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A Caribbean Mystery
A Caribbean Mystery 26
‘Please tell it to us,’ said the doctor quietly.
‘Delighted,’ said the Canon. ‘Delighted.’
Sir George Durand merely composed himself in an attitude of keen attention.
‘My name, gentlemen,’ began their strange travelling companion, ‘is Raoul Letardeau. You have spoken just now of an English lady, Miss Slater, who interested herself in works of charity. I was born in that Brittany fishing village and when my parents were both killed in a railway accident it was Miss Slater who came to the rescue and saved me from the equivalent of your English workhouse. There were some twenty children under her care, girls and boys. Amongst these children were Felicie Bault and Annette Ravel. If I cannot make you understand the personality of Annette, gentlemen, you will understand nothing. She was the child of what you call a “fille de joie” who had died of consumption abandoned by her lover. The mother had been a dancer, and Annette, too, had the desire to dance. When I saw her first she was eleven years old, a little shrimp of a thing with eyes that alternately mocked and promised – a little creature all fire and life. And at once – yes, at once – she made me her slave. It was “Raoul, do this for me.” “Raoul, do that for me.” And me, I obeyed. Already I worshipped her, and she knew it.
‘We would go down to the shore together, we three – for Felicie would come with us. And there Annette would pull off her shoes and stockings and dance on the sand. And then when she sank down breathless, she would tell us of what she meant to do and to be.
‘“See you, I shall be famous. Yes, exceedingly famous. I will have hundreds and thousands of silk stockings – the finest silk. And I shall live in an exquisite apartment. All my lovers shall be young and handsome as well as being rich. And when I dance all Paris shall come to see me. They will yell and call and shout and go mad over my dancing. And in the winters I shall not dance. I shall go south to the sunlight. There are villas there with orange trees. I shall have one of them. I shall lie in the sun on silk cushions, eating oranges. As for you, Raoul, I will never forget you, however rich and famous I shall be. I will protect you and advance your career. Felicie here shall be my maid – no, her hands are too clumsy. Look at them, how large and coarse they are.”
‘Felicie would grow angry at that. And then Annette would go on teasing her.
‘“She is so ladylike, Felicie – so elegant, so refined. She is a princess in disguise – ha, ha.”
‘“My father and mother were married, which is more than yours were,” Felicie would growl out spitefully.
‘“Yes, and your father killed your mother. A pretty thing, to be a murderer’s daughter.”
‘“Your father left your mother to rot,” Felicie would rejoin.
‘“Ah! yes.” Annette became thoughtful. “Pauvre Maman. One must keep strong and well. It is everything to keep strong and well.”
‘“I am as strong as a horse,” Felicie boasted. ‘And indeed she was. She had twice the strength of any other girl in the Home. And she was never ill.
‘But she was stupid, you comprehend, stupid like a brute beast. I often wondered why she followed Annette round as she did. It was, with her, a kind of fascination. Sometimes, I think, she actually hated Annette, and indeed Annette was not kind to her. She jeered at her slowness and stupidity, and baited her in front of the others. I have seen Felicie grow quite white with rage. Sometimes I have thought that she would fasten her fingers round Annette’s neck and choke the life out of her. She was not nimble-witted enough to reply to Annette’s taunts, but she did learn in time to make one retort which never failed. That was a reference to her own health and strength. She had learned (what I had always known) that Annette envied her her strong physique, and she struck instinctively at the weak spot in her enemy’s armour.
‘One day Annette came to me in great glee.
‘“Raoul,” she said. “We shall have fun today with that stupid Felicie. We shall die of laughing.”
‘“What are you going to do?”
‘“Come behind the little shed, and I will tell you.” ‘It seemed that Annette had got hold of some book. Part of it she did not understand, and indeed the whole thing was much over her head. It was an early work on hypnotism.
‘“A bright object, they say. The brass knob of my bed, it twirls round. I made Felicie look at it last night. ‘Look at it steadily,’ I said. ‘Do not take your eyes off it.’ And then I twirled it. Raoul, I was frightened. Her eyes looked so queer – so queer. ‘Felicie, you will do what I say always,’ I said. ‘I will do what you say always, Annette,’ she answered. And then – and then – I said: ‘Tomorrow you will bring a tallow candle out into the playground at twelve o’clock and start to eat it. And if anyone asks you, you will say that is it the best galette you ever tasted.’ Oh! Raoul, think of it!”
‘“But she’ll never do such a thing,” I objected.
‘“The book says so. Not that I can quite believe it – but, oh! Raoul, if the book is all true, how we shall amuse ourselves!”
‘I, too, thought the idea very funny. We passed word round to the comrades and at twelve o’clock we were all in the playground. Punctual to the minute, out came Felicie with a stump of candle in her hand. Will you believe me, Messieurs, she began solemnly to nibble at it? We were all in hysterics! Every now and then one or other of the children would go up to her and say solemnly: “It is good, what you eat there, eh, Felicie?” And she would answer: “But, yes, it is the best galette I ever tasted.” And then we would shriek with laughter. We laughed at last so loud that the noise seemed to wake up Felicie to a realization of what she was doing. She blinked her eyes in a puzzled way, looked at the candle, then at us. She passed her hand over her forehead.
‘“But what is it that I do here?” she muttered.
‘“You are eating a candle,” we screamed.
‘“I made you do it. I made you do it,” cried Annette, dancing about.
‘Felicie stared for a moment. Then she went slowly up to Annette. ‘“So it is you – it is you who have made me ridiculous? I seem to remember. Ah! I will kill you for this.”
‘She spoke in a very quiet tone, but Annette rushed suddenly away and hid behind me.
‘“Save me, Raoul! I am afraid of Felicie. It was only a joke, Felicie. Only a joke.”
‘“I do not like these jokes,” said Felicie. “You understand? I hate you. I hate you all.”
‘She suddenly burst out crying and rushed away. ‘Annette was, I think, scared by the result of her experiment, and did not try to repeat it. But from that day on, her ascendency over Felicie seemed to grow stronger.
‘Felicie, I now believe, always hated her, but nevertheless she could not keep away from her. She used to follow Annette around like a dog.
‘Soon after that, Messieurs, employment was found for me, and I only came to the Home for occasional holidays. Annette’s desire to become a dancer was not taken seriously, but she developed a very pretty singing voice as she grew older and Miss Slater consented to her being trained as a singer.
‘She was not lazy, Annette. She worked feverishly, without rest. Miss Slater was obliged to prevent her doing too much. She spoke to me once about her.
‘“You have always been fond of Annette,” she said. “Persuade her not to work too hard. She has a little cough lately that I do not like.”
‘My work took me far afield soon afterwards. I received one or two letters from Annette at first, but then came silence. For five years after that I was abroad.
‘Quite by chance, when I returned to Paris, my attention was caught by a poster advertising Annette Ravelli with a picture of the lady. I recognized her at once. That night I went to the theatre in question. Annette sang in French and Italian. On the stage she was wonderful. Afterwards I went to her dressingroom. She received me at once.
‘“Why, Raoul,” she cried, stretching out her whitened hands to me. “This is splendid. Where have you been all these years?”
‘I would have told her, but she did no
t really want to listen.’
‘“You see, I have very nearly arrived!”
‘She waved a triumphant hand round the room filled with bouquets.
‘“The good Miss Slater must be proud of your success.”
‘“That old one? No, indeed. She designed me, you know, for the Conservatoire. Decorous concert singing. But me, I am an artist. It is here, on the variety stage, that I can express myself.”
‘Just then a handsome middle-aged man came in. He was very distinguished. By his manner I soon saw that he was Annette’s protector. He looked sideways at me, and Annette explained.
‘“A friend of my infancy. He passes through Paris, sees my picture on a poster et voila!”
‘The man was then very affable and courteous. In my presence he produced a ruby and diamond bracelet and clasped it on Annette’s wrist. As I rose to go, she threw me a glance of triumph and a whisper.
‘“I arrive, do I not? You see? All the world is before me.”
‘But as I left the room, I heard her cough, a sharp dry cough. I knew what it meant, that cough. It was the legacy of her consumptive mother.
‘I saw her next two years later. She had gone for refuge to Miss Slater. Her career had broken down. She was in a state of advanced consumption for which the doctors said nothing could be done.
‘Ah! I shall never forget her as I saw her then! She was lying in a kind of shelter in the garden. She was kept out-doors night and day. Her cheeks were hollow and flushed, her eyes bright and feverish and she coughed repeatedly.
‘She greeted me with a kind of desperation that startled me.
‘“It is good to see you, Raoul. You know what they say – that I may not get well? They say it behind my back, you understand. To me they are soothing and consolatory. But it is not true, Raoul, it is not true! I shall not permit myself to die. Die? With beautiful life stretching in front of me? It is the will to live that matters. All the great doctors say that nowadays. I am not one of the feeble ones who let go. Already I feel myself infinitely better – infinitely better, do you hear?”
‘She raised herself on her elbow to drive her words home, then fell back, attacked by a fit of coughing that racked her thin body.
‘“The cough – it is nothing,” she gasped. “And haemorrhages do not frighten me. I shall surprise the doctors. It is the will that counts. Remember, Raoul, I am going to live.”
‘It was pitiful, you understand, pitiful.
‘Just then, Felicie Bault came out with a tray. A glass of hot milk. She gave it to Annette and watched her drink it with an expression that I could not fathom. There was a kind of smug satisfaction in it.
‘Annette too caught the look. She flung the glass down angrily, so that it smashed to bits.
‘“You see her? That is how she always looks at me. She is glad I am going to die! Yes, she gloats over it. She who is well and strong. Look at her, never a day’s illness, that one! And all for nothing. What good is that great carcass of hers to her? What can she make of it?”
‘Felicie stooped and picked up the broken fragments of glass.
‘“I do not mind what she says,” she observed in a sing-song voice. “What does it matter? I am a respectable girl, I am. As for her. She will be knowing the fires of Purgatory before very long. I am a Christian, I say nothing.”
‘“You hate me,” cried Annette. “You have always hated me. Ah! but I can charm you, all the same. I can make you do what I want. See now, if I ask you to, you would go down on your knees before me now on the grass.”
‘“You are absurd,” said Felicie uneasily.
‘“But, yes, you will do it. You will. To please me. Down on your knees. I ask it of you, I, Annette. Down on your knees, Felicie.”
‘Whether it was the wonderful pleading in the voice, or some deeper motive, Felicie obeyed. She sank slowly to her knees, her arms spread wide, her face vacant and stupid.
‘Annette flung her head back and laughed – peal upon peal of laughter.
‘“Look at her, with her stupid face! How ridiculous she looks. You can get up now, Felicie, thank you! It is of no use to scowl at me. I am your mistress. You have to do what I say.”
‘She lay back on her pillows exhausted. Felicie picked up the tray and moved slowly away. Once she looked back over her shoulder, and the smouldering resentment in her eyes startled me.
‘I was not there when Annette died. But it was terrible, it seems. She clung to life. She fought against death like a madwoman. Again and again she gasped out: “I will not die – do you hear me? I will not die. I will live – live –”
‘Miss Slater told me all this when I came to see her six months later.
‘“My poor Raoul,” she said kindly. “You loved her, did you not?”
‘“Always – always. But of what use could I be to her? Let us not talk of it. She is dead – she so brilliant, so full of burning life . . .”
‘Miss Slater was a sympathetic woman. She went on to talk of other things. She was very worried about Felicie, so she told me. The girl had had a queer sort of nervous breakdown, and ever since she had been very strange in manner.
‘“You know,” said Miss Slater, after a momentary hesitation, “that she is learning the piano?”
‘I did not know it, and was very much surprised to hear it. Felicie – learning the piano! I would have declared the girl would not know one note from another.
‘“She has talent, they say,” continued Miss Slater. “I can’t understand it. I have always put her down as – well, Raoul, you know yourself, she was always a stupid girl.”
‘“She is so strange in her manner sometimes – I really don’t know what to make of it.”
‘A few minutes later I entered the Salle de Lecture. Felicie was playing the piano. She was playing the air that I had heard Annette sing in Paris. You understand, Messieurs, it gave me quite a turn. And then, hearing me, she broke off suddenly and looked round at me, her eyes full of mockery and intelligence. For a moment I thought – Well, I will not tell you what I thought.
‘“Tiens!” she said. “So it is you – Monsieur Raoul.”
‘I cannot describe the way she said it. To Annette I had never ceased to be Raoul. But Felicie, since we had met as grown-ups, always addressed me as Monsieur Raoul. But the way she said it now was different – as though the Monsieur, slightly stressed, was somehow very amusing.
‘“Why, Felicie,” I stammered. “You look quite different today.”
‘“Do I?” she said reflectively. “It is odd, that. But do not be so solemn, Raoul – decidedly I shall call you Raoul – did we not play together as children? – Life was made for laughter. Let us talk of the poor Annette – she who is dead and buried. Is she in Purgatory, I wonder, or where?”
‘And she hummed a snatch of song – untunefully enough, but the words caught my attention.
‘“Felicie,” I cried. “You speak Italian?”
‘“Why not, Raoul? I am not as stupid as I pretend to be, perhaps.” She laughed at my mystification.
‘“I don’t understand –” I began.
‘“But I will tell you. I am a very fine actress, though no one suspects it. I can play many parts – and play them very well.”
‘She laughed again and ran quickly out of the room before I could stop her.
‘I saw her again before I left. She was asleep in an armchair. She was snoring heavily. I stood and watched her, fascinated, yet repelled. Suddenly she woke with a start. Her eyes, dull and lifeless, met mine.
‘“Monsieur Raoul,” she muttered mechanically.
‘“Yes, Felicie, I am going now. Will you play to me again before I go?”
‘“I? Play? You are laughing at me, Monsieur Raoul.”
‘“Don’t you remember playing to me this morning?”
‘She shook her head.
‘“I play? How can a poor girl like me play?”
‘She paused for a minute as though in thought, t
hen beckoned me nearer.
‘“Monsieur Raoul, there are strange things going on in this house! They play tricks upon you. They alter the clocks. Yes, yes, I know what I am saying. And it is all her doing.”
‘“Whose doing?” I asked, startled.
‘“That Annette’s. That wicked one’s. When she was alive she always tormented me. Now that she is dead, she comes back from the dead to torment me.”
‘I stared at Felicie. I could see now that she was in an extremity of terror, her eyes staring from her head.
‘“She is bad, that one. She is bad, I tell you. She would take the bread from your mouth, the clothes from your back, the soul from your body . . .”
‘She clutched me suddenly.
‘“I am afraid, I tell you – afraid. I hear her voice – not in my ear – no, not in my ear. Here, in my head –” She tapped her forehead. “She will drive me away – drive me away altogether, and then what shall I do, what will become of me?”
‘Her voice rose almost to a shriek. She had in her eyes the look of the terrified brute beast at bay . . .
‘Suddenly she smiled, a peasant smile, full of cunning, with something in it that made me shiver.
‘“If it should come to it, Monsieur Raoul, I am very strong with my hands – very strong with my hands.”
‘I had never noticed her hands particularly before. I looked at them now and shuddered in spite of myself. Squat brutal fingers, and as Felicie had said, terribly strong . . . I cannot explain to you the nausea that swept over me. With hands such as these her father must have strangled her mother . . .
‘That was the last time I ever saw Felicie Bault. Immediately afterwards I went abroad – to South America. I returned from there two years after her death. Something I had read in the newspapers of her life and sudden death. I have heard fuller details tonight – from you – gentlemen! Felicie 3 and Felicie 4 – I wonder? She was a good actress, you know!’
The train suddenly slackened speed. The man in the corner sat erect and buttoned his overcoat more closely.
‘What is your theory?’ asked the lawyer, leaning forward.
‘I can hardly believe –’ began Canon Parfitt, and stopped.