeed, considering the man's character. I swear, Mr. Deputy, that I had no other intention than to talk to Mathias de Gorne. Knowing certain particulars of his life which enabled me to bring effective pressure to bear upon him, I wished to make use of this advantage in order to achieve my purpose. If things turned out differently, I am not wholly to blame.... So I went there a little before nine o'clock. The servants, I knew, were out. He opened the door himself. He was alone."
"Monsieur," said the deputy, interrupting him, "you are saying something—as Madame de Gorne, for that matter, did just now—which is manifestly opposed to the truth. Mathias de Gorne did not come home last night until eleven o'clock. We have two definite proofs of this: his father's evidence and the prints of his feet in the snow, which fell from a quarter past nine o'clock to eleven."
"Mr. Deputy," Jrme Vignal declared, without heeding the bad effect which his obstinacy was producing, "I am relating things as they were and not as they may be interpreted. But to continue. That clock marked ten minutes to nine when I entered this room. M. de Gorne, believing that he was about to be attacked, had taken down his gun. I placed my revolver on the table, out of reach of my hand, and sat down: 'I want to speak to you, monsieur,' I said. 'Please listen to me.' He did not stir and did not utter a single syllable. So I spoke. And straightway, crudely, without any previous explanations which might have softened the bluntness of my proposal, I spoke the few words which I had prepared beforehand: 'I have spent some months, monsieur,' I said, 'in making careful enquiries into your financial position. You have mortgaged every foot of your land. You have signed bills which will shortly be falling due and which it will be absolutely impossible for you to honour. You have nothing to hope for from your father, whose own affairs are in a very bad condition. So you are ruined. I have come to save you.'... He watched me, still without speaking, and sat down, which I took to mean that my suggestion was not entirely displeasing. Then I took a sheaf of bank-notes from my pocket, placed it before him and continued: 'Here is sixty thousand francs, monsieur. I will buy the Manoir-au-Puits, its lands and dependencies and take over the mortgages. The sum named is exactly twice what they are worth.'... I saw his eyes glittering. He asked my conditions. 'Only one,' I said, 'that you go to America.'... Mr. Deputy, we sat discussing for two hours. It was not that my offer roused his indignation—I should not have risked it if I had not known with whom I was dealing—but he wanted more and haggled greedily, though he refrained from mentioning the name of Madame de Gorne, to whom I myself had not once alluded. We might have been two men engaged in a dispute and seeking an agreement on common ground, whereas it was the happiness and the whole destiny of a woman that were at stake. At last, weary of the discussion, I accepted a compromise and we came to terms, which I resolved to make definite then and there. Two letters were exchanged between us: one in which he made the Manoir-au-Puits over to me for the sum which I had paid him; and one, which he pocketed immediately, by which I was to send him as much more in America on the day on which the decree of divorce was pronounced.... So the affair was settled. I am sure that at that moment he was accepting in good faith. He looked upon me less as an enemy and a rival than as a man who was doing him a service. He even went so far as to give me the key of the little door which opens on the fields, so that I might go home by the short cut. Unfortunately, while I was picking up my cap and greatcoat, I made the mistake of leaving on the table the letter of sale which he had signed. In a moment, Mathias de Gorne had seen the advantage which he could take of my slip: he could keep his property, keep his wife ... and keep the money. Quick as lightning, he tucked away the paper, hit me over the head with the butt-end of his gun, threw the gun on the floor and seized me by the throat with both hands. He had reckoned without his host. I was the stronger of the two; and after a sharp but short struggle, I mastered him and tied him up with a cord which I found lying in a corner ... Mr. Deputy, if my enemy's resolve was sudden, mine was no less so. Since, when all was said, he had accepted the bargain, I would force him to keep it, at least in so far as I was interested. A very few steps brought me to the first floor ... I had not a doubt that Madame de Gorne was there and had heard the sound of our discussion. Switching on the light of my pocket-torch, I looked into three bedrooms. The fourth was locked. I knocked at the door. There was no reply. But this was one of the moments in which a man allows no obstacle to stand in his way. I had seen a hammer in one of the rooms. I picked it up and smashed in the door.... Yes, Natalie was lying there, on the floor, in a dead faint. I took her in my arms, carried her downstairs and went through the kitchen. On seeing the snow outside, I at once realized that my footprints would be easily traced. But what did it matter? Was there any reason why I should put Mathias de Gorne off the scent? Not at all. With the sixty thousand francs in his possession, as well as the paper in which I undertook to pay him a like sum on the day of his divorce, to say nothing of his house and land, he would go away, leaving Natalie de Gorne to me. Nothing was changed between us, except one thing: instead of awaiting his good pleasure, I had at once seized the precious pledge which I coveted. What I feared, therefore, was not so much any subsequent attack on the part of Mathias de Gorne, but rather the indignant reproaches of his wife. What would she say when she realized that she was a prisoner in my hands?... The reasons why I escaped reproach Madame de Gorne has, I believe, had the frankness to tell you. Love calls forth love. That night, in my house, broken by emotion, she confessed her feeling for me. She loved me as I loved her. Our destinies were henceforth mingled. She and I set out at five o'clock this morning ... not foreseeing for an instant that we were amenable to the law."
Jrme Vignal's story was finished. He had told it straight off the reel, like a story learnt by heart and incapable of revision in any detail.
There was a brief pause, during which Hortense whispered:
"It all sounds quite possible and, in any case, very logical."
"There are the objections to come," said Rnine. "Wait till you hear them. They are very serious. There's one in particular...."
The deputy-procurator stated it at once:
"And what became of M. de Gorne in all this?"
"Mathias de Gorne?" asked Jrme.
"Yes. You have related, with an accent of great sincerity, a series of facts which I am quite willing to admit. Unfortunately, you have forgotten a point of the first importance: what became of Mathias de Gorne? You tied him up here, in this room. Well, this morning he was gone."
"Of course, Mr. Deputy, Mathias de Gorne accepted the bargain in the end and went away."
"By what road?"
"No doubt by the road that leads to his father's house."
"Where are his footprints? The expanse of snow is an impartial witness. After your fight with him, we see you, on the snow, moving away. Why don't we see him? He came and did not go away again. Where is he? There is not a trace of him ... or rather...."
The deputy lowered his voice:
"Or rather, yes, there are some traces on the way to the well and around the well ... traces which prove that the last struggle of all took place there.... And after that there is nothing ... not a thing...."
Jrme shrugged his shoulders:
"You have already mentioned this, Mr. Deputy, and it implies a charge of homicide against me. I have nothing to say to it."
"Have you anything to say to the fact that your revolver was picked up within fifteen yards of the well?"
"Or to the strange coincidence between the three shots heard in the night and the three cartridges missing from your revolver?"
"No, Mr. Deputy, there was not, as you believe, a last struggle by the well, because I left M. de Gorne tied up, in this room, and because I also left my revolver here. On the other hand, if shots were heard, they were not fired by me."
"A casual coincidence, therefore?"
"That's a matter for the police to explain. My only duty is to tell the truth and you are not entitled to ask more of me."
"And if that truth conflicts with the facts observed?"
"It means that the facts are wrong, Mr. Deputy."
"As you please. But, until the day when the police are able to make them agree with your statements, you will understand that I am obliged to keep you under arrest."
"And Madame de Gorne?" asked Jrme, greatly distressed.
The deputy did not reply. He exchanged a few words with the commissary of police and then, beckoning to a detective, ordered him to bring up one of the two motor-cars. Then he turned to Natalie:
"Madame, you have heard M. Vignal's evidence. It agrees word for word with your own. M. Vignal declares in particular that you had fainted when he carried you away. But did you remain unconscious all the way?"
It seemed as though Jrme's composure had increased Madame de Gorne's assurance. She replied:
"I did not come to, monsieur, until I was at the chteau."
"It's most extraordinary. Didn't you hear the three shots which were heard by almost every one in the village?"
"I did not."
"And did you see nothing of what happened beside the well?"
"Nothing did happen. M. Vignal has told you so."
"Then what has become of your husband?"
"I don't know."
"Come, madame, you really must assist the officers of the law and at least tell us what you think. Do you believe that there may have been an accident and that possibly M. de Gorne, who had been to see his father and had more to drink than usual, lost his balance and fell into the well?"
"When my husband came back from seeing his father, he was not in the least intoxicated."
"His father, however, has stated that he was. His father and he had drunk two or three bottles of wine."
"His father is not telling the truth."
"But the snow tells the truth, madame," said the deputy, irritably. "And the line of his footprints wavers from side to side."
"My husband came in at half-past-eight, monsieur, before the snow had begun to fall."
The deputy struck the table with his fist:
"But, really, madame, you're going right against the evidence!... That sheet of snow cannot speak false!... I may accept your denial of matters that cannot be verified. But these footprints in the snow ... in the snow...."
He controlled himself.
The motor-car drew up outside the windows. Forming a sudden resolve, he said to Natalie:
"You will be good enough to hold yourself at the disposal of the authorities, madame, and to remain here, in the manor-house...."
And he made a sign to the sergeant to remove Jrme Vignal in the car.
The game was lost for the two lovers. Barely united, they had to separate and to fight, far away from each other, against the most grievous accusations.
Jrme took a step towards Natalie. They exchanged a long, sorrowful look. Then he bowed to her and walked to the door, in the wake of the sergeant of gendarmes.
"Halt!" cried a voice. "Sergeant, right about ... turn!... Jrme Vignal, stay where you are!"
The ruffled deputy raised his head, as did the other people present. The voice came from the ceiling. The bulls-eye window had opened and Rnine, leaning through it, was waving his arms:
"I wish to be heard!... I have several remarks to make ... especially in respect of the zigzag footprints!... It all lies in that!... Mathias had not been drinking!..."
He had turned round and put his two legs through the opening, saying to Hortense, who tried to prevent him:
"Don't move.... No one will disturb you."
And, releasing his hold, he dropped into the room.
The deputy appeared dumfounded:
"But, really, monsieur, who are you? Where do you come from?"
Rnine brushed the dust from his clothes and replied:
"Excuse me, Mr. Deputy. I ought to have come the same way as everybody else. But I was in a hurry. Besides, if I had come in by the door instead of falling from the ceiling, my words would not have made the same impression."
The infuriated deputy advanced to meet him:
"Who are you?"
"Prince Rnine. I was with the sergeant this morning when he was pursuing his investigations, wasn't I, sergeant? Since then I have been hunting about for information. That's why, wishing to be present at the hearing, I found a corner in a little private room...."
"You were there? You had the audacity?..."
"One must needs be audacious, when the truth's at stake. If I had not been there, I should not have discovered just the one little clue which I missed. I should not have known that Mathias de Gorne was not the least bit drunk. Now that's the key to the riddle. When we know that, we know the solution."
The deputy found himself in a rather ridiculous position. Since he had failed to take the necessary precautions to ensure the secrecy of his enquiry, it was difficult for him to take any steps against this interloper. He growled:
"Let's have done with this. What are you asking?"
"A few minutes of your kind attention."
"And with what object?"
"To establish the innocence of M. Vignal and Madame de Gorne."
He was wearing that calm air, that sort of indifferent look which was peculiar to him in moments of actions when the crisis of the drama depended solely upon himself. Hortense felt a thrill pass through her and at once became full of confidence:
"They're saved," she thought, with sudden emotion. "I asked him to protect that young creature; and he is saving her from prison and despair."
Jrme and Natalie must have experienced the same impression of sudden hope, for they had drawn nearer to each other, as though this stranger, descended from the clouds, had already given them the right to clasp hands.
The deputy shrugged his shoulders:
"The prosecution will have every means, when the time comes, of establishing their innocence for itself. You will be called."
"It would be better to establish it here and now. Any delay might lead to grievous consequences."
"I happen to be in a hurry."
"Two or three minutes will do."
"Two or three minutes to explain a case like this!"
"No longer, I assure you."
"Are you as certain of it as all that?"
"I am now. I have been thinking hard since this morning."
The deputy realized that this was one of those gentry who stick to you like a leech and that there was nothing for it but to submit. In a rather bantering tone, he asked:
"Does your thinking enable you to tell us the exact spot where M. Mathias de Gorne is at this moment?"
Rnine took out his watch and answered:
"In Paris, Mr. Deputy."
"In Paris? Alive then?"
"Alive and, what is more, in the pink of health."
"I am delighted to hear it. But then what's the meaning of the footprints around the well and the presence of that revolver and those three shots?"
"Oh, really? Camouflage contrived by whom?"
"By Mathias de Gorne himself."
"That's curious! And with what object?"
"With the object of passing himself off for dead and of arranging subsequent matters in such a way that M. Vignal was bound to be accused of the death, the murder."
"An ingenious theory," the deputy agreed, still in a satirical tone. "What do you think of it, M. Vignal?"
"It is a theory which flashed through my own mind. Mr. Deputy," replied Jrme. "It is quite likely that, after our struggle and after I had gone, Mathias de Gorne conceived a new plan by which, this time, his hatred would be fully gratified. He both loved and detested his wife. He held me in the greatest loathing. This must be his revenge."
"His revenge would cost him dear, considering that, according to your statement, Mathias de Gorne was to receive a second sum of sixty thousand francs from you."
"He would receive that sum in another quarter, Mr. Deputy. My examination of the financial position of the de Gorne family revealed to me the fact that the father and son had taken out a life-insurance policy in each other's favour. With the son dead, or passing for dead, the father would receive the insurance-money and indemnify his son."
"You mean to say," asked the deputy, with a smile, "that in all this camouflage, as you call it, M. de Gorne the elder would act as his son's accomplice?"
Rnine took up the challenge:
"Just so, Mr. Deputy. The father and son are accomplices.
"Then we shall find the son at the father's?"
"You would have found him there last night."
"What became of him?"
"He took the train at Pompignat."
"That's a mere supposition."
"No, a certainty."
"A moral certainty, perhaps, but you'll admit there's not the slightest proof."
The deputy did not wait for a reply. He considered that he had displayed an excessive goodwill and that patience has its limits and he put an end to the interview:
"Not the slightest proof," he repeated, taking up his hat. "And, above all, ... above all, there's nothing in what you've said that can contradict in the very least the evidence of that relentless witness, the snow. To go to his father, Mathias de Gorne must have left this house. Which way did he go?"
"Hang it all, M. Vignal told you: by the road which leads from here to his father's!"
"There are no tracks in the snow."
"Yes, there are."
"But they show him coming here and not going away from here."
"It's the same thing."
"Of course it is. There's more than one way of walking. One doesn't always go ahead by following one's nose."
"In what other way can one go ahead?"
"By walking backwards, Mr. Deputy."
These few words, spoken very simply, but in a clear tone which gave full value to every syllable, produced a profound silence. Those present at once grasped their extreme significance and, by adapting it to the actual happenings, perceived in a flash the impenetrable truth, which suddenly appeared to be the most natural thing in the world.
Rnine continued his argument. Stepping backwards in the direction of the window, he said:
"If I want to get to that window, I can of course walk straight up to it; but I can just as easily turn my back to it and walk that way. In either case I reach my goal."
And he at once proceeded in a vigorous tone:
"Here's the gist of it all. At half-past eight, before the snow fell, M. de Gorne comes home from his father's house. M. Vignal arrives twenty minutes later. There is a long discussion and a struggle, taking up three hours in all. It is then, after M. Vignal has carried off Madame de Gorne and made his escape, that Mathias de Gorne, foaming at the mouth, wild with rage, but suddenly seeing his chance of taking the most terrible revenge, hits upon the ingenious idea of using against his enemy the very snowfall upon whose evidence you are now relying. He therefore plans his own murder, or rather the appearance of his murder and of his fall to the bottom of the well and makes off backwards, step by step, thus recording his arrival instead of his departure on the white page."
The deputy sneered no longer. This eccentric intruder suddenly appeared to him in the light of a person worthy of attention, whom it would not do to make fun of. He asked:
"And how could he have left his father's house?"
"In a trap, quite simply."
"Who drove it?"
"The father. This morning the sergeant and I saw the trap and spoke to the father, who was going to market as usual. The son was hidden under the tilt. He took the train at Pompignat and is in Paris by now."
Rnine's explanation, as promised, had taken hardly five minutes. He had based it solely on logic and the probabilities of the case. And yet not a jot was left of the distressing mystery in which they were floundering. The darkness was dispelled. The whole truth appeared.
Madame de Gorne wept for joy and Jrme Vignal thanked the good genius who was changing the course of events with a stroke of his magic wand.
"Shall we examine those footprints together, Mr. Deputy?" asked Rnine. "Do you mind? The mistake which the sergeant and I made this morning was to investigate only the footprints left by the alleged murderer and to neglect Mathias de Gorne's. Why indeed should they have attracted our attention? Yet it was precisely there that the crux of the whole affair was to be found."
They stepped into the orchard and went to the well. It did not need a long examination to observe that many of the footprints were awkward, hesitating, too deeply sunk at the heel and toe and differing from one another in the angle at which the feet were turned.
"This clumsiness was unavoidable," said Rnine. "Mathias de Gorne would have needed a regular apprenticeship before his backward progress could have equalled his ordinary gait; and both his father and he must have been aware of this, at least as regards the zigzags which you see here since old de Gorne went out of his way to tell the sergeant that his son had had too much drink." And he added "Indeed it was the detection of this falsehood that suddenly enlightened me. When Madame de Gorne stated that her husband was not drunk, I thought of the footprints and guessed the truth."
The deputy frankly accepted his part in the matter and began to laugh:
"There's nothing left for it but to send detectives after the bogus corpse."
"On what grounds, Mr. Deputy?" asked Rnine. "Mathias de Gorne has committed no offence against the law. There's nothing criminal in trampling the soil around a well, in shifting the position of a revolver that doesn't belong to you, in firing three shots or in walking backwards to one's father's house. What can we ask of him? The sixty thousand francs? I presume that this is not M. Vignal's intention and that he does not mean to bring a charge against him?"
"Certainly not," said Jrme.
"Well, what then? The insurance-policy in favour of the survivor? But there would be no misdemeanour unless the father claimed payment. And I should be greatly surprised if he did.... Hullo, here the old chap is! You'll soon know all about it."
Old de Gorne was coming along, gesticulating as he walked. His easy-going features were screwed up to express sorrow and anger.
"Where's my son?" he cried. "It seems the brute's killed him!... My poor Mathias dead! Oh, that scoundrel of a Vignal!"
And he shook his fist at Jrme.
The deputy said, bluntly:
"A word with you, M. de Gorne. Do you intend to claim your rights under a certain insurance-policy?"
"Well, what do you think?" said the old man, off his guard.
"The fact is ... your son's not dead. People are even saying that you were a partner in his little schemes and that you stuffed him under the tilt of your trap and drove him to the station."
The old fellow spat on the ground, stretched out his hand as though he were going to take a solemn oath, stood for an instant without moving and then, suddenly, changing his mind and his tactics with ingenuous cynicism, he relaxed his features, assumed a conciliatory attitude and burst out laughing:
"That blackguard Mathias! So he tried to pass himself off as dead? What a rascal! And he reckoned on me to collect the insurance-money and send it to him? As if I should be capable of such a low, dirty trick!... You don't know me, my boy!"
And, without waiting for more, shaking with merriment like a jolly old fellow amused by a funny story, he took his departure, not forgetting, however, to set his great hob-nail boots on each of the compromising footprints which his son had left behind him.
* * * * *
Later, when Rnine went back to the manor to let Hortense out, he found that she had disappeared.
He called and asked for her at her cousin Ermelin's. Hortense sent down word asking him to excuse her: she was feeling a little tired and was lying down.
"Capital!" thought Rnine. "Capital! She avoids me, therefore she loves me. The end is not far off."
AT THE SIGN OF MERCURY
To Madame Daniel, La Roncire, near Bassicourt.
"PARIS 30 NOVEMBER
"My Dearest Friend,—
"There has been no letter from you for a fortnight; so I don't expect now to receive one for that troublesome date of the 5th of December, which we fixed as the last day of our partnership. I rather wish it would come, because you will then be released from a contract which no longer seems to give you pleasure. To me the seven battles which we fought and won together were a time of endless delight and enthusiasm. I was living beside you. I was conscious of all the good which that more active and stirring existence was doing you. My happiness was so great that I dared not speak of it to you or let you see anything of my secret feelings except my desire to please you and my passionate devotion. To-day you have had enough of your brother in arms. Your will shall be law.
"But, though I bow to your decree, may I remind I you what it was that I always believed our final adventure would be? May I repeat your words, not one of which I have forgotten?
"'I demand,' you said, 'that you shall restore to me a small, antique clasp, made of a cornelian set in a filigree mount. It came to me from my mother; and every one knew that it used to bring her happiness and me too. Since the day when it vanished from my jewel-case, I have had nothing but unhappiness. Restore it to me, my good genius.'
"And, when I asked you when the clasp had disappeared, you answered, with a laugh:
"'Seven years ago ... or eight ... or nine: I don't know exactly.... I don't know when ... I don't know how ... I know nothing about it....'
"You were challenging me, were you not, and you set me that condition because it was one which I could not fulfil? Nevertheless, I promised and I should like to keep my promise. What I have tried to do, in order to place life before you in a more favourable light, would seem purposeless, if your confidence feels the lack of this talisman to which you attach so great a value. We must not laugh at these little superstitions. They are often the mainspring of our best actions.
"Dear friend, if you had helped me, I should have achieved yet one more victory. Alone and hard pushed by the proximity of the date, I have failed, not however without placing things on such a footing that the undertaking if you care to follow it up, has the greatest chance of success.
"And you will follow it up, won't you? We have entered into a mutual agreement which we are bound to honour. It behooves us, within a fixed time, to inscribe in the book of our common life eight good stories, to which we shall have brought energy, logic, perseverance, some subtlety and occasionally a little heroism. This is the eighth of them. It is for you to act so that it may be written in its proper place on the 5th of December, before the clock strikes eight in the evening.
"And, on that day, you will act as I shall now tell you.
"First of all—and above all, my dear, do not complain that my instructions are fanciful: each of them is an indispensable condition of success—first of all, cut in your cousin's garden three slender lengths of rush. Plait them together and bind up the two ends so as to make a rude switch, like a child's whip-lash.
"When you get to Paris, buy a long necklace of jet beads, cut into facets, and shorten it so that it consists of seventy-five beads, of almost equal size.
"Under your winter cloak, wear a blue woollen gown. On your head, a toque with red leaves on it. Round your neck, a feather boa. No gloves. No rings.
"In the afternoon, take a cab along the left bank of the river to the church of Saint-tienne-du-Mont. At four o'clock exactly, there will be, near the holy-water basin, just inside the church, an old woman dressed in black, saying her prayers on a silver rosary. She will offer you holy water. Give her your necklace. She will count the beads and hand it back to you. After this, you will walk behind her, you will cross an arm of the Seine and she will lead you, down a lonely street in the Ile Saint-Louis, to a house which you will enter by yourself.
"On the ground-floor of this house, you will find a youngish man with a very pasty complexion. Take off your cloak and then say to him:
"'I have come to fetch my clasp.'
"Do not be astonished by his agitation or dismay. Keep calm in his presence. If he questions you, if he wants to know your reason for applying to him or what impels you to make that request, give him no explanation. Your replies must be confined to these brief formulas:
"'I have come to fetch what belongs to me. I don't know you, I don't know your name; but I am obliged to come to you like this. I must have my clasp returned to me. I must.'
"I honestly believe that, if you have the firmness not to swerve from that attitude, whatever farce the man may play, you will be completely successful. But the contest must be a short one and the issue will depend solely on your confidence in yourself and your certainty of success. It will be a sort of match in which you must defeat your opponent in the first round. If you remain impassive, you will win. If you show hesitation or uneasiness, you can do nothing against him. He will escape you and regain the upper hand after a first moment of distress; and the game will be lost in a few minutes. There is no midway house between victory or ... defeat.
"In the latter event, you would be obliged—I beg you to pardon me for saying so—again to accept my collaboration. I offer it you in advance, my dear, and without any conditions, while stating quite plainly that all that I have been able to do for you and all that I may yet do gives me no other right than that of thanking you and devoting myself more than ever to the woman who represents my joy, my whole life."
* * * * *
Hortense, after reading the letter, folded it up and put it away at the back of a drawer, saying, in a resolute voice:
"I sha'n't go."
To begin with, although she had formerly attached some slight importance to this trinket, which she had regarded as a mascot, she felt very little interest in it now that the period of her trials was apparently at an end. She could not forget that figure eight, which was the serial number of the next adventure. To launch herself upon it meant taking up the interrupted chain, going back to Rnine and giving him a pledge which, with his powers of suggestion, he would know how to turn to account.
Two days before the 5th of December, she was still in the same frame of mind. So she was on the morning of the 4th; but suddenly, without even having to contend against preliminary subterfuges, she ran out into the garden, cut three lengths of rush, plaited them as she used to do in her childhood and at twelve o'clock had herself driven to the station. She was uplifted by an eager curiosity. She was unable to resist all the amusing and novel sensations which the adventure, proposed by Rnine, promised her. It was really too tempting. The jet necklace, the toque with the autumn leaves, the old woman with the silver rosary: how could she resist their mysterious appeal and how could she refuse this opportunity of showing Rnine what she was capable of doing?
"And then, after all," she said to herself, laughing, "he's summoning me to Paris. Now eight o'clock is dangerous to me at a spot three hundred miles from Paris, in that old deserted Chteau de Halingre, but nowhere else. The only clock that can strike the threatening hour is down there, under lock and key, a prisoner!"
She reached Paris that evening. On the morning of the 5th she went out and bought a jet necklace, which she reduced to seventy-five beads, put on a blue gown and a toque with red leaves and, at four o'clock precisely, entered the church of Saint-tienne-du-Mont.
Her heart was throbbing violently. This time she was alone; and how acutely she now felt the strength of that support which, from unreflecting fear rather than any reasonable motive, she had thrust aside! She looked around her, almost hoping to see him. But there was no one there ... no one except an old lady in black, standing beside the holy water basin.
Hortense went up to her. The old lady, who held a silver rosary in her hands, offered her holy water and then began to count the beads of the necklace which Hortense gave her.
"Seventy-five. That's right. Come."
Without another word, she toddled along under the light of the street-lamps, crossed the Pont des Tournelles to the Ile Saint-Louis and went down an empty street leading to a cross-roads, where she stopped in front of an old house with wrought-iron balconies:
"Go in," she said.
And the old lady went away.
* * * * *
Hortense now saw a prosperous-looking shop which occupied almost the whole of the ground-floor and whose windows, blazing with electric light, displayed a huddled array of old furniture and antiquities. She stood there for a few seconds, gazing at it absently. A sign-board bore the words "The Mercury," together with the name of the owner of the shop, "Pancaldi." Higher up, on a projecting cornice which ran on a level with the first floor, a small niche sheltered a terra-cotta Mercury poised on one foot, with wings to his sandals and the caduceus in his hand, who, as Hortense noted, was leaning a little too far forward in the ardour of his flight and ought logically to have lost his balance and taken a header into the street.
"Now!" she said, under her breath.
She turned the handle of the door and walked in.
Despite the ringing of the bells actuated by the opening door, no one came to meet her. The shop seemed to be empty. However, at the extreme end there was a room at the back of the shop and after that another, both crammed with furniture and knick-knacks, many of which looked very valuable. Hortense followed a narrow gangway which twisted and turned between two walls built up of cupboards, cabinets and console-tables, went up two steps and found herself in the last room of all.
A man was sitting at a writing-desk and looking through some account-books. Without turning his head, he said:
"I am at your service, madam.... Please look round you...."
This room contained nothing but articles of a special character which gave it the appearance of some alchemist's laboratory in the middle ages: stuffed owls, skeletons, skulls, copper alembics, astrolabes and all around, hanging on the walls, amulets of every description, mainly hands of ivory or coral with two fingers pointing to ward off ill-luck.
"Are you wanting anything in particular, madam?" asked M. Pancaldi, closing his desk and rising from his chair.
"It's the man," thought Hortense.
He had in fact an uncommonly pasty complexion. A little forked beard, flecked with grey, lengthened his face, which was surmounted by a bald, pallid forehead, beneath which gleamed a pair of small, prominent, restless, shifty eyes.
Hortense, who had not removed her veil or cloak, replied:
"I want a clasp."
"They're in this show-case," he said, leading the way to the connecting room.
Hortense glanced over the glass case and said:
"No, no, ... I don't see what I'm looking for. I don't want just any clasp, but a clasp which I lost out of a jewel-case some years ago and which I have to look for here."
She was astounded to see the commotion displayed on his features. His eyes became haggard.
"Here?... I don't think you are in the least likely.... What sort of clasp is it?..."
"A cornelian, mounted in gold filigree ... of the 1830 period."
"I don't understand," he stammered. "Why do you come to me?"
She now removed her veil and laid aside her cloak.
He stepped back, as though terrified by the sight of her, and whispered:
"The blue gown!... The toque!... And—can I believe my eyes?—the jet necklace!..."
It was perhaps the whip-lash formed of three rushes that excited him most violently. He pointed his finger at it, began to stagger where he stood and ended by beating the air with his arms, like a drowning man, and fainting away in a chair.
Hortense did not move.
"Whatever farce he may play," Rnine had written, "have the courage to remain impassive."
Perhaps he was not playing a farce. Nevertheless she forced herself to be calm and indifferent.
This lasted for a minute or two, after which M. Pancaldi recovered from his swoon, wiped away the perspiration streaming down his forehead and, striving to control himself, resumed, in a trembling voice:
"Why do you apply to me?"
"Because the clasp is in your possession."
"Who told you that?" he said, without denying the accusation. "How do you know?"
"I know because it is so. Nobody has told me anything. I came here positive that I should find my clasp and with the immovable determination to take it away with me."
"But do you know me? Do you know my name?"
"I don't know you. I did not know your name before I read it over your shop. To me you are simply the man who is going to give me back what belongs to me."
He was greatly agitated. He kept on walking to and fro in a small empty space surrounded by a circle of piled-up furniture, at which he hit out idiotically, at the risk of bringing it down.
Hortense felt that she had the whip hand of him; and, profiting by his confusion, she said, suddenly, in a commanding and threatening tone:
"Where is the thing? You must give it back to me. I insist upon it."
Pancaldi gave way to a moment of despair. He folded his hands and mumbled a few words of entreaty. Then, defeated and suddenly resigned, he said, more distinctly:
"I do. You must give it to me."
"Yes, yes, I must ... I agree."
"Speak!" she ordered, more harshly still.
"Speak, no, but write: I will write my secret.... And that will be the end of me."
He turned to his desk and feverishly wrote a few lines on a sheet of paper, which he put into an envelope and sealed it:
"See," he said, "here's my secret.... It was my whole life...."
And, so saying, he suddenly pressed against his temple a revolver which he had produced from under a pile of papers and fired.
With a quick movement, Hortense struck up his arm. The bullet struck the mirror of a cheval-glass. But Pancaldi collapsed and began to groan, as though he were wounded.
Hortense made a great effort not to lose her composure:
"Rnine warned me," she reflected. "The man's a play-actor. He has kept the envelope. He has kept his revolver, I won't be taken in by him."
Nevertheless, she realized that, despite his apparent calmness, the attempt at suicide and the revolver-shot had completely unnerved her. All her energies were dispersed, like the sticks of a bundle whose string has been cut; and she had a painful impression that the man, who was grovelling at her feet, was in reality slowly getting the better of her.
She sat down, exhausted. As Rnine had foretold, the duel had not lasted longer than a few minutes but it was she who had succumbed, thanks to her feminine nerves and at the very moment when she felt entitled to believe that she had won.
The man Pancaldi was fully aware of this; and, without troubling to invent a transition, he ceased his jeremiads, leapt to his feet, cut a sort of agile caper before Hortense' eyes and cried, in a jeering tone:
"Now we are going to have a little chat; but it would be a nuisance to be at the mercy of the first passing customer, wouldn't it?"
He ran to the street-door, opened it and pulled down the iron shutter which closed the shop. Then, still hopping and skipping, he came back to Hortense:
"Oof! I really thought I was done for! One more effort, madam, and you would have pulled it off. But then I'm such a simple chap! It seemed to me that you had come from the back of beyond, as an emissary of Providence, to call me to account; and, like a fool, I was about to give the thing back.... Ah, Mlle. Hortense—let me call you so: I used to know you by that name—Mlle. Hortense, what you lack, to use a vulgar expression, is gut."
He sat down beside her and, with a malicious look, said, savagely:
"The time has come to speak out. Who contrived this business? Not you; eh? It's not in your style. Then who?... I have always been honest in my life, scrupulously honest ... except once ... in the matter of that clasp. And, whereas I thought the story was buried and forgotten, here it is suddenly raked up again. Why? That's what I want to know."
Hortense was no longer even attempting to fight. He was bringing to bear upon her all his virile strength, all his spite, all his fears, all the threats expressed in his furious gestures and on his features, which were both ridiculous and evil:
"Speak, I want to know. If I have a secret foe, let me defend myself against him! Who is he? Who sent you here? Who urged you to take action? Is it a rival incensed by my good luck, who wants in his turn to benefit by the clasp? Speak, can't you, damn it all ... or, I swear by Heaven, I'll make you!..."
She had an idea that he was reaching out for his revolver and stepped back, holding her arms before her, in the hope of escaping.
They thus struggled against each other; and Hortense, who was becoming more and more frightened, not so much of the attack as of her assailant's distorted face, was beginning to scream, when Pancaldi suddenly stood motionless, with his arms before him, his fingers outstretched and his eyes staring above Hortense's head:
"Who's there? How did you get in?" he asked, in a stifled voice.
Hortense did not even need to turn round to feel assured that Rnine was coming to her assistance and that it was his inexplicable appearance that was causing the dealer such dismay. As a matter of fact, a slender figure stole through a heap of easy chairs and sofas: and Rnine came forward with a tranquil step.
"Who are you?" repeated Pancaldi. "Where do you come from?"
"From up there," he said, very amiably, pointing to the ceiling.
"From up there?"
"Yes, from the first floor. I have been the tenant of the floor above this for the past three months. I heard a noise just now. Some one was calling out for help. So I came down."
"But how did you get in here?"
"By the staircase."
"The iron staircase, at the end of the shop. The man who owned it before you had a flat on my floor and used to go up and down by that hidden staircase. You had the door shut off. I opened it."
"But by what right, sir? It amounts to breaking in."
"Breaking in is allowed, when there's a fellow-creature to be rescued."
"Once more, who are you?"
"Prince Rnine ... and a friend of this lady's," said Rnine, bending over Hortense and kissing her hand.
Pancaldi seemed to be choking, and mumbled:
"Oh, I understand!... You instigated the plot ... it was you who sent the lady...."
"It was, M. Pancaldi, it was!"
"And what are your intentions?"
"My intentions are irreproachable. No violence. Simply a little interview. When that is over, you will hand over what I in my turn have come to fetch."
"That, never!" shouted the dealer.
"Don't say no. It's a foregone conclusion."
"No power on earth, sir, can compel me to do such a thing!"
"Shall we send for your wife? Madame Pancaldi will perhaps realize the position better than you do."
The idea of no longer being alone with this unexpected adversary seemed to appeal to Pancaldi. There was a bell on the table beside him. He struck it three times.
"Capital!" exclaimed Rnine "You see, my dear, M. Pancaldi is becoming quite amiable. Not a trace left of the devil broken loose who was going for you just now. No, M. Pancaldi only has to find himself dealing with a man to recover his qualities of courtesy and kindness. A perfect sheep! Which does not mean that things will go quite of themselves. Far from it! There's no more obstinate animal than a sheep...."
Right at the end of the shop, between the dealer's writing-desk and the winding staircase, a curtain was raised, admitting a woman who was holding a door open. She might have been thirty years of age. Very simply dressed, she looked, with the apron on her, more like a cook than like the mistress of a household. But she had an attractive face and a pleasing figure.
Hortense, who had followed Rnine, was surprised to recognize her as a maid whom she had had in her service when a girl:
"What! Is that you, Lucienne? Are you Madame Pancaldi?"
The newcomer looked at her, recognized her also and seemed embarrassed. Rnine said to her:
"Your husband and I need your assistance, Madame Pancaldi, to settle a rather complicated matter a matter in which you played an important part...."
She came forward without a word, obviously ill at ease, asking her husband, who did not take his eyes off her:
"What is it?... What do they want with me?... What is he referring to?"
"It's about the clasp!" Pancaldi whispered, under his breath.
These few words were enough to make Madame Pancaldi realize to the full the seriousness of her position. And she did not try to keep her countenance or to retort with futile protests. She sank into a chair, sighing:
"Oh, that's it!... I understand.... Mlle. Hortense has found the track.... Oh, it's all up with us!"
There was a moment's respite. The struggle between the adversaries had hardly begun, before the husband and wife adopted the attitude of defeated persons whose only hope lay in the victor's clemency. Staring motionless before her, Madame Pancaldi began to cry. Rnine bent over her and said:
"Do you mind if we go over the case from the beginning? We shall then see things more clearly; and I am sure that our interview will lead to a perfectly natural solution.... This is how things happened: nine years ago, when you were lady's maid to Mlle. Hortense in the country, you made the acquaintance of M. Pancaldi, who soon became your lover. You were both of you Corsicans, in other words, you came from a country where superstitions are very strong and where questions of good and bad luck, the evil eye, and spells and charms exert a profound influence over the lives of one and all. Now it was said that your young mistress' clasp had always brought luck to its owners. That was why, in a weak moment prompted by M. Pancaldi, you stole the clasp. Six months afterwards, you became Madame Pancaldi.... That is your whole story, is it not, told in a few sentences? The whole story of two people who would have remained honest members of society, if they had been able to resist that casual temptation?... I need not tell you how you both succeeded in life and how, possessing the talisman, believing its powers and trusting in yourselves, you rose to the first rank of antiquarians. To-day, well-off, owning this shop, "The Mercury," you attribute the success of your undertakings to that clasp. To lose it would to your eyes spell bankruptcy and poverty. Your whole life has been centred upon it. It is your fetish. It is the little household god who watches over you and guides your steps. It is there, somewhere, hidden in this jungle; and no one of course would ever have suspected anything—for I repeat, you are decent people, but for this one lapse—if an accident had not led me to look into your affairs."
Rnine paused and continued:
"That was two months ago, two months of minute investigations, which presented no difficulty to me, because, having discovered your trail, I hired the flat overhead and was able to use that staircase ... but, all the same, two months wasted to a certain extent because I have not yet succeeded. And Heaven knows how I have ransacked this shop of yours! There is not a piece of furniture that I have left unsearched, not a plank in the floor that I have not inspected. All to no purpose. Yes, there was one thing, an incidental discovery. In a secret recess in your writing-table, Pancaldi, I turned up a little account-book in which you have set down your remorse, your uneasiness, your fear of punishment and your dread of God's wrath.... It was highly imprudent of you, Pancaldi! People don't write such confessions! And, above all, they don't leave them lying about! Be this as it may, I read them and I noted one passage, which struck me as particularly important and was of use to me in preparing my plan of campaign: 'Should she come to me, the woman whom I robbed, should she come to me as I saw her in her garden, while Lucienne was taking the clasp; should she appear to me wearing the blue gown and the toque of red leaves, with the jet necklace and the whip of three plaited rushes which she was carrying that day; should she appear to me thus and say: "I have come to claim my property," then I shall understand that her conduct is inspired from on high and that I must obey the decree of Providence.' That is what is written in your book, Pancaldi, and it explains the conduct of the lady whom you call Mlle. Hortense. Acting on my instructions and in accordance with the setting thought out by yourself, she came to you, from the back of beyond, to use your own expression. A little more self-possession on her part; and you know that she would have won the day. Unfortunately, you are a wonderful actor; your sham suicide put her out; and you understood that this was not a decree of Providence, but simply an offensive on the part of your former victim. I had no choice, therefore, but to intervene. Here I am.... And now let's finish the business. Pancaldi, that clasp!"
"No," said the dealer, who seemed to recover all his energy at the very thought of restoring the clasp.
"And you, Madame Pancaldi."
"I don't know where it is," the wife declared.
"Very well. Then let us come to deeds. Madame Pancaldi, you have a son of seven whom you love with all your heart. This is Thursday and, as on every Thursday, your little boy is to come home alone from his aunt's. Two of my friends are posted on the road by which he returns and, in the absence of instructions to the contrary, will kidnap him as he passes."
Madame Pancaldi lost her head at once:
"My son! Oh, please, please ... not that!... I swear that I know nothing. My husband would never consent to confide in me."
"Next point. This evening, I shall lodge an information with the public prosecutor. Evidence: the confessions in the account-book. Consequences: action by the police, search of the premises and the rest."
Pancaldi was silent. The others had a feeling that all these threats did not affect him and that, protected by his fetish, he believed himself to be invulnerable. But his wife fell on her knees at Rnine's feet and stammered:
"No, no ... I entreat you!... It would mean going to prison and I don't want to go!... And then my son!... Oh, I entreat you!..."
Hortense, seized with compassion, took Rnine to one side:
"Poor woman! Let me intercede for her."
"Set your mind at rest," he said. "Nothing is going to happen to her son."
"But your two friends?"
"Your application to the public prosecutor?"
"A mere threat."
"Then what are you trying to do?"
"To frighten them out of their wits, in the hope of making them drop a remark, a word, which will tell us what we want to know. We've tried every other means. This is the last; and it is a method which, I find, nearly always succeeds. Remember our adventures."
"But if the word which you expect to hear is not spoken?"
"It must be spoken," said Rnine, in a low voice. "We must finish the matter. The hour is at hand."
His eyes met hers; and she blushed crimson at the thought that the hour to which he was alluding was the eighth and that he had no other object than to finish the matter before that eighth hour struck.
"So you see, on the one hand, what you are risking," he said to the Pancaldi pair. "The disappearance of your child ... and prison: prison for certain, since there is the book with its confessions. And now, on the other hand, here's my offer: twenty thousand francs if you hand over the clasp immediately, this minute. Remember, it isn't worth three louis."
No reply. Madame Pancaldi was crying.
Rnine resumed, pausing between each proposal:
"I'll double my offer.... I'll treble it.... Hang it all, Pancaldi, you're unreasonable!... I suppose you want me to make it a round sum? All right: a hundred thousand francs."
He held out his hand as if there was no doubt that they would give him the clasp.
Madame Pancaldi was the first to yield and did so with a sudden outburst of rage against her husband:
"Well, confess, can't you?... Speak up!... Where have you hidden it?... Look here, you aren't going to be obstinate, what? If you are, it means ruin ... and poverty.... And then there's our boy!... Speak out, do!"
"Rnine, this is madness; the clasp has no value...."
"Never fear," said Rnine, "he's not going to accept.... But look at him.... How excited he is! Exactly what I wanted.... Ah, this, you know, is really exciting!... To make people lose their heads! To rob them of all control over what they are thinking and saying!... And, in the midst of this confusion, in the storm that tosses them to and fro, to catch sight of the tiny spark which will flash forth somewhere or other!... Look at him! Look at the fellow! A hundred thousand francs for a valueless pebble ... if not, prison: it's enough to turn any man's head!"
Pancaldi, in fact, was grey in the face; his lips were trembling and a drop of saliva was trickling from their corners. It was easy to guess the seething turmoil of his whole being, shaken by conflicting emotions, by the clash between greed and fear. Suddenly he burst out; and it was obvious that his words were pouring forth at random, without his knowing in the least what he was saying:
"A hundred thousand francs! Two hundred thousand! Five hundred thousand! A million! A two fig for your millions! What's the use of millions? One loses them. They disappear.... They go.... There's only one thing that counts: luck. It's on your side or else against you. And luck has been on my side these last nine years. It has never betrayed me; and you expect me to betray it? Why? Out of fear? Prison? My son? Bosh!... No harm will come to me so long as I compel luck to work on my behalf. It's my servant, it's my friend. It clings to the clasp. How? How can I tell? It's the cornelian, no doubt.... There are magic stones, which hold happiness, as others hold fire, or sulphur, or gold...."
Rnine kept his eyes fixed upon him, watching for the least word, the least modulation of the voice. The curiosity-dealer was now laughing, with a nervous laugh, while resuming the self-control of a man who feels sure of himself: and he walked up to Rnine with jerky movements that revealed an increasing resolution:
"Millions? My dear sir, I wouldn't have them as a gift. The little bit of stone which I possess is worth much more than that. And the proof of it lies in all the pains which you are at to take it from me. Aha! Months devoted to looking for it, as you yourself confess! Months in which you turned everything topsy-turvy, while I, who suspected nothing, did not even defend myself! Why should I? The little thing defended itself all alone.... It does not want to be discovered and it sha'n't be.... It likes being here.... It presides over a good, honest business that satisfies it.... Pancaldi's luck! Why, it's known to all the neighbourhood, among all the dealers! I proclaim it from the house-tops: 'I'm a lucky man!' I even made so bold as to take the god of luck, Mercury, as my patron! He too protects me. See, I've got Mercuries all over my shop! Look up there, on that shelf, a whole row of statuettes, like the one over the front-door, proofs signed by a great sculptor who went smash and sold them to me.... Would you like one, my dear sir? It will bring you luck too. Take your pick! A present from Pancaldi, to make up to you for your defeat! Does that suit you?"
He put a stool against the wall, under the shelf, took down a statuette and plumped it into Rnine's arms. And, laughing heartily, growing more and more excited as his enemy seemed to yield ground and to fall back before his spirited attack, he explained:
"Well done! He accepts! And the fact that he accepts shows that we are all agreed! Madame Pancaldi, don't distress yourself. Your son's coming back and nobody's going to prison! Good-bye, Mlle. Hortense! Good-day, sir! Hope to see you again! If you want to speak to me at any time, just give three thumps on the ceiling. Good-bye ... don't forget your present ... and may Mercury be kind to you! Good-bye, my dear Prince! Good-bye, Mlle. Hortense!..."
He hustled them to the iron staircase, gripped each of them by the arm in turn and pushed them up to the little door hidden at the top of the stairs.
And the strange thing was that Rnine made no protest. He did not attempt to resist. He allowed himself to be led along like a naughty child that is taken up to bed.
Less than five minutes had elapsed between the moment when he made his offer to Pancaldi and the moment when Pancaldi turned him out of the shop with a statuette in his arms.
* * * * *
The dining-room and drawing-room of the flat which Rnine had taken on the first floor looked out upon the street. The table in the dining-room was laid for two.
"Forgive me, won't you?" said Rnine, as he opened the door of the drawing-room for Hortense. "I thought that, whatever happened, I should most likely see you this evening and that we might as well dine together. Don't refuse me this kindness, which will be the last favour granted in our last adventure."
Hortense did not refuse him. The manner in which the battle had ended was so different from everything that she had seen hitherto that she felt disconcerted. At any rate, why should she refuse, seeing that the terms of the contract had not been fulfilled?
Rnine left the room to give an order to his manservant. Two minutes later, he came back for Hortense. It was then a little past seven.
There were flowers on the table; and the statue of Mercury, Pancaldi's present, stood overtopping them.
"May the god of luck preside over our repast," said Rnine.
He was full of animation and expressed his great delight at having her sitting opposite him:
"Yes," he exclaimed, "I had to resort to powerful means and attract you by the bait of the most fabulous enterprises. You must confess that my letter was jolly smart! The three rushes, the blue gown; simply irresistible! And, when I had thrown in a few puzzles of my own invention, such as the seventy-five beads of the necklace and the old woman with the silver rosary, I knew that you were bound to succumb to the temptation. Don't be angry with me. I wanted to see you and I wanted it to be today. You have come and I thank you."
He next told her how he had got on the track of the stolen trinket:
"You hoped, didn't you, in laying down that condition, that I shouldn't be able to fulfil it? You made a mistake, my dear. The test, at least at the beginning, was easy enough, because it was based upon an undoubted fact: the talismanic character attributed to the clasp. I had only to hunt about and see whether among the people around you, among your servants, there was ever any one upon whom that character may have exercised some attraction. Now, on the list of persons which I succeeded in drawing up. I at once noticed the name of Mlle. Lucienne, as coming from Corsica. This was my starting-point. The rest was a mere concatenation of events."
Hortense stared at him in amazement. How was it that he was accepting his defeat with such a careless air and even talking in a tone of triumph, whereas really he had been soundly beaten by Pancaldi and even made to look just a trifle ridiculous?
She could not help letting him feel this; and the fashion in which she did so betrayed a certain disappointment, a certain humiliation:
"Everything is a concatenation of events: very well. But the chain is broken, because, when all is said, though you know the thief, you did not succeed in laying hands upon the stolen clasp."
The reproach was obvious. Rnine had not accustomed her to failure. And furthermore she was irritated to see how heedlessly he was accepting a blow which, after all, entailed the ruin of any hopes that he might have entertained.
He did not reply. He had filled their two glasses with champagne and was slowly emptying his own, with his eyes fixed on the statuette of Mercury. He turned it about on its pedestal and examined it with the eye of a delighted connoisseur:
"What a beautiful thing is a harmonious line! Colour does not uplift me so much as outline, proportion, symmetry and all the wonderful properties of form. Look at this little statue. Pancaldi's right: it's the work of a great artist. The legs are both slender and muscular; the whole figure gives an impression of buoyancy and speed. It is very well done. There's only one fault, a very slight one: perhaps you've not noticed it?"
"Yes, I have," said Hortense. "It struck me the moment I saw the sign, outside. You mean, don't you, a certain lack of balance? The god is leaning over too far on the leg that carries him. He looks as though he were going to pitch forward."
"That's very clever of you," said Rnine. "The fault is almost imperceptible and it needs a trained eye to see it. Really, however, as a matter of logic, the weight of the body ought to have its way and, in accordance with natural laws, the little god ought to take a header."
After a pause he continued:
"I noticed that flaw on the first day. How was it that I did not draw an inference at once? I was shocked because the artist had sinned against an aesthetic law, whereas I ought to have been shocked because he had overlooked a physical law. As though art and nature were not blended together! And as though the laws of gravity could be disturbed without some fundamental reason!"
"What do you mean?" asked Hortense, puzzled by these reflections, which seemed so far removed from their secret thoughts. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing!" he said. "I am only surprised that I didn't understand sooner why Mercury did not plump forward, as he should have done."
"And what is the reason?"
"The reason? I imagine that Pancaldi, when pulling the statuette about to make it serve his purpose, must have disturbed its balance, but that this balance was restored by something which holds the little god back and which makes up for his really too dangerous posture."
"Something, you say?"
"Yes, a counterweight."
Hortense gave a start. She too was beginning to see a little light. She murmured:
"A counterweight?... Are you thinking that it might be ... in the pedestal?"
"Is that possible? But, if so, how did Pancaldi come to give you this statuette?"
"He never gave me this one," Rnine declared. "I took this one myself."
"But where? And when?"
"Just now, while you were in the drawing-room. I got out of that window, which is just over the signboard and beside the niche containing the little god. And I exchanged the two, that is to say, I took the statue which was outside and put the one which Pancaldi gave me in its place."
"But doesn't that one lean forward?"
"No, no more than the others do, on the shelf in his shop. But Pancaldi is not an artist. A lack of equilibrium does not impress him; he will see nothing wrong; and he will continue to think himself favoured by luck, which is another way of saying that luck will continue to favour him. Meanwhile, here's the statuette, the one used for the sign. Am I to break the pedestal and take your clasp out of the leaden sheath, soldered to the back of the pedestal, which keeps Mercury steady?"
"No, no, there's no need for that," Hortense hurriedly murmured.
Rnine's intuition, his subtlety, the skill with which he had managed the whole business: to her, for the moment, all these things remained in the background. But she suddenly remembered that the eighth adventure was completed, that Rnine had surmounted every obstacle, that the test had turned to his advantage and that the extreme limit of time fixed for the last of the adventures was not yet reached.
He had the cruelty to call attention to the fact:
"A quarter to eight," he said.
An oppressive silence fell between them. Both felt its discomfort to such a degree that they hesitated to make the least movement. In order to break it, Rnine jested:
"That worthy M. Pancaldi, how good it was of him to tell me what I wished to know! I knew, however, that by exasperating him, I should end by picking up the missing clue in what he said. It was just as though one were to hand some one a flint and steel and suggest to him that he was to use it. In the end, the spark is obtained. In my case, what produced the spark was the unconscious but inevitable comparison which he drew between the cornelian clasp, the element of luck, and Mercury, the god of luck. That was enough. I understood that this association of ideas arose from his having actually associated the two factors of luck by embodying one in the other, or, to speak more plainly, by hiding the trinket in the statuette. And I at once remembered the Mercury outside the door and its defective poise...."
Rnine suddenly interrupted himself. It seemed to him that all his remarks were falling on deaf ears. Hortense had put her hand to her forehead and, thus veiling her eyes, sat motionless and remote.
She was indeed not listening. The end of this particular adventure and the manner in which Rnine had acted on this occasion no longer interested her. What she was thinking of was the complex series of adventures amid which she had been living for the past three months and the wonderful behaviour of the man who had offered her his devotion. She saw, as in a magic picture, the fabulous deeds performed by him, all the good that he had done, the lives saved, the sorrows assuaged, the order restored wherever his masterly will had been brought to bear. Nothing was impossible to him. What he undertook to do he did. Every aim that he set before him was attained in advance. And all this without excessive effort, with the calmness of one who knows his own strength and knows that nothing can resist it.
Then what could she do against him? Why should she defend herself and how? If he demanded that she should yield, would he not know how to make her do so and would this last adventure be any more difficult for him than the others? Supposing that she ran away: did the wide world contain a retreat in which she would be safe from his pursuit? From the first moment of their first meeting, the end was certain, since Rnine had decreed that it should be so.
However, she still cast about for weapons, for protection of some sort; and she said to herself that, though he had fulfilled the eight conditions and restored the cornelian clasp to her before the eighth hour had struck, she was nevertheless protected by the fact that this eighth hour was to strike on the clock of the Chteau de Halingre and not elsewhere. It was a formal compact. Rnine had said that day, gazing on the lips which he longed to kiss:
"The old brass pendulum will start swinging again; and, when, on the fixed date, the clock once more strikes eight, then...."
She looked up. He was not moving either, but sat solemnly, patiently waiting.
She was on the point of saying, she was even preparing her words:
"You know, our agreement says it must be the Halingre clock. All the other conditions have been fulfilled ... but not this one. So I am free, am I not? I am entitled not to keep my promise, which, moreover, I never made, but which in any case falls to the ground?... And I am perfectly free ... released from any scruple of conscience?..."
She had not time to speak. At that precise moment, there was a click behind her, like that of a clock about to strike.
A first stroke sounded, then a second, then a third.
Hortense moaned. She had recognized the very sound of the old clock, the Halingre clock, which three months ago, by breaking in a supernatural manner the silence of the deserted chteau, had set both of them on the road of the eight adventures.
She counted the strokes. The clock struck eight.
"Ah!" she murmured, half swooning and hiding her face in her hands. "The clock ... the clock is here ... the one from over there ... I recognize its voice...."
She said no more. She felt that Rnine had his eyes fixed upon her and this sapped all her energies. Besides, had she been able to recover them, she would have been no better off nor sought to offer him the least resistance, for the reason that she did not wish to resist. All the adventures were over, but one remained to be undertaken, the anticipation of which wiped out the memory of all the rest. It was the adventure of love, the most delightful, the most bewildering, the most adorable of all adventures. She accepted fate's decree, rejoicing in all that might come, because she was in love. She smiled in spite of herself, as she reflected that happiness was again to enter her life at the very moment when her well-beloved was bringing her the cornelian clasp.
The clock struck the hour for the second time.
Hortense raised her eyes to Rnine. She struggled a few seconds longer. But she was like a charmed bird, incapable of any movement of revolt; and at the eighth stroke she fell upon his breast and offered him her lips....