At the Villa Rose is a detective novel by British writer A.E.W. Mason featuring his character Inspector Hanaud. In Aix les Bains during the early 20th century, Celia Harland, a beautiful (of course) young English girl down on her luck is befriended by a rich widow, Madame Dauvray, an addict of "spiritualism", and stages seances for her benefactrix, while knowing full well that the supposed manifestations from the spirit world are entirely bogus. This set-up supplies the opportunity for a criminal gang master-minded by Madame Dauvray's maid, with their eyes on the widow's jewellery collection, to engineer an introduction for one of their number, Adele Tacé ("Rossignol") whose taunts of disbelief goad the old lady into allowing a seance to be held which, unsuspected by either Celia or her patron, will be the cover for murder and robbery. The crux of the plot is that Celia, as medium, will be made their innocent victim, on whom suspicion is to be planted.
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Copyright © 2017 by A.E.W. Mason.
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organiza- tions, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Edition: January 2017
AT THE VILLA ROSE2
TABLE OF CONTENTS
It was Mr. Ricardo's habit as soon as the second week of August came round to travel to Aix-les-Bains, in Savoy, where for five or six weeks he lived pleasantly. He pretended to take the waters in the morning, he went for a ride in his motor-car in the afternoon, he dined at the Cercle in the evening, and spent an hour or two afterwards in the baccarat-rooms at the Villa des Fleurs. An enviable, smooth life without a doubt, and it is certain that his acquaintances envied him. At the same time, however, they laughed at him and, alas with some justice; for he was an exaggerated person. He was to be construed in the comparative. Everything in his life was a trifle overdone, from the fastidious arrangement of his neckties to the feminine nicety of his little dinner-parties. In age Mr. Ricardo was approaching the fifties; in condition he was a widower--a state greatly to his liking, for he avoided at once the irksomeness of marriage and the reproaches justly levelled at the bachelor; finally, he was rich, having amassed a fortune in Mincing Lane, which he had invested in profitable securities.
Ten years of ease, however, had not altogether obliterated in him the business look. Though he lounged from January to December, he lounged with the air of a financier taking a holiday; and when he visited, as he frequently did, the studio of a painter, a stranger would have hesitated to decide whether he had been drawn thither by a love of art or by the possibility of an investment. His "acquaintances" have been mentioned, and the word is suitable. For while he mingled in many circles, he stood aloof from all. He affected the company of artists, by whom he was regarded as one ambitious to become a connoisseur; and amongst the younger business men, who had never dealt with him, he earned the disrespect reserved for the dilettante. If he had a grief, it was that he had discovered no great man who in return for practical favours would engrave his memory in brass. He was a Maecenas without a Horace, an Earl of Southampton without a Shakespeare. In a word, Aix-les-Bains in the season was the very place for him; and never for a moment did it occur to him that he was here to be dipped in agitations, and hurried from excitement to excitement. The beauty of the little town, the crowd of well-dressed and agreeable people, the rose-coloured life of the place, all made their appeal to him. But it was the Villa des Fleurs which brought him to Aix. Not that he played for anything more than an occasional louis; nor, on the other hand, was he merely a cold looker-on. He had a bank-note or two in his pocket on most evenings at the service of the victims of the tables. But the pleasure to his curious and dilettante mind lay in the spectacle of the battle which was waged night after night between raw nature and good manners. It was extraordinary to him how constantly manners prevailed. There were, however, exceptions.
For instance. On the first evening of this particular visit he found the rooms hot, and sauntered out into the little semicircular garden at the back. He sat there for half an hour under a flawless sky of stars watching the people come and go in the light of the electric lamps, and appreciating the gowns and jewels of the women with the eye of a connoisseur; and then into this starlit quiet there came suddenly a flash of vivid life. A girl in a soft, clinging frock of white satin darted swiftly from the rooms and flung herself nervously upon a bench. She could not, to Ricardo's thinking, be more than twenty years of age. She was certainly quite young. The supple slenderness of her figure proved it, and he had moreover caught a glimpse, as she rushed out, of a fresh and very pretty face; but he had lost sight of it now. For the girl wore a big black satin hat with a broad brim, from which a couple of white ostrich feathers curved over at the back, and in the shadow of that hat her face was masked. All that he could see was a pair of long diamond eardrops, which sparkled and trembled as she moved her head--and that she did constantly. Now she stared moodily at the ground; now she flung herself back; then she twisted nervously to the right, and then a moment afterwards to the left; and then again she stared in front of her, swinging a satin slipper backwards and forwards against the pavement with the petulance of a child. All her movements were spasmodic; she was on the verge of hysteria. Ricardo was expecting her to burst into tears, when she sprang up and as swiftly as she had come she hurried back into the rooms. "Summer lightning," thought Mr. Ricardo.
Near to him a woman sneered, and a man said, pityingly: "She was pretty, that little one. It is regrettable that she has lost."
A few minutes afterwards Ricardo finished his cigar and strolled back into the rooms, making his way to the big table just on the right hand of the entrance, where the play as a rule runs high. It was clearly running high tonight. For so deep a crowd thronged about the table that Ricardo could only by standing on tiptoe see the faces of the players. Of the banker he could not catch a glimpse. But though the crowd remained, its units were constantly changing, and it was not long before Ricardo found himself standing in the front rank of the spectators, just behind the players seated in the chairs. The oval green table was spread out beneath him littered with bank-notes. Ricardo turned his eyes to the left, and saw seated at the middle of the table the man who was holding the bank. Ricardo recognised him with a start of surprise. He was a young Englishman, Harry Wethermill, who, after a brilliant career at Oxford and at Munich, had so turned his scientific genius to account that he had made a fortune for himself at the age of twenty-eight.
He sat at the table with the indifferent look of the habitual player upon his cleanly chiselled face. But it was plain that his good fortune stayed at his elbow tonight, for opposite to him the croupier was arranging with extraordinary deftness piles of bank- notes in the order of their value. The bank was winning heavily. Even as Ricardo looked Wethermill turned up "a natural," and the croupier swept in the stakes from either side.
"Faites vos jeux, messieurs. Le jeu est fait?" the croupier cried, all in a breath, and repeated the words. Wethermill waited with his hand upon the wooden frame in which the cards were stacked. He glanced round the table while the stakes were being laid upon the cloth, and suddenly his face flashed from languor into interest. Almost opposite to him a small, white-gloved hand holding a five- louis note was thrust forward between the shoulders of two men seated at the table. Wethermill leaned forward and shook his head with a smile. With a gesture he refused the stake. But he was too late. The fingers of the hand had opened, the note fluttered down on to the cloth, the money was staked.
At once he leaned back in his chair.
"Il y a une suite," he said quietly. He relinquished the bank rather than play against that five-louis note. The stakes were taken up by their owners.
The croupier began to count Wethermill's winnings, and Ricardo, curious to know whose small, delicately gloved hand it was which had brought the game to so abrupt a termination, leaned forward. He recognised the young girl in the white satin dress and the big black hat whose nerves had got the better of her a few minutes since in the garden. He saw her now clearly, and thought her of an entrancing loveliness. She was moderately tall, fair of skin, with a fresh colouring upon her cheeks which she owed to nothing but her youth. Her hair was of a light brown with a sheen upon it, her forehead broad, her eyes dark and wonderfully clear. But there was something more than her beauty to attract him. He had a strong belief that somewhere, some while ago, he had already seen her. And this belief grew and haunted him. He was still vaguely puzzling his brains to fix the place when the croupier finished his reckoning.
"There are two thousand louis in the bank," he cried. "Who will take on the bank for two thousand louis?"
No one, however, was willing. A fresh bank was put up for sale, and Wethermill, still sitting in the dealer's chair, bought it. He spoke at once to an attendant, and the man slipped round the table, and, forcing his way through the crowd, carried a message to the girl in the black hat. She looked towards Wethermill and smiled; and the smile made her face a miracle of tenderness. Then she disappeared, and in a few moments Ricardo saw a way open in the throng behind the banker, and she appeared again only a yard or two away, just behind Wethermill. He turned, and taking her hand into his, shook it chidingly.
"I couldn't let you play against me, Celia," he said, in English; "my luck's too good tonight. So you shall be my partner instead. I'll put in the capital and we'll share the winnings."
The girl's face flushed rosily. Her hand still lay clasped in his. She made no effort to withdraw it.
"I couldn't do that," she exclaimed.
"Why not?" said he. "See!" and loosening her fingers he took from them the five-louis note and tossed it over to the croupier to be added to his bank. "Now you can't help yourself. We're partners."
The girl laughed, and the company at the table smiled, half in sympathy, half with amusement. A chair was brought for her, and she sat down behind Wethermill, her lips parted, her face joyous with excitement. But all at once Wethermill's luck deserted him. He renewed his bank three times, and had lost the greater part of his winnings when he had dealt the cards through. He took a fourth bank, and rose from that, too, a loser.
"That's enough, Celia," he said. "Let us go out into the garden; it will be cooler there,"
"I have taken your good luck away," said the girl remorsefully. Wethermill put his arm through hers.
"You'll have to take yourself away before you can do that," he answered, and the couple walked together out of Ricardo's hearing.
Ricardo was left to wonder about Celia. She was just one of those problems which made Aix-les-Bains so unfailingly attractive to him. She dwelt in some street of Bohemia; so much was clear. The frankness of her pleasure, of her excitement, and even of her distress proved it. She passed from one to the other while you could deal a pack of cards. She was at no pains to wear a mask. Moreover, she was a young girl of nineteen or twenty, running about those rooms alone, as unembarrassed as if she had been at home. There was the free use, too, of Christian names. Certainly she dwelt in Bohemia. But it seemed to Ricardo that she could pass in any company and yet not be overpassed. She would look a little more picturesque than most girls of her age, and she was certainly a good deal more soignee than many, and she had the Frenchwoman's knack of putting on her clothes. But those would be all the differences, leaving out the frankness. Ricardo wondered in what street of Bohemia she dwelt. He wondered still more when he saw her again half an hour afterwards at the entrance to the Villa des Fleurs. She came down the long hall with Harry Wethermill at her side. The couple were walking slowly, and talking as they walked with so complete an absorption in each other that they were unaware of their surroundings. At the bottom of the steps a stout woman of fifty-five over-jewelled, and over-dressed and raddled with paint, watched their approach with a smile of good-humoured amusement. When they came near enough to hear she said in French:
"Well, Celie, are you ready to go home?"
The girl looked up with a start.
"Of course, madame," she said, with a certain submissiveness which surprised Ricardo. "I hope I have not kept you waiting."
She ran to the cloak-room, and came back again with her cloak.
"Good-bye, Harry," she said, dwelling upon his name and looking out upon him with soft and smiling eyes.
"I shall see you tomorrow evening," he said, holding her hand. Again she let it stay within his keeping, but she frowned, and a sudden gravity settled like a cloud upon her face. She turned to the elder woman with a sort of appeal.
"No, I do not think we shall be here, tomorrow, shall we, madame?" she said reluctantly.
"Of course not," said madame briskly. "You have not forgotten what we have planned? No, we shall not be here tomorrow; but the night after--yes."
Celia turned back again to Wethermill.
"Yes, we have plans for tomorrow," she said, with a very wistful note of regret in her voice; and seeing that madame was already at the door, she bent forward and said timidly, "But the night after I shall want you."
"I shall thank you for wanting me," Wethermill rejoined; and the girl tore her hand away and ran up the steps.
Harry Wethermill returned to the rooms. Mr. Ricardo did not follow him. He was too busy with the little problem which had been presented to him that night. What could that girl, he asked himself, have in common with the raddled woman she addressed so respectfully? Indeed, there had been a note of more than respect in her voice. There had been something of affection. Again Mr. Ricardo found himself wondering in what street in Bohemia Celia dwelt--and as he walked up to the hotel there came yet other questions to amuse him.
"Why," he asked, "could neither Celia nor madame come to the Villa des Fleurs tomorrow night? What are the plans they have made? And what was it in those plans which had brought the sudden gravity and reluctance into Celia's face?"
Ricardo had reason to remember those questions during the next few days, though he only idled with them now.
A CRY FOR HELP
It was on a Monday evening that Ricardo saw Harry Wethermill and the girl Celia together. On the Tuesday he saw Wethermill in the rooms alone and had some talk with him.
Wethermill was not playing that night, and about ten o'clock the two men left the Villa des Fleurs together.
"Which way do you go?" asked Wethermill.
"Up the hill to the Hotel Majestic," said Ricardo.
"We go together, then. I, too, am staying there," said the young man, and they climbed the steep streets together. Ricardo was dying to put some questions about Wethermill's young friend of the night before, but discretion kept him reluctantly silent. They chatted for a few moments in the hall upon indifferent topics and so separated for the night. Mr. Ricardo, however, was to learn something more of Celia the next morning; for while he was fixing his tie before the mirror Wethermill burst into his dressing-room. Mr. Ricardo forgot his curiosity in the surge of his indignation. Such an invasion was an unprecedented outrage upon the gentle tenor of his life. The business of the morning toilette was sacred. To interrupt it carried a subtle suggestion of anarchy. Where was his valet? Where was Charles, who should have guarded the door like the custodian of a chapel?
"I cannot speak to you for at least another half-hour," said Mr. Ricardo, sternly.
But Harry Wethermill was out of breath and shaking with agitation.
"I can't wait," he cried, with a passionate appeal. "I have got to see you. You must help me, Mr. Ricardo--you must, indeed!"
Ricardo spun round upon his heel. At first he had thought that the help wanted was the help usually wanted at Aix-les-Bains. A glance at Wethermills face, however, and the ringing note of anguish in his voice, told him that the thought was wrong. Mr. Ricardo slipped out of his affectations as out of a loose coat. "What has happened?" he asked quietly.
"Something terrible." With shaking fingers Wethermill held out a newspaper. "Read it," he said.
It was a special edition of a local newspaper, Le Journal de Savoie, and it bore the date of that morning.
"They are crying it in the streets," said Wethermill. "Read!"
A short paragraph was printed in large black letters on the first page, and leaped to the eyes.
"Late last night," it ran, "an appalling murder was committed at the Villa Rose, on the road to Lac Bourget. Mme. Camille Dauvray, an elderly, rich woman who was well known at Aix, and had occupied the villa every summer for the last few years, was discovered on the floor of her salon, fully dressed and brutally strangled, while upstairs, her maid, Helene Vauquier, was found in bed, chloroformed, with her hands tied securely behind her back. At the time of going to press she had not recovered consciousness, but the doctor, Emile Peytin, is in attendance upon her, and it is hoped that she will be able shortly to throw some light on this dastardly affair. The police are properly reticent as to the details of the crime, but the following statement may be accepted without hesitation:
"The murder was discovered at twelve o'clock at night by the sergent-de-ville Perrichet, to whose intelligence more than a word of praise is due, and it is obvious from the absence of all marks upon the door and windows that the murderer was admitted from within the villa. Meanwhile Mme. Dauvray's motor-car has disappeared, and with it a young Englishwoman who came to Aix with her as her companion. The motive of the crime leaps to the eyes. Mme. Dauvray was famous in Aix for her jewels, which she wore with too little prudence. The condition of the house shows that a careful search was made for them, and they have disappeared. It is anticipated that a description of the young Englishwoman, with a reward for her apprehension, will be issued immediately. And it is not too much to hope that the citizens of Aix, and indeed of Prance, will be cleared of all participation in so cruel and sinister a crime."
Ricardo read through the paragraph with a growing consternation, and laid the paper upon his dressing-table.
"It is infamous," cried Wethermill passionately.
"The young Englishwoman is, I suppose, your friend Miss Celia?" said Ricardo slowly.
Wethermill started forward.
"You know her, then?" he cried in amazement.
"No; but I saw her with you in the rooms. I heard you call her by that name."
"You saw us together?" exclaimed Wethermill. "Then you can understand how infamous the suggestion is."
But Ricardo had seen the girl half an hour before he had seen her with Harry Wethermill. He could not but vividly remember the picture of her as she flung herself on to the bench in the garden in a moment of hysteria, and petulantly kicked a satin slipper backwards and forwards against the stones. She was young, she was pretty, she had a charm of freshness, but--but--strive against it as he would, this picture in the recollection began more and more to wear a sinister aspect. He remembered some words spoken by a stranger. "She is pretty, that little one. It is regrettable that she has lost."
Mr. Ricardo arranged his tie with even a greater deliberation than he usually employed.
"And Mme. Dauvray?" he asked. "She was the stout woman with whom your young friend went away?"
"Yes," said Wethermill.
Ricardo turned round from the mirror.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Hanaud is at Aix. He is the cleverest of the French detectives. You know him. He dined with you once."
It was Mr. Ricardo's practice to collect celebrities round his dinner-table, and at one such gathering Hanaud and Wethermill had been present together.
"You wish me to approach him?"
"It is a delicate position," said Ricardo. "Here is a man in charge of a case of murder, and we are quietly to go to him--"
To his relief Wethermill interrupted him.
"No, no," he cried; "he is not in charge of the case. He is on his holiday. I read of his arrival two days ago in the newspaper. It was stated that he came for rest. What I want is that he should take charge of the case."
The superb confidence of Wethermill shook Mr. Ricardo for a moment, but his recollections were too clear.
"You are going out of your way to launch the acutest of French detectives in search of this girl. Are you wise, Wethermill?"
Wethermill sprang up from his chair in desperation.
"You, too, think her guilty! You have seen her. You think her guilty--like this detestable newspaper, like the police."
"Like the police?" asked Ricardo sharply.
"Yes," said Harry Wethermill sullenly. "As soon as I saw that rag I ran down to the villa. The police are in possession. They would not let me into the garden. But I talked with one of them. They, too, think that she let in the murderers."
Ricardo took a turn across the room. Then he came to a stop in front of Wethermill.
"Listen to me," he said solemnly. "I saw this girl half an hour before I saw you. She rushed out into the garden. She flung herself on to a bench. She could not sit still. She was hysterical. You know what that means. She had been losing. That's point number one."
Mr. Ricardo ticked it off upon his finger.
"She ran back into the rooms. You asked her to share the winnings of your bank. She consented eagerly. And you lost. That's point number two. A little later, as she was going away, you asked her whether she would be in the rooms the next night--yesterday night- -the night when the murder was committed. Her face clouded over. She hesitated. She became more than grave. There was a distinct impression as though she shrank from the contemplation of what it was proposed she should do on the next night. And then she answered you, 'No, we have other plans.' That's number three." And Mr. Ricardo ticked off his third point.
"Now," he asked, "do you still ask me to launch Hanaud upon the case?"
"Yes, and at once," cried Wethermill.
Ricardo called for his hat and his stick.
"You know where Hanaud is staying?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Wethermill, and he led Ricardo to an unpretentious little hotel in the centre of the town. Ricardo sent in his name, and the two visitors were immediately shown into a small sitting- room, where M. Hanaud was enjoying his morning chocolate. He was stout and broad-shouldered, with a full and almost heavy face. In his morning suit at his breakfast-table he looked like a prosperous comedian.
He came forward with a smile of welcome, extending both his hands to Mr. Ricardo.
"Ah, my good friend," he said, "it is pleasant to see you. And Mr. Wethermill," he exclaimed, holding a hand out to the young inventor.
"You remember me, then?" said Wethermill gladly.
"It is my profession to remember people," said Hanaud, with a laugh. "You were at that amusing dinner-party of Mr. Ricardo's in Grosvenor Square."
"Monsieur," said Wethermill, "I have come to ask your help."
The note of appeal in his voice was loud. M. Hanaud drew up a chair by the window and motioned to Wethermill to take it. He pointed to another, with a bow of invitation to Mr. Ricardo.
"Let me hear," he said gravely.
"It is the murder of Mme. Dauvray," said Wethermill.
"And in what way, monsieur," he asked, "are you interested in the murder of Mme. Dauvray?"
"Her companion," said Wethermill, "the young English girl--she is a great friend of mine."
Hanaud's face grew stern. Then came a sparkle of anger in his eyes.
"And what do you wish me to do, monsieur?" he asked coldly.
"You are upon your holiday, M. Hanaud. I wish you--no, I implore you," Wethermill cried, his voice ringing with passion, "to take up this case, to discover the truth, to find out what has become of Celia."
Hanaud leaned back in his chair with his hands upon the arms. He did not take his eyes from Harry Wethermill, but the anger died out of them.
"Monsieur," he said, "I do not know what your procedure is in England. But in France a detective does not take up a case or leave it alone according to his pleasure. We are only servants. This affair is in the hands of M. Fleuriot, the Juge d'lnstruction of Aix."
"But if you offered him your help it would be welcomed," cried Wethermill. "And to me that would mean so much. There would be no bungling. There would be no waste of time. Of that one would be sure."
Hanaud shook his head gently. His eyes were softened now by a look of pity. Suddenly he stretched out a forefinger.
"You have, perhaps, a photograph of the young lady in that card- case in your breast-pocket."
Wethermill flushed red, and, drawing out the card-case, handed the portrait to Hanaud. Hanaud looked at it carefully for a few moments.
"It was taken lately, here?" he asked.
"Yes; for me," replied Wethermill quietly.
"And it is a good likeness?"
"How long have you known this Mlle. Celie?" he asked.
Wethermill looked at Hanaud with a certain defiance.
"For a fortnight."
Hanaud raised his eyebrows.
"You met her here?"
"In the rooms, I suppose? Not at the house of one of your friends?"
"That is so," said Wethermill quietly. "A friend of mine who had met her in Paris introduced me to her at my request."
Hanaud handed back the portrait and drew forward his chair nearer to Wethermill. His face had grown friendly. He spoke with a tone of respect.
"Monsieur, I know something of you. Our friend, Mr. Ricardo, told me your history; I asked him for it when I saw you at his dinner. You are of those about whom one does ask questions, and I know that you are not a romantic boy, but who shall say that he is safe from the appeal of beauty? I have seen women, monsieur, for whose purity of soul I would myself have stood security, condemned for complicity in brutal crimes on evidence that could not be gainsaid; and I have known them turn foul-mouthed, and hideous to look upon, the moment after their just sentence has been pronounced." "No doubt, monsieur," said Wethermill, with perfect quietude. "But Celia Harland is not one of those women."
"I do not now say that she is," said Hanaud. "But the Juge d'lnstruction here has already sent to me to ask for my assistance, and I refused. I replied that I was just a good bourgeois enjoying his holiday. Still it is difficult quite to forget one's profession. It was the Commissaire of Police who came to me, and naturally I talked with him for a little while. The case is dark, monsieur, I warn you."
"How dark?" asked Harry Wethermill.
"I will tell you," said Hanaud, drawing his chair still closer to the young man. "Understand this in the first place. There was an accomplice within the villa. Some one let the murderers in. There is no sign of an entrance being forced; no lock was picked, there is no mark of a thumb on any panel, no sign of a bolt being forced. There was an accomplice within the house. We start from that."
Wethermill nodded his head sullenly. Ricardo drew his chair up towards the others. But Hanaud was not at that moment interested in Ricardo.
"Well, then, let us see who there are in Mme. Dauvray's household. The list is not a long one. It was Mme. Dauvray's habit to take her luncheon and her dinner at the restaurants, and her maid was all that she required to get ready her 'petit dejeuner' in the morning and her 'sirop' at night. Let us take the members of the household one by one. There is first the chauffeur, Henri Servettaz. He was not at the villa last night. He came back to it early this morning."
"Ah!" said Ricardo, in a significant exclamation. Wethermill did not stir. He sat still as a stone, with a face deadly white and eyes burning upon Hanaud's face.
"But wait," said Hanaud, holding up a warning hand to Ricardo. "Servettaz was in Chambery, where his parents live. He travelled to Chambery by the two o'clock train yesterday. He was with them in the afternoon. He went with them to a cafe in the evening. Moreover, early this morning the maid, Helene Vauquier, was able to speak a few words in answer to a question. She said Servettaz was in Chambery. She gave his address. A telephone message was sent to the police in that town, and Servettaz was found in bed. I do not say that it is impossible that Servettaz was concerned in the crime. That we shall see. But it is quite clear, I think, that it was not he who opened the house to the murderers, for he was at Chambery in the evening, and the murder was already discovered here by midnight. Moreover--it is a small point--he lives, not in the house, but over the garage in a corner of the garden. Then besides the chauffeur there was a charwoman, a woman of Aix, who came each morning at seven and left in the evening at seven or eight. Sometimes she would stay later if the maid was alone in the house, for the maid is nervous. But she left last night before nine--there is evidence of that--and the murder did not take place until afterwards. That is also a fact, not a conjecture. We can leave the charwoman, who for the rest has the best of characters, out of our calculations. There remain then, the maid, Helene Vauquier, and"--he shrugged his shoulders--"Mlle. Celie."
Hanaud reached out for the matches and lit a cigarette.
"Let us take first the maid, Helene Vauquier. Forty years old, a Normandy peasant woman--they are not bad people, the Normandy peasants, monsieur--avaricious, no doubt, but on the whole honest and most respectable. We know something of Helene Vauquier, monsieur. See!" and he took up a sheet of paper from the table. The paper was folded lengthwise, written upon only on the inside. "I have some details here. Our police system is, I think, a little more complete than yours in England. Helene Vauquier has served Mme. Dauvray for seven years. She has been the confidential friend rather than the maid. And mark this, M. Wethermill! During those seven years how many opportunities has she had of conniving at last night's crime? She was found chloroformed and bound. There is no doubt that she was chloroformed. Upon that point Dr. Peytin is quite, quite certain. He saw her before she recovered consciousness. She was violently sick on awakening. She sank again into unconsciousness. She is only now in a natural sleep. Besides those people, there is Mlle. Celie. Of her, monsieur, nothing is known. You yourself know nothing of her. She comes suddenly to Aix as the companion of Mme. Dauvray--a young and pretty English girl. How did she become the companion of Mme. Dauvray?"
Wethermill stirred uneasily in his seat. His face flushed. To Mr. Ricardo that had been from the beginning the most interesting problem of the case. Was he to have the answer now?
"I do not know," answered Wethermill, with some hesitation, and then it seemed that he was at once ashamed of his hesitation. His accent gathered strength, and in a low but ringing voice, he added: "But I say this. You have told me, M. Hanaud, of women who looked innocent and were guilty. But you know also of women and girls who can live untainted and unspoilt amidst surroundings which are suspicious."
Hanaud listened, but he neither agreed nor denied. He took up a second slip of paper.
"I shall tell you something now of Mme. Dauvray," he said. "We will not take up her early history. It might not be edifying and, poor woman, she is dead. Let us not go back beyond her marriage seventeen years ago to a wealthy manufacturer of Nancy, whom she had met in Paris. Seven years ago M. Dauvray died, leaving his widow a very rich woman. She had a passion for jewellery, which she was now able to gratify. She collected jewels. A famous necklace, a well-known stone--she was not, as you say, happy till she got it. She had a fortune in precious stones--oh, but a large fortune! By the ostentation of her jewels she paraded her wealth here, at Monte Carlo, in Paris. Besides that, she was kind-hearted and most impressionable. Finally, she was, like so many of her class, superstitious to the degree of folly."
Suddenly Mr. Ricardo started in his chair. Superstitious! The word was a sudden light upon his darkness. Now he knew what had perplexed him during the last two days. Clearly--too clearly--he remembered where he had seen Celia Harland, and when. A picture rose before his eyes, and it seemed to strengthen like a film in a developing-dish as Hanaud continued:
"Very well! take Mme. Dauvray as we find her--rich, ostentatious, easily taken by a new face, generous, and foolishly superstitious- -and you have in her a living provocation to every rogue. By a hundred instances she proclaimed herself a dupe. She threw down a challenge to every criminal to come and rob her. For seven years Helene Vauquier stands at her elbow and protects her from serious trouble. Suddenly there is added to her--your young friend, and she is robbed and murdered. And, follow this, M. Wethermill, our thieves are, I think, more brutal to their victims than is the case with you."
Wethermill shut his eyes in a spasm of pain and the pallor of his face increased.
"Suppose that Celia were one of the victims?" he cried in a stifled voice.
Hanaud glanced at him with a look of commiseration.
"That perhaps we shall see," he said. "But what I meant was this. A stranger like Mlle. Celie might be the accomplice in such a crime as the crime of the Villa Rose, meaning only robbery. A stranger might only have discovered too late that murder would be added to the theft."
Meanwhile, in strong, clear colours, Ricardo's picture stood out before his eyes. He was startled by hearing Wethermill say, in a firm voice:
"My friend Ricardo has something to add to what you have said."
"I!" exclaimed Ricardo. How in the world could Wethermill know of that clear picture in his mind?
"Yes. You saw Celia Harland on the evening before the murder."
Ricardo stared at his friend. It seemed to him that Harry Wethermill had gone out of his mind. Here he was corroborating the suspicions of the police by facts--damning and incontrovertible facts.
"On the night before the murder," continued Wethermill quietly, "Celia Harland lost money at the baccarat-table. Ricardo saw her in the garden behind the rooms, and she was hysterical. Later on that same night he saw her again with me, and he heard what she said. I asked her to come to the rooms on the next evening-- yesterday, the night of the crime--and her face changed, and she said, 'No, we have other plans for tomorrow. But the night after I shall want you.'"
Hanaud sprang up from his chair.
"And YOU tell me these two things!" he cried.
"Yes," said Wethermill. "You were kind enough to say to me I was not a romantic boy. I am not. I can face facts."
Hanaud stared at his companion for a few moments. Then, with a remarkable air of consideration, he bowed.
"You have won, monsieur," he said. "I will take up this case. But," and his face grew stern and he brought his fist down upon the table with a bang, "I shall follow it to the end now, be the consequences bitter as death to you."
"That is what I wish, monsieur," said Wethermill.
Hanaud locked up the slips of paper in his lettercase. Then he went out of the room and returned in a few minutes.
"We will begin at the beginning," he said briskly. "I have telephoned to the Depot. Perrichet, the sergent-de-ville who discovered the crime, will be here at once. We will walk down to the villa with him, and on the way he shall tell us exactly what he discovered and how he discovered it. At the villa we shall find Monsieur Fleuriot, the Juge d'lnstruction, who has already begun his examination, and the Commissaire of Police. In company with them we will inspect the villa. Except for the removal of Mme. Dauvray's body from the salon to her bedroom and the opening of the windows, the house remains exactly as it was."
"We may come with you?" cried Harry Wethermill eagerly.
"Yes, on one condition--that you ask no questions, and answer none unless I put them to you. Listen, watch, examine--but no interruptions!"
Hanaud's manner had altogether changed. It was now authoritative and alert. He turned to Ricardo.
"You will swear to what you saw in the garden and to the words you heard?" he asked. "They are important."
"Yes," said Ricardo.
But he kept silence about that clear picture in his mind which to him seemed no less important, no less suggestive.
The Assembly Hall at Leamington, a crowded audience chiefly of ladies, a platform at one end on which a black cabinet stood. A man, erect and with something of the soldier in his bearing, led forward a girl, pretty and fair-haired, who wore a black velvet dress with a long, sweeping train. She moved like one in a dream. Some half-dozen people from the audience climbed on to the platform, tied thy girl's hands with tape behind her back, and sealed the tape. She was led to the cabinet, and in full view of the audience fastened to a bench. Then the door of the cabinet was closed, the people upon the platform descended into the body of the hall, and the lights were turned very low. The audience sat in suspense, and then abruptly in the silence and the darkness there came the rattle of a tambourine from the empty platform. Rappings and knockings seemed to flicker round the panels of the hall, and in the place where the door of the cabinet should be there appeared a splash of misty whiteness. The whiteness shaped itself dimly into the figure of a woman, a face dark and Eastern became visible, and a deep voice spoke in a chant of the Nile and Antony. Then the vision faded, the tambourines and cymbals rattled again. The lights were turned up, the door of the cabinet thrown open, and the girl in the black velvet dress was seen fastened upon the bench within.
It was a spiritualistic performance at which Julius Ricardo had been present two years ago. The young, fair-haired girl in black velvet, the medium, was Celia Harland.
That was the picture which was in Ricardo's mind, and Hanaud's description of Mme. Dauvray made a terrible commentary upon it. "Easily taken by a new face, generous, and foolishly superstitious, a living provocation to every rogue." Those were the words, and here was a beautiful girl of twenty versed in those very tricks of imposture which would make Mme. Dauvray her natural prey!
Ricardo looked at Wethermill, doubtful whether he should tell what he knew of Celia Harland or not. But before he had decided a knock came upon the door.
"Here is Perrichet," said Hanaud, taking up his hat. "We will go down to the Villa Rose."
Perrichet was a young, thick-set man, with, a red, fair face, and a moustache and hair so pale in colour that they were almost silver. He came into the room with an air of importance.
"Aha!" said Hanaud, with a malicious smile. "You went to bed late last night, my friend. Yet you were up early enough to read the newspaper. Well, I am to have the honour of being associated with you in this case."
Perrichet twirled his cap awkwardly and blushed.
"Monsieur is pleased to laugh at me," he said. "But it was not I who called myself intelligent. Though indeed I would like to be so, for the good God knows I do not look it."
Hanaud clapped him on the shoulder.
"Then congratulate yourself! It is a great advantage to be intelligent and not to look it. We shall get on famously. Come!"
The four men descended the stairs, and as they walked towards the villa Perrichet related, concisely and clearly, his experience of the night.
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