CHAPTER XVI

THE FIRST MOVE

On the Friday before the crime was committed Mme. Dauvray and Celia dined at the Villa des Fleurs. While they were drinking their coffee Harry Wethermill joined them. He stayed with them until Mme. Dauvray was ready to move, and then all three walked into the baccarat rooms together. But there, in the throng of people, they were separated.

Harry Wethermill was looking carefully after Celia, as a good lover should. He had, it seemed, no eyes for any one else; and it was not until a minute or two had passed that the girl herself noticed that Mme. Dauvray was not with them.

"We will find her easily," said Harry.

"Of course," replied Celia.

"There is, after all, no hurry," said Wethermill, with a laugh; "and perhaps she was not unwilling to leave us together."

Celia dimpled to a smile.

"Mme. Dauvray is kind to me," she said, with a very pretty timidity.

"And yet more kind to me," said Wethermill in a low voice which brought the blood into Celia's cheeks.

But even while he spoke he soon caught sight of Mme. Dauvray standing by one of the tables; and near to her was Adele Tace. Adele had not yet made Mme. Dauvray's acquaintance; that was evident. She was apparently unaware of her; but she was gradually edging towards her. Wethermill smiled, and Celia caught the smile.

"What is it?" she asked, and her head began to turn in the direction of Mme. Dauvray.

"Why, I like your frock—that's all," said Wethermill at once; and Celia's eyes went down to it.

"Do you?" she said, with a pleased smile. It was a dress of dark blue which suited her well. "I am glad. I think it is pretty." And they passed on.

Wethermill stayed by the girl's side throughout the evening. Once again he saw Mme. Dauvray and Adele Tace. But now they were together; now they were talking. The first step had been taken. Adele Tace had scraped acquaintance with Mme. Dauvray. Celia saw them almost at the same moment.

"Oh, there is Mme. Dauvray," she cried, taking a step towards her.

Wethermill detained the girl.

"She seems quite happy," he said; and, indeed, Mme. Dauvray was talking volubly and with the utmost interest, the jewels sparkling about her neck. She raised her head, saw Celia, nodded to her affectionately, and then pointed her out to her companion. Adele Tace looked the girl over with interest and smiled contentedly. There was nothing to be feared from her. Her youth, her very daintiness, seemed to offer her as the easiest of victims.

"You see Mme. Dauvray does not want you," said Harry Wethermill. "Let us go and play CHEMIN-DE-FER"; and they did, moving off into one of the further rooms.

It was not until another hour had passed that Celia rose and went in search of Mme. Dauvray. She found her still talking earnestly to Adele Tace. Mme. Dauvray got up at once.

"Are you ready to go, dear?" she asked, and she turned to Adele Tace. "This is Celie, Mme. Rossignol," she said, and she spoke with a marked significance and a note of actual exultation in her voice.

Celia, however, was not unused to this tone. Mme. Dauvray was proud of her companion, and had a habit of showing her off, to the girl's discomfort. The three women spoke a few words, and then Mme. Dauvray and Celia left the rooms and walked to the entrance-doors. But as they walked Celia became alarmed.

She was by nature extraordinarily sensitive to impressions. It was to that quick receptivity that the success of "The Great Fortinbras" had been chiefly due. She had a gift of rapid comprehension. It was not that she argued, or deducted, or inferred. But she felt. To take a metaphor from the work of the man she loved, she was a natural receiver. So now, although no word was spoken, she was aware that Mme. Dauvray was greatly excited—greatly disturbed; and she dreaded the reason of that excitement and disturbance.

While they were driving home in the motor-car she said apprehensively:

"You met a friend then, to-night, madame?"

"No," said Mme. Dauvray; "I made a friend. I had not met Mme. Rossignol before. A bracelet of hers came undone, and I helped her to fasten it. We talked afterwards. She lives in Geneva."

Mme. Dauvray was silent for a moment or two. Then she turned impulsively and spoke in a voice of appeal.

"Celie, we talked of things"; and the girl moved impatiently. She understood very well what were the things of which Mme. Dauvray and her new friend had talked. "And she laughed. ... I could not bear it."

Celia was silent, and Mme. Dauvray went on in a voice of awe:

"I told her of the wonderful things which happened when I sat with Helene in the dark—how the room filled with strange sounds, how ghostly fingers touched my forehead and my eyes. She laughed—Adele Rossignol laughed, Celie. I told her of the spirits with whom we held converse. She would not believe. Do you remember the evening, Celie, when Mme. de Castiglione came back an old, old woman, and told us how, when she had grown old and had lost her beauty and was very lonely, she would no longer live in the great house which was so full of torturing memories, but took a small APPARTEMENT near by, where no one knew her; and how she used to walk out late at night, and watch, with her eyes full of tears, the dark windows which had been once so bright with light? Adele Rossignol would not believe. I told her that I had found the story afterwards in a volume of memoirs. Adele Rossignol laughed and said no doubt you had read that volume yourself before the seance."

Celia stirred guiltily.

"She had no faith in you, Celie. It made me angry, dear. She said that you invented your own tests. She sneered at them. A string across a cupboard! A child, she said, could manage that; much more, then, a clever young lady. Oh, she admitted that you were clever! Indeed, she urged that you were far too clever to submit to the tests of some one you did not know. I replied that you would. I was right, Celie, was I not?"

And again the appeal sounded rather piteously in Mme. Dauvray's voice.

"Tests!" said Celia, with a contemptuous laugh. And, in truth, she was not afraid of them. Mme. Dauvray's voice at once took courage.

"There!" she cried triumphantly. "I was sure. I told her so. Celie, I arranged with her that next Tuesday—"

And Celia interrupted quickly.

"No! Oh, no!"

Again there was silence; and then Mme. Dauvray said gently, but very seriously:

"Celie, you are not kind."

Celia was moved by the reproach.

"Oh, madame!" she cried eagerly. "Please don't think that. How could I be anything else to you who are so kind to me?"

"Then prove it, Celie. On Tuesday I have asked Mme. Rossignol to come; and—" The old woman's voice became tremulous with excitement. "And perhaps—who knows?—perhaps SHE will appear to us."

Celia had no doubt who "she" was. She was Mme. de Montespan.

"Oh, no, madame!" she stammered. "Here, at Aix, we are not in the spirit for such things."

And then, in a voice of dread, Mme. Dauvray asked: "Is it true, then, what Adele said?"

And Celia started violently. Mme. Dauvray doubted.

"I believe it would break my heart, my dear, if I were to think that; if I were to know that you had tricked me," she said, with a trembling voice.

Celia covered her face with her hands. It would be true. She had no doubt of it. Mme. Dauvray would never forgive herself—would never forgive Celia. Her infatuation had grown so to engross her that the rest of her life would surely be embittered. It was not merely a passion—it was a creed as well. Celia shrank from the renewal of these seances. Every fibre in her was in revolt. They were so unworthy—so unworthy of Harry Wethermill, and of herself as she now herself wished to be. But she had to pay now; the moment for payment had come.

"Celie," said Mme. Dauvray, "it isn't true! Surely it isn't true?"

Celia drew her hands away from her face.

"Let Mme. Rossignol come on Tuesday!" she cried, and the old woman caught the girl's hand and pressed it with affection.

"Oh, thank you! thank you!" she cried. "Adele Rossignol laughs to-night; we shall convince her on Tuesday, Celie! Celie, I am so glad!" And her voice sank into a solemn whisper, pathetically ludicrous. "It is not right that she should laugh! To bring people back through the gates of the spirit-world—that is wonderful."

To Celia the sound of the jargon learnt from her own lips, used by herself so thoughtlessly in past times, was odious. "For the last time," she pleaded to herself. All her life was going to change; though no word had yet been spoken by Harry Wethermill, she was sure of it. Just for this one last time, then, so that she might leave Mme. Dauvray the colours of her belief, she would hold a seance at the Villa Rose.

Mme. Dauvray told the news to Helene Vauquier when they reached the villa.

"You will be present, Helene," she cried excitedly. "It will be Tuesday. There will be the three of us."

"Certainly, if madame wishes," said Helene submissively. She looked round the room. "Mlle. Celie can be placed on a chair in that recess and the curtains drawn, whilst we—madame and madame's friend and I—can sit round this table under the side windows."

"Yes," said Celia, "that will do very well."

It was Madame Dauvray's habit when she was particularly pleased with Celia to dismiss her maid quickly, and to send her to brush the girl's hair at night; and in a little while on this night Helene went to Celia's room. While she brushed Celia's hair she told her that Servettaz's parents lived at Chambery, and that he would like to see them.

"But the poor man is afraid to ask for a day," she said. "He has been so short a time with madame."

"Of course madame will give him a holiday if he asks," replied Celia with a smile. "I will speak to her myself to-morrow."

"It would be kind of mademoiselle," said Helene Vauquier. "But perhaps—" She stopped.

"Well," said Celia.

"Perhaps mademoiselle would do better still to speak to Servattaz himself and encourage him to ask with his own lips. Madame has her moods, is it not so? She does not always like it to be forgotten that she is the mistress."

On the next day accordingly Celia did speak to Servettaz, and Servettaz asked for his holiday.

"But of course," Mme. Dauvray at once replied. "We must decide upon a day."

It was then that Helene Vauquier ventured humbly upon a suggestion.

"Since madame has a friend coming here on Tuesday, perhaps that would be the best day for him to go. Madame would not be likely to take a long drive that afternoon."

"No, indeed," replied Mme. Dauvray. "We shall all three dine together early in Aix and return here."

"Then I will tell him he may go to-morrow," said Celia.

For this conversation took place on the Monday, and in the evening Mme. Dauvray and Celia went as usual to the Villa des Fleurs and dined there.

"I was in a bad mind," said Celia, when asked by the Juge d'Instruction to explain that attack of nerves in the garden which Ricardo had witnessed. "I hated more and more the thought of the seance which was to take place on the morrow. I felt that I was disloyal to Harry. My nerves were all tingling. I was not nice that night at all," she added quaintly. "But at dinner I determined that if I met Harry after dinner, as I was sure to do, I would tell him the whole truth about myself. However, when I did meet him I was frightened. I knew how stern he could suddenly look. I dreaded what he would think. I was too afraid that I should lose him. No, I could not speak; I had not the courage. That made me still more angry with myself, and so I—I quarrelled at once with Harry. He was surprised; but it was natural, wasn't it? What else should one do under such circumstances, except quarrel with the man one loved? Yes, I really quarrelled with him, and said things which I thought and hoped would hurt. Then I ran away from him lest I should break down and cry. I went to the tables and lost at once all the money I had except one note of five louis. But that did not console me. And I ran out into the garden, very unhappy. There I behaved like a child, and Mr. Ricardo saw me. But it was not the little money I had lost which troubled me; no, it was the thought of what a coward I was. Afterwards Harry and I made it up, and I thought, like the little fool I was, that he wanted to ask me to marry him. But I would not let him that night. Oh! I wanted him to ask me—I was longing for him to ask me—but not that night. Somehow I felt that the seance and the tricks must be all over and done with before I could listen or answer."

The quiet and simple confession touched the magistrate who listened to it with profound pity. He shaded his eyes with his hand. The girl's sense of her unworthiness, the love she had given so unstintingly to Harry Wethermill, the deep pride she had felt in the delusion that he loved her too, had in it an irony too bitter. But he was aroused to anger against the man.

"Go on, mademoiselle," he said. But in spite of himself his voice trembled.

"So I arranged with him that we should meet on Wednesday, as Mr. Ricardo heard."

"You told him that you would 'want him' on Wednesday," said the Judge quoting Mr. Ricardo's words.

"Yes," replied Celia. "I meant that the last word of all these deceptions would have been spoken. I should be free to hear what he had to say to me. You see, monsieur, I was so sure that I knew what it was he had to say to me—" and her voice broke upon the words. She recovered herself with an effort. "Then I went home with Mme. Dauvray."

On the morning of Tuesday, however, there came a letter from Adele Tace, of which no trace was afterwards discovered. The letter invited Mme. Dauvray and Celia to come out to Annecy and dine with her at an hotel there. They could then return together to Aix. The proposal fitted well with Mme. Dauvray's inclinations. She was in a feverish mood of excitement.

"Yes, it will be better that we dine quietly together in a place where there is no noise and no crowd, and where no one knows us," she said; and she looked up the time-table. "There is a train back which reaches Aix at nine o'clock," she said, "so we need not spoil Servettaz' holiday."

"His parents will be expecting him," Helene Vauquier added.

Accordingly Servettaz left for Chambery by the 1.50 train from Aix; and later on in the afternoon Mme. Dauvray and Celia went by train to Annecy. In the one woman's mind was the queer longing that "she" should appear and speak to-night; in the girl's there was a wish passionate as a cry. "This shall be the last time," she said to herself again and again—"the very last."

Meanwhile, Helene Vauquier, it must be held, burnt carefully Adele Taces letter. She was left in the Villa Rose with the charwoman to keep her company. The charwoman bore testimony that Helene Vauquier certainly did burn a letter in the kitchen-stove, and that after she had burned it she sat for a long time rocking herself in a chair, with a smile of great pleasure upon her face, and now and then moistening her lips with her tongue. But Helene Vauquier kept her mouth sealed.

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