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The Eight Strokes of the Clock
By Maurice Leblanc
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ON THE TOP OF THE TOWER
Hortense Daniel pushed her window ajar and whispered:
"Are you there, Rossigny?"
"I am here," replied a voice from the shrubbery at the front of the house.
Leaning forward, she saw a rather fat man looking up at her out of a gross red face with its cheeks and chin set in unpleasantly fair whiskers.
"Well?" he asked.
"Well, I had a great argument with my uncle and aunt last night. They absolutely refuse to sign the document of which my lawyer sent them the draft, or to restore the dowry squandered by my husband."
"But your uncle is responsible by the terms of the marriage settlement."
"No matter. He refuses."
"Well, what do you propose to do?"
"Are you still determined to run away with me?" she asked, with a laugh.
"More so than ever."
"Your intentions are strictly honourable, remember!"
"Just as you please. You know that I am madly in love with you."
"Unfortunately I am not madly in love with you!"
"Then what made you choose me?"
"Chance. I was bored. I was growing tired of my humdrum existence. So I'm ready to run risks ... Here's my luggage: catch!"
She let down from the window a couple of large leather kit bags. Rossigny caught them in his arms.
"The die is cast," she whispered. "Go and wait for me with your car at the If crossroads. I shall come on horseback."
"Hang it, I can't run off with your horse!"
"He will go home by himself."
"Capital! ... Oh, by the way ..."
"What is it?"
"Who is this Prince Rénine, who's been here the last three days and whom nobody seems to know?"
"I don't know much about him. My uncle met him at a friend's shoot and asked him here to stay."
"You seem to have made a great impression on him. You went for a long ride with him yesterday. He's a man I don't care for."
"In two hours I shall have left the house in your company. The scandal will cool him off ... Well, we've talked long enough. We have no time to lose."
For a few minutes she stood watching the fat man bending under the weight of her traps as he moved away in the shelter of an empty avenue. Then she closed the window.
Outside, in the park, the huntsmen's horns were sounding the reveille. The hounds burst into frantic baying. It was the opening day of the hunt that morning at the Château de la Marèze, where, every year, in the first week in September, the Comte d'Aigleroche, a mighty hunter before the Lord, and his countess were accustomed to invite a few personal friends and the neighbouring landowners.
Hortense slowly finished dressing, put on a riding habit, which revealed the lines of her supple figure, and a wide- brimmed felt hat, which encircled her lovely face and auburn hair, and sat down to her writing desk, at which she wrote to her uncle, M. d'Aigleroche, a farewell letter to be delivered to him that evening. It was a difficult letter to word; and, after beginning it several times, she ended by giving up the idea.
"I will write to him later," she said to herself, "when his anger has cooled down."
And she went downstairs to the dining room.
Enormous logs were blazing in the hearth of the lofty room. The walls were hung with trophies of rifles and shotguns. The guests were flocking in from every side, shaking hands with the Comte d'Aigleroche, one of those typical country squires, heavily and powerfully built, who lives only for hunting and shooting. He was standing before the fire, with a large glass of old brandy in his hand, drinking the health of each new arrival.
Hortense kissed him absently:
"What, uncle! You who are usually so sober!"
"Pooh!" he said. "A man may surely indulge himself a little once a year! ..."
"Aunt will give you a scolding!"
"Your aunt has one of her sick headaches and is not coming down. Besides," he added, gruffly, "it is not her business ... and still less is it yours, my dear child."
Prince Rénine came up to Hortense. He was a young man, very smartly dressed, with a narrow and rather pale face, whose eyes held by turns the gentlest and the harshest, the most friendly and the most satirical expression. He bowed to her, kissed her hand and said:
"May I remind you of your kind promise, dear madame?"
"Yes, we agreed that we should repeat our delightful excursion of yesterday and try to go over to that old boarded-up place, the look of which made us so curious. It seems to be known as the Domaine de Halingre."
She answered a little curtly:
"I'm extremely sorry, monsieur, but it would be rather far and I'm feeling a little done up. I shall go for a canter in the park and come indoors again."
There was a pause. Then Serge Rénine said, smiling, with his eyes fixed on hers and in a voice which she alone could hear:
"I am sure that you'll keep your promise and that you'll let me come with you. It would be better."
"For whom? For you, you mean?"
"For you, too, I assure you."
She coloured slightly, but did not reply, shook hands with a few people around her and left the room.
A groom was holding the horse at the foot of the steps. She mounted and set off towards the woods beyond the park.
It was a cool, still morning. Through the leaves, which barely quivered, the sky showed crystalline blue. Hortense rode at a walk down winding avenues, which in half an hour brought her to a countryside of ravines and bluffs intersected by the high road.
She stopped. There was not a sound. Rossigny must have stopped his engine and concealed the car in the thickets around the If crossroads.
She was five hundred yards at most from that circular space. After hesitating for a few seconds, she dismounted, tied her horse carelessly, so that he could release himself by the least effort and return to the house, shrouded her face in the long brown veil that hung over her shoulders and walked on.
As she expected, she saw Rossigny directly after she reached the first turn in the road. He ran up to her and drew her into the coppice!
"Quick, quick! Oh, I was so afraid that you would be late ... or even change your mind! And here you are! It seems too good to be true!"
"You appear to be quite happy to do an idiotic thing!"
"I should think I am happy! And so will you be, I swear you will! Your life will be one long fairy tale. You shall have every luxury, and all the money you can wish for."
"I want neither money nor luxuries."
"You can safely leave your happiness to me."
She replied, jestingly:
"I rather doubt the quality of the happiness which you would give me."
"Wait! You'll see! You'll see!"
They had reached the motor. Rossigny, still stammering expressions of delight, started the engine. Hortense stepped in and wrapped herself in a wide cloak. The car followed the narrow, grassy path which led back to the crossroads and Rossigny was accelerating the speed, when he was suddenly forced to pull up. A shot had rung out from the neighbouring wood, on the right. The car was swerving from side to side.
"A front tire burst," shouted Rossigny, leaping to the ground.
"Not a bit of it!" cried Hortense. "Somebody fired!"
"Impossible, my dear! Don't be so absurd!"
At that moment, two slight shocks were felt and two more reports were heard, one after the other, some way off and still in the wood.
"The back tires burst now ... both of them ... But who, in the devil's name, can the ruffian be? ... Just let me get hold of him, that's all! ..."
He clambered up the roadside slope. There was no one there. Moreover, the leaves of the coppice blocked the view.
"Damn it! Damn it!" he swore. "You were right: somebody was firing at the car! Oh, this is a bit thick! We shall be held up for hours! Three tires to mend! ... But what are you doing, dear girl?"
Hortense herself had alighted from the car. She ran to him, greatly excited:
"I want to know. Someone fired. I want to know who it was."
"Don't let us separate, please!"
"Do you think I'm going to wait here for you for hours?"
"What about your running away? ... All our plans ...?"
"We'll discuss that tomorrow. Go back to the house. Take back my things with you ... And good-bye for the present."
She hurried, left him, had the good luck to find her horse and set off at a gallop in a direction leading away from La Marèze.
There was not the least doubt in her mind that the three shots had been fired by Prince Rénine.
"It was he," she muttered, angrily, "it was he. No one else would be capable of such behaviour."
Besides, he had warned her, in his smiling, masterful way, that he would expect her.
She was weeping with rage and humiliation. At that moment, had she found herself face to face with Prince Rénine, she could have struck him with her riding whip.
Before her was the rugged and picturesque stretch of country which lies between the Orne and the Sarthe, above Alençon, and which is known as Little Switzerland. Steep hills compelled her frequently to moderate her pace, the more so as she had to cover some six miles before reaching her destination. But, though the speed at which she rode became less headlong, though her physical effort gradually slackened, she nevertheless persisted in her indignation against Prince Rénine. She bore him a grudge not only for the unspeakable action of which he had been guilty, but also for his behaviour to her during the last three days, his persistent attentions, his assurance, his air of excessive politeness.
She was nearly there. In the bottom of a valley, an old park wall, full of cracks and covered with moss and weeds, revealed the ball turret of a château and a few windows with closed shutters. This was the Domaine de Halingre. She followed the wall and turned a corner. In the middle of the crescent-shaped space before which lay the entrance gates, Serge Rénine stood waiting beside his horse.
She sprang to the ground, and, as he stepped forward, hat in hand, thanking her for coming, she cried:
"One word, monsieur, to begin with. Something quite inexplicable happened just now. Three shots were fired at a motorcar in which I was sitting. Did you fire those shots?"
She seemed dumbfounded:
"Then you confess it?"
"You have asked a question, madame, and I have answered it."
"But how dare you? What gave you the right?"
"I was not exercising a right, madame; I was performing a duty!"
"Indeed! And what duty, pray?"
"The duty of protecting you against a man who is trying to profit by your troubles."
"I forbid you to speak like that. I am responsible for my own actions, and I decided upon them in perfect liberty."
"Madame, I overheard your conversation with M. Rossigny this morning, and it did not appear to me that you were accompanying him with a light heart. I admit the ruthlessness and bad taste of my interference and I apologise for it humbly, but I risked being taken for a ruffian in order to give you a few hours for reflection."
"I have reflected fully, monsieur. When I have once made up my mind to a thing, I do not change it."
"Yes, madame, you do, sometimes. If not, why are you here instead of there?"
Hortense was confused for a moment. All her anger had subsided. She looked at Rénine with the surprise which one experiences when confronted with certain persons who are unlike their fellows, more capable of performing unusual actions, more generous and disinterested. She realised perfectly that he was acting without any ulterior motive or calculation, that he was, as he had said, merely fulfilling his duty as a gentleman to a woman who has taken the wrong turning.
Speaking very gently, he said:
"I know very little about you, madame, but enough to make me wish to be of use to you. You are twenty-six years old and have lost both your parents. Seven years ago, you became the wife of the Comte d'Aigleroche's nephew by marriage, who proved to be of unsound mind, half insane indeed, and had to be confined. This made it impossible for you to obtain a divorce and compelled you, since your dowry had been squandered, to live with your uncle and at his expense. It's a depressing environment. The count and countess do not agree. Years ago, the count was deserted by his first wife, who ran away with the countess' first husband. The abandoned husband and wife decided out of spite to unite their fortunes, but found nothing but disappointment and ill will in this second marriage. And you suffer the consequences. They lead a monotonous, narrow, lonely life for eleven months or more out of the year. One day, you met M. Rossigny, who fell in love with you and suggested an elopement. You did not care for him. But you were bored, your youth was being wasted, you longed for the unexpected, for adventure ... in a word, you accepted with the very definite intention of keeping your admirer at arm's length, but also with the rather ingenuous hope that the scandal would force your uncle's hand and make him account for his trusteeship and assure you of an independent existence. That is how you stand. At present you have to choose between placing yourself in M. Rossigny's hands ... or trusting yourself to me."
She raised her eyes to his. What did he mean? What was the purport of this offer which he made so seriously, like a friend who asks nothing but to prove his devotion?
After a moment's silence, he took the two horses by the bridle and tied them up. Then he examined the heavy gates, each of which was strengthened by two planks nailed crosswise. An electoral poster, dated twenty years earlier, showed that no one had entered the domain since that time.
Rénine tore up one of the iron posts, which supported a railing that ran round the crescent, and used it as a lever. The rotten planks gave way. One of them uncovered the lock, which he attacked with a big knife, containing a number of blades and implements. A minute later, the gate opened on a waste of bracken, which led up to a long, dilapidated building, with a turret at each corner and a sort of a belvedere, built on a taller tower, in the middle.
The Prince turned to Hortense:
"You are in no hurry," he said. "You will form your decision this evening; and, if M. Rossigny succeeds in persuading you for the second time, I give you my word of honour that I shall not cross your path. Until then, grant me the privilege of your company. We made up our minds yesterday to inspect the château. Let us do so. Will you? It is as good a way as any of passing the time, and I have a notion that it will not be uninteresting."
He had a way of talking, which compelled obedience. He seemed to be commanding and entreating at the same time. Hortense did not even seek to shake off the enervation into which her will was slowly sinking. She followed him to a half-demolished flight of steps at the top of which was a door likewise strengthened by planks nailed in the form of a cross.
Rénine went to work in the same way as before. They entered a spacious hall paved with white and black flagstones, furnished with old sideboards and choir stalls and adorned with a carved escutcheon, which displayed the remains of armorial bearings, representing an eagle standing on a block of stone, all half-hidden behind a veil of cobwebs, which hung down over a pair of folding doors.
"The door of the drawing room, evidently," said Rénine.
He found this more difficult to open, and it was only by repeatedly charging it with his shoulder that he was able to move one of the doors.
Hortense had not spoken a word. She watched not without surprise this series of forcible entries, which were accomplished with a really masterly skill. He guessed her thoughts and, turning round, said in a serious voice:
"It's child's play to me. I was a locksmith once."
She seized his arm and whispered:
"To what?" he asked.
She increased the pressure of her hand, to demand silence. The next moment, he murmured:
"It's really very strange."
"Listen, listen!" Hortense repeated, in bewilderment. "Can it be possible?"
They heard, not far from where they were standing, a sharp sound, the sound of a light tap recurring at regular intervals, and they had only to listen attentively to recognise the ticking of a clock. Yes, it was this and nothing else that broke the profound silence of the dark room; it was indeed the deliberate ticking, rhythmical as the beat of a metronome, produced by a heavy brass pendulum. That was it! And nothing could be more impressive than the measured pulsation of this trivial mechanism, which by some miracle, some inexplicable phenomenon, had continued to live in the heart of the dead château.
Excerpted from The Eight Strokes of the Clock by Maurice Leblanc. Copyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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