"It is only the fancy of your vivid imagination. If you exerted the same will to be happy that you do to imagine troubles, our life would be perfect. What matters the storm? and even if you do see an omen in it, what is there so very terrible? Clouds are vapor, thunder is a sound, both are equally ephemeral; only the blue sky, which they can obscure but for a moment, is eternal."
"Did you not hear something just now?" asked Madame de Bergenheim, as she gave a sudden start and listened eagerly.
"Nothing. What did you think it was?"
"I feared it might be Justine who had taken it into her head to come down stairs; she is so tiresome in her attentions—"
She arose and went to look in her chamber, which she carefully locked; a moment later, she returned and seated herself again upon the divan.
"Justine is sleeping by this time," said Octave; "I should not have ventured if I had not seen that her light was out."
Clemence took his hand and placed it over her heart.
"Now," said she, "when I tell you that I am frightened, will you believe me?"
"Poor dear!" he exclaimed, as he felt her heart throbbing violently.
"You are the one who causes me these palpitations for the slightest thing. I know that we do not run any danger, that everybody is in his own room by this time, and yet, somehow, I feel terribly frightened. There are women, so they say, who get used to this torture, and end by being guilty and tranquil at the same time. It is an unworthy thought, but I'll confess that, sometimes, when I suffer so, I wish I were like them. But it is impossible; I was not made for wrong-doing. You can not understand this, you are a man; you love boldly, you indulge in every thought that seems sweet to you without being troubled by remorse. And then, when you suffer, your anguish at least belongs to you, nobody has any right to ask you what is the matter. But I, my tears even are not my own; I have often shed them on your account—I must hide them, for he has a right to ask: 'Why do you weep?' And what can I reply?"
She turned away her head to conceal the tears which she could not restrain; he saw them, and, leaning over her, he kissed them away.
"Your tears are mine!" he exclaimed, passionately; "but do not distress me by telling me that our love makes you unhappy."
"Unhappy! oh, yes! very unhappy! and yet I would not change this sorrow for the richest joys of others. This unhappiness is my treasure! To be loved by you! To think that there was a time when our love might have been legitimate! What fatality weighs upon us, Octave? Why did we know each other too late? I often dream a beautiful dream—a dream of freedom."
"You are free if you love me—It is the rain against the windows," said he, seeing Madame de Bergenheim anxiously listening again. They kept silent for a moment, but could hear nothing except the monotonous whistling of the storm.
"To be loved by you and not to blush!" said she, as she gazed at him lovingly. "To be together always, without fearing that a stroke of lightning might separate us! to give you my heart and still be worthy to pray! it would be one of those heavenly delights that one grasps only in dreams—"
"Oh! dream when I shall be far from you; but, when I am at your feet, when our hearts beat only for each other, do not evoke, lest you destroy our present happiness, that which is beyond our power. Do you think there are bonds which can more strongly unite us? Am I not yours? And you, yourself, who speak of the gift of your heart, have you not given it to me entirely?"
"Oh! yes, entirely! And it is but right, since I owe it to you. I did not understand life until the day I received it from your eyes; since that minute I have lived, and I can die. I love you! I fail to find words to tell you one-tenth of what my heart contains, but I love you—"
He received her in his arms, where she took refuge so as to conceal her face after these words. She remained thus for an instant, then arose with a start, seized Octave's hands and pressed them in a convulsive manner, saying in a voice as weak as a dying woman's:
"I am lost!"
He instinctively followed Clemence's gaze, which was fastened upon the glass door. An almost imperceptible movement of the muslin curtain was evident. At the same moment, there was a slight noise, a step upon the carpet, the turning of the handle of the door, and it was silently opened as if by a ghost.
CHAPTER XXIII. THE AGREEMENT
Madame de Bergenheim tried to rise, but her strength failed her, she fell on her knees, and then dropped at her lover's feet. The latter leaped from the divan with out trying to assist her, stepped over the body stretched before him, and drew his poniard out of his pocket.
Christian stood upon the threshold of the door silent and motionless.
There was a moment of terrible silence. Only the eyes of the two men spoke; those of the husband were fixed, dull, and implacable; those of the lover sparkled with the audacity of despair. After a moment of mutual fascination, the Baron made a movement as if to enter.
"One step more and you are a dead man!" exclaimed Gerfaut, in a low voice, as he clutched the handle of his poniard.
Christian extended his hand, replying to this threat only by a look; but such an imperative one that the thrust of a lance would not have been as fearful to the lover. Octave put his poniard in its sheath, ashamed of his emotion in the presence of such calm, and imitated his enemy's scornful attitude.
"Come, Monsieur," said the latter, in a low voice, as he took a step backward.
Instead of following his example, Gerfaut cast a glance upon Clemence. She had fallen in such a dead faint that he sought in vain for her breath. He leaned over her, with an irresistible feeling of pity and love; but just as he was about to take her in his arms and place her upon the divan, Bergenheim's hand stopped him. If there is a being on earth to whom one owes regard and respect, it is the one whom our own wrong has rendered our enemy. Octave arose, and said, in a grave, resigned voice:
"I am at your orders, Monsieur."
Christian pointed to the door, as if to invite him to pass out first, thus preserving, with his extraordinary composure, the politeness which a good education makes an indelible habit, but which at this moment was more frightful to behold than the most furious outburst of temper. Gerfaut glanced at Clemence again, and said, as he pointed to her:
"Shall you leave her without any aid in this condition? It is cruel."
"It is not from cruelty, but out of pity," replied the Baron, coldly; "she will awake only too soon."
Octave's heart was intensely oppressed, but he managed to conceal his emotion. He hesitated no longer and stepped out. The husband followed, without giving a glance at the poor woman whose own words had condemned her so inexorably. And so she was left alone in this pretty boudoir as if in a tomb.
The two men descended the stairs leading from the little closet. At the library door they found themselves in absolute obscurity; Christian opened a dark-lantern and its faint light guided their steps. They traversed, in silence, the picture-gallery, the vestibule, and then mounted the main staircase. They reached the Baron's apartment without meeting anybody or betraying themselves by the slightest sound. With the same outward self-possession which had characterized his whole conduct, Christian, after carefully closing the doors, lighted a candelabra filled with candles which was upon the mantel, and then turned to his companion, who was far less composed than he.
Gerfaut had suffered tortures since leaving the little parlor. A feeling of regret and deepest pity, at the thought of the inevitable catastrophe which must follow, had softened his heart. He saw in the most odious of colors the selfishness of his love. Clemence's last glance as she fell fainting at his feet—a forgiving and a loving glance—was like a dagger in his heart. He had ruined her! the woman he loved! the queen of his life! the angel he adored! This idea was like hell to him. He was almost unable to control his emotion, dizzy as he was on the brink of the abyss opened by his hand, into which he had precipitated what he counted as the dearest part of his own self.
Bergenheim stood, cold and sombre, like a northern sky, opposite this pale-faced man, upon whose countenance a thousand passionate emotions were depicted like clouds on a stormy day.
When Bergenheim's eyes met Octave's, they were so full of vengeance and hatred that the latter trembled as if he had come in contact with a wild beast. The lover actually realized the inferiority of his attitude in the presence of this enraged husband. A feeling of self-pride and indignation came to his aid. He put aside remorse and regrets until later; these sad expiations were forbidden him now; another duty lay before him. There is only one reparation possible for certain offences. The course once open, one must go to its very end; pardon is to be found only upon the tomb of the offended.
Octave knew he had to submit to this necessity. He stifled all scruples which might have weakened his firmness, and resumed his habitual disdainful look. His eyes returned his enemy's glance of deadly hatred, and he began the conversation like a man who is accustomed to master the events of his life and forbids any one to shape them for him.
"Before any explanations take place between us," he said, "I have to declare to you, upon my honor, that there is only one guilty person in this affair, and that I am the one. The slightest reproach addressed to Madame de Bergenheim would be a most unjust outrage and a most deplorable error on your part. I introduced myself into her apartment without her knowledge and without having been authorized in any way to do so. I had just entered it when you arrived. Necessity obliges me to admit a love that is an outrage to you; I am ready to repair this outrage by any satisfaction you may demand; but in putting myself at your discretion, I earnestly insist upon exculpating Madame de Bergenheim from all that can in any way affect her virtue or her reputation."
"As to her reputation," said Christian, "I will watch over that; as to her virtue—"
He did not finish, but his face assumed an expression of incredulous irony.
"I swear to you, Monsieur," said Octave, with increasing emotion, "that she is above all seduction and should be sheltered from all insult; I swear to you—What oath can I take that you will believe? I swear that Madame de Bergenheim never has betrayed any of her duties toward you; that I never have received the slightest encouragement from her; that she is as innocent of my folly as the angels in heaven."
Christian shook his head with a scornful smile.
"This day will be the undying remorse of my life if you will not believe me," said Gerfaut, with almost uncontrolled vehemence; "I tell you, Monsieur, she is innocent; innocent! do you understand me? I was led astray by my passion. I wished to profit by your absence. You know that I have a key to the library; I used it without her suspecting it. Would to God that you could have been a witness to our tete-a-tete! you could then have not one doubt left. Can one prevent a man from entering a lady's room, when he has succeeded in finding the way to it in spite of her wishes? I repeat it, she—"
"Enough, Monsieur," replied the Baron coldly. "You are doing as I should do in your place; but this discussion is out of place; let this woman exculpate herself. There should be no mention of her between us now."
"When I protest that upon my honor—"
"Monsieur, under such conditions, a false oath is not dishonorable. I have been a bachelor myself, and I know that anything is allowable against a husband. Let us drop this, I beg of you, and return to facts. I consider that I have been insulted by you, and you must give me satisfaction for this insult."
Octave made a sign of acquiescence.
"One of us must die," replied Bergenheim, leaning his elbow negligently upon the mantel. The lover bowed his head a second time.
"I have offended you," said he; "you have the right to choose the reparation due you."
"There is only one possible, Monsieur. Blood alone can wipe away the disgrace; you know it as well as I. You have dishonored my home, you owe me your life for that. If Fate favors you, you will be rid of me, and I shall be wronged in every way. There are arrangements to be made, and we shall settle them at once, if you are willing."
He pushed an armchair toward Gerfaut, and took another himself.
They seated themselves beside a desk which stood in the middle of the room, and, with an equal appearance of sang-froid and polite haughtiness, they discussed this murderous combat.
"It is not necessary for me to say to you," said Octave, "that I accept in advance whatever you may decide upon; the weapons, place, and seconds—"
"Listen to me, then," interrupted Bergenheim; "you just now spoke in favor of this woman in a way that made me think you did not wish her ruined in the eyes of the world; so I trust you will accept the proposition I am about to make to you. An ordinary duel would arouse suspicion and inevitably lead to a discovery of the truth; people would seek for some plausible motive for the encounter, whatever story we might tell our seconds. You know that there is but one motive which will be found acceptable by society for a duel between a young man who had been received as a guest of this house and the husband. In whatever way this duel may terminate, this woman's honor would remain on the ground with the dead, and that is what I wish to avoid, since she bears my name."
"Will you explain to me what your plan is?" asked Octave, who could not understand what his adversary had in mind.
"You know, Monsieur," Bergenheim continued, in his calm voice, "that I had a perfect right to kill you a moment ago; I did not do so for two reasons: first, a gentleman should use his sword and not a poniard, and then your dead body would have embarrassed me."
"The river is close by!" interrupted Gerfaut, with a strange smile.
Christian looked at him fixedly for a moment, and then replied in a slightly changed tone:
"Instead of availing myself of my right, I intend to risk my life against yours. The danger is the same for myself, who never have insulted you, as for you, who have offered me the deadliest insult that one man can offer another. I am willing to spill my blood, but not to soil my honor."
"If it is a duel without seconds that you desire, you have my consent; I have perfect confidence in your loyalty, and I hope you can say the same for mine."
Christian bowed his head slightly and continued:
"It is more than a duel without seconds, for the whole affair must be so contrived as to be looked upon as an accident; it is the only way to prevent the outbreak and scandal I dread so much. Now here is my proposition: You know that a wild-boar hunt is to take place to-morrow in the Mares woods. When we station ourselves we shall be placed together at a spot I know of, where we shall be out of the sight of the other hunters. When the boar crosses the enclosure we will fire at a signal agreed upon. In this way, the denouement, whatever it may be, will be looked upon as one of those accidents which so frequently happen in shooting-parties."
"I am a dead man," thought Gerfaut, as he saw that the gun would be the weapon chosen by his adversary, and recalled his wonderful skill, of which he had had many and various proofs. But instead of showing the slightest hesitation, his countenance grew still more arrogant.
"This kind of combat seems to me very wisely planned," said he; "I accept, for I desire as much as you that this affair should remain an eternal secret."
"Since we are to have no seconds," continued Bergenheim, "let us arrange everything so that nothing can betray us; it is inconceivable how the most trifling circumstances often turn out crushing evidence. I think that I have foreseen everything. If you find that I have forgotten any detail, please remind me of it. The place I speak of is a narrow, well-shaded path. The ground is perfectly level; it lies from north to south, so that at eight o'clock in the morning the sun will be on that side; there will be no advantage in position. There is an old elm on the borders of the wood; at fifty steps' distance in the pathway, lies the trunk of an oak which has been felled this year. These are the two places where we will station ourselves, if you consent to it. Is it the proper distance?"
"Near or farther, it matters little. Breast to breast, if you like."
"Nearer would be imprudent. However, fifty steps with the gun is less than fifteen with a pistol. This point is settled. We will remain with heads covered, although this is not the custom. A ball might strike the head where the cap would be, and if this should happen it would arouse suspicion, as people do not hunt bareheaded. It only remains to decide who shall fire first," continued Christian.
"You, of course; you are the offended one."
"You do not admit the full offence to have been committed, and, since this is in doubt, and I can not be judge and jury together, we shall consult chance."
"I declare to you that I will not fire first," interrupted Gerfaut.
"Remember that it is a mortal duel, and such scruples are foolish. Let us agree that whoever has the first shot, shall place himself upon the border of the woods and await the signal, which the other will give when the boar crosses the enclosure."
He took a gold piece from his purse and threw it in the air.
"Heads!" said the lover, ready to acquiesce to the least of his adversary's conditions.
"Fate is for you," said Christian, looking at the coin with marked indifference; "but, remember, if at the signal given by me you do not fire, or only fire in the air, I shall use my right to shoot—You know that I rarely miss my aim."
These preliminaries ended, the Baron took two guns from his closet, loaded them, taking particular care to show that they were of equal length and the same calibre. He then locked them up in the closet and offered Gerfaut the key.
"I would not do you this injustice," said the latter.
"This precaution is hardly necessary, since, tomorrow, you will take your choice of those weapons. Now that everything is arranged," continued the Baron, in a graver tone, "I have one request to make of you, and I think you are too loyal to refuse it. Swear to me that whatever may be the result, you will keep all this a profound secret. My honor is now in your hands; speaking as a gentleman to a gentleman, I ask you to respect it."
"If I have the sad privilege of surviving you," replied Gerfaut, no less solemnly, "I swear to you to keep the secret inviolate. But, supposing a contrary event, I also have a request to make to you. What are your intentions regarding Madame de Bergenheim?"
Christian gazed at his adversary a moment, with a searching glance which seemed to read his innermost thoughts.
"My intentions?" said he at last, in a displeased, surprised tone; "this is a very strange question; I do not recognize your right to ask it."
"My right is certainly strange," said the lover, with a bitter smile; "but whatever it may be, I shall make use of it. I have destroyed this woman's happiness forever; if I can not repair this fault, at least I ought to mitigate the effect as much as lies in my power. Will you reply to me—if I die tomorrow, what will be her fate?"
Bergenheim kept silent, his sombre eyes lowered to the floor.
"Listen to me, Monsieur," continued Gerfaut, with great emotion; "when I said to you, 'She is not guilty,' you did not believe me, and I despair of ever persuading you, for I know well what your suspicions must be. However, these are the last words addressed to you that will leave my mouth, and you know that one has to believe a dying man's statement. If tomorrow you avenge yourself, I earnestly beg of you, let this reparation suffice. All my pride is gone, you see, since I beg this of you upon my bended knees. Be humane toward her; spare her, Monsieur. It is not pardon which I ask you to grant her—it is pity for her unsullied innocence. Treat her kindly—honorably. Do not make her too wretched."
He stopped, for his voice failed him, and his eyes filled with tears.
"I know what I ought to do," replied the Baron, in as harsh a tone as Gerfaut's had been tender; "I am her husband, and I do not recognize anybody's right, yours least of all, to interpose between us."
"I can foresee the fate which you have in reserve for her," replied the lover, indignantly; "you will not murder her, for that would be too imprudent; what would become of your vaunted honor then? But you will slowly kill her; you will make her die a new death every day, in order to satisfy a blind vengeance. You are a man to meditate over each new torture as calmly as you have regulated every detail of our duel."
Bergenheim, instead of replying, lighted a candle as if to put an end to this discussion.
"Until to-morrow, Monsieur," said he, with a cold air.
"One moment!" exclaimed Gerfaut, as he arose; "you refuse to give me one word which will assure me of the fate of the woman whose life I have ruined?"
"I have nothing to say."
"Very well, then; I will protect her, and I will do it in spite of you and against you."
"Not another word," interrupted the Baron, sternly.
Octave leaned over the table between them and looked at him for a moment, then said in a terrible voice:
"You killed Lambernier!"
Christian bounded backward as if he had been struck.
"I was a witness of that murder," continued Gerfaut, slowly, as he emphasized each word; "I will write my deposition and give it to a man of whom I am as sure as of myself. If I die to-morrow, I will leave him a mission which no effort on your part will prevent him from fulfilling. He shall watch over your slightest actions with inexorable vigilance; he will be Madame de Bergenheim's protector, if you forget that your first duty is to protect her. The day upon which you abuse your position with her, the day when she shall call out despairingly, 'Help me!' that day shall my deposition be placed in the hands of the public prosecutor at Nancy. He will believe its contents; of that you may be certain. Besides, the river is an indiscreet tomb; before long it will give up the body you have confided to it. You will be tried and condemned. You know the punishment for murder! It is hard labor for life."
Bergenheim darted toward the mantel at these words and seized a hunting-knife which hung there. Octave, as he saw him ready to strike, crossed his arms upon his breast, and said, coldly:
"Remember that my body might embarrass you; one corpse is enough."
The Baron threw the weapon on the floor with such force that he broke it in two.
"But it was you," he said, in a trembling voice, "you were Lambernier's assassin. I—He knew this infamous secret, and his death was involuntary on my part."
"The intention is of little account. The deed is the question. There is not a jury that would not condemn you, and that is what I wish, for such a sentence would bring a legal separation between you and your wife and give her her liberty."
"You are not speaking seriously," said Christian, turning pale; "you, a gentleman, would not denounce me! And, besides, would not my being sentenced injure the woman in whom you take so much interest?"
"I know all that," Gerfaut replied; "I too cling to the honor of my name, and yet I expose it. I have plenty of enemies who will be glad enough to outrage my memory. Public opinion will condemn me, for they will see only the action, and that is odious. There is one thing, however, more precious and necessary to me than the world's opinion, and that is peace for every day, the right to live; and that is the reason why, happiness having forsaken me, I am going to bequeath it to the one whom fate has put in your power, but whom I shall not leave to your mercy."
"I am her husband," Bergenheim replied, angrily.
"Yes, you are her husband; so the law is on your side. You have only to call upon society for its aid; it will come but too gladly at your call and help you crush a defenceless woman. And I, who love her as you have never known how to love her, I can do nothing for her! Living, I must keep silent and bow before your will; but dead, your absurd laws no longer exist for me; dead, I can place myself between you and her, and I will do it. Since, in order to aid her, I have no choice of arms, I will not recoil from the one weapon which presents itself. Yes, if in order to save her from your vengeance, I am obliged to resort to the shame of a denunciation, I swear to you here, I will turn informer. I will sully my name with this stain; I will pick up this stone from the mud, and I will crush your head with it."
"These are a coward's words!" exclaimed Christian, as he fell back in his chair.
Gerfaut looked at him with a calm, stony glance, while replying:
"No insults, please! One of us will not be living to-morrow. Remember what I tell you: if I fall in this duel, it will be to your interest to have this matter stop then and there. I submit to death myself; but I exact liberty for her—liberty, with peace and respect. Think it over, Monsieur; at the first outrage, I shall arise from my tomb to prevent a second, and dig a trench between you and her which never can be crossed—the penitentiary!"
CHAPTER XXIV. A FRIEND'S ADVICE
After she came out of her faint, Madame de Bergenheim remained for a long time in a dazed condition, and did not realize, save in a confused manner, her real position. She saw vaguely, at her first glance, the curtains of the bed upon which she lay, and thought that she had awakened from an ordinary sleep. Little by little, her thoughts became clearer, and she saw that she was fully dressed, also that her room seemed brighter than it usually was with only her night-lamp lighted. She noticed between the half-open curtains a gigantic form reflected almost to the ceiling opposite her bed. She sat up and distinctly saw a man sitting in the corner by the fireplace. Frozen with terror, she fell back upon her pillow as she recognized her husband. Then she remembered everything, even the slightest details of the scene in the small parlor. She felt ready to faint again when she heard Christian's steps upon the carpet, although he walked with great precaution.
The Baron looked at her a moment, and then, opening the bed-curtains, he said:
"You can not pass the night thus, it is nearly three o'clock. You must go to bed as usual."
Clemence shivered at these words, whose accent, however, was not hard. She obeyed mechanically; but she had hardly risen when she was obliged to recline upon the bed, for her trembling limbs would not support her.
"Do not be afraid of me," said Bergenheim, drawing back a few steps; "my presence should not frighten you. I only wish that people should know that I have passed the night in your chamber, for it is possible that my return may arouse suspicion. You know that our love is only a comedy played for the benefit of our servants."
There was such affected lightness in these remarks that the young woman was cut to the very quick. She had expected an explosion of anger, but not this calm contempt. Her revolted pride gave her courage.
"I do not deserve to be treated thus," said she; "do not condemn me without a hearing."
"I ask nothing of you," replied Christian, who seated himself again beside the mantel; "undress yourself, and go to sleep if it is possible for you to do so. It is not necessary for Justine to make any comments tomorrow about your day clothes not having been removed."
Instead of obeying him, she went toward him and tried to remain standing in order to speak to him, but her emotion was so intense that it took away her strength and she was obliged to sit down.
"You treat me too cruelly, Christian," said she, when she had succeeded to recover her voice. "I am not guilty; at least, not so much as you think I am—" said she, drooping her head.
He looked at her attentively for a moment, and then replied, in a voice which did not betray the slightest emotion:
"You must know that my greatest desire is to be persuaded of this by you. I know that too often appearances are deceitful; perhaps you will be able to explain to me what took place last evening; I am still inclined to believe your word. Swear to me that you do not love Monsieur de Gerfaut."
"I swear it!" said she, in a weak voice, and without raising her eyes.
He went to the bed and took down a little silver crucifix which was hanging above it.
"Swear it to me upon this crucifix," said he, presenting it to his wife.
She tried in vain to raise her hand, which seemed fastened to the arm of her chair.
"I swear it!" she stammered a second time, while her face became as pale as death.
A savage laugh escaped Christian's lips. He put the crucifix in its place again without saying a word, then he opened the secret panel and, taking out the casket, placed it upon the table before his wife. She made a movement as if to seize it, but her courage failed her.
"You have perjured yourself to your husband and to God!" said Bergenheim slowly. "Do you know what kind of woman you are?"
Clemence remained for some time powerless to reply; her respiration was so painful that each breath seemed like suffocation; her head, after rolling about on the back of the chair, fell upon her breast, like a blade of grass broken and bruised by the rain.
"If you have read those letters," she murmured, when she had strength enough to speak, "you must know that I am not as unworthy as you think. I am very guilty—but I still have a right to be forgiven."
Christian, at this moment, had he been gifted with the intelligence which fathoms the mysteries of the heart, might have renewed the bonds which were so near being broken; he could at least have stopped Clemence upon a dangerous path and saved her from a most irreparable fall. But his nature was too unrefined for him to see the degrees which separate weakness from vice, and the intoxication of a loving heart from the depravity of a corrupt character. With the obstinacy of narrow-minded people, he had been looking at the whole thing in its worst light, and for several hours already he had decided upon his wife's guilt in his own mind; this served now as a foundation for his stern conduct. His features remained perfectly impassive as he listened to Clemence's words of justification, which she uttered in a weak, broken voice.
"I know that I merit your hatred-but if you could know how much I suffer, you would surely forgive me—You left me in Paris very young, inexperienced; I ought to have fought against this feeling better than I did, but I used up in this struggle all the strength that I had—You can see how pale and changed I have become within the past year. I have aged several years in those few months; I am not yet what you call a—a lost woman. He ought to have told you that—"
"Oh, he has! of course he has," replied Christian with bitter irony. "Oh, you have in him a loyal cavalier!"
"You do not believe me, then! you do not believe me!" she continued, wringing her hands in despair; "but read these letters, the last ones. See whether one writes like this to a woman who is entirely lost—"
She tried to take the package which her husband held; instead of giving the letters to her, he lighted them at the candle and then threw them into the fireplace. Clemence uttered a cry and darted forward to save them, but Christian's iron hand seized her and pushed her back into her chair.
"I understand how much you care for this correspondence," said he, in a more excited tone, "but you are more loving than prudent. Let me destroy one witness which accuses you. Do you know that I have already killed a man on account of these letters?"
"Killed!" exclaimed Madame de Bergenheim, whom this word drove almost to madness, for she could not understand its real meaning and applied it to her lover. "Well, then, kill me too, for I lied when I said that I repented. I do not repent! I am guilty! I deceived you! I love him and I abhor you; I love him! kill me!"
She fell upon her knees before him and dragged herself along the floor, striking her head upon it as if she wished to break it. Christian raised her and seated her in the chair, in spite of her resistance. She struggled in her husband's arms, and the only words which she uttered were: "I love him! kill me! I love him! kill me!"
Her grief was so intense that Bergenheim really pitied her.
"You did not understand me," he said, "he is not the man I killed."
She became motionless, dumb. He left her then, from a feeling of compassion, and returned to his seat. They remained for some time seated in this way, one on each side of the fireplace; he, with his head leaning against the mantel; she, crouched in her chair with her face concealed behind her hands; only the striking of the clock interrupted this silence and lulled their gloomy thoughts with its monotonous vibrations.
A sharp, quick sound against one of the windows interrupted this sad scene. Clemence arose suddenly as if she had received a galvanic shock; her frightened eyes met her husband's. He made an imperious gesture with his hand as if to order silence, and both listened attentively and anxiously.
The same noise was heard a second time. A rattling against the blinds was followed by a dry, metallic sound, evidently caused by the contact of some body against the window.
"It is some signal," said Christian in a low voice, as he looked at his wife. "You probably know what it means."
"I do not, I swear to you," replied Clemence, her heart throbbing with a new emotion.
"I will tell you, then; he is there and he has something to say to you. Rise and open the window."
"Open the window?" said she, with a frightened look.
"Do what I tell you. Do you wish him to pass the night under your window, so that the servants may see him?"
At this command, spoken in a severe tone, she arose. Noticing that their shadows might be seen from the outside when the curtains were drawn, Bergenheim changed the candles to another place. Clemence walked slowly toward the window; she had hardly opened it, when a purse fell upon the floor.
"Close it now," said the Baron. While his wife was quietly obeying, he picked up the purse, and opening it, took the following note from it:
"I have ruined you—you for whom I would gladly have died! But of what use are regrets and despair now? And my blood will not wipe away your tears. Our position is so frightful that I tremble so speak of it. I ought to tell you the truth, however, horrible as it may be. Do not curse me, Clemence; do not impute to me this fatality, which obliges me thus to torture you. In a few hours I shall have expiated the wrongs of my love, or you yourself may be free. Free! pardon me for using this word; I know it is an odious one to you, but I am too troubled to find another. Whatever happens, I am about to put within your reach the only aid which it is possible for me to offer you; it will at least give you a choice of unhappiness. If you never see me again, to live with him will be a torture beyond your strength, perhaps, for you love me. I do not know how to express my thoughts, and I dare not offer you advice or entreat you. All that I feel is the necessity of telling you that my whole life belongs to you, that I am yours until death; but I hardly dare have the courage to lay at your feet the offering of a destiny already so sad, and which may soon be stained with blood. A fatal necessity sometimes imposes actions which public opinion condemns, but the heart excuses, for it alone understands them. Do not be angry at what you are about to read; never did words like these come out of a more desolate heart. During the whole day a post-chaise will wait for you at the rear of the Montigny plateau; a fire lighted upon the rock which you can see from your room will notify you of its presence. In a short time it can reach the Rhine. A person devoted to you will accompany you to Munich, to the house of one of my relatives, whose character and position will assure you sufficient protection from all tyranny. There, at least, you will be permitted to weep. That is all that I can do for you. My heart is broken when I think of the powerlessness of my love. They say that when one crushes the scorpion which has wounded him, he is cured; even my death will not repair the wrong that I have done you; it will only be one grief the more. Can you understand how desperate is the feeling which I experience now? For months past, to be loved by you has been the sole desire of my heart, and now I must repent ever having attained it. Out of pity for you, I ought to wish that you did love me with a love as perishable as my life, so that a remembrance of me would leave you in peace. All this is so sad that I have not the courage to continue. Adieu, Clemence! Once more, one last time, I must say: I love you! and yet, I dare not. I feel unworthy to speak to you thus, for my love has become a disastrous gift. Did I not ruin you? The only word that seems to be permissible is the one that even a murderer dares to address to his God: pardon me!"
After reading this, the Baron passed the letter to his wife without saying a word, and resumed his sombre attitude.
"You see what he asks of you?" he said, after a rather long pause, as he observed the dazed way in which Madame de Bergenheim's eyes wandered over this letter.
"My head is bewildered," she replied, "I do not understand what he says—Why does he speak of death?"
Christian's lips curled disdainfully as he answered:
"It does not concern you; one does not kill women."
"They need it not to die," replied Clemence, who gazed at her husband with wild, haggard eyes.
"Then you are going to fight?" she added, after a moment's pause.
"Really, have you divined as much?" he replied, with an ironical smile; "it is a wonderful thing how quick is your intelligence! You have spoken the truth. You see, each of us has his part to play. The wife deceives her husband; the husband fights with the lover, and the lover in order to close the comedy in a suitable manner—proposes to run away with the wife, for that is the meaning of his letter, notwithstanding all his oratorical precautions."
"You are going to fight!" she exclaimed, with the energy of despair. "You are going to fight! And for me—unworthy and miserable creature that I am! What have you done? And is he not free to love? I alone am the guilty one, I alone have offended you, and I alone deserve punishment. Do with me what you will; shut me up in a convent or a cell; bring me poison, I will drink it."
The Baron burst into sardonic laughter.
"So you are afraid that I shall kill, him?" said he, gazing at her intently, with his arms crossed upon his breast.
"I fear for you, for us all. Do you think that I can live after causing blood to be shed? If there must be a victim, take me—or, at least, begin with me. Have pity! tell me that you will not fight."
"But think—there is an even chance that you may be set free!" said he.
"Spare me!" she murmured, shivering with horror.
"It is a pity that blood must be shed, is it not?" said Bergenheim, in a mocking tone; "adultery would be pleasant but for that. I am sure that you think me coarse and brutal to look upon your honor as a serious thing, when you do not do so yourself."
"I entreat you!"
"I am the one who has to entreat you. This astonishes you, does it not?—While I live, I shall protect your reputation in spite of yourself; but if I die, try to guard it yourself. Content yourself with having betrayed me; do not outrage my memory. I am glad now that we have no children, for I should fear for them, and should feel obliged to deprive you of their care as much as lay in my power. That is one trouble the less. But as you bear my name, and I can not take it away from you, I beg of you do not drag it in the mire when I shall not be here to wash it for you."
The young woman fell back upon her seat as if every fibre in her body had been successively torn to pieces.
"You crush me to the earth!" she said, feebly.
"This revolts you," continued the husband, who seemed to choose the most cutting thrust; "you are young; this is your first error, you are not made for such adventures. But rest assured, one becomes accustomed to everything. A lover always knows how to find the most beautiful phrases with which to console a widow and vanquish her repugnances."
"You are killing me," she murmured, falling back almost unconscious in her chair.
Christian leaned over her, and, taking her by the arm, said in a low tone:
"Remember, if I die and he asks you to follow him, you will be an infamous creature if you obey him. He is a man to glory in you; that is easy enough to see. He is a man who would drag you after him—"
"Oh! have pity—I shall die—"
Clemence closed her eyes and her lips twitched convulsively.
The first rays of the morning sun fell upon another scene in the opposite wing of the chateau. Marillac was quietly sleeping the sleep of the just when he was suddenly awakened by a shaking that nearly threw him out of his bed.
"Go to the devil!" he said, angrily, when he succeeded in half opening his heavy eyes, and recognized Gerfaut standing beside his bed.
"Get up!" said the latter, taking him by the arm to give more force to his command.
The artist covered himself with the clothes up to his chin.
"Are you walking in your sleep or insane?" asked Marillac, "or do you want me to go to work?" he added, as he saw that his friend had some papers in his hand. "You know very well I never have any ideas when fasting, and that I am stupid until noon."
"Get up at once!" said Gerfaut, "I must have a talk with you."
There was something so serious and urgent in Gerfaut's accent as he said these words, that the artist got up at once and hurriedly dressed himself.
"What is the matter?" he asked, as he put on his dressing-gown, "you look as if the affairs of the nation rested upon you."
"Put on your coat and boots," said Octave, "you must go to La Fauconnerie. They are used to seeing you go out early in the morning for your appointments with Reine, and therefore—"
"It is to this shepherdess you would send me!" interrupted the artist, as he began to undress himself; "in that case I will go to bed again. Enough of that!"
"I am to fight with Bergenheim at nine o'clock!" said Gerfaut, in a low voice.
"Stupendous!" exclaimed Marillac, as he jumped back a few steps, and then stood as motionless as a statue. Without wasting any time in unnecessary explanations, his friend gave him a brief account of the night's events.
"Now," said he, "I need you; can I count upon your friendship?"
"In life and in death!" exclaimed Marillac, and he pressed his hand with the emotion that the bravest of men feel at the approach of a danger which threatens one who is dear to them.
"Here," said Gerfaut, as he handed him the papers in his hand, "is a letter for you in which you will find my instructions in full; they will serve you as a guide, according to circumstances. This sealed paper will be deposited by you in the office of the public prosecutor at Nancy, under certain circumstances which my note explains. Finally, this is my will. I have no very near relative; I have made you my heir.
"Listen to me! I do not know a more honest man than you, that is the reason why I select you. First, this legacy is a trust. I speak to you now in case of events which probably will never happen, but which I ought to prepare for. I do not know what effect this may have upon Clemence's fate; her aunt, who is very austere, may quarrel with her and deprive her of her rights; her personal fortune is not very large, I believe, and I know nothing about her marriage settlement. She may thus be entirely at her husband's mercy, and that is what I will not allow. My fortune is therefore a trust that you will hold to be placed at her disposal at any time. I hope that she loves me enough not to refuse this service of me."
"Well and good!" said Marillac; "I will admit that the thought of inheriting from you choked me like a noose around my neck."
"I beg of you to accept for yourself my copyrights as author. You can not refuse that," said Gerfaut, with a half smile; "this legacy belongs to the domain of art. To whom should I leave it if not to you, my Patroclus, my faithful collaborator?"
The artist took several agitated turns about his room.
"To think," he exclaimed, "that I was the one who saved this Bergenheim's life! If he kills you, I shall never forgive myself. And yet, I told you this would end in some tragic manner."
"What business had he there? Is it not so? What can I say? We were seeking for a drama; here it is. I am not anxious on my own account, but on hers. Unhappy woman! A duel is a stone that might fall upon a man's head twenty times a day; it is sufficient for a simpleton if you stare at him, or for an awkward fellow if you tread upon his toes; but on her account—poor angel!—I can not think of it. I need the fullest command of my head and my heart. But it is growing lighter; there is not a moment to lose. Go to the stable; saddle a horse yourself, if there is no servant up; go, as I said, to La Fauconnerie; I have often seen a post-chaise in the tavern courtyard; order it to wait all day at the back of the Montigny plateau. You will find everything explained in detail in the note which I have given you. Here is my purse; I need no money."
Marillac put the purse in his pocket and the papers in his memorandum-book; he then buttoned up his redingote and put on his travelling cap. His countenance showed a state of exaltation which belied, for the time being, the pacific theories he had expounded a few days before.
"You can depend upon me as upon yourself," said he with energy. "If this poor woman calls for my aid, I promise you that I will serve her faithfully. I will take her wherever she wishes; to China, if she asks it, and in spite of the whole police force. If Bergenheim kills you and then follows her up, there will be another duel."
As he said these words, he took his stiletto and a pair of pistols from the mantel and put them in his pocket, after examining the edge of the one and the caps of the others.
"Adieu!" said Gerfaut.
"Adieu!" said the artist, whose extreme agitation contrasted strongly with his friend's calm. "Rest easy! I will look after her—and I will publish a complete edition—But what an idea—to accept a duel as irregular as this! Have you ever seen him use a gun? He had no right to exact this."
"Hurry! you must leave before the servants are up."
"Kiss me, my poor fellow!" said Marillac, with tears in his eyes; "it is not very manly I know, but I can not help it—Oh! these women! I adore them, of course; but just now I am like Nero, I wish that they all had but one head. It is for these little, worthless dolls that we kill each other!"
"You can curse them on your way," said Gerfaut, who was impatient to see him leave.
"Oh, good gracious, yes! They can flatter themselves this moment that they all inspire me with a deadly hatred."
"Do not make any noise," said his friend, as he carefully opened the door.
Marillac pressed his hand for the last time, and went out. When he reached the end of the corridor, he stopped a moment, then went back.
"Above all things," said he, as he passed his head through the half-open door, "no foolish proceedings. Remember that it is necessary that one of you should fall, and that if you fail; he will not. Take your time—aim—and fire at him as you would at a rabbit."
After this last piece of advice, he went away; ten minutes after he had left, Gerfaut saw him riding out of the courtyard as fast as Beverley's four legs would carry him.
CHAPTER XXV. THE WILD BOAR
The most radiant sun that ever gilded a beautiful September day had arisen upon the castle. The whole valley was as fresh and laughing as a young girl who had just left her bath. The rocks seemed to have a band of silver surrounding them; the woods a mantle of green draped over their shoulders.
There was an unusual excitement in the courtyard of the chateau. The servants were coming and going, the dogs were starting a concert of irregular barks, and the horses were jumping about, sharing their instinctive presentiment and trying to break away from the bridles which held them.
The Baron, seated in his saddle with his usual military attitude, and a cigar in his mouth, went from one to another, speaking in a joking tone which prevented anybody from suspecting his secret thoughts. Gerfaut had imposed upon his countenance that impassible serenity which guards the heart's inner secrets, but had not succeeded so well. His affectation of gayety betrayed continual restraint; the smile which he forced upon his lips left the rest of his face cold, and never removed the wrinkle between his brows. An incident, perhaps sadly longed for, but unhoped for, increased this gloomy, melancholy expression. Just as the cavalcade passed before the English garden, which separated the sycamore walk from the wing of the chateau occupied by Madame de Bergenheim, Octave slackened the pace of his horse and lingered behind the rest of his companions; his eyes closely examined each of the windows; the blinds of her sleeping-room were only half closed; behind the panes he saw the curtains move and then separate. A pale face appeared for a moment between the blue folds, like an angel who peeps through the sky to gaze upon the earth. Gerfaut raised himself on his stirrups so as to drink in this apparition as long as possible, but he dared not make one gesture of adieu. As he was still endeavoring to obtain one more glance, he saw that the Baron was at his side.
"Play your role better," said he to him; "we are surrounded by spies. De Camier has already made an observation about your preoccupied demeanor."
"You are right," said Octave; "and you join example to advice. I admire your coolness, but I despair of equalling it."
"You must mingle with my guests and talk with them," Christian replied.
He started off at a trot; Gerfaut followed his example, stifling a sigh as he darted a last glance toward the chateau. They soon rejoined the cart which carried several of the hunters, and which Monsieur de Camier drove with the assurance of a professional coachman.
There was a moment's silence, broken only by the trot of the horses and the sound of the wheels upon the level ground.
"What the devil ails your dogs?" exclaimed Monsieur de Camier suddenly, as he turned to the Baron, who was riding behind him. "There they are all making for the river." Just at this moment the dogs, who could be seen in the distance, hurried to the water-side, in spite of all that their leader could do to prevent them. They almost disappeared behind the willows that bordered the river, and one could hear them barking furiously; their barks sounded like rage mingled with terror.
"It is some duck that they have scented," observed the prosecutor.
"They wouldn't bark like that," said Monsieur de Camier, with the sagacity of a professional hunter; "if it were a wolf, they could not make a greater uproar. Is it by chance some wild boar who is taking a bath, in order to receive us more ceremoniously?"
He gave the horses a vigorous blow from the whip, and they all rapidly approached the spot where a scene was taking place which excited to the highest pitch everybody's curiosity. Before they reached the spot, the keeper, who had run after the dogs to call them together, came out of a thicket, waving his hat to stop the hunters, exclaiming:
"A body! a body!"
"A body! a drowned man!" he exclaimed, when the vehicle stopped.
This time it was the public prosecutor who arose and jumped from the cart with the agility of a deer.
"A drowned man!" said he. "In the name of the law, let nobody touch the body. Call back the dogs."
As he said these words he hastened to the spot which the servant pointed out to him. Everybody dismounted and followed him. Octave and Bergenheim had exchanged strange glances when they heard the servant's words.
It was, as the servant had announced, the battered body of a man, thrown by the current against the trunk of the tree, and there caught between two branches of the willow as if in a vise.
"It is the carpenter!" exclaimed Monsieur de Camier as he parted the foliage, which had prevented the head from being seen until then, for he recognized the workman's livid, swollen features. "It is that poor devil of a Lambernier, is it not, Bergenheim?"
"It is true!" stammered Christian, who, in spite of his boldness, could not help turning away his eyes.
"The carpenter!—drowned!—this is frightful!—I never should have recognized him—how disfigured he is!" exclaimed the others, as they pressed forward to gaze at this horrible spectacle.
"This is a sad way to escape justice," observed the notary, in a philosophical tone.
The Baron seized this opening with avidity.
"He must have crossed the river to escape," said he, "and in his haste he made a misstep and fell."
The public prosecutor shook his head with an air of doubt.
"That is not probable," said he; "I know the place. If he tried to cross the river a little above or a little below the rock—it doesn't matter which—the current would have carried him into the little bay above the rock and not here. It is evident that he must have drowned himself or been drowned farther down. I say, been drowned, for you can see that he has a wound upon the left side of his forehead, as if he had received a violent blow, or his head had, hit against a hard substance. Now, if he had been drowned accidentally while crossing the river, he would not have been wounded in this manner."
This remark silenced the Baron; and while the others exhausted conjectures to explain the way in which this tragic event had taken place, he stood motionless, with his eyes fastened upon the river and avoiding a glance at the dead body. During this time the public prosecutor had taken from his pocket some paper and a pen, which he usually carried with him.
"Gentlemen," said he, seating himself upon the trunk of a tree opposite the drowned man, "two of you will do me the favor to act as witnesses while I draw up my official report. If any of you have a statement to make in regard to this affair, I beg of him to remain here, so that I may receive his deposition."
Nobody stirred, but Gerfaut threw such a penetrating glance at the Baron that the latter turned away his eyes.
"Gentlemen," continued the magistrate, "I do not wish any of you to renounce the sport on account of this untoward incident. There is nothing attractive about this spectacle, and I assure you that if my duty did not keep me here, I should be the first to withdraw. Baron, I beg of you to send me two men and a stretcher in order to have the body carried away; I will have it taken to one of your farms, so as not to frighten the ladies."
"The prosecutor is right," said Christian, whom these words delivered from a terrible anxiety.
After a deliberation, presided over by Monsieur de Camier, the 'tragueurs' and the dogs left in silence to surround the thickets where the animal had been found to be hidden. At the same time the hunters turned their steps in the opposite direction in order to take their positions. They soon reached the ditch alongside of which they were to place themselves. From time to time, as they advanced, one of them left the party and remained mute and motionless like a sentinel at his post. This manoeuvre gradually reduced their numbers, and at last there were only three remaining.
"You remain here, Camier," said the Baron, when they were about sixty steps from the last position.
That gentleman, who knew the ground, was hardly flattered by this proposition.
"By Jove!" said he, "you are on your own grounds; you ought at least to do the honors of your woods and let us choose our own positions. I think you wish to place yourself upon the outskirts, because it is always about that region that the animal first appears; but there will be two of us, for I shall go also."
This determination annoyed Christian considerably, since it threatened to ruin the plan so prudently laid out.
"I am going to put our friend Gerfaut at this post," said he, whispering to the refractory hunter; "I shall be very much pleased if he has an opportunity to fire. What difference does one boar more or less make to an old hunter like you?"
"Well and good; just as you like," retorted Monsieur de Carrier, striking the ground with the butt-end of his gun, and beginning to whistle in order to cool off his anger.
When the adversaries found themselves side by side and alone, Bergenheim's countenance changed suddenly; the smiling look he had assumed, in order to convince the old hunter of his cheerful disposition, gave place to deep gravity.
"You remember our agreement," he said, as they walked along; "I feel sure that the boar will come in our direction. At the moment when I call out, 'Take care!' I shall expect you to fire; if, at the end of twenty seconds, you have not done so, I warn you that I shall fire myself."
"Very well, Monsieur," said Gerfaut, looking at him fixedly; "you also doubtless remember my words; the discovery of this body will give them still more weight. The public prosecutor has already begun his preliminary proceedings; remember that it depends on me how they shall be completed. The deposition which I spoke to you about is in the hands of a safe person, who is fully instructed to make use of it if necessary."
"Marillac, I suppose," said Christian, in an evil tone; "he is your confidant. It is a fatal secret that you have confided to him, Monsieur. If I survive today, I shall have to secure his silence. May all this blood, past, present, and future, be on your head!"
Deeply affected by this reproach, the Vicomte bowed his head in silence.
"Here is my place," said the Baron, stopping before the trunk of an old oak, "and there is the elm where you are to station yourself."
Gerfaut stopped, and said, in a trembling voice:
"Monsieur, one of us will not leave these woods alive. In the presence of death, one tells the truth. I hope for your peace of mind, and my own, that you will believe my last words. I swear to you, upon my honor and by all that is sacred, that Madame de Bergenheim is innocent."
He bowed, and withdrew from Christian without waiting for a response.
Bergenheim and Gerfaut were out of sight of the others, and stood at their posts with eyes fastened upon each other. The ditch was wide enough to prevent the branches of the trees from troubling them; at the distance of sixty feet, which separated them, each could see his adversary standing motionless, framed by the green foliage. Suddenly, barking was heard in the distance, partially drowned by the firing of a gun. A few seconds later, two feeble reports were heard, followed by an imprecation from Monsieur de Camier, whose caps flashed in the pan. The Baron, who had just leaned forward that he might see better through the thicket, raised his hand to warn Octave to hold himself in readiness. He then placed himself in position. An extreme indecision marked Gerfaut's attitude. After raising his gun, he dropped it to the ground with a despondent gesture, as if his resolution to fire had suddenly abandoned him; the pallor of death could not be more terrible than that which overspread his features. The howling of the dogs and shouts of the hunters increased. Suddenly another sound was heard. Low, deep growls, followed by the crackling of branches, came from the woods opposite our adversaries. The whole thicket seemed to tremble as if agitated by a storm.
"Take care!" exclaimed Bergenheim, in a firm voice.
At the same moment an enormous head appeared, and the report of a gun was heard. When Gerfaut looked through the smoke caused by his gun, at the farther end of the ditch, nothing was to be seen but the foliage.
The boar, after crossing the clearing, vanished like a flash, leaving behind him a trail of broken branches—and Bergenheim lay behind the trunk of the old oak, upon which large drops of blood had already fallen.
CHAPTER XXVI. BERGENHEIM'S REVENGE
On the same morning the drawing-room of the Bergenheim castle was the theatre of a quiet home scene very much like the one we described at the beginning of this story. Mademoiselle de Corandeuil was seated in her armchair reading the periodicals which had just arrived; Aline was practising upon the piano, and her sister-in-law was seated before one of the windows embroidering. By the calm attitude of these three ladies, and the interest they seemed to show in their several occupations, one would have supposed that they were all equally peaceful at heart. Madame de Bergenheim, upon rising, had resumed her usual habits; she managed to find the proper words to reply when spoken to, her dejection did not differ from her usual melancholy enough for it to become the subject of remark. A rather bright color in her cheeks heightened her beauty; her eyes never had sparkled with more brilliancy; but if a hand had been placed upon her forehead, one would have soon discovered by its burning the secret of all this unwonted color. In fact, in the midst of this sumptuous room, surrounded by her friends, and bending over her embroidery with most exquisite grace, Madame de Bergenheim was slowly dying. A wasting fever was circulating like poison through her veins. She felt that an unheard-of sorrow was hanging over her head, and that no effort of hers could prevent it.
At this very moment, either the man she belonged to or the one she loved was about to die; whatever her widowhood might be, she felt that her mourning would be brief; young, beautiful, surrounded by all the privileges of rank and fortune, life was closing around her, and left but one pathway open, which was full of blood; she would have to bathe her feet in it in order to pass through.
"What is that smoke above the Montigny rock?" Aline exclaimed with surprise; "it looks as if there were a fire in the woods."
Madame de Bergenheim raised her eyes, shivered from head to foot as she saw the stream of smoke which stood out against the horizon, and then let her head droop upon her breast. Mademoiselle de Corandeuil stopped her reading as she heard Aline's remark, and turned slowly to look out of the window.
"That's some of the shepherds' work," said she; "they have built a fire in the bushes at the risk of setting fire to the whole woods. Really, I do not know what to think of your husband, Clemence; he takes everybody away to the hunt with him, and does not leave a soul here to prevent his dwelling from being devastated."
Clemence made no reply, and her sister-in-law, who expected she would say something to keep the conversation alive, returned and seated herself at the piano with a pouting air.
"Thanks, that will do for to-day!" exclaimed the old lady at the first notes; "you have split our heads long enough. You would do better to study your history of France."
Aline closed the piano angrily; but instead of obeying this last piece of advice, she remained seated upon the stool with the sulky air of a pupil in disgrace. A deep silence reigned. Madame de Bergenheim had dropped her embroidery without noticing it. From time to time she trembled as if a chill passed over her, her eyes were raised to watch the smoke ascending above the rock, or else she seemed to listen to some imaginary sound.
"Truly," said Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, as she laid her journal down in her lap, "good morals have made great progress since the July revolution. Yesterday a woman twenty years of age ran away to Montpelier with her lover; to-day, here is another, in Lyons, who poisons her husband and kills herself afterward. If I were superstitious, I should say that the world was coming to an end. What do you think of such atrocious doings, my dear?"
Clemence raised her head with an effort, and answered, in a gloomy voice:
"You must pardon her, since she is dead."
"You are very indulgent," replied the old aunt; "such creatures ought to be burned alive, like the Brinvilliers."
"They often speak in the papers of husbands who kill their wives, but not so often of wives killing their husbands," said Aline, with the partisan feeling natural to the fair sex.
"It is not proper that you should talk of such horrid things," said the old lady, in a severe tone; "behold the fruits of all the morals of the age! It is the effect of all the disgusting stuff that is acted nowadays upon the stage and written in novels. When one thinks of the fine education that is given youth at the present time, it is enough to make one tremble for the future!"
"Mon Dieu! Mademoiselle, you may be sure that I shall never kill my husband," replied the young girl, to whom this remark seemed particularly addressed.
A stifled groan, which Madame de Bergenheim could not suppress, attracted the attention of the two ladies.
"What is the matter with you?" asked Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, noticing for the first time her niece's dejected air and the frightened expression in her eyes.
"Nothing," murmured the latter; "I think it is the heat of the room."
Aline hastily opened a window, then went and took her sister-in-law's hands in her own.
"You have a fever," said she; "your hands burn and your forehead also; I did not dare tell you, but your beautiful color—"
A frightful cry which Madame de Bergenheim uttered made the young girl draw back in fright.
"Clemence! Clemence!" exclaimed Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, who thought that her niece had gone insane.
"Did you not hear?" she cried, with an accent of terror impossible to describe. She darted suddenly toward the drawing-room door; but, instead of opening it, she leaned against it with arms crossed. Then she ran two or three times around the room in a sort of frenzy, and ended by falling upon her knees before the sofa and burying her head in its cushions.
This scene bewildered the two women. While Mademoiselle de Corandeuil tried to raise Clemence, Aline, still more frightened, ran out of the room to call for aid. A rumor which had just begun to arise in the courtyard was distinctly heard when the door was thrown open. A moment more, and a piercing shriek was heard, and the young girl rushed into the parlor; throwing herself on her knees beside her sister-in-law she pressed her to her breast with convulsive energy.
As she felt herself seized in this fashion, Clemence raised her head and, placing her hands upon Aline's shoulders, she pushed her backward and gazed at her with eyes that seemed to devour her.
"Which? which?" she asked, in a harsh voice.
"My brother—covered with blood!" stammered Aline.
Madame de Bergenheim pushed her aside and threw herself upon the sofa. Her first feeling was a horrible joy at not hearing the name of Octave; but she tried to smother her hysterical utterances by pressing her mouth against the cushion upon which her face was leaning.
A noise of voices was heard in the vestibule; the greatest confusion seemed to reign among the people outside. At last, several men entered the drawing room; at their head was Monsieur de Camier, whose ruddy face had lost all its color.
"Do not be frightened, ladies," said he, in a trembling voice; "do not be frightened. It is only a slight accident, without any danger. Monsieur de Bergenheim was wounded in the hunt," he continued, addressing Mademoiselle de Corandeuil.
At last, the folding-doors were thrown open, and two servants appeared, bearing the Baron upon a mattress.
When the servants had deposited their burden in front of one of the windows, Aline threw herself upon her brother's body, uttering heartrending cries. Madame de Bergenheim did not stir; she lay upon the sofa with eyes and ears buried in the cushions, and seemed deaf and blind to all that surrounded her. Mademoiselle de Corandeuil was the only one who preserved her presence of mind. Controlling her emotion, she leaned over the Baron and sought for some sign of life.
"Is he dead?" she asked, in a low voice, of Monsieur de Camier.
"No, Mademoiselle," replied the latter, in a tone which announced that he had little hope.
"Has a physician been sent for?"
"To Remiremont, Epinal, everywhere."
At this moment Aline uttered a cry of joy. Bergenheim had just stirred, brought to life, perhaps, by the pressure of his sister's arms. He opened his eyes and, closed them several times; at last his energy triumphed over his sufferings; he sat up on his improvised cot and, leaning upon his left elbow, he glanced around the room.
"My wife!" said he, in a weak voice.
Madame de Bergenheim arose and forced her way through the group that surrounded the mattress, and silently took her place beside her husband. Her features had changed so terribly within a few moments that a murmur of pity ran through the group of men that filled the room.
"Take my sister away," said Christian, disengaging his hand from the young girl, who was covering it with kisses and tears.
"My brother! I can not leave my brother!" exclaimed Aline, as she was dragged away rather than led to her room.
"Leave me for a moment," continued the Baron; "I wish to speak to my wife."
Mademoiselle de Corandeuil gave Monsieur de Gamier a questioning glance, as if to ask if it were best to grant this request.
"We can do nothing before the doctors arrive," said the latter, in a low voice, "and perhaps it would be imprudent to oppose him."
Mademoiselle de Corandeuil recognized the correctness of this observation, and left the room, asking the others to follow her. During this time, Madame de Bergenheim remained motionless in her place, apparently insensible to all that surrounded her. The noise of the closing door aroused her from her stupor. She looked around the room as if she were seeking the others; her eyes, which were opened with the fixed look of a somnambulist, did not change their expression when they fell upon her husband.
"Come nearer," said he, "I have not strength enough to speak loud."
She obeyed mechanically. When she saw the large red stain which had soaked Christian's right sleeve, she closed her eyes, threw back her head, and her features contracted with a horrified expression.
"You women are wonderfully fastidious," said the Baron, as he noticed this movement; "you delight in causing a murder, but the slightest scratch frightens you. Pass over to the left side; you will not see so much blood-besides, it is the side where the heart is."
There was something terrible in the irony of the voice in which he spoke at this moment. Clemence fell upon her knees beside him and took his hand, crying,
The dying man took away his hand, raised his wife's head, and, looking at her a few moments attentively, he said at last:
"Your eyes are very dry. No tears! What! not one tear when you see me thus!"
"I can not weep," replied she; "I shall die!"
"It is very humiliating for me to be so poorly regretted, and it does you little honor—try to shed a few tears, Madame—it will be remarked—a widow who does not weep!"
"A widow—never!" she said, with energy.
"It would be convenient if they sold tears as they sell crape, would it not? Ah! only you women have a real talent for that—all women know how to weep."
"You will not die, Christian—oh! tell me that you will not die—and that you will forgive me."
"Your lover has killed me," said Bergenheim, slowly; "I have a bullet in my chest—I feel it—I am the one who is to die—in less than an hour I shall be a corpse—don't you see how hard it is already for me to talk?"
In reality his voice was becoming weaker and weaker. His breath grew shorter with each word; a wheezing sound within his chest indicated the extent of the lesion and the continued extravasation of blood.
"Mercy! pardon!" exclaimed the unhappy woman, prostrating herself upon the floor.
"More air—open the windows—" said the Baron, as he fell back upon the mattress, exhausted by the efforts he had just made to talk.
Madame de Bergenheim obeyed his order with the precision of an automaton. A fresh, pure breeze entered the room; when the curtains were raised, floods of light illuminated the floor, and the old portraits, suddenly lighted up, looked like ghosts who had left their graves to witness the death agonies of the last of their descendants. Christian, refreshed by the air which swept over his face, sat up again. He gazed with a melancholy eye at the radiant sun and the green woods which lay stretched out in front of the chateau.
"I lost my father on such a day as this," said he, as if talking to himself—"all our family die during the beautiful weather—ah! do you see that smoke over the Montigny rock?" he exclaimed, suddenly.
After opening the windows, Clemence stepped out upon the balcony. Leaning upon the balustrade, she gazed at the deep, rapid river which flowed at her feet. Her husband's voice calling her aroused her from this gloomy contemplation. When she returned to Christian, his eyes were flaming, a flush like that of fever had overspread his cheeks, and a writhing, furious indignation was depicted upon his face. "Were you looking at that smoke?" said he, angrily; "it is your lover's signal; he is there—he is waiting to take you away—and I, your husband, forbid you to go—you must not leave me—your place is here—close by me."
"Close by you," she repeated, not understanding what he said.
"Wait at least until I am dead," he continued, while his eyes flashed more and more—"let my body get cold—when you are a widow you can do as you like—you will be free—and even then—I forbid it—I order you to wear mourning for me—above all, try to weep—"
"Strike me with a knife! At least I should bleed," said she, bending toward him and tearing open her dress to lay bare her bosom.
He seized her by the arm, and, exerting all his wasting strength to reach her, he said, in a voice whose harshness was changed almost into supplication:
"Clemence, do not dishonor me by giving yourself to him when I am dead—I would curse you if I thought that you would do that."
"Oh! do not curse me!" she exclaimed; "do not drive me mad. Do you not know that I am about to die?"
"There are women who do not see their husband's blood upon their lover's hands—but I would curse you—"
He dropped Clemence's arm and fell back upon the mattress with a sob. His eyes closed, and some unintelligible words died on his lips, which were covered with a bloody froth. He was dying.
Madame de Bergenheim, crouched down upon the floor, heard him repeating in his expiring voice:
"I would curse you—I would curse you!"
She remained motionless for some time, her eyes fastened upon the dying man before her with a look of stupefied curiosity. Then she arose and went to the mirror; she gazed at herself for a moment as if obeying the whim of an insane woman, pushing aside, in order to see herself better, the hair which covered her forehead. Suddenly a flash of reason came to her; she uttered a horrible cry as she saw some blood upon her face; she looked at herself from head to foot; her dress was stained with it; she wrung her hands in horror, and felt that they were wet. Her husband's blood was everywhere. Then, her brain filled with the fire of raving madness, she rushed out upon the balcony, and Bergenheim, before his last breath escaped him, heard the noise of her body as it fell into the river.
Several days later, the Sentinelle des Vosges contained the following paragraph, written with the official sorrow found in all death-notices at thirty sous per line:
"A frightful event, which has just thrown two of our best families into mourning, has caused the greatest consternation throughout the Remiremont district. Monsieur le Baron de Bergenheim, one of the richest land-owners in our province, was killed by accident at a wild-boar hunt on his own domains. It was by the hand of one of his best friends, Monsieur de Gerfaut, well known by, his important literary work, which has given its author a worldwide reputation, that he received his death-blow. Nothing could equal the grief of the involuntary cause of this catastrophe. Madame de Bergenheim, upon learning of this tragic accident, was unable to survive the death of her adored husband, and drowned herself in her despair. Thus the same grave received this couple, still in the bloom of life, to whom their great mutual affection seemed to promise a most happy future."
Twenty-eight months later the Parisian journals, in their turn, inserted, with but slight variations, the following article:
"Nothing could give any idea of the enthusiasm manifested at the Theatre-Francais last evening, at the first representation of Monsieur de Gerfaut's new drama. Never has this writer, whose silence literature has deplored for too long a time, distinguished himself so highly. His early departure for the East is announced. Let us hope that this voyage will turn to the advantage of art, and that the beautiful and sunny countries of Asia will be a mine for new inspirations for this celebrated poet, who has taken, in such a glorious manner, his place at the heal of our literature."
Bergenheim's last wish had been realized; his honor was secure; nobody outraged by even an incredulous smile the purity of Clemence's winding-sheet; and the world did not refuse to their double grave the commonplace consideration that had surrounded their lives.
Clemence's death did not destroy the future of the man who loved her so passionately, but the mourning he wears for her, to this day, is of the kind that is never put aside. And, as the poet's heart was always reflected in his works, the world took part in this mourning without being initiated into its mystery. When the bitter cup of memory overflowed in them, they believed it to be a new vein which had opened in the writer's brain. Octave received, every day, congratulations upon this sadly exquisite tone of his lyre, whose vibrations surpassed in supreme intensity the sighs of Rene or Obermann's Reveries. Nobody knew that those sad pages were written under the inspiration of the most mournful of visions, and that this dark and melancholy tinge, which was taken for a caprice of the imagination, had its source in blood and in the spasms of a broken heart.
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Antipathy for her husband bordering upon aversion Attractions that difficulties give to pleasure Attractive abyss of drunkenness Consented to become a wife so as not to remain a maiden Despotic tone which a woman assumes when sure of her empire Evident that the man was above his costume; a rare thing! I believed it all; one is so happy to believe! It is a terrible step for a woman to take, from No to Yes Lady who requires urging, although she is dying to sing Let them laugh that win! Let ultra-modesty destroy poetry Love is a fire whose heat dies out for want of fuel Mania for fearing that she may be compromised Material in you to make one of Cooper's redskins Misfortunes never come single No woman is unattainable, except when she loves another Obstinacy of drunkenness Recourse to concessions is often as fatal to women as to kings Regards his happiness as a proof of superiority She said yes, so as not to say no These are things that one admits only to himself Those whom they most amuse are those who are best worth amusing Topics that occupy people who meet for the first time Trying to conceal by a smile (a blush) When one speaks of the devil he appears Wiped his nose behind his hat, like a well-bred orator You are playing 'who loses wins!'