The Eight Strokes of the Clock/V

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V. THÉRÈSE AND GERMAINE

The weather was so mild that autumn that, on the 12th of October, in the morning, several families still lingering in their villas at Étretat had gone down to the beach. The sea, lying between the cliffs and the clouds on the horizon, might have suggested a mountain-lake slumbering in the hollow of the enclosing rocks, were it not for that crispness in the air and those pale, soft and indefinite colours in the sky which give a special charm to certain days in Normandy.

"It's delicious," murmured Hortense. But the next moment she added: "All the same, we did not come here to enjoy the spectacle of nature or to wonder whether that huge stone Needle on our left was really at one time the home of Arsène Lupin."

"We came here," said Prince Rénine, "because of the conversation which I overheard, a fortnight ago, in a dining-car, between a man and a woman."

"A conversation of which I was unable to catch a single word."

"If those two people could have guessed for an instant that it was possible to hear a single word of what they were saying, they would not have spoken, for their conversation was one of extraordinary gravity and importance. But I have very sharp ears; and though I could not follow every sentence, I insist that we may be certain of two things. First, that man and woman, who are brother and sister, have an appointment at a quarter to twelve this morning, the 12th of October, at the spot known as the Trois Mathildes, with a third person, who is married and who wishes at all costs to recover his or her liberty. Secondly, this appointment, at which they will come to a final agreement, is to be followed this evening by a walk along the cliffs, when the third person will bring with him or her the man or woman, I can't definitely say which, whom they want to get rid of. That is the gist of the whole thing. Now, as I know a spot called the Trois Mathildes some way above Étretat and as this is not an everyday name, we came down yesterday to thwart the plan of these objectionable persons."

"What plan?" asked Hortense. "For, after all, it's only your assumption that there's to be a victim and that the victim is to be flung off the top of the cliffs. You yourself told me that you heard no allusion to a possible murder."

"That is so. But I heard some very plain words relating to the marriage of the brother or the sister with the wife or the husband of the third person, which implies the need for a crime."

They were sitting on the terrace of the casino, facing the stairs which run down to the beach. They therefore overlooked the few privately-owned cabins on the shingle, where a party of four men were playing bridge, while a group of ladies sat talking and knitting.

A short distance away and nearer to the sea was another cabin, standing by itself and closed.

Half-a-dozen bare-legged children were paddling in the water.

"No," said Hortense, "all this autumnal sweetness and charm fails to attract me. I have so much faith in all your theories that I can't help thinking, in spite of everything, of this dreadful problem. Which of those people yonder is threatened? Death has already selected its victim. Who is it? Is it that young, fair-haired woman, rocking herself and laughing? Is it that tall man over there, smoking his cigar? And which of them has the thought of murder hidden in his heart? All the people we see are quietly enjoying themselves. Yet death is prowling among them."

"Capital!" said Rénine. "You too are becoming enthusiastic. What did I tell you? The whole of life's an adventure; and nothing but adventure is worth while. At the first breath of coming events, there you are, quivering in every nerve. You share in all the tragedies stirring around you; and the feeling of mystery awakens in the depths of your being. See, how closely you are observing that couple who have just arrived. You never can tell: that may be the gentleman who proposes to do away with his wife? Or perhaps the lady contemplates making away with her husband?"

"The d'Ormevals? Never! A perfectly happy couple! Yesterday, at the hotel, I had a long talk with the wife. And you yourself...."

"Oh, I played a round of golf with Jacques d'Ormeval, who rather fancies himself as an athlete, and I played at dolls with their two charming little girls!"

The d'Ormevals came up and exchanged a few words with them. Madame d'Ormeval said that her two daughters had gone back to Paris that morning with their governess. Her husband, a great tall fellow with a yellow beard, carrying his blazer over his arm and puffing out his chest under a cellular shirt, complained of the heat:

"Have you the key of the cabin, Thérèse?" he asked his wife, when they had left Rénine and Hortense and stopped at the top of the stairs, a few yards away.

"Here it is," said the wife. "Are you going to read your papers?"

"Yes. Unless we go for a stroll?..."

"I had rather wait till the afternoon: do you mind? I have a lot of letters to write this morning."

"Very well. We'll go on the cliff."

Hortense and Rénine exchanged a glance of surprise. Was this suggestion accidental? Or had they before them, contrary to their expectations, the very couple of whom they were in search?

Hortense tried to laugh:

"My heart is thumping," she said. "Nevertheless, I absolutely refuse to believe in anything so improbable. 'My husband and I have never had the slightest quarrel,' she said to me. No, it's quite clear that those two get on admirably."

"We shall see presently, at the Trois Mathildes, if one of them comes to meet the brother and sister."

M. d'Ormeval had gone down the stairs, while his wife stood leaning on the balustrade of the terrace. She had a beautiful, slender, supple figure. Her clear-cut profile was emphasized by a rather too prominent chin when at rest; and, when it was not smiling, the face gave an expression of sadness and suffering.

"Have you lost something, Jacques?" she called out to her husband, who was stooping over the shingle.

"Yes, the key," he said. "It slipped out of my hand."

She went down to him and began to look also. For two or three minutes, as they sheered off to the right and remained close to the bottom of the under-cliff, they were invisible to Hortense and Rénine. Their voices were covered by the noise of a dispute which had arisen among the bridge-players.

They reappeared almost simultaneously. Madame d'Ormeval slowly climbed a few steps of the stairs and then stopped and turned her face towards the sea. Her husband had thrown his blazer over his shoulders and was making for the isolated cabin. As he passed the bridge-players, they asked him for a decision, pointing to their cards spread out upon the table. But, with a wave of the hand, he refused to give an opinion and walked on, covered the thirty yards which divided them from the cabin, opened the door and went in.

Thérèse d'Ormeval came back to the terrace and remained for ten minutes sitting on a bench. Then she came out through the casino. Hortense, on leaning forward, saw her entering one of the chalets annexed to the Hôtel Hauville and, a moment later, caught sight of her again on the balcony.

"Eleven o'clock," said Rénine. "Whoever it is, he or she, or one of the card-players, or one of their wives, it won't be long before some one goes to the appointed place."

Nevertheless, twenty minutes passed and twenty-five; and no one stirred.

"Perhaps Madame d'Ormeval has gone." Hortense suggested, anxiously. "She is no longer on her balcony."

"If she is at the Trois Mathildes," said Rénine, "we will go and catch her there."

He was rising to his feet, when a fresh discussion broke out among the bridge-players and one of them exclaimed:

"Let's put it to d'Ormeval."

"Very well," said his adversary. "I'll accept his decision ... if he consents to act as umpire. He was rather huffy just now."

They called out:

"D'Ormeval! D'Ormeval!"

They then saw that d'Ormeval must have shut the door behind him, which kept him in the half dark, the cabin being one of the sort that has no window.

"He's asleep," cried one. "Let's wake him up."

All four went to the cabin, began by calling to him and, on receiving no answer, thumped on the door:

"Hi! D'Ormeval! Are you asleep?"

On the terrace Serge Rénine suddenly leapt to his feet with so uneasy an air that Hortense was astonished. He muttered:

"If only it's not too late!"

And, when Hortense asked him what he meant, he tore down the steps and started running to the cabin. He reached it just as the bridge-players were trying to break in the door:

"Stop!" he ordered. "Things must be done in the regular fashion."

"What things?" they asked.

He examined the Venetian shutters at the top of each of the folding-doors and, on finding that one of the upper slats was partly broken, hung on as best he could to the roof of the cabin and cast a glance inside. Then he said to the four men:

"I was right in thinking that, if M. d'Ormeval did not reply, he must have been prevented by some serious cause. There is every reason to believe that M. d'Ormeval is wounded ... or dead."

"Dead!" they cried. "What do you mean? He has only just left us."

Rénine took out his knife, prized open the lock and pulled back the two doors.

There were shouts of dismay. M. d'Ormeval was lying flat on his face, clutching his jacket and his newspaper in his hands. Blood was flowing from his back and staining his shirt.

"Oh!" said some one. "He has killed himself!"

"How can he have killed himself?" said Rénine. "The wound is right in the middle of the back, at a place which the hand can't reach. And, besides, there's not a knife in the cabin."

The others protested:

"If so, he has been murdered. But that's impossible! There has been nobody here. We should have seen, if there had been. Nobody could have passed us without our seeing...."

The other men, all the ladies and the children paddling in the sea had come running up. Rénine allowed no one to enter the cabin, except a doctor who was present. But the doctor could only say that M. d'Ormeval was dead, stabbed with a dagger.

At that moment, the mayor and the policeman arrived, together with some people of the village. After the usual enquiries, they carried away the body.

A few persons went on ahead to break the news to Thérèse d'Ormeval, who was once more to be seen on her balcony.

And so the tragedy had taken place without any clue to explain how a man, protected by a closed door with an uninjured lock, could have been murdered in the space of a few minutes and in front of twenty witnesses, one might almost say, twenty spectators. No one had entered the cabin. No one had come out of it. As for the dagger with which M. d'Ormeval had been stabbed between the shoulders, it could not be traced. And all this would have suggested the idea of a trick of sleight-of-hand performed by a clever conjuror, had it not concerned a terrible murder, committed under the most mysterious conditions.

Hortense was unable to follow, as Rénine would have liked, the small party who were making for Madame d'Ormeval; she was paralysed with excitement and incapable of moving. It was the first time that her adventures with Rénine had taken her into the very heart of the action and that, instead of noting the consequences of a murder, or assisting in the pursuit of the criminals, she found herself confronted with the murder itself.

It left her trembling all over; and she stammered: "How horrible!... The poor fellow!... Ah, Rénine, you couldn't save him this time!... And that's what upsets me more than anything, that we could and should have saved him, since we knew of the plot...."

Rénine made her sniff at a bottle of salts; and when she had quite recovered her composure, he said, while observing her attentively:

"So you think that there is some connection between the murder and the plot which we were trying to frustrate?"

"Certainly," said she, astonished at the question.

"Then, as that plot was hatched by a husband against his wife or by a wife against her husband, you admit that Madame d'Ormeval ...?"

"Oh, no, impossible!" she said. "To begin with, Madame d'Ormeval did not leave her rooms ... and then I shall never believe that pretty woman capable.... No, no, of course there was something else...."

"What else?"

"I don't know.... You may have misunderstood what the brother and sister were saying to each other.... You see, the murder has been committed under quite different conditions ... at another hour and another place...."

"And therefore," concluded Rénine, "the two cases are not in any way related?"

"Oh," she said, "there's no making it out! It's all so strange!"

Rénine became a little satirical:

"My pupil is doing me no credit to-day," he said. "Why, here is a perfectly simple story, unfolded before your eyes. You have seen it reeled off like a scene in the cinema; and it all remains as obscure to you as though you were hearing of an affair that happened in a cave a hundred miles away!"

Hortense was confounded:

"What are you saying? Do you mean that you have understood it? What clues have you to go by?"

Rénine looked at his watch:

"I have not understood everything," he said. "The murder itself, the mere brutal murder, yes. But the essential thing, that is to say, the psychology of the crime: I've no clue to that. Only, it is twelve o'clock. The brother and sister, seeing no one come to the appointment at the Trois Mathildes, will go down to the beach. Don't you think that we shall learn something then of the accomplice whom I accuse them of having and of the connection between the two cases?"

They reached the esplanade in front of the Hauville chalets, with the capstans by which the fishermen haul up their boats to the beach. A number of inquisitive persons were standing outside the door of one of the chalets. Two coastguards, posted at the door, prevented them from entering.

The mayor shouldered his way eagerly through the crowd. He was back from the post-office, where he had been telephoning to Le Havre, to the office of the procurator-general, and had been told that the public prosecutor and an examining-magistrate would come on to Étretat in the course of the afternoon.

"That leaves us plenty of time for lunch," said Rénine. "The tragedy will not be enacted before two or three o'clock. And I have an idea that it will be sensational."

They hurried nevertheless. Hortense, overwrought by fatigue and her desire to know what was happening, continually questioned Rénine, who replied evasively, with his eyes turned to the esplanade, which they could see through the windows of the coffee-room.

"Are you watching for those two?" asked Hortense.

"Yes, the brother and sister."

"Are you sure that they will venture?..."

"Look out! Here they come!"

He went out quickly.

Where the main street opened on the sea-front, a lady and gentleman were advancing with hesitating steps, as though unfamiliar with the place. The brother was a puny little man, with a sallow complexion. He was wearing a motoring-cap. The sister too was short, but rather stout, and was wrapped in a large cloak. She struck them as a woman of a certain age, but still good-looking under the thin veil that covered her face.

They saw the groups of bystanders and drew nearer. Their gait betrayed uneasiness and hesitation.

The sister asked a question of a seaman. At the first words of his answer, which no doubt conveyed the news of d'Ormeval's death, she uttered a cry and tried to force her way through the crowd. The brother, learning in his turn what had happened, made great play with his elbows and shouted to the coast-guards:

"I'm a friend of d'Ormeval's!... Here's my card! Frédéric Astaing.... My sister, Germaine Astaing, knows Madame d'Ormeval intimately!... They were expecting us.... We had an appointment!..."

They were allowed to pass. Rénine, who had slipped behind them, followed them in without a word, accompanied by Hortense.

The d'Ormevals had four bedrooms and a sitting-room on the second floor. The sister rushed into one of the rooms and threw herself on her knees beside the bed on which the corpse lay stretched. Thérèse d'Ormeval was in the sitting-room and was sobbing in the midst of a small company of silent persons. The brother sat down beside her, eagerly seized her hands and said, in a trembling voice:

"My poor friend!... My poor friend!..."

Rénine and Hortense gazed at the pair of them: and Hortense whispered:

"And she's supposed to have killed him for that? Impossible!"

"Nevertheless," observed Rénine, "they are acquaintances; and we know that Astaing and his sister were also acquainted with a third person who was their accomplice. So that...."

"It's impossible!" Hortense repeated.

And, in spite of all presumption, she felt so much attracted by Thérèse that, when Frédéric Astaing stood up, she proceeded straightway to sit down beside her and consoled her in a gentle voice. The unhappy woman's tears distressed her profoundly.

Rénine, on the other hand, applied himself from the outset to watching the brother and sister, as though this were the only thing that mattered, and did not take his eyes off Frédéric Astaing, who, with an air of indifference, began to make a minute inspection of the premises, examining the sitting-room, going into all the bedrooms, mingling with the various groups of persons present and asking questions about the manner in which the murder had been committed. Twice his sister came up and spoke to him. Then he went back to Madame d'Ormeval and again sat down beside her, full of earnest sympathy. Lastly, in the lobby, he had a long conversation with his sister, after which they parted, like people who have come to a perfect understanding. Frédéric then left. These manoeuvers had lasted quite thirty or forty minutes.

It was at this moment that the motor-car containing the examining-magistrate and the public prosecutor pulled up outside the chalets. Rénine, who did not expect them until later, said to Hortense:

"We must be quick. On no account leave Madame d'Ormeval."

Word was sent up to the persons whose evidence might be of any service that they were to go to the beach, where the magistrate was beginning a preliminary investigation. He would call on Madame d'Ormeval afterwards. Accordingly, all who were present left the chalet. No one remained behind except the two guards and Germaine Astaing.

Germaine knelt down for the last time beside the dead man and, bending low, with her face in her hands, prayed for a long time. Then she rose and was opening the door on the landing, when Rénine came forward:

"I should like a few words with you, madame."

She seemed surprised and replied:

"What is it, monsieur? I am listening."

"Not here."

"Where then, monsieur?"

"Next door, in the sitting-room."

"No," she said, sharply.

"Why not? Though you did not even shake hands with her, I presume that Madame d'Ormeval is your friend?"

He gave her no time to reflect, drew her into the next room, closed the door and, at once pouncing upon Madame d'Ormeval, who was trying to go out and return to her own room, said:

"No, madame, listen, I implore you. Madame Astaing's presence need not drive you away. We have very serious matters to discuss, without losing a minute."

The two women, standing face to face, were looking at each other with the same expression of implacable hatred, in which might be read the same confusion of spirit and the same restrained anger. Hortense, who believed them to be friends and who might, up to a certain point, have believed them to be accomplices, foresaw with terror the hostile encounter which she felt to be inevitable. She compelled Madame d'Ormeval to resume her seat, while Rénine took up his position in the middle of the room and spoke in resolute tones:

"Chance, which has placed me in possession of part of the truth, will enable me to save you both, if you are willing to assist me with a frank explanation that will give me the particulars which I still need. Each of you knows the danger in which she stands, because each of you is conscious in her heart of the evil for which she is responsible. But you are carried away by hatred; and it is for me to see clearly and to act. The examining-magistrate will be here in half-an-hour. By that time, you must have come to an agreement."

They both started, as though offended by such a word.

"Yes, an agreement," he repeated, in a more imperious tone. "Whether you like it or not, you will come to an agreement. You are not the only ones to be considered. There are your two little daughters, Madame d'Ormeval. Since circumstances have set me in their path, I am intervening in their defence and for their safety. A blunder, a word too much; and they are ruined. That must not happen."

At the mention of her children, Madame d'Ormeval broke down and sobbed. Germaine Astaing shrugged her shoulders and made a movement towards the door. Rénine once more blocked the way:

"Where are you going?"

"I have been summoned by the examining-magistrate."

"No, you have not."

"Yes, I have. Just as all those have been who have any evidence to give."

"You were not on the spot. You know nothing of what happened. Nobody knows anything of the murder."

"I know who committed it."

"That's impossible."

"It was Thérèse d'Ormeval."

The accusation was hurled forth in an outburst of rage and with a fiercely threatening gesture.

"You wretched creature!" exclaimed madame d'Ormeval, rushing at her. "Go! Leave the room! Oh, what a wretch the woman is!"

Hortense was trying to restrain her, but Rénine whispered:

"Let them be. It's what I wanted ... to pitch them one against the other and so to let in the day-light."

Madame Astaing had made a convulsive effort to ward off the insult with a jest; and she sniggered:

"A wretched creature? Why? Because I have accused you?"

"Why? For every reason! You're a wretched creature! You hear what I say, Germaine: you're a wretch!"

Thérèse d'Ormeval was repeating the insult as though it afforded her some relief. Her anger was abating. Very likely also she no longer had the strength to keep up the struggle; and it was Madame Astaing who returned to the attack, with her fists clenched and her face distorted and suddenly aged by fully twenty years:

"You! You dare to insult me, you! You after the murder you have committed! You dare to lift up your head when the man whom you killed is lying in there on his death-bed! Ah, if one of us is a wretched creature, it's you, Thérèse, and you know it! You have killed your husband! You have killed your husband!"

She leapt forward, in the excitement of the terrible words which she was uttering; and her finger-nails were almost touching her friend's face.

"Oh, don't tell me you didn't kill him!" she cried. "Don't say that: I won't let you. Don't say it. The dagger is there, in your bag. My brother felt it, while he was talking to you; and his hand came out with stains of blood upon it: your husband's blood, Thérèse. And then, even if I had not discovered anything, do you think that I should not have guessed, in the first few minutes? Why, I knew the truth at once, Thérèse! When a sailor down there answered, 'M. d'Ormeval? He has been murdered,' I said to myself then and there, 'It's she, it's Thérèse, she killed him.'"

Thérèse did not reply. She had abandoned her attitude of protest. Hortense, who was watching her with anguish, thought that she could perceive in her the despondency of those who know themselves to be lost. Her cheeks had fallen in and she wore such an expression of despair that Hortense, moved to compassion, implored her to defend herself:

"Please, please, explain things. When the murder was committed, you were here, on the balcony.... But then the dagger ... how did you come to have it ...? How do you explain it?..."

"Explanations!" sneered Germaine Astaing. "How could she possibly explain? What do outward appearances matter? What does it matter what any one saw or did not see? The proof is the thing that tells.... The dagger is there, in your bag, Thérèse: that's a fact.... Yes, yes, it was you who did it! You killed him! You killed him in the end!... Ah, how often I've told my brother, 'She will kill him yet!' Frédéric used to try to defend you. He always had a weakness for you. But in his innermost heart he foresaw what would happen.... And now the horrible thing has been done. A stab in the back! Coward! Coward!... And you would have me say nothing? Why, I didn't hesitate a moment! Nor did Frédéric. We looked for proofs at once.... And I've denounced you of my own free will, perfectly well aware of what I was doing.... And it's over, Thérèse. You're done for. Nothing can save you now. The dagger is in that bag which you are clutching in your hand. The magistrate is coming; and the dagger will be found, stained with the blood of your husband. So will your pocket-book. They're both there. And they will be found...."

Her rage had incensed her so vehemently that she was unable to continue and stood with her hand outstretched and her chin twitching with nervous tremors.

Rénine gently took hold of Madame d'Ormeval's bag. She clung to it, but he insisted and said:

"Please allow me, madame. Your friend Germaine is right. The examining-magistrate will be here presently; and the fact that the dagger and the pocket-book are in your possession will lead to your immediate arrest. This must not happen. Please allow me."

His insinuating voice diminished Thérèse d'Ormeval's resistance. She released her fingers, one by one. He took the bag, opened it, produced a little dagger with an ebony handle and a grey leather pocket-book and quietly slipped the two into the inside pocket of his jacket.

Germaine Astaing gazed at him in amazement: "You're mad, monsieur! What right have you ...?"

"These things must not be left lying about. I sha'n't worry now. The magistrate will never look for them in my pocket."

"But I shall denounce you to the police," she exclaimed, indignantly. "They shall be told!"

"No, no," he said, laughing, "you won't say anything! The police have nothing to do with this. The quarrel between you must be settled in private. What an idea, to go dragging the police into every incident of one's life!"

Madame Astaing was choking with fury:

"But you have no right to talk like this, monsieur! Who are you, after all? A friend of that woman's?"

"Since you have been attacking her, yes."

"But I'm only attacking her because she's guilty. For you can't deny it: she has killed her husband."

"I don't deny it," said Rénine, calmly. "We are all agreed on that point. Jacques d'Ormeval was killed by his wife. But, I repeat, the police must not know the truth."

"They shall know it through me, monsieur, I swear they shall. That woman must be punished: she has committed murder."

Rénine went up to her and, touching her on the shoulder:

"You asked me just now by what right I was interfering. And you yourself, madame?"

"I was a friend of Jacques d'Ormeval."

"Only a friend?"

She was a little taken aback, but at once pulled herself together and replied:

"I was his friend and it is my duty to avenge his death."

"Nevertheless, you will remain silent, as he did."

"He did not know, when he died."

"That's where you are wrong. He could have accused his wife, if he had wished. He had ample time to accuse her; and he said nothing."

"Why?"

"Because of his children."

Madame Astaing was not appeased; and her attitude displayed the same longing for revenge and the same detestation. But she was influenced by Rénine in spite of herself. In the small, closed room, where there was such a clash of hatred, he was gradually becoming the master; and Germaine Astaing understood that it was against him that she had to struggle, while Madame d'Ormeval felt all the comfort of that unexpected support which was offering itself on the brink of the abyss:

"Thank you, monsieur," she said. "As you have seen all this so clearly, you also know that it was for my children's sake that I did not give myself up. But for that ... I am so tired ...!"

And so the scene was changing and things assuming a different aspect. Thanks to a few words let fall in the midst of the dispute, the culprit was lifting her head and taking heart, whereas her accuser was hesitating and seemed to be uneasy. And it also came about that the accuser dared not say anything further and that the culprit was nearing the moment at which the need is felt of breaking silence and of speaking, quite naturally, words that are at once a confession and a relief.

"The time, I think, has come," said Rénine to Thérèse, with the same unvarying gentleness, "when you can and ought to explain yourself."

She was again weeping, lying huddled in a chair. She too revealed a face aged and ravaged by sorrow; and, in a very low voice, with no display of anger, she spoke, in short, broken sentences:

"She has been his mistress for the last four years.... I can't tell you how I suffered.... She herself told me of it ... out of sheer wickedness ... Her loathing for me was even greater than her love for Jacques ... and every day I had some fresh injury to bear ... She would ring me up to tell me of her appointments with my husband ... she hoped to make me suffer so much I should end by killing myself.... I did think of it sometimes, but I held out, for the children's sake ... Jacques was weakening. She wanted him to get a divorce ... and little by little he began to consent ... dominated by her and by her brother, who is slyer than she is, but quite as dangerous ... I felt all this ... Jacques was becoming harsh to me.... He had not the courage to leave me, but I was the obstacle and he bore me a grudge.... Heavens, the tortures I suffered!..."

"You should have given him his liberty," cried Germaine Astaing. "A woman doesn't kill her husband for wanting a divorce."

Thérèse shook her head and answered:

"I did not kill him because he wanted a divorce. If he had really wanted it, he would have left me; and what could I have done? But your plans had changed, Germaine; divorce was not enough for you; and it was something else that you would have obtained from him, another, much more serious thing which you and your brother had insisted on ... and to which he had consented ... out of cowardice ... in spite of himself...."

"What do you mean?" spluttered Germaine. "What other thing?"

"My death."

"You lie!" cried Madame Astaing.

Thérèse did not raise her voice. She made not a movement of aversion or indignation and simply repeated:

"My death, Germaine. I have read your latest letters, six letters from you which he was foolish enough to leave about in his pocket-book and which I read last night, six letters in which the terrible word is not set down, but in which it appears between every line. I trembled as I read it! That Jacques should come to this!... Nevertheless the idea of stabbing him did not occur to me for a second. A woman like myself, Germaine, does not readily commit murder.... If I lost my head, it was after that ... and it was your fault...."

She turned her eyes to Rénine as if to ask him if there was no danger in her speaking and revealing the truth.

"Don't be afraid," he said. "I will be answerable for everything."

She drew her hand across her forehead. The horrible scene was being reenacted within her and was torturing her. Germaine Astaing did not move, but stood with folded arms and anxious eyes, while Hortense Daniel sat distractedly awaiting the confession of the crime and the explanation of the unfathomable mystery.

"It was after that and it was through your fault Germaine ... I had put back the pocket-book in the drawer where it was hidden; and I said nothing to Jacques this morning ... I did not want to tell him what I knew.... It was too horrible.... All the same, I had to act quickly; your letters announced your secret arrival to-day.... I thought at first of running away, of taking the train.... I had mechanically picked up that dagger, to defend myself.... But when Jacques and I went down to the beach, I was resigned.... Yes, I had accepted death: 'I will die,' I thought, 'and put an end to all this nightmare!'... Only, for the children's sake, I was anxious that my death should look like an accident and that Jacques should have no part in it. That was why your plan of a walk on the cliff suited me.... A fall from the top of a cliff seems quite natural ... Jacques therefore left me to go to his cabin, from which he was to join you later at the Trois Mathildes. On the way, below the terrace, he dropped the key of the cabin. I went down and began to look for it with him ... And it happened then ... through your fault ... yes, Germaine, through your fault ... Jacques' pocket-book had slipped from his jacket, without his noticing it, and, together with the pocket-book, a photograph which I recognized at once: a photograph, taken this year, of myself and my two children. I picked it up ... and I saw.... You know what I saw, Germaine. Instead of my face, the face in the photograph was yours!... You had put in your likeness, Germaine, and blotted me out! It was your face! One of your arms was round my elder daughter's neck; and the younger was sitting on your knees.... It was you, Germaine, the wife of my husband, the future mother of my children, you, who were going to bring them up ... you, you! ... Then I lost my head. I had the dagger ... Jacques was stooping ... I stabbed him...."

Every word of her confession was strictly true. Those who listened to her felt this profoundly; and nothing could have given Hortense and Rénine a keener impression of tragedy.

She had fallen back into her chair, utterly exhausted. Nevertheless, she went on speaking unintelligible words; and it was only gradually by leaning over her, that they were able to make out:

"I thought that there would be an outcry and that I should be arrested. But no. It happened in such a way and under such conditions that no one had seen anything. Further, Jacques had drawn himself up at the same time as myself; and he actually did not fall. No, he did not fall! I had stabbed him; and he remained standing! I saw him from the terrace, to which I had returned. He had hung his jacket over his shoulders, evidently to hide his wound, and he moved away without staggering ... or staggering so little that I alone was able to perceive it. He even spoke to some friends who were playing cards. Then he went to his cabin and disappeared.... In a few moments, I came back indoors. I was persuaded that all of this was only a bad dream ... that I had not killed him ... or that at the worst the wound was a slight one. Jacques would come out again. I was certain of it.... I watched from my balcony.... If I had thought for a moment that he needed assistance, I should have flown to him.... But truly I didn't know ... I didn't guess.... People speak of presentiments: there are no such things. I was perfectly calm, just as one is after a nightmare of which the memory is fading away.... No, I swear to you, I knew nothing ... until the moment..."

She interrupted herself, stifled by sobs.

Rénine finished her sentence for her,

"Until the moment when they came and told you, I suppose?"

Thérèse stammered:

"Yes. It was not till then that I was conscious of what I had done ... and I felt that I was going mad and that I should cry out to all those people, 'Why, it was I who did it! Don't search! Here is the dagger ... I am the culprit!' Yes, I was going to say that, when suddenly I caught sight of my poor Jacques.... They were carrying him along.... His face was very peaceful, very gentle.... And, in his presence, I understood my duty, as he had understood his.... He had kept silent, for the sake of the children. I would be silent too. We were both guilty of the murder of which he was the victim; and we must both do all we could to prevent the crime from recoiling upon them.... He had seen this clearly in his dying agony. He had had the amazing courage to keep his feet, to answer the people who spoke to him and to lock himself up to die. He had done this, wiping out all his faults with a single action, and in so doing had granted me his forgiveness, because he was not accusing me ... and was ordering me to hold my peace ... and to defend myself ... against everybody ... especially against you, Germaine."

She uttered these last words more firmly. At first wholly overwhelmed by the unconscious act which she had committed in killing her husband, she had recovered her strength a little in thinking of what she had done and in defending herself with such energy. Faced by the intriguing woman whose hatred had driven both of them to death and crime, she clenched her fists, ready for the struggle, all quivering with resolution.

Germaine Astaing did not flinch. She had listened without a word, with a relentless expression which grew harder and harder as Thérèse's confessions became precise. No emotion seemed to soften her and no remorse to penetrate her being. At most, towards the end, her thin lips shaped themselves into a faint smile. She was holding her prey in her clutches.

Slowly, with her eyes raised to a mirror, she adjusted her hat and powdered her face. Then she walked to the door.

Thérèse darted forward:

"Where are you going?"

"Where I choose."

"To see the examining-magistrate?"

"Very likely."

"You sha'n't pass!"

"As you please. I'll wait for him here."

"And you'll tell him what?"

"Why, all that you've said, of course, all that you've been silly enough to say. How could he doubt the story? You have explained it all to me so fully."

Thérèse took her by the shoulders:

"Yes, but I'll explain other things to him at the same time, Germaine, things that concern you. If I'm ruined, so shall you be."

"You can't touch me."

"I can expose you, show your letters."

"What letters?"

"Those in which my death was decided on."

"Lies, Thérèse! You know that famous plot exists only in your imagination. Neither Jacques nor I wished for your death."

"You did, at any rate. Your letters condemn you."

"Lies! They were the letters of a friend to a friend."

"Letters of a mistress to her paramour."

"Prove it."

"They are there, in Jacques' pocket-book."

"No, they're not."

"What's that you say?"

"I say that those letters belonged to me. I've taken them back, or rather my brother has."

"You've stolen them, you wretch! And you shall give them back again," cried Thérèse, shaking her.

"I haven't them. My brother kept them. He has gone."

Thérèse staggered and stretched out her hands to Rénine with an expression of despair. Rénine said:

"What she says is true. I watched the brother's proceedings while he was feeling in your bag. He took out the pocket-book, looked through it with his sister, came and put it back again and went off with the letters."

Rénine paused and added,

"Or, at least, with five of them."

The two women moved closer to him. What did he intend to convey? If Frédéric Astaing had taken away only five letters, what had become of the sixth?

"I suppose," said Rénine, "that, when the pocket-book fell on the shingle, that sixth letter slipped out at the same time as the photograph and that M. d'Ormeval must have picked it up, for I found it in the pocket of his blazer, which had been hung up near the bed. Here it is. It's signed Germaine Astaing and it is quite enough to prove the writer's intentions and the murderous counsels which she was pressing upon her lover."

Madame Astaing had turned grey in the face and was so much disconcerted that she did not try to defend herself. Rénine continued, addressing his remarks to her:

"To my mind, madame, you are responsible for all that happened. Penniless, no doubt, and at the end of your resources, you tried to profit by the passion with which you inspired M. d'Ormeval in order to make him marry you, in spite of all the obstacles, and to lay your hands upon his fortune. I have proofs of this greed for money and these abominable calculations and can supply them if need be. A few minutes after I had felt in the pocket of that jacket, you did the same. I had removed the sixth letter, but had left a slip of paper which you looked for eagerly and which also must have dropped out of the pocket-book. It was an uncrossed cheque for a hundred thousand francs, drawn by M. d'Ormeval in your brother's name ... just a little wedding-present ... what we might call pin-money. Acting on your instructions, your brother dashed off by motor to Le Havre to reach the bank before four o'clock. I may as well tell you that he will not have cashed the cheque, for I had a telephone-message sent to the bank to announce the murder of M. d'Ormeval, which stops all payments. The upshot of all this is that the police, if you persist in your schemes of revenge, will have in their hands all the proofs that are wanted against you and your brother. I might add, as an edifying piece of evidence, the story of the conversation which I overheard between your brother and yourself in a dining-car on the railway between Brest and Paris, a fortnight ago. But I feel sure that you will not drive me to adopt these extreme measures and that we understand each other. Isn't that so?"

Natures like Madame Astaing's, which are violent and headstrong so long as a fight is possible and while a gleam of hope remains, are easily swayed in defeat. Germaine was too intelligent not to grasp the fact that the least attempt at resistance would be shattered by such an adversary as this. She was in his hands. She could but yield.

She therefore did not indulge in any play-acting, nor in any demonstration such as threats, outbursts of fury or hysterics. She bowed:

"We are agreed," she said. "What are your terms?"

"Go away. If ever you are called upon for your evidence, say that you know nothing."

She walked away. At the door, she hesitated and then, between her teeth, said:

"The cheque."

Rénine looked at Madame d'Ormeval, who declared:

"Let her keep it. I would not touch that money."

When Rénine had given Thérèse d'Ormeval precise instructions as to how she was to behave at the enquiry and to answer the questions put to her, he left the chalet, accompanied by Hortense Daniel.

On the beach below, the magistrate and the public prosecutor were continuing their investigations, taking measurements, examining the witnesses and generally laying their heads together.

"When I think," said Hortense, "that you have the dagger and M. d'Ormeval's pocket-book on you!"

"And it strikes you as awfully dangerous, I suppose?" he said, laughing. "It strikes me as awfully comic."

"Aren't you afraid?"

"Of what?"

"That they may suspect something?"

"Lord, they won't suspect a thing! We shall tell those good people what we saw and our evidence will only increase their perplexity, for we saw nothing at all. For prudence sake we will stay a day or two, to see which way the wind is blowing. But it's quite settled: they will never be able to make head or tail of the matter."

"Nevertheless, you guessed the secret and from the first. Why?"

"Because, instead of seeking difficulties where none exist, as people generally do, I always put the question as it should be put; and the solution comes quite naturally. A man goes to his cabin and locks himself in. Half an hour later, he is found inside, dead. No one has gone in. What has happened? To my mind there is only one answer. There is no need to think about it. As the murder was not committed in the cabin, it must have been committed beforehand and the man was already mortally wounded when he entered his cabin. And forthwith the truth in this particular case appeared to me. Madame d'Ormeval, who was to have been killed this evening, forestalled her murderers and while her husband was stooping to the ground, in a moment of frenzy stabbed him in the back. There was nothing left to do but look for the reasons that prompted her action. When I knew them, I took her part unreservedly. That's the whole story."

The day was beginning to wane. The blue of the sky was becoming darker and the sea, even more peaceful than before.

"What are you thinking of?" asked Rénine, after a moment.

"I am thinking," she said, "that if I too were the victim of some machination, I should trust you whatever happened, trust you through and against all. I know, as certainly as I know that I exist, that you would save me, whatever the obstacles might be. There is no limit to the power of your will."

He said, very softly:

"There is no limit to my wish to please you."