Detected by Mme. Blanche in a palpable falsehood, Chupin was quite crestfallen for a moment.
He saw the pleasing vision of a retreat at Courtornieu vanish; he saw himself suddenly deprived of frequent gifts which permitted him to spare his hoarded treasure, and even to increase it.
But he soon regained his assurance, and with an affectation of frankness he said:
“I may be stupid, but I could not deceive an infant. Someone must have told you falsely.”
Mme. Blanche shrugged her shoulders.
“I obtained my information from two persons who were ignorant of the interest it would possess for me.”
“As truly as the sun is in the heavens I swear ——”
“Do not swear; simply confess that you have been wanting in zeal.”
The young lady’s manner betrayed such positive certainty that Chupin ceased his denials and changed his tactics.
With the most abject humility, he admitted that the evening before he had relaxed his surveillance; he had been very busy; one of his boys had injured his foot; then he had encountered some friends who persuaded him to enter a drinking-saloon, where he had taken more than usual, so that ——
He told this story in a whining tone, and every moment he interrupted himself to affirm his repentance and to cover himself with reproaches.
“Old drunkard!” he said, “this will teach you ——”
But these protestations, far from reassuring Mme. Blanche, made her still more suspicious,
“All this is very well, Father Chupin,” she said, dryly, “but what are you going to do now to repair your negligence?”
“What do I intend to do?” he exclaimed, feigning the most violent anger. “Oh! you will see. I will prove that no one can deceive me with impunity. Near the Borderie is a small grove. I shall station myself there; and may the devil seize me if a cat enters that house unbeknown to me.”
Mme. Blanche drew her purse from her pocket, and taking out three louis, she gave them to Chupin, saying:
“Take these, and be more careful in future. Another blunder like this, and I shall be compelled to ask the aid of some other person.”
The old poacher went away, whistling quite reassured; but he was wrong. The lady’s generosity was only intended to allay his suspicions.
And why should she not suppose he had betrayed her — this miserable wretch, who made it his business to betray others? What reason had she for placing any confidence in his reports? She paid him! Others, by paying him more, would certainly have the preference!
But how could she ascertain what she wished to know? Ah! she saw but one way — a very disagreeable, but a sure way. She, herself, would play the spy.
This idea took such possession of her mind that, after dinner was concluded, and twilight had enveloped the earth in a mantle of gray, she summoned Aunt Medea.
“Get your cloak, quickly, aunt,” she commanded. “I am going for a walk, and you must accompany me.”
Aunt Medea extended her hand to the bell-rope, but her niece stopped her.
“You will dispense with the services of your maid,” said she. “I do not wish anyone in the chateau to know that we have gone out.”
“Are we going alone?”
“Alone, and on foot, at night ——”
“I am in a hurry, aunt,” interrupted Blanche, “and I am waiting for you.”
In the twinkling of an eye Aunt Medea was ready.
The marquis had just been put to bed, the servants were at dinner, and Blanche and Aunt Medea reached the little gate leading from the garden into the open fields without being observed.
“Good heavens! Where are we going?” groaned Aunt Medea.
“What is that to you? Come!”
Mme. Blanche was going to the Borderie.
She could have followed the banks of the Oiselle, but she preferred to cut across the fields, thinking she would be less likely to meet someone.
The night was still, but very dark, and the progress of the two women was often retarded by hedges and ditches. Twice Blanche lost her way. Again and again, Aunt Medea stumbled over the rough ground, and bruised herself against the stones; she groaned, she almost wept, but her terrible niece was pitiless.
“Come!” she said, “or I will leave you to find your way as best you can.”
And the poor dependent struggled on.
At last, after a tramp of more than an hour, Blanche ventured to breathe. She recognized Chanlouineau’s house, and she paused in the little grove of which Chupin had spoken.
“Are we at our journey’s end?” inquired Aunt Medea, timidly.
“Yes, but be quiet. Remain where you are, I wish to look about a little.”
“What! you are leaving me alone? Blanche, I entreat you! What are you going to do? Mon Dieu! you frighten me. I am afraid, Blanche!”
But her niece had gone. She was exploring the grove, seeking Chupin. She did not find him.
“I knew the wretch was deceiving me,” she muttered through her set teeth. “Who knows but Martial and Marie-Anne are there in that house now, mocking me, and laughing at my credulity?”
She rejoined Aunt Medea, whom she found half dead with fright, and both advanced to the edge of the woods, which commanded a view of the front of the house.
A flickering, crimson light gleamed through two windows in the second story. Evidently there was a fire in the room.
“That is right,” murmured Blanche, bitterly; “Martial is such a chilly person!”
She was about to approach the house, when a peculiar whistle rooted her to the spot.
She looked about her, and, in spite of the darkness, she discerned in the footpath leading to the Borderie, a man laden with articles which she could not distinguish.
Almost immediately a woman, certainly Marie-Anne, left the house and advanced to meet him.
They exchanged a few words and then walked together to the house. Soon after the man emerged without his burden and went away.
“What does this mean?” murmured Mme. Blanche.
She waited patiently for more than half an hour, and as nothing stirred:
“Let us go nearer,” she said to Aunt Medea, “I wish to look through the windows.”
They were approaching the house when, just as they reached the little garden, the door of the cottage opened so suddenly that they had scarcely time to conceal themselves in a clump of lilac-bushes.
Marie-Anne came out, imprudently leaving the key in the door, passed down the narrow path, gained the road, and disappeared.
Blanche pressed Aunt Medea’s arm with a violence that made her cry out.
“Wait for me here,” she said, in a strained, unnatural voice, “and whatever happens, whatever you hear, if you wish to finish your days at Courtornieu, not a word! Do not stir from this spot; I will return.”
And she entered the cottage.
Marie-Anne, on going out, had left a candle burning on the table in the front room.
Blanche seized it and boldly began an exploration of the dwelling.
She had gone over the arrangement of the Borderie so often in her own mind that the rooms seemed familiar to her, she seemed to recognize them.
In spite of Chupin’s description the poverty of this humble abode astonished her. There was no floor save the ground; the walls were poorly whitewashed; all kinds of grain and bunches of herbs hung suspended from the ceiling; a few heavy tables, wooden benches, and clumsy chairs constituted the entire furniture.
Marie-Anne evidently occupied the back room. It was the only apartment that contained a bed. This was one of those immense country affairs, very high and broad, with tall fluted posts, draped with green serge curtains, sliding back and forth on iron rings.
At the head of the bed, fastened to the wall, hung a receptacle for holy-water. Blanche dipped her finger in the bowl; it was full to the brim.
Beside the window was a wooden shelf supported by a hook, and on the shelf stood a basin and bowl of the commonest earthenware.
“It must be confessed that my husband does not provide a very sumptuous abode for his idol,” said Mme. Blanche, with a sneer.
She was almost on the point of asking herself if jealousy had not led her astray.
She remembered Martial’s fastidious tastes, and she did not know how to reconcile them with these meagre surroundings. Then, there was the holy-water!
But her suspicions became stronger when she entered the kitchen. Some savory compound was bubbling in a pot over the fire, and several saucepans, in which fragrant stews were simmering, stood among the warm ashes.
“All this cannot be for her,” murmured Blanche.
Then she remembered the two windows in the story above which she had seen illuminated by the trembling glow of the fire-light.
“I must examine the rooms above,” she thought.
The staircase led up from the middle of the room; she knew this. She quickly ascended the stairs, pushed open a door, and could not repress a cry of surprise and rage.
She found herself in the sumptuously appointed room which Chanlouineau had made the sanctuary of his great love, and upon which he had lavished, with the fanaticism of passion, all that was costly and luxurious.
“Then it is true!” exclaimed Blanche. “And I thought just now that all was too meagre and too poor! Miserable dupe that I am! Below, all is arranged for the eyes of comers and goers. Here, everything is intended exclusively for themselves. Now, I recognize Martial’s astonishing talent for dissimulation. He loves this vile creature so much that he is anxious in regard to her reputation; he keeps his visits to her a secret, and this is the hidden paradise of their love. Here they laugh at me, the poor forsaken wife, whose marriage was but a mockery.”
She had desired to know the truth; certainty was less terrible to endure than this constant suspicion, And, as if she found a little enjoyment in proving the extent of Martial’s love for a hated rival, she took an inventory, as it were, of the magnificent appointments of the chamber, feeling the heavy brocaded silk stuff that formed the curtains, and testing the thickness of the rich carpet with her foot.
Everything indicated that Marie-Anne was expecting someone; the bright fire, the large arm-chair placed before the hearth, the embroidered slippers lying beside the chair.
And whom could she expect save Martial? The person who had been there a few moments before probably came to announce the arrival of her lover, and she had gone out to meet him.
For a trifling circumstance would seem to indicate that this messenger had not been expected.
Upon the mantel stood a bowl of still smoking bouillon.
It was evident that Marie-Anne was on the point of drinking this when she heard the signal.
Mme. Blanche was wondering how she could profit by her discovery, when her eyes fell upon a large oaken box standing open upon a table near the glass door leading into the dressing-room, and filled with tiny boxes and vials.
Mechanically she approached it, and among the bottles she saw two of blue glass, upon which the word “poison” was inscribed.
“Poison!” Blanche could not turn her eyes from this word, which seemed to exert a kind of fascination over her.
A diabolical inspiration associated the contents of these vials with the bowl standing upon the mantel.
“And why not?” she murmured. “I could escape afterward.”
A terrible thought made her pause. Martial would return with Marie-Anne; who could say that it would not be he who would drink the contents of the bowl.
“God shall decide!” she murmured. “It is better one’s husband should be dead than belong to another!”
And with a firm hand, she took up one of the vials.
Since her entrance into the cottage Blanche had scarcely been conscious of her acts. Hatred and despair had clouded her brain like fumes of alcohol.
But when her hand came in contact with the glass containing the deadly drug, the terrible shock dissipated her bewilderment; she regained the full possession of her faculties; the power of calm deliberation returned.
This is proved by the fact that her first thought was this:
“I am ignorant even of the name of the poison which I hold. What dose must I administer, much or little?”
She opened the vial, not without considerable difficulty, and poured a few grains of its contents into the palm of her hand. It was a fine, white powder, glistening like pulverized glass, and looking not unlike sugar.
“Can it really be sugar?” she thought.
Resolved to ascertain, she moistened the tip of her finger, and collected upon it a few atoms of the powder which she placed upon her tongue.
The taste was like that of an extremely acid apple.
Without hesitation, without remorse, without even turning pale, she poured into the bowl the entire contents of the vial.
Her self-possession was so perfect, she even recollected that the powder might be slow in dissolving, and she stirred it gently for a moment or more.
Having done this — she seemed to think of everything — she tasted the bouillon. She noticed a slightly bitter taste, but it was not sufficiently perceptible to awaken distrust.
Now Mme. Blanche breathed freely. If she could succeed in making her escape she was avenged.
She was going toward the door when a sound on the stairs startled her.
Two persons were ascending the staircase.
Where should she go? where could she conceal herself?
She was now so sure she would be detected that she almost decided to throw the bowl into the fire, and then boldly face the intruders.
But no — a chance remained — she darted into the dressing-room. She dared not close the door; the least click of the latch would have betrayed her.
Marie-Anne entered the chamber, followed by a peasant, bearing a large bundle.
“Ah! here is my candle!” she exclaimed, as she crossed the threshold. “Joy must be making me lose my wits! I could have sworn that I left it on the table downstairs.” Blanche shuddered. She had not thought of this circumstance.
“Where shall I put this clothing?” asked the young peasant.
“Lay it down here. I will arrange the articles by and by,” replied Marie Anne.
The boy dropped his heavy burden with a sigh of relief.
“This is the last,” he exclaimed. “Now, our gentleman can come.”
“At what hour will he start?” inquired Marie-Anne.
“At eleven o’clock. It will be nearly midnight when he gets here.”
Marie-Anne glanced at the magnificent clock on the mantel.
“I have still three hours before me,” said she; “more time than I shall need. Supper is ready; I am going to set the table here, by the fire. Tell him to bring a good appetite.”
“I will tell him, and many thanks, Mademoiselle, for having come to meet me and aid me with my second load. It was not so very heavy, but it was clumsy to handle.”
“Will you not accept a glass of wine?”
“No, thank you. I must hasten back. Au revoir, Mademoiselle Lacheneur.”
“Au revoir, Poignot.”
This name Poignot had no significance in the ears of Blanche.
Ah! had she heard Monsieur d’Escorval’s or the abbe’s name mentioned, she might have felt some doubt of Marie-Anne’s guilt; her resolution might have wavered, and — who knows?
But no. Young Poignot, in referring to the baron had said: “our gentleman,” Marie-Anne said: “he.”
Is not “he” always the person who is uppermost in our minds, the husband whom one hates or the lover whom one adores?
“Our gentleman!” “he!” Blanche translated Martial.
Yes, it was the Marquis de Sairmeuse who was to arrive at midnight. She was sure of it. It was he who had been preceded by a messenger bearing clothing. This could only mean that he was about to establish himself at the Borderie. Perhaps he would cast aside all secrecy and live there openly, regardless of his rank, of his dignity, and of his duties; forgetful even of his prejudices.
These conjectures inflamed her fury still more.
Why should she hesitate or tremble after that?
Her only dread now, was lest she should be discovered.
Aunt Medea was, it is true, in the garden; but after the orders she had received the poor woman would remain motionless as stone behind the clump of lilacs, the entire night if necessary.
For two hours and a half Marie-Anne would be alone at the Borderie. Blanche reflected that this would give her ample time to watch the effects of the poison upon her hated rival.
When the crime was discovered she would be far away. No one knew she had been absent from Courtornieu; no one had seen her leave the chateau; Aunt Medea would be as silent as the grave. And besides, who would dare to accuse her, Marquise de Sairmeuse nee Blanche de Courtornieu, of being the murderer? “But she does not drink it!” Blanche thought.
Marie-Anne had, in fact, forgotten the bouillon entirely. She had opened the bundle of clothing, and was busily arranging the articles in a wardrobe near the bed.
Who talks of presentiments. She was as gay and vivacious as in her days of happiness; and as she worked, she hummed an air that Maurice had often sung.
She felt that her troubles were nearly over; her friends would soon be around her.
When her task of putting away the clothing was completed and the wardrobe closed, she drew a small table up before the fire.
Not until then did she notice the bowl standing upon the mantel.
“Stupid!” she said, with a laugh; and taking the bowl she raised it to her lips.
From her hiding-place Blanche had heard Marie-Anne’s exclamation; she saw the movement, and yet not the slightest remorse struck her soul.
Marie-Anne drank but one mouthful, then, in evident disgust, set the bowl down.
A horrible dread made the watcher’s heart stand still. “Does she notice a peculiar taste in the bouillon?” she thought.
No; but it had grown cold, and a slight coating of grease had formed over the top. Marie-Anne took the spoon, skimmed the bouillon, and then stirred it up for some time, to divide the greasy particles.
After she had done this she drank the liquid, put the bowl back upon the mantel, and resumed her work.
It was done. The denouement no longer depended upon Blanche de Courtornieu’s will. Come what would, she was a murderess.
But though she was conscious of her crime, the excess of her hatred prevented her from realizing its enormity. She said to herself that it was only an act of justice which she had accomplished; that the vengeance she had taken was not proportionate to the offence, and that nothing could atone for the torture she had endured.
But in a few moments a sinister apprehension took possession of her mind.
Her knowledge of the effects of poison was extremely limited. She had expected to see Marie-Anne fall dead before her, as if stricken down by a thunder-bolt.
But no. The moments slipped by, and Marie-Anne continued her preparations for supper as if nothing had occurred.
She spread a white cloth over the table, smoothed it with her hands, and placed a dish upon it.
“What if she should come in here!” thought Blanche.
The fear of punishment which precedes remorse, made her heart beat with such violence that she could not understand why its throbbing were not heard in the adjoining room. Her terror increased when she saw Marie-Anne take the light and go downstairs. Blanche was left alone. The thought of making her escape occurred to her; but how, and by what way could she leave the house without being seen?
“It must be that poison does not work!” she said, in a rage.
Alas! no. She knew better when Marie-Anne reappeared.
In the few moments she had spent below, her features had become frightfully changed. Her face was livid and mottled with purple spots, her eyes were distended and glittered with a strange brilliancy. She let the plates which she held fall upon the table with a crash.
“The poison! it begins!” thought Blanche.
Marie-Anne stood on the hearth, gazing wildly around her, as if seeking the cause of her incomprehensible suffering. She passed and re-passed her hand across her forehead, which was bathed in a cold perspiration; she gasped for breath. Then suddenly, overcome with nausea, she staggered, pressed her hands convulsively upon her breast, and sank into the armchair, crying:
“Oh, God! how I suffer!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50