HELENE VAUQUIER'S EVIDENCE
A nurse opened the door. Within the room Helene Vauquier was leaning back in a chair. She looked ill, and her face was very white. On the appearance of Hanaud, the Commissaire, and the others, however, she rose to her feet. Ricardo recognised the justice of Hanaud's description. She stood before them a hard-featured, tall woman of thirty-five or forty, in a neat black stuff dress, strong with the strength of a peasant, respectable, reliable. She looked what she had been, the confidential maid of an elderly woman. On her face there was now an aspect of eager appeal.
"Oh, monsieur!" she began, "let me go from here—anywhere—into prison if you like. But to stay here—where in years past we were so happy—and with madame lying in the room below. No, it is insupportable."
She sank into her chair, and Hanaud came over to her side.
"Yes, yes," he said, in a soothing voice. "I can understand your feelings, my poor woman. We will not keep you here. You have, perhaps, friends in Aix with whom you could stay?"
"Oh yes, monsieur!" Helene cried gratefully. "Oh, but I thank you! That I should have to sleep here to-night! Oh, how the fear of that has frightened me!"
"You need have had no such fear. After all, we are not the visitors of last night," said Hanaud, drawing a chair close to her and patting her hand sympathetically. "Now, I want you to tell these gentlemen and myself all that you know of this dreadful business. Take your time, mademoiselle! We are human."
"But, monsieur, I know nothing," she cried. "I was told that I might go to bed as soon as I had dressed Mlle. Celie for the seance."
"Seance!" cried Ricardo, startled into speech. The picture of the Assembly Hall at Leamington was again before his mind. But Hanaud turned towards him, and, though Hanaud's face retained its benevolent expression, there was a glitter in his eyes which sent the blood into Ricardo's face.
"Did you speak again, M. Ricardo?" the detective asked. "No? I thought it was not possible." He turned back to Helene Vauquier. "So Mlle. Celie practised seances. That is very strange. We will hear about them. Who knows what thread may lead us to the truth?"
Helene Vauquier shook her head.
"Monsieur, it is not right that you should seek the truth from me. For, consider this! I cannot speak with justice of Mlle. Celie. No, I cannot! I did not like her. I was jealous—yes, jealous. Monsieur, you want the truth—I hated her!" And the woman's face flushed and she clenched her hand upon the arm of her chair. "Yes, I hated her. How could I help it?" she asked.
"Why?" asked Hanaud gently. "Why could you not help it?"
Helene Vauquier leaned back again, her strength exhausted, and smiled languidly.
"I will tell you. But remember it is a woman speaking to you, and things which you will count silly and trivial mean very much to her. There was one night last June—only last June! To think of it! So little while ago there was no Mlle. Celie—" and, as Hanaud raised his hand, she said hurriedly, "Yes, yes; I will control myself. But to think of Mme. Dauvray now!"
And thereupon she blurted out her story and explained to Mr. Ricardo the question which had so perplexed him: how a girl of so much distinction as Celia Harland came to be living with a woman of so common a type as Mme. Dauvray.
"Well, one night in June," said Helene Vauquier, "madame went with a party to supper at the Abbaye Restaurant in Montmartre. And she brought home for the first time Mlle. Celie. But you should have seen her! She had on a little plaid skirt and a coat which was falling to pieces, and she was starving—yes, starving. Madame told me the story that night as I undressed her. Mlle. Celie was there dancing amidst the tables for a supper with any one who would be kind enough to dance with her."
The scorn of her voice rang through the room. She was the rigid, respectable peasant woman, speaking out her contempt. And Wethermill must needs listen to it. Ricardo dared not glance at him.
"But hardly any one would dance with her in her rags, and no one would give her supper except madame. Madame did. Madame listened to her story of hunger and distress. Madame believed it, and brought her home. Madame was so kind, so careless in her kindness. And now she lies murdered for a reward!" An hysterical sob checked the woman's utterances, her face began to work, her hands to twitch.
"Come, come!" said Hanaud gently, "calm yourself, mademoiselle."
Helene Vauquier paused for a moment or two to recover her composure. "I beg your pardon, monsieur, but I have been so long with madame—oh, the poor woman! Yes, yes, I will calm myself. Well, madame brought her home, and in a week there was nothing too good for Mlle. Celie. Madame was like a child. Always she was being deceived and imposed upon. Never she learnt prudence. But no one so quickly made her way to madame's heart as Mlle. Celie. Mademoiselle must live with her. Mademoiselle must be dressed by the first modistes. Mademoiselle must have lace petticoats and the softest linen, long white gloves, and pretty ribbons for her hair, and hats from Caroline Reboux at twelve hundred francs. And madame's maid must attend upon her and deck her out in all these dainty things. Bah!"
Vauquier was sitting erect in her chair, violent, almost rancorous with anger. She looked round upon the company and shrugged her shoulders.
"I told you not to come to me!" she said, "I cannot speak impartially, or even gently of mademoiselle. Consider! For years I had been more than madame's maid—her friend; yes, so she was kind enough to call me. She talked to me about everything, consulted me about everything, took me with her everywhere. Then she brings home, at two o'clock in the morning, a young girl with a fresh, pretty face, from a Montmartre restaurant, and in a week I am nothing at all—oh, but nothing—and mademoiselle is queen."
"Yes, it is quite natural," said Hanaud sympathetically. "You would not have been human, mademoiselle, if you had not felt some anger. But tell us frankly about these seances. How did they begin?"
"Oh, monsieur," Vauquier answered, "it was not difficult to begin them. Mme. Dauvray had a passion for fortune-tellers and rogues of that kind. Any one with a pack of cards and some nonsense about a dangerous woman with black hair or a man with a limp—Monsieur knows the stories they string together in dimly lighted rooms to deceive the credulous—any one could make a harvest out of madame's superstitions. But monsieur knows the type."
"Indeed I do," said Hanaud, with a laugh.
"Well, after mademoiselle had been with us three weeks, she said to me one morning when I was dressing her hair that it was a pity madame was always running round the fortune-tellers, that she herself could do something much more striking and impressive, and that if only I would help her we could rescue madame from their clutches. Sir, I did not think what power I was putting into Mlle. Celie's hands, or assuredly I would have refused. And I did not wish to quarrel with Mlle. Celie; so for once I consented, and, having once consented, I could never afterwards refuse, for, if I had, mademoiselle would have made some fine excuse about the psychic influence not being en rapport, and meanwhile would have had me sent away. While if I had confessed the truth to madame, she would have been so angry that I had been a party to tricking her that again I would have lost my place. And so the seances went on."
"Yes," said Hanaud. "I understand that your position was very difficult. We shall not, I think," and he turned to the Commissaire confidently for corroboration of his words, "be disposed to blame you."
"Certainly not," said the Commissaire. "After all, life is not so easy."
"Thus, then, the seances began," said Hanaud, leaning forward with a keen interest. "This is a strange and curious story you are telling me, Mlle. Vauquier. Now, how were they conducted? How did you assist? What did Mlle. Celie do? Rap on the tables in the dark and rattle tambourines like that one with the knot of ribbons which hangs upon the wall of the salon?"
There was a gentle and inviting irony in Hanaud's tone. M. Ricardo was disappointed. Hanaud had after all not overlooked the tambourine. Without Ricardo's reason to notice it, he had none the less observed it and borne it in his memory.
"Well?" he asked.
"Oh, monsieur, the tambourines and the rapping on the table!" cried Helene. "That was nothing—oh, but nothing at all. Mademoiselle Celie would make spirits appear and speak!"
"Really! And she was never caught out! But Mlle. Celie must have been a remarkably clever girl."
"Oh, she was of an address which was surprising. Sometimes madame and I were alone. Sometimes there were others, whom madame in her pride had invited. For she was very proud, monsieur, that her companion could introduce her to the spirits of dead people. But never was Mlle. Celie caught out. She told me that for many years, even when quite a child, she had travelled through England giving these exhibitions."
"Oho!" said Hanaud, and he turned to Wethermill. "Did you know that?" he asked in English.
"I did not," he said. "I do not now."
Hanaud shook his head.
"To me this story does not seem invented," he replied. And then he spoke again in French to Helene Vauquier. "Well, continue, mademoiselle! Assume that the company is assembled for our seance."
"Then Mlle. Celie, dressed in a long gown of black velvet, which set off her white arms and shoulders well—oh, mademoiselle did not forget those little trifles," Helene Vauquier interrupted her story, with a return of her bitterness, to interpolate—"mademoiselle would sail into the room with her velvet train flowing behind her, and perhaps for a little while she would say there was a force working against her, and she would sit silent in a chair while madame gaped at her with open eyes. At last mademoiselle would say that the powers were favourable and the spirits would manifest themselves to-night. Then she would be placed in a cabinet, perhaps with a string tied across the door outside—you will understand it was my business to see after the string—and the lights would be turned down, or perhaps out altogether. Or at other times we would sit holding hands round a table, Mlle. Celie between Mme. Dauvray and myself. But in that case the lights would be turned out first, and it would be really my hand which held Mme. Dauvray's. And whether it was the cabinet or the chairs, in a moment mademoiselle would be creeping silently about the room in a little pair of soft-soled slippers without heels, which she wore so that she might not be heard, and tambourines would rattle as you say, and fingers touch the forehead and the neck, and strange voices would sound from corners of the room, and dim apparitions would appear—the spirits of great ladies of the past, who would talk with Mme. Dauvray. Such ladies as Mme. de Castiglione, Marie Antoinette, Mme. de Medici—I do not remember all the names, and very likely I do not pronounce them properly. Then the voices would cease and the lights be turned up, and Mlle. Celie would be found in a trance just in the same place and attitude as she had been when the lights were turned out. Imagine, messieurs, the effect of such seances upon a woman like Mme. Dauvray. She was made for them. She believed in them implicitly. The words of the great ladies from the past—she would remember and repeat them, and be very proud that such great ladies had come back to the world merely to tell her—Mme. Dauvray—about their lives. She 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! For instance—it will seem very absurd and ridiculous to you, gentlemen, but you must remember what Mme. Dauvray was—for instance, madame was particularly anxious to speak with the spirit of Mme. de Montespan. Yes, yes! She had read all the memoirs about that lady. Very likely Mlle. Celie had put the notion into Mme. Dauvray's head, for madame was not a scholar. But she was dying to hear that famous woman's voice and to catch a dim glimpse of her face. Well, she was never gratified. Always she hoped. Always Mlle. Celie tantalised her with the hope. But she would not gratify it. She would not spoil her fine affairs by making these treats too common. And she acquired—how should she not?—a power over Mme. Dauvray which was unassailable. The fortune-tellers had no more to say to Mme. Dauvray. She did nothing but felicitate herself upon the happy chance which had sent her Mlle. Celie. And now she lies in her room murdered!"
Once more Helene's voice broke upon the words. But Hanaud poured her out a glass of water and held it to her lips. Helene drank it eagerly.
"There, that is better, is it not?" he said.
"Yes, monsieur," said Helene Vauquier, recovering herself. "Sometimes, too," she resumed, "messages from the spirits would flutter down in writing on the table."
"In writing?" exclaimed Hanaud quickly.
"Yes; answers to questions. Mlle. Celie had them ready. Oh, but she was of an address altogether surprising.
"I see," said Hanaud slowly; and he added, "But sometimes, I suppose, the questions were questions which Mlle. Celie could not answer?"
"Sometimes," Helene Vauquier admitted, "when visitors were present. When Mme. Dauvray was alone—well, she was an ignorant woman, and any answer would serve. But it was not so when there were visitors whom Mlle. Celie did not know, or only knew slightly. These visitors might be putting questions to test her, of which they knew the answers, while Mlle. Celie did not."
"Exactly," said Hanaud. "What happened then?"
All who were listening understood to what point he was leading Helene Vauquier. All waited intently for her answer.
"It was all one to Mlle. Celie."
"She was prepared with an escape from the difficulty?"
Hanaud looked puzzled.
"I can think of no way out of it except the one," and he looked round to the Commissaire and to Ricardo as though he would inquire of them how many ways they had discovered. "I can think of no escape except that a message in writing should flutter down from the spirit appealed to saying frankly," and Hanaud shrugged his shoulders, "'I do not know.'"
"Oh no no, monsieur," replied Helene Vauquier in pity for Hanaud's misconception, "I see that you are not in the habit of attending seances. It would never do for a spirit to admit that it did not know. At once its authority would be gone, and with it Mlle. Celie's as well. But on the other hand, for inscrutable reasons the spirit might not be allowed to answer."
"I understand," said Hanaud, meekly accepting the correction. "The spirit might reply that it was forbidden to answer, but never that it did not know."
"No, never that," said Helene. So it seemed that Hanaud must look elsewhere for the explanation of that sentence. "I do not know," Helene continued: "Oh, Mlle. Celie—it was not easy to baffle her, I can tell you. She carried a lace scarf which she could drape about her head, and in a moment she would be, in the dim light, an old, old woman, with a voice so altered that no one could know it. Indeed, you said rightly, monsieur—she was clever."
To all who listened Helene Vauquier's story carried its conviction. Mme. Dauvray rose vividly before their minds as a living woman. Celie's trickeries were so glibly described that they could hardly have been invented, and certainly not by this poor peasant-woman whose lips so bravely struggled with Medici, and Montespan, and the names of the other great ladies. How, indeed, should she know of them at all? She could never have had the inspiration to concoct the most convincing item of her story—the queer craze of Mme. Dauvray for an interview with Mme. de Montespan. These details were assuredly the truth.
Ricardo, indeed, knew them to be true. Had he not himself seen the girl in her black velvet dress shut up in a cabinet, and a great lady of the past dimly appear in the darkness? Moreover, Helene Vauquier's jealousy was so natural and inevitable a thing. Her confession of it corroborated all her story.
"Well, then," said Hanaud, "we come to last night. There was a seance held in the salon last night."
"No, monsieur," said Vauquier, shaking her head; "there was no seance last night."
"But already you have said—" interrupted the Commissaire; and Hanaud held up his hand.
"Let her speak, my friend."
"Yes, monsieur shall hear," said Vauquier.
It appeared that at five o'clock in the afternoon Mme. Dauvray and Mlle. Celie prepared to leave the house on foot. It was their custom to walk down at this hour to the Villa des Fleurs, pass an hour or so there, dine in a restaurant, and return to the Rooms to spend the evening. On this occasion, however, Mme. Dauvray informed Helene that they should be back early and bring with them a friend who was interested in, but entirely sceptical of, spiritualistic manifestations. "But we shall convince her to-night, Celie," she said confidently; and the two women then went out. Shortly before eight Helene closed the shutters both of the upstair and the downstair windows and of the glass doors into the garden, and returned to the kitchen, which was at the back of the house—that is, on the side facing the road. There had been a fall of rain at seven which had lasted for the greater part of the hour, and soon after she had shut the windows the rain fell again in a heavy shower, and Helene, knowing that madame felt the chill, lighted a small fire in the salon. The shower lasted until nearly nine, when it ceased altogether and the night cleared up.
It was close upon half-past nine when the bell rang from the salon. Vauquier was sure of the hour, for the charwoman called her attention to the clock.
"I found Mme. Dauvray, Mlle. Celie, and another woman in the salon," continued Helene Vauquier.
"Madame had let them in with her latchkey."
"Ah, the other woman!" cried Besnard. "Had you seen her before?"
"What was she like?"
"She was sallow, with black hair and bright eyes like beads. She was short and about forty-five years old, though it is difficult to judge of these things. I noticed her hands, for she was taking her gloves off, and they seemed to me to be unusually muscular for a woman."
"Ah!" cried Louis Besnard. "That is important."
"Mme. Dauvray was, as she always was before a seance, in a feverish flutter. 'You will help Mlle. Celie to dress, Helene, and be very quick,' she said; and with an extraordinary longing she added, 'Perhaps we shall see her to-night.' Her, you understand, was Mme. de Montespan." And she turned to the stranger and said, "You will believe, Adele, after to-night."
"Adele!" said the Commissaire wisely. "Then Adele was the strange woman's name?"
"Perhaps," said Hanaud dryly.
Helene Vauquier reflected.
"I think Adele was the name," she said in a more doubtful tone. "It sounded like Adele."
The irrepressible Mr. Ricardo was impelled to intervene.
"What Monsieur Hanaud means," he explained, with the pleasant air of a man happy to illuminate the dark intelligence of a child, "is that Adele was probably a pseudonym."
Hanaud turned to him with a savage grin.
"Now that is sure to help her!" he cried. "A pseudonym! Helene Vauquier is sure to understand that simple and elementary word. How bright this M. Ricardo is! Where shall we find a new pin more bright? I ask you," and he spread out his hands in a despairing admiration.
Mr. Ricardo flushed red, but he answered never a word. He must endure gibes and humiliations like a schoolboy in a class. His one constant fear was lest he should be turned out of the room. The Commissaire diverted wrath from him however.
"What he means by pseudonym," he said to Helene Vauquier, explaining Mr. Ricardo to her as Mr. Ricardo had presumed to explain Hanaud, "is a false name. Adele may have been, nay, probably was, a false name adopted by this strange woman."
"Adele, I think, was the name used," replied Helene, the doubt in her voice diminishing as she searched her memory. "I am almost sure."
"Well, we will call her Adele," said Hanaud impatiently. "What does it matter? Go on, Mademoiselle Vauquier."
"The lady sat upright and squarely upon the edge of a chair, with a sort of defiance, as though she was determined nothing should convince her, and she laughed incredulously."
Here, again, all who heard were able vividly to conjure up the scene—the defiant sceptic sitting squarely on the edge of her chair, removing her gloves from her muscular hands; the excited Mme. Dauvray, so absorbed in the determination to convince; and Mlle. Celie running from the room to put on the black gown which would not be visible in the dim light.
"Whilst I took off mademoiselle's dress," Vauquier continued, "she said: 'When I have gone down to the salon you can go to bed, Helene. Mme. Adele'—yes, it was Adele—'will be fetched by a friend in a motorcar, and I can let her out and fasten the door again. So if you hear the car you will know that it has come for her.'"
"Oh, she said that!" said Hanaud quickly.
Hanaud looked gloomily towards Wethermill. Then he exchanged a sharp glance with the Commissaire, and moved his shoulders in an almost imperceptible shrug. But Mr. Ricardo saw it, and construed it into one word. He imagined a jury uttering the word "Guilty."
Helene Vauquier saw the movement too.
"Do not condemn her too quickly, monsieur," she, said, with an impulse of remorse. "And not upon my words. For, as I say, I—hated her."
Hanaud nodded reassuringly, and she resumed:
"I was surprised, and I asked mademoiselle what she would do without her confederate. But she laughed, and said there would be no difficulty. That is partly why I think there was no seance held last night. Monsieur, there was a note in her voice that evening which I did not as yet understand. Mademoiselle then took her bath while I laid out her black dress and the slippers with the soft, noiseless soles. And now I tell you why I am sure there was no seance last night—why Mlle. Celie never meant there should be one."
"Yes, let us hear that," said Hanaud curiously, and leaning forward with his hands upon his knees.
"You have here, monsieur, a description of how mademoiselle was dressed when she went away." Helene Vauquier picked up a sheet of paper from the table at her side. "I wrote it out at the request of M. le Commissaire." She handed the paper to Hanaud, who glanced through it as she continued. "Well, except for the white lace coat, monsieur, I dressed Mlle. Celie just in that way. She would have none of her plain black robe. No, Mlle. Celie must wear her fine new evening frock of pale reseda-green chiffon over soft clinging satin, which set off her fair beauty so prettily. It left her white arms and shoulders bare, and it had a long train, and it rustled as she moved. And with that she must put on her pale green silk stockings, her new little satin slippers to match, with the large paste buckles—and a sash of green satin looped through another glittering buckle at the side of the waist, with long ends loosely knotted together at the knee. I must tie her fair hair with a silver ribbon, and pin upon her curls a large hat of reseda green with a golden-brown ostrich feather drooping behind. I warned mademoiselle that there was a tiny fire burning in the salon. Even with the fire-screen in front of it there would still be a little light upon the floor, and the glittering buckles on her feet would betray her, even if the rustle of her dress did not. But she said she would kick her slippers off. Ah, gentlemen, it is, after all, not so that one dresses for a seance," she cried, shaking her head. "But it is just so—is it not?—that one dresses to go to meet a lover."
The suggestion startled every one who heard it. It fairly took Mr. Ricardo's breath away. Wethermill stepped forward with a cry of revolt. The Commissaire exclaimed, admiringly, "But here is an idea!" Even Hanaud sat back in his chair, though his expression lost nothing of its impassivity, and his eyes never moved from Helene Vauquier's face.
"Listen!" she continued, "I will tell you what I think. It was my habit to put out some sirop and lemonade and some little cakes in the dining-room, which, as you know, is at the other side of the house across the hall. I think it possible, messieurs, that while Mlle. Celie was changing her dress Mme. Dauvray and the stranger, Adele, went into the dining-room. I know that Mlle. Celie, as soon as she was dressed, ran downstairs to the salon. Well, then, suppose Mlle. Celie had a lover waiting with whom she meant to run away. She hurries through the empty salon, opens the glass doors, and is gone, leaving the doors open. And the thief, an accomplice of Adele, finds the doors open and hides himself in the salon until Mme. Dauvray returns from the dining-room. You see, that leaves Mlle. Celie innocent."
Vauquier leaned forward eagerly, her white face flushing. There was a moment's silence, and then Hanaud said:
"That is all very well, Mlle. Vauquier. But it does not account for the lace coat in which the girl went away. She must have returned to her room to fetch that after you had gone to bed."
Helene Vauquier leaned back with an air of disappointment.
"That is true. I had forgotten the coat. I did not like Mlle. Celie, but I am not wicked—"
"Nor for the fact that the sirop and the lemonade had not been touched in the dining-room," said the Commissaire, interrupting her.
Again the disappointment overspread Vauquier's face.
"Is that so?" she asked. "I did not know—I have been kept a prisoner here."
The Commissaire cut her short with a cry of satisfaction.
"Listen! listen!" he exclaimed excitedly. "Here is a theory which accounts for all, which combines Vauquier's idea with ours, and Vauquier's idea is, I think, very just, up to a point. Suppose, M. Hanaud, that the girl was going to meet her lover, but the lover is the murderer. Then all becomes clear. She does not run away to him; she opens the door for him and lets him in."
Both Hanaud and Ricardo stole a glance at Wethermill. How did he take the theory? Wethermill was leaning against the wall, his eyes closed, his face white and contorted with a spasm of pain. But he had the air of a man silently enduring an outrage rather than struck down by the conviction that the woman he loved was worthless.
"It is not for me to say, monsieur," Helene Vauquier continued. "I only tell you what I know. I am a woman, and it would be very difficult for a girl who was eagerly expecting her lover so to act that another woman would not know it. However uncultivated and ignorant the other woman was, that at all events she would know. The knowledge would spread to her of itself, without a word. Consider, gentlemen!" And suddenly Helene Vauquier smiled. "A young girl tingling with excitement from head to foot, eager that her beauty just at this moment should be more fresh, more sweet than ever it was, careful that her dress should set it exquisitely off. Imagine it! Her lips ready for the kiss! Oh, how should another woman not know? I saw Mlle. Celie, her cheeks rosy, her eyes bright. Never had she looked so lovely. The pale-green hat upon her fair head heavy with its curls! From head to foot she looked herself over, and then she sighed—she sighed with pleasure because she looked so pretty. That was Mlle. Celie last night, monsieur. She gathered up her train, took her long white gloves in the other hand, and ran down the stairs, her heels clicking on the wood, her buckles glittering. At the bottom she turned and said to me:
"'Remember, Helene, you can go to bed.' That was it monsieur."
And now violently the rancour of Helene Vauquier's feelings burst out once more.
"For her the fine clothes, the pleasure, and the happiness. For me—I could go to bed!"
Hanaud looked again at the description which Helene Vauquier had written out, and read it through carefully. Then he asked a question, of which Ricardo did not quite see the drift.
"So," he said, "when this morning you suggested to Monsieur the Commissaire that it would be advisable for you to go through Mlle. Celie's wardrobe, you found that nothing more had been taken away except the white lace coat?"
"That is so."
"Very well. Now, after Mlle. Celie had gone down the stairs—"
"I put the lights out in her room and, as she had ordered me to do, I went to bed. The next thing that I remember—but no! It terrifies me too much to think of it."
Helene shuddered and covered her face spasmodically with her hands. Hanaud drew her hands gently down.
"Courage! You are safe now, mademoiselle. Calm yourself!"
She lay back with her eyes closed.
"Yes, yes; it is true. I am safe now. But oh! I feel I shall never dare to sleep again!" And the tears swam in her eyes. "I woke up with a feeling of being suffocated. Mon Dieu! There was the light burning in the room, and a woman, the strange woman with the strong hands, was holding me down by the shoulders, while a man with his cap drawn over his eyes and a little black moustache pressed over my lips a pad from which a horribly sweet and sickly taste filled my mouth. Oh, I was terrified! I could not scream. I struggled. The woman told me roughly to keep quiet. But I could not. I must struggle. And then with a brutality unheard of she dragged me up on to my knees while the man kept the pad right over my mouth. The man, with the arm which was free, held me close to him, and she bound my hands with a cord behind me. Look!"
She held out her wrists. They were terribly bruised. Red and angry lines showed where the cord had cut deeply into her flesh.
"Then they flung me down again upon my back, and the next thing I remember is the doctor standing over me and this kind nurse supporting me."
She sank back exhausted in her chair and wiped her forehead with her handkerchief. The sweat stood upon it in beads.
"Thank you, mademoiselle," said Hanaud gravely. "This has been a trying ordeal for you. I understand that. But we are coming to the end. I want you to read this description of Mlle. Celie through again to make sure that nothing is omitted." He gave the paper into the maid's hands. "It will be advertised, so it is important that it should be complete. See that you have left out nothing."
Helene Vauquier bent her head over the paper.
"No," said Helene at last. "I do not think I have omitted anything." And she handed the paper back.
"I asked you," Hanaud continued suavely, "because I understand that Mlle. Celie usually wore a pair of diamond ear-drops, and they are not mentioned here."
A faint colour came into the maid's face.
"That is true, monsieur. I had forgotten. It is quite true."
"Any one might forget," said Hanaud, with a reassuring smile. "But you will remember now. Think! think! Did Mlle. Celie wear them last night?" He leaned forward, waiting for her reply. Wethermill too, made a movement. Both men evidently thought the point of great importance. The maid looked at Hanaud for a few moments without speaking.
"It is not from me, mademoiselle, that you will get the answer," said Hanaud quietly.
"No, monsieur. I was thinking," said the maid, her face flushing at the rebuke.
"Did she wear them when she went down the stairs last night?" he insisted.
"I think she wore them," she said doubtfully. "Ye-es—yes," and the words came now firm and clear. "I remember well. Mlle. Celie had taken them off before her bath, and they lay on the dressing-table. She put them into her ears while I dressed her hair and arranged the bow of ribbon in it."
"Then we will add the earrings to your description," said Hanaud, as he rose from his chair with the paper in his hand, "and for the moment we need not trouble you any more about Mademoiselle Celie." He folded the paper up, slipped it into his letter-case, and put it away in his pocket. "Let us consider that poor Madame Dauvray! Did she keep much money in the house?"
"No, monsieur; very little. She was well known in Aix and her cheques were everywhere accepted without question. It was a high pleasure to serve madame, her credit was so good," said Helene Vauquier, raising her head as though she herself had a share in the pride of that good credit.
"No doubt," Hanaud agreed. "There are many fine households where the banking account is overdrawn, and it cannot be pleasant for the servants."
"They are put to so many shifts to hide it from the servants of their neighbours," said Helene. "Besides," and she made a little grimace of contempt, "a fine household and an overdrawn banking account—it is like a ragged petticoat under a satin dress. That was never the case with Madame Dauvray."
"So that she was under no necessity to have ready money always in her pocket," said Hanaud. "I understand that. But at times perhaps she won at the Villa des Fleurs?"
Helene Vauquier shook her head.
"She loved the Villa des Fleurs, but she never played for high sums and often never played at all. If she won a few louis, she was as delighted with her gains and as afraid to lose them again at the tables as if she were of the poorest, and she stopped at once. No, monsieur; twenty or thirty louis—there was never more than that in the house."
"Then it was certainly for her famous collection of jewellery that Madame Dauvray was murdered?"
"Now, where did she keep her jewellery?"
"In a safe in her bedroom, monsieur. Every night she took off what she had been wearing and locked it up with the rest. She was never too tired for that."
"And what did she do with the keys?"
"That I cannot tell you. Certainly she locked her rings and necklaces away whilst I undressed her. And she laid the keys upon the dressing-table or the mantel-shelf—anywhere. But in the morning the keys were no longer where she had left them. She had put them secretly away."
Hanaud turned to another point.
"I suppose that Mademoiselle Celie knew of the safe and that the jewels were kept there?"
"Oh yes! Mademoiselle indeed was often in Madame Dauvray's room when she was dressing or undressing. She must often have seen madame take them out and lock them up again. But then, monsieur, so did I."
Hanaud nodded to her with a friendly smile.
"Thank you once more, mademoiselle," he said. "The torture is over. But of course Monsieur Fleuriot will require your presence."
Helene Vauquier looked anxiously towards him.
"But meanwhile I can go from this villa, monsieur?" she pleaded, with a trembling voice.
"Certainly; you shall go to your friends at once."
"Oh, monsieur, thank you!" she cried, and suddenly she gave way. The tears began to flow from her eyes. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed. "It is foolish of me, but what would you?" She jerked out the words between her sobs. "It has been too terrible."
"Yes, yes," said Hanaud soothingly. "The nurse will put a few things together for you in a bag. You will not leave Aix, of course, and I will send some one with you to your friends."
The maid started violently.
"Oh, not a sergent-de-ville, monsieur, I beg of you. I should be disgraced."
"No. It shall be a man in plain clothes, to see that you are not hindered by reporters on the way."
Hanaud turned towards the door. On the dressing-table a cord was lying. He took it up and spoke to the nurse.
"Was this the cord with which Helene Vauquier's hands were tied?"
"Yes, monsieur," she replied.
Hanaud handed it to the Commissaire.
"It will be necessary to keep that," he said.
It was a thin piece of strong whipcord. It was the same kind of cord as that which had been found tied round Mme. Dauvray's throat. Hanaud opened the door and turned back to the nurse.
"We will send for a cab for Mlle. Vauquier. You will drive with her to her door. I think after that she will need no further help. Pack up a few things and bring them down. Mlle. Vauquier can follow, no doubt, now without assistance." And, with a friendly nod, he left the room.
Ricardo had been wondering, through the examination, in what light Hanaud considered Helene Vauquier. He was sympathetic, but the sympathy might merely have been assumed to deceive. His questions betrayed in no particular the colour of his mind. Now, however, he made himself clear. He informed the nurse, in the plainest possible way, that she was no longer to act as jailer. She was to bring Vauquier's things down; but Vauquier could follow by herself. Evidently Helene Vauquier was cleared.