AT THE SIGN OF MERCURY
THE LAST OF "The Eight Strokes of the Clock ”
To MADAME DANIEL,
Lu Konen re, Paria, ,10 Xornnhrr
"MY DEAREST FRIEND,
“There has been no letter from you for a fortnight; so I don't expect now to receive one before that, troublesome date of the 5th of December, which we fixed as the last day of our partnership. I rather wish it would come, because you will then be released from a contract which no longer seems to give you pleasure. To me the seven battles which we fought and won together were a time of endless delight and enthusiasm. 1 was living beside you. 1 was conscious of all the good which that more active and stirring existence was doing you. My happiness was so great that I dared not speak of it to you or let you see anything of my secret feelings except my desire to please you and my passionate devotion. To-day you have had enough of your brother in arms. Your will shall be law.
“But, though I bow to your decree,may I remind you what it was that I always believed our final adventure would be? May I repeat your words, not one of which 1 have forgotten?
“ T demand,’ you said,
‘that you shall restore to me r ■ a small, antique clasp, made | of a cornelian set in a filigree mount. It came to me from my mother; and everyone knew that it used to bring her happiness as it also brought it to me.
Since the day when it vanished from my jewel-case,
I have had nothing but unhappiness. Restore it to me, my good genius.’
“And, when I asked you when the clasp had disappeared, you answered, with a laugh:
“ 'Seven years ago. . .or eight. . . .or nine: I don t
know exactly... I don t know when.. . .1 don’t know how.. I know nothing about it.... ’
YOU were challenging me, were you not, and you set me that condition because it was one which I could not fulfil?
Nevertheless, I promised and I should like to keep my promise. What 1 have tried to do, in order to place life before you in a more favourable light, would seem purposeless, if your confidence feels the iack of this talisman to which you attach so great a value. We must not laugh at these little superstitions.
They are often the mainspring of our best actions.
“Dear friend, if you had helped me, I should have achieved yet one more victory. Alone and hard pushed by the proximity of the date, I have failed, not however without placing things on such a footing that the undertaking, if you care to follow it. up, has the greatest chance of success.
“And you will follow it up, won’t you? We have entered into a mutual agreement which we are bound to honour. It. behooves us, within a fixed time, to inscribe in the book of our common life eight good stories, to which wre shall have brought energy, logic, perseverance, some subtlety and occasionally a
little heroism. This is the e:ghth of them. It is foryou to act so that it may be written in its proper place on the 5th of December, before the clock strikes eight in the evening.
“And, on that day, you will act as I shall now tell you.
“First of all—and above all, rny dear, do not complain that my instructions are fanciful: each of them is an indispensable condition of success first of all, cut in your cousin’s garden three slender lengths of rush. Plait them together and bind up the two ends so as to make a rude switch, like a child’s whip-lash.
“When you get to Paris, buy a long necklace of jet beads, cut into facets, and shorten it so that it consists of
“Under your winter cloak, wear a blue woollen gown. On your head, a toque with red leaves on it. Round your neck, a feather boa. No gloves. No rings.
“In the afternoon, take a cab along the left bank of the river to the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont. At four o’clock exactly, there will be, near the holy-water basin, just inside the church, an old woman dressed in black, saying her prayers on a silver rosary. She will offer you holy water. Give her your necklace. She will count the beads and hand it back to you. After this, you will walk behind her, you will cross an arm of the Seine and she will lead you down a lonely street in the lie Saint-Louis to a house which you will enter by yourself.
“On the ground-floor of this house, you will find a youngish man, with a very pasty complexion. Take off your cloak and then say to him:
“ T have come to fetch my clasp.’
“Do not be astonished by his agitation or dismay. Keep calm in his presence. If he questions you, if he wants to know your reason for applying to him or what impels you to make that request, give him no explanation. Your replies must be confined to these brief formulas:
“ T have come to fetch what belongs to me. I don’t know you, I don’t know your name; but I am obliged to come to you like this. I must have my clasp returned to me. I
“T HONESTLY believe
J that, if you have the firmness not to swerve from that attitude, whatever farce the man may play, you will be completely successful. But the contest must be a short one and the issue will depend solely on your confidence in yourself and your certainty of success. It will be a sort of match in which you must defeat your opponent in the first round. If you remain impassive, you will win. If you show hesitation or uneasiness, you can do nothing against hi'". He wil escape you and regain the upper hand after a first moment of distress; and the game will be lost in a few minutes. There is no midway house between victory or... . defeat.
“In the latter event, you would be obliged—I beg you to pardon me for saying so—again to accept my collaboration. I offer it you in advance, my dear, and without any conditions, while stating qui e plainly that all I have been able to do for you and all that I may yet do, gives me no other right than that of thanking you and devoting myself more than ever to the woman who represents my joy, my whole life.”
TTORTENSE, after reading the letter, folded it up and put it away at the back of a drawer, saying, in a resolute voice:
“I shan’t go.”
To begin with, although she had formerly attached some slight importance to this trinket, which she had regarded as a mascot, she felt little interest in it now
that the period of her trials was apparently at an end. She could not forget that figure eight, which was the serial number of the next adventure. To launch herself upon it meant taking up the interrupted chain, going back to Rénine and giving him a pledge which, with his powers of suggestion, he would know how to turn to ac-
Two days before the 5th of December, she was still in the same frame of mind. So she was on the morning of the 4th; but suddenly, without even having to contend against preliminary subterfuges, she ran out into the garden, cut three lengths of rush, plaited them as she used to do in her childhood and at twelve o’clock had herself driven to the station. She was uplifted by an eager curiosity. She was unable to resist all the amusing and novel sensations which the adventure, proposed by Rénine, promised her. It was really too tempting. The jet necklace, the toque with the autumn leaves, the old woman with the silver rosary: how could she resist their mysterious appeal and how could she refuse this opportunity of showing Rénine what she was capable of doing?
“And then, after all,” she said to herself, laughing, “he’s summoning me to Paris. Now eight o’clock is dangerous to me, at a spot three hundred miles from Paris, in that old deserted Château de Ilalingre, but nowhere else. The only clock that can strike the threatening hour is down there, under lock and key, a prisoner!”
SHE reached Paris that evening. On the morning of the 5th she went out and bought a jet necklace, which she reduced to seventy-five beads, put on a blue gown and a toque with red leaves and, at four o’clock precisely, entered the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont.
Her heart was throbbing violently. This time she was alone; and how acutely she now felt the strength of that support which, from unreflecting fear rather than any reasonable mot've, she had thrust aside. She looked around her, almost hoping to see him. But there was no one there. . . .no one except an old lady in black standing beside the holy-water basin.
Hortense went up to her. The old lady, who held a silver rosary in her hands, offered her holy water and then began to count the beads of the necklace which ^Hortense gave her.
She whispered :
“Seventy-five. That’s right. Come.”
Without another word, she toddled along under the light of the street-lamps, crossed the Pont des Tournelles to the lie Saint-Louis and went down an empty street leading to a cross-roads, where she stopped in front of an old house with wrought-iron balconies.
“Go in,” she said.
And the old lady went away.
HORTENSE now saw a prosperous-looking shop which occupied almost the whole of the groundfloor and whose windows, blazing with electric light, displayed a huddled array of old furniture and antiquities. She stood there for a few seconds, gazing at it absently. A sign-board bore the words“The Mercury,” together with the name of the owner of the shop, “Pancaldi.” Higher up, on a projecting cornice which ran on a level with the first floor, a small niche sheltered a terracotta Mercury posed on one foot, with wings to his sandals, and the caduceus in his hand, who, as Hortense noted, was leaning a little too far forward in the ardour of his flight and ought logically to have lost his balance and taken a header into the street.
"Now!” she said, under her breath.
She turned the handle of the door and walked in. Despite the ringing of the bell actuated by the opening door, no one came to meet her. The shop seemed to be empty. However, at the extreme end there was a room at the back of the shop and after that another, both crammed with furniture and knick-knacks, many of which looked very valuable. Hortense followed a narrow gangway which twisted and turned between two walls built up of cupboards, cabinets and console-tables, wrent up two steps and found herself in the last room of all.
AMAN was sitting at a writing-desk and looking through some account-books. Without turning his head, he said:
‘t-i-am at your service, madam Please look round you......”
This room contained nothing but articles of a special character which gave it the appearance of some alchem-
ist’s laboratory in the middle ages: stuffed owls, skele-
tons, skulls, copper alembics, astrolabes and, all around, hanging on the walls, amulets of every description, mainly hands of ivory or coral with two fingers pointing, to ward off ill-luck.
“Are you wanting anything in particular, madam?” asked M. Pancaldi, closing his desk and rising from his
“It’s the man,” thought Hortense.
He had in fact an uncommonly pasty complexion. A little forked beard, flecked with grey, lengthened his face, which was surmounted by a bald, pallid forehead, beneath which gleamed a pair of small, prominent, restless, shifty eyes.
Hortense, who had not removed her veil or cloak, re-
“I w'ant a clasp.”
“They’re in this show-case,” he said, leading the way to the connecting room.
Hortense glanced over the glass case and said:
“No, no,. . ’ I don’t see what I’m looking for. I don’t want just any clasp, but a clasp which I lost out of a jewel-case some years ago and which I have come to look for here.”
She was astounded to see the commotion displayed on his features. His eyes became haggard.
“Here! I don’t think you are in the least likely What sort of clasp is it?......”
“A cornelian, mounted in gold filigree of the 18:10 period.”
“I don’t understand,” he stammered. “Why do you come to me?”
She now removed her veil and laid aside her cloak.
He stppped back, as though terrified by the sight of her, and whispered:
“The blue gown! the toque! And cun I lieve my eyes?., the jet necklace!
It was perhaps the whip-lash formed of three rushes that excited him most violently. He pointed his finger at it, began to stagger where he stood and ended >y ’• •* ing the air with his arms, like a drown big man, and fainting away in a chair.
Continued on page 52
At the Sign
Continued from page 13
Hortense did not move.
“Whatever farce he may play,” Rénine had written, “have the courage to remain impassive.”
Perhaps he was not playing a farce. Nevertheless she forced herself to be calm and indifferent.
This lasted for a minute or two, after which M. Pancaldi recovered from his swoon, wiped away the perspiration streaming down his forehead and, striving to control himself, resumed, in a trembling
“Why do you apply to me?” “Because the clasp is in your possess-
“Who told you that?” he asked, without denying the accusation. “How do you know?”
“I know because it is so. Nobody has told me anything. I came here positive that I should find my clasp and with the immovable determination ‘ to take it away with me.”
“But do you know me? Do you know my name?”
“I don’t know you. I did not know your name before I read it over your shop. To me you are simply the man who is going to give me back what belongs to
UE WAS greatly agitated. He kept A 1 on walking to and fro in a small empty space surrounded by a circle of piled-up furniture, at which he hit out idiotically, at the risk of bringing it down.
Hortense felt that she had the whip hand of him; and, profiting by his confusion, she said, suddenly, in a commanding and threatening tone;
“Where is the thing? You must give it back to me. I insist upon it.” Pancaldi gave way to a moment of despair. He folded his hands and mumbled a few words of entreaty. Then, defeated and suddenly resigned, he said, more distinctly:
“I do. You must give it to me.” “Yes, yes, I must....I agree.” “Speak,” she ordered, more harshly
“Speak, no, but write: I will write my secret. . . And that will be the end of
He turned to his desk and feverishly wrote a few lines on a sheet of paper, which he put into an envelope and sealed: “See,” he said, “here’s my secret. . . .
It was my whole life......”
And, so saying, he suddenly pressed against his temple a revolver which he had produced from under a pile of papers and fired.
With a quick movement, Hortense struck up his arm. The bullet struck the mirror of a cheval-glass. But Pancaldi collapsed and began to groan, as though he were wounded.
Hortense made a great effort not to lose her composure:
“Rénine warned me,” she reflected. “The man’s a play-actor. He has kept the envelope. He has kept his revolver. I won’t be taken in by him.”
XTEVERTHELESS, she realized that, it despite her apparent calmness, the attempt at suicide and the revolver-shot had completely unnerved her. All her energies were dispersed, like the sticks of a bundle whose string has been cut; and she had a painful impression that the man who was grovelling at her feet was in reality slowly getting the better
She sat down, exhausted. As Rénine had foretold, the duel had not lasted longer than a few minutes, but it was she who had succumbed thanks to her feminine nerves and at the very moment when she felt entitled to believe that she had won.
The man Pancaldi was fully aware of this: and, without troubling to invent a transition, he ceased his jeremiads, leapt to his feet, cut a sort of agile caper before Hortense’s eyes, and cried, in a jeering tone:
“Now we are going to have a little chat; but it would be a nuisance to be at the mercy of the first passing customer, wouldn't it?”
He ran to the street-door, opened it and pulled down the iron shutter which closed the shop. Then, still hopping and skipping, he came back to Hortense:
“Oof! I really thought I was done for! One more effort, madam, and you would have pulled it off. But then I’m such a simple chap! It seemed to me that you had come from the back of beyond, as an emissary of Providence, to call me to account; and, like a fool, I was about the give the thing back.... Ah, Mile. Hortense—let me call you so: I used to know you by that name— Mile. Hortense, what you lack is nerve.”
HE SAT dowm beside her and, with a malicious look, said savagely: “The time has come to speak out. Who contrived this business? Not you, eh? It is not your style. Then who? . . . I have always been honest in my life, scrupulously honest.... except once.... in the matter of that clasp. And, whereas I thought the story was buried and forgotten, here it is suddenly raked up again. Why? That’s what I want to know.”
Hortense was no longer even attempting to fight. He was bringing to bear upon her all his virile strength, all his spite, all his fears, all the threats expressed in his furious gestures and on his features, which were both ridiculous and evil:
“Speak! I want to know. If I have a secret foe let me defend myself against him! Who is he? Who sent you here? Who urged you to take action? Is it a rival incensed by my good luck, who wants in his turn to benefit by the clasp? Speak, can’t you, damn it all....or, I
swear by Heaven, I’ll make you......”
She had an idea that he was reaching out for his revolver and stepped back, holding her arms before her, in the hope of escaping.
“T~'HEY struggled thus against each I other; Hortense, who was becoming more and more frightened, not so much of the attack as of her assailant’s distorted face, streamed in her terror; Pancaldi’s passion changed suddenly and he stood motionless, with his arms before him, his fingers outstretched and his eyes staring above Hortense’s head: “Who’s there?—How did you get in?” he asked, in a stifled voice.
Hortense did not even need to turn round to feel assured that Rénine was coming to her assistance and that it was his inexplicable appearance that was causing the dealer suchdismay. As a matter of fact, a slender figure stole through a heap of easy chairs and sofas; and Rénine came forward with a tranquil step.
“Who are you?” repeated Pancaldi. “Where do you come from?”
“From up there,” he said, very amiabjy, pointing to the ceiling.
“From up there?”
“Yes, from the first floor. I have been the tenant of the floor above this for the past three months. I heard a noise just now. Some one was calling out for help. So I came down.”
“But how did you get in here?”
“By the staircase.”
“The iron staircase at the end of the shop. The man who owned it before you had a flat on my floor and used to go up and down by that hidden staircase. You had the door shut off. I opened it.”
“But by what right, sir? It amounts to breaking in.”
“Breaking in is allowed, when there’s a fellow-creature to be rescued.”
“Once more, who are you?”
“Prince Rénine... and a friend of this lady’s,” said Rénine, bending over Hortense and kissing her hand. Pancaldi seemed to be choking.
“Oh, I understand!” he mumbled. “You instigated the plot.. .it was you who
sent the lady......”
“It was, M. Pancaldi, it was!”
“And what are your intentions?”
“My intentions are irreproachable. No violence. Simply a little interview. When that is over, you will hand over what I in my turn have come to fetch.” “What?”
“That, never!” shouted the dealer. “Don’t say no. It’s a foregone conclusion.”
“No power on earth, sir, can compel me to do such a thing!”
“Shall we send for your wife? _ Madame Pancaldi will perhaps realize the position better than you do.”
THE idea of no longer being alone with this unexpected adversary seemed to appeal to Pancaldi. There was a bell on the table beside him. He struck it three times.
“Capital!” exclaimed Rénine. “You see, my dear, M. Pancaldi is becoming quite amiable. Not a trace left of the devil broken loose who was going for you just now. No, M. Pancaldi only has to find himself dealing with a man to recover his qualities of courtesy and kindness. A perfect sheep! Which does not mean that things will go quite of themselves. Far from it! There’s no more
obstinate animal than a sheep......”
Right at the end of the shop, between the dealer’s writing desk and the winding staircase, a curtain was raised, admitting a woman who was holding a door open. She might have been thirty years of age. Very simply dressed, she looked, with the apron on her, more like a cook than like the mistress of a household. But she had an attractive face and a pleasing figure.
Hortense, who had followed Rénine, was surprised to recognize her as a maid whom she had had in her service when a girl:
“What! Is that you, Lucienne? Are you Madame Pancaldi?”
The newcomer looked at her, recognized her also and seemed embarrassed. Rénine said to her: ,
“Your husband and I need your assistance, Madame Pancaldi, to settle a rather complicated matter.... a matter in which you played an important part
She came forward without a word, obviously ill at ease.
“What is it?”. . .. she asked her husband. “What do they want with me?.... What is he referring to?”
“It’s about the clasp!” Pancaldi whispered, under his breath.
THESE few words were enough to make Madame Pancaldi realize to the full the seriousness of her position. And she did not try to keep her countenance or to retort with futile protests. She sank into a chair.
“Oh, that's it!.... I understand.... Mile. Hortense has found the track. . . . Oh, it’s all up with us!”
There was a moment’s respite. The struggle between the adversaries had hardly begun, before the husband and wife adopted the attitude of defeated persons whose only hope lay in the victor’s clemency. Staring motionless before her, Madame Pancaldi began to cry.
“Do you mind if we go over the case from the beginning!” Rénine asked, as he
bent over her. “We shall then see things more clearly and I am sure that our intervi'w will lead to a perfectly natural solution . . . . This is how things happened: Nine years ago, when you were
lady’s maid to Mile. Hortense in the country, you made the acquaintance of M. Pancaldi, who soon became your lover. You were both of you Corsicans, in other words, you came from a country where superstitions are very strong and where questons of good and-bad luck, the evil eye, and spells and charms exert a profound influence over the lives of one and all. Nowit was said that your young mistress’ clasp had always brought luck to its owners. That was why, in a weak moment, prompted by M. Pancaldi, you stole the clasp. Six months afterwards, you became Madame Pancaldi. . . That s your whole story, is it not, told in a few sentences? The whole story of two people who would have remained honest members of society, if they had been able to resist that casual temptation? I need not tell you how you both succeeded in life and how, possessing the talisman, believing in its powers and trusting in yourselves, you rose to the first rank of antiquarians. To-day, well-off, owning this shop, ‘The Mercury,’ you attribute the success of your undertakings to that clasp. To lose it would to your eyes spell bankruptcy and poverty. Your whole life has been centred upon it. It is your fetish. It is the little household god who watches over you and guides your steps. It is there," somewhere, hidden in this jungle; and no one of course would ever have suspected anything—for I repeat you are decent people, but for this one lapse— if an accident had not led me to look into your affairs.”
RENINE paused and continued;
“That was two months ago, two months of minute investigations, which presented no difficulty to me, because, having discovered your trail, I hired the flat overhead and was able to use that staircase. . . .but, all the same, two months wasted to a certain extent, because I have not yet succeeded. And Heaven knows how I have ransacked this shop of yours! There is not a piece of furniture that I have left unsearched, not a plank in the floor that I have not inspected. All to no purpose. Yes, there was one thing, an incidental discovery. In a secret recess in your writing-table, Pancaldi, I turned up a little account-book in which you have set down your remorse, your uneasiness, your fear of punishment and your dread of God’s
wrath......It was highly imprudent of
you, Pancaldi! People don’t write such confessions! And, above all, they don’t leave them lying about! Be this as it may, I read them and I noted one passage, which struck me as particularly important and was of use to me in preparing my plan of campaign: ‘Should
she come to me, the woman whom I robbed, should she come to me as I saw her in her garden, while Lucienne was taking the clasp; should she appear to me wearing the blue gown and the toque of red leaves, with the jet necklace and the whip of three plaited rushes which she was carrying that day; should she appear to me thus and say: “I have
come to claim my property,” then I shall understand that her conduct is inspired from on high and that I must obey the decree of Providence.’ That is what is written in your book, Pancaldi, and it explains the conduct of the lady whom you call Mile. Hortense. Acting on my instructions and in accordance with the setting thought out by yourself, she came to you, from the back of beyond, to use your own expression. A little more selfpossession on her part; and you know that she would have won the day. Unfortunately, you are a wonderful actor; your sham suicide put her out; and you understood that this was not a decree of Providence, but simply an offensive on the part of your former victim. I had no choice, therefore, but to intervene.
Here I am......And now let’s finish
the business. Pancaldi. that clasp!” “No,” said the dealer, who seemed to recover all his energy at the very thought of restoring the clasp.
“And you, Madame Pancaldi.”
“I don’t know where it is,” the wife declared.
“Very well. Then let us come to deeds. Madame Pancaldi, you have a son of seven whom vou love with all
your heart. This is Thursday and, as on every Thursday, your little boy is to come home alone from his aunt’s. Two of my friends are posted on the road by which he returns, and, in the absence of instructions to the contrary, will kidnap him as he passes.”
Madame Pancaldi lost her head at
“My son! Oh, please, please.... not
that!......I swear that I know nothing.
My husband would never consent to confide in me.”
“Next point. This evening, I shall lodge an information with the public prosecutor. Evidence: the confessions in the account-book. Consequences: action by the police, search of the premises and the rest.”
PANCALDI was silent. The others had a feeling that all these threats did not affect him and that, protected by his fetish, he believed himself to be invulnerable. But his wife fell on her knees at Rénine’s feet and stammered: “No no.... I entreat you!.... It would mean going to prison and I don’t want to go!. . . And then my son!. . . Oh, I
Hortense, seized with compassion, took Rénine to one side:
“Poor woman! Let me intercede for
“Set your mind at rest,” he said. “Nothing is going to happen to her son.” “But your two friends?”
“Your application to the public prosecutor?”
“A mere threat.”
“Then what are you trying to do?” “To frighten them out of their wits, in the hope of making them drop a remark, a word, which will tell us what we want to know. We’ve tried every other means. This is the last; and it is a method which, I find, nearly always succeeds. Remember our adventures.”
“But if the word which you expect to hear is not spoken?”
“It must be spoken,” said Rénine, in a low voice. “We must finish the matter. The hour is at hand.”
His eyes met hers; and she blushed crimson at the thought that the hour to which he was alluding was the eighth and that he had no other object than to finish the matter before that eighth hour struck.
SO YOU see, on the other hand, what you are risking,” he said to the Pancaldi pair. “The disappearance of your child ...and prison: prison for certain, since there is the book with its confessions. And now, on the other hand, here’s my offer: twenty
thousand francs if you hand over the clasp immediately, this minute. Remember, it isn’t worth three louis.”
No reply. Madame Pancaldi was crying.
Rénine resumed, pausing between each proposal:
“I’ll double my offer. . I’ll treble it. .
Hang it all, Pancaldi, you’re unreasonable .... I suppose you want me to make it a round sum? All right: a hundred thousand francs.”
He held out his hand as if there was no doubt that they would give him the
Madame Pancaldi was the first to yield and did so with a sudden outburst of rage against her husband:
“Well, confess, can’t you?.... Speak up!. . . .Where have you hidden it? . . . Look here, you aren’t going to be obBtinate, what? If you are, it means ruin ... . and poverty. . . . and then there’s our boy!.... Speak out, do!”
“Rénine, this is madness; the clasp has no value......”
“Never fear,” said Renine. “He’s
not going to accept......But look at
him......How excited he is! Exactly
what I wanted. . . Ah, this, you know, is really exciting!. . . .To make people lose their heads! To rob them of all control over what they are thinking and saying!. . And in the midst of this confusion, in the storm that tosses them to and fro. to catch sight of the tiny spark which will flash forth somewhere or other! Look at him! Look at the fellow! A hundred thousand francs for a valueless pebble.... if not, prison : it’s enough
to turn any man’s head!”
Pancaldi, in fact, was grey in the face;
his lips were trembling and a drop of saliva was trickling from their corners.
It was easy to guess the seething turmoil of his whole being, shaken by conflicting emotions, by the clash between greed and fear. Suddenly he burst out; and it was obvious that his words were pouring forth at random, without his knowing in the least what he was saying:
“ A HUNDRED thousand francs!
A Two hundred thousand! Five hundred thousand! A million! A fig for your millions! What’s the use of millions! One loses them. They disappear .... They go. . . . There’s only one thing that counts: Luck. It’s on your
side or else against you. And luck has been on my side these last nine years.
It has never betrayed me; and you expect me to betray it? Why? Out of fear? Prison? My son? Bosh!....No harm will come to me so long as I compel luck to work on my behalf. It’s my servant, it’s my friend. It clings to the clasp. How. How can I tell? It’s the cornelian, no doubt.... There are magic stones, which hold happiness, as others
hold fire, or sulphur, or gold......”
Rénine kept his eyes fixed upon him watching for the least word, the least modulation of the voice. The curiosity dealer was now laughing, with a nervous laugh, while resuming the self-control of a man who feels sure of himself; and he walked up to Rénine with jerky movements that revealed an increasing resolution:
“Millions? My dear sir, I wouldn’t have them as a gift. A little bit of stone which I possess is worth much more than that. And the proof of it lies in all the pains which you are at to take it from me. Aha! Months devoted to looking for it, as you yourself confess! Months in which you turned everything topsyturvy, while I, who suspected nothing, did not even defend myself! Why should I? The little thing defended itself all alone.... It does not want to be discovered and it shan’t be.... It likes being here.... It presides over a good, honest business that satisfies it... . Pancaldi’s luck! Why, it’s known to all the neighbourhood, among all the dealers!
I proclaim it from the house-tops: ‘I’m a lucky man!’ I even made so bold as to take the god of luck, Mercury, as my patron! He too protects me. See, I’ve got Mercuries all over my shop! Look up there, on that shelf, a. whole row of statuettes, like the one over the frontdoor, proofs signed by a great sculptor who went smash and sold them to me.... Would you like one, my dear sir? It will bring you luck too. Take your pick. A present from Pancaldi, to make up to you for your defeat! .Does that suit you?”
HE PUT a stool against the wall, under the shelf, took down a statuette and plumped it into Rénine’s arms. And, laughing heartily, growing more and more excited as his enemy seemed to yield ground and to fall back before his spirited attack, he exclaimed:
“Well done! He accepts! And the fact that he accepts shows that we are all agreed! Madame Pancaldi, don’t distress yourself. Your son’s coming back and nobody’s going to prison! Good-bye, Mile. Hortense! Good-day, sir! Hope to see you again! If you want to speak to me at any time, just give three thumps on the ceiling. Good-bye.... don’t forget your present... and may Mercury be kind to you. Good-bye, my dear prince! Good-bye, Mile. Hortense! ” \ He hustled them to the iron staircase, I gripped each of them by the arm in turn | and pushed them up to the little door hidden at the top of the stairs.
And the strange thing was that Rénine j made no protest. He did not attempt to | resist. He allowed himself to be left along like a naughty child that is taken up to bed.
Less thap five minutes had elapsed between the ' moment when he made his offer to Pancaldi and the moment when Pancaldi turned him out of the shop with a statuette in his arms.
THE dining-room and drawing-room j of the flat which Rénine had taken ! on the first floor looked out upon the j street. The table in the dining-room was laid for two.
“Forgive me, won’t you?” said Rénine, as he opened the door of thedrawing-room for Hortense. “I thought that l
j whatever happened, I should most likely J see you this evening and that we might as well dine together. Don’t refuse me j this kindness, which will be the last favour granted in our last adventure.”
Hortense did not refuse him. The manner in which the battle had ended was i so different from everything that she had j seen hitherto that she felt disconcerted. At any rate, why should she refuse, seeing that the terms of the contract had ; not been fulfilled?
Rénine left the room to give an order to his man-servant. Two minutes later, he came back for Hortense. It was then a little past seven.
There were flowers on the table; and the statue of Mercury, Pancaldi’s present, stood overtopping them.
“May the god of luck preside over our repast,” said Rénine.
He was full of animation and expressed his great delight at having her sitting opposite him:
“Yes,” he exclaimed, “I had to resort to powerful means and attract you by the bait of the most fabulous enterprises. You must confess that my letter was jolly smart. The three rushes, the blue j gown; simply irresistible! And, when I 1 had thrown in a few puzzles of my own invention, such as the seventy-five beads of the necklace and the old woman with the silver rosary, I knew that you were bound to succumb to the temptation. Don’t be angry with me. I wanted to see you and I wanted it to be to-day. You have come and I thank you.
I “YZOU hoped, didn’t you, in laying down
T that condition, that I shouldn’t be able to fulfil it?” he said as he began the I tale of how he had found the track of the stolen trinket. “You made a mistake, j my dear! The test, at least at the beginj ning, was easy enough, because it was based upon an undoubted fact: the
j talismanic character attributed to the i clasp. I had only to hunt about and see J whether among the people around you, j among your servants, there was ever any j one upon whom that character may have j exercised some attraction. Now, on the list of persons which I succeeded in drawing up, I at once noticed the name ofMlle. Lucienne, as coming from Corsica. This was my starting-point. The rest was a mere concatenation of events.”
! Hortense stared at him in amazement.
; How was it that he was accepting his dej feat with such a careless air and even I talking in a tone of triumph—whereas j really he had been soundly beaten by I Pancaldi and even made to look just a trifle ridiculous?
She could not help letting him feel this; j and the fashion in which she did so betrayed a certain disappointment, a certain humiliation.
“Everything is a concatenation of events; very well. But the chain is I broken, because, when all is said, though I you know the thief, you did not succeed I in laying hands upon the stolen clasp.”
The reproach was obvious. Rénine had not accustomed her to failure. And furthermore, she was irritated to see how heedlessly he was accepting a blow which, after all, entailed the ruin of any hopes that he might have entertained.
He did not reply. He had filled their two glasses with champagne and was slowly emptying his own, with his eyes fixed on the statuette of Mercury. He turned it about on its pedestal and examined it with the eye of a delighted connoisseur:
“What a beautiful thing is a harmon| ious line! Colour does not uplift me as much as outline, proportion, symmetry I and all the wonderful properties of form. Look at this little statue. Panca’di’s right; it’s the work of a great artist. The legs are both slender and muscular; the whole figure gives an impression of buoyancy and speed. It is very well done. There’s only one fault, a very I slight one: perhaps you’ve not noticed it?”
“Yes, I have,” said Hortense. “It struck me the moment I saw the sign, outside. You mean, don’t you, a certain lack of balance? The god is leaning over too far on the leg that carries him. He looks as though he were going to pitch forward.”
“That’s very clever of you,” said Rénine. “The fault is almost imperceptible and it needs a trained eye to see it. Really, however, as a matter of logic, the weight of the body ought to have its way and, in accordance with natural laws, the little god ought to take a header.’
“T NOTICED that flaw on the first A day,” he continued, after a pause. “How was it that I did not draw an inference at once? I was shocked because the artist had sinned against an aesthetic law, whereas I ought to have been shocked because he had overlooked a physical law. As though art and nature were not blended, together! And as though the laws of gravity could be disturbed without some fundamental reason!”
“What do you mean?” asked Hortense, puzzled by these reflections, which seemed so far removed from their secret thoughts. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing!” he said. “I am only surprised that I didn’t understand sooner why Mercury did not plump forward, as he should have done.”
“And what is the reason?”
“The reason? I imagine that Pancaldi, when pulling the statuette about to make it serve his purpose, must have disturbed its balance, but that this balance was restored by something which holds the little god back and which makes up for his really too dangerous posture.” “Something, you say?”
“Yes, a counterweight.”
Hortense gave a start. She too was beginning to see a little light. She murmured:
“A counterweight?. . . .Are you thinking that it might be.... in the pedestal?”
“Is that possible? But, if so, how. did Pancaldi come to give you this statuette?”
“He never gave me this one,” Rénine declared. “I took this one myself.” “But where? And when?”
“Just now, while you were in the drawing-room. I got out of that window, which is just over the signboard and beside the niche containing the little god. And I exchanged the two, that is to say, I took the statue which was outside and put the one which Pancaldi gave me in its place.”
“But doesn’t that one lean forward?” “No, no more than the others do, on the shelf in his shop. But Pancaldi is not an artist. A lack of equilibrium does not impress him; he will see nothing wrong; and he will continue to think himself favoured by luck, which is only another way of saying that luck will continue to favour him. Meanwhile, here’s the statuette, the one used for the sign. Am I to break the pedestal and take your clasp out. of the leaden sheath, soldered to the back of the pedestal, which keeps Mercury steady?”
“No, no, there’s no need for that,” Hortense hurriedly murmured.
Rénine's intuition, his subtlety, the skill with which he had managed the who'e business: to her, for the moment, all these things remained in the background. But she suddenly remembered that the eighth adventure was completed, that Rénine had surmounted every obstacle, that the test had turned to his advantage and that the extreme limit of time fixed for the last of the adventures was not yet reached.
He had the cruelty to call attention to the fact:
“A quarter to eight,” he said.
An oppressive silence fell between them. Both felt its discomfort to such a degree that they hesitated to make the least movement. In order to break it, Rénine jested:
I 'HAT worthy M. Pancaldi, how good *of him to tell me what I wished to know! I knew, however, that by exasperating him, 1 should end by picking up the missing clue in what he said. It was just as though one were to hand some one a flint and steel and suggest to him that he was to use it. In the end, the spark is obtained. In any case, what produced the spark was the unconscious but inevitable comparison which he drew between the cornelian clasp, the element of luck, and Mercury, the god of luck. That was enough. I understood that this association of ideas arose from his having actually associated the two factors of luck by embodying one in the other, or, to speak more plainly, by hiding the trinket in the statuette. And I at once remembered the Mercury outside the door and its defective poise ” Rénine suddenly interrupted himself. It seemed to him that all his remarks were falling on deaf ears. Hortense had put her hand to her forehead and, thus
veiling her eyes, sat motionless and re-
SHE was indeed not listening. The end of this particular adventure and the manner in which Rénine had acted on this occasion no longer interested her. What she was thinking of was the complex series of adventures amid which she had been living for the past three months and the wonderful behaviour of the man who had offered her his devotion. She saw, as in a magic picture, the fabulous deeds performed by him, all the good that he had done, the lives saved, the sorrows assuaged, the order restored wherever his masterly will had been brought to bear. Nothing was impossible to him. What he undertook to do he did. Every aim that he set before him was attained in advance. And all this without excessive effort, with the calmness of one who knows his own strength and knows that nothing can resist it.
Then what could she do against him? Why should she defend herself and how? If he demanded that she should yield, would he not know how to make her do so and would this last adventure be any more difficult for him than the others? Supposing that she ran away: did the wide world contain a retreat in which she would be safe from his pursuit? From the first moment of their first meeting, the end was certain, since Rénine had decreed that it should be so.
However, she still cast about for weaT pons, for protection of some sort; and she said to herself that, though he had fulfilled the eight conditions and restored the cornelian clasp to her before the eighth hour had struck, she was nevertheless protected by the fact that this eighth hour was to strike on the clock of the Château de Halingre and not elsewhere. It was a formal compact. Rénine said that day, gazing on the lips which he longed to kiss:
“The old brass pendulum will start swinging again; and, when, on the fixed date, the clock once more strikes eight,
She looked up. He was not moving either, but sat patiently waiting.
She was on the point of saying', she was even preparing her words:
“You know, our agreement says that it must be the Halingre clock. All the other conditions have been fulfilled.... but not this one. So I am free, am I not? I am entitled not to keep my promise, which, moreover, I never made, but which in any case falls to the ground?.... And I am perfectly free.... released from any scruple of conscience?...” She had not time to speak. At that precise moment, there was a click behind her, like that of a clock about to strike.
A first stroke sounded, then a second, then a third.
Hortense moaned. She had recognized the very sound of the old clock, the Halingre clock, which three months ago, by breaking in a supernatural manner the silence of the deserted château, had set both of them on the road of the eight adventures.
She counted the strokes. The clock struck eight.
“Ah!” she murmured, half swconing and hiding her face in her hands. “The clock... the clock is here... .the one from over there.. . .1 recognize its voice
She said no more. She felt that Rénine had his eyes fixed upon her; and this sapped all her energies. Beside, had she been able to recover them, she would have been no better off nor sought to offer him the least resistance, for the reason that she did not wish to resist. All the adventures were over, but one remained to be undertaken, the anticipation of which wiped out the memory of all the rest. It was the adventure of love, the most delightful, the most bewildering, the most adorable of all adventures. She accepted fate’s decree, rejoicing in all that might come, because she was in love. She smiled in spite of herself, as she reflected that happiness was again to enter her life at the very moment when her well-beloved was bringing her the cornelian clasp.
The clock struck the hour for the second time.
Hortense raised her eyes to Rénine. She struggled a few seconds longer But she was like a charmed bird, incapable of any movement of revolt; and at the eighth stroke she fell upon his breast and offered him her lips......