The Last Seance By Agatha Christie
‘The Last Seance’ was first published in the USA in Ghost
Stories magazine, November 1926, and as ‘The Stolen
Ghost’ in The Sovereign Magazine, March 1927.
Raoul Daubreuil crossed the Seine humming a little tune to himself. He was a good-looking young Frenchman of about thirty-two, with a fresh-coloured face and a little black moustache. By profession he was an engineer. In due course he reached the Cardonet and turned in at the door of No. 17. The concierge looked out from her lair and gave him a grudging ‘Good morning,’ to which he replied cheerfully. Then he mounted the stairs to the apartment on the third floor. As he stood there waiting for his ring at the bell to be answered he hummed once more his little tune. Raoul Daubreuil was feeling particularly cheerful this morning. The door was opened by an elderly Frenchwoman whose wrinkled face broke into smiles when she saw who the visitor was.
‘Good morning, Monsieur.’
‘Good morning, Elise,’ said Raoul.
He passed into the vestibule, pulling off his gloves as he did so. ‘Madame expects me, does she not?’ he asked over his shoulder. ‘Ah, yes, indeed, Monsieur.’
Elise shut the front door and turned towards him. ‘If Monsieur will pass into the little salon Madame will be with him in a few minutes. At the moment she reposes herself.’
Raoul looked up sharply. ‘Is she not well?’
Elise gave a snort. She passed in front of Raoul and opened the door of the little salon for him. He went in and she followed him.
‘Well!‘ she continued. ‘How could she be well, poor lamb? Seances, seances, and always seances! It is not right – not natural, not what the good God intended for us. For me, I say straight out, it is trafficking with the devil.’
Raoul patted her on the shoulder reassuringly. ‘There, there, Elise,’ he said soothingly, ‘do not excite yourself, and do not be too ready to see the devil in everything you do not understand.’
Elise shook her head doubtingly.
‘Ah, well,’ she grumbled under her breath, ‘Monsieur may say what he pleases, I don’t like it. Look at Madame, every day she gets whiter and thinner, and the headaches!’
She held up her hands. ‘Ah, no, it is not good, all this spirit business. Spirits indeed! All the good spirits are in Paradise, and the others are in Purgatory.’
‘Your view of the life after death is refeshingly simple, Elise,’ said Raoul as he dropped into the chair.
The old woman drew herself up. ‘I am a good Catholic, Monsieur.’
She crossed herself, went towards the door, then paused, her hand on the handle.
‘Afterwards when you are married, Monsieur,’ she said pleadingly, ‘it will not continue – all this?’
Raoul smiled at her affectionately. ‘You are a good faithful creature, Elise,’ he said, ‘and devoted to your mistress. Have no fear, once she is my wife, all this “spirit business” as you call it, will cease. For Madame Daubreuil there will be no more seances.’
Elise’s face broke into smiles. ‘Is it true what you say?’ she asked eagerly.
The other nodded gravely. ‘Yes,’ he said, speaking almost more to himself than to her. ‘Yes, all this must end. Simone has a wonderful gift and she has used it freely, but now she has done her part. As you have justly observed, Elise, day by day she gets whiter and thinner. The life of a medium is a particularly trying and arduous one, involving a terrible nervous strain. All the same, Elise, your mistress is the most wonderful medium in Paris – more, in France. People from all over the world come to her because they know that with her there is no trickery, no deceit.’
Elise gave a snort of contempt. ‘Deceit! Ah, no, indeed. Madame could not deceive a newborn babe if she tried.’
‘She is an angel,’ said the young Frenchman with fervour. ‘And I – I shall do everything a man can to make her happy. You believe that?’
Elise drew herself up, and spoke with a certain simple dignity. ‘I have served Madame for many years, Monsieur. With all respect I may say that I love her. If I did not believe that you adored her as she deserves to be adored – eh bien, Monsieur! I should be willing to tear you limb from limb.’
Raoul laughed. ‘Bravo, Elise! you are a faithful friend, and you must approve of me now that I have told you Madame is going to give up the spirits.’
He expected the old woman to receive this pleasantry with a laugh, but somewhat to his surprise she remained grave.
‘Supposing, Monsieur,’ she said hesitatingly, ‘the spirits will not give her up?’
Raoul stared at her.
‘Eh! What do you mean?’
‘I said,’ repeated Elise, ‘supposing the spirits will not give her up?’
‘I thought you didn’t believe in the spirits, Elise?’
‘No more I do,’ said Elise stubbornly. ‘It is foolish to believe in them. All the same -‘
‘It is difficult for me to explain, Monsieur. You see, me, I always thought that these mediums, as they call themselves, were just clever cheats who imposed on the poor souls who had lost their dear ones. But Madame is not like that. Madame is good. Madame is honest and -‘
She lowered her voice and spoke in a tone of awe.
‘Things happen. It is no trickery, things happen, and that is why I am afraid. For I am sure of this, Monsieur, it is not right. It is against nature and le bon Dieu, and somebody will have to pay.’
Raoul got up from his chair and came and patted her on the shoulder. ‘Calm yourself, my good Elise,’ he said, smiling. ‘See, I will give you some good news. Today is the last of these seances; after today there will be no more.’
‘There is one today then?’ asked the old woman suspiciously. ‘The last, Elise, the last.’
Elise shook her head disconsolately. ‘Madame is not fit -‘ she began.
But her words were interrupted, the door opened and a tall, fair woman came in. She was slender and graceful, with the face of a Botticelli Madonna. Raoul’s face lighted up, and Elise withdrew quickly and discreetly.
He took both her long, white hands in his and kissed each in turn. She murmured his name very softly.
‘Raoul, my dear one.’
Again he kissed her hands and then looked intently into her face. ‘Simone, how pale you are! Elise told me you were resting; you are not ill, my wellbeloved?’
‘No, not ill -‘ she hesitated.
He led her over to the sofa and sat down on it beside her. ‘But tell me then.’
The medium smiled faintly. ‘You will think me foolish,’ she murmured. ‘I? Think you foolish? Never.’
Simone withdrew her hand from his grasp. She sat perfectly still for a moment or two gazing down at the carpet. Then she spoke in a low, hurried voice.
‘I am afraid, Raoul.’
He waited for a minute or two expecting her to go on, but as she did not he said encouragingly:
‘Yes, afraid of what?’
‘Just afraid – that is all.’
He looked at her in perplexity, and she answered the look quickly. ‘Yes, it is absurd, isn’t it, and yet I feel just that. Afraid, nothing more. I don’t know what of, or why, but all the time I am possessed with the idea that something terrible – terrible, is going to happen to me . . .’
She stared out in front of her. Raoul put an arm gently round her. ‘My dearest,’ he said, ‘come, you must not give way. I know what it is, the strain, Simone, the strain of a medium’s life. All you need is rest – rest and quiet.’
She looked at him gratefully. ‘Yes, Raoul, you are right. That is what I need, rest and quiet.’
She closed her eyes and leant back a little against his arm. ‘And happiness,’ murmured Raoul in her ear.
His arm drew her closer. Simone, her eyes still closed, drew a deep breath. ‘Yes,’ she murmured, ‘yes. When your arms are round me I feel safe. I forget my life – the terrible life – of a medium. You know much, Raoul, but even you do not know all it means.’
He felt her body grow rigid in his embrace. Her eyes opened again, staring in front of her.
‘One sits in the cabinet in the darkness, waiting, and the darkness is terrible, Raoul, for it is the darkness of emptiness, of nothingness. Deliberately one gives oneself up to be lost in it. After that one knows nothing, one feels nothing, but at last there comes the slow, painful return, the awakening out of sleep, but so tired – so terribly tired.’
‘I know,’ murmured Raoul, ‘I know.’
‘So tired,’ murmured Simone again.
Her whole body seemed to droop as she repeated the words. ‘But you are wonderful, Simone.’
He took her hands in his, trying to rouse her to share his enthusiasm. ‘You are unique – the greatest medium the world has ever known.’ She shook her head, smiling a little at that. ‘Yes, yes,’ Raoul insisted.
He drew two letters from his pocket. ‘See here, from Professor Roche of the Salpetriere, and this one from Dr Genir at Nancy, both imploring that you will continue to sit for them occasionally.’
Simone sprang to her feet. ‘I will not, I will not. It is to be all finished – all done with. You promised me, Raoul.’
Raoul stared at her in astonishment as she stood wavering, facing him almost like a creature at bay. He got up and took her hand.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said. ‘Certainly it is finished, that is understood. But I am so proud of you, Simone, that is why I mentioned those letters.’
She threw him a swift sideways glance of suspicion. ‘It is not that you will ever want me to sit again?’
‘No, no,’ said Raoul, ‘unless perhaps you yourself would care to, just occasionally for these old friends -‘
But she interrupted him, speaking excitedly.
‘No, no, never again. There is a danger. I tell you, I can feel it, great danger.’
She clasped her hands on her forehead a minute, then walked across to the window.
‘Promise me never again,’ she said in a quieter voice over her shoulder. Raoul followed her and put his arms round her shoulders. ‘My dear one,’ he said tenderly, ‘I promise you after today you shall never sit again.’
He felt the sudden start she gave.
‘Today,’ she murmured. ‘Ah, yes – I had forgotten Madame Exe.’ Raoul looked at his watch. ‘She is due any minute now; but perhaps, Simone, if you do not feel well -‘
Simone hardly seemed to be listening to him; she was following out her own train of thought.
‘She is – a strange woman, Raoul, a very strange woman. Do you know I – I have almost a horror of her.’
There was reproach in his voice, and she was quick to feel it.
‘Yes, yes, I know, you are like all Frenchmen, Raoul. To you a mother is sacred and it is unkind of me to feel like that about her when she grieves so for her lost child. But – I cannot explain it, she is so big and black, and her hands – have you ever noticed her hands, Raoul? Great big strong hands, as strong as a man’s. Ah!’
She gave a little shiver and closed her eyes. Raoul withdrew his arm and spoke almost coldly.
‘I really cannot understand you, Simone. Surely you, a woman, should have nothing but sympathy for another woman, a mother bereft of her only child.’
Simone made a gesture of impatience.
‘Ah, it is you who do not understand, my friend! One cannot help these things. The first moment I saw her I felt -‘
She flung her hands out.
‘Fear! You remember, it was a long time before I would consent to sit for her? I felt sure in some way she would bring me misfortune.’
Raoul shrugged his shoulders.
‘Whereas, in actual fact, she brought you the exact opposite,’ he said drily. ‘All the sittings have been attended with marked success. The spirit of the little Amelie was able to control you at once, and the materializations have really been striking. Professor Roche ought really to have been present at the last one.’
‘Materializations,’ said Simone in a low voice.
‘Tell me, Raoul (you know that I know nothing of what takes place while I am in the trance), are the materializations really so wonderful?’
He nodded enthusiastically.
‘At the first few sittings the figure of the child was visible in a kind of nebulous haze,’ he explained, ‘but at the last seance -‘
He spoke very softly.
‘Simone, the child that stood there was an actual living child of flesh and blood. I even touched her – but seeing that the touch was acutely painful to you, I would not permit Madame Exe to do the same. I was afraid that her self-control might break down, and that some harm to you might result.’
Simone turned away again towards the window.
‘I was terribly exhausted when I woke,’ she murmured. ‘Raoul, are you sure – are you really sure that all this is right? You know what dear old Elise thinks, that I am trafficking with the devil?’
She laughed rather uncertainly.
‘You know what I believe,’ said Raoul gravely. ‘In the handling of the unknown there must always be danger, but the cause is a noble one, for it is the cause of Science. All over the world there have been martyrs to Science, pioneers who have paid the price so that others may follow safely in their footsteps. For ten years now you have worked for Science at the cost of a terrific nervous strain. Now your part is done, from today onward you are free to be happy.’
She smiled at him affectionately, her calm restored. Then she glanced quickly up at the clock.
‘Madame Exe is late,’ she murmured. ‘She may not come.’
‘I think she will,’ said Raoul.
‘Your clock is a little fast, Simone.’ Simone moved about the room, rearranging an ornament here and there.
‘I wonder who she is, this Madame Exe?’ she observed. ‘Where she comes from, who her people are? It is strange that we know nothing about her.’
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 seances 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.’
She persisted. ‘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 seance. 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 semi-obscurity. 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.
‘I can assure you that I have nothing to fear, Madame. Bind me hand and foot if you will.’
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 ribbon-like 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.
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:
‘ Maman! ‘
‘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!’