THE WATER BOTTLE
THE SECOND OF “The Eight Strokes of the Clock99
MAURICE LE BLANC
THESE eight adventures were told, to me in the old days by Arsene Lupin as though they
had happened to a friend of his named Prince Renine. As for me, considering the way in which they were conducted, the actions, the behaviour and the very character of the hero, I find it very difficult not to identify the two friends as one and the same person. Arsene Lupin is gifted with a powerful imagination and is quite capable of attributing to himself adventures which are not his at all and of disowning those which are really his. The reader will judge for himself.—M. L.
FOUR days after she had settled down in Paris, Hortense Daniel agreed to meet Prince Renine in the Bois. It was a glorious morning and they sat down on the terrace of the Restaurant Impérial a little to one side.
Hortense, feeling glad to be alive, was in a playful mood, full of attractive grace. Renine, lest he startle her, refrained from alluding to the compact into which they had entered at his sugges* ion. She told him how she had left La Maréze and said that she had not heard from Rossigny.
“I have,” said Renine. “I’ve heard of him.”
“Yes, he sent me a challenge. We fought a duel this morning. Rossigny got a scratch in the shoulder. That finished the duel. Let’s talk of something else.”
There was no further mention of Rossigny. Renine at once expounded to Hortense the plan of two enterprises which he had in view and in which he offered, with no great enthusiasm, to let her share.
The terrace was beginning to fill up around them. At the next table sat a young man reading a newspaper. They were able to see his insignificant profile and his long, dark moustache.
As Renine was paying for the refreshments, the young man with the long moustache stifled a cry and, in a choking voice, called one of the waiters.
Renine, without a moment’s hesitation, had picked up the paper. After easting a swift glance down the page, he read, under his breath:
“Maitre Dourdens, the counsel for the defence in the trial of Jacques Auhrieux, has been received at the Elysée. We are informed that the President of the Republic has refused to reprieve the condemned man and that the execution will take place tomorrow morning.”
After crossing the terrace, the young man found himself faced, at the entrance to the garden, by a lady and gentleman who blocked his way, and the latter said: “Excuse me, sir, but I noticed your agitation. It’s about Jacques Aubrieux, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes, Jacques Aubrieux,” the young man stammered. “Jacques, the friend of my childhood. I’m hurrying to see his wife. She must be beside herself with
“Can I offer you my assistance? I am Prince Renine. This lady and I would be happy to call on Madame Aubrieux and to place our services at her disposal.”
THE young man, upset by the news which he had read, seemed not to understand. He introduced himself awkwardly:
“My name is Dutreuil, Gaston Dutreuil.”
Renine beckoned to his chauffeur, who was waiting at some little distance, and pushed Gaston Dutreuil into the car, asking:
“What address? Where does Madame Aubrieux live?”
“23 bis, Avenue du Roule.”
After helping Hortense in, Renine repeated the address to the chauffeur, and, as soon as they drove off, tried to question Gaston Dutreuil.
“I know very little of the case,” he said. “Tell it me as briefly as you can. Jacques Aubrieux killed one of his near relations, didn’t he?”
“He is innocent, sir,” replied the young man, who seemed incapable of giving the least explanation. “Innocent, I swear it. I’ve been Jacques’ friend for twenty years.... He is innocent. .. .and it would be monstrous. ...” There was nothing to be got out of him. They entered Neuilly through the Porte des Sablons and stopped before a small, one-storied house.
Gaston Dutreuil rang.
“Madame is in the drawing-room, with her mother,” said the maid who opened the door.
“I’ll go in to the ladies,” he said, taking Renine and Hortense with him.
It was a fair-sized, prettily-furnished room, which, in ordinary times, must have been used also as a study. Two women sat weeping, one of whom, elderly and greyhaired, came up to Gaston Dutreuil. He explained the reason for Renine’s presence and she at once cried, amid her sobs:
“My daughter’s husband is innocent, sir. Jacques? A better man never lived. He was so good-hearted! Murder his cousin? But he worshipped his cousin! I swear that he’s not guilty, sir! And they are going to commit the infamy of putting him to death! Oh, sir, it will kill my daughter!”
Renine realized that all these people had been living for months under the obsession of that innocence and in the
certainty that an innocent man could never be executed. The news of the execution, which was now inevitable, was driving them mad.
HE WENT up to a poor creature bent in two whose face, a quite young face, framed in pretty flaxen hair, was convulsed with desperate grief. Hortense, who had already taken a seat beside her, gently drew her head against her shoulder. Renine said to her:
“Madame, I do not know what I can do for you. But I give you my word of honour that, if anyone in this world can be of use to you, it is myself. I therefore implore you to answer my questions as though the clear and definite wording of your replies were able to alter the aspect of things and as though you wished to make me share your opinion of Jacques Aubrieux. For he is innocent, is he not?”
“Oh, sir, indeed he is!” she exclaimed; and the woman’s whole soul was in the words.
“You are certain of it. But you were unable to communicate your certainty to the court. Well, you must now compel me to share it. I am not asking you to go into details and to live again through the hideous torment which you have suffered, but merely to answer certain questions. Will you do this?”
Renine’s influence over her was complete. With a few sentences Renine had succeeded in subduing her and inspiring her with the will to obey. And once more Hortense realized all the man’s power, authority and persua-
“What was your husband?” he asked, after begging the mother and Gaston Dutreuil to preserve absolute sil-
“An insurance broker.”
“Lucky in business?”
“Until last year, yes.”
“So there have been financial difficulties during the past few months?”
“And the murder was committed when?”
“Last March, on a Sunday.”
“Who was the victim?”
“A distant cousin, M. Guillaume, who lived at Suresnes.” “What was the sum stolen?”
“Sixty thousand-franc notes, which this cousin had received the day before, in payment of a long-outstanding
“Did your husband know that?”
“Yes. His cousin told him of it on the Sunday, in the course of a conversation on the telephone, and Jacques insisted that his cousin ought not to keep so large a sum in the house, and that he ought to pay it into a bank next day.”
“Was this in the morning?”
“At one o’clock in the afternoon. Jacques was to have gone to M. Guillaume on his motor-cycle. But he felt tired and told him that he would not go out. So he re-
mained here all day and never moved from the house.” “Alone?”
“Yes. The two servants were out. I went to the Cinema des Ternes with my mother and our friend Dutreuil. In the evening, we learnt that M. Guillaume had been murdered. Next morning, Jacques was arrested.”
“On what evidence?”
'T'HE poor creature hesitated to reply: the evidence of
A guilt had evidently been overwhelming. Then, obeying a sign from Renine, she answered without a pause: “The murderer went to Suresnes on a motor-cycle and the tracks discovered were those of my husband’s machine. They found a handkerchief with my husband’s initials; and the revolver which was used belonged to him. Lastly, one of our neighbours maintains that he saw my husband go out on his bicycle at three o’clock and another that he saw him come in at half-past four. The murder was committed at four o’clock.”
“And what does Jacques Aubrieux say in his defence?” “He declares that he slept all the afternoon. During that time, someone came who managed to unlock the cycleshed and take the motor-cycle to go to Suresnes. As for the handkerchief and the revolver, they were in the toolbag. There would be nothing surprising in the murderer’s using them.”
“It seems a plausible explanation.”
“Yes, but the prosecution raised two objections. In the first place, nobody, absolutely nobody, knew that my husband was going to stay at home all day, because, on the contrary, it was his habit to go out on his motor-cycle every Sunday afternon.”
“And the second objection?”
She flushed and murmured:
“The murderer went to the pantry at M. Guillaume’s and drank half a bottle of wine straight out of the bottle, which shows my husband’s finger-prints.”
It seemed as though her strength was exhausted and as though, at the same time, thé unconscious hope which Renine’s intervention had awakened in her had suddenly vanished before the accumulation of adverse facts. Again she collapsed, withdrawn into a sort of silent meditation from which Hortense’s affectionate attentions were unable to distract her.
The mother stammered :
“He’s not guilty, is he, sir? And they can’t punish an innocent man. They haven’t the right to kill my daughter. Oh dear, oh dear, what have we done to be tortured like this? My poor little Madeleine?”
“She will kill herself,” said Dutreuil, in a scared voice. “She will never be able to endure the idea that they are guillotining Jacques. She will kill herself presently.... this very night ...”
Renine was striding up and down the
“You can do nothing for her, can you?” asked Hortense.
“It’s half-past eleven now,” he replied, in an anxious tone, “and it’s to happen tomorrow morning.”
“Do you think he’s guilty?”
“I don’t know.... I don’t know . The poor woman’s conviction is too impressive to be neglected. When two people have lived together for years, they can hardly be mistaken about each other to that degree. And yet. ...”
HE stretched himself out on a sofa and lit a cigarette. He smoked three in succession, without a word from any one _
to interrupt his train of thought. From time to time he looked at his watch.
Every minute was of such importance!
At last he went back to Madeleine Aubrieux, took her hands and said, very gently:
“You must not kill yourself. There is hope left until the last minute has come; and I promise you that, for my part, I will not be disheartened until that last minute. But I need your calmness and your confidence.”
“I will be calm,” she said, with a pitiable air.
“Well, wait for me. I shall he back in two hours from now. Will you come with us, M. Dutreuil?”
As they were stepping into his car, he asked the young
“Do you know any small, unfrequented restaurant, not too far inside Paris?”
“There’s the Brasserie Lutetia, on the ground-floor of the house in which I live, on the Place des Ternes.” “Capital. That will he very handy.”
They scarcely spoke on the way. Renine, however, said to Gaston Dutreuil:
“So far as I remember, the numbers of the notes are known, aren't they?”
“Yes. M. Guillaume had entered the sixty numbers in his pocket-book.
Renine muttered, a moment later:
“That’s where the whole problem lies. Where are the notes? If we could lay our hands on them, we should know everything.”
At the Brasserie Lutetia there was a telephone in the private room where he asked to have lunch served. When the waiter had left him alone with Hortense and Dutreuil, he took down the receiver with a resolute air:
“Hullo!. . . .Prefecture of police, please. . . .Hullo! Hullo!.... Is that the Prefecture of police? Please put me on to the criminal investigation department. I have a very important communication to make. You can say it’s Prince Renine.”
Holding the receiver in his hand, he turned to Gaston Dutreuil.
“I can ask some one to come here, I suppose? We shall be quite undisturbed?”
He listened again:
“The secretary to the head of the criminal investigation department? Oh, excellent! Mr. Secretary, I have on several occasions been in communication with M. Dudouis and have given him information which has been of great use to him. He is sure to remember Prince Renine. I may be able today to show him where the sixty thousandfranc notes are hidden which Aubrieux the murderer stole from his cousin. If he’s interested in the proposal beg him to send an inspector to the Brasserie Lutetia, Place des Ternes. I shall be there with a lady and M. Dutreuil, Aubrieux’s friend. Good day, Mr. Secretary.”
WHEN Renine hung up the instrument, he saw the amazed faces of Hortense and of Gaston Dutreuil confronting him.
“Then you know? You’ve discovered....?” “Nothing,” he said, laughing.
“Well, I’m acting as though I knew. It’s not a bad method. Let’s have some lunch, shall we?”
The clock marked a quarter to one.
“The man from the prefecture will be here,” he said, “in twenty minutes at latest.”
“And if no one comes?” Hortense objected.
“That would surprise me. Of course, if I had sent a message to M. Dudouis saying, ‘Aubrieux is innocent,’ I should have failed to make any impression. It’s not the least use, on the eve of an execution, to attempt to convince the gentry of the police or of the law that a man condemned to death is innocent. No. From henceforth Jacques Aubrieux belongs to g§i ^ the executioner. But
the prospect of securing the sixty banknotes is a windfall worth taking a little trouble over. Just think: that was the
weak point in the indictment, those sixty
“But, as you know nothing of their whereabouts....” “My dear girl—I hope you don’t mind my calling you so?—my dear girl, when a man can’t explain this or that physical phenomenon, he adopts some sort of theory which explains the various manifestations of the phenomenon and says that everything happened as though the theory w*ere correct. That’s what I am doing.”
“That amounts to saying that you are going upon a supposition?”
U ENINE did not reply. Not until some time later, when lunch was over, did he say:
“Obviously I am going upon a supposition. If I had several days before me, I should take the trouble of first verifying my theory, which is based upon intuition quite as much as upon a few scattered facts. But I have only two hours; and I am embarking on the unknown path as though I were certain that it would lead me to the truth.” “And suppose you are wrong?”
“I have no choice. Besides, it is too late. There’s a knock. Oh, one word more! Whatever I may say, don’t contradict me. Nor you, M. Dutreuil.”
He opened the door. A thin man, with a red imperial, entered.
“Yes, sir. You, of course, are from M. Dudouis?” “Yes.”
And the newcomer gave his name:
“I am obliged to you for coming so promptly, Mr. Chief-inspector,” said Prince Renine, “and I hope that M. Dudouis will not regret having placed you at my disposal.”
“At your entire disposal, in addition to two inspectors whom I have left in the square outside and who have been in the case, with me, from the first.”
“I shall not detain you for any length of time,” said Renine, “and I wall not even ask you to sit down. We have only a few minutes in which to settle everything. You know what it’s all about?”
“The sixty thousand-franc notes stolen from M. Guillaume. I have the numbers here.”
Renine ran his eyes down the slip of paper which the chief-inspector handed him and said:
“That’s right. The two lists agree.”
Inspector Morisseau seemed greatly excited:
“The chief attaches the greatest importance to your discovery. So you wall be able to show me?. ...”
Renine was silent for a moment and then declared: “Mr. Chief-inspector, a personal investigation—and a most exhaustive investigation it was, as I will explain to you presently—has revealed the fact that, on his return from Suresnes, the murderer, after replacing the motorcycle in the shed in the Avenue du Roule, ran to the Ternes and entered this house.”
“But what did he come here for?”
“To hide the proceeds of his theft, the sixty bank-notes. ’ “How do you mean? Where?”
“In a flat of which he had the key, on the fifth floor.” Gaston Dutreuil exclaimed, in amazement:
“But there’s only one flat on the fifth floor and that s the one I live in!”
“Exactly; and,'as you were at the cinema with Madame Aubrieux and her mother, advantage was taken of your absence. . . ”
“Impossible! No one has the key except myself. “One can get in without a key.” ^
“But I have seen no marks of any kind.”
“Come, let us understand one another. You say the bank-notes were hidden in M. Dutreuil s flat?
“Then, as Jacques Aubrieux was arrested the next morning,’the notes ought to be there still?”
“That’s my opinion.”
Gaston Dutreuil could not help laughing: “But that’s absurd! I should have found them!” “Did you look for them?”
“No. But I should have come across them at any moment. The place isn’t big enough to swing a cat in. Would you care to see it?”
“However small it may be, it’s large enough to hold sixty bits of tmbti paper.”
“Of course, everything is possible,” said Dutreuil. “Still I must repeat that nobody, to my knowledge, has been to my rooms; that there is only one key; that I am my own housekeeper; and that I can’t quite understand ..."
HORTENSE too could not understand. With her eyes fixed on Prince Renine’s
she was trying to read his innermost'thoughts. What game was he playing? Was it her duty to support his statements? She ended by saying:
“Mr. Chief-inspector, since Prince Renine maintains that the notes have been put away upstairs, wouldn’t the simplest thing be to go and look'* M. Dutreuil will take us up. won’t you?”
“This minute,” said the young man. “As you say, that will be simplest.”
They all four climbed the five stories of the house and, after Dutreuil had opened the door, entered a tiny set of chambers consisting of a sitting-room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, all arranged with fastidious neatness. It was easy to see that every chair in the sitting-room occupied a definite place. The pipes had a rack to themselves; so had the matches. Three walking-sticks, arranged according to their length, hung from three nails. On a little table before the window a hat-box, filled with tissuepaper, awaited the felt hat which Dutreuil carefully placed in it. He laid his gloves beside it, on the lid.
He did all this with sedate and mechanical movements, like a man who loves to see things in the places which he has chosen for them. Indeed, no sooner did Renine shift something than Dutreuil made a slight gesture of protest, took out his hat again, stuck it on his head, opened the window and rested his elbows on the sill, with his back turned to the room, as though he were unable to bear the sight of such vandalism.
“You’re positive, are you not?” the inspector asked Renine.
“Yes, yes, I’m positive that the sixty notes were brought here after the murder.”
“Let’s look for them.”
This was easy and soon done. In half an hour, not a corner remained unexplored, not a knick-knack unlifted.
“Nothing,” said Inspector Morisseau.
“Shall we continue?”
“No,” replied Renine, “The notes are no longer here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that they have been removed.”
“By whom? Can’t you make a more definite accusation?”
Renine did not reply. But Gaston Dutreuil wheeled round. He was choking and spluttered:
“Mr. Inspector, would you like me to make the accusation more definite, as conveyed by this gentleman’s remarks?
It all means that there’s a dishonest man here, that the notes hidden by the murderer were discovered and stolen by that dishonest man and deposited in another and safer place. That is your idea, sir, is it not? And you accuse me of committing this theft, don’t you?”
He came forward,drumming his chest with his fists*
“Me! Me! I found the notes, did I, and kept them for myself? You dare to suggest that!”
Renine still made no reply. Dutreuil flew into a rage and, taking Inspector Morisseau aside, exclaimed:
“Mr. Inspector, I strongly protest against all this farce and against the part which you are unconsciously playing in it. Before your arrival, Prince Renine told this lady and myself that he knew nothing, that he was venturing into this affair at random and that he was following the first road that offered, trusting to luck. Do you deny it, sir?”
Renine did not open his lips.
“Answer me, will you? Explain yourself; for, really, you are putting forward the most improbable facts without any proof whatever. It’s easy enough to say that I stole the notes. And how were you to know that they were here at all? Who brought them here? Why should the murderer choose this flat to hide them in?
It’s all so stupid, so illogical and absurd!. . .
Give us your proofs, sir. . . . one single proof!”
Inspector Morisseau seemed perplexed.
He questioned Renine with a glance.
“Since you want specific details, we will get them from Madame Aubrieux herself. She’s on the telephone. Let’s go downstairs. We shall know all about it in a minute.”
Dutreuil shrugged his shoulders:
“As you please; but what a waste of
He seemed greatly irritated. His long wait at the window, under a blazing sun, had thrown him into a sweat. He went to his bedroom and ‘returned with a bottle of water, of which he took a few sips, afterwards placing the bottle on the window-sill:
“Come along,” he said.
Prince Renine chuckled.
"You seem to be in a hurry to leave the place.”
“I’m in a hurry to show you up,” retorted Dutreuil, slamming the door.
'T'HEY went downstairs to the private room containing the telephone. The room was empty. Renine asked Gaston Dutreuil for the Aubrieux’s number, took down the instrument and was put through.
The maid who came to the telephone answered that Madame Aubrieux had fainted, after giving way to an excess of despair, and that she was now asleep.
“Fetch her mother, please. Prince Renine speaking. It’s urgent.”
He handed the second receiver to Morisseau. For that matter the voices were so distinct that Dutreuil and Hortense were able to hear every word exchanged.
“Is that you, madame?”
“Yes. Prince Renine, I believe?”
“Oh, sir, what news have you for me? Is there any hope?” asked the old lady, in a tone of entreaty.
“The enquiry is proceeding very satisfactorily,” said Renine, “and you may hope for the best. For the moment, I want you to give me some very important particulars. On the day of the murder, did Gaston Dutreuil come to your house?”
“Yes, he came to fetch my daughter and myself, after lunch.”
“Did he know at the time that M. Guillaume had sixty thousand francs at his place?”
“Yes, I told him.”
"And that Jacques Aubrieux was not feeling very well and was proposing not to take his usual cycle-ride but to stay at home and sleep?”
“You are sure?”
“And you all three went to the cinema together?”
“And you were all sitting together?”
“Oh, no! There was no room. He took a seat farther
“A seat where you could see him?”
“But he came to you during the interval?”
“No, we did not see him until we were going out.” “There is no doubt of that?”
“None at all.”
“Very, well, madame. I will tell you the result of my efforts in an hour’s time. But above all, don’t wake up Madame Aubrieux.”
“And suppose she wakes of her own accord?” “Reassure her and give her confidence. Everything is going well, very well indeed.”
He hung up the receiver and turned to Dutreuil, laughing:
“Ha, ha, my boy! Things are beginning to look clearer. What do you say?”
It was difficult to tell what these words meant or what conclusions Renine had drawn from his conversation. The silence was painful and oppressive.
“Mr. Chief-inspector, you have some of your men outside, haven’t you?”
“It’s important that they should be there. Please also to ask the manager not to disturb us on any account.”
AND, when Morisseau returned, Renine closed the door, took his stand in front of Dutreuil and, speaking in a good-humoured but emphatic tone, said, “It amounts to this, young man, that the ladies saw nothing of you between three and five o’clock on that Sunday. That’s rather a curious detail.”
“A perfectly natural detail,” Dutreuil retorted, “and one, moreover, which proves nothing at all.”
Renine brought down his hand on Dutreuil’s shoulder:
“No more talk! Facts! Gaston Dutreuil you are the only person who on that day knew two essential things: first, that Cousin Guillaume had sixty thousand francs in his house; secondly, that Jacques Aubrieux was not going out. You at once saw your chance. The motorcycle was available. You slipped out during the performance. You went to Suresnes. You killed Cousin Guillaume. You took the sixty-bank-notes and left them at your rooms. And at five o’clock you went back to fetch the ladies.” Dutreuil had listened with an expression at once mocking and flurried, casting an ' occasional glance at Inspector Morisseau as though to enlist him as a witness: “The man’s mad,” it seemed to say. “It’s no use being angry with him.” When Renine had finished, he began to
“Very funny!.... A capital joke!.... So it was I whom the neighbors saw going and returning on the motor-cycle?” “It was you disguised in Jacques Aubrieux’s clothes.”
“And it was my finger-prints that were found on the bottle in M. Guillaume’s pantry?”
“The bottle had been opened by Jacques Aubrieux at lunch, in his own house, and it was you who took it with you to serve as evidence.”
“Funnier and funnier!” cried Dutreuil, who had the air of being frankly amused. “Then I contrived the whole affair so that Jacques Aubrieux might be accused of the crime?”
“It was the safest means of not being accused yourself.”
“Yes, but Jacques is a friend whom I have known from childhood.”
“You’re in love with his wife.”
The young man gave a sudden, infuriated start:
“You dare!. . . What! You dare make such an infamous suggestion?”
“I have proof of it.”
“That’s a lie? I have always respected Madeleine Aubrieux and revered her....” Continued on page 34
T he Water Bottle
Continued from page 16
“Apparently. But you’re in love with her. You desire her. Don’t contradict nie. I have abundant proof of it.” “That’s a he, I tell you! You have onlv known me a few hours!”
“Come, come! I’ve been quietly watching you for days, waiting for the moment to pounce upon you.”
He took the young man by the shoulders and shook him:
“Come, Dutreuil, confess! I hold all the proofs in my hand. I have witnesses whom we shall meet presently at the criminal investigation department, Confess, can’t you? In spite of everything, you’re tortured by remorse. Remember your dismay, at the restaurant, when you had seen the newspapers. What? Jacques Aubrieux condemned to die? That’s more than you bargained for! Penal servitude would have suited your book; but the scaffold!.... Jacques Aubrieux executed tomorrow, an innocent man!. . Confess, won’t you? Confess to save your own skin! Own up!”
BENDING over the other, he was trying with all his might to extort a confession from him. But Dutreuil drew himself up and coldly, with a sort of scorn in his voice, said:
“Sir, you are a madman. Nota word that you have said has any sense in it. All your accusations are false. What about the bank-notes? Did you find them at my place as you said you would!” Renine, exasperated, clenched his fist in his face:
“Oh, you swine, I’ll dish you yet, I swear I will!”
He drew the inspector aside:
“Well, what do you say to it? An arrant rogue, isn’t he?”
The inspector nodded his head:
“It may be. .. .But, all the same. .. .so far there’s no real evidence.”
“Wait, M. Morisseau,” said Renine. “Wait until we’ve had our interview with M, Dudouis. For we shall see M. Dudouis at the prefecture, shall we not?” “Yes, he’ll be there at three o’clock.” “Well, you’ll be convinced, Mr. Inspector! I tell you here and now that you will be convinced.”
Renine was chuckling like a man who feels certain of the course of events. Hortense, who was standing near him and was able to speak to him without being heard by the others, asked, in a low voice: “You’ve got him, haven’t you?”
He nodded his head in assent:
“Got him! I should think I have! All the same, I’m no farther forward than I was at the beginning.”
“And this is awful! And your proofs?” “Not a shadow of a proof . . I was hoping to trip him up. But he’s kept his feet, the rascal!”
“Still, you’re certain it’s he?”
“It can’t be anyone else. I had an intuition at the very outset; and I’ve not taken my eyes off him since. I have seen his anxiety increasing as my investigations seemed to centre on him and concern him more closely. Now I know.” “And he’s in love with Madame Aub-
“In logic, he’s bound to be. But so far we have only hypothetical suppositions, or rather certainties which are personal to myself. We shall never intercept the guillotine with those. Ah, if we could only find the bank-notes! Given the bank-notes, M. Dudouis would act. Without them he will laugh in my face.” “What then?” murmured Hortense, in anguished accents.
He did not reply. He walked up and down the room, assuming an air of gaiety and* rubbing his hands. All was going so well! It was really a treat to take up a case which, so to speak, worked itself out automatically.
‘‘Suppose we went on to the prefecture, M. Morisseau? The chief must be there by now. And, having gone so far, we may as well finish. Will M. Dutreuil «ome with us?”
“Why not?” said Dutreuil, arrogantly. But, just as Renine was opening the door, there was a noise in the passage and the manager ran up, waving his arms:
“Is M. Dutreuil still here? ----M.
Dutreuil, your flat is on fire!, . . A man .»uteide told us. He saw it from the «quare.”
'T'HE young man’s eyes lit up. For A perhaps half a second his mouth was twisted by a smile which Renine noticed.
“Oh, you ruffian!” he cried. "You’ve given yourself away, my beauty! It was you who set fire to the place upstairs; and now the notes are burning.” He blocked his exit.
“Let me pass,” shouted Dutreuil. Renine snatched the key from his hand and, holding him by the collar of his coat: “Don’t you move, my fine fellow! The game’s up! You precious blackguard!” He hurried up the stairs, followed by Hortense and the chief inspector, who was protesting rather peevishly:
“But, I say, look here, it wasn’t he who set the place on fire! How do you make out that he set it on fire, seeing that he never left us?”
“Why, he set it on fire beforehand, to be sure!”
They heard a commotion upstairs. It was the waiters of the restaurant trying to burst the door open. An acrid smell filled the well of the staircase.
Renine reached the top floor:
“By your leave, friends. I have the
He inserted it in the lock and opened the door.
He was met by a gust of smoke so dense that one might well have supposed the whole floor to be ablaze. Renine at once saw that the fire had gone out of its own accord, for lack of fuel, and that there were no more flames:
“M. Morisseau, you won’t let any one come in with us, will you? An intruder might spoil everything. Bolt the door, that will be best.”
HE stepped into the front room, where the fire had obviously had its chief centre. The furniture, the walls, and the ceiling, though blackened by the smoke, had not been touched. As a matter of fact, the fire was confined to a blaze of papers which were still burning in the middle of the room, in front of the wind-
Renine struck his forehead:
“What a fool I am! What an unspeakable ass!”
“Why?” asked the Inspector.
“The hat-box, of course! The cardb?rd hat-box which was standing on the t ble. That’s where he hid the notes, they v,ere there all through our search.” “Impossible!”
“Why, yes, we always overlook that particular hiding-place, the one just under our eyes, within reach of our hands! How could one imagine that a thief would leave sixty thousand francs in an open cardboard box, in which he places his hat when he comes in, with an absent-minded air? That’s just the one place we don’t look in. . . .Well played, M. Dutreuil!
“Everything was prepared beforehand on the supposition that there might be an alarm.... The hat-box.... the tissue paper. .. the bank-notes: they must all have been steeped in some inflammable liquid. He must have thrown a match, a chemical preparation or what not into it, as we were leaving.”
“But we should have seen him, hang it all! And then is it credible that a man who has committed a murder for the sake of sixty thousand francs should do away with the money in this way? If the hiding-place was such a good one—and it was, because we never discovered it— why this useless destruction?”
‘‘He got frightened, M.Morisseau. Remember that his head is at stake and he knows it. Anything rather than the guillotine; and they—the bank-notes— were the only proof which we had against him. How could he have left them where they were?”
Morisseau was flabbergasted:
“What! The only proof?”
“But your witnesses? Your evidence? All that you were going to tell the chief?” “Mere bluff.”
“Well, upon my word,” growled the bewildered Inspector, “you’re a cool customer!”
“Would you have taken action without
“Then what more do you want?”
Renine stooped to stir the ashes. But there was nothing left, not even those remnants of stiff paper which still retain their shape.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s queer, all the same! How the deuce did he manage to set the thing alight?”
He stood up, looking attentively about him. Hortense had a feeling that he was making his supreme effort and that,after this last struggle in the dark, he would either have devised his plan of victory or admit that he was beaten.
Faltering with anxiety, she asked: “It’s all up, isn’t it?”
“No, no,” he said, thoughtfully, “it s not all up. It was, a few seconds ago. But now there is a gleam of light.... and one that gives me hope.”
“God grant that it may be justified!” “We must go slowly,” he said. “It is only an attempt, but a fine, a very fine attempt; and it may succeed.”
He was silent for a moment: then,
with an amused smile and a click of the tongue, he said:
“An infernally clever fellow, that Dutreuil! His trick of burning the notes: what a fertile imagination! And what coolness! A pretty dance the beggar has led me! He’s a master!”
HE fetched a broom from the kitchen and swept a part of the ashes into the next room, returning with a hat-box of the same size and appearance as the one which had been burnt. After crumpling the tissue paper with which it was filled, he placed the hat-box on the little table and set fire to it with a match.
It burst into flames, which he extinguished when they had consumed half the cardboard and nearly all the paper. Then he took from an inner pocket of his waistcoat a bundle of bank-notes and selected six, which he burnt almost completely, arranging the remains and hiding the rest of the notes at the bottom of the box, among the ashes and the blackened bits of paper.
“M. Morisseau,” he said, when he had done* “I am asking for your assistance for the last time. Go and fetch Dutreuil. Tell him just this: ‘You are
unmasked. The notes did not catch fire. Come with me.’ And bring him up here.” Despite his hesitation and his fear of exceeding his instructions from the head of the detective service, the chief-inspector was powerless to throw off the ascendancy which Renine had acquired over him. He left the room.
Renine turned to Hortense:
“Do you understand my plan of battle?” “Yes,” she said, “but it’s a dangerous experiment. Do you think that Dutreuil will fall into the trap?”
“Everything depends on the state of his nerves and the degree of demoralization to which he is reduced. A surprise attack may very well do for him.”
“Nevertheless, suppose he recognizes by some sign that the box has been changed?”
‘Oh, of course, he has a few chances in his favour! The fellow is much more cunning than I thought and quite capable of wriggling out of the trap. On the other hand, however, how uneasy he must be! How the blood must be buzzing in his ears and obscuring his sight! No, I don’t think that he will avoid the trap.... He will give in....He will give in....”
THEY exchanged no more words. Renine did not move. Hortense was stirred to the very depths of her being. The life of an innocent man hung trembling in the balance. An error of judgment,
a little bad luck.....and, twelve hours
later, Jacques Aubrieux would be put to death. And together with a horrible anguish she experienced, in spite of all, a feeling of eager curiosity. What was Prince Renine going to do? What would be the outcome of the experiment on which he was venturing? What resistance would Gaston Dutreuil offer? She lived through one of those minutes of superhuman tension in which life becomes intensified until it reached its utmost value.
They heard footsteps on the stairs, the footsteps of men in a hurry. The sound drew nearer. They were reaching the top floor.
Hortense looked at her companion. He had stood up and was listening, his features already transfigured by action. The footsteps were now echoing in the passage. Then, suddenly, he ran to the door and cried,
“Quick! Let’s make an end of it!”
Two or three detectives and a couple of waiters entered. He caught hold of Dutreuil in the midst of the detectives and pulled him by the arm, gaily exclaiming:
“Well done, old man! That trick of yours with the table and the water-bottle was really splendid! A masterpiece, on my word! Only, it didn’t come off!”
“What do you mean? What’s the matter?” mumbled Gaston Dutreuil, staggering.
“What I say: the fire burnt only half the tissue-paper and the hat-box; and, though some of the bank-notes were destroyed, like the tissue-paper, the others are there, at the bottom. . . You understand? The long-sought notes, the great proof of the murder—they’re there, where you hid them. .. .As chance would have it, they’ve escaped burning. .. .Here, look: there are the numbers: you can check them. . Oh, you’re done for, done for, my beauty!”
The young man drew himself up stiffly. His eyelids quivered. He did not accept Renine’s invitation to look; he examined neither the hat-box nor the bank-notes. From the first moment, without taking the time to reflect and before his instinct could warn him, he believed what he was told and collapsed heavily into a chair, weeping.
THE surprise attack, to use Renine’s expression, had succeeded. On seeing all his plans baffled and the enemy master of his secrets, the wretched man had neither the strength nor the perspicacity necessary to defend himself. He threw up the sponge.
Renine gave him no time to breathe. “Capital! You’re saving your head; and that’s all, my good youth! Write down your confession and get it off your chest. Here’s a fountain-pen.... The luck has been against you, I admit. It was devilishly well thought out, your trick of the last moment. You had banknotes which were in your way-and which you wanted to destroy. Nothing simpler. You take a big, round-bellied water-bottle and stand it on the window-sill. It acts as a burning-glass, concentrating the rays of the sun on the cardboard and tissuepaper, all nicely prepared. Ten minutes later, it bursts into flames. A splendid idea! And, like all great discoveries, it came quite by chance, what? It reminds one of Newton’s apple. .. One day, the sun, passing through the water in that bottle, must have set fire to a scrap of cotton or the head of a match; _ and, as you had the sun at your disposal just now, you said to yourself, ‘Now’s the time,’ and stood the bottle in the right position. My congratulations, Gaston!.... Look, here’s a sheet of paper. Write down; ‘It was I who murdered M. Guillaume,’ Write, I tell you!”
Leaning over the young man, with all his implacable force of will he compelled him to write, guiding his hand and dictating the sentences. Dutreuil, exhausted, at the end of his strength, wrote as he was told.
“Here’s the confession, Mr. ChiefInspector,” said Renine. “You will be good enough to take it to M. Dudouis. These gentlemen,” turning to the waiters, from the restaurant, “will, I am sure, consent to serve as witnesses.”
And, seeing that Dutreuil, overwhelmed by what had happened, did not move, he gave him a shake:
“Hi, you, look alive! Now that you’ve been fool enough to confess, make an end of the job, my gentle idiot!”
The other watched him, standing in front of him.
“Obviously,” Renine continued, “you’re only a simpleton. The hat-box was fairly burnt to ashes; so were the notes. That hat-box, my dear fellow, is a different one; and those notes belong to me.
I even burnt six of them to make you swallow the stunt. And you couldn’t make out what had happened. What an owl you must be! To furnish me with evidence at the last moment, when I hadn’t a single proof of my own! And such evidence! A written confession! Written before witnesses!.... Look here, my man, if they do cut off your head— as I sincerely hope they will—upon my word, you’d have jolly well deserved it! Goodbye, Dutreuil!”
DOWNSTAIRS, in the street, Renine asked Hortense Daniel to take the car, go to Madelaine Aubrieux and tell her what had happened.
“And you?“ asked Hortense.
“I have a lot to do....urgent appointments. . . .”
“And you deny yourself the pleasure of bringing the good news?”
“It’s one of the pleasures that pall upon one. The only pleasure that never flags is that of the fight itself Afterwards things cease to be intere.ting.” She took his hand for a moment and held it in both her own. She would have liked to express all her admiration to that strange man, who seemed to do good as a sort of game and who did it with something like genius. But she was unable to speak. All these rapid incidents had upset her. Emotion constricted her throat and brought the tears to her eyes.
Renine bowed his head, saying, “Thank you. I have my reward.”