Double Sin and Other Stories by Agatha Christie
Raoul shrugged his shoulders.
“Most people remain incognito if possible when they come to a medium,” he observed. “It is an elementary precaution.”
“I suppose so,” agreed Simone listlessly.
A little china vase she was holding slipped from her fingers and broke to pieces on the tiles of the fireplace. She turned sharply on Raoul.
“You see,” she murmured, “I am not myself. Raoul, would you think me very—very cowardly if I told Madame Exe I could not sit today?”
His look of pained astonishment made her redden.
“You promised, Simone—” he began gently.
She backed against the wall.
“I won’t do it, Raoul. I won’t do it.”
And again that glance of his, tenderly reproachful, made her wince.
“It is not of the money I am thinking, Simone, though you must realize that the money this woman has offered you for the last sitting is enormous—simply enormous.”
She interrupted him defiantly.
“There are things that matter more than money.”
“Certainly there are,” he agreed warmly. “That is just what I am saying. Consider—this woman is a mother, a mother who has lost her only child. If you are not really ill, if it is only a whim on your part—you can deny a rich woman a caprice, can you deny a mother one last sight of her child?”
The medium flung her hands out despairingly in front of her.
“Oh, you torture me,” she murmured. “All the same you are right. I will do as you wish, but I know now what I am afraid of—it is the word ‘mother.’ ”
“There are certain primitive elementary forces, Raoul. Most of them have been destroyed by civilization, but motherhood stands where it stood at the beginning. Animals—human beings, they are all the same. A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”
She stopped, panting a little, then turned to him with a quick, disarming smile.
“I am foolish today, Raoul. I know it.”
He took her hand in his.
“Lie down for a minute or two,” he urged. “Rest till she comes.”
“Very well.” She smiled at him and left the room.
Raoul remained for a minute or two lost in thought, then he strode to the door, opened it, and crossed the little hall. He went into a room the other side of it, a sitting room very much like the one he had left, but at one end was an alcove with a big armchair set in it. Heavy black velvet curtains were arranged so as to pull across the alcove. Elise was busy arranging the room. Close to the alcove she had set two chairs and a small round table. On the table was a tambourine, a horn, and some paper and pencils.
“The last time,” murmured Elise with grim satisfaction. “Ah, Monsieur, I wish it were over and done with.”
The sharp ting of an electric bell sounded.
“There she is, the great gendarme of a woman,” continued the old servant. “Why can’t she go and pray decently for her little one’s soul in a church, and burn a candle to Our Blessed Lady? Does not the good God know what is best for us?”
“Answer the bell, Elise,” said Raoul peremptorily.
She threw him a look, but obeyed. In a minute or two she returned ushering in the visitor.
“I will tell my mistress you are here, Madame.”
Raoul came forward to shake hands with Madame Exe. Simone’s words floated back to his memory.
“So big and so black.”
She was a big woman, and the heavy black of French mourning seemed almost exaggerated in her case. Her voice when she spoke was very deep.
“I fear I am a little late, Monsieur.”
“A few moments only,” said Raoul, smiling. “Madame Simone is lying down. I am sorry to say she is far from well, very nervous and overwrought.”
Her hand, which she was just withdrawing, closed on his suddenly like a vice.
“But she will sit?” she demanded sharply.
“Oh, yes, Madame.”
Madame Exe gave a sigh of relief, and sank into a chair, loosening one of the heavy black veils that floated round her.
“Ah, Monsieur!” she murmured, “you cannot imagine, you cannot conceive the wonder and the joy of these séances to me! My little one! My Amelie! To see her, to hear her, even—perhaps—yes, perhaps to be even able to—stretch out my hand and touch her.”
Raoul spoke quickly and peremptorily.
“Madame Exe—how can I explain?—on no account must you do anything except under my express directions, otherwise there is the gravest danger.”
“Danger to me?”
“No, Madame,” said Raoul, “to the medium. You must understand that the phenomena that occur are explained by Science in a certain way. I will put the matter very simply, using no technical terms. A spirit, to manifest itself, has to use the actual physical substance of the medium. You have seen the vapour of fluid issuing from the lips of the medium. This finally condenses and is built up into the physical semblance of the spirit’s dead body. But this ectoplasm we believe to be the actual substance of the medium. We hope to prove this some day by careful weighing and testing—but the great difficulty is the danger and pain which attends the medium on any handling of the phenomena. Were anyone to seize hold of the materialization roughly the death of the medium might result.”
Madame Exe had listened to him with close attention.
“That is very interesting, Monsieur. Tell me, shall not a time come when the materialization shall advance so far that it shall be capable of detachment from its parent, the medium?”
“That is a fantastic speculation, Madame.”
“But, on the facts, not impossible?”
“Quite impossible today.”
“But perhaps in the future?”
He was saved from answering, for at that moment Simone entered. She looked languid and pale, but had evidently regained entire control of herself. She came forward and shook hands with Madame Exe, though Raoul noticed the faint shiver that passed through her as she did so.
“I regret, Madame, to hear that you are indisposed,” said Madame Exe.
“It is nothing,” said Simone rather brusquely. “Shall we begin?”
She went to the alcove and sat down in the armchair. Suddenly Raoul in his turn felt a wave of fear pass over him.
“You are not strong enough,” he exclaimed. “We had better cancel the séance. Madame Exe will understand.”
Madame Exe rose indignantly.
“Yes, yes, it is better not, I am sure of it.”
“Madame Simone promised me one last sitting.”
“That is so,” agreed Simone quietly, “and I am prepared to carry out my promise.”
“I hold you to it, Madame,” said the other woman.
“I do not break my word,” said Simone coldly. “Do not fear, Raoul,” she added gently, “after all, it is for the last time—the last time, thank God.”
At a sign from her Raoul drew the heavy black curtains across the alcove. He also pulled the curtains of the window so that the room was in semiobscurity. He indicated one of the chairs to Madame Exe and prepared himself to take the other. Madame Exe, however, hesitated.
“You will pardon me, Monsieur, but—you understand I believe absolutely in your integrity and in that of Madame Simone. All the same, so that my testimony may be the more valuable, I took the liberty of bringing this with me.”
From her handbag she drew a length of fine cord.
“Madame!” cried Raoul. “This is an insult!”
“I repeat it is an insult.”
“I don’t understand your objection, Monsieur,” said Madame Exe coldly. “If there is no trickery you have nothing to fear.”
Raoul laughed scornfully.
His speech did not produce the effect he hoped, for Madame Exe merely murmured unemotionally:
“Thank you, Monsieur,” and advanced upon him with her roll of cord.
Suddenly Simone from behind the curtain gave a cry.
“No, no, Raoul, don’t let her do it.”
Madame Exe laughed derisively.
“Madame is afraid,” she observed sarcastically.
“Yes, I am afraid.”
“Remember what you are saying, Simone,” cried Raoul. “Madame Exe is apparently under the impression that we are charlatans.”
“I must make sure,” said Madame Exe grimly.
She went methodically about her task, binding Raoul securely to his chair.
“I must congratulate you on your knots, Madame,” he observed ironically when she had finished. “Are you satisfied now?”
Madame Exe did not reply. She walked round the room examining the panelling of the walls closely. Then she locked the door leading into the hall, and, removing the key, returned to her chair.
“Now,” she said in an indescribable voice, “I am ready.”
The minutes passed. From behind the curtain the sound of Simone’s breathing became heavier and more stertorous. Then it died away altogether, to be succeeded by a series of moans. Then again there was silence for a little while, broken by the sudden clattering of the tambourine. The horn was caught up from the table and dashed to the ground. Ironic laughter was heard. The curtains of the alcove seemed to have been pulled back a little, the medium’s figure was just visible through the opening, her head fallen forward on her breast. Suddenly Madame Exe drew in her breath sharply. A ribbonlike stream of mist was issuing from the medium’s mouth. It condensed and began gradually to assume a shape, the shape of a little child.
“Amelie! My little Amelie!”
The hoarse whisper came from Madame Exe. The hazy figure condensed still further. Raoul stared almost incredulously. Never had there been a more successful materialization. Now, surely it was a real child, a real flesh and blood child standing there.
The soft childish voice spoke.
“My child!” cried Madame Exe. “My child!”
She half rose from her seat.
“Be careful, Madame,” cried Raoul warningly.
The materialization came hesitatingly through the curtains. It was a child. She stood there, her arms held out.
“Ah!” cried Madame Exe.
Again she half rose from her seat.
“Madame,” cried Raoul, alarmed, “the medium—”
“I must touch her,” cried Madame Exe hoarsely.
She moved a step forward.
“For God’s sake, Madame, control yourself,” cried Raoul.
He was really alarmed now.
“Sit down at once.”
“My little one, I must touch her.”
“Madame, I command you, sit down!”
He was writhing desperately in his bonds, but Madame Exe had done her work well; he was helpless. A terrible sense of impending disaster swept over him.
“In the name of God, Madame, sit down!” he shouted. “Remember the medium.”
Madame Exe turned on him with a harsh laugh.
“What do I care for your medium?” she cried. “I want my child.”
“You are mad!”
“My child, I tell you. Mine! My own! My own flesh and blood! My little one come back to me from the dead, alive and breathing.”
Raoul opened his lips, but no words would come. She was terrible, this woman! Remorseless, savage, absorbed by her own passion. The baby lips parted, and for the third time the word echoed:
“Come then, my little one,” cried Madame Exe.
With a sharp gesture she caught up the child in her arms. From behind the curtains came a long-drawn scream of utter anguish.
“Simone!” cried Raoul. “Simone!”
He was aware vaguely of Madame Exe rushing past him, of the unlocking of the door, of the retreating footsteps down the stairs.
From behind the curtains there still sounded the terrible high long-drawn scream—such a scream as Raoul had never heard. It died away with a horrible kind of gurgle. Then there came the thud of a body falling. . . .
Raoul was working like a maniac to free himself from his bonds. In his frenzy he accomplished the impossible, snapping the cord by sheer strength. As he struggled to his feet, Elise rushed in crying “Madame!”
“Simone!” cried Raoul.
Together they rushed forward and pulled the curtain.
Raoul staggered back.
“My God!” he murmured. “Red—all red. . . .”
Elise’s voice came beside him harsh and shaking.
“So Madame is dead. It is ended. But tell me, Monsieur, what has happened. Why is Madame all shrunken away—why is she half her usual size? What has been happening here?”
“I do not know,” said Raoul.
His voice rose to a scream.
“I do not know. I do not know. But I think—I am going mad . . . Simone! Simone!”
The vicar’s wife came round the corner of the vicarage with her arms full of chrysanthemums. A good deal of rich garden soil was attached to her strong brogue shoes and a few fragments of earth were adhering to her nose, but of that fact she was perfectly unconscious.
She had a slight struggle in opening the vicarage gate which hung, rustily, half off its hinges. A puff of wind caught at her battered felt hat, causing it to sit even more rakishly than it had done before. “Bother!” said Bunch.
Christened by her optimistic parents Diana, Mrs. Harmon had become Bunch at an early age for somewhat obvious reasons and the name had stuck to her ever since. Clutching the chrysanthemums, she made her way through the gate to the churchyard, and so to the church door.
The November air was mild and damp. Clouds scudded across the sky with patches of blue here and there. Inside, the church was dark and cold; it was unheated except at service times.
“Brrrrrh!” said Bunch expressively. “I’d better get on with this quickly. I don’t want to die of cold.”
With the quickness born of practice she collected the necessary paraphernalia: vases, water, flower holders. “I wish we had lilies,” thought Bunch to herself. “I get so tired of these scraggy chrysanthemums.” Her nimble fingers arranged the blooms in their holders.
There was nothing particularly original or artistic about the decorations, for Bunch Harmon herself was neither original nor artistic, but it was a homely and pleasant arrangement. Carrying the vases carefully, Bunch stepped up the aisle and made her way towards the altar. As she did so the sun came out.
It shone through the east window of somewhat crude coloured glass, mostly blue and red—the gift of a wealthy Victorian churchgoer. The effect was almost startling in its sudden opulence. “Like jewels,” thought Bunch. Suddenly she stopped, staring ahead of her. On the chancel steps was a huddled dark form.
Putting down the flowers carefully, Bunch went up to it and bent over it. It was a man lying there, huddled over on himself. Bunch knelt down by him and slowly, carefully, she turned him over. Her fingers went to his pulse—a pulse so feeble and fluttering that it told its own story, as did the almost greenish pallor of his face. There was no doubt, Bunch thought, that the man was dying.
He was a man of about forty-five, dressed in a dark, shabby suit. She laid down the limp hand she had picked up and looked at his other hand. This seemed clenched like a fist on his breast. Looking more closely she saw that the fingers were closed over what seemed to be a large wad or handkerchief which he was holding tightly to his chest. All round the clenched hand there were splashes of a dry brown fluid which, Bunch guessed, was dry blood. Bunch sat back on her heels, frowning.
There was, she thought, just a very faint smile as he breathed out this word. There was no mistaking it, for after a moment he said it again, “Sanctuary. . . .”
Then, with a faint, long-drawn-out sigh, his eyes closed again. Once more Bunch’s fingers went to his pulse. It was still there, but fainter now and more intermittent. She got up with decision.
“Don’t move,” she said, “or try to move. I’m going for help.”
The man’s eyes opened again but he seemed now to be fixing his attention on the coloured light that came through the east window. He murmured something that Bunch could not quite catch. She thought, startled, that it might have been her husband’s name.
“Julian?” she said. “Did you come here to find Julian?” But there was no answer. The man lay with eyes closed, his breathing coming in slow, shallow fashion.
Bunch turned and left the church rapidly. She glanced at her watch and nodded with some satisfaction. Dr. Griffiths would still be in his surgery. It was only a couple of minutes’ walk from the church. She went in, without waiting to knock or ring, passing through the waiting room and into the doctor’s surgery.
“You must come at once,” said Bunch. “There’s a man dying in the church.”
Some minutes later Dr. Griffiths rose from his knees after a brief examination.
“Can we move him from here into the vicarage? I can attend to him better there—not that it’s any use.”
“Of course,” said Bunch. “I’ll go along and get things ready. I’ll get Harper and Jones, shall I? To help you carry him.”
“Thanks. I can telephone from the vicarage for an ambulance, but I’m afraid—by the time it comes. . . .” He left the remark unfinished.
Bunch said, “Internal bleeding?”
Dr. Griffiths nodded. He said, “How on earth did he come here?”
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