THE AFTERNOON OF TUESDAY
Mme. Dauvray and Celia found Adele Rossignol, to give Adele Tace the name which she assumed, waiting for them impatiently in the garden of an hotel at Annecy, on the Promenade du Paquier. She was a tall, lithe woman, and she was dressed, by the purse and wish of Helene Vauquier, in a robe and a long coat of sapphire velvet, which toned down the coarseness of her good looks and lent something of elegance to her figure.
"So it is mademoiselle," Adele began, with a smile of raillery, "who is so remarkably clever."
"Clever?" answered Celia, looking straight at Adele, as though through her she saw mysteries beyond. She took up her part at once. Since for the last time it had got to be played, there must be no fault in the playing. For her own sake, for the sake of Mme. Dauvray's happiness, she must carry it off to-night with success. The suspicions of Adele Rossignol must obtain no verification. She spoke in a quiet and most serious voice. "Under spirit-control no one is clever. One does the bidding of the spirit which controls."
"Perfectly," said Adele in a malicious tone. "I only hope you will see to it, mademoiselle, that some amusing spirits control you this evening and appear before us."
"I am only the living gate by which the spirit forms pass from the realm of mind into the world of matter," Celia replied.
"Quite so," said Adele comfortably. "Now let us be sensible and dine. We can amuse ourselves with mademoiselle's rigmaroles afterwards."
Mme. Dauvray was indignant. Celia, for her part, felt humiliated and small. They sat down to their dinner in the garden, but the rain began to fall and drove them indoors. There were a few people dining at the same hour, but none near enough to overhear them. Alike in the garden and the dining-room, Adele Tace kept up the same note of ridicule and disbelief. She had been carefully tutored for her work. She was able to cite the stock cases of exposure—"LES FRERES Davenport," as she called them, Eusapia Palladino and Dr. Slade. She knew the precautions which had been taken to prevent trickery and where those precautions had failed. Her whole conversation was carefully planned to one end, and to one end alone. She wished to produce in the minds of her companions so complete an impression of her scepticism that it would seem the most natural thing in the world to both of them that she should insist upon subjecting Celia to the severest tests. The rain ceased, and they took their coffee on the terrace of the hotel. Mme. Dauvray had been really pained by the conversation of Adele Tace. She had all the missionary zeal of a fanatic.
"I do hope, Adele, that we shall make you believe. But we shall. Oh, I am confident we shall." And her voice was feverish.
Adele dropped for the moment her tone of raillery.
"I am not unwilling to believe," she said, "but I cannot. I am interested—yes. You see how much I have studied the subject. But I cannot believe. I have heard stories of how these manifestations are produced—stories which make me laugh. I cannot help it. The tricks are so easy. A young girl wearing a black frock which does not rustle—it is always a black frock, is it not, because a black frock cannot be seen in the dark?—carrying a scarf or veil, with which she can make any sort of headdress if only she is a little clever, and shod in a pair of felt-soled slippers, is shut up in a cabinet or placed behind a screen, and the lights are turned down or out—" Adele broke off with a comic shrug of the shoulders. "Bah! It ought not to deceive a child."
Celia sat with a face which WOULD grow red. She did not look, but none the less she was aware that Mme. Dauvray was gazing at her with a perplexed frown and some return of her suspicion showing in her eyes. Adele Tace was not content to leave the subject there.
"Perhaps," she said, with a smile, "Mlle. Celie dresses in that way for a seance?"
"Madame shall see to-night," Celia stammered, and Camille Dauvray rather sternly repeated her words.
"Yes, Adele shall see to-night. I myself will decide what you shall wear, Celie."
Adele Tace casually suggested the kind of dress which she would prefer.
"Something light in colour with a train, something which will hiss and whisper if mademoiselle moves about the room—yes, and I think one of mademoiselle's big hats," she said. "We will have mademoiselle as modern as possible, so that, when the great ladies of the past appear in the coiffure of their day, we may be sure it is not Mlle. Celie who represents them."
"I will speak to Helene," said Mme. Dauvray, and Adele Tace was content.
There was a particular new dress of which she knew, and it was very desirable that Mlle. Celie should wear it to-night. For one thing, if Celia wore it, it would help the theory that she had put it on because she expected that night a lover; for another, with that dress there went a pair of satin slippers which had just come home from a shoemaker at Aix, and which would leave upon soft mould precisely the same imprints as the grey suede shoes which the girl was wearing now.
Celia was not greatly disconcerted by Mme. Rossignol's precautions. She would have to be a little more careful, and Mme. de Montespan would be a little longer in responding to the call of Mme. Dauvray than most of the other dead ladies of the past had been. But that was all. She was, however, really troubled in another way. All through dinner, at every word of the conversation, she had felt her reluctance towards this seance swelling into a positive disgust. More than once she had felt driven by some uncontrollable power to rise up at the table and cry out to Adele:
"You are right! It IS trickery. There is no truth in it."
But she had mastered herself. For opposite to her sat her patroness, her good friend, the woman who had saved her. The flush upon Mme. Dauvray's cheeks and the agitation of her manner warned Celia how much hung upon the success of this last seance. How much for both of them!
And in the fullness of that knowledge a great fear assailed her. She began to be afraid, so strong was her reluctance, that she would not bring her heart into the task. "Suppose I failed to-night because I could not force myself to wish not to fail!" she thought, and she steeled herself against the thought. To-night she must not fail. For apart altogether from Mme. Dauvray's happiness, her own, it seemed, was at stake too.
"It must be from my lips that Harry learns what I have been," she said to herself, and with the resolve she strengthened herself.
"I will wear what you please," she said, with a smile. "I only wish Mme. Rossignol to be satisfied."
"And I shall be," said Adele, "if—" She leaned forward in anxiety. She had come to the real necessity of Helene Vauquier's plan. "If we abandon as quite laughable the cupboard door and the string across it; if, in a word, mademoiselle consents that we tie her hand and foot and fasten her securely in a chair. Such restraints are usual in the experiments of which I have read. Was there not a medium called Mlle. Cook who was secured in this way, and then remarkable things, which I could not believe, were supposed to have happened?"
"Certainly I permit it," said Celia, with indifference; and Mme. Dauvray cried enthusiastically:
"Ah, you shall believe to-night in those wonderful things!"
Adele Tace leaned back. She drew a breath. It was a breath of relief.
"Then we will buy the cord in Aix," she said.
"We have some, no doubt, in the house," said Mme. Dauvray.
Adele shook her head and smiled.
"My dear madame, you are dealing with a sceptic. I should not be content."
Celia shrugged her shoulders.
"Let us satisfy Mme. Rossignol," she said.
Celia, indeed, was not alarmed by this last precaution. For her it was a test less difficult than the light-coloured rustling robe. She had appeared upon so many platforms, had experienced too often the bungling efforts of spectators called up from the audience, to be in any fear. There were very few knots from which her small hands and supple fingers had not learnt long since to extricate themselves. She was aware how much in all these matters the personal equation counted. Men who might, perhaps, have been able to tie knots from which she could not get free were always too uncomfortable and self-conscious, or too afraid of hurting her white arms and wrists, to do it. Women, on the other hand, who had no compunctions of that kind, did not know how.
It was now nearly eight o'clock; the rain still held off.
"We must go," said Mme. Dauvray, who for the last half-hour had been continually looking at her watch.
They drove to the station and took the train. Once more the rain came down, but it had stopped again before the train steamed into Aix at nine o'clock.
"We will take a cab," said Mme. Dauvray: "it will save time."
"It will do us good to walk, madame," pleaded Adele. The train was full. Adele passed quickly out from the lights of the station in the throng of passengers and waited in the dark square for the others to join her. "It is barely nine. A friend has promised to call at the Villa Rose for me after eleven and drive me back in a motor-car to Geneva, so we have plenty of time."
They walked accordingly up the hill, Mme. Dauvray slowly, since she was stout, and Celia keeping pace with her. Thus it seemed natural that Adele Tace should walk ahead, though a passer-by would not have thought she was of their company. At the corner of the Rue du Casino Adele waited for them and said quickly:
"Mademoiselle, you can get some cord, I think, at the shop there," and she pointed to the shop of M. Corval. "Madame and I will go slowly on; you, who are the youngest, will easily catch us up." Celia went into the shop, bought the cord, and caught Mme. Dauvray up before she reached the villa.
"Where is Mme. Rossignol?" she asked.
"She went on," said Camille Dauvray. "She walks faster than I do."
They passed no one whom they knew, although they did pass one who recognised them, as Perrichet had discovered. They came upon Adele, waiting for them at the corner of the road, where it turns down toward the villa.
"It is near here—the Villa Rose?" she asked.
"A minute more and we are there."
They turned in at the drive, closed the gate behind them, and walked up to the villa.
The windows and the glass doors were closed, the latticed shutters fastened. A light burned in the hall.
"Helene is expecting us," said Mme. Dauvray, for as they approached she saw the front door open to admit them, and Helene Vauquier in the doorway. The three women went straight into the little salon, which was ready with the lights up and a small fire burning. Celia noticed the fire with a trifle of dismay. She moved a fire-screen in front of it.
"I can understand why you do that, mademoiselle," said Adele Rossignol, with a satirical smile. But Mme. Dauvray came to the girl's help.
"She is right, Adele. Light is the great barrier between us and the spirit-world," she said solemnly.
Meanwhile, in the hall Helene Vauquier locked and bolted the front door. Then she stood motionless, with a smile upon her face and a heart beating high. All through that afternoon she had been afraid that some accident at the last moment would spoil her plan, that Adele Tace had not learned her lesson, that Celie would take fright, that she would not return. Now all those fears were over. She had her victims safe within the villa. The charwoman had been sent home. She had them to herself. She was still standing in the hall when Mme. Dauvray called aloud impatiently:
And when she entered the salon there was still, as Celia was able to recall, some trace of her smile lingering upon her face.
Adele Rossignol had removed her hat and was taking off her gloves. Mme. Dauvray was speaking impatiently to Celia.
"We will arrange the room, dear, while Helene helps you to dress. It will be quite easy. We shall use the recess."
And Celia, as she ran up the stairs, heard Mme. Dauvray discussing with her maid what frock she should wear. She was hot, and she took a hurried bath. When she came from her bathroom she saw with dismay that it was her new pale-green evening gown which had been laid out. It was the last which she would have chosen. But she dared not refuse it. She must still any suspicion. She must succeed. She gave herself into Helene's hands. Celia remembered afterwards one or two points which passed barely heeded at the time. Once while Helene was dressing her hair she looked up at the maid in the mirror and noticed a strange and rather horrible grin upon her face, which disappeared the moment their eyes met. Then again, Helene was extraordinarily slow and extraordinarily fastidious that evening. Nothing satisfied her, neither the hang of the girl's skirt, the folds of her sash, nor the arrangement of her hair.
"Come, Helene, be quick," said Celia. "You know how madame hates to be kept waiting at these times. You might be dressing me to go to meet my lover," she added, with a blush and a smile at her own pretty reflection in the glass; and a queer look came upon Helene Vauquier's face. For it was at creating just this very impression that she aimed.
"Very well, mademoiselle," said Helene. And even as she spoke Mme. Dauvray's voice rang shrill and irritable up the stairs.
"Quick, Helene," said Celia. For she herself was now anxious to have the seance over and done with.
But Helene did not hurry. The more irritable Mme. Dauvray became, the more impatient with Mlle. Celie, the less would Mlle. Celie dare to refuse the tests Adele wished to impose upon her. But that was not all. She took a subtle and ironic pleasure to-night in decking out her victim's natural loveliness. Her face, her slender throat, her white shoulders, should look their prettiest, her grace of limb and figure should be more alluring than ever before. The same words, indeed, were running through both women's minds.
"For the last time," said Celia to herself, thinking of these horrible seances, of which to-night should see the end.
"For the last time," said Helene Vauquier too. For the last time she laced the girl's dress. There would be no more patient and careful service for Mlle. Celie after to-night. But she should have it and to spare to-night. She should be conscious that her beauty had never made so strong an appeal; that she was never so fit for life as at the moment when the end had come. One thing Helene regretted. She would have liked Celia—Celia, smiling at herself in the glass—to know suddenly what was in store for her! She saw in imagination the colour die from the cheeks, the eyes stare wide with terror.
Again the impatient voice rang up the stairs, as Helene pinned the girl's hat upon her fair head. Celie sprang up, took a quick step or two towards the door, and stopped in dismay. The swish of her long satin train must betray her. She caught up the dress and tried again. Even so, the rustle of it was heard.
"I shall have to be very careful. You will help me, Helene?"
"Of course, mademoiselle. I will sit underneath the switch of the light in the salon. If madame, your visitor, makes the experiment too difficult, I will find a way to help you," said Helene Vauquier, and as she spoke she handed Celia a long pair of white gloves.
"I shall not want them," said Celia.
"Mme. Dauvray ordered me to give them to you," replied Helene.
Celia took them hurriedly, picked up a white scarf of tulle, and ran down the stairs. Helene Vauquier listened at the door and heard madame's voice in feverish anger.
"We have been waiting for you, Celie. You have been an age."
Helene Vauquier laughed softly to herself, took out Celia's white frock from the wardrobe, turned off the lights, and followed her down to the hall. She placed the cloak just outside the door of the salon. Then she carefully turned out all the lights in the hall and in the kitchen and went into the salon. The rest of the house was in darkness. This room was brightly lit; and it had been made ready.