"Are you hurt?" asked Bergenheim.
Octave arose and tried to walk, but was obliged to lean upon his gun.
"I think I have twisted my foot," said he, and he carried his hand to it as if he felt a sharp pain there.
"The devil! it may be a sprain," observed the Baron, coming toward them; "sit down. Do you think you will be able to walk?"
"Yes, but I fear hunting would be too much for me; I will return to the house."
"Do you wish us to make a litter and carry you?"
"You are laughing at me; it's not so bad as that. I will walk back slowly, and will take a foot-bath in my room."
"Lean upon me, then, and I will help you," said the artist, offering his arm.
"Thanks; I do not need you," Octave replied; "go to the devil!" he continued, in an expressive aside.
"Capisco!" Marillac replied, in the same tone, giving his arm an expressive pressure. "Excuse me," said he aloud, "I am not willing that you should go alone. I will be your Antigone—
Antigone me reste, Antigone est and fille.
"Bergenheim, I will take charge of him. Go on with your hunting, the gentlemen are waiting for you. We will meet again at supper; around the table; legs are articles of luxury and sprains a delusion, provided that the throat and stomach are properly treated."
The Baron looked first at his guests, then at the group that had just reached the top of the clearing. For an instant Christian charity struggled against love of hunting, then the latter triumphed. As he saw that Octave, although limping slightly, was already in a condition to walk, especially with the aid of his friend's arm, he said:
"Do not forget to put your foot in water, and send for Rousselet; he understands all about sprains."
This advice having eased his conscience, he joined his companions, while the two friends slowly took the road back to the chateau, Octave resting one hand upon the artist's arm and the other upon his gun.
"The bourgeois is outwitted!" said Marillac with a stifled laugh, as soon as he was sure that Bergenheim could not hear him. "Upon my word, these soldiers have a primitive, baptismal candor! It is not so with us artists; they could not bamboozle us in this way. Your strain is an old story; it is taken from the 'Mariage de raison', first act, second scene."
"You will do me the favor to leave me as soon as we reach the woods," said Gerfaut, as he continued to limp with a grace which would have made Lord Byron envious; "you may go straight ahead, or you may turn to the left, as you choose; the right is forbidden you."
"Very well. Hearts are trumps, it seems, and, for the time being, you agree with Sganarelle, who places the heart on the right side."
"Do not return to the chateau, as it is understood that we are together. If you rejoin the hunting-party, say to Bergenheim that you left me seated at the foot of a tree and that the pain in my foot had almost entirely gone. You would have done better not to accompany me, as I tried to make you understand."
"I had reasons of my own for wishing to get out of Christian's crowd. To-day is Monday, and I have an appointment at four o'clock which interests you more than me. Now, will you listen to a little advice?"
"Listen, yes; follow it, not so sure."
"O race of lovers!" exclaimed the artist, in a sort of transport, "foolish, absurd, wicked, impious, and sacrilegious kind!"
"What of it?"
"What of it? I tell you this will all end with swords for two."
"Do you know that this rabid Bergenheim, with his round face and good-natured smile, killed three or four men while he was in the service, on account of a game of billiards or some such trivial matter?"
"Requiescat in pace."
"Take care that he does not cause the 'De Profundis' to be sung for you. He was called the best swords man at Saint-Cyr: he has the devil of a lunge. As to pistol-shooting, I have seen him break nine plaster images at Lepage's one after another."
"Very well, if I have an engagement with him, we will fight it out with arsenic."
"By Jove, joking is out of place. I tell you that he is sure to discover something, and then your business will soon be settled; he will kill you as if you were one of the hares he is hunting this moment."
"You might find a less humiliating comparison for me," replied Gerfaut, with an indifferent smile; "however, you exaggerate. I have always noticed that these bullies with mysterious threats of their own and these slaughterers of plaster images were not such very dangerous fellows to meet. This is not disputing Bergenheim's bravery, for I believe it to be solid and genuine."
"I tell you, he is a regular lion! After all, you will admit that it is sheer folly to come and attack him in his cage and pull his whiskers through the bars. And that is what you are doing. To be in love with his wife and pay court to her in Paris, when he is a hundred leagues from you, is all very well, but to install yourself in his house, within reach of his clutches! that is not love, it is sheer madness. This is nothing to laugh at. I am sure that this will end in some horrible tragedy. You heard him speak of killing his wife and her lover just now, as if it were a very slight matter. Very. well; I know him; he will do as he says without flinching. These ruddy-faced people are very devils, if you meddle with their family affairs! He is capable of murdering you in some corner of his park, and of burying you at the foot of some tree and then of forcing Madame de Bergenheim to eat your heart fricasseed in champagne, as they say Raoul de Coucy did."
"You will admit, at least, that it would be a very charming repast, and that there would be nothing bourgeois about it."
"Certainly, I boast of detesting the bourgeois; I am celebrated for that; but I should much prefer to die in a worsted nightcap, flannel underwear, and cotton night-shirt, than to have Bergenheim assist me, too brusquely, in this little operation. He is such an out-and-out Goliath! Just look at him!"
And the artist forced his friend to turn about, and pointed at Christian, who stood with the other hunters upon the brow of the hill, a few steps from the spot where they had left him. The Baron was indeed a worthy representative of the feudal ages, when physical strength was the only incontestable superiority. In spite of the distance, they could hear his clear, ringing voice although they could not distinguish his words.
"He really has a look of the times of the Round Table," said Gerfaut; "five or six hundred years ago it would not have been very agreeable to find one's self face to face with him in a tournament; and if to-day, as in those times, feminine hearts were won by feats with double-edged swords, I admit that my chances would not be very good. Fortunately, we are emancipated from animal vigor; it is out, of fashion."
"Out of fashion, if you like; meanwhile, he will kill you."
"You do not understand the charms of danger nor the attractions that difficulties give to pleasure. I have studied Christian thoroughly since I have been here, and I know him as well as if I had passed my life with him. I am also sure that, at the very first revelation, he will kill me if he can, and I take a strange interest in knowing that I risk my life thus. Here we are in the woods," said Gerfaut, as he dropped the artist's arm and ceased limping; "they can no longer see us; the farce is played out. You know what I told you to say if you join them: you left me at the foot of a tree. You are forbidden to approach the sycamores, under penalty of receiving the shot from my gun in your moustache."
At these words he threw the gun which had served him as crutch over his shoulder, and darted off in the direction of the river.
At the extremity of the sycamore walk, the shore formed a bluff like the one upon which the chateau was built, but much more abrupt, and partly wooded. In order to avoid this stretch, which was not passable for carriages, the road leading into the principal part of the valley turned to the right, and reached by an easier ascent a more level plateau. There was only one narrow path by the river, which was shaded by branches of beeches and willows that hung over this bank into the river. After walking a short distance through this shady path, one found himself before a huge triangular rock covered with moss, which nature had rolled from the top of the mountain as if to close up the passage.
This obstacle was not insurmountable; but in order to cross it, one must have a sure foot and steady head, for the least false step would precipitate the unlucky one into the river, which was rapid as well as deep. From the rock, one could reach the top of the cliff by means of some natural stone steps, and then, descending on the other side, could resume the path by the river, which had been momentarily interrupted. In this case, one would reach, in about sixty steps, a place where the river grew broader and the banks projected, forming here and there little islands of sand covered with bushes. Here was a ford well known to shepherds and to all persons who wished to avoid going as far as the castle bridge.
Near the mossy rock of which we have spoken as being close to the sycamore walk, at the foot of a wall against which it flowed, forming a rather deep excavation, the current had found a vein of soft, brittle stone which, by its incessant force, it had ended in wearing away. It was a natural grotto formed by water, but which earth, in its turn, had undertaken to embellish. An enormous willow had taken root in a few inches of soil in a fissure of the rock, and its drooping branches fell into the stream, which drifted them along without being able to detach them.
Madame de Bergenheim was seated at the front of this grotto, upon a seat formed by the base of the rock. She was tracing in the sand, with a stick which she had picked up on the way, strange figures which she carefully erased with her foot. Doubtless these hieroglyphics had some meaning to her, and perhaps she feared lest the slightest marks might be carelessly forgotten, as they would betray the secret they concealed. Clemence was plunged into one of those ecstatic reveries which abolish time and distance. The fibres of her heart, whose exquisite vibrating had been so suddenly paralyzed by Christian's arrival, had resumed their passionate thrills. She lived over again in her mind the tete-a-tete in the drawing-room; she could hear the entrancing waltz again; she felt her lover's breath in her hair; her hand trembled again under the pressure of his kiss. When she awoke from this dream it was a reality; for Octave was seated by her side without her having seen him arrive, and he had taken up the scene at the piano just where it had been interrupted.
She was not afraid. Her mind had reached that state of exaltation which renders imperceptible the transition from dreaming to reality. It seemed to her that Octave had always been there, that it was his place, and for a moment she no longer thought, but remained motionless in the arms which embraced her. But soon her reason came back to her. She arose trembling, and drew away a few steps, standing before her lover with lowered head and face suffused with blushes.
"Why are you afraid of me? Do you not think me worthy of your love?" he asked, in an altered voice, and, without trying to retain or approach her, he fell upon his knees with a movement of sweet, sad grace.
He had analyzed Madame de Bergenheim's character well enough to perceive the least variation in her capricious nature. By the young woman's frightened attitude, her burning cheeks and the flashes which he saw from her eyes through her long, drooping lashes, he saw that a reaction had taken place, and he feared the next outburst; for he knew that women, when overcome with remorse, always smite their lover by way of expiation for themselves.
"If I let this recovered virtue have the mastery, I am a lost man for a fortnight at least," he thought.
He quickly abandoned the dangerous ground upon which he had taken position, and passed, by an adroit transition, from the most passionate frenzy to the most submissive bearing. When Clemence raised her large eyes, in which was a threatening gleam, she saw, instead of an audacious man to be punished, an imploring slave.
There was something so flattering in this attitude of humility that she was completely disarmed. She approached Octave, and took him by the hand to raise him, seated herself again and allowed him to resume his position beside her. She softly pressed his hand, of which she had not let go, and, looking her lover in the eyes, said in that deep, penetrating voice that women sometimes have:
"Friend!" he thought; "yes, certainly. I will raise no dispute as to the word, provided the fact is recognized. What matters the color of the flag? Only fools trouble themselves about that. 'Friend' is not the throne I aspire to, but it is the road that leads to it. So then, let it be 'friend,' while waiting for better. This word is very pleasant to hear when spoken in these siren's accents, and when at the same time the eyes say 'lover!'"
"Will you always love me thus?" Octave asked, whose face beamed with virtuous pledges.
"Always!" sighed Clemence, without lowering eyes under the burning glance which met hers.
"You will be the soul of my soul; the angel of my heaven?"
"Your sister," she said, with a sweet smile, as she caressed her lover's cheek with her hand.
He felt the blood mount to his face at this caress, and turned his eyes away with a dreamy air.
"I probably am one of the greatest fools that has ever existed since the days of Joseph and Hippolytus," thought he.
He remained silent and apparently indifferent for several moments.
"Of what are you thinking?" asked Madame de Bergenheim, surprised by Octave's silence and rather listless air.
He gave a start of surprise at this question.
"May I die if I tell her!" he thought; "she must think me ridiculous enough as it is."
"Tell me, I wish you to speak out," she continued, in that despotic tone which a woman assumes when sure of her empire.
Instead of replying, as she demanded, he gave her a long, questioning glance, and it would have been impossible at that moment for her to keep a single secret from her lover. Madame de Bergenheim felt the magnetic influence of his penetrating glance so deeply that it seemed to her these sharp eyes were fathoming her very heart. She felt intensely disturbed to be gazed at in that way, and, in order to free herself from this mute questioning, she leaned her head upon Octave's shoulder, as she said softly:
"Do not look at me like that or I shall not love your eyes any more."
Her straw hat, whose ribbons were not tied, slipped and fell, dragging with it the comb which confined her beautiful hair, and it fell in disorder over her shoulders. Gerfaut passed his hand behind the charming head which rested upon his breast, in order to carry this silky, perfumed fleece to his lips. At the same time, he gently pressed the supple form which, as it bent toward him, seemed to ask for this caress.
Clemence made a sudden effort and arose, fastening her hair at the back of her head with an almost shamed haste.
"Will you refuse me one lock of your hair as a souvenir of this hour?" said Octave, stopping her gently as she was about to replace her comb.
"Do you need any souvenir?" she replied, giving him a glance which was neither a reproach nor a refusal.
"The souvenir is in my heart, the hair will never leave my bosom! We live in an unworthy age. I can not boast of wearing your colors in everybody's eyes, and yet I should like to wear a sign of my bondage."
She let her hair fall down her back again, but seemed embarrassed as to how to execute his wish.
"I can not cut my hair with my teeth," she said, with a smile which betrayed a double row of pearls.
Octave took a stiletto from his pocket.
"Why do you always carry this stiletto?" asked the young woman, in a changed voice; "it frightens me to see you armed thus."
"Fear nothing," said Gerfaut, who did not reply to her question, "I will respect the hair which serves you as a crown. I know where I must cut it, and, if my ambition is great, my hand shall be discreet."
Madame de Bergenheim had no confidence in his moderation, and, fearing to leave her beautiful hair to her lover's mercy, she took the stiletto and cut off a little lock which she drew through her fingers and then offered to him, with a loving gesture that doubled the value of the gift. At this moment, hunting-horns resounded in the distance.
"I must leave you now!" exclaimed Clemence, "I must. My dear love, let me go now; say good-by to me."
She leaned toward him and presented her forehead to receive this adieu. It was her lips which met Octave's, but this kiss was rapid and fleeting as a flash of light. Withdrawing from the arms which would yet retain her, she darted out of the grotto, and in a moment had disappeared in one of the shady paths.
For some time, plunged in deep reflection, Gerfaut stood on the same spot; but at last arousing himself from this dreamy languor, he climbed the rock so as to reach the top of the cliff. After taking a few steps he stopped with a frightened look, as if he had espied some venomous reptile in his path. He could see, through the bushes which bordered the crest of the plateau at the top of the ladder cut in the rock, Bergenheim, motionless, and in the attitude of a man who is trying to conceal himself in order that he may watch somebody. The Baron's eyes not being turned in Gerfaut's direction, he could not tell whether he was the object of this espionage, or whether the lay of the land allowed him to see Madame de Bergenheim, who must be under the sycamores by this time. Uncertain as to what he should do, he remained motionless, half crouched down upon the rock, behind the ledge of which, thanks to his position, he could hide from the Baron.
A few moments before the castle clock struck four, a man leaped across the ditch which served as enclosure to the park. Lambernier, for it was he who showed himself so prompt at keeping his promise, directed his steps through the thickets toward the corner of the Corne woods which he had designated to Marillac; but, after walking for some time, he was forced to slacken his steps. The hunting-party were coming in his direction, and Lambernier knew that to continue in the path he had first chosen would take him directly among the hunters; and, in spite of his insolence, he feared the Baron too much to wish to expose himself to the danger of another chastisement. He therefore retraced his steps and took a roundabout way through the thickets, whose paths were all familiar to him; he descended to the banks of the river ready to ascend to the place appointed for the rendezvous as soon as the hunting party had passed.
He had hardly reached the plateau covered with trees, which extended above the rocks, when, as he entered a clearing which had been recently made, he saw two men coming toward him who were walking very fast, and whom to meet in this place caused him a very disagreeable sensation. The first man was Mademoiselle de Corandeuil's coachman, as large a fellow as ever crushed the seats of landau or brougham with his rotundity. He was advancing with hands in the pockets of his green jacket and his broad shoulders thrown back, as if he had taken it upon himself to replace Atlas. His cap, placed in military fashion upon his head, his scowling brows, and his bombastic air, announced that he was upon the point of accomplishing some important deed which greatly interested him. Leonard Rousselet, walking by his side, moved his spider legs with equal activity, carefully holding up the skirts of his long coat as if they were petticoats.
Lambernier, at sight of them, turned to enter the woods again, but he was stopped in his retreat by a threatening shout.
"Stop, you vagabond!" exclaimed the coachman; "halt! If you take a trot, I shall take a gallop."
"What do you want? I have no business with you," replied the workman, in a surly tone.
"But I have business with you," replied the big domestic, placing himself in front of him and balancing himself first on his toes then on his heels, with a motion like the wooden rocking-horses children play with. "Come here, Rousselet; are you wheezy or foundered?"
"I have not as good legs as your horses," replied the old man, who reached them at last, breathless, and took off his hat to wipe his forehead.
"What does this mean, jumping out upon one from a corner in the woods like two assassins?" asked Lambernier, foreseeing that this beginning might lead to some scene in which he was threatened to be forced to play a not very agreeable role.
"It means," said the coachman: "first, that Rousselet has nothing to do with it; I do not need anybody's help to punish an insignificant fellow like you; second, that you are going to receive your quietus in a trice."
At these words he pushed his cap down over his ears and rolled up his sleeves, in order to give freer action to his large, broad hands.
The three men were standing upon a plot of ground where charcoal had been burned the year before. The ground was black and slippery, but being rather level, it was a very favorable place for a duel with fists or any other weapons. When Lambernier saw the lackey's warlike preparations, he placed his cap and coat upon an old stump and stationed himself in front of his adversary. But, before the hostilities had begun, Rousselet advanced, stretching his long arms out between them, and said, in a voice whose solemnity seemed to be increased by the gravity of the occasion:
"I do not suppose that you both wish to kill each other; only uneducated people conduct themselves in this vulgar manner; you ought to have a friendly explanation, and see if the matter is not susceptible of arrangement. That was the way such things were done when I was in the twenty-fifth demi-brigade."
"The explanation is," said the coachman, in his gruff voice, "that here is a low fellow who takes every opportunity to undervalue me and my horses, and I have sworn to give him a good drubbing the first time I could lay my hands upon him. So, Pere Rousselet, step aside. He will see if I am a pickle; he will find out that the pickle is peppery!"
"If you made use of such a vulgar expression as that," observed Rousselet, turning to Lambernier, "you were at fault, and should beg his pardon as is the custom among educated people."
"It is false!" exclaimed Lambernier; "and besides, everybody calls the Corandeuils that, on account of the color of their livery."
"Did you not say Sunday, at the 'Femme-sans-Tete', and in the presence of Thiedot, that all the servants of the chateau were idlers and good-for-nothings, and that if you met one of them who tried to annoy you, you would level him with your plane?"
"If you used the word 'level,' it was very uncivil," observed Rousselet.
"Thiedot had better keep in his own house," growled the carpenter, clenching his fists.
"It looks well for a tramp like you to insult gentlemen like us," continued the lackey, in an imposing tone. "And did you not say that when I took Mademoiselle to mass I looked like a green toad upon the box, ..thus trying to dishonor my physique and my clothes? Did you not say that?"
"Only a joke about the color of your livery. They call the others measles and lobsters."
"Lobsters are lobsters," replied the coachman, in an imperative tone; "if that vexes them, they can take care of themselves. But I will not allow any one to attack my honor or that of my beasts by calling them screws—and that is what you did, you vagabond! And did you not say that I sent bags of oats to Remiremont to be sold, and that, for a month, my team had steadily been getting thin? Did you ever hear anything so scandalous, Pere Rousselet? to dare to say that I endanger the lives of my horses? Did you not say that, you rascal? And did you not say that Mademoiselle Marianne and I had little private feasts in her room, and that was why I could not eat more at the table? Here is Rousselet, who has been a doctor and knows that I am on a diet on account of my weak stomach." At these words, the servant, carried away by his anger, gave his stomach a blow with his fist.
"Lambernier," said Rousselet, turning up his lips with a look of contempt, "I must admit that, for a man well brought up, you have made most disgusting remarks."
"To say that I eat the horses' oats!" roared the coachman.
"I ought to have said that you drank them," replied Lambernier, with his usual sneer.
"Rousselet, out of the way!" exclaimed the burly lackey at this new insult; the old peasant not moving as quickly as he desired, he seized him by the arm and sent him whirling ten steps away.
At this moment, a new person completed the scene, joining in it, if not as actor at least as interested spectator. If the two champions had suspected his presence they would have probably postponed their fight until a more opportune moment, for this spectator was no other than the Baron himself. As he saw from a distance the trio gesticulating in a very animated manner, he judged that a disorderly scene was in preparation, and as he had wished for a long time to put an end to the quarrelsome ways of the chateau servants, he was not sorry to catch them in the very act, so as to make an example of them. At first, he stooped and concealed himself in the thickets, ready to appear for the denouement.
As Lambernier saw the giant's fist coming down upon him, he darted to one side and the blow only struck the air, making the coachman stumble from the force of his impetuosity. Lambernier profited by this position to gather all his strength, and threw himself upon his adversary, whom he seized by the flank and gave such a severe blow as to bring him down upon his knees. He then gave him a dozen more blows upon the head, and succeeded in overthrowing him completely.
If the coachman had not had a cranium as hard as iron, he probably could not have received such a storm of fisticuffs without giving up the ghost. Fortunately for him, he had one of those excellent Breton heads that break the sticks which beat them. Save for a certain giddiness, he came out of the scramble safe and sound. Far from losing his presence of mind by the disadvantageous position in which he found himself, he supported himself upon the ground with his left hand, and, passing his other arm behind him, he wound it around the workman's legs, who thus found himself reaped down, so to speak, and a moment later was lying on his back in front of his adversary. The latter, holding him fast with his strong hands, placed a knee, as large as a plate, upon his chest and then pulled off the cap that his enemy had pushed down over his eyes, and proceeded to administer full justice to him.
"Ah! you thought you'd attack me treacherously, did you?" said he, with a derisive chuckle as if to slacken the speed of his horses. "You know short reckonings make good friends. Oh! what a fine thrashing you are going to receive, my friend! Take care! if you try to bite my hand, I'll choke you with my two fingers, do you hear! Now, then, take this for the green toad; this, for my horses' sake; this, for Mademoiselle Marianne!"
He followed each "this" with a heavy blow from his fist. At the third blow the blood poured out of the mouth of the carpenter, who writhed under the pressure of his adversary's knee like a buffalo stifled by a boa-constrictor; he succeeded at last in freeing one hand, which he thrust into his trousers' pocket.
"Ah! you rascal! I am killed!" howled the coachman, giving a bound backward. Lambernier, profiting by his freedom, jumped upon his feet, and, without troubling himself as to his adversary, who had fallen on his knees and was pressing his hand to his left thigh; he picked up his cap and vest and started off through the clearing. Rousselet, who until then had prudently kept aside, tried to stop the workman, at a cry from his companion, but the scoundrel brandished his iron compass before his eyes with such an ugly look that the peasant promptly left the way open for him.
At this tragic and unexpected denouement, Bergenheim, who was getting ready to make his appearance from behind the trees and to interpose his authority, started in full pursuit of the would-be murderer. From the direction he took, he judged that he would try to reach the river by passing over the rock. He walked in this direction, with his gun over his shoulder, until he reached the foot of the steps which descended into the grotto. Christian crouched behind some bushes to wait for Lambernier, who must pass this way, and it was at this moment that Gerfaut, who was forty feet below him, saw him without suspecting the reason for his attitude.
Bergenheim soon found out that he had calculated correctly when he heard a sound like that made by a wild boar when he rushes through the thickets and breaks the small branches in his path, as if they were no more than blades of grass. Soon Lambernier appeared with a haggard, wild look and a face bleeding from the blows he had received. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and to wipe off his compass with a handful of grass; he then staunched the blood streaming from his nose and mouth, and after putting on his coat started rapidly in the direction of the river.
"Halt!" exclaimed the Baron, suddenly, rising before him and barring his passage.
The workman jumped back in terror; then he drew out his compass a second time and made a movement as if to throw himself upon this new adversary, out of sheer desperation. Christian, at this threatening pantomime, raised his gun to his cheek with as much coolness and precision as he would have shown at firing into a body of soldiers.
"Down with your weapon!" he exclaimed, in his commanding voice, "or I will shoot you down like a rabbit."
The carpenter uttered a hoarse cry as he saw the muzzle of the gun within an inch of his head, ready to blow his brains out. Feeling assured that there was no escape for him, he closed his compass and threw it with an angry gesture at the Baron's feet.
"Now," said the latter, "you will walk straight ahead of me as far as the chateau, and if you turn one step to the right or left, I will send the contents of my gun into you. So right about march!"
As he said these words, he stooped, without losing sight of the workman, and picked up the compass, which he put in his pocket.
"Monsieur le Baron, it was the coachman who attacked me first; I had to defend myself," stammered Lambernier.
"All right, we will see about that later. March on!"
"You will deliver me up to the police—I am a ruined man!"
"That will make one rascal the less," exclaimed Christian, repelling with disgust the workman, who had thrown himself on his knees before him.
"I have three children, Monsieur, three children," he repeated, in a supplicating tone.
"Will you march!" replied Bergenheim imperiously, as he made a gesture with his gun as if to shoot him.
Lambernier arose suddenly, and the expression of terror upon his countenance gave place to one of resolution mingled with hatred and scorn.
"Very well," he exclaimed, "let us go on! but remember what I tell you; if you have me arrested, you will be the first to repent of it, Baron though you are. If I appear before a judge, I will tell something that you would pay a good price for."
Bergenheim looked fixedly at Lambernier.
"What do you mean by such insolence?" said he.
"I will tell you what I mean, if you will promise to let me go; if you give me into the hands of the police, I repeat it, you will repent not having listened to me to-day."
"This is some idle yarn, made to gain time; no matter, speak; I will listen."
The workman darted a defiant glance at Christian.
"Give me your word of honor to let me go afterward."
"If I do not do so, are you not at liberty to repeat your story?" replied the Baron, who, in spite of his curiosity, would not give his word to a scoundrel whose only aim probably was to escape justice.
This observation impressed Lambernier, who, after a moment's reflection, assumed a strange attitude of cool assurance, considering the position in which he found himself. Not a sound was to be heard; even the barking of the dogs in the distance had ceased. The deepest silence surrounded them; even Gerfaut, in the place where he was concealed, could no longer see them, now that Bergenheim had left the edge of the cliff; from time to time their voices reached him, but he could not distinguish the meaning of their words.
Leaning with one hand upon his gun, Christian waited for the carpenter to begin his story, gazing at him with his clear, piercing eyes. Lambernier bore this glance without flinching, returning it in his insolent way.
"You know, Monsieur, that when the alterations were made in Madame's apartment, I had charge of the carving for her chamber. When I took away the old woodwork, I saw that the wall between the windows was constructed out of square, and I asked Madame if she wished that the panel should be fastened like the other or if she preferred it to open so that it would make a closet. She said to have it open by means of a secret spring. So I made the panel with concealed hinges and a little button hidden in the lower part of the woodwork; it only needs to be pressed, after turning it to the right, and the woodwork will open like a door."
Christian had now become extremely attentive.
"Monsieur will remember that he was in Nancy at the time, and that Madame's chamber was completed during his absence. As I was the only one who worked in this room, the other workmen not being capable of carving the wood as Madame wished, I was the only person who knew that the panel was not nailed down the length of the wall."
"Well?" asked the Baron, impatiently.
"Well," Lambernier replied, in a careless tone, "if, on account of the blow which I gave the coachman, it is necessary for me to appear in court, I shall be obliged to tell, in order to revenge myself, what I saw in that closet not more than a month ago."
"Finish your story," exclaimed Bergenheim, as he clenched the handle of his gun.
"Mademoiselle Justine took me into this room in order to hang some curtains; as I needed some nails, she went out to get them. While I was examining the woodwork, which I had not seen since it had been put in place, I saw that the oak had warped in one place because it was not dry enough when it was used. I wished to see if the same thing had happened between the windows, and if the panel could open. I pressed the spring, and when the door opened I saw a small package of letters upon the little shelf; it seemed very singular to me that Madame should choose this place to keep her letters, and the thought came to me that she wished to conceal them from Monsieur."
Bergenheim gave the workman a withering glance, and made a sign for him to continue.
"They were already talking about discharging me from the chateau's employ; I do not know how it happened, but the thought entered my head that perhaps one of these letters would be of use to me, and I took the first one in the package; I had only time to close the panel when Mademoiselle Justine returned."
"Very well! what is there in common between these letters and the criminal court that awaits you?" asked Christian, in an altered voice, although he tried to appear indifferent.
"Oh! nothing at all," replied the carpenter, with an air of indifference; "but I thought that you would not like people to know that Madame had a lover."
Bergenheim shivered as if he were taken with a chill, and his gun dropped from his hand to the ground.
As quick as thought Lambernier stooped over to seize the gun, but he did not have time to carry out his intention, for he was seized by the throat and half choked by an iron hand.
"That letter! that letter!" said Christian to him, in a low, trembling voice, and he put his face down close to the carpenter's, as if he feared that a breath of wind might carry away his words and repeat them.
"Let me alone first, I can not breathe—" stammered the workman, whose face, was becoming purple and his eyes starting out of his head, as if his adversary's fingers had been a rope.
The latter granted the prayer by loosening his hold of the carpenter's neck and seizing him by his vest in such a way as to take away all chance of escape while leaving him free to speak.
"This letter!" he repeated.
Frightened by the shaking he had just received, and not in a condition to reflect with his usual prudence, Lambernier mechanically obeyed this order; he hunted in his pockets for some time, and at last took a carefully folded paper from his vest-pocket, saying with a stunned air:
"Here it is. It is worth ten louis."
Christian seized the paper and opened it with his teeth, for he could not use his hands without releasing his prisoner. It was, like all notes of this kind, without address, seal, or signature. It did not differ from most of its kind save in the natural beauty of its style and its simple eloquence. Ardent protestations, sweet and loving complaints, those precious words that one bestows only upon the woman he loves and which betray a love that has yet much to desire but as much to hope. The handwriting was entirely unknown to Bergenheim, but Clemence's name, which was repeated several times, did not permit him to doubt for a moment that this note was written to his wife. When he had finished reading, he put it in his pocket with apparent serenity, and then looked at Lambernier, who, during this time, had remained motionless under the hand that detained him.
"You are mistaken, Lambernier," said he to him; "it is one of my letters before my marriage." And he tried to force himself to smile; but the muscles of his lips refused to act this falsehood, and drops of cold perspiration stood upon his forehead and at the roots of his hair.
The carpenter had watched the change in the Baron's countenance as he read the letter. He was persuaded that he could turn the capital importance of his revelations into profit for himself; he believed that the time had come when he might gain advantage by showing that he understood perfectly well the value of the secret he had just imparted. So he replied with a glance of intelligence:
"Monsieur's handwriting must have changed greatly, then; I have some of his orders which do not resemble this any more than a glass of water does a glass of wine."
Christian tried to find a response but failed. His eyebrows contracted in a manner that betokened a coming storm, but Lambernier was not disturbed by this symptom; he continued in a more and more assured voice:
"When I said that this letter was worth ten louis, I meant that it was worth that much to a mere stranger, and I am very sure I should not have to go very far to find one; but Monsieur le Baron is too sensible not to know the value of this secret. I do not wish to set a price upon it, but since I am obliged to go away on account of this coachman, and have no money—"
He did not have time to finish; Bergenheim seized him in the middle of the body and made him describe a horizontal half-circle without touching the ground, then threw him upon his knees on the edge of the path which descended almost perpendicularly alongside the rocks. Lambernier suddenly saw his haggard face reflected in the river fifty feet below. At this sight, and feeling a powerful knee between his shoulders which bent him over the abyss, as if to make him appreciate its dangers, the workman uttered a terrified cry; his hands clutched wildly at the tufts of grass and roots of plants which grew here and there on the sides of the rocks, and he struggled with all his might to throw himself back upon the ground. But it was in vain for him to struggle against the superior strength of his adversary, and his attempts only aggravated the danger of his position. After two or three powerless attempts, he found himself lying upon his stomach with half his body hanging over the precipice, having nothing to prevent him from falling over but Bergenheim's hand, which held him by the collar and at the same time hindered him from rising.
"Have you ever said one word about this?" asked the Baron, as he took hold of the trunk of a tree to steady himself upon this dangerous ground that he had chosen as the field of discussion.
"To nobody!—ah!—how my head swims!" replied the carpenter, closing his eyes in terror, for the blood rushing to his brain made him dizzy, and it seemed to him that the river was slowly reaching him.
"You see that if I make one gesture, you are a dead man," replied the Baron, leaning upon him harder yet.
"Give me up to the police; I will say nothing about the letters; as sure as there is a God, I will say nothing. But do not let me fall—hold me tight—do not let go of me—I am slipping—oh! holy mother of God!"
Christian taking hold of the tree near him, leaned over and raised Lambernier up, for he really was incapable of doing so himself; fright and the sight of the water had given him vertigo. When he was upon his legs again, he reeled like a drunken man and his feet nearly gave way beneath him. The Baron looked at him a moment in silence, but at last he said:
"Go away, leave the country at once; you have time to fly before there will be any pursuit. But remember that if I ever hear one word of what has passed between us from your lips, I shall know how to find you and you will die by my hand."
"I swear by the Holy Virgin and by all the saints—" stammered Lambernier, who had suddenly become a very fervent Catholic.
Christian pointed with his finger to the stone steps beneath them.
"There is your road; pass over the rock, through the woods, and reach Alsace. If you conduct yourself well, I will assure your living. But remember; one single indiscreet word, and you are a dead man."
At these words he pushed him into the path with one of those quick movements which very powerful men can not always calculate the effect of. Lambernier, whose strength was almost exhausted by the struggles he had undergone, had not vigor enough left to stand, and he lost his balance at this violent as well as unexpected push. He stumbled over the first step, reeled as he tried to regain his footing, and fell head first down the almost vertical declivity. A ledge of the cliff, against which he first struck, threw him upon the loose rocks. He slowly glided downward, uttering lamentable cries; he clutched, for a moment, a little bush which had grown in a crevice of the rocks but he did not have strength enough to hold on to it, his arm having been broken in three places by his fall. He let go of it suddenly, and dropped farther and farther down uttering a last terrible shriek of despair; he rolled over twice again-and then fell into the torrent below, that swallowed him up like a mass already deprived of life.
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Antipathy for her husband bordering upon aversion Attractions that difficulties give to pleasure Consented to become a wife so as not to remain a maiden Despotic tone which a woman assumes when sure of her empire Love is a fire whose heat dies out for want of fuel Regards his happiness as a proof of superiority She said yes, so as not to say no
By CHARLES DE BERNARD
MARILLAC TELLS A STORY
Guests were seated that evening around the oval table in the dining-room of the castle of Bergenheim. According to custom, the ladies were not present at this repast. This was a custom which had been adopted by the Baroness for the suppers which were given by her husband at the close of his hunting parties; she dispensed with appearing at table on those days; perhaps she was too fastidious to preside at these lengthy seances of which the ruses of the hare, the death of the stag, and the feats of the hounds, formed the principal topics of conversation. It is probable that this conduct was duly appreciated by those who participated in those rather boisterous repasts, and that they felt a certain gratitude, in spite of the regrets they manifested on account of Madame's absence.
Among the guests was Marillac, whose sparkling eye, and cheeks even more rosy than usual, made him conspicuous. Seated between a fat notary and another boon companion, who were almost as drunk as he Marillac emptied glass after glass, red wine after the white, the white after the red, with noisy laughter, and jests of all kinds by way of accompaniment. His head became every moment more and more excited by the libations destined to refresh his throat, and his neighbors, without his perceiving the conspiracy, thought it would be good fun to put a Parisian dandy under the table. However, he was not the only one who was gliding over the slippery precipice that leads to the attractive abyss of drunkenness. The majority of the guests shared his imprudent abandon and progressive exaltation. A bacchic emulation reigned, which threatened to end in scenes bordering upon a debauch.
Among these highly colored cheeks, under which the wine seemed to circulate with the blood, these eyes shining with a dull, fictitious light, all this disorderly pantomime so contrary to the quiet habit of the gesticulators, two faces contrasted strangely with the careless mirth of the others. The Baron fulfilled his duties as master of the house with a sort of nervous excitement which might pass for genuine merriment in the eyes of those of his guests who were in no condition to study his countenance; but a quiet observer would soon have discerned that these violent efforts at good-humor and bantering concealed some terrible suffering. From time to time, in the midst of a sentence or a laugh, he would suddenly stop, the muscles of his face would twitch as if the spring which set them in motion had broken; his expression became sombre and savage; he sank back in his chair motionless, a stranger to all that surrounded him, and gave himself up to some mysterious thought against which resistance seemed powerless. Suddenly he appeared to wake from some perplexing dream, and by another powerful effort aroused himself and joined in the conversation with sharp, cutting speeches; he encouraged the noisy humor of his guests, inciting them to drunkenness by setting the example himself; then the same mysterious thought would cross his face anew, and he would fall back into the tortures of a revery which must have been horrible, to judge by the expression of his face.
Among his guests, one only, who was seated almost opposite Bergenheim, seemed to be in the secret of his thoughts and to study the symptoms with deep attention. Gerfaut, for it was he, showed an interest in this examination which reacted on his own countenance, for he was paler than ever.
"When I saw that the hare was reaching the upper road," said one of the guests, a handsome old man about sixty years of age, with gray hair and rosy cheeks, "I ran toward the new clearing to wait for its return. I felt perfectly sure, notary, that he would pass through your hands safe and sound."
"Now, notary," said Marillac, from the other end of the table, "defend yourself; one, two, three, ready!"
"Monsieur de Camier," replied the hunter whose skill had been questioned, "I do not pretend to have your skill. I never have shot as large game as you did at your last hunt."
This reply was an allusion to a little misadventure which had happened to the first speaker, who, on account of nearsightedness, had shot a cow, taking it for a buck. The laugh, which had been at the notary's expense first, now turned against his adversary.
"How many pairs of boots did you get out of your game?" asked one.
"Gentlemen, let us return to our conversation," said a young man, whose precise face aspired to an austere and imposing air. "Up to this time, we can form only very vague conjectures as to the road that Lambernier took to escape. This, allow me to say, is more important than the notary's hare or Monsieur de Carrier's cow."
At these words, Bergenheim, who had taken no part in the conversation, straightened up in his chair.
"A glass of Sauterne," said he, suddenly, to one of his neighbors.
Gerfaut looked at him stealthily for a moment, and then lowered his eyes, as if he feared his glance might be noticed.
"The public prosecutor scents a culprit, and there is no fear he will drop the trail," said the notary.
"The case will doubtless come up at the next session of the Assizes."
M. de Carrier put his glass, which was half filled, upon the table, angrily exclaiming:
"The devil take the jury! I am called to the next session, and I will wager my head that I shall be drawn. How agreeable that will be! To leave my home and business in the middle of winter and spend a fortnight with a lot of fellows whom I do not know from Adam! That is one of the agreeable things supplied by constitutional government. The French have to be judged by their peers! Of what use is it to pay for judges if we, land-owners, are obliged to do their work. The old parliaments, against which so much has been said, were a thousand times better than all this bedlam let loose in a court of assizes."
Marillac, who during this speech was amusing himself with singing his low "G" while peeling an apple, interrupted his song, to the great relief of a hound who lay at his feet, and whose nerves seemed to be singularly affected by the strain.
"Monsieur de Carrier," said he, "you are a large landowner, an eligible citizen and a Carlist; you fast on Fridays, go to mass in your parish, and occasionally kill cows for bucks; I esteem and respect you; but allow me to say that you have just uttered an old, antediluvian platitude."
"Gentlemen," said the public prosecutor, punctuating each word with his first finger, "I have the greatest respect for the old parliaments, those worthy models of our modern magistracy, those incorruptible defenders of national freedom, but my veneration is none the less great for the institutions emanating from our wise constitution, and it prevents me from adopting an exclusive opinion. However, without pretending to proclaim in too absolute a manner the superiority of the old system over the new, I am in a certain sense of Monsieur de Carrier's opinion. In my position, I am better able than any other person to study the advantages and disadvantages of a jury, and I am forced to admit that if the advantages are real, the disadvantages are none the less indisputable. One of the great vices of juries consists in the habit that a great number of its members have of calling for material proofs in order to form their opinions. They must almost see the wounds of the victim before agreeing on a verdict. As to Lambernier, I hope that they will not contest the existence of the main evidence: the victim's still bleeding thigh."
"Tra-de-ri-di-ra," exclaimed the artist, striking alternately with his knife a glass and a bottle, as if he were playing a triangle. "I must say that you choose madly gay subjects for conversation. We are truly a joyous crowd; look at Bergenheim opposite us; he looks like Macbeth in the presence of Banquo's ghost; here is my friend Gerfaut drinking water with a profoundly solemn air. Good gracious, gentlemen! enough of this foolish talk! Let them cut this Lambernier's throat and put an end to the subject! The theatre for dramatic music, the church for sacred!
Le vin, le jeu; les belles, Voila mes seuls amours."
A general protestation rose from the whole table at this verse, which was roared out in a lugubrious voice. Noisy shouts, rapping of knives upon tumblers and bottles, and exclamations of all kinds called the orator to order.
"Monsieur Marillac," exclaimed the public prosecutor, in a joking tone, "it seems to me that you have wandered from the subject."
The artist looked at him with an astonished air.
"Had I anything in particular to say to you?" he asked; "if so, I will sustain my point. Only do me the kindness to tell me what it was about."
"It was on the subject of this man Lambernier," whispered the notary to him, as he poured out a glass of wine. "Courage! you improvise better than Berryer! If you exert yourself, the public prosecutor will be beaten in no time."
Marillac thanked his neighbor with a smile and a nod of the head, which signified: "Trust me." He then emptied his glass with the recklessness that had characterized his drinking for some time, but, strangely enough, the libation, instead of putting the finishing stroke to his drunkenness, gave his mind, for the time being, a sort of lucidity.
"The accusation," he continued, with the coolness of an old lawyer, "rests upon two grounds: first, the presence without cause of the accused upon the spot where the crime was committed; second, the nature of the weapon used.—Two simple but peremptory replies will make the scaffold which has been erected upon this double supposition fall to the ground. First, Lambernier had a rendezvous at this place, and at the exact hour when this crime with which he is accused took place; this will be proved by a witness, and will be established by evidence in a most indisputable manner. His presence will thus be explained without its being interpreted in any way against him. Second, the public prosecutor has admitted that the carrying of a weapon which Lambernier may have been in the habit of using in his regular trade could not be used as an argument against him, and for that same reason could not be used as an argument in favor of premeditation; now, this is precisely the case in question. This weapon was neither a sword, bayonet, nor stiletto, nothing that the fertile imagination of the public prosecutor could imagine; it was a simple tool used by the accused in his profession, the presence of which in his pocket is as easily understood as that of a snuff-box in the pocket of my neighbor, the notary, who takes twenty pinches of snuff a minute. Gentlemen, this weapon was a pair of carpenter's compasses."
"A compass!" exclaimed several voices at once.
"A compass!" exclaimed the Baron, gazing fixedly at the artist. Then he carried his hand to his pocket, and suddenly withdrew it, as he felt the workman's compass there, where it had been ever since the scene upon the rocks.
"An iron compass," repeated the artist, "about ten inches long, more or less, the legs of it being closed."
"Will you explain yourself, Monsieur?" excitedly exclaimed the public prosecutor, "for it really seems as if you had witnessed the crime. In that case you will be called out as a witness for the defence. Justice is impartial, gentlemen. Justice has not two pairs of scales."
"To the devil with justice! You must have come from Timbuctoo to use such old-fashioned metaphors."
"Make your deposition, witness; I require you to make your deposition," said the magistrate, whose increasing drunkenness appeared as dignified and solemn as the artist was noisy.
"I have nothing to state; I saw nothing."
Here the Baron drew a long breath, as if these words were a relief.
"But I saw something!" said Gerfaut to himself, as he gazed at the Baron's face, upon which anxiety was depicted.
"I reason by hypothesis and supposition," continued the artist. "I had a little altercation with Lambernier a few days ago, and, but for my good poniard, he would have put an end to me as he did to this fellow to-day."
He then related his meeting with Lambernier, but the consideration due Mademoiselle Gobillot's honor imposed numberless circumlocutions and concealments which ended by making his story rather unintelligible to his auditors, and in the midst of it his head became so muddled that he was completely put out.
"Basta!" he exclaimed, in conclusion, as he dropped heavily into his chair. "Not another word for the 'whole empire. Give me something to drink! Notary, you are the only man here who has any regard for me. One thing is certain about this matter—I am in ten louis by this rascal's adventure."
These words struck the Baron forcibly, as they brought to his mind what the carpenter had said to him when he gave him the letter.
"Ten louis!" said he, suddenly, looking at Marillac as if he wished to look into his very heart.
"Two hundred francs, if you like it better. A genuine bargain. But we have talked enough, 'mio caro'; you deceive yourselves if you think you are going to make me blab. No, indeed! I am not the one to allow myself to become entangled. I am now as mute and silent as the grave."
Bergenheim insisted no longer, but, leaning against the back of his chair, he let his head fall upon his breast. He remained for some time buried in thought and vainly trying to connect the obscure words he had just heard with Lambernier's incomplete revelations. With the exception of Gerfaut, who did not lose one of his host's movements, the guests, more or less absorbed by their own sensations, paid no attention to the strange attitude of the master of the house, or, like Monsieur de Camier, attributed it to the influence of wine. The conversation continued its noisy course, interrupted every few moments by the startling vagaries of some guest more animatedly excited than the rest, for, at the end of a repast where sobriety has not reigned, each one is disposed to impose upon others the despotism of his own intoxication, and the idle talk of his peculiar hallucinations. Marillac bore away the prize among the talking contingent, thanks to the vigor of his lungs and the originality of his words, which sometimes forced the attention of his adversaries. Finally he remained master of the field, and flashed volleys of his drunken eloquence to the right and left.
"It is a pity," he exclaimed, in the midst of his triumph, as he glanced disdainfully up and down the table, "it really is a pity, gentlemen, to listen to your conversation. One could imagine nothing more commonplace-prosaic or bourgeois. Would it not please you to indulge in a discussion of a little higher order?
"Let us join hands, and talk of poetry and art. I am thirsting for an artistic conversation; I am thirsting for wit and intelligence."
"You must drink if you are thirsty," said the notary, filling his glass to the brim.
The artist emptied it at one draught, and continued in a languishing voice as he gazed with a loving look at his fat neighbor.
"I will begin our artistic conversation: 'Knowest thou the land where the orange-flower blooms?'"
"It is warmer than ours," replied the notary, who was not familiar with Mignon's song; and, beginning to laugh maliciously, he gave a wink at his neighbors as if to say:
"I have settled him now."
Marillac leaned toward him with the meekness of a lamb that presents his head to the butcher, and sympathetically pressed his hands.
"O poet!" he continued, "do you not feel, as I do at the twilight hour and in the eventide, a vague desire for a sunny, perfumed, southern life? Will you not bid adieu to this sterile country and sail away to a land where the blue sky is reflected in the blue sea? Venice! the Rialto, the Bridge of Sighs, Saint Mark! Rome! the Coliseum and Saint Peter—But I know Italy by heart; let us go instead to Constantinople. I am thirsting for sultanas and houris; I am thirsting—"
"Good gracious! why do you not drink if you are thirsty?"
"Gladly. I never say no to that. I scorn love in a nightcap; I adore danger. Danger is life to me.
"I dote on silken ladders as long as Jacob's, on citadels worth scaling; on moonlight evenings, bearded husbands, and all that sort of thing—I would love a bed composed of five hundred poniards; you understand me, poet—"
"I beg of you, do not make him drink any more," said Gerfaut to the notary.
"You are right not to wish to drink any more, Octave, I was about to advise you not to. You have already drunk to excess to-day, and I am afraid that it will make you ill; your health is so weak—you are not a strong man like me. Fancy, gentlemen, Monsieur le Vicomte de Gerfaut, a native of Gascony, a roue by profession, a star of the first magnitude in literature, is afflicted by nature with a stomach which has nothing in common with that of an ostrich; he has need to use the greatest care. So we have him drink seltzer-water principally, and feed him on the white meat of the chicken. Besides, we keep this precious phenomenon rolled up between two wool blankets and over a kettle of boiling water. He is a great poet; I myself am a very great poet."
"And I also, I hope," said the notary.
"Gentlemen, formerly there were poets who wrote only in verse; nowadays they revel in prose. There are some even who are neither prose nor verse writers, who have never confided their secret to anybody, and who selfishly keep their poetry to themselves. It is a very simple thing to be a poet, provided you feel the indescribable intoxication of the soul, and understand the inexpressible afflatus that bubbles over in your large brain, and your noble heart throbs under your left breast—"
"He is as drunk as a fool," said M. de Camier, loud enough for him to hear.
"Old man," said he, "you are the one who is drunk. Besides the word drunk is not civil; if you had said intoxicated I should not have objected."
Loud shouts of laughter burst forth from the party. He threw a threatening glance around him, as if he were seeking some one upon whom to vent his anger, and, placing his hand upon his hip, assumed the pose of a bully.
"Softly, my good fellows!" said he, "if any of you pretend that I am drunk, I declare to him that he lies, and I call him a misantrophe, a vagabond, an academician!" he concluded, with a loud burst of laughter; for he thought that the jesters would be crushed by this last heavy weapon.
"By Jove! your friend is hilariously drunk," said the notary to Gerfaut; "while here is Bergenheim, who has not taken very much wine, and yet looks as if he were assisting at a funeral. I thought he was more substantial than this."
Marillac's voice burst out more loudly than ever, and Octave's reply was not heard.
"It is simply astounding. They are all as drunk as fools, and yet they pretend that it is I who am drunk. Very well! I defy you all; who among you wishes to argue with me? Will you discuss art, literature, politics, medicine, music, philosophy, archiology, jurisprudence, magnetism—"
"Jurisprudence!" exclaimed the thick voice of the public prosecutor, who was aroused from his stupor by this magic word; "let us talk jurisprudence."
"Would you like," said Marillac, without stopping at this interruption, "that I should improvise a discourse upon the death penalty or upon temperance? Would you like me to tell you a story?"
"A story, yes, a story!" they all exclaimed in unison.
"Speak out, then; order what story you like; it will cost you nothing," replied the artist, rubbing his hands with a radiant air. "Would you like a tale from the Middle Ages? a fairy, an eastern, a comical, or a private story? I warn you that the latter style is less old-fashioned than the others."
"Let us have it, then, by all means," said all the drunken voices.
"Very well. Now would you like it to be laid in Spain, Arabia, or France?"
"France!" exclaimed the prosecutor.
"I am French, you are French, he is French. You shall have a French story."
Marillac leaned his forehead upon his hands, and his elbows upon the table, as if to gather his scattered ideas. After a few moments' reflection, he raised his head and looked first at Gerfaut, then at Bergenheim, with a peculiar smile.
"It would be very original," said he, in a low voice as if replying to his own thoughts.
"The story!" exclaimed one of the party, more impatient than the rest.
"Here it is," replied the artist. "You all know, gentlemen, how difficult it always is to choose a title. In order not to make you wait, I have chosen one which is already well known. My story is to be called 'The husband, the wife, and the lover.' We are not all single men here, and a wise proverb says that one must never speak—"
In spite of his muddled brain, the artist did not finish his quotation. A remnant of common-sense made him realize that he was treading upon dangerous ground and was upon the point of committing an unpardonable indiscretion. Fortunately, the Baron had paid no attention to his words; but Gerfaut was frightened at his friend's jabbering, and threw him a glance of the most threatening advice to be prudent. Marillac vaguely understood his mistake, and was half intimidated by this glance; he leaned before the notary and said to him, in a voice which he tried to make confidential, but which could be heard from one end of the table to the other:
"Be calm, Octave, I will tell it in obscure words and in such a way that he will not see anything in it. It is a scene for a drama that I have in my mind."
"You will make some grotesque blunder, if you go on drinking and talking," replied Gerfaut, in an anxious voice. "Hold your tongue, or else come away from the table with me."
"When I tell you that I will use obscure words," replied the artist; "what do you take me for? I swear to you that I will gloss it over in such a way that nobody will suspect anything."
"The story! the story!" exclaimed several, who were amused by the incoherent chattering of the artist.
"Here it is," said the latter, sitting upright in his char, and paying no heed to his friend's warnings. "The scene takes place in a little court in Germany—Eh!" said he, looking at Gerfaut and maliciously winking his eye—"do you not think that is glossed over?"
"Not in a German court, you said it was to be a French story," said the public prosecutor, disposed to play the critic toward the orator who had reduced him to silence.
"Well, it is a French story, but the scene is laid in Germany," he replied, coolly. "Do you desire to teach me my profession? Understand that nothing is more elastic than a German court; the story-teller can introduce there whoever he likes; I may bring in the Shah of Persia and the Emperor of China if I care to. However, if you prefer the court of Italy, it is the same thing to me."
This conciliating proposal remained without response. Marillac continued raising his eyes in such a way that nothing but the whites could be seen, and as if he were searching for his words in the ceiling.
"The Princess Borinski was walking slowly in the mysterious alley on the borders of the foaming torrent—"
"Borinski! she is a Pole, then?" interrupted M. de Camier.
"Oh! go to the devil, old man! Do not interrupt me," exclaimed the artist, impatiently.
"That is right. Silence now."
"You have the floor," said several voices at once.
"—She was pale, and she heaved convulsive sighs and wrung her soft, warm hands, and a white pearl rolled from her dark lashes, and—"
"Why do you begin all your phrases with 'and?'" asked the public prosecutor, with the captiousness of an inexorable critic.
"Because it is biblical and unaffected. Now let me alone," replied Marillac, with superb disdain. "You are a police-officer; I am an artist; what is there in common between you and me? I will continue: And he saw this pensive, weeping woman pass in the distance, and he said to the Prince: 'Borinski, a bit of root in which my foot caught has hurt my limb, will you suffer me to return to the palace? And the Prince Borinski said to him, 'Shall my men carry you in a palanquin?' and the cunning Octave replied—"
"Your story has not even common-sense and you are a terrible bore," interrupted Gerfaut brusquely. "Gentlemen, are we going to sit at the table all night?"
He arose, but nobody followed his example. Bergenheim, who for the last few minutes had lent an attentive ear to the artist's story, gazed alternately at the two friends with an observing eye.
"Let him talk," said the young magistrate, with an ironical smile. "I like the palanquin in the court of Germany. That is probably what novelists call local color. O Racine, poor, deserted Racine!"
Marillac was not intimidated this time by Gerfaut's withering glance, but, with the obstinacy of drunkenness, continued in a more or less stammering voice:
"I swore that I would gloss it over; you annoy me. I committed an error, gentlemen, in calling the lover in this story Octave. It is as clear as day that his name is Boleslas, Boleslas Matalowski. There is no more connection between him and my friend Octave than there is between my other friend Bergenheim and the prince Kolinski—Woginski—what the devil has become of my Prince's name? A good reward to whoever will tell me his name!"
"It is wrong to take advantage of his condition and make him talk any more," said Gerfaut. "I beg of you, Marillac, hold your tongue and come with me," said he, lowering his voice as he leaned toward the headstrong story-teller and took him by the arm, trying to make him rise. This attempt only irritated Marillac; he seized hold of the edge of the table and clung to it with all his might, screaming:
"No! a thousand times no! I will finish my story. President, allow me to speak. Ah! ha! you wish to prevent me from speaking because you know that I tell a story better than you, and that I make an impression upon my audience. You never have been able to catch my chic. Jealous! Envious! I know you, serpent!"
"I beg of you, if you ever cared for me, listen!" replied Octave, who, as he bent over his friend, noticed the Baron's attentive look.
"No, I say no!" shouted the artist again, and he added to this word one of the ugliest-sounding oaths in the French language. He arose, and pushing Octave aside, leaned upon the table, bursting into a loud laugh. "Poets all," said he, "be reassured and rejoice. You shall have your story, in spite of those envious serpents. But first give me something to drink, for my throat is like a box of matches. No wine," he added, as he saw the notary armed with a bottle. "This devilish wine has made me thirsty instead of refreshing me; besides, I am going to be as sober as a judge."
Gerfaut, with the desperation of a man who sees that he is about to be ruined, seized him again by the arm and tried to fascinate him by his steady gaze. But he obtained no response to this mute and threatening supplication except a stupid smile and these stammering words:
"Give me something to drink, Boleslas—Marinski-Graboski—I believe that Satan has lighted his heating apparatus within my stomach."
The persons seated near the two friends heard an angry hiss from Gerfaut's lips. He suddenly leaned over, and taking, from among several bottles, a little carafe he filled Marillac's glass to the brim.
"Thanks," said the latter, trying to stand erect upon his legs; "you are an angel. Rest easy, your love affairs will run no risk. I will gloss it all over—To your health, gentlemen!"
He emptied the glass and put it upon the table; he then smiled and waved his hand at his auditors with true royal courtesy; but his mouth remained half open as if his lips were petrified, his eyes grew large and assumed a haggard expression; the hand he had stretched out fell to his side; a second more, and he reeled and fell from his chair as if he had had a stroke of apoplexy.
Gerfaut, whose eyes had not left him, watched these different symptoms with unutterable anxiety; but in spite of his fright, he drew a sigh of relief when he saw Marillac mute and speechless.
"It is singular," observed the notary, as he aided in removing his neighbor from the table, "that glass of water had more effect upon him than four or five bottles of wine."
"Georges," said Gerfaut to one of the servants, in an agitated voice, "open his bed and help me carry him to it; Monsieur de Bergenheim, I suppose there is a chemist near here, if I should need any medicine."
The greater part of the guests arose at this unexpected incident, and some of them hastened to Marillac's side, as he remained motionless in his chair. The repeated bathing of his temples with cold water and the holding of salts to his nose were not able to bring him to consciousness.
Instead of going to his aid with the others, Bergenheim profited by the general confusion to lean over the table. He plunged his finger into the artist's glass, in which a part of the water remained, and then touched his tongue. Only the notary noticed this movement. Thinking this rather strange, he seized the glass in his turn and swallowed the few drops that it contained.
"Heavens!" he exclaimed, in a low voice, to Bergenheim, "I am not surprised that the bumper asphyxiated him on the spot. Do you know, Baron, if this Monsieur de Gerfaut had taken anything but water during the evening, I should say that he was the drunker of the two; or that, if they were not such good friends, he wished to poison him in order to stop his talk. Did you notice that he did not seem pleased to hear this story?"
"Ah! you, too!" exclaimed the Baron angrily, "everybody will know it."
"To take a carafe of kirsch for clear water," continued the notary, without paying any attention to the Baron's agitation. "The devil! the safe thing to do is to give him an emetic at once; this poor fellow has enough prussic acid in his stomach to poison a cow."
"Who is talking of prussic acid and poisoning?" exclaimed the public prosecutor, running with an unsteady step from one extremity of the table to the other, "who has been poisoned? I am the public prosecutor, I am the only one here who has any power to start an investigation. Have they had an autopsy? Where did they find it? Buried in the fields or the woods, or floating on the river?"
"You lie! there is no dead body in the river!" exclaimed Bergenheim, in a thundering voice, as he seized the magistrate by the collar in a bewildered way.
The magistrate was incapable of making the least resistance when held by such a vigorous hand and he received two or three shakings. Suddenly the Baron stopped, and struck his forehead with a gesture common to persons who feel that their reason has given way under a paroxysm of rage.
"I am crazy," said he, with much emotion. "Monsieur," he added, "I am very sorry. We really have all taken too much wine. I beg your pardon, gentlemen. I will leave you a moment—I need some fresh air."
He hurriedly left the room, almost running against the persons who were carrying Marillac to his room. The public prosecutor, whose ideas had been somewhat mixed before, was now completely muddled by this unheard-of attack upon his dignity, and fell back exhausted in his chair.
"All poor drinkers!" said the notary to Monsieur de Carrier who was left alone with him, for the prosecutor, half suffocated with indignation and intoxication, could no longer be counted as one of them. "Here they are, all drunk, from just a few glasses of wine."
The notary shook his head with a mysterious air.
"These things, though, are plain enough to me," said he at last; "first, this Monsieur Marillac has not a very strong head and tells pretty tedious stories when drunk; then his friend has a way of taking kirsch for water which I can understand only in extreme cases; but the Baron is the one who astonished me most. Did you notice how he shook our friend who has just fallen on the floor? As to the Baron pretending that he was drunk and thus excusing himself, I do not believe one word of it; he drank nothing but water. There were times this evening when he appeared very strange indeed! There is some deviltry underneath all this; Monsieur de Carrier, rest assured there is some deviltry underneath it all."
"I am the public prosecutor—they can not remove the body without me," stammered the weak voice of the magistrate, who, after trying in vain to recover his equilibrium, lay flat upon the floor.
Instead of joining the persons who were carrying Marillac away, Christian went into the garden after leaving the dining-room, in quest of the fresh air which he gave as an excuse for leaving his guests. In fact, he felt oppressed almost to suffocation by the emotions he had undergone during the last few hours. The dissimulation which prudence made a necessity and honor a duty had aggravated the suffering by protracted concealment.
For some time Christian walked rapidly among the paths and trees in the park. Bathing his burning brow in the cool night air, he sought to calm the secret agitation and the boiling blood that were raging within him, in the midst of which his reason struggled and fought like a ship about to be wrecked. He used all his strength to recover his self-possession, so as to be able to master the perils and troubles which surrounded him with a calm if not indifferent eye; in one word, to regain that control over himself that he had lost several times during the supper. His efforts were not in vain. He contemplated his situation without weakness, exaggeration, or anger, as if it concerned another. Two facts rose foremost before him, one accomplished, the other uncertain. On one side, murder, on the other, adultery. No human power could remedy the first or prevent its consequences; he accepted it, then, but turn his mind away from it he must, in the presence of this greater disaster. So far, only presumptions existed against Clemence—grave ones, to be sure, if one added Lambernier's revelations to Marillac's strangely indiscreet remarks. It was his first duty to himself, as well as to her, to know the whole truth; if innocent, he would beg her forgiveness; if guilty, he had a chastisement to inflict.
"It is an abyss," thought he, "and I may find as much blood as mud at the bottom of it. No matter, I will descend to its very depths."
When he returned to the chateau, his face had resumed its usual calm expression. The most observing person would hardly have noticed any change in his looks. The dining-room had been abandoned at last. The victorious and the vanquished had retired to their rooms. First of all, he went up to the artist's apartment, so that no singularity in his conduct should attract attention, for, as master of the house, a visit to one of his guests who had fallen dead, or nearly so, at his own table was a positive duty. The attentions lavished upon Marillac by his friend had removed the danger which might have resulted from his imprudent excesses in drinking, and the sort of poisoning with which he had crowned the whole. He lay upon his bed in the same position in which he had first been placed, and was sleeping that heavy, painful sleep which serves as an expiation for bacchic excesses. Gerfaut was seated a few steps from him, at a table, writing; he seemed prepared to sit up all night, and to fulfill, with the devotion of a friend, the duties of a nurse.
Octave arose at sight of the Baron, his face having resumed its habitual reserved expression. The two men greeted each other with equal composure.
"Is he sleeping?" asked Christian.
"But a few minutes only," replied the latter; "he is all right now, and I hope," Octave added, smilingly, "that this will serve as a lesson to you, and that hereafter you will put some limits to your princely hospitality. Your table is a regular ambush."
"Do not throw stones at me, I pray," replied the Baron, with an appearance of equal good-humor. "If your friend wants to ask an explanation of anybody it is of you, for you took some kirsch of 1765 for water."
"I really believe that I was the drunker of the two," interrupted Octave, with a vivacity which concealed a certain embarrassment; "we must have terribly scandalized Monsieur de Camier, who has but a poor opinion of Parisian heads and stomachs."
After looking for a moment at the sleeping artist, Christian approached the table where Gerfaut was seated, and threw a glance over the latter's writing.
"You are still at work, I see?" said he, as his eyes rested upon the paper.
"Just now I am following the modest trade of copyist. These are some verses which Mademoiselle de Corandeuil asked me for—"
"Will you do me a favor? I am going to her room now; give me these verses to hand to her. Since the misfortune that befell Constance, she has been terribly angry with me, and I shall not be sorry to have some reason for going to her room."
Octave finished the two or three lines which remained to be copied, and handed the sheet to Bergenheim. The latter looked at it attentively, then carefully folded it and put it in his pocket.
"I thank you, Monsieur," said he, "I will leave you to your friendly duties."
There was something so solemn in the calm accent of these words, and the polite bow which accompanied them, that Gerfaut felt chilled, though not alarmed, for he did not understand.
When he reached his room, Bergenheim opened the paper which Gerfaut had just given him and compared it with the letter he had received from Lambernier. The suspicions which a separate examination had aroused were confirmed upon comparing the two letters; no doubt was possible; the letter and the poetry were written by the same hand!
After a few moments' reflection, Christian went to his wife's room.
Clemence was seated in an armchair, near the fireplace, indulging in a revery. Although her lover was not there, she was still under the charm of this consuming as well as intellectual passion, which responded to the yearnings of her heart, the delicacy of her tastes, and the activity of her imagination. At this moment, she was happy to live; there was not a sad thought that these words, "He loves me!" could not efface.
The noise of the opening door aroused her from her meditation. Madame de Bergenheim turned her head with a look of vexation, but instead of the servant whom she was ready to reprimand, she saw her husband. The expression of impatience imprinted upon her face gave way to one of fright. She arose with a movement she could not repress, as if she had seen a stranger, and stood leaning against the mantel in a constrained attitude. Nothing in Christian's manner justified, however, the fear the sight of him seemed to cause his wife. He advanced with a tranquil air, and a smile that he had forced upon his lips.
With the presence of mind with which all women seem to be gifted, Clemence fell back into her chair, and, assuming a languid, suffering tone, mixed with an appearance of reproach, she said:
"I am glad to see you for a moment in order to scold you; you have not shown your usual consideration to-night. Did you not think that the noise from the dining-room might reach as far as here?"
"Has it troubled you?" asked Christian, looking at her attentively.
"Unless one had a head of cast-iron—It seems that these gentlemen have abused the liberty permitted in the country. From what Justine tells me, things have taken place which would have been more appropriate at the Femme-sans-Tete."
"Are you suffering very much?"
"A frightful neuralgia—I only wish I could sleep."
"I was wrong not to have thought of this. You will forgive me, will you not?"
Bergenheim leaned over the chair, passed his arm around the young woman's shoulders, and pressed his lips to her forehead. For the first time in his life, he was playing a part upon the marital stage, and he watched with the closest attention the slightest expression of his wife's face. He noticed that she shivered, and that her forehead which he had lightly touched was as cold as marble.
He arose and took several turns about the room, avoiding even a glance at her, for the aversion which she had just shown toward her husband seemed to him positive proof of the very thing he dreaded, and he feared he should not be able to contain himself.
"What is the matter with you?" she asked, as she noticed his agitation.
These words brought the Baron to his senses, and he returned to her side, replying in a careless tone:
"I am annoyed for a very simple cause; it concerns your aunt."
"I know. She is furious against you on account of the double misfortune to her dog and coachman. You will admit that, as far as Constance is concerned, you are guilty."
"She is not content with being furious; she threatens a complete rupture. Here, read this."
He handed her a large letter, folded lengthwise and sealed with the Corandeuil crest.
Madame de Bergenheim took the letter and read its contents aloud:
"After the unheard-of and unqualifiable events of this day, the resolution which I have formed will doubtless not surprise you in the least, Monsieur. You will understand that I can not and will not remain longer in a house where the lives of my servants and other creatures which are dear to me may be exposed to the most deplorable, wilful injury. I have seen for some time, although I have tried to close my eyes to the light of truth, the plots that were hatched daily against all who wore the Corandeuil livery. I supposed that I should not be obliged to put an end to this highly unpleasant matter myself, but that you would undertake this charge. It seems, however, that respect and regard for women do not form part of a gentleman's duties nowadays. I shall therefore be obliged to make up myself for the absence of such attentions, and watch over the safety of the persons and other creatures that belong to me. I shall leave for Paris tomorrow. I hope that Constance's condition will permit her to endure the journey, but Baptiste's wound is too serious for me to dare to expose him. I am compelled, although with deep regret, to leave him here until he is able to travel, trusting him to the kind mercies of my niece.