The story begins with the explanation of that circumstance which had greatly puzzled Mr. Ricardo—Celia's entry into the household of Mme. Dauvray.
Celia's father was a Captain Harland, of a marching regiment, who had little beyond good looks and excellent manners wherewith to support his position. He was extravagant in his tastes, and of an easy mind in the presence of embarrassments. To his other disadvantages he added that of falling in love with a pretty girl no better off than himself. They married, and Celia was born. For nine years they managed, through the wife's constant devotion, to struggle along and to give their daughter an education. Then, however, Celia's mother broke down under the strain and died. Captain Harland, a couple of years later, went out of the service with discredit, passed through the bankruptcy court, and turned showman. His line was thought-reading; he enlisted the services of his daughter, taught her the tricks of his trade, and became "The Great Fortinbras" of the music-halls. Captain Harland would move amongst the audience, asking the spectators in a whisper to think of a number or of an article in their pockets, after the usual fashion, while the child, in her short frock, with her long fair hair tied back with a ribbon, would stand blind-folded upon the platform and reel off the answers with astonishing rapidity. She was singularly quick, singularly receptive.
The undoubted cleverness of the performance, and the beauty of the child, brought to them a temporary prosperity. The Great Fortinbras rose from the music-halls to the assembly rooms of provincial towns. The performance became genteel, and ladies flocked to the matinees.
The Great Fortinbras dropped his pseudonym and became once more Captain Harland.
As Celia grew up, he tried a yet higher flight—he became a spiritualist, with Celia for his medium. The thought-reading entertainments became thrilling seances, and the beautiful child, now grown into a beautiful girl of seventeen, created a greater sensation as a medium in a trance than she had done as a lightning thought-reader.
"I saw no harm in it," Celia explained to M. Fleuriot, without any attempt at extenuation. "I never understood that we might be doing any hurt to any one. People were interested. They were to find us out if they could, and they tried to and they couldn't. I looked upon it quite simply in that way. It was just my profession. I accepted it without any question. I was not troubled about it until I came to Aix."
A startling exposure, however, at Cambridge discredited the craze for spiritualism, and Captain Harland's fortunes declined. He crossed with his daughter to France and made a disastrous tour in that country, wasted the last of his resources in the Casino at Dieppe, and died in that town, leaving Celia just enough money to bury him and to pay her third-class fare to Paris.
There she lived honestly but miserably. The slimness of her figure and a grace of movement which was particularly hers obtained her at last a situation as a mannequin in the show-rooms of a modiste. She took a room on the top floor of a house in the Rue St. Honore and settled down to a hard and penurious life.
"I was not happy or contented—no," said Celia frankly and decisively. "The long hours in the close rooms gave me headaches and made me nervous. I had not the temperament. And I was very lonely—my life had been so different. I had had fresh air, good clothes, and freedom. Now all was changed. I used to cry myself to sleep up in my little room, wondering whether I would ever have friends. You see, I was quite young—only eighteen—and I wanted to live."
A change came in a few months, but a disastrous change. The modiste failed. Celia was thrown out of work, and could get nothing to do. Gradually she pawned what clothes she could spare; and then there came a morning when she had a single five-franc piece in the world and owed a month's rent for her room. She kept the five-franc piece all day and went hungry, seeking for work. In the evening she went to a provision shop to buy food, and the man behind the counter took the five-franc piece. He looked at it, rung it on the counter, and, with a laugh, bent it easily in half.
"See here, my little one," he said, tossing the coin back to her, "one does not buy good food with lead."
Celia dragged herself out of the shop in despair. She was starving. She dared not go back to her room. The thought of the concierge at the bottom of the stairs, insistent for the rent, frightened her. She stood on the pavement and burst into tears. A few people stopped and watched her curiously, and went on again. Finally a sergent-de-ville told her to go away.
The girl moved on with the tears running down her cheeks. She was desperate, she was lonely.
"I thought of throwing myself into the Seine," said Celia simply, in telling her story to the Juge d'Instruction. "Indeed, I went to the river. But the water looked so cold, so terrible, and I was young. I wanted so much to live. And then—the night came, and the lights made the city bright, and I was very tired and—and—"
And, in a word, the young girl went up to Montmartre in desperation, as quickly as her tired legs would carry her. She walked once or twice timidly past the restaurants, and, finally, entered one of them, hoping that some one would take pity on her and give her some supper. She stood just within the door of the supper-room. People pushed past her—men in evening dress, women in bright frocks and jewels. No one noticed her. She had shrunk into a corner, rather hoping not to be noticed, now that she had come. But the novelty of her surroundings wore off. She knew that for want of food she was almost fainting. There were two girls engaged by the management to dance amongst the tables while people had supper—one dressed as a page in blue satin, and the other as a Spanish dancer. Both girls were kind. They spoke to Celia between their dances. They let her waltz with them. Still no one noticed her. She had no jewels, no fine clothes, no CHIC—the three indispensable things. She had only youth and a pretty face.
"But," said Celia, "without jewels and fine clothes and CHIC these go for nothing in Paris. At last, however, Mme. Dauvray came in with a party of friends from a theatre, and saw how unhappy I was, and gave me some supper. She asked me about myself, and I told her. She was very kind, and took me home with her, and I cried all the way in the carriage. She kept me a few days, and then she told me that I was to live with her, for often she was lonely too, and that if I would she would some day find me a nice, comfortable husband and give me a marriage portion. So all my troubles seemed to be at an end," said Celia, with a smile.
Within a fortnight Mme. Dauvray confided to Celia that there was a new fortune-teller come to Paris, who, by looking into a crystal, could tell the most wonderful things about the future. The old woman's eyes kindled as she spoke. She took Celia to the fortune-teller's rooms next day, and the girl quickly understood the ruling passion of the woman who had befriended her. It took very little time then for Celia to notice how easily Mme. Dauvray was duped, how perpetually she was robbed. Celia turned the problem over in her mind.
"Madame had been very good to me. She was kind and simple," said Celia, with a very genuine affection in her voice. "The people whom we knew laughed at her, and were ungenerous. But there are many women whom the world respects who are worse than ever was poor Mme. Dauvray. I was very fond of her, so I proposed to her that we should hold a seance, and I would bring people from the spirit world I knew that I could amuse her with something much more clever and more interesting than the fortune-tellers. And at the same time I could save her from being plundered. That was all I thought about."
That was all she thought about, yes. She left Helene Vauquier out of her calculations, and she did not foresee the effect of her steances upon Mme. Dauvray. Celia had no suspicions of Helene Vauquier. She would have laughed if any one had told her that this respectable and respectful middle-aged woman, who was so attentive, so neat, so grateful for any kindness, was really nursing a rancorous hatred against her. Celia had sprung from Montmartre suddenly; therefore Helene Vauquier despised her. Celia had taken her place in Mme. Dauvray's confidence, had deposed her unwittingly, had turned the confidential friend into a mere servant; therefore Helene Vauquier hated her. And her hatred reached out beyond the girl, and embraced the old, superstitious, foolish woman, whom a young and pretty face could so easily beguile. Helene Vauquier despised them both, hated them both, and yet must nurse her rancour in silence and futility. Then came the seances, and at once, to add fuel to her hatred, she found herself stripped of those gifts and commissions which she had exacted from the herd of common tricksters who had been wont to make their harvest out of Mme. Dauvray. Helene Vauquier was avaricious and greedy, like so many of her class. Her hatred of Celia, her contempt for Mme. Dauvray, grew into a very delirium. But it was a delirium she had the cunning to conceal. She lived at white heat, but to all the world she had lost nothing of her calm.
Celia did not foresee the hatred she was arousing; nor, on the other hand, did she foresee the overwhelming effect of these spiritualistic seances on Mme. Dauvray. Celia had never been brought quite close to the credulous before.
"There had always been the row of footlights," she said. "I was on the platform; the audience was in the hall; or, if it was at a house, my father made the arrangements. I only came in at the last moment, played my part, and went away. It was never brought home to me that some amongst these people really and truly believed. I did not think about it. Now, however, when I saw Mme. Dauvray so feverish, so excited, so firmly convinced that great ladies from the spirit world came and spoke to her, I became terrified. I had aroused a passion which I had not suspected. I tried to stop the seances, but I was not allowed. I had aroused a passion which I could not control. I was afraid that Mme. Dauvray's whole life—it seems absurd to those who did not know her, but those who did will understand—yes, her whole life and happiness would be spoilt if she discovered that what she believed in was all a trick."
She spoke with a simplicity and a remorse which it was difficult to disbelieve. M. Fleuriot, the judge, now at last convinced that the Dreyfus affair was for nothing in the history of this crime, listened to her with sympathy.
"That is your explanation, mademoiselle," he said gently. "But I must tell you that we have another."
"Yes, monsieur?" Celia asked.
"Given by Helene Vauquier," said Fleuriot.
Even after these days Celia could not hear that woman's name without a shudder of fear and a flinching of her whole body. Her face grew white, her lips dry.
"I know, monsieur, that Helene Vauquier is not my friend," she said. "I was taught that very cruelly."
"Listen, mademoiselle, to what she says," said the judge, and he read out to Celia an extract or two from Hanaud's report of his first interview with Helene Vauquier in her bedroom at the Villa Rose.
"You hear what she says. 'Mme. Dauvray would have had seances all day, but Mlle. Celie pleaded that she was left exhausted at the end of them. But Mlle. Celie was of an address.' And again, speaking of Mme. Dauvray's queer craze that the spirit of Mme. de Montespan should be called up, Helene Vauquier says: 'She was never gratified. Always she hoped. Always Mlle. Celie tantalised her with the hope. She would not spoil her fine affairs by making these treats too common.' Thus she attributes your reluctance to multiply your experiments to a desire to make the most profit possible out of your wares, like a good business woman."
"It is not true, monsieur," cried Celia earnestly. "I tried to stop the seances because now for the first time I recognised that I had been playing with a dangerous thing. It was a revelation to me. I did not know what to do. Mme. Dauvray would promise me everything, give me everything, if only I would consent when I refused. I was terribly frightened of what would happen. I did not want power over people. I knew it was not good for her that she should suffer so much excitement. No, I did not know what to do. And so we all moved to Aix."
And there she met Harry Wethermill on the second day after her arrival, and proceeded straightway for the first time to fall in love. To Celia it seemed that at last that had happened for which she had so longed. She began really to live as she understood life at this time. The day, until she met Harry Wethermill, was one flash of joyous expectation; the hours when they were together a time of contentment which thrilled with some chance meeting of the hands into an exquisite happiness. Mme. Dauvray understood quickly what was the matter, and laughed at her affectionately.
"Celie, my dear," she said, "your friend, M. Wethermill—'Arry, is it not? See, I pronounce your tongue—will not be as comfortable as the nice, fat, bourgeois gentleman I meant to find for you. But, since you are young, naturally you want storms. And there will be storms, Celie," she concluded, with a laugh.
"I suppose there will," she said regretfully. There were, indeed, moments when she was frightened of Harry Wethermill, but frightened with a delicious thrill of knowledge that he was only stern because he cared so much.
But in a day or two there began to intrude upon her happiness a stinging dissatisfaction with her past life. At times she fell into melancholy, comparing her career with that of the man who loved her. At times she came near to an extreme irritation with Helene Vauquier. Her lover was in her thoughts. As she put it herself:
"I wanted always to look my best, and always to be very good."
Good in the essentials of life, that is to be understood. She had lived in a lax world. She was not particularly troubled by the character of her associates; she was untouched by them; she liked her fling at the baccarat-tables. These were details, and did not distress her. Love had not turned her into a Puritan. But certain recollections plagued her soul. The visit to the restaurant at Montmartre, for instance, and the seances. Of these, indeed, she thought to have made an end. There were the baccarat-rooms, the beauty of the town and the neighbourhood to distract Mme. Dauvray. Celia kept her thoughts away from seances. There was no seance as yet held in the Villa Rose. And there would have been none but for Helene Vauquier.
One evening, however, as Harry Wethermill walked down from the Cercle to the Villa des Fleurs, a woman's voice spoke to him from behind.
He turned and saw Mme. Dauvray's maid. He stopped under a street lamp, and said:
"Well, what can I do for you?"
The woman hesitated.
"I hope monsieur will pardon me," she said humbly. "I am committing a great impertinence. But I think monsieur is not very kind to Mlle. Celie."
Wethermill stared at her.
"What on earth do you mean?" he asked angrily.
Helene Vauquier looked him quietly in the face.
"It is plain, monsieur, that Mlle. Celie loves monsieur. Monsieur has led her on to love him. But it is also plain to a woman with quick eyes that monsieur himself cares no more for mademoiselle than for the button on his coat. It is not very kind to spoil the happiness of a young and pretty girl, monsieur."
Nothing could have been more respectful than the manner in which these words were uttered. Wethermill was taken in by it. He protested earnestly, fearing lest the maid should become an enemy.
"Helene, it is not true that I am playing with Mlle. Celie. Why should I not care for her?"
Helene Vauquier shrugged her shoulders. The question needed no answer.
"Why should I seek her so often if I did not care?"
And to this question Helene Vauquier smiled—a quiet, slow, confidential smile.
"What does monsieur want of Mme. Dauvray?" she asked. And the question was her answer.
Wethermill stood silent. Then he said abruptly:
"Nothing, of course; nothing." And he walked away.
But the smile remained on Helene Vauquier's face. What did they all want of Mme. Dauvray? She knew very well. It was what she herself wanted—with other things. It was money—always money. Wethermill was not the first to seek the good graces of Mme. Dauvray through her pretty companion. Helene Vauquier went home. She was not discontented with her conversation. Wethermill had paused long enough before he denied the suggestion of her words. She approached him a few days later a second time and more openly. She was shopping in the Rue du Casino when he passed her. He stopped of his own accord and spoke to her. Helene Vauquier kept a grave and respectful face. But there was a pulse of joy at her heart. He was coming to her hand.
"Monsieur," she said, "you do not go the right way." And again her strange smile illuminated her face. "Mlle. Celie sets a guard about Mme. Dauvray. She will not give to people the opportunity to find madame generous."
"Oh," said Wethermill slowly. "Is that so?" And he turned and walked by Helene Vauquier's side.
"Never speak of Mme. Dauvray's wealth, monsieur, if you would keep the favour of Mlle. Celie. She is young, but she knows her world."
"I have not spoken of money to her," replied Wethermill; and then he burst out laughing. "But why should you think that I—I, of all men—want money?" he asked.
And Helene answered him again enigmatically.
"If I am wrong, monsieur, I am sorry, but you can help me too," she said, in her submissive voice. And she passed on, leaving Wethermill rooted to the ground.
It was a bargain she proposed—the impertinence of it! It was a bargain she proposed—the value of it! In that shape ran Harry Wethermill's thoughts. He was in desperate straits, though to the world's eye he was a man of wealth. A gambler, with no inexpensive tastes, he had been always in need of money. The rights in his patent he had mortgaged long ago. He was not an idler; he was no sham foisted as a great man on an ignorant public. He had really some touch of genius, and he cultivated it assiduously. But the harder he worked, the greater was his need of gaiety and extravagance. Gifted with good looks and a charm of manner, he was popular alike in the great world and the world of Bohemia. He kept and wanted to keep a foot in each. That he was in desperate straits now, probably Helene Vauquier alone in Aix had recognised. She had drawn her inference from one simple fact. Wethermill asked her at a later time when they were better acquainted how she had guessed his need.
"Monsieur," she replied, "you were in Aix without a valet, and it seemed to me that you were of that class of men who would never move without a valet so long as there was money to pay his wages. That was my first thought. Then when I saw you pursue your friendship with Mlle. Celie—you, who so clearly to my eyes did not love her—I felt sure."
On the next occasion that the two met, it was again Harry Wethermill who sought Helene Vauquier. He talked for a minute or two upon indifferent subjects, and then he said quickly:
"I suppose Mme. Dauvray is very rich?"
"She has a great fortune in jewels," said Helene Vauquier.
Wethermill started. He was agitated that evening, the woman saw. His hands shook, his face twitched. Clearly he was hard put to it. For he seldom betrayed himself. She thought it time to strike.
"Jewels which she keeps in the safe in her bedroom," she added.
"Then why don't you—?" he began, and stopped.
"I said that I too needed help," replied Helene, without a ruffle of her composure.
It was nine o'clock at night. Helene Vauquier had come down to the Casino with a wrap for Mme. Dauvray. The two people were walking down the little street of which the Casino blocks the end. And it happened that an attendant at the Casino, named Alphonse Ruel, passed them, recognised them both, and—smiled to himself with some amusement. What was Wethermill doing in company with Mme. Dauvray's maid? Ruel had no doubt. Ruel had seen Wethermill often enough these recent days with Mme. Dauvray's pretty companion. Ruel had all a Frenchman's sympathy with lovers. He wished them well, those two young and attractive people, and hoped that the maid would help their plans.
But as he passed he caught a sentence spoken suddenly by Wethermill.
"Well, it is true; I must have money." And the agitated voice and words remained fixed in his memory. He heard, too, a warning "Hush!" from the maid. Then they passed out of his hearing. But he turned and saw that Wethermill was talking volubly. What Harry Wethermill was saying he was saying in a foolish burst of confidence.
"You have guessed it, Helene—you alone." He had mortgaged his patent twice over—once in France, once in England—and the second time had been a month ago. He had received a large sum down, which went to pay his pressing creditors. He had hoped to pay the sum back from a new invention.
"But Helene, I tell you," he said, "I have a conscience." And when she smiled he explained. "Oh, not what the priests would call a conscience; that I know. But none the less I have a conscience—a conscience about the things which really matter, at all events to me. There is a flaw in that new invention. It can be improved; I know that. But as yet I do not see how, and—I cannot help it—I must get it right; I cannot let it go imperfect when I know that it's imperfect, when I know that it can be improved, when I am sure that I shall sooner or later hit upon the needed improvement. That is what I mean when I say I have a conscience."
Helena Vauquier smiled indulgently. Men were queer fish. Things which were really of no account troubled and perplexed them and gave them sleepless nights. But it was not for her to object, since it was one of these queer anomalies which was giving her her chance.
"And the people are finding out that you have sold your rights twice over," she said sympathetically. "That is a pity, monsieur."
"They know," he answered; "those in England know."
"And they are very angry?"
"They threaten me," said Wethermill. "They give me a month to restore the money. Otherwise there will be disgrace, imprisonment, penal servitude."
Helene Vauquier walked calmly on. No sign of the intense joy which she felt was visible in her face, and only a trace of it in her voice.
"Monsieur will, perhaps, meet me to-morrow in Geneva," she said. And she named a small cafe in a back street. "I can get a holiday for the afternoon." And as they were near to the villa and the lights, she walked on ahead.
Wethermill loitered behind. He had tried his luck at the tables and had failed. And—and—he must have the money.
He travelled, accordingly, the next day to Geneva, and was there presented to Adele Tace and Hippolyte.
"They are trusted friends of mine," said Helene Vauquier to Wethermill, who was not inspired to confidence by the sight of the young man with the big ears and the plastered hair. As a matter of fact, she had never met them before they came this year to Aix.
The Tace family, which consisted of Adele and her husband and Jeanne, her mother, were practised criminals. They had taken the house in Geneva deliberately in order to carry out some robberies from the great villas on the lake-side. But they had not been fortunate; and a description of Mme. Dauvray's jewellery in the woman's column of a Geneva newspaper had drawn Adele Tace over to Aix. She had set about the task of seducing Mme. Dauvray's maid, and found a master, not an instrument.
In the small cafe on that afternoon of July Helene Vauquier instructed her accomplices, quietly and methodically, as though what she proposed was the most ordinary stroke of business. Once or twice subsequently Wethermill, who was the only safe go-between, went to the house in Geneva, altering his hair and wearing a moustache, to complete the arrangements. He maintained firmly at his trial that at none of these meetings was there any talk of murder.
"To be sure," said the judge, with a savage sarcasm. "In decent conversation there is always a reticence. Something is left to be understood."
And it is difficult to understand how murder could not have been an essential part of their plan, since—-But let us see what happened.