"Sir," cried she, "be kind, be clement, listen to my prayer! That knife, which the fatal prudence of the baron deprived me of, because he knows the use I would make of it! Oh, hear me to the end! that knife, give it to me for a minute only, for mercy's, for pity's sake! I will embrace your knees! You shall shut the door that you may be certain I contemplate no injury to you! My God! to you—the only just, good, and compassionate being I have met with! To you—my preserver, perhaps! One minute that knife, one minute, a single minute, and I will restore it to you through the grating of the door. Only one minute, Mr. Felton, and you will have saved my honor!"
"To kill yourself?" cried Felton, with terror, forgetting to withdraw his hands from the hands of the prisoner, "to kill yourself?"
"I have told, sir," murmured Milady, lowering her voice, and allowing herself to sink overpowered to the ground; "I have told my secret! He knows all! My God, I am lost!"
Felton remained standing, motionless and undecided.
"He still doubts," thought Milady; "I have not been earnest enough."
Someone was heard in the corridor; Milady recognized the step of Lord de Winter.
Felton recognized it also, and made a step toward the door.
Milady sprang toward him. "Oh, not a word," said she in a concentrated voice, "not a word of all that I have said to you to this man, or I am lost, and it would be you—you—"
Then as the steps drew near, she became silent for fear of being heard, applying, with a gesture of infinite terror, her beautiful hand to Felton's mouth.
Felton gently repulsed Milady, and she sank into a chair.
Lord de Winter passed before the door without stopping, and they heard the noise of his footsteps soon die away.
Felton, as pale as death, remained some instants with his ear bent and listening; then, when the sound was quite extinct, he breathed like a man awaking from a dream, and rushed out of the apartment.
"Ah!" said Milady, listening in her turn to the noise of Felton's steps, which withdrew in a direction opposite to those of Lord de Winter; "at length you are mine!"
Then her brow darkened. "If he tells the baron," said she, "I am lost—for the baron, who knows very well that I shall not kill myself, will place me before him with a knife in my hand, and he will discover that all this despair is but acted."
She placed herself before the glass, and regarded herself attentively; never had she appeared more beautiful.
"Oh, yes," said she, smiling, "but we won't tell him!"
In the evening Lord de Winter accompanied the supper.
"Sir," said Milady, "is your presence an indispensable accessory of my captivity? Could you not spare me the increase of torture which your visits cause me?"
"How, dear sister!" said Lord de Winter. "Did not you sentimentally inform me with that pretty mouth of yours, so cruel to me today, that you came to England solely for the pleasure of seeing me at your ease, an enjoyment of which you told me you so sensibly felt the deprivation that you had risked everything for it—seasickness, tempest, captivity? Well, here I am; be satisfied. Besides, this time, my visit has a motive."
Milady trembled; she thought Felton had told all. Perhaps never in her life had this woman, who had experienced so many opposite and powerful emotions, felt her heart beat so violently.
She was seated. Lord de Winter took a chair, drew it toward her, and sat down close beside her. Then taking a paper out of his pocket, he unfolded it slowly.
"Here," said he, "I want to show you the kind of passport which I have drawn up, and which will serve you henceforward as the rule of order in the life I consent to leave you."
Then turning his eyes from Milady to the paper, he read: "'Order to conduct—' The name is blank," interrupted Lord de Winter. "If you have any preference you can point it out to me; and if it be not within a thousand leagues of London, attention will be paid to your wishes. I will begin again, then:
"'Order to conduct to—the person named Charlotte Backson, branded by the justice of the kingdom of France, but liberated after chastisement. She is to dwell in this place without ever going more than three leagues from it. In case of any attempt to escape, the penalty of death is to be applied. She will receive five shillings per day for lodging and food'".
"That order does not concern me," replied Milady, coldly, "since it bears another name than mine."
"A name? Have you a name, then?"
"I bear that of your brother."
"Ay, but you are mistaken. My brother is only your second husband; and your first is still living. Tell me his name, and I will put it in the place of the name of Charlotte Backson. No? You will not? You are silent? Well, then you must be registered as Charlotte Backson."
Milady remained silent; only this time it was no longer from affectation, but from terror. She believed the order ready for execution. She thought that Lord de Winter had hastened her departure; she thought she was condemned to set off that very evening. Everything in her mind was lost for an instant; when all at once she perceived that no signature was attached to the order. The joy she felt at this discovery was so great she could not conceal it.
"Yes, yes," said Lord de Winter, who perceived what was passing in her mind; "yes, you look for the signature, and you say to yourself: 'All is not lost, for that order is not signed. It is only shown to me to terrify me, that's all.' You are mistaken. Tomorrow this order will be sent to the Duke of Buckingham. The day after tomorrow it will return signed by his hand and marked with his seal; and four-and-twenty hours afterward I will answer for its being carried into execution. Adieu, madame. That is all I had to say to you."
"And I reply to you, sir, that this abuse of power, this exile under a fictitious name, are infamous!"
"Would you like better to be hanged in your true name, Milady? You know that the English laws are inexorable on the abuse of marriage. Speak freely. Although my name, or rather that of my brother, would be mixed up with the affair, I will risk the scandal of a public trial to make myself certain of getting rid of you."
Milady made no reply, but became as pale as a corpse.
"Oh, I see you prefer peregrination. That's well madame; and there is an old proverb that says, 'Traveling trains youth.' My faith! you are not wrong after all, and life is sweet. That's the reason why I take such care you shall not deprive me of mine. There only remains, then, the question of the five shillings to be settled. You think me rather parsimonious, don't you? That's because I don't care to leave you the means of corrupting your jailers. Besides, you will always have your charms left to seduce them with. Employ them, if your check with regard to Felton has not disgusted you with attempts of that kind."
"Felton has not told him," said Milady to herself. "Nothing is lost, then."
"And now, madame, till I see you again! Tomorrow I will come and announce to you the departure of my messenger."
Lord de Winter rose, saluted her ironically, and went out.
Milady breathed again. She had still four days before her. Four days would quite suffice to complete the seduction of Felton.
A terrible idea, however, rushed into her mind. She thought that Lord de Winter would perhaps send Felton himself to get the order signed by the Duke of Buckingham. In that case Felton would escape her—for in order to secure success, the magic of a continuous seduction was necessary. Nevertheless, as we have said, one circumstance reassured her. Felton had not spoken.
As she would not appear to be agitated by the threats of Lord de Winter, she placed herself at the table and ate.
Then, as she had done the evening before, she fell on her knees and repeated her prayers aloud. As on the evening before, the soldier stopped his march to listen to her.
Soon after she heard lighter steps than those of the sentinel, which came from the end of the corridor and stopped before her door.
"It is he," said she. And she began the same religious chant which had so strongly excited Felton the evening before.
But although her voice—sweet, full, and sonorous—vibrated as harmoniously and as affectingly as ever, the door remained shut. It appeared however to Milady that in one of the furtive glances she darted from time to time at the grating of the door she thought she saw the ardent eyes of the young man through the narrow opening. But whether this was reality or vision, he had this time sufficient self-command not to enter.
However, a few instants after she had finished her religious song, Milady thought she heard a profound sigh. Then the same steps she had heard approach slowly withdrew, as if with regret.
55 CAPTIVITY: THE FOURTH DAY
The next day, when Felton entered Milady's apartment he found her standing, mounted upon a chair, holding in her hands a cord made by means of torn cambric handkerchiefs, twisted into a kind of rope one with another, and tied at the ends. At the noise Felton made in entering, Milady leaped lightly to the ground, and tried to conceal behind her the improvised cord she held in her hand.
The young man was more pale than usual, and his eyes, reddened by want of sleep, denoted that he had passed a feverish night. Nevertheless, his brow was armed with a severity more austere than ever.
He advanced slowly toward Milady, who had seated herself, and taking an end of the murderous rope which by neglect, or perhaps by design, she allowed to be seen, "What is this, madame?" he asked coldly.
"That? Nothing," said Milady, smiling with that painful expression which she knew so well how to give to her smile. "Ennui is the mortal enemy of prisoners; I had ennui, and I amused myself with twisting that rope."
Felton turned his eyes toward the part of the wall of the apartment before which he had found Milady standing in the armchair in which she was now seated, and over her head he perceived a gilt-headed screw, fixed in the wall for the purpose of hanging up clothes or weapons.
He started, and the prisoner saw that start—for though her eyes were cast down, nothing escaped her.
"What were you doing on that armchair?" asked he.
"Of what consequence?" replied Milady.
"But," replied Felton, "I wish to know."
"Do not question me," said the prisoner; "you know that we who are true Christians are forbidden to lie."
"Well, then," said Felton, "I will tell you what you were doing, or rather what you meant to do; you were going to complete the fatal project you cherish in your mind. Remember, madame, if our God forbids falsehood, he much more severely condemns suicide."
"When God sees one of his creatures persecuted unjustly, placed between suicide and dishonor, believe me, sir," replied Milady, in a tone of deep conviction, "God pardons suicide, for then suicide becomes martyrdom."
"You say either too much or too little; speak, madame. In the name of heaven, explain yourself."
"That I may relate my misfortunes for you to treat them as fables; that I may tell you my projects for you to go and betray them to my persecutor? No, sir. Besides, of what importance to you is the life or death of a condemned wretch? You are only responsible for my body, is it not so? And provided you produce a carcass that may be recognized as mine, they will require no more of you; nay, perhaps you will even have a double reward."
"I, madame, I?" cried Felton. "You suppose that I would ever accept the price of your life? Oh, you cannot believe what you say!"
"Let me act as I please, Felton, let me act as I please," said Milady, elated. "Every soldier must be ambitious, must he not? You are a lieutenant? Well, you will follow me to the grave with the rank of captain."
"What have I, then, done to you," said Felton, much agitated, "that you should load me with such a responsibility before God and before men? In a few days you will be away from this place; your life, madame, will then no longer be under my care, and," added he, with a sigh, "then you can do what you will with it."
"So," cried Milady, as if she could not resist giving utterance to a holy indignation, "you, a pious man, you who are called a just man, you ask but one thing—and that is that you may not be inculpated, annoyed, by my death!"
"It is my duty to watch over your life, madame, and I will watch."
"But do you understand the mission you are fulfilling? Cruel enough, if I am guilty; but what name can you give it, what name will the Lord give it, if I am innocent?"
"I am a soldier, madame, and fulfill the orders I have received."
"Do you believe, then, that at the day of the Last Judgment God will separate blind executioners from iniquitous judges? You are not willing that I should kill my body, and you make yourself the agent of him who would kill my soul."
"But I repeat it again to you," replied Felton, in great emotion, "no danger threatens you; I will answer for Lord de Winter as for myself."
"Dunce," cried Milady, "dunce! who dares to answer for another man, when the wisest, when those most after God's own heart, hesitate to answer for themselves, and who ranges himself on the side of the strongest and the most fortunate, to crush the weakest and the most unfortunate."
"Impossible, madame, impossible," murmured Felton, who felt to the bottom of his heart the justness of this argument. "A prisoner, you will not recover your liberty through me; living, you will not lose your life through me."
"Yes," cried Milady, "but I shall lose that which is much dearer to me than life, I shall lose my honor, Felton; and it is you, you whom I make responsible, before God and before men, for my shame and my infamy."
This time Felton, immovable as he was, or appeared to be, could not resist the secret influence which had already taken possession of him. To see this woman, so beautiful, fair as the brightest vision, to see her by turns overcome with grief and threatening; to resist at once the ascendancy of grief and beauty—it was too much for a visionary; it was too much for a brain weakened by the ardent dreams of an ecstatic faith; it was too much for a heart furrowed by the love of heaven that burns, by the hatred of men that devours.
Milady saw the trouble. She felt by intuition the flame of the opposing passions which burned with the blood in the veins of the young fanatic. As a skillful general, seeing the enemy ready to surrender, marches toward him with a cry of victory, she rose, beautiful as an antique priestess, inspired like a Christian virgin, her arms extended, her throat uncovered, her hair disheveled, holding with one hand her robe modestly drawn over her breast, her look illumined by that fire which had already created such disorder in the veins of the young Puritan, and went toward him, crying out with a vehement air, and in her melodious voice, to which on this occasion she communicated a terrible energy:
"Let this victim to Baal be sent, To the lions the martyr be thrown! Thy God shall teach thee to repent! From th' abyss he'll give ear to my moan."
Felton stood before this strange apparition like one petrified.
"Who art thou? Who art thou?" cried he, clasping his hands. "Art thou a messenger from God; art thou a minister from hell; art thou an angel or a demon; callest thou thyself Eloa or Astarte?"
"Do you not know me, Felton? I am neither an angel nor a demon; I am a daughter of earth, I am a sister of thy faith, that is all."
"Yes, yes!" said Felton, "I doubted, but now I believe."
"You believe, and still you are an accomplice of that child of Belial who is called Lord de Winter! You believe, and yet you leave me in the hands of mine enemies, of the enemy of England, of the enemy of God! You believe, and yet you deliver me up to him who fills and defiles the world with his heresies and debaucheries—to that infamous Sardanapalus whom the blind call the Duke of Buckingham, and whom believers name Antichrist!"
"I deliver you up to Buckingham? I? what mean you by that?"
"They have eyes," cried Milady, "but they see not; ears have they, but they hear not."
"Yes, yes!" said Felton, passing his hands over his brow, covered with sweat, as if to remove his last doubt. "Yes, I recognize the voice which speaks to me in my dreams; yes, I recognize the features of the angel who appears to me every night, crying to my soul, which cannot sleep: 'Strike, save England, save thyself—for thou wilt die without having appeased God!' Speak, speak!" cried Felton, "I can understand you now."
A flash of terrible joy, but rapid as thought, gleamed from the eyes of Milady.
However fugitive this homicide flash, Felton saw it, and started as if its light had revealed the abysses of this woman's heart. He recalled, all at once, the warnings of Lord de Winter, the seductions of Milady, her first attempts after her arrival. He drew back a step, and hung down his head, without, however, ceasing to look at her, as if, fascinated by this strange creature, he could not detach his eyes from her eyes.
Milady was not a woman to misunderstand the meaning of this hesitation. Under her apparent emotions her icy coolness never abandoned her. Before Felton replied, and before she should be forced to resume this conversation, so difficult to be sustained in the same exalted tone, she let her hands fall; and as if the weakness of the woman overpowered the enthusiasm of the inspired fanatic, she said: "But no, it is not for me to be the Judith to deliver Bethulia from this Holofernes. The sword of the eternal is too heavy for my arm. Allow me, then, to avoid dishonor by death; let me take refuge in martyrdom. I do not ask you for liberty, as a guilty one would, nor for vengeance, as would a pagan. Let me die; that is all. I supplicate you, I implore you on my knees—let me die, and my last sigh shall be a blessing for my preserver."
Hearing that voice, so sweet and suppliant, seeing that look, so timid and downcast, Felton reproached himself. By degrees the enchantress had clothed herself with that magic adornment which she assumed and threw aside at will; that is to say, beauty, meekness, and tears—and above all, the irresistible attraction of mystical voluptuousness, the most devouring of all voluptuousness.
"Alas!" said Felton, "I can do but one thing, which is to pity you if you prove to me you are a victim! But Lord de Winter makes cruel accusations against you. You are a Christian; you are my sister in religion. I feel myself drawn toward you—I, who have never loved anyone but my benefactor—I who have met with nothing but traitors and impious men. But you, madame, so beautiful in reality, you, so pure in appearance, must have committed great iniquities for Lord de Winter to pursue you thus."
"They have eyes," repeated Milady, with an accent of indescribable grief, "but they see not; ears have they, but they hear not."
"But," cried the young officer, "speak, then, speak!"
"Confide my shame to you," cried Milady, with the blush of modesty upon her countenance, "for often the crime of one becomes the shame of another—confide my shame to you, a man, and I a woman? Oh," continued she, placing her hand modestly over her beautiful eyes, "never! never!—I could not!"
"To me, to a brother?" said Felton.
Milady looked at him for some time with an expression which the young man took for doubt, but which, however, was nothing but observation, or rather the wish to fascinate.
Felton, in his turn a suppliant, clasped his hands.
"Well, then," said Milady, "I confide in my brother; I will dare to—"
At this moment the steps of Lord de Winter were heard; but this time the terrible brother-in-law of Milady did not content himself, as on the preceding day, with passing before the door and going away again. He paused, exchanged two words with the sentinel; then the door opened, and he appeared.
During the exchange of these two words Felton drew back quickly, and when Lord de Winter entered, he was several paces from the prisoner.
The baron entered slowly, sending a scrutinizing glance from Milady to the young officer.
"You have been here a very long time, John," said he. "Has this woman been relating her crimes to you? In that case I can comprehend the length of the conversation."
Felton started; and Milady felt she was lost if she did not come to the assistance of the disconcerted Puritan.
"Ah, you fear your prisoner should escape!" said she. "Well, ask your worthy jailer what favor I this instant solicited of him."
"You demanded a favor?" said the baron, suspiciously.
"Yes, my Lord," replied the young man, confused.
"And what favor, pray?" asked Lord de Winter.
"A knife, which she would return to me through the grating of the door a minute after she had received it," replied Felton.
"There is someone, then, concealed here whose throat this amiable lady is desirous of cutting," said de Winter, in an ironical, contemptuous tone.
"There is myself," replied Milady.
"I have given you the choice between America and Tyburn," replied Lord de Winter. "Choose Tyburn, madame. Believe me, the cord is more certain than the knife."
Felton grew pale, and made a step forward, remembering that at the moment he entered Milady had a rope in her hand.
"You are right," said she, "I have often thought of it." Then she added in a low voice, "And I will think of it again."
Felton felt a shudder run to the marrow of his bones; probably Lord de Winter perceived this emotion.
"Mistrust yourself, John," said he. "I have placed reliance upon you, my friend. Beware! I have warned you! But be of good courage, my lad; in three days we shall be delivered from this creature, and where I shall send her she can harm nobody."
"You hear him!" cried Milady, with vehemence, so that the baron might believe she was addressing heaven, and that Felton might understand she was addressing him.
Felton lowered his head and reflected.
The baron took the young officer by the arm, and turned his head over his shoulder, so as not to lose sight of Milady till he was gone out.
"Well," said the prisoner, when the door was shut, "I am not so far advanced as I believed. De Winter has changed his usual stupidity into a strange prudence. It is the desire of vengeance, and how desire molds a man! As to Felton, he hesitates. Ah, he is not a man like that cursed d'Artagnan. A Puritan only adores virgins, and he adores them by clasping his hands. A Musketeer loves women, and he loves them by clasping his arms round them."
Milady waited, then, with much impatience, for she feared the day would pass away without her seeing Felton again. At last, in an hour after the scene we have just described, she heard someone speaking in a low voice at the door. Presently the door opened, and she perceived Felton.
The young man advanced rapidly into the chamber, leaving the door open behind him, and making a sign to Milady to be silent; his face was much agitated.
"What do you want with me?" said she.
"Listen," replied Felton, in a low voice. "I have just sent away the sentinel that I might remain here without anybody knowing it, in order to speak to you without being overheard. The baron has just related a frightful story to me."
Milady assumed her smile of a resigned victim, and shook her head.
"Either you are a demon," continued Felton, "or the baron—my benefactor, my father—is a monster. I have known you four days; I have loved him four years. I therefore may hesitate between you. Be not alarmed at what I say; I want to be convinced. Tonight, after twelve, I will come and see you, and you shall convince me."
"No, Felton, no, my brother," said she; "the sacrifice is too great, and I feel what it must cost you. No, I am lost; do not be lost with me. My death will be much more eloquent than my life, and the silence of the corpse will convince you much better than the words of the prisoner."
"Be silent, madame," cried Felton, "and do not speak to me thus; I came to entreat you to promise me upon your honor, to swear to me by what you hold most sacred, that you will make no attempt upon your life."
"I will not promise," said Milady, "for no one has more respect for a promise or an oath than I have; and if I make a promise I must keep it."
"Well," said Felton, "only promise till you have seen me again. If, when you have seen me again, you still persist—well, then you shall be free, and I myself will give you the weapon you desire."
"Well," said Milady, "for you I will wait."
"I swear it, by our God. Are you satisfied?"
"Well," said Felton, "till tonight."
And he darted out of the room, shut the door, and waited in the corridor, the soldier's half-pike in his hand, and as if he had mounted guard in his place.
The soldier returned, and Felton gave him back his weapon.
Then, through the grating to which she had drawn near, Milady saw the young man make a sign with delirious fervor, and depart in an apparent transport of joy.
As for her, she returned to her place with a smile of savage contempt upon her lips, and repeated, blaspheming, that terrible name of God, by whom she had just sworn without ever having learned to know Him.
"My God," said she, "what a senseless fanatic! My God, it is I—I—and this fellow who will help me to avenge myself."
56 CAPTIVITY: THE FIFTH DAY
Milady had however achieved a half-triumph, and success doubled her forces.
It was not difficult to conquer, as she had hitherto done, men prompt to let themselves be seduced, and whom the gallant education of a court led quickly into her net. Milady was handsome enough not to find much resistance on the part of the flesh, and she was sufficiently skillful to prevail over all the obstacles of the mind.
But this time she had to contend with an unpolished nature, concentrated and insensible by force of austerity. Religion and its observances had made Felton a man inaccessible to ordinary seductions. There fermented in that sublimated brain plans so vast, projects so tumultuous, that there remained no room for any capricious or material love—that sentiment which is fed by leisure and grows with corruption. Milady had, then, made a breach by her false virtue in the opinion of a man horribly prejudiced against her, and by her beauty in the heart of a man hitherto chaste and pure. In short, she had taken the measure of motives hitherto unknown to herself, through this experiment, made upon the most rebellious subject that nature and religion could submit to her study.
Many a time, nevertheless, during the evening she despaired of fate and of herself. She did not invoke God, we very well know, but she had faith in the genius of evil—that immense sovereignty which reigns in all the details of human life, and by which, as in the Arabian fable, a single pomegranate seed is sufficient to reconstruct a ruined world.
Milady, being well prepared for the reception of Felton, was able to erect her batteries for the next day. She knew she had only two days left; that when once the order was signed by Buckingham—and Buckingham would sign it the more readily from its bearing a false name, and he could not, therefore, recognize the woman in question—once this order was signed, we say, the baron would make her embark immediately, and she knew very well that women condemned to exile employ arms much less powerful in their seductions than the pretendedly virtuous woman whose beauty is lighted by the sun of the world, whose style the voice of fashion lauds, and whom a halo of aristocracy gilds with enchanting splendors. To be a woman condemned to a painful and disgraceful punishment is no impediment to beauty, but it is an obstacle to the recovery of power. Like all persons of real genius, Milady knew what suited her nature and her means. Poverty was repugnant to her; degradation took away two-thirds of her greatness. Milady was only a queen while among queens. The pleasure of satisfied pride was necessary to her domination. To command inferior beings was rather a humiliation than a pleasure for her.
She should certainly return from her exile—she did not doubt that a single instant; but how long might this exile last? For an active, ambitious nature, like that of Milady, days not spent in climbing are inauspicious days. What word, then, can be found to describe the days which they occupy in descending? To lose a year, two years, three years, is to talk of an eternity; to return after the death or disgrace of the cardinal, perhaps; to return when d'Artagnan and his friends, happy and triumphant, should have received from the queen the reward they had well acquired by the services they had rendered her—these were devouring ideas that a woman like Milady could not endure. For the rest, the storm which raged within her doubled her strength, and she would have burst the walls of her prison if her body had been able to take for a single instant the proportions of her mind.
Then that which spurred her on additionally in the midst of all this was the remembrance of the cardinal. What must the mistrustful, restless, suspicious cardinal think of her silence—the cardinal, not merely her only support, her only prop, her only protector at present, but still further, the principal instrument of her future fortune and vengeance? She knew him; she knew that at her return from a fruitless journey it would be in vain to tell him of her imprisonment, in vain to enlarge upon the sufferings she had undergone. The cardinal would reply, with the sarcastic calmness of the skeptic, strong at once by power and genius, "You should not have allowed yourself to be taken."
Then Milady collected all her energies, murmuring in the depths of her soul the name of Felton—the only beam of light that penetrated to her in the hell into which she had fallen; and like a serpent which folds and unfolds its rings to ascertain its strength, she enveloped Felton beforehand in the thousand meshes of her inventive imagination.
Time, however, passed away; the hours, one after another, seemed to awaken the clock as they passed, and every blow of the brass hammer resounded upon the heart of the prisoner. At nine o'clock, Lord de Winter made his customary visit, examined the window and the bars, sounded the floor and the walls, looked to the chimney and the doors, without, during this long and minute examination, he or Milady pronouncing a single word.
Doubtless both of them understood that the situation had become too serious to lose time in useless words and aimless wrath.
"Well," said the baron, on leaving her "you will not escape tonight!"
At ten o'clock Felton came and placed the sentinel. Milady recognized his step. She was as well acquainted with it now as a mistress is with that of the lover of her heart; and yet Milady at the same time detested and despised this weak fanatic.
That was not the appointed hour. Felton did not enter.
Two hours after, as midnight sounded, the sentinel was relieved. This time it WAS the hour, and from this moment Milady waited with impatience. The new sentinel commenced his walk in the corridor. At the expiration of ten minutes Felton came.
Milady was all attention.
"Listen," said the young man to the sentinel. "On no pretense leave the door, for you know that last night my Lord punished a soldier for having quit his post for an instant, although I, during his absence, watched in his place."
"Yes, I know it," said the soldier.
"I recommend you therefore to keep the strictest watch. For my part I am going to pay a second visit to this woman, who I fear entertains sinister intentions upon her own life, and I have received orders to watch her."
"Good!" murmured Milady; "the austere Puritan lies."
As to the soldier, he only smiled.
"Zounds, Lieutenant!" said he; "you are not unlucky in being charged with such commissions, particularly if my Lord has authorized you to look into her bed."
Felton blushed. Under any other circumstances he would have reprimanded the soldier for indulging in such pleasantry, but his conscience murmured too loud for his mouth to dare speak.
"If I call, come," said he. "If anyone comes, call me."
"I will, Lieutenant," said the soldier.
Felton entered Milady's apartment. Milady arose.
"You are here!" said she.
"I promised to come," said Felton, "and I have come."
"You promised me something else."
"What, my God!" said the young man, who in spite of his self-command felt his knees tremble and the sweat start from his brow.
"You promised to bring a knife, and to leave it with me after our interview."
"Say no more of that, madame," said Felton. "There is no situation, however terrible it may be, which can authorize a creature of God to inflict death upon himself. I have reflected, and I cannot, must not be guilty of such a sin."
"Ah, you have reflected!" said the prisoner, sitting down in her armchair, with a smile of disdain; "and I also have reflected."
"That I can have nothing to say to a man who does not keep his word."
"Oh, my God!" murmured Felton.
"You may retire," said Milady. "I will not talk."
"Here is the knife," said Felton, drawing from his pocket the weapon which he had brought, according to his promise, but which he hesitated to give to his prisoner.
"Let me see it," said Milady.
"For what purpose?"
"Upon my honor, I will instantly return it to you. You shall place it on that table, and you may remain between it and me."
Felton offered the weapon to Milady, who examined the temper of it attentively, and who tried the point on the tip of her finger.
"Well," said she, returning the knife to the young officer, "this is fine and good steel. You are a faithful friend, Felton."
Felton took back the weapon, and laid it upon the table, as he had agreed with the prisoner.
Milady followed him with her eyes, and made a gesture of satisfaction.
"Now," said she, "listen to me."
The request was needless. The young officer stood upright before her, awaiting her words as if to devour them.
"Felton," said Milady, with a solemnity full of melancholy, "imagine that your sister, the daughter of your father, speaks to you. While yet young, unfortunately handsome, I was dragged into a snare. I resisted. Ambushes and violences multiplied around me, but I resisted. The religion I serve, the God I adore, were blasphemed because I called upon that religion and that God, but still I resisted. Then outrages were heaped upon me, and as my soul was not subdued they wished to defile my body forever. Finally—"
Milady stopped, and a bitter smile passed over her lips.
"Finally," said Felton, "finally, what did they do?"
"At length, one evening my enemy resolved to paralyze the resistance he could not conquer. One evening he mixed a powerful narcotic with my water. Scarcely had I finished my repast, when I felt myself sink by degrees into a strange torpor. Although I was without mistrust, a vague fear seized me, and I tried to struggle against sleepiness. I arose. I wished to run to the window and call for help, but my legs refused their office. It appeared as if the ceiling sank upon my head and crushed me with its weight. I stretched out my arms. I tried to speak. I could only utter inarticulate sounds, and irresistible faintness came over me. I supported myself by a chair, feeling that I was about to fall, but this support was soon insufficient on account of my weak arms. I fell upon one knee, then upon both. I tried to pray, but my tongue was frozen. God doubtless neither heard nor saw me, and I sank upon the floor a prey to a slumber which resembled death.
"Of all that passed in that sleep, or the time which glided away while it lasted, I have no remembrance. The only thing I recollect is that I awoke in bed in a round chamber, the furniture of which was sumptuous, and into which light only penetrated by an opening in the ceiling. No door gave entrance to the room. It might be called a magnificent prison.
"It was a long time before I was able to make out what place I was in, or to take account of the details I describe. My mind appeared to strive in vain to shake off the heavy darkness of the sleep from which I could not rouse myself. I had vague perceptions of space traversed, of the rolling of a carriage, of a horrible dream in which my strength had become exhausted; but all this was so dark and so indistinct in my mind that these events seemed to belong to another life than mine, and yet mixed with mine in fantastic duality.
"At times the state into which I had fallen appeared so strange that I believed myself dreaming. I arose trembling. My clothes were near me on a chair; I neither remembered having undressed myself nor going to bed. Then by degrees the reality broke upon me, full of chaste terrors. I was no longer in the house where I had dwelt. As well as I could judge by the light of the sun, the day was already two-thirds gone. It was the evening before when I had fallen asleep; my sleep, then, must have lasted twenty-four hours! What had taken place during this long sleep?
"I dressed myself as quickly as possible; my slow and stiff motions all attested that the effects of the narcotic were not yet entirely dissipated. The chamber was evidently furnished for the reception of a woman; and the most finished coquette could not have formed a wish, but on casting her eyes about the apartment, she would have found that wish accomplished.
"Certainly I was not the first captive that had been shut up in this splendid prison; but you may easily comprehend, Felton, that the more superb the prison, the greater was my terror.
"Yes, it was a prison, for I tried in vain to get out of it. I sounded all the walls, in the hopes of discovering a door, but everywhere the walls returned a full and flat sound.
"I made the tour of the room at least twenty times, in search of an outlet of some kind; but there was none. I sank exhausted with fatigue and terror into an armchair.
"Meantime, night came on rapidly, and with night my terrors increased. I did not know but I had better remain where I was seated. It appeared that I was surrounded with unknown dangers into which I was about to fall at every instant. Although I had eaten nothing since the evening before, my fears prevented my feeling hunger.
"No noise from without by which I could measure the time reached me; I only supposed it must be seven or eight o'clock in the evening, for it was in the month of October and it was quite dark.
"All at once the noise of a door, turning on its hinges, made me start. A globe of fire appeared above the glazed opening of the ceiling, casting a strong light into my chamber; and I perceived with terror that a man was standing within a few paces of me.
"A table, with two covers, bearing a supper ready prepared, stood, as if by magic, in the middle of the apartment.
"That man was he who had pursued me during a whole year, who had vowed my dishonor, and who, by the first words that issued from his mouth, gave me to understand he had accomplished it the preceding night."
"Scoundrel!" murmured Felton.
"Oh, yes, scoundrel!" cried Milady, seeing the interest which the young officer, whose soul seemed to hang on her lips, took in this strange recital. "Oh, yes, scoundrel! He believed, having triumphed over me in my sleep, that all was completed. He came, hoping that I would accept my shame, as my shame was consummated; he came to offer his fortune in exchange for my love.
"All that the heart of a woman could contain of haughty contempt and disdainful words, I poured out upon this man. Doubtless he was accustomed to such reproaches, for he listened to me calm and smiling, with his arms crossed over his breast. Then, when he thought I had said all, he advanced toward me; I sprang toward the table, I seized a knife, I placed it to my breast.
"Take one step more," said I, "and in addition to my dishonor, you shall have my death to reproach yourself with."
"There was, no doubt, in my look, my voice, my whole person, that sincerity of gesture, of attitude, of accent, which carries conviction to the most perverse minds, for he paused.
"'Your death?' said he; 'oh, no, you are too charming a mistress to allow me to consent to lose you thus, after I have had the happiness to possess you only a single time. Adieu, my charmer; I will wait to pay you my next visit till you are in a better humor.'
"At these words he blew a whistle; the globe of fire which lighted the room reascended and disappeared. I found myself again in complete darkness. The same noise of a door opening and shutting was repeated the instant afterward; the flaming globe descended afresh, and I was completely alone.
"This moment was frightful; if I had any doubts as to my misfortune, these doubts had vanished in an overwhelming reality. I was in the power of a man whom I not only detested, but despised—of a man capable of anything, and who had already given me a fatal proof of what he was able to do."
"But who, then was this man?" asked Felton.
"I passed the night on a chair, starting at the least noise, for toward midnight the lamp went out, and I was again in darkness. But the night passed away without any fresh attempt on the part of my persecutor. Day came; the table had disappeared, only I had still the knife in my hand.
"This knife was my only hope.
"I was worn out with fatigue. Sleeplessness inflamed my eyes; I had not dared to sleep a single instant. The light of day reassured me; I went and threw myself on the bed, without parting with the emancipating knife, which I concealed under my pillow.
"When I awoke, a fresh meal was served.
"This time, in spite of my terrors, in spite of my agony, I began to feel a devouring hunger. It was forty-eight hours since I had taken any nourishment. I ate some bread and some fruit; then, remembering the narcotic mixed with the water I had drunk, I would not touch that which was placed on the table, but filled my glass at a marble fountain fixed in the wall over my dressing table.
"And yet, notwithstanding these precautions, I remained for some time in a terrible agitation of mind. But my fears were this time ill-founded; I passed the day without experiencing anything of the kind I dreaded.
"I took the precaution to half empty the carafe, in order that my suspicions might not be noticed.
"The evening came on, and with it darkness; but however profound was this darkness, my eyes began to accustom themselves to it. I saw, amid the shadows, the table sink through the floor; a quarter of an hour later it reappeared, bearing my supper. In an instant, thanks to the lamp, my chamber was once more lighted.
"I was determined to eat only such things as could not possibly have anything soporific introduced into them. Two eggs and some fruit composed my repast; then I drew another glass of water from my protecting fountain, and drank it.
"At the first swallow, it appeared to me not to have the same taste as in the morning. Suspicion instantly seized me. I paused, but I had already drunk half a glass.
"I threw the rest away with horror, and waited, with the dew of fear upon my brow.
"No doubt some invisible witness had seen me draw the water from that fountain, and had taken advantage of my confidence in it, the better to assure my ruin, so coolly resolved upon, so cruelly pursued.
"Half an hour had not passed when the same symptoms began to appear; but as I had only drunk half a glass of the water, I contended longer, and instead of falling entirely asleep, I sank into a state of drowsiness which left me a perception of what was passing around me, while depriving me of the strength either to defend myself or to fly.
"I dragged myself toward the bed, to seek the only defense I had left—my saving knife; but I could not reach the bolster. I sank on my knees, my hands clasped round one of the bedposts; then I felt that I was lost."
Felton became frightfully pale, and a convulsive tremor crept through his whole body.
"And what was most frightful," continued Milady, her voice altered, as if she still experienced the same agony as at that awful minute, "was that at this time I retained a consciousness of the danger that threatened me; was that my soul, if I may say so, waked in my sleeping body; was that I saw, that I heard. It is true that all was like a dream, but it was not the less frightful.
"I saw the lamp ascend, and leave me in darkness; then I heard the well-known creaking of the door although I had heard that door open but twice.
"I felt instinctively that someone approached me; it is said that the doomed wretch in the deserts of America thus feels the approach of the serpent.
"I wished to make an effort; I attempted to cry out. By an incredible effort of will I even raised myself up, but only to sink down again immediately, and to fall into the arms of my persecutor."
"Tell me who this man was!" cried the young officer.
Milady saw at a single glance all the painful feelings she inspired in Felton by dwelling on every detail of her recital; but she would not spare him a single pang. The more profoundly she wounded his heart, the more certainly he would avenge her. She continued, then, as if she had not heard his exclamation, or as if she thought the moment was not yet come to reply to it.
"Only this time it was no longer an inert body, without feeling, that the villain had to deal with. I have told you that without being able to regain the complete exercise of my faculties, I retained the sense of my danger. I struggled, then, with all my strength, and doubtless opposed, weak as I was, a long resistance, for I heard him cry out, 'These miserable Puritans! I knew very well that they tired out their executioners, but I did not believe them so strong against their lovers!'
"Alas! this desperate resistance could not last long. I felt my strength fail, and this time it was not my sleep that enabled the coward to prevail, but my swoon."
Felton listened without uttering any word or sound, except an inward expression of agony. The sweat streamed down his marble forehead, and his hand, under his coat, tore his breast.
"My first impulse, on coming to myself, was to feel under my pillow for the knife I had not been able to reach; if it had not been useful for defense, it might at least serve for expiation.
"But on taking this knife, Felton, a terrible idea occurred to me. I have sworn to tell you all, and I will tell you all. I have promised you the truth; I will tell it, were it to destroy me."
"The idea came into your mind to avenge yourself on this man, did it not?" cried Felton.
"Yes," said Milady. "The idea was not that of a Christian, I knew; but without doubt, that eternal enemy of our souls, that lion roaring constantly around us, breathed it into my mind. In short, what shall I say to you, Felton?" continued Milady, in the tone of a woman accusing herself of a crime. "This idea occurred to me, and did not leave me; it is of this homicidal thought that I now bear the punishment."
"Continue, continue!" said Felton; "I am eager to see you attain your vengeance!"
"Oh, I resolved that it should take place as soon as possible. I had no doubt he would return the following night. During the day I had nothing to fear.
"When the hour of breakfast came, therefore, I did not hesitate to eat and drink. I had determined to make believe sup, but to eat nothing. I was forced, then, to combat the fast of the evening with the nourishment of the morning.
"Only I concealed a glass of water, which remained after my breakfast, thirst having been the chief of my sufferings when I remained forty-eight hours without eating or drinking.
"The day passed away without having any other influence on me than to strengthen the resolution I had formed; only I took care that my face should not betray the thoughts of my heart, for I had no doubt I was watched. Several times, even, I felt a smile on my lips. Felton, I dare not tell you at what idea I smiled; you would hold me in horror—"
"Go on! go on!" said Felton; "you see plainly that I listen, and that I am anxious to know the end."
"Evening came; the ordinary events took place. During the darkness, as before, my supper was brought. Then the lamp was lighted, and I sat down to table. I only ate some fruit. I pretended to pour out water from the jug, but I only drank that which I had saved in my glass. The substitution was made so carefully that my spies, if I had any, could have no suspicion of it.
"After supper I exhibited the same marks of languor as on the preceding evening; but this time, as I yielded to fatigue, or as if I had become familiarized with danger, I dragged myself toward my bed, let my robe fall, and lay down.
"I found my knife where I had placed it, under my pillow, and while feigning to sleep, my hand grasped the handle of it convulsively.
"Two hours passed away without anything fresh happening. Oh, my God! who could have said so the evening before? I began to fear that he would not come.
"At length I saw the lamp rise softly, and disappear in the depths of the ceiling; my chamber was filled with darkness and obscurity, but I made a strong effort to penetrate this darkness and obscurity.
"Nearly ten minutes passed; I heard no other noise but the beating of my own heart. I implored heaven that he might come.
"At length I heard the well-known noise of the door, which opened and shut; I heard, notwithstanding the thickness of the carpet, a step which made the floor creak; I saw, notwithstanding the darkness, a shadow which approached my bed."
"Haste! haste!" said Felton; "do you not see that each of your words burns me like molten lead?"
"Then," continued Milady, "then I collected all my strength; I recalled to my mind that the moment of vengeance, or rather, of justice, had struck. I looked upon myself as another Judith; I gathered myself up, my knife in my hand, and when I saw him near me, stretching out his arms to find his victim, then, with the last cry of agony and despair, I struck him in the middle of his breast.
"The miserable villain! He had foreseen all. His breast was covered with a coat-of-mail; the knife was bent against it.
"'Ah, ah!' cried he, seizing my arm, and wresting from me the weapon that had so badly served me, 'you want to take my life, do you, my pretty Puritan? But that's more than dislike, that's ingratitude! Come, come, calm yourself, my sweet girl! I thought you had softened. I am not one of those tyrants who detain women by force. You don't love me. With my usual fatuity I doubted it; now I am convinced. Tomorrow you shall be free.'
"I had but one wish; that was that he should kill me.
"'Beware!' said I, 'for my liberty is your dishonor.'
"'Explain yourself, my pretty sibyl!'
"'Yes; for as soon as I leave this place I will tell everything. I will proclaim the violence you have used toward me. I will describe my captivity. I will denounce this place of infamy. You are placed on high, my Lord, but tremble! Above you there is the king; above the king there is God!'
"However perfect master he was over himself, my persecutor allowed a movement of anger to escape him. I could not see the expression of his countenance, but I felt the arm tremble upon which my hand was placed.
"'Then you shall not leave this place,' said he.
"'Very well,' cried I, 'then the place of my punishment will be that of my tomb. I will die here, and you will see if a phantom that accuses is not more terrible than a living being that threatens!'
"'You shall have no weapon left in your power.'
"'There is a weapon which despair has placed within the reach of every creature who has the courage to use it. I will allow myself to die with hunger.'
"'Come,' said the wretch, 'is not peace much better than such a war as that? I will restore you to liberty this moment; I will proclaim you a piece of immaculate virtue; I will name you the Lucretia of England.'
"'And I will say that you are the Sextus. I will denounce you before men, as I have denounced you before God; and if it be necessary that, like Lucretia, I should sign my accusation with my blood, I will sign it.'
"'Ah!' said my enemy, in a jeering tone, 'that's quite another thing. My faith! everything considered, you are very well off here. You shall want for nothing, and if you let yourself die of hunger that will be your own fault.'
"At these words he retired. I heard the door open and shut, and I remained overwhelmed, less, I confess it, by my grief than by the mortification of not having avenged myself.
"He kept his word. All the day, all the next night passed away without my seeing him again. But I also kept my word with him, and I neither ate nor drank. I was, as I told him, resolved to die of hunger.
"I passed the day and the night in prayer, for I hoped that God would pardon me my suicide.
"The second night the door opened; I was lying on the floor, for my strength began to abandon me.
"At the noise I raised myself up on one hand.
"'Well,' said a voice which vibrated in too terrible a manner in my ear not to be recognized, 'well! Are we softened a little? Will we not pay for our liberty with a single promise of silence? Come, I am a good sort of a prince,' added he, 'and although I like not Puritans I do them justice; and it is the same with Puritanesses, when they are pretty. Come, take a little oath for me on the cross; I won't ask anything more of you.'
"'On the cross,' cried I, rising, for at that abhorred voice I had recovered all my strength, 'on the cross I swear that no promise, no menace, no force, no torture, shall close my mouth! On the cross I swear to denounce you everywhere as a murderer, as a thief of honor, as a base coward! On the cross I swear, if I ever leave this place, to call down vengeance upon you from the whole human race!'
"'Beware!' said the voice, in a threatening accent that I had never yet heard. 'I have an extraordinary means which I will not employ but in the last extremity to close your mouth, or at least to prevent anyone from believing a word you may utter.'
"I mustered all my strength to reply to him with a burst of laughter.
"He saw that it was a merciless war between us—a war to the death.
"'Listen!' said he. 'I give you the rest of tonight and all day tomorrow. Reflect: promise to be silent, and riches, consideration, even honor, shall surround you; threaten to speak, and I will condemn you to infamy.'
"'You?' cried I. 'You?'
"'To interminable, ineffaceable infamy!'
"'You?' repeated I. Oh, I declare to you, Felton, I thought him mad!
"'Yes, yes, I!' replied he.
"'Oh, leave me!' said I. 'Begone, if you do not desire to see me dash my head against that wall before your eyes!'
"'Very well, it is your own doing. Till tomorrow evening, then!'
"'Till tomorrow evening, then!' replied I, allowing myself to fall, and biting the carpet with rage."
Felton leaned for support upon a piece of furniture; and Milady saw, with the joy of a demon, that his strength would fail him perhaps before the end of her recital.
57 MEANS FOR CLASSICAL TRAGEDY
After a moment of silence employed by Milady in observing the young man who listened to her, Milady continued her recital.
"It was nearly three days since I had eaten or drunk anything. I suffered frightful torments. At times there passed before me clouds which pressed my brow, which veiled my eyes; this was delirium.
"When the evening came I was so weak that every time I fainted I thanked God, for I thought I was about to die.
"In the midst of one of these swoons I heard the door open. Terror recalled me to myself.
"He entered the apartment followed by a man in a mask. He was masked likewise; but I knew his step, I knew his voice, I knew him by that imposing bearing which hell has bestowed upon his person for the curse of humanity.
"'Well,' said he to me, 'have you made your mind up to take the oath I requested of you?'
"'You have said Puritans have but one word. Mine you have heard, and that is to pursue you—on earth to the tribunal of men, in heaven to the tribunal of God.'
"'You persist, then?'
"'I swear it before the God who hears me. I will take the whole world as a witness of your crime, and that until I have found an avenger.'
"'You are a prostitute,' said he, in a voice of thunder, 'and you shall undergo the punishment of prostitutes! Branded in the eyes of the world you invoke, try to prove to that world that you are neither guilty nor mad!'
"Then, addressing the man who accompanied him, 'Executioner,' said he, 'do your duty.'"
"Oh, his name, his name!" cried Felton. "His name, tell it me!"
"Then in spite of my cries, in spite of my resistance—for I began to comprehend that there was a question of something worse than death—the executioner seized me, threw me on the floor, fastened me with his bonds, and suffocated by sobs, almost without sense, invoking God, who did not listen to me, I uttered all at once a frightful cry of pain and shame. A burning fire, a red-hot iron, the iron of the executioner, was imprinted on my shoulder."
Felton uttered a groan.
"Here," said Milady, rising with the majesty of a queen, "here, Felton, behold the new martyrdom invented for a pure young girl, the victim of the brutality of a villain. Learn to know the heart of men, and henceforth make yourself less easily the instrument of their unjust vengeance."
Milady, with a rapid gesture, opened her robe, tore the cambric that covered her bosom, and red with feigned anger and simulated shame, showed the young man the ineffaceable impression which dishonored that beautiful shoulder.
"But," cried Felton, "that is a FLEUR-DE-LIS which I see there."
"And therein consisted the infamy," replied Milady. "The brand of England!—it would be necessary to prove what tribunal had imposed it on me, and I could have made a public appeal to all the tribunals of the kingdom; but the brand of France!—oh, by that, by THAT I was branded indeed!"
This was too much for Felton.
Pale, motionless, overwhelmed by this frightful revelation, dazzled by the superhuman beauty of this woman who unveiled herself before him with an immodesty which appeared to him sublime, he ended by falling on his knees before her as the early Christians did before those pure and holy martyrs whom the persecution of the emperors gave up in the circus to the sanguinary sensuality of the populace. The brand disappeared; the beauty alone remained.
"Pardon! Pardon!" cried Felton, "oh, pardon!"
Milady read in his eyes LOVE! LOVE!
"Pardon for what?" asked she.
"Pardon me for having joined with your persecutors."
Milady held out her hand to him.
"So beautiful! so young!" cried Felton, covering that hand with his kisses.
Milady let one of those looks fall upon him which make a slave of a king.
Felton was a Puritan; he abandoned the hand of this woman to kiss her feet.
He no longer loved her; he adored her.
When this crisis was past, when Milady appeared to have resumed her self-possession, which she had never lost; when Felton had seen her recover with the veil of chastity those treasures of love which were only concealed from him to make him desire them the more ardently, he said, "Ah, now! I have only one thing to ask of you; that is, the name of your true executioner. For to me there is but one; the other was an instrument, that was all."
"What, brother!" cried Milady, "must I name him again? Have you not yet divined who he is?"
"What?" cried Felton, "he—again he—always he? What—the truly guilty?"
"The truly guilty," said Milady, "is the ravager of England, the persecutor of true believers, the base ravisher of the honor of so many women—he who, to satisfy a caprice of his corrupt heart, is about to make England shed so much blood, who protects the Protestants today and will betray them tomorrow—"
"Buckingham! It is, then, Buckingham!" cried Felton, in a high state of excitement.
Milady concealed her face in her hands, as if she could not endure the shame which this name recalled to her.
"Buckingham, the executioner of this angelic creature!" cried Felton. "And thou hast not hurled thy thunder at him, my God! And thou hast left him noble, honored, powerful, for the ruin of us all!"
"God abandons him who abandons himself," said Milady.
"But he will draw upon his head the punishment reserved for the damned!" said Felton, with increasing exultation. "He wills that human vengeance should precede celestial justice."
"Men fear him and spare him."
"I," said Felton, "I do not fear him, nor will I spare him."
The soul of Milady was bathed in an infernal joy.
"But how can Lord de Winter, my protector, my father," asked Felton, "possibly be mixed up with all this?"
"Listen, Felton," resumed Milady, "for by the side of base and contemptible men there are often found great and generous natures. I had an affianced husband, a man whom I loved, and who loved me—a heart like yours, Felton, a man like you. I went to him and told him all; he knew me, that man did, and did not doubt an instant. He was a nobleman, a man equal to Buckingham in every respect. He said nothing; he only girded on his sword, wrapped himself in his cloak, and went straight to Buckingham Palace.
"Yes, yes," said Felton; "I understand how he would act. But with such men it is not the sword that should be employed; it is the poniard."
"Buckingham had left England the day before, sent as ambassador to Spain, to demand the hand of the Infanta for King Charles I, who was then only Prince of Wales. My affianced husband returned.
"'Hear me,' said he; 'this man has gone, and for the moment has consequently escaped my vengeance; but let us be united, as we were to have been, and then leave it to Lord de Winter to maintain his own honor and that of his wife.'"
"Lord de Winter!" cried Felton.
"Yes," said Milady, "Lord de Winter; and now you can understand it all, can you not? Buckingham remained nearly a year absent. A week before his return Lord de Winter died, leaving me his sole heir. Whence came the blow? God who knows all, knows without doubt; but as for me, I accuse nobody."
"Oh, what an abyss; what an abyss!" cried Felton.
"Lord de Winter died without revealing anything to his brother. The terrible secret was to be concealed till it burst, like a clap of thunder, over the head of the guilty. Your protector had seen with pain this marriage of his elder brother with a portionless girl. I was sensible that I could look for no support from a man disappointed in his hopes of an inheritance. I went to France, with a determination to remain there for the rest of my life. But all my fortune is in England. Communication being closed by the war, I was in want of everything. I was then obliged to come back again. Six days ago, I landed at Portsmouth."
"Well?" said Felton.
"Well; Buckingham heard by some means, no doubt, of my return. He spoke of me to Lord de Winter, already prejudiced against me, and told him that his sister-in-law was a prostitute, a branded woman. The noble and pure voice of my husband was no longer here to defend me. Lord de Winter believed all that was told him with so much the more ease that it was his interest to believe it. He caused me to be arrested, had me conducted hither, and placed me under your guard. You know the rest. The day after tomorrow he banishes me, he transports me; the day after tomorrow he exiles me among the infamous. Oh, the train is well laid; the plot is clever. My honor will not survive it! You see, then, Felton, I can do nothing but die. Felton, give me that knife!"
And at these words, as if all her strength was exhausted, Milady sank, weak and languishing, into the arms of the young officer, who, intoxicated with love, anger, and voluptuous sensations hitherto unknown, received her with transport, pressed her against his heart, all trembling at the breath from that charming mouth, bewildered by the contact with that palpitating bosom.
"No, no," said he. "No, you shall live honored and pure; you shall live to triumph over your enemies."
Milady put him from her slowly with her hand, while drawing him nearer with her look; but Felton, in his turn, embraced her more closely, imploring her like a divinity.
"Oh, death, death!" said she, lowering her voice and her eyelids, "oh, death, rather than shame! Felton, my brother, my friend, I conjure you!"
"No," cried Felton, "no; you shall live and you shall be avenged."
"Felton, I bring misfortune to all who surround me! Felton, abandon me! Felton, let me die!"
"Well, then, we will live and die together!" cried he, pressing his lips to those of the prisoner.
Several strokes resounded on the door; this time Milady really pushed him away from her.
"Hark," said she, "we have been overheard! Someone is coming! All is over! We are lost!"
"No," said Felton; it is only the sentinel warning me that they are about to change the guard."
"Then run to the door, and open it yourself."
Felton obeyed; this woman was now his whole thought, his whole soul.
He found himself face to face with a sergeant commanding a watch-patrol.
"Well, what is the matter?" asked the young lieutenant.
"You told me to open the door if I heard anyone cry out," said the soldier; "but you forgot to leave me the key. I heard you cry out, without understanding what you said. I tried to open the door, but it was locked inside; then I called the sergeant."
"And here I am," said the sergeant.
Felton, quite bewildered, almost mad, stood speechless.
Milady plainly perceived that it was now her turn to take part in the scene. She ran to the table, and seizing the knife which Felton had laid down, exclaimed, "And by what right will you prevent me from dying?"
"Great God!" exclaimed Felton, on seeing the knife glitter in her hand.
At that moment a burst of ironical laughter resounded through the corridor. The baron, attracted by the noise, in his chamber gown, his sword under his arm, stood in the doorway.
"Ah," said he, "here we are, at the last act of the tragedy. You see, Felton, the drama has gone through all the phases I named; but be easy, no blood will flow."
Milady perceived that all was lost unless she gave Felton an immediate and terrible proof of her courage.
"You are mistaken, my Lord, blood will flow; and may that blood fall back on those who cause it to flow!"
Felton uttered a cry, and rushed toward her. He was too late; Milady had stabbed herself.
But the knife had fortunately, we ought to say skillfully, come in contact with the steel busk, which at that period, like a cuirass, defended the chests of women. It had glided down it, tearing the robe, and had penetrated slantingly between the flesh and the ribs. Milady's robe was not the less stained with blood in a second.
Milady fell down, and seemed to be in a swoon.
Felton snatched away the knife.
"See, my Lord," said he, in a deep, gloomy tone, "here is a woman who was under my guard, and who has killed herself!"
"Be at ease, Felton," said Lord de Winter. "She is not dead; demons do not die so easily. Be tranquil, and go wait for me in my chamber."
"But, my Lord—"
"Go, sir, I command you!"
At this injunction from his superior, Felton obeyed; but in going out, he put the knife into his bosom.
As to Lord de Winter, he contented himself with calling the woman who waited on Milady, and when she was come, he recommended the prisoner, who was still fainting, to her care, and left them alone.
Meanwhile, all things considered and notwithstanding his suspicions, as the wound might be serious, he immediately sent off a mounted man to find a physician.
As Lord de Winter had thought, Milady's wound was not dangerous. So soon as she was left alone with the woman whom the baron had summoned to her assistance she opened her eyes.
It was, however, necessary to affect weakness and pain—not a very difficult task for so finished an actress as Milady. Thus the poor woman was completely the dupe of the prisoner, whom, notwithstanding her hints, she persisted in watching all night.
But the presence of this woman did not prevent Milady from thinking.
There was no longer a doubt that Felton was convinced; Felton was hers. If an angel appeared to that young man as an accuser of Milady, he would take him, in the mental disposition in which he now found himself, for a messenger sent by the devil.
Milady smiled at this thought, for Felton was now her only hope—her only means of safety.
But Lord de Winter might suspect him; Felton himself might now be watched!
Toward four o'clock in the morning the doctor arrived; but since the time Milady stabbed herself, however short, the wound had closed. The doctor could therefore measure neither the direction nor the depth of it; he only satisfied himself by Milady's pulse that the case was not serious.
In the morning Milady, under the pretext that she had not slept well in the night and wanted rest, sent away the woman who attended her.
She had one hope, which was that Felton would appear at the breakfast hour; but Felton did not come.
Were her fears realized? Was Felton, suspected by the baron, about to fail her at the decisive moment? She had only one day left. Lord de Winter had announced her embarkation for the twenty-third, and it was now the morning of the twenty-second.
Nevertheless she still waited patiently till the hour for dinner.
Although she had eaten nothing in the morning, the dinner was brought in at its usual time. Milady then perceived, with terror, that the uniform of the soldiers who guarded her was changed.
Then she ventured to ask what had become of Felton.
She was told that he had left the castle an hour before on horseback. She inquired if the baron was still at the castle. The soldier replied that he was, and that he had given orders to be informed if the prisoner wished to speak to him.
Milady replied that she was too weak at present, and that her only desire was to be left alone.
The soldier went out, leaving the dinner served.
Felton was sent away. The marines were removed. Felton was then mistrusted.
This was the last blow to the prisoner.
Left alone, she arose. The bed, which she had kept from prudence and that they might believe her seriously wounded, burned her like a bed of fire. She cast a glance at the door; the baron had had a plank nailed over the grating. He no doubt feared that by this opening she might still by some diabolical means corrupt her guards.
Milady smiled with joy. She was free now to give way to her transports without being observed. She traversed her chamber with the excitement of a furious maniac or of a tigress shut up in an iron cage. CERTES, if the knife had been left in her power, she would now have thought, not of killing herself, but of killing the baron.
At six o'clock Lord de Winter came in. He was armed at all points. This man, in whom Milady till that time had only seen a very simple gentleman, had become an admirable jailer. He appeared to foresee all, to divine all, to anticipate all.
A single look at Milady apprised him of all that was passing in her mind.
"Ay!" said he, "I see; but you shall not kill me today. You have no longer a weapon; and besides, I am on my guard. You had begun to pervert my poor Felton. He was yielding to your infernal influence; but I will save him. He will never see you again; all is over. Get your clothes together. Tomorrow you will go. I had fixed the embarkation for the twenty-fourth; but I have reflected that the more promptly the affair takes place the more sure it will be. Tomorrow, by twelve o'clock, I shall have the order for your exile, signed, BUCKINGHAM. If you speak a single word to anyone before going aboard ship, my sergeant will blow your brains out. He has orders to do so. If when on the ship you speak a single word to anyone before the captain permits you, the captain will have you thrown into the sea. That is agreed upon.
"AU REVOIR; then; that is all I have to say today. Tomorrow I will see you again, to take my leave." With these words the baron went out. Milady had listened to all this menacing tirade with a smile of disdain on her lips, but rage in her heart.
Supper was served. Milady felt that she stood in need of all her strength. She did not know what might take place during this night which approached so menacingly—for large masses of cloud rolled over the face of the sky, and distant lightning announced a storm.
The storm broke about ten o'clock. Milady felt a consolation in seeing nature partake of the disorder of her heart. The thunder growled in the air like the passion and anger in her thoughts. It appeared to her that the blast as it swept along disheveled her brow, as it bowed the branches of the trees and bore away their leaves. She howled as the hurricane howled; and her voice was lost in the great voice of nature, which also seemed to groan with despair.
All at once she heard a tap at her window, and by the help of a flash of lightning she saw the face of a man appear behind the bars.
She ran to the window and opened it.
"Felton!" cried she. "I am saved."
"Yes," said Felton; "but silence, silence! I must have time to file through these bars. Only take care that I am not seen through the wicket."
"Oh, it is a proof that the Lord is on our side, Felton," replied Milady. "They have closed up the grating with a board."
"That is well; God has made them senseless," said Felton.
"But what must I do?" asked Milady.
"Nothing, nothing, only shut the window. Go to bed, or at least lie down in your clothes. As soon as I have done I will knock on one of the panes of glass. But will you be able to follow me?"
"Gives me pain, but will not prevent my walking."
"Be ready, then, at the first signal."
Milady shut the window, extinguished the lamp, and went, as Felton had desired her, to lie down on the bed. Amid the moaning of the storm she heard the grinding of the file upon the bars, and by the light of every flash she perceived the shadow of Felton through the panes.
She passed an hour without breathing, panting, with a cold sweat upon her brow, and her heart oppressed by frightful agony at every movement she heard in the corridor.
There are hours which last a year.
At the expiration of an hour, Felton tapped again.
Milady sprang out of bed and opened the window. Two bars removed formed an opening for a man to pass through.
"Are you ready?" asked Felton.
"Yes. Must I take anything with me?"
"Money, if you have any."
"Yes; fortunately they have left me all I had."
"So much the better, for I have expended all mine in chartering a vessel."
"Here!" said Milady, placing a bag full of louis in Felton's hands.
Felton took the bag and threw it to the foot of the wall.
"Now," said he, "will you come?"
"I am ready."
Milady mounted upon a chair and passed the upper part of her body through the window. She saw the young officer suspended over the abyss by a ladder of ropes. For the first time an emotion of terror reminded her that she was a woman.
The dark space frightened her.
"I expected this," said Felton.
"It's nothing, it's nothing!" said Milady. "I will descend with my eyes shut."
"Have you confidence in me?" said Felton.
"You ask that?"
"Put your two hands together. Cross them; that's right!"
Felton tied her two wrists together with his handkerchief, and then with a cord over the handkerchief.
"What are you doing?" asked Milady, with surprise.
"Pass your arms around my neck, and fear nothing."
"But I shall make you lose your balance, and we shall both be dashed to pieces."
"Don't be afraid. I am a sailor."
Not a second was to be lost. Milady passed her two arms round Felton's neck, and let herself slip out of the window. Felton began to descend the ladder slowly, step by step. Despite the weight of two bodies, the blast of the hurricane shook them in the air.
All at once Felton stopped.
"What is the matter?" asked Milady.
"Silence," said Felton, "I hear footsteps."
"We are discovered!"
There was a silence of several seconds.
"No," said Felton, "it is nothing."
"But what, then, is the noise?"
"That of the patrol going their rounds."
"Where is their road?"
"Just under us."
"They will discover us!"
"No, if it does not lighten."
"But they will run against the bottom of the ladder."
"Fortunately it is too short by six feet."
"Here they are! My God!"
Both remained suspended, motionless and breathless, within twenty paces of the ground, while the patrol passed beneath them laughing and talking. This was a terrible moment for the fugitives.
The patrol passed. The noise of their retreating footsteps and the murmur of their voices soon died away.
"Now," said Felton, "we are safe."
Milady breathed a deep sigh and fainted.
Felton continued to descend. Near the bottom of the ladder, when he found no more support for his feet, he clung with his hands; at length, arrived at the last step, he let himself hang by the strength of his wrists, and touched the ground. He stooped down, picked up the bag of money, and placed it between his teeth. Then he took Milady in his arms, and set off briskly in the direction opposite to that which the patrol had taken. He soon left the pathway of the patrol, descended across the rocks, and when arrived on the edge of the sea, whistled.
A similar signal replied to him; and five minutes after, a boat appeared, rowed by four men.
The boat approached as near as it could to the shore; but there was not depth enough of water for it to touch land. Felton walked into the sea up to his middle, being unwilling to trust his precious burden to anybody.
Fortunately the storm began to subside, but still the sea was disturbed. The little boat bounded over the waves like a nut-shell.
"To the sloop," said Felton, "and row quickly."
The four men bent to their oars, but the sea was too high to let them get much hold of it.
However, they left the castle behind; that was the principal thing. The night was extremely dark. It was almost impossible to see the shore from the boat; they would therefore be less likely to see the boat from the shore.
A black point floated on the sea. That was the sloop. While the boat was advancing with all the speed its four rowers could give it, Felton untied the cord and then the handkerchief which bound Milady's hands together. When her hands were loosed he took some sea water and sprinkled it over her face.
Milady breathed a sigh, and opened her eyes.
"Where am I?" said she.
"Saved!" replied the young officer.
"Oh, saved, saved!" cried she. "Yes, there is the sky; here is the sea! The air I breathe is the air of liberty! Ah, thanks, Felton, thanks!"
The young man pressed her to his heart.
"But what is the matter with my hands!" asked Milady; "it seems as if my wrists had been crushed in a vice."
Milady held out her arms; her wrists were bruised.
"Alas!" said Felton, looking at those beautiful hands, and shaking his head sorrowfully.
"Oh, it's nothing, nothing!" cried Milady. "I remember now."
Milady looked around her, as if in search of something.
"It is there," said Felton, touching the bag of money with his foot.
They drew near to the sloop. A sailor on watch hailed the boat; the boat replied.
"What vessel is that?" asked Milady.
"The one I have hired for you."
"Where will it take me?"
"Where you please, after you have put me on shore at Portsmouth."
"What are you going to do at Portsmouth?" asked Milady.
"Accomplish the orders of Lord de Winter," said Felton, with a gloomy smile.
"What orders?" asked Milady.
"You do not understand?" asked Felton.
"No; explain yourself, I beg."
"As he mistrusted me, he determined to guard you himself, and sent me in his place to get Buckingham to sign the order for your transportation."
"But if he mistrusted you, how could he confide such an order to you?"
"How could I know what I was the bearer of?"
"That's true! And you are going to Portsmouth?"
"I have no time to lose. Tomorrow is the twenty-third, and Buckingham sets sail tomorrow with his fleet."
"He sets sail tomorrow! Where for?"
"For La Rochelle."
"He need not sail!" cried Milady, forgetting her usual presence of mind.
"Be satisfied," replied Felton; "he will not sail."
Milady started with joy. She could read to the depths of the heart of this young man; the death of Buckingham was written there at full length.
"Felton," cried she, "you are as great as Judas Maccabeus! If you die, I will die with you; that is all I can say to you."
"Silence!" cried Felton; "we are here."
In fact, they touched the sloop.
Felton mounted the ladder first, and gave his hand to Milady, while the sailors supported her, for the sea was still much agitated.
An instant after they were on the deck.
"Captain," said Felton, "this is person of whom I spoke to you, and whom you must convey safe and sound to France."
"For a thousand pistoles," said the captain.
"I have paid you five hundred of them."
"That's correct," said the captain.
"And here are the other five hundred," replied Milady, placing her hand upon the bag of gold.
"No," said the captain, "I make but one bargain; and I have agreed with this young man that the other five hundred shall not be due to me till we arrive at Boulogne."
"And shall we arrive there?"
"Safe and sound, as true as my name's Jack Butler."
"Well," said Milady, "if you keep your word, instead of five hundred, I will give you a thousand pistoles."
"Hurrah for you, then, my beautiful lady," cried the captain; "and may God often send me such passengers as your Ladyship!"
"Meanwhile," said Felton, "convey me to the little bay of—; you know it was agreed you should put in there."
The captain replied by ordering the necessary maneuvers, and toward seven o'clock in the morning the little vessel cast anchor in the bay that had been named.
During this passage, Felton related everything to Milady—how, instead of going to London, he had chartered the little vessel; how he had returned; how he had scaled the wall by fastening cramps in the interstices of the stones, as he ascended, to give him foothold; and how, when he had reached the bars, he fastened his ladder. Milady knew the rest.
On her side, Milady tried to encourage Felton in his project; but at the first words which issued from her mouth, she plainly saw that the young fanatic stood more in need of being moderated than urged.
It was agreed that Milady should wait for Felton till ten o'clock; if he did not return by ten o'clock she was to sail.
In that case, and supposing he was at liberty, he was to rejoin her in France, at the convent of the Carmelites at Bethune.
59 WHAT TOOK PLACE AT PORTSMOUTH AUGUST 23, 1628
Felton took leave of Milady as a brother about to go for a mere walk takes leave of his sister, kissing her hand.
His whole body appeared in its ordinary state of calmness, only an unusual fire beamed from his eyes, like the effects of a fever; his brow was more pale than it generally was; his teeth were clenched, and his speech had a short dry accent which indicated that something dark was at work within him.
As long as he remained in the boat which conveyed him to land, he kept his face toward Milady, who, standing on the deck, followed him with her eyes. Both were free from the fear of pursuit; nobody ever came into Milady's apartment before nine o'clock, and it would require three hours to go from the castle to London.
Felton jumped onshore, climbed the little ascent which led to the top of the cliff, saluted Milady a last time, and took his course toward the city.
At the end of a hundred paces, the ground began to decline, and he could only see the mast of the sloop.
He immediately ran in the direction of Portsmouth, which he saw at nearly half a league before him, standing out in the haze of the morning, with its houses and towers.
Beyond Portsmouth the sea was covered with vessels whose masts, like a forest of poplars despoiled by the winter, bent with each breath of the wind.
Felton, in his rapid walk, reviewed in his mind all the accusations against the favorite of James I and Charles I, furnished by two years of premature meditation and a long sojourn among the Puritans.
When he compared the public crimes of this minister—startling crimes, European crimes, if so we may say—with the private and unknown crimes with which Milady had charged him, Felton found that the more culpable of the two men which formed the character of Buckingham was the one of whom the public knew not the life. This was because his love, so strange, so new, and so ardent, made him view the infamous and imaginary accusations of Milady de Winter as, through a magnifying glass, one views as frightful monsters atoms in reality imperceptible by the side of an ant.
The rapidity of his walk heated his blood still more; the idea that he left behind him, exposed to a frightful vengeance, the woman he loved, or rather whom he adored as a saint, the emotion he had experienced, present fatigue—all together exalted his mind above human feeling.
He entered Portsmouth about eight o'clock in the morning. The whole population was on foot; drums were beating in the streets and in the port; the troops about to embark were marching toward the sea.
Felton arrived at the palace of the Admiralty, covered with dust, and streaming with perspiration. His countenance, usually so pale, was purple with heat and passion. The sentinel wanted to repulse him; but Felton called to the officer of the post, and drawing from his pocket the letter of which he was the bearer, he said, "A pressing message from Lord de Winter."