The Eight Strokes of the Clock/IV
IV. THE TELL-TALE FILM
"Do look at the man who's playing the butler," said Serge Rénine.
"What is there peculiar about him?" asked Hortense.
They were sitting in the balcony at a picture-palace, to which Hortense had asked to be taken so that she might see on the screen the daughter of a lady, now dead, who used to give her piano-lessons. Rose Andrée, a lovely girl with lissome movements and a smiling face, was that evening figuring in a new film, The Happy Princess, which she lit up with her high spirits and her warm, glowing beauty.
Rénine made no direct reply, but, during a pause in the performance, continued:
"I sometimes console myself for an indifferent film by watching the subordinate characters. It seems to me that those poor devils, who are made to rehearse certain scenes ten or twenty times over, must often be thinking of other things than their parts at the time of the final exposure. And it's great fun noting those little moments of distraction which reveal something of their temperament, of their instinct self. As, for instance, in the case of that butler: look!"
The screen now showed a luxuriously served table. The Happy Princess sat at the head, surrounded by all her suitors. Half-a-dozen footmen moved about the room, under the orders of the butler, a big fellow with a dull, coarse face, a common appearance and a pair of enormous eyebrows which met across his forehead in a single line.
"He looks a brute," said Hortense, "but what do you see in him that's peculiar?"
"Just note how he gazes at the princess and tell me if he doesn't stare at her oftener than he ought to."
"I really haven't noticed anything, so far," said Hortense.
"Why, of course he does!" Serge Rénine declared. "It is quite obvious that in actual life he entertains for Rose Andrée personal feelings which are quite out of place in a nameless servant. It is possible that, in real life, no one has any idea of such a thing; but, on the screen, when he is not watching himself, or when he thinks that the actors at rehearsal cannot see him, his secret escapes him. Look...."
The man was standing still. It was the end of dinner. The princess was drinking a glass of champagne and he was gloating over her with his glittering eyes half-hidden behind their heavy lids.
Twice again they surprised in his face those strange expressions to which Rénine ascribed an emotional meaning which Hortense refused to see:
"It's just his way of looking at people," she said.
The first part of the film ended. There were two parts, divided by an entr'acte. The notice on the programme stated that "a year had elapsed and that the Happy Princess was living in a pretty Norman cottage, all hung with creepers, together with her husband, a poor musician."
The princess was still happy, as was evident on the screen, still as attractive as ever and still besieged by the greatest variety of suitors. Nobles and commoners, peasants and financiers, men of all kinds fell swooning at her feet; and prominent among them was a sort of boorish solitary, a shaggy, half-wild woodcutter, whom she met whenever she went out for a walk. Armed with his axe, a formidable, crafty being, he prowled around the cottage; and the spectators felt with a sense of dismay that a peril was hanging over the Happy Princess' head.
"Look at that!" whispered Rénine. "Do you realise who the man of the woods is?"
"Simply the butler. The same actor is doubling the two parts."
In fact, notwithstanding the new figure which he cut, the butler's movements and postures were apparent under the heavy gait and rounded shoulders of the woodcutter, even as under the unkempt beard and long, thick hair the once clean-shaven face was visible with the cruel expression and the bushy line of the eyebrows.
The princess, in the background, was seen to emerge from the thatched cottage. The man hid himself behind a clump of trees. From time to time, the screen displayed, on an enormously enlarged scale, his fiercely rolling eyes or his murderous hands with their huge thumbs.
"The man frightens me," said Hortense. "He is really terrifying."
"Because he's acting on his own account," said Rénine. "You must understand that, in the space of three or four months that appears to separate the dates at which the two films were made, his passion has made progress; and to him it is not the princess who is coming but Rose Andrée."
The man crouched low. The victim approached, gaily and unsuspectingly. She passed, heard a sound, stopped and looked about her with a smiling air which became attentive, then uneasy, and then more and more anxious. The woodcutter had pushed aside the branches and was coming through the copse.
They were now standing face to face. He opened his arms as though to seize her. She tried to scream, to call out for help; but the arms closed around her before she could offer the slightest resistance. Then he threw her over his shoulder and began to run.
"Are you satisfied?" whispered Rénine. "Do you think that this fourth-rate actor would have had all that strength and energy if it had been any other woman than Rose Andrée?"
Meanwhile the woodcutter was crossing the skirt of a forest and plunging through great trees and masses of rocks. After setting the princess down, he cleared the entrance to a cave which the daylight entered by a slanting crevice.
A succession of views displayed the husband's despair, the search and the discovery of some small branches which had been broken by the princess and which showed the path that had been taken. Then came the final scene, with the terrible struggle between the man and the woman when the woman, vanquished and exhausted, is flung to the ground, the sudden arrival of the husband and the shot that puts an end to the brute's life....
"Well," said Rénine, when they had left the picture-palace--and he spoke with a certain gravity--"I maintain that the daughter of your old piano-teacher has been in danger ever since the day when that last scene was filmed. I maintain that this scene represents not so much an assault by the man of the woods on the Happy Princess as a violent and frantic attack by an actor on the woman he desires. Certainly it all happened within the bounds prescribed by the part and nobody saw anything in it--nobody except perhaps Rose Andrée herself--but I, for my part, have detected flashes of passion which leave not a doubt in my mind. I have seen glances that betrayed the wish and even the intention to commit murder. I have seen clenched hands, ready to strangle, in short, a score of details which prove to me that, at that time, the man's instinct was urging him to kill the woman who could never be his."
"And it all amounts to what?"
"We must protect Rose Andrée if she is still in danger and if it is not too late."
"And to do this?"
"We must get hold of further information."
"From the World's Cinema Company, which made the film. I will go to them to-morrow morning. Will you wait for me in your flat about lunch-time?"
At heart, Hortense was still sceptical. All these manifestations of passion, of which she denied neither the ardour nor the ferocity, seemed to her to be the rational behaviour of a good actor. She had seen nothing of the terrible tragedy which Rénine contended that he had divined; and she wondered whether he was not erring through an excess of imagination.
"Well," she asked, next day, not without a touch of irony, "how far have you got? Have you made a good bag? Anything mysterious? Anything thrilling?"
"Oh, really? And your so-called lover...."
"Is one Dalbrèque, originally a scene-painter, who played the butler in the first part of the film and the man of the woods in the second and was so much appreciated that they engaged him for a new film. Consequently, he has been acting lately. He was acting near Paris. But, on the morning of Friday the 18th of September, he broke into the garage of the World's Cinema Company and made off with a magnificent car and forty thousand francs in money. Information was lodged with the police; and on the Sunday the car was found a little way outside Dreux. And up to now the enquiry has revealed two things, which will appear in the papers to-morrow: first, Dalbrèque is alleged to have committed a murder which created a great stir last year, the murder of Bourguet, the jeweller; secondly, on the day after his two robberies, Dalbrèque was driving through Le Havre in a motor-car with two men who helped him to carry off, in broad daylight and in a crowded street, a lady whose identity has not yet been discovered."
"Rose Andrée?" asked Hortense, uneasily.
"I have just been to Rose Andrée's: the World's Cinema Company gave me her address. Rose Andrée spent this summer travelling and then stayed for a fortnight in the Seine-inférieure, where she has a small place of her own, the actual cottage in The Happy Princess. On receiving an invitation from America to do a film there, she came back to Paris, registered her luggage at the Gare Saint-Lazare and left on Friday the 18th of September, intending to sleep at Le Havre and take Saturday's boat."
"Friday the 18th," muttered Hortense, "the same day on which that man...."
"And it was on the Saturday that a woman was carried off by him at Le Havre. I looked in at the Compagnie Transatlantique and a brief investigation showed that Rose Andrée had booked a cabin but that the cabin remained unoccupied. The passenger did not turn up."
"This is frightful. She has been carried off. You were right."
"I fear so."
"What have you decided to do?"
"Adolphe, my chauffeur, is outside with the car. Let us go to Le Havre. Up to the present, Rose Andrée's disappearance does not seem to have become known. Before it does and before the police identify the woman carried off by Dalbrèque with the woman who did not turn up to claim her cabin, we will get on Rose Andrée's track."
There was not much said on the journey. At four o'clock Hortense and Rénine reached Rouen. But here Rénine changed his road.
"Adolphe, take the left bank of the Seine."
He unfolded a motoring-map on his knees and, tracing the route with his finger, showed Hortense that, if you draw a line from Le Havre, or rather from Quillebeuf, where the road crosses the Seine, to Dreux, where the stolen car was found, this line passes through Routot, a market-town lying west of the forest of Brotonne:
"Now it was in the forest of Brotonne," he continued, "according to what I heard, that the second part of The Happy Princess was filmed. And the question that arises is this: having got hold of Rose Andrée, would it not occur to Dalbrèque, when passing near the forest on the Saturday night, to hide his prey there, while his two accomplices went on to Dreux and from there returned to Paris? The cave was quite near. Was he not bound to go to it? How should he do otherwise? Wasn't it while running to this cave, a few months ago, that he held in his arms, against his breast, within reach of his lips, the woman whom he loved and whom he has now conquered? By every rule of fate and logic, the adventure is being repeated all over again ... but this time in reality. Rose Andrée is a captive. There is no hope of rescue. The forest is vast and lonely. That night, or on one of the following nights, Rose Andrée must surrender ... or die."
Hortense gave a shudder:
"We shall be too late. Besides, you don't suppose that he's keeping her a prisoner?"
"Certainly not. The place I have in mind is at a cross-roads and is not a safe retreat. But we may discover some clue or other."
The shades of night were falling from the tall trees when they entered the ancient forest of Brotonne, full of Roman remains and mediaeval relics. Rénine knew the forest well and remembered that near a famous oak, known as the Wine-cask, there was a cave which must be the cave of the Happy Princess. He found it easily, switched on his electric torch, rummaged in the dark corners and brought Hortense back to the entrance:
"There's nothing inside," he said, "but here is the evidence which I was looking for. Dalbrèque was obsessed by the recollection of the film, but so was Rose Andrée. The Happy Princess had broken off the tips of the branches on the way through the forest. Rose Andrée has managed to break off some to the right of this opening, in the hope that she would be discovered as on the first occasion."
"Yes," said Hortense, "it's a proof that she has been here; but the proof is three weeks old. Since that time...."
"Since that time, she is either dead and buried under a heap of leaves or else alive in some hole even lonelier than this."
"If so, where is he?"
Rénine pricked up his ears. Repeated blows of the axe were sounding from some distance, no doubt coming from a part of the forest that was being cleared.
"He?" said Rénine, "I wonder whether he may not have continued to behave under the influence of the film and whether the man of the woods in The Happy Princess has not quite naturally resumed his calling. For how is the man to live, to obtain his food, without attracting attention? He will have found a job."
"We can't make sure of that."
"We might, by questioning the woodcutters whom we can hear."
The car took them by a forest-road to another cross-roads where they entered on foot a track which was deeply rutted by waggon-wheels. The sound of axes ceased. After walking for a quarter of an hour, they met a dozen men who, having finished work for the day, were returning to the villages near by.
"Will this path take us to Routot?" ask Rénine, in order to open a conversation with them.
"No, you're turning your backs on it," said one of the men, gruffly.
And he went on, accompanied by his mates.
Hortense and Rénine stood rooted to the spot. They had recognized the butler. His cheeks and chin were shaved, but his upper lip was covered by a black moustache, evidently dyed. The eyebrows no longer met and were reduced to normal dimensions.
Thus, in less than twenty hours, acting on the vague hints supplied by the bearing of a film-actor, Serge Rénine had touched the very heart of the tragedy by means of purely psychological arguments.
"Rose Andrée is alive," he said. "Otherwise Dalbrèque would have left the country. The poor thing must be imprisoned and bound up; and he takes her some food at night."
"We will save her, won't we?"
"Certainly, by keeping a watch on him and, if necessary, but in the last resort, compelling him by force to give up his secret."
They followed the woodcutter at a distance and, on the pretext that the car needed overhauling, engaged rooms in the principal inn at Routot.
Attached to the inn was a small café from which they were separated by the entrance to the yard and above which were two rooms, reached by a wooden outer staircase, at one side. Dalbrèque occupied one of these rooms and Rénine took the other for his chauffeur.
Next morning he learnt from Adolphe that Dalbrèque, on the previous evening, after all the lights were out, had carried down a bicycle from his room and mounted it and had not returned until shortly before sunrise.
The bicycle tracks led Rénine to the uninhabited Château des Landes, five miles from the village. They disappeared in a rocky path which ran beside the park down to the Seine, opposite the Jumièges peninsula.
Next night, he took up his position there. At eleven o'clock, Dalbrèque climbed a bank, scrambled over a wire fence, hid his bicycle under the branches and moved away. It seemed impossible to follow him in the pitchy darkness, on a mossy soil that muffled the sound of footsteps. Rénine did not make the attempt; but, at daybreak, he came with his chauffeur and hunted through the park all the morning. Though the park, which covered the side of a hill and was bounded below by the river, was not very large, he found no clue which gave him any reason to suppose that Rose Andrée was imprisoned there.
He therefore went back to the village, with the firm intention of taking action that evening and employing force:
"This state of things cannot go on," he said to Hortense. "I must rescue Rose Andrée at all costs and save her from that ruffian's clutches. He must be made to speak. He must. Otherwise there's a danger that we may be too late."
That day was Sunday; and Dalbrèque did not go to work. He did not leave his room except for lunch and went upstairs again immediately afterwards. But at three o'clock Rénine and Hortense, who were keeping a watch on him from the inn, saw him come down the wooden staircase, with his bicycle on his shoulder. Leaning it against the bottom step, he inflated the tires and fastened to the handle-bar a rather bulky object wrapped in a newspaper.
"By Jove!" muttered Rénine.
"What's the matter?"
In front of the café was a small terrace bordered on the right and left by spindle-trees planted in boxes, which were connected by a paling. Behind the shrubs, sitting on a bank but stooping forward so that they could see Dalbrèque through the branches, were four men.
"Police!" said Rénine. "What bad luck! If those fellows take a hand, they will spoil everything."
"Why? On the contrary, I should have thought...."
"Yes, they will. They will put Dalbrèque out of the way ... and then? Will that give us Rose Andrée?"
Dalbrèque had finished his preparations. Just as he was mounting his bicycle, the detectives rose in a body, ready to make a dash for him. But Dalbrèque, though quite unconscious of their presence, changed his mind and went back to his room as though he had forgotten something.
"Now's the time!" said Rénine. "I'm going to risk it. But it's a difficult situation and I've no great hopes."
He went out into the yard and, at a moment when the detectives were not looking, ran up the staircase, as was only natural if he wished to give an order to his chauffeur. But he had no sooner reached the rustic balcony at the back of the house, which gave admission to the two bedrooms than he stopped. Dalbrèque's door was open. Rénine walked in.
Dalbrèque stepped back, at once assuming the defensive:
"What do you want? Who said you could...."
"Silence!" whispered Rénine, with an imperious gesture. "It's all up with you!"
"What are you talking about?" growled the man, angrily.
"Lean out of your window. There are four men below on the watch for you to leave, four detectives."
Dalbrèque leant over the terrace and muttered an oath:
"On the watch for me?" he said, turning round. "What do I care?"
"They have a warrant."
He folded his arms:
"Shut up with your piffle! A warrant! What's that to me?"
"Listen," said Rénine, "and let us waste no time. It's urgent. Your name's Dalbrèque, or, at least, that's the name under which you acted in The Happy Princess and under which the police are looking for you as being the murderer of Bourguet the jeweller, the man who stole a motor-car and forty thousand francs from the World's Cinema Company and the man who abducted a woman at Le Havre. All this is known and proved ... and here's the upshot. Four men downstairs. Myself here, my chauffeur in the next room. You're done for. Do you want me to save you?"
Dalbrèque gave his adversary a long look:
"Who are you?"
"A friend of Rose Andrée's," said Rénine.
The other started and, to some extent dropping his mask, retorted:
"What are your conditions?"
"Rose Andrée, whom you have abducted and tormented, is dying in some hole or corner. Where is she?"
A strange thing occurred and impressed Rénine. Dalbrèque's face, usually so common, was lit up by a smile that made it almost attractive. But this was only a flashing vision: the man immediately resumed his hard and impassive expression.
"And suppose I refuse to speak?" he said.
"So much the worse for you. It means your arrest."
"I dare say; but it means the death of Rose Andrée. Who will release her?"
"You. You will speak now, or in an hour, or two hours hence at least. You will never have the heart to keep silent and let her die."
Dalbrèque shrugged his shoulders. Then, raising his hand, he said:
"I swear on my life that, if they arrest me, not a word will leave my lips."
"Then save me. We will meet this evening at the entrance to the Parc des Landes and say what we have to say."
"Why not at once?"
"I have spoken."
"Will you be there?"
"I shall be there."
Rénine reflected. There was something in all this that he failed to grasp. In any case, the frightful danger that threatened Rose Andrée dominated the whole situation; and Rénine was not the man to despise this threat and to persist out of vanity in a perilous course. Rose Andrée's life came before everything.
He struck several blows on the wall of the next bedroom and called his chauffeur.
"Adolphe, is the car ready?"
"Set her going and pull her up in front of the terrace outside the café, right against the boxes so as to block the exit. As for you," he continued, addressing Dalbrèque, "you're to jump on your machine and, instead of making off along the road, cross the yard. At the end of the yard is a passage leading into a lane. There you will be free. But no hesitation and no blundering ... else you'll get yourself nabbed. Good luck to you."
He waited till the car was drawn up in accordance with his instructions and, when he reached it, he began to question his chauffeur, in order to attract the detectives' attention.
One of them, however, having cast a glance through the spindle-trees, caught sight of Dalbrèque just as he reached the bottom of the staircase. He gave the alarm and darted forward, followed by his comrades, but had to run round the car and bumped into the chauffeur, which gave Dalbrèque time to mount his bicycle and cross the yard unimpeded. He thus had some seconds' start. Unfortunately for him as he was about to enter the passage at the back, a troop of boys and girls appeared, returning from vespers. On hearing the shouts of the detectives, they spread their arms in front of the fugitive, who gave two or three lurches and ended by falling.
Cries of triumph were raised:
"Lay hold of him! Stop him!" roared the detectives as they rushed forward.
Rénine, seeing that the game was up, ran after the others and called out:
He came up with them just as Dalbrèque, after regaining his feet, knocked one of the policemen down and levelled his revolver. Rénine snatched it out of his hands. But the two other detectives, startled, had also produced their weapons. They fired. Dalbrèque, hit in the leg and the chest, pitched forward and fell.
"Thank you, sir," said the inspector to Rénine introducing himself. "We owe a lot to you."
"It seems to me that you've done for the fellow," said Rénine. "Who is he?"
"One Dalbrèque, a scoundrel for whom we were looking."
Rénine was beside himself. Hortense had joined him by this time; and he growled:
"The silly fools! Now they've killed him!"
"Oh, it isn't possible!"
"We shall see. But, whether he's dead or alive, it's death to Rose Andrée. How are we to trace her? And what chance have we of finding the place--some inaccessible retreat--where the poor thing is dying of misery and starvation?"
The detectives and peasants had moved away, bearing Dalbrèque with them on an improvised stretcher. Rénine, who had at first followed them, in order to find out what was going to happen, changed his mind and was now standing with his eyes fixed on the ground. The fall of the bicycle had unfastened the parcel which Dalbrèque had tied to the handle-bar; and the newspaper had burst, revealing its contents, a tin saucepan, rusty, dented, battered and useless.
"What's the meaning of this?" he muttered. "What was the idea?..."
He picked it up examined it. Then he gave a grin and a click of the tongue and chuckled, slowly:
"Don't move an eyelash, my dear. Let all these people clear off. All this is no business of ours, is it? The troubles of police don't concern us. We are two motorists travelling for our pleasure and collecting old saucepans if we feel so inclined."
He called his chauffeur:
"Adolphe, take us to the Parc des Landes by a roundabout road."
Half an hour later they reached the sunken track and began to scramble down it on foot beside the wooded slopes. The Seine, which was very low at this time of day, was lapping against a little jetty near which lay a worm-eaten, mouldering boat, full of puddles of water.
Rénine stepped into the boat and at once began to bale out the puddles with his saucepan. He then drew the boat alongside of the jetty, helped Hortense in and used the one oar which he shipped in a gap in the stern to work her into midstream:
"I believe I'm there!" he said, with a laugh. "The worst that can happen to us is to get our feet wet, for our craft leaks a trifle. But haven't we a saucepan? Oh, blessings on that useful utensil! Almost as soon as I set eyes upon it, I remembered that people use those articles to bale out the bottoms of leaky boats. Why, there was bound to be a boat in the Landes woods! How was it I never thought of that? But of course Dalbrèque made use of her to cross the Seine! And, as she made water, he brought a saucepan."
"Then Rose Andrée ...?" asked Hortense.
"Is a prisoner on the other bank, on the Jumièges peninsula. You see the famous abbey from here."
They ran aground on a beach of big pebbles covered with slime.
"And it can't be very far away," he added. "Dalbrèque did not spend the whole night running about."
A tow-path followed the deserted bank. Another path led away from it. They chose the second and, passing between orchards enclosed by hedges, came to a landscape that seemed strangely familiar to them. Where had they seen that pool before, with the willows overhanging it? And where had they seen that abandoned hovel?
Suddenly both of them stopped with one accord:
"Oh!" said Hortense. "I can hardly believe my eyes!"
Opposite them was the white gate of a large orchard, at the back of which, among groups of old, gnarled apple-trees, appeared a cottage with blue shutters, the cottage of the Happy Princess.
"Of course!" cried Rénine. "And I ought to have known it, considering that the film showed both this cottage and the forest close by. And isn't everything happening exactly as in The Happy Princess? Isn't Dalbrèque dominated by the memory of it? The house, which is certainly the one in which Rose Andrée spent the summer, was empty. He has shut her up there."
"But the house, you told me, was in the Seine-inférieure."
"Well, so are we! To the left of the river, the Eure and the forest of Brotonne; to the right, the Seine-inférieure. But between them is the obstacle of the river, which is why I didn't connect the two. A hundred and fifty yards of water form a more effective division than dozens of miles."
The gate was locked. They got through the hedge a little lower down and walked towards the house, which was screened on one side by an old wall shaggy with ivy and roofed with thatch.
"It seems as if there was somebody there," said Hortense. "Didn't I hear the sound of a window?"
Some one struck a few chords on a piano. Then a voice arose, a woman's voice softly and solemnly singing a ballad that thrilled with restrained passion. The woman's whole soul seemed to breathe itself into the melodious notes.
They walked on. The wall concealed them from view, but they saw a sitting-room furnished with bright wall-paper and a blue Roman carpet. The throbbing voice ceased. The piano ended with a last chord; and the singer rose and appeared framed in the window.
"Rose Andrée!" whispered Hortense.
"Well!" said Rénine, admitting his astonishment. "This is the last thing that I expected! Rose Andrée! Rose Andrée at liberty! And singing Massenet in the sitting room of her cottage!"
"What does it all mean? Do you understand?" "Yes, but it has taken me long enough! But how could we have guessed ...?"
Although they had never seen her except on the screen, they had not the least doubt that this was she. It was really Rose Andrée, or rather, the Happy Princess, whom they had admired a few days before, amidst the furniture of that very sitting-room or on the threshold of that very cottage. She was wearing the same dress; her hair was done in the same way; she had on the same bangles and necklaces as in The Happy Princess; and her lovely face, with its rosy cheeks and laughing eyes, bore the same look of joy and serenity.
Some sound must have caught her ear, for she leant over towards a clump of shrubs beside the cottage and whispered into the silent garden:
"Georges ... Georges ... Is that you, my darling?"
Receiving no reply, she drew herself up and stood smiling at the happy thoughts that seemed to flood her being.
But a door opened at the back of the room and an old peasant woman entered with a tray laden with bread, butter and milk:
"Here, Rose, my pretty one, I've brought you your supper. Milk fresh from the cow...."
And, putting down the tray, she continued:
"Aren't you afraid, Rose, of the chill of the night air? Perhaps you're expecting your sweetheart?"
"I haven't a sweetheart, my dear old Catherine."
"What next!" said the old woman, laughing. "Only this morning there were footprints under the window that didn't look at all proper!"
"A burglar's footprints perhaps, Catherine."
"Well, I don't say they weren't, Rose dear, especially as in your calling you have a lot of people round you whom it's well to be careful of. For instance, your friend Dalbrèque, eh? Nice goings on his are! You saw the paper yesterday. A fellow who has robbed and murdered people and carried off a woman at Le Havre ...!"
Hortense and Rénine would have much liked to know what Rose Andrée thought of the revelations, but she had turned her back to them and was sitting at her supper; and the window was now closed, so that they could neither hear her reply nor see the expression of her features.
They waited for a moment. Hortense was listening with an anxious face. But Rénine began to laugh:
"Very funny, really funny! And such an unexpected ending! And we who were hunting for her in some cave or damp cellar, a horrible tomb where the poor thing was dying of hunger! It's a fact, she knew the terrors of that first night of captivity; and I maintain that, on that first night, she was flung, half-dead, into the cave. Only, there you are: the next morning she was alive! One night was enough to tame the little rogue and to make Dalbrèque as handsome as Prince Charming in her eyes! For see the difference. On the films or in novels, the Happy Princesses resist or commit suicide. But in real life ... oh, woman, woman!"
"Yes," said Hortense, "but the man she loves is almost certainly dead."
"And a good thing too! It would be the best solution. What would be the outcome of this criminal love for a thief and murderer?"
A few minutes passed. Then, amid the peaceful silence of the waning day, mingled with the first shadows of the twilight, they again heard the grating of the window, which was cautiously opened. Rose Andrée leant over the garden and waited, with her eyes turned to the wall, as though she saw something there.
Presently, Rénine shook the ivy-branches.
"Ah!" she said. "This time I know you're there! Yes, the ivy's moving. Georges, Georges darling, why do you keep me waiting? Catherine has gone. I am all alone...."
She had knelt down and was distractedly stretching out her shapely arms covered with bangles which clashed with a metallic sound:
Her every movement, the thrill of her voice, her whole being expressed desire and love. Hortense, deeply touched, could not help saying:
"How the poor thing loves him! If she but knew...."
"Ah!" cried the girl. "You've spoken. You're there, and you want me to come to you, don't you? Here I am, Georges!..."
She climbed over the window-ledge and began to run, while Rénine went round the wall and advanced to meet her.
She stopped short in front of him and stood choking at the sight of this man and woman whom she did not know and who were stepping out of the very shadow from which her beloved appeared to her each night.
Rénine bowed, gave his name and introduced his companion:
"Madame Hortense Daniel, a pupil and friend of your mother's."
Still motionless with stupefaction, her features drawn, she stammered:
"You know who I am?... And you were there just now?... You heard what I was saying ...?"
Rénine, without hesitating or pausing in his speech, said:
"You are Rose Andrée, the Happy Princess. We saw you on the films the other evening; and circumstances led us to set out in search of you ... to Le Havre, where you were abducted on the day when you were to have left for America, and to the forest of Brotonne, where you were imprisoned."
She protested eagerly, with a forced laugh:
"What is all this? I have not been to Le Havre. I came straight here. Abducted? Imprisoned? What nonsense!"
"Yes, imprisoned, in the same cave as the Happy Princess; and you broke off some branches to the right of the cave."
"But how absurd! Who would have abducted me? I have no enemy."
"There is a man in love with you: the one whom you were expecting just now."
"Yes, my lover," she said, proudly. "Have I not the right to receive whom I like?"
"You have the right; you are a free agent. But the man who comes to see you every evening is wanted by the police. His name is Georges Dalbrèque. He killed Bourguet the jeweller."
The accusation made her start with indignation and she exclaimed:
"It's a lie! An infamous fabrication of the newspapers! Georges was in Paris on the night of the murder. He can prove it."
"He stole a motor car and forty thousand francs in notes."
She retorted vehemently:
"The motor-car was taken back by his friends and the notes will be restored. He never touched them. My leaving for America had made him lose his head."
"Very well. I am quite willing to believe everything that you say. But the police may show less faith in these statements and less indulgence."
She became suddenly uneasy and faltered:
"The police.... There's nothing to fear from them.... They won't know...."
"Where to find him? I succeeded, at all events. He's working as a woodcutter, in the forest of Brotonne."
"Yes, but ... you ... that was an accident ... whereas the police...."
The words left her lips with the greatest difficulty. Her voice was trembling. And suddenly she rushed at Rénine, stammering:
"He is arrested?... I am sure of it!... And you have come to tell me.... Arrested! Wounded! Dead perhaps?... Oh, please, please!..."
She had no strength left. All her pride, all the certainty of her great love gave way to an immense despair and she sobbed out.
"No, he's not dead, is he? No, I feel that he's not dead. Oh, sir, how unjust it all is! He's the gentlest man, the best that ever lived. He has changed my whole life. Everything is different since I began to love him. And I love him so! I love him! I want to go to him. Take me to him. I want them to arrest me too. I love him.... I could not live without him...."
An impulse of sympathy made Hortense put her arms around the girl's neck and say warmly:
"Yes, come. He is not dead, I am sure, only wounded; and Prince Rénine will save him. You will, won't you, Rénine?... Come. Make up a story for your servant: say that you're going somewhere by train and that she is not to tell anybody. Be quick. Put on a wrap. We will save him, I swear we will."
Rose Andrée went indoors and returned almost at once, disguised beyond recognition in a long cloak and a veil that shrouded her face; and they all took the road back to Routot. At the inn, Rose Andrée passed as a friend whom they had been to fetch in the neighbourhood and were taking to Paris with them. Rénine ran out to make enquiries and came back to the two women.
"It's all right. Dalbrèque is alive. They have put him to bed in a private room at the mayor's offices. He has a broken leg and a rather high temperature; but all the same they expect to move him to Rouen to-morrow and they have telephoned there for a motor-car."
"And then?" asked Rose Andrée, anxiously.
"Why, then we shall leave at daybreak. We shall take up our positions in a sunken road, rifle in hand, attack the motor-coach and carry off Georges!"
"Oh, don't laugh!" she said, plaintively. "I am so unhappy!"
But the adventure seemed to amuse Rénine; and, when he was alone with Hortense, he exclaimed:
"You see what comes of preferring dishonour to death! But hang it all, who could have expected this? It isn't a bit the way in which things happen in the pictures! Once the man of the woods had carried off his victim and considering that for three weeks there was no one to defend her, how could we imagine--we who had been proceeding all along under the influence of the pictures--that in the space of a few hours the victim would become a princess in love? Confound that Georges! I now understand the sly, humorous look which I surprised on his mobile features! He remembered, Georges did, and he didn't care a hang for me! Oh, he tricked me nicely! And you, my dear, he tricked you too! And it was all the influence of the film. They show us, at the cinema, a brute beast, a sort of long-haired, ape-faced savage. What can a man like that be in real life? A brute, inevitably, don't you agree? Well, he's nothing of the kind; he's a Don Juan! The humbug!"
"You will save him, won't you?" said Hortense, in a beseeching tone.
"Are you very anxious that I should?"
"In that case, promise to give me your hand to kiss."
"You can have both hands, Rénine, and gladly."
The night was uneventful. Rénine had given orders for the two ladies to be waked at an early hour. When they came down, the motor was leaving the yard and pulling up in front of the inn. It was raining; and Adolphe, the chauffeur, had fixed up the long, low hood and packed the luggage inside.
Rénine called for his bill. They all three took a cup of coffee. But, just as they were leaving the room, one of the inspector's men came rushing in:
"Have you seen him?" he asked. "Isn't he here?"
The inspector himself arrived at a run, greatly excited:
"The prisoner has escaped! He ran back through the inn! He can't be far away!"
A dozen rustics appeared like a whirlwind. They ransacked the lofts, the stables, the sheds. They scattered over the neighbourhood. But the search led to no discovery.
"Oh, hang it all!" said Rénine, who had taken his part in the hunt. "How can it have happened?" "How do I know?" spluttered the inspector in despair. "I left my three men watching in the next room. I found them this morning fast asleep, stupefied by some narcotic which had been mixed with their wine! And the Dalbrèque bird had flown!"
"Through the window. There were evidently accomplices, with ropes and a ladder. And, as Dalbrèque had a broken leg, they carried him off on the stretcher itself."
"They left no traces?"
"No traces of footsteps, true. The rain has messed everything up. But they went through the yard, because the stretcher's there."
"You'll find him, Mr. Inspector, there's no doubt of that. In any case, you may be sure that you won't have any trouble over the affair. I shall be in Paris this evening and shall go straight to the prefecture, where I have influential friends."
Rénine went back to the two women in the coffee-room and Hortense at once said:
"It was you who carried him off, wasn't it? Please put Rose Andrée's mind at rest. She is so terrified!"
He gave Rose Andrée his arm and led her to the car. She was staggering and very pale; and she said, in a faint voice:
"Are we going? And he: is he safe? Won't they catch him again?"
Looking deep into her eyes, he said:
"Swear to me, Rose Andrée, that in two months, when he is well and when I have proved his innocence, swear that you will go away with him to America."
"And that, once there, you will marry him."
He spoke a few words in her ear.
"Ah!" she said. "May Heaven bless you for it!"
Hortense took her seat in front, with Rénine, who sat at the wheel. The inspector, hat in hand, fussed around the car until it moved off.
They drove through the forest, crossed the Seine at La Mailleraie and struck into the Havre-Rouen road.
"Take off your glove and give me your hand to kiss," Rénine ordered. "You promised that you would."
"Oh!" said Hortense. "But it was to be when Dalbrèque was saved."
"He is saved."
"Not yet. The police are after him. They may catch him again. He will not be really saved until he is with Rose Andrée."
"He is with Rose Andrée," he declared.
"What do you mean?"
She did so.
In the shadow of the hood, right at the back, behind the chauffeur, Rose Andrée was kneeling beside a man lying on the seat.
"Oh," stammered Hortense, "it's incredible! Then it was you who hid him last night? And he was there, in front of the inn, when the inspector was seeing us off?"
"Lord, yes! He was there, under the cushions and rugs!"
"It's incredible!" she repeated, utterly bewildered. "It's incredible! How were you able to manage it all?"
"I wanted to kiss your hand," he said.
She removed her glove, as he bade her, and raised her hand to his lips.
The car was speeding between the peaceful Seine and the white cliffs that border it. They sat silent for a long while. Then he said:
"I had a talk with Dalbrèque last night. He's a fine fellow and is ready to do anything for Rose Andrée. He's right. A man must do anything for the woman he loves. He must devote himself to her, offer her all that is beautiful in this world: joy and happiness ... and, if she should be bored, stirring adventures to distract her, to excite her and to make her smile ... or even weep."
Hortense shivered; and her eyes were not quite free from tears. For the first time he was alluding to the sentimental adventure that bound them by a tie which as yet was frail, but which became stronger and more enduring with each of the ventures on which they entered together, pursuing them feverishly and anxiously to their close. Already she felt powerless and uneasy with this extraordinary man, who subjected events to his will and seemed to play with the destinies of those whom he fought or protected. He filled her with dread and at the same time he attracted her. She thought of him sometimes as her master, sometimes as an enemy against whom she must defend herself, but oftenest as a perturbing friend, full of charm and fascination....