The clock struck nine. It was a thin, high-pitched sound, and very soft.
I can see the scene now, clearly. There are no blurred edges. Here nothing is out of focus. It is as if I were looking through a stereoscope at a perfect colored reproduction of the room and of the people in it.
The rain has stopped, and the breeze is once more gentle and warm. It is hot and steamy in the room, and the windows are wide open. The wet leaves of the creeper just outside gleam in the light from the electric “candles” in their rococo brackets on the walls. Beyond the stone balustrade on the terrace the moon is beginning to rise through the fir trees.
The Skeltons and I are sitting near to the window, the remains of the coffee before us on a low table. Across the room Roux and Mademoiselle Martin are playing Russian billiards. He is standing over her, guiding the cue, and as I watch I see her press her body against his, and look round quickly to see if anyone has noticed the action. In the other corner, near the door leading to the hall, there are two small groups. Monsieur Duclos is stroking his beard with his pince-nez and talking in French to an intent Frau Vogel. Herr Vogel is saying something in halting Italian to Mrs. Clandon-Hartley-an unusually animated Mrs. Clandon-Hartley-while the Major listens, the ghost of a smile on his lips. Only Schimler and, of course, the Koches, are absent.
I remember that Skelton was saying something to me about Roux and Duclos pretending to ignore each other. I scarcely heard him. I was looking round the room at their faces. Nine of them. I had talked to all of them, watched them, listened to them and now-now I knew no more about them than I had known on the day-what ages ago it seemed-when I had come to the Reserve. No more? That was not quite true. I had learned something of the lives of some of them. But what did I know about their thoughts, about the minds that worked behind those masks? A man’s account of his own actions was, like the look he habitually wore on his face, no more than the expression, the statement of an attitude. You could never get at the whole man any more than you could see four faces of a cube. The mind was a figure with an infinite number of dimensions, a fluid in ceaseless movement, unfathomable, unaccountable.
The Major still had that faint smile on his lips. His wife, her hands fluttering slightly as she said something to Vogel, seemed, for the first time, to be alive. Of course! Someone had lent them money. Who was it? I knew so little that I could not even make an intelligent guess.
Duclos had put his pince-nez back on his nose, and was listening to Frau Vogel’s guttural French, with his head cocked patronizingly. Roux, his eyes fixed glassily on the balls, was demonstrating a stroke. I watched them all fascinated. It was like seeing dancers through a window that shut out the music. There was a mad solemnity about their antics…
The Skeltons burst out laughing. I turned round feeling rather foolish.
“Sorry,” said he; “but we’ve been watching your face, Mr. Vadassy. It was getting longer and longer. We were afraid you were going to burst into tears.”
“I was thinking how much we identify ourselves with other people and yet how separate we are. You see, I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”
Their dismay was so well done that I had a sudden feeling that they might really be sorry to see me go. A wave of emotion swept over me; self-pity, no doubt. I fought my way clear of it.
“I shall be sorry to go myself,” I said. “Will you be staying long?”
There was an almost imperceptible pause before he replied, and I saw her glance at him quickly.
“Oh,” he said carelessly, “for a while, I guess.”
And then she leaned forward. “For three months, to be exact,” she said and glanced at him again. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t tell Mr. Vadassy. I’m tired of this act anyway.”
“Now look, Mary…” he began warningly, and I suddenly felt sick.
“Oh, what’s the difference?” She smiled faintly at me. “We’re not brother and sister, Mr. Vadassy. We’re cousins and we’re living in sin.”
“Congratulations,” I said. I still felt sick, but in a different way now. I was sick with jealousy. She smiled at me.
“Well you’d better tell about the hocus-pocus, too,” said her lover gloomily. “It’s not entirely usual in France for people in our situation to go around pretending to be brother and sister.”
She shrugged. “It’s all so absurd, really. When we came here we had separate rooms, and, because of the names on our passports and the forms you fill out and everything, they took us for brother and sister. Well then, when it turned out that we could do with one room after all, it meant that we’d either have to move to another hotel or stay here as we were.”
“Or look incestuous,” he put in unhappily.
“So, as we felt a bit sentimental about this place, we stayed. You see, we can’t get married for three months yet because if Warren gets married before his twenty-first birthday we lose fifty thousand dollars from Grandfather Skelton, which would be crazy, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said, but they were looking at each other and I knew now what it was that had made them seem so attractive. They were in love.
“Absolutely crazy,” he said, smiling.
And then, Monsieur Duclos, abandoned by or having abandoned Frau Vogel, loomed over me.
“They are a very charming couple, these Americans,” he said.
“Yes, very charming.”
“I was saying as much to Madame Vogel. She is a most intelligent woman. Monsieur Vogel, you know, is director of the Swiss State Power Company. He is a very important man. I have, of course, heard of him before. His offices at Berne are one of the sights of the city.
“I thought he came from Constance.”
He adjusted his pince-nez warily. “He has also a large villa at Constance. It is very fine. He has invited me to stay with him there.”
“How pleasant for you.”
“Yes. Naturally, I expect we shall discuss a good deal of business.”
“When businessmen meet for pleasure, my friend, the talk is always of business.
“Again, it is possible that we may be able to be of service to one another. Co-operation, you understand? It is most important in business. That is what I tell the work-people in my factories. If they will co-operate with me, I will co-operate with them. But they must co-operate with me first. Co-operation cannot be one-sided.”
“Of course not.”
“What’s he saying?” inquired Skelton. “I’ve heard the word co-operation ten times.”
“He says that co-operation is important.”
“Did you know,” pursued Monsieur Duclos, “that Major and Madame Clandon-Hartley are leaving tomorrow?”
“Someone, clearly, has lent them money. Curious, is it not? Personally, I would not lend the Major money. He asked me for ten thousand francs. A trifling sum. I should not miss it. But it is a question of principle. I am a businessman.”
“I thought it was two thousand francs he wanted. That was what you told me before.”
“He has increased his demands,” he said blandly. “A type of criminal, without a doubt.”
“Personally, I should not have thought so.”
“A businessman must have an eye for a criminal. Fortunately, English criminals are always very simple.”
“It is well known. The French criminal is a snake, the American criminal a wolf, and the English criminal a rat. Snakes, wolves, and rats. The rat is a very simple animal. He fights only when he is in a corner. At other times he merely nibbles.”
“And you really think that Major Clandon-Hartley is an English criminal?”
Slowly, deliberately, Monsieur Duclos removed the pince-nez from his nose and tapped me on the arm with them.
“Look carefully at his face,” he said, “and you will see the rat in it. What is more,” he added triumphantly, “he told me so himself.”
This was fantastic.
The Skeltons tired of trying to follow Monsieur Duclos’s rapid French, had found a copy of L’Illustration, and, were penciling in mustaches on the faces reproduced in it. I was left to deal with Monsieur Duclos alone. He edged a chair close to mine.
“Of course,” he said impressively, “I speak in confidence. The English major would not like to know that his identity was discovered.”
“You do not know?”
“Ah!” He stroked his beard. “Then I had better say no more. He is relying upon my discretion.” He rose, gave me a meaning look, and moved away. I saw that Koche had come into the room with Schimler. Monsieur Duclos hurried across to intercept them. I heard him announce that the rain had ceased. Koche stopped politely, but Schimler walked round them and came towards me. He was looking terribly ill.
“I hear that you are leaving tomorrow, Vadassy.”
“Yes, was that all you heard?”
He shook his head. “No. I think that a few explanations would be helpful. Koche is afraid that there is something going on in his hotel that he does not know about. He is worried. You, it seems, might be able to clear the matter up.”
“I am afraid not. If Koche cares to apply at the police station…”
“So that’s it! You are from the police.”
“From them, but not of them. Another thing, Herr Heinberger: I should advise you not to talk to me for very long. I was seen leaving your room this afternoon. I have been questioned on the subject by a certain gentleman.”
His smile was ghastly. His eyes met mine. “And did you answer the question?”
“I hope I lied convincingly.”
“That was good of you,” he said softly. He nodded to me and to the Skeltons, and walked away to join Koche.
“He looks as though he’s going to fall to pieces,” said Skelton.
For some reason the comment irritated me. “Some day,” I said rashly, “I hope to be able to tell you something about that man.”
“Won’t you tell us now, Mr. Vadassy?”
“I’m afraid I can’t.”
“You’ve cooked your goose,” he said; “you’ll get no peace now. Look, darling, the Roux outfit has finished with the table. What about a game? Do you mind, Mr. Vadassy?”
“Of course not. Go ahead!”
They got up and went over to the billiard table. I was left alone to think.
This, I told myself, was in all probability my last night of freedom. These were the people I should remember. This was the scene that I should picture: the Vogels and the Clandon-Hartleys talking together, with Duclos listening, stroking his beard, waiting for a chance to break into their conversation; Koche talking to Roux and Odette Martin; Schimler sitting by himself, idly turning the pages of a newspaper; the Skeltons bending together over the bagatelle table. And with them all there was the warm, scented night, the drip-drip of water on the terrace, the faint hiss of the sea against the rocks at the point, the stars and the light of the moon striking through the trees. It all seemed so very peaceful. And yet there was no peace. Outside in the garden the monstrosities of the insect kingdom were creeping along the wet branches and stems in search of food; watchful, intent, preying and preyed upon. In the darkness, dramas were being enacted. Nothing was at rest, nothing was still. The night was moving, alive with tragedy. While inside…
There was a movement from the opposite corner of the room. Frau Vogel had risen to her feet, and was standing smiling diffidently at the others. Her husband seemed to be trying to persuade her to do something. I saw Koche break off his conversation with Roux and cross to her.
“We should all be most grateful,” I heard him say.
She nodded doubtfully. Then, to my astonishment, I saw Koche lead her over to the upright piano against the wall and open it for her. She sat down stiffly and ran her short, thick fingers over the keys. The Skeltons turned round in surprise. Schimler looked up from his paper. Roux sank rather impatiently into a chair and drew Mademoiselle Martin on his knee. Vogel glanced round the room in triumph. Duclos removed his pince-nez expectantly.
Frau Vogel began to play a Chopin ballade.
I saw Schimler lean forward, a strange look on his face as he watched the stiff, dumpy figure, her ridiculous wisps of chiffon agitated by the quick movements of her hands and arms.
Frau Vogel, it was clear, had once had a talent. There was about her playing a curious, faded brilliance, like that of a paste buckle in a hamper of old ball-dresses. And then I forgot Frau Vogel and listened to the music.
When she had finished there was a moment of dead silence in the room, and then a burst of clapping. She half turned on her chair, flushed, and blinked nervously at Koche. She went to get up, but her husband called over to her to play again, and she sank back on the chair. For a moment she appeared to be thinking; then she raised her hands to the keyboard and Bach’s “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring” stole out softly into the room.
Sometimes, after a day’s work, I have gone back to my room and, without troubling to turn on the light, sunk into my easy chair and remained there, motionless, relaxed, savoring the slow, pleasant ache that creeps through the limbs when they are very weary. That was what happened to me that evening as I listened to Frau Vogel playing. Only, now, it was not my body that yielded so thankfully, but my mind. Instead of the slow, pleasant ache creeping through my limbs there was the melody of a choral prelude entwining itself in my consciousness. My eyes closed. If only this would go on. If only this would go on. If only…
When the interruption came I did not at first notice it. There was a murmur of voices from the hall, someone hissed a request for silence, a chair grated on the floor. I opened my eyes in time to see Koche disappearing hurriedly through the door, which he closed softly behind him. A few moments later I heard it open again noisily.
It all seemed to happen in the fraction of a second; but the first intimation I had that anything was wrong was that Frau Vogel stopped suddenly in the middle of a bar. Instinctively I looked across at her first. She was sitting, her hands poised over the keys, staring fixedly over the top of the piano, as though she were looking at a ghost. Then her hands dropped slowly on to the keyboard, sounding a soft discord. My gaze traveled to the door. There, standing on the threshold, were two uniformed agents de police.
They looked round the room menacingly. One of them took a step forward.
“Which of you is Josef Vadassy?”
I stood up slowly, too dazed to speak.
They clumped across the room towards me.
“You are under arrest. You will accompany us to the Commissariat.”
Frau Vogel let out a little cry.
“There are no ‘buts.’ Come on.”
They gripped my arms.
Monsieur Duclos darted forward.
“What is the charge?”
“That does not concern you,” retorted the leading agent curtly. He jerked me towards the door.
Monsieur Duclos’s pince-nez quivered. “I am a citizen of the Republic,” he declared fiercely. “I have a right to know.”
The agent glanced round. “Curious, eh?” He grinned. “Very well, the charge is one of espionage. You’ve had a dangerous man among you. Come on, Vadassy. March!”
The Skeltons, the Vogels, Roux, Mademoiselle Martin, the Clandon-Hartleys, Schimler, Duclos, Koche-for an instant I saw their faces, white and motionless, turned towards me. Then I was through the door. Behind me a woman, Frau Vogel, I think, screamed hysterically.
I had received my instructions.