At the Villa Rose/XX
The car had nearly reached Annecy before Celia woke to consciousness. And even then she was dazed. She was only aware that she was in the motor-car and travelling at a great speed. She lay back, drinking in the fresh air. Then she moved, and with the movement came to her recollection and the sense of pain. Her arms and wrists were still bound behind her, and the cords hurt her like hot wires. Her mouth, however, and her feet were free. She started forward, and Adele Rossignol spoke sternly from the seat opposite.
"Keep still. I am holding the flask in my hand. If you scream, if you make a movement to escape, I shall fling the vitriol in your face," she said.
Celia shrank back, shivering.
"I won't! I won't!" she whispered piteously. Her spirit was broken by the horrors of the night's adventure. She lay back and cried quietly in the darkness of the carriage. The car dashed through Annecy. It seemed incredible to Celia that less than six hours ago she had been dining with Mme. Dauvray and the woman opposite, who was now her jailer. Mme. Dauvray lay dead in the little salon, and she herself—she dared not think what lay in front of her. She was to be persuaded—that was the word—to tell what she did not know. Meanwhile her name would be execrated through Aix as the murderess of the woman who had saved her. Then suddenly the car stopped. There were lights outside. Celia heard voices. A man was speaking to Wethermill. She started and saw Adele Tace's arm flash upwards. She sank back in terror; and the car rolled on into the darkness. Adele Tace drew a breath of relief. The one point of danger had been passed. They had crossed the Pont de la Caille, they were in Switzerland.
Some long while afterwards the car slackened its speed. By the side of it Celia heard the sound of wheels and of the hooves of a horse. A single-horsed closed landau had been caught up as it jogged along the road. The motor-car stopped; close by the side of it the driver of the landau reined in his horse. Wethermill jumped down from the chauffeur's seat, opened the door of the landau, and then put his head in at the window of the car.
"Are you ready? Be quick!"
Adele turned to Celia.
"Not a word, remember!"
Wethermill flung open the door of the car. Adele took the girl's feet and drew them down to the step of the car. Then she pushed her out. Wethermill caught her in his arms and carried her to the landau. Celia dared not cry out. Her hands were helpless, her face at the mercy of that grim flask. Just ahead of them the lights of Geneva were visible, and from the lights a silver radiance overspread a patch of sky. Wethermill placed her in the landau; Adele sprang in behind her and closed the door. The transfer had taken no more than a few seconds. The landau jogged into Geneva; the motor turned and sped back over the fifty miles of empty road to Aix.
As the motor-car rolled away, courage returned for a moment to Celia. The man—the murderer—had gone. She was alone with Adele Rossignol in a carriage moving no faster than an ordinary trot. Her ankles were free, the gag had been taken from her lips. If only she could free her hands and choose a moment when Adele was off her guard she might open the door and spring out on to the road. She saw Adele draw down the blinds of the carriage, and very carefully, very secretly, Celia began to work her hands behind her. She was an adept; no movement was visible, but, on the other hand, no success was obtained. The knots had been too cunningly tied. And then Mme. Rossignol touched a button at her side in the leather of the carriage.
The touch turned on a tiny lamp in the roof of the carriage, and she raised a warning hand to Celia.
"Now keep very quiet."
Right through the empty streets of Geneva the landau was quietly driven. Adele had peeped from time to time under the blind. There were few people in the streets. Once or twice a sergent-de-ville was seen under the light of a lamp. Celia dared not cry out. Over against her, persistently watching her, Adele Rossignol sat with the open flask clenched in her hand, and from the vitriol Celia shrank with an overwhelming terror. The carriage drove out from the town along the western edge of the lake.
"Now listen," said Adele. "As soon as the landau stops the door of the house opposite to which it stops will open. I shall open the carriage door myself and you will get out. You must stand close by the carriage door until I have got out. I shall hold this flask ready in my hand. As soon as I am out you will run across the pavement into the house. You won't speak or scream."
Adele Rossignol turned out the lamp and ten minutes later the carriage passed down the little street and attracted Mme. Gobin's notice. Marthe Gobin had lit no light in her room. Adele Rossignol peered out of the carriage. She saw the houses in darkness. She could not see the busybody's face watching the landau from a dark window. She cut the cords which fastened the girl's hands. The carriage stopped. She opened the door. Celia sprang out on to the pavement. She sprang so quickly that Adele Rossignol caught and held the train of her dress. But it was the fear of the vitriol which had made her spring so nimbly. It was that, too, which made her run so lightly and quickly into the house. The old woman who acted as servant, Jeanne Tace, received her. Celia offered no resistance. The fear of vitriol had made her supple as a glove. Jeanne hurried her down the stairs into the little parlour at the back of the house, where supper was laid, and pushed her into a chair. Celia let her arms fall forward on the table. She had no hope now. She was friendless and alone in a den of murderers, who meant first to torture, then to kill her. She would be held up to execration as a murderess. No one would know how she had died or what she had suffered. She was in pain, and her throat burned. She buried her face in her arms and sobbed. All her body shook with her sobbing. Jeanne Rossignol took no notice. She treated Celie just as the others had done. Celia was la petite, against whom she had no animosity, by whom she was not to be touched to any tenderness. La petite had unconsciously played her useful part in their crime. But her use was ended now, and they would deal with her accordingly. She removed the girl's hat and cloak and tossed them aside.
"Now stay quiet until we are ready for you," she said. And Celia, lifting her head, said in a whisper:
The old woman poured some from a jug and held the glass to Celia's lips.
"Thank you," whispered Celia gratefully, and Adele came into the room. She told the story of the night to Jeanne, and afterwards to Hippolyte when he joined them.
"And nothing gained!" cried the older woman furiously. "And we have hardly a five-franc piece in the house."
"Yes, something," said Adele. "A necklace—a good one—some good rings, and bracelets. And we shall find out where the rest is hid- -from her." And she nodded at Celia.
The three people ate their supper, and, while they ate it, discussed Celia's fate. She was lying with her head bowed upon her arms at the same table, within a foot of them. But they made no more of her presence than if she had been an old shoe. Only once did one of them speak to her.
"Stop your whimpering," said Hippolyte roughly. "We can hardly hear ourselves talk."
He was for finishing with the business altogether to-night.
"It's a mistake," he said. "There's been a bungle, and the sooner we are rid of it the better. There's a boat at the bottom of the garden."
Celia listened and shuddered. He would have no more compunction over drowning her than he would have had over drowning a blind kitten.
"It's cursed luck," he said. "But we have got the necklace—that's something. That's our share, do you see? The young spark can look for the rest."
But Helene Vauquier's wish prevailed. She was the leader. They would keep the girl until she came to Geneva.
They took her upstairs into the big bedroom overlooking the lake. Adele opened the door of the closet, where a truckle-bed stood, and thrust the girl in.
"This is my room," she said warningly, pointing to the bedroom. "Take care I hear no noise. You might shout yourself hoarse, my pretty one; no one else would hear you. But I should, and afterwards—we should no longer be able to call you 'my pretty one,' eh?"
And with a horrible playfulness she pinched the girl's cheek.
Then with old Jeanne's help she stripped Celia and told her to get into bed.
"I'll give her something to keep her quiet," said Adele, and she fetched her morphia-needle and injected a dose into Celia's arm.
Then they took her clothes away and left her in the darkness. She heard the key turn in the lock, and a moment after the sound of the bedstead being drawn across the doorway. But she heard no more, for almost immediately she fell asleep.
She was awakened some time the next day by the door opening. Old Jeanne Tace brought her in a jug of water and a roll of bread, and locked her up again. And a long time afterwards she brought her another supply. Yet another day had gone, but in that dark cupboard Celia had no means of judging time. In the afternoon the newspaper came out with the announcement that Mme. Dauvray's jewellery had been discovered under the boards. Hippolyte brought in the newspaper, and, cursing their stupidity, they sat down to decide upon Celia's fate. That, however, was soon arranged. They would dress her in everything which she wore when she came, so that no trace of her might be discovered. They would give her another dose of morphia, sew her up in a sack as soon as she was unconscious, row her far out on to the lake, and sink her with a weight attached. They dragged her out from the cupboard, always with the threat of that bright aluminium flask before her eyes. She fell upon her knees, imploring their pity with the tears running down her cheeks; but they sewed the strip of sacking over her face so that she should see nothing of their preparations. They flung her on the sofa, secured her as Hanaud had found her, and, leaving her in the old woman's charge, sent down Adele for her needle and Hippolyte to get ready the boat. As Hippolyte opened the door he saw the launch of the Chef de la Surete glide along the bank.