Helene Vauquier locked the door of the salon upon the inside and placed the key upon the mantel-shelf, as she had always done whenever a seance had been held. The curtains had been loosened at the sides of the arched recess in front of the glass doors, ready to be drawn across. Inside the recess, against one of the pillars which supported the arch, a high stool without a back, taken from the hall, had been placed, and the back legs of the stool had been lashed with cord firmly to the pillar, so that it could not be moved. The round table had been put in position, with three chairs about it. Mme. Dauvray waited impatiently. Celia stood apparently unconcerned, apparently lost to all that was going on. Her eyes saw no one. Adele looked up at Celia, and laughed maliciously.
"Mademoiselle, I see, is in the very mood to produce the most wonderful phenomena. But it will be better, I think, madame," she said, turning to Mme. Dauvray, "that Mlle. Celie should put on those gloves which I see she has thrown on to a chair. It will be a little more difficult for mademoiselle to loosen these cords, should she wish to do so."
The argument silenced Celia. If she refused this condition now she would excite Mme. Dauvray to a terrible suspicion. She drew on her gloves ruefully and slowly, smoothed them over her elbows, and buttoned them. To free her hands with her fingers and wrists already hampered in gloves would not be so easy a task. But there was no escape. Adele Rossignol was watching her with a satiric smile. Mme. Dauvray was urging her to be quick. Obeying a second order the girl raised her skirt and extended a slim foot in a pale-green silk stocking and a satin slipper to match. Adele was content. Celia was wearing the shoes she was meant to wear. They were made upon the very same last as those which Celia had just kicked off upstairs. An almost imperceptible nod from Helene Vauquier, moreover, assured her.
She took up a length of the thin cord.
"Now, how are we to begin?" she said awkwardly. "I think I will ask you, mademoiselle, to put your hands behind you."
Celia turned her back and crossed her wrists. She stood in her satin frock, with her white arms and shoulders bare, her slender throat supporting her small head with its heavy curls, her big hat—a picture of young grace and beauty. She would have had an easy task that night had there been men instead of women to put her to the test. But the women were intent upon their own ends: Mme. Dauvray eager for her seance, Adele Tace and Helene Vauquier for the climax of their plot.
Celia clenched her hands to make the muscles of her wrists rigid to resist the pressure of the cord. Adele quietly unclasped them and placed them palm to palm. And at once Celia became uneasy. It was not merely the action, significant though it was of Adele's alertness to thwart her, which troubled Celia. But she was extraordinarily receptive of impressions, extraordinarily quick to feel, from a touch, some dim sensation of the thought of the one who touched her. So now the touch of Adele's swift, strong, nervous hands caused her a queer, vague shock of discomfort. It was no more than that at the moment, but it was quite definite as that.
"Keep your hands so, please, mademoiselle," said Adele; "your fingers loose."
And the next moment Celia winced and had to bite her lip to prevent a cry. The thin cord was wound twice about her wrists, drawn cruelly tight and then cunningly knotted. For one second Celia was thankful for her gloves; the next, more than ever she regretted that she wore them. It would have been difficult enough for her to free her hands now, even without them. And upon that a worse thing befell her.
"I beg mademoiselle's pardon if I hurt her," said Adele.
And she tied the girl's thumbs and little fingers. To slacken the knots she must have the use of her fingers, even though her gloves made them fumble. Now she had lost the use of them altogether. She began to feel that she was in master-hands. She was sure of it the next instant. For Adele stood up, and, passing a cord round the upper part of her arms, drew her elbows back. To bring any strength to help her in wriggling her hands free she must be able to raise her elbows. With them trussed in the small of her back she was robbed entirely of her strength. And all the time her strange uneasiness grew. She made a movement of revolt, and at once the cord was loosened.
"Mlle. Celie objects to my tests," said Adele, with a laugh, to Mme. Dauvray. "And I do not wonder."
Celia saw upon the old woman's foolish and excited face a look of veritable consternation.
"Are you afraid, Celie?" she asked.
There was anger, there was menace in the voice, but above all these there was fear—fear that her illusions were to tumble about her. Celia heard that note and was quelled by it. This folly of belief, these seances, were the one touch of colour in Mme. Dauvray's life. And it was just that instinctive need of colour which had made her so easy to delude. How strong the need is, how seductive the proposal to supply it, Celia knew well. She knew it from the experience of her life when the Great Fortinbras was at the climax of his fortunes. She had travelled much amongst monotonous, drab towns without character or amusements. She had kept her eyes open. She had seen that it was from the denizens of the dull streets in these towns that the quack religions won their recruits. Mme. Dauvray's life had been a featureless sort of affair until these experiments had come to colour it. Madame Dauvray must at any rate preserve the memory of that colour.
"No," she said boldly; "I am not afraid," and after that she moved no more.
Her elbows were drawn firmly back and tightly bound. She was sure she could not free them. She glanced in despair at Helene Vauquier, and then some glimmer of hope sprang up. For Helene Vauquier gave her a look, a smile of reassurance. It was as if she said, "I will come to your help." Then, to make security still more sure, Adele turned the girl about as unceremoniously as if she had been a doll, and, passing a cord at the back of her arms, drew both ends round in front and knotted them at her waist.
"Now, Celie," said Adele, with a vibration in her voice which Celia had not remarked before.
Excitement was gaining upon her, as upon Mme. Dauvray. Her face was flushed and shiny, her manner peremptory and quick. Celia's uneasiness grew into fear. She could have used the words which Hanaud spoke the next day in that very room—"There is something here which I do not understand." The touch of Adele Tace's hands communicated something to her—something which filled her with a vague alarm. She could not have formulated it if she would; she dared not if she could. She had but to stand and submit.
"Now," said Adele.
She took the girl by the shoulders and set her in a clear space in the middle of the room, her back to the recess, her face to the mirror, where all could see her.
"Now, Celie"—she had dropped the "Mlle." and the ironic suavity of her manner—"try to free yourself."
For a moment the girl's shoulders worked, her hands fluttered. But they remained helplessly bound.
"Ah, you will be content, Adele, to-night," cried Mme. Dauvray eagerly.
But even in the midst of her eagerness—so thoroughly had she been prepared—there lingered a flavour of doubt, of suspicion. In Celia's mind there was still the one desperate resolve.
"I must succeed to-night," she said to herself—"I must!"
Adele Rossignol kneeled on the floor behind her. She gathered in carefully the girl's frock. Then she picked up the long train, wound it tightly round her limbs, pinioning and swathing them in the folds of satin, and secured the folds with a cord about the knees.
She stood up again.
"Can you walk, Celie?" she asked. "Try!"
With Helene Vauquier to support her if she fell, Celia took a tiny shuffling step forward, feeling supremely ridiculous. No one, however, of her audience was inclined to laugh. To Mme. Dauvray the whole business was as serious as the most solemn ceremonial. Adele was intent upon making her knots secure. Helene Vauquier was the well-bred servant who knew her place. It was not for her to laugh at her young mistress, in however ludicrous a situation she might be.
"Now," said Adele, "we will tie mademoiselle's ankles, and then we shall be ready for Mme. de Montespan."
The raillery in her voice had a note of savagery in it now. Celia's vague terror grew. She had a feeling that a beast was waking in the woman, and with it came a growing premonition of failure. Vainly she cried to herself, "I must not fail to-night." But she felt instinctively that there was a stronger personality than her own in that room, taming her, condemning her to failure, influencing the others.
She was placed in a chair. Adele passed a cord round her ankles, and the mere touch of it quickened Celia to a spasm of revolt. Her last little remnant of liberty was being taken from her. She raised herself, or rather would have raised herself. But Helene with gentle hands held her in the chair, and whispered under her breath:
"Have no fear! Madame is watching."
Adele looked fiercely up into the girl's face.
"Keep still, HEIN, LA PETITE!" she cried. And the epithet—"little one"—was a light to Celia. Till now, upon these occasions, with her black ceremonial dress, her air of aloofness, her vague eyes, and the dignity of her carriage, she had already produced some part of their effect before the seance had begun. She had been wont to sail into the room, distant, mystical. She had her audience already expectant of mysteries, prepared for marvels. Her work was already half done. But now of all that help she was deprived. She was no longer a person aloof, a prophetess, a seer of visions; she was simply a smartly-dressed girl of to-day, trussed up in a ridiculous and painful position—that was all. The dignity was gone. And the more she realised that, the more she was hindered from influencing her audience, the less able she was to concentrate her mind upon them, to will them to favour her. Mme. Dauvray's suspicions, she was sure, were still awake. She could not quell them. There was a stronger personality than hers at work in the room. The cord bit through her thin stockings into her ankles. She dared not complain. It was savagely tied. She made no remonstrance. And then Helene Vauquier raised her up from the chair and lifted her easily off the ground. For a moment she held her so. If Celia had felt ridiculous before, she knew that she was ten times more so now. She could see herself as she hung in Helene Vauquier's arms, with her delicate frock ludicrously swathed and swaddled about her legs. But, again, of those who watched her no one smiled.
"We have had no such tests as these," Mme. Dauvray explained, half in fear, half in hope.
Adele Rossignol looked the girl over and nodded her head with satisfaction. She had no animosity towards Celia; she had really no feeling of any kind for her or against her. Fortunately she was unaware at this time that Harry Wethermill had been paying his court to her or it would have gone worse with Mlle. Celie before the night was out. Mlle. Celie was just a pawn in a very dangerous game which she happened to be playing, and she had succeeded in engineering her pawn into the desired condition of helplessness. She was content.
"Mademoiselle," she said, with a smile, "you wish me to believe. You have now your opportunity."
Opportunity! And she was helpless. She knew very well that she could never free herself from these cords without Helene's help. She would fail, miserably and shamefully fail.
"It was madame who wished you to believe," she stammered.
And Adele Rossignol laughed suddenly—a short, loud, harsh laugh, which jarred upon the quiet of the room. It turned Celia's vague alarm into a definite terror. Some magnetic current brought her grave messages of fear. The air about her seemed to tingle with strange menaces. She looked at Adele. Did they emanate from her? And her terror answered her "Yes." She made her mistake in that. The strong personality in the room was not Adele Rossignol, but Helene Vauquier, who held her like a child in her arms. But she was definitely aware of danger, and too late aware of it. She struggled vainly. From her head to her feet she was powerless. She cried out hysterically to her patron:
"Madame! Madame! There is something—a presence here—some one who means harm! I know it!"
And upon the old woman's face there came a look, not of alarm, but of extraordinary relief. The genuine, heartfelt cry restored her confidence in Celia.
"Some one—who means harm!" she whispered, trembling with excitement.
"Ah, mademoiselle is already under control," said Helene, using the jargon which she had learnt from Celia's lips.
Adele Rossignol grinned.
"Yes, LA PETITE is under control," she repeated, with a sneer; and all the elegance of her velvet gown was unable to hide her any longer from Celia's knowledge. Her grin had betrayed her. She was of the dregs. But Helene Vauquier whispered:
"Keep still, mademoiselle. I shall help you."
Vauquier carried the girl into the recess and placed her upon the stool. With a long cord Adele bound her by the arms and the waist to the pillar, and her ankles she fastened to the rung of the stool, so that they could not touch the ground.
"Thus we shall be sure that when we hear rapping it will be the spirits, and not the heels, which rap," she said. "Yes, I am contented now." And she added, with a smile, "Celie may even have her scarf," and, picking up a white scarf of tulle which Celia had brought down with her, she placed it carelessly round her shoulders.
"Wait!" Helene Vauquier whispered in Celia's ear.
To the cord about Celia's waist Adele was fastening a longer line.
"I shall keep my foot on the other end of this," she said, "when the lights are out, and I shall know then if our little one frees herself."
The three women went out of the recess. And the next moment the heavy silk curtains swung across the opening, leaving Celia in darkness. Quickly and noiselessly the poor girl began to twist and work her hands. But she only bruised her wrists. This was to be the last of the seances. But it must succeed! So much of Mme. Dauvray's happiness, so much of her own, hung upon its success. Let her fail to-night, she would be surely turned from the door. The story of her trickery and her exposure would run through Aix. And she had not told Harry! It would reach his ears from others. He would never forgive her. To face the old, difficult life of poverty and perhaps starvation again, and again alone, would be hard enough; but to face it with Harry Wethermill's contempt added to its burdens—as the poor girl believed she surely would have to do—no, that would be impossible! Not this time would she turn away from the Seine, because it was so terrible and cold. If she had had the courage to tell him yesterday, he would have forgiven, surely he would! The tears gathered in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. What would become of her now? She was in pain besides. The cords about her arms and ankles tortured her. And she feared—yes, desperately she feared the effect of the exposure upon Mme. Dauvray. She had been treated as a daughter; now she was in return to rob Mme. Dauvray of the belief which had become the passion of her life.
"Let us take our seats at the table," she heard Mme. Dauvray say. "Helene, you are by the switch of the electric light. Will you turn it off?" And upon that Helene whispered, yet so that the whisper reached to Celia and awakened hope:
"Wait! I will see what she is doing."
The curtains opened, and Helene Vauquier slipped to the girl's side.
Celia checked her tears. She smiled imploringly, gratefully.
"What shall I do?" asked Helene, in a voice so low that the movement of her mouth rather than the words made the question clear.
Celia raised her head to answer. And then a thing incomprehensible to her happened. As she opened her lips Helene Vauquier swiftly forced a handkerchief in between the girl's teeth, and lifting the scarf from her shoulders wound it tightly twice across her mouth, binding her lips, and made it fast under the brim of her hat behind her head. Celia tried to scream; she could not utter a sound. She stared at Helene with incredulous, horror-stricken eyes. Helene nodded at her with a cruel grin of satisfaction, and Celia realised, though she did not understand, something of the rancour and the hatred which seethed against her in the heart of the woman whom she had supplanted. Helene Vauquier meant to expose her to-night; Celia had not a doubt of it. That was her explanation of Helene Vauquier's treachery; and believing that error, she believed yet another—that she had reached the terrible climax of her troubles. She was only at the beginning of them.
"Helene!" cried Mme. Dauvray sharply. "What are you doing?"
The maid instantly slid back into the room.
"Mademoiselle has not moved," she said.
Celia heard the women settle in their chairs about the table.
"Is madame ready?" asked Helene; and then there was the sound of the snap of a switch. In the salon darkness had come.
If only she had not been wearing her gloves, Celia thought, she might possibly have just been able to free her fingers and her supple hands from their bonds. But as it was she was helpless. She could only sit and wait until the audience in the salon grew tired of waiting and came to her. She closed her eyes, pondering if by any chance she could excuse her failure. But her heart sank within her as she thought of Mme. Rossignol's raillery. No, it was all over for her. ...
She opened her eyes, and she wondered. It seemed to her that there was more light in the recess than there had been when she closed them. Very likely her eyes were growing used to the darkness. Yet—yet—she ought not to be able to distinguish quite so clearly the white pillar opposite to her. She looked towards the glass doors and understood. The wooden shutters outside the doors were not quite closed. They had been carelessly left unbolted. A chink from lintel to floor let in a grey thread of light. Celia heard the women whispering in the salon, and turned her head to catch the words.
"Do you hear any sound?"
"Was that a hand which touched me?"
"We must wait."
And so silence came again, and suddenly there was quite a rush of light into the recess. Celia was startled. She turned her head back again towards the window. The wooden door had swung a little more open. There was a wider chink to let the twilight of that starlit darkness through. And as she looked, the chink slowly broadened and broadened, the door swung slowly back on hinges which were strangely silent. Celia stared at the widening panel of grey light with a vague terror. It was strange that she could hear no whisper of wind in the garden. Why, oh, why was that latticed door opening so noiselessly? Almost she believed that the spirits after all... And suddenly the recess darkened again, and Celia sat with her heart leaping and shivering in her breast. There was something black against the glass doors—a man. He had appeared as silently, as suddenly, as any apparition. He stood blocking out the light, pressing his face against the glass, peering into the room. For a moment the shock of horror stunned her. Then she tore frantically at the cords. All thought of failure, of exposure, of dismissal had fled from her. The three poor women—that was her thought—were sitting unwarned, unsuspecting, defenceless in the pitch-blackness of the salon. A few feet away a man, a thief, was peering in. They were waiting for strange things to happen in the darkness. Strange and terrible things would happen unless she could free herself, unless she could warn them. And she could not. Her struggles were mere efforts to struggle, futile, a shiver from head to foot, and noiseless as a shiver. Adele Rossignol had done her work well and thoroughly. Celia's arms, her waist, her ankles were pinioned; only the bandage over her mouth seemed to be loosening. Then upon horror, horror was added. The man touched the glass doors, and they swung silently inwards. They, too, had been carelessly left unbolted. The man stepped without a sound over the sill into the room. And, as he stepped, fear for herself drove out for the moment from Celia's thoughts fear for the three women in the black room. If only he did not see her! She pressed herself against the pillar. He might overlook her, perhaps! His eyes would not be so accustomed to the darkness of the recess as hers. He might pass her unnoticed—if only he did not touch some fold of her dress.
And then, in the midst of her terror, she experienced so great a revulsion from despair to joy that a faintness came upon her, and she almost swooned. She saw who the intruder was. For when he stepped into the recess he turned towards her, and the dim light struck upon him and showed her the contour of his face. It was her lover, Harry Wethermill. Why he had come at this hour, and in this strange way, she did not consider. Now she must attract his eyes, now her fear was lest he should not see her.
But he came at once straight towards her. He stood in front of her, looking into her eyes. But he uttered no cry. He made no movement of surprise. Celia did not understand it. His face was in the shadow now and she could not see it. Of course, he was stunned, amazed. But—but—he stood almost as if he had expected to find her there and just in that helpless attitude. It was absurd, of course, but he seemed to look upon her helplessness as nothing out of the ordinary way. And he raised no hand to set her free. A chill struck through her. But the next moment he did raise his hand and the blood flowed again, at her heart. Of course, she was in the darkness. He had not seen her plight. Even now he was only beginning to be aware of it. For his hand touched the bandage over her mouth—tentatively. He felt for the knot under the broad brim of her hat at the back of her head. He found it. In a moment she would be free. She kept her head quite still, and then—why was he so long? she asked herself. Oh, it was not possible! But her heart seemed to stop, and she knew that it was not only possible—it was true: he was tightening the scarf, not loosening it. The folds bound her lips more surely. She felt the ends drawn close at the back of her head. In a frenzy she tried to shake her head free. But he held her face firmly and finished his work. He was wearing gloves, she noticed with horror, just as thieves do. Then his hands slid down her trembling arms and tested the cord about her wrists. There was something horribly deliberate about his movements. Celia, even at that moment, even with him, had the sensation which had possessed her in the salon. It was the personal equation on which she was used to rely. But neither Adele nor this—this STRANGER was considering her as even a human being. She was a pawn in their game, and they used her, careless of her terror, her beauty, her pain. Then he freed from her waist the long cord which ran beneath the curtain to Adele Rossignol's foot. Celia's first thought was one of relief. He would jerk the cord unwittingly. They would come into the recess and see him. And then the real truth flashed in upon her blindingly. He had jerked the cord, but he had jerked it deliberately. He was already winding it up in a coil as it slid noiselessly across the polished floor beneath the curtains towards him. He had given a signal to Adele Rossignol. All that woman's scepticism and precaution against trickery had been a mere blind, under cover of which she had been able to pack the girl away securely without arousing her suspicions. Helene Vauquier was in the plot, too. The scarf at Celia's mouth was proof of that. As if to add proof to proof, she heard Adele Rossignol speak in answer to the signal.
"Are we all ready? Have you got Mme. Dauvray's left hand, Helene?"
"Yes, madame," answered the maid.
"And I have her right hand. Now give me yours, and thus we are in a circle about the table."
Celia, in her mind, could see them sitting about the round table in the darkness, Mme. Dauvray between the two women, securely held by them. And she herself could not utter a cry—could not move a muscle to help her.
Wethermill crept back on noiseless feet to the window, closed the wooden doors, and slid the bolts into their sockets. Yes, Helene Vauquier was in the plot. The bolts and the hinges would not have worked so smoothly but for her. Darkness again filled the recess instead of the grey twilight. But in a moment a faint breath of wind played upon Celia's forehead, and she knew that the man had parted the curtains and slipped into the room. Celia let her head fall towards her shoulder. She was sick and faint with terror. Her lover was in this plot—the lover in whom she had felt so much pride, for whose sake she had taken herself so bitterly to task. He was the associate of Adele Rossignol, of Helene Vauquier. He had used her, Celia, as an instrument for his crime. All their hours together at the Villa des Fleurs—here to-night was their culmination. The blood buzzed in her ears and hammered in the veins of her temples. In front of her eyes the darkness whirled, flecked with fire. She would have fallen, but she could not fall. Then, in the silence, a tambourine jangled. There was to be a seance to-night, then, and the seance had begun. In a dreadful suspense she heard Mme. Dauvray speak.