The reason of Mme. Blanche had sustained a frightful shock, when Chupin was obliged to lift her and carry her from Marie-Anne’s chamber.
But she lost consciousness entirely when she saw the old poacher stricken down by her side.
On and after that night Aunt Medea took her revenge for all the slights she had received.
Scarcely tolerated until then at Courtornieu, she henceforth made herself respected, and even feared.
She, who usually swooned if a kitten hurt itself, did not utter a cry. Her extreme fear gave her the courage that not unfrequently animates cowards when they are in some dire extremity.
She seized the arm of her bewildered niece, and, by dint of dragging and pushing, had her back at the chateau in much less time than it had taken them to go to the Borderie.
It was half-past one o’clock when they reached the little garden-gate, by which they had left the grounds.
No one in the chateau was aware of their long absence.
This was due to several different circumstances. First, to the precautions taken by Blanche, who had given orders, before going out, that no one should come to her room, on any pretext whatever, unless she rang.
It also chanced to be the birthday of the marquis’s valet de chambre. The servants had dined more sumptuously than usual. They had toasts and songs over their dessert; and at the conclusion of the repast, they amused themselves by an extempore ball.
They were still dancing at half-past one; all the doors were open, and the two ladies succeeded in gaining the chamber of Blanche without being observed.
When the doors of the apartment had been securely closed, and when there was no longer any fear of listeners, Aunt Medea attacked her niece.
“Now will you explain what happened at the Borderie; and what you were doing there?” she inquired.
“Why do you wish to know?” she asked.
“Because I suffered agony during the three hours that I spent in waiting for you. What was the meaning of those despairing cries that I heard? Why did you call for aid? I heard a death-rattle that made my hair stand on end with terror. Why was it necessary for Chupin to bring you out in his arms?”
Aunt Medea would have packed her trunks, perhaps, that very evening, had she seen the glance which her niece bestowed upon her.
Blanche longed for power to annihilate this relative — this witness who might ruin her by a word, but whom she would ever have beside her, a living reproach for her crime.
“You do not answer me,” insisted Aunt Medea.
Blanche was trying to decide whether it would be better for her to reveal the truth, horrible as it was, or to invent some plausible explanation.
To confess all! It would be intolerable. She would place herself, body and soul, in Aunt Medea’s power.
But, on the other hand, if she deceived her, was it not more than probable that her aunt would betray her by some involuntary exclamation when she heard of the crime which had been committed at the Borderie?
“For she is so stupid!” thought Blanche.
She felt that it would be the wisest plan, under such circumstances, to be perfectly frank, to teach her relative her lesson, and to imbue her with some of her own firmness.
Having come to this conclusion, she disdained all concealment.
“Ah, well!” she said, “I was jealous of Marie-Anne. I thought she was Martial’s mistress. I was half crazed, and I killed her.”
She expected despairing cries, or a fainting fit; nothing of the kind. Stupid though Aunt Medea was, she had divined the truth before she interrogated her niece. Besides, the insults she had received for years had extinguished every generous sentiment, dried up the springs of emotion, and destroyed every particle of moral sensibility she had ever possessed.
“Ah!” she exclaimed, “it is terrible! What if it should be discovered!”
Then she shed a few tears, but not more than she had often wept for some trifle.
Blanche breathed more freely. Surely she could count upon the silence and absolute submission of her dependent relative. Convinced of this, she began to recount all the details of the frightful drama which had been enacted at the Borderie.
She yielded to a desire which was stronger than her own will; to the wild longing that sometimes unbinds the tongue of the worst criminals, and forces them — irresistibly impels them — to talk of their crimes, even when they distrust their confidant.
But when she came to the proofs which had convinced her of her lamentable mistake, she suddenly paused in dismay.
That certificate of marriage signed by the Cure of Vigano; what had she done with it? where was it? She remembered holding it in her hands.
She sprang up, examined the pocket of her dress and uttered a cry of joy. She had it safe. She threw it into a drawer, and turned the key.
Aunt Medea wished to retire to her own room, but Blanche entreated her to remain. She was unwilling to be left alone — she dared not — she was afraid.
And as if she desired to silence the inward voice that tormented her, she talked with extreme volubility, repeating again and again that she was ready to do anything in expiation of her crime, and that she would brave impossibilities to recover Marie-Anne’s child.
And certainly, the task was both difficult and dangerous.
If she sought the child openly, it would be equivalent to a confession of guilt. She would be compelled to act secretly, and with great caution.
“But I shall succeed,” she said. “I will spare no expense.”
And remembering her vow, and the threats of her dying victim, she added:
“I must succeed. I have sworn — and I was forgiven under those conditions.”
Astonishment dried the ever ready tears of Aunt Medea.
That her niece, with her dreadful crime still fresh in her mind, could coolly reason, deliberate, and make plans for the future, seemed to her incomprehensible.
“What an iron will!” she thought.
But in her bewilderment she quite overlooked something that would have enlightened any ordinary observer.
Blanche was seated upon her bed, her hair was unbound, her eyes were glittering with delirium, and her incoherent words and her excited gestures betrayed the frightful anxiety that was torturing her.
And she talked and talked, exclaiming, questioning Aunt Medea, and forcing her to reply, only that she might escape from her own thoughts.
Morning had dawned some time before, and the servants were heard bustling about the chateau, and Blanche, oblivious to all around her, was still explaining how she could, in less than a year, restore Marie-Anne’s child to Maurice d’Escorval.
She paused abruptly in the middle of a sentence.
Instinct had suddenly warned her of the danger she incurred in making the slightest change in her habits.
She sent Aunt Medea away, then, at the usual hour, rang for her maid.
It was nearly eleven o’clock, and she was just completing her toilet, when the ringing of the bell announced a visitor.
Almost immediately a maid appeared, evidently in a state of great excitement.
“What is it?” inquired Blanche, eagerly. “Who has come?”
“Ah, Madame — that is, Mademoiselle, if you only knew ——”
“Will you speak?”
“The Marquis de Sairmeuse is below, in the blue drawing-room; and he begs Mademoiselle to grant him a few moments’ conversation.”
Had a thunder-bolt riven the earth at the feet of the murderess, she could not have been more terrified.
“All must have been discovered!” this was her first thought. That alone would have brought Martial there.
She almost decided to reply that she was not at home, or that she was extremely ill; but reason told her that she was alarming herself needlessly, perhaps, and that, in any case, the worst was preferable to suspense.
“Tell the marquis that I will be there in a moment,” she replied.
She desired a few minutes of solitude to compose her features, to regain her self-possession, if possible, and to conquer the nervous trembling that made her shake like a leaf.
But just as she was most disquieted by the thought of her peril, a sudden inspiration brought a malicious smile to her lip.
“Ah!” she thought, “my agitation will seem perfectly natural. It may even be made of service.”
As she descended the grand staircase, she could not help saying to herself:
“Martial’s presence here is incomprehensible.”
It was certainly very extraordinary; and it had not been without much hesitation that he resolved upon this painful step.
But it was the only means of procuring several important documents which were indispensable in the revision of M. d’Escorval’s case.
These documents, after the baron’s condemnation, had been left in the hands of the Marquis de Courtornieu. Now that he had lost his reason, it was impossible to ask him for them; and Martial was obliged to apply to the daughter for permission to search for them among her father’s papers.
This was why Martial said to himself that morning:
“I will carry the baron’s safe-conduct to Marie-Anne, and then I will push on to Courtornieu.”
He arrived at the Borderie gay and confident, his heart full of hope. Alas! Marie-Anne was dead.
No one would ever know what a terrible blow it had been to Martial; and his conscience told him that he was not free from blame; that he had, at least, rendered the execution of the crime an easy matter.
For it was indeed he who, by abusing his influence, had caused the arrest of Maurice at Turin.
But though he was capable of the basest perfidy when his love was at stake, he was incapable of virulent animosity.
Marie-Anne was dead; he had it in his power to revoke the benefits he had conferred, but the thought of doing so never once occurred to him. And when Jean and Maurice insulted him, he revenged himself only by overwhelming them by his magnanimity. When he left the Borderie, pale as a ghost, his lips still cold from the kiss pressed on the brow of the dead, he said to himself:
“For her sake, I will go to Courtornieu. In memory of her, the baron must be saved.”
By the expression on the faces of the valets when he dismounted in the court-yard of the chateau and asked to see Mme. Blanche, the marquis was again reminded of the profound sensation which this unexpected visit would produce. But, what did it matter to him? He was passing through one of those crises in which the mind can conceive of no further misfortune, and is therefore indifferent to everything.
Still he trembled when they ushered him into the blue drawing-room. He remembered the room well. It was here that Blanche had been wont to receive him in days gone by, when his fancy was vacillating between her and Marie-Anne.
How many pleasant hours they had passed together here! He seemed to see Blanche again, as she was then, radiant with youth, gay and laughing. Her naivete was affected, perhaps, but was it any the less charming on that account?
At this very moment Blanche entered the room. She looked so careworn and sad that he scarcely knew her. His heart was touched by the look of patient sorrow imprinted upon her features.
“How much you must have suffered, Blanche,” he murmured, scarcely knowing what he said.
It cost her an effort to repress her secret joy. She saw that he knew nothing of her crime. She noticed his emotion, and saw the profit she could derive from it.
“I can never cease to regret having displeased you,” she replied, humbly and sadly. “I shall never be consoled.”
She had touched the vulnerable spot in every man’s heart.
For there is no man so sceptical, so cold, or so blase that his vanity is not pleased with the thought that a woman is dying for his sake.
There is no man who is not moved by this most delicious flattery, and who is not ready and willing to give, at least, a tender pity in exchange for such devotion.
“Is it possible that you could forgive me?” stammered Martial.
The wily enchantress averted her face as if to prevent him from reading in her eyes a weakness of which she was ashamed. It was the most eloquent of replies.
But Martial said no more on this subject. He made known his petition, which was granted, then fearing, perhaps, to promise too much, he said:
“Since you do not forbid it, Blanche, I will return — to-morrow — another day.”
As he rode back to Montaignac, Martial’s thoughts were busy.
“She really loves me,” he thought; “that pallor, that weakness could not be feigned. Poor girl! she is my wife, after all. The reasons that influenced me in my rupture with her father exist no longer, and the Marquis de Courtornieu may be regarded as dead.”
All the inhabitants of Sairmeuse were congregated on the public square when Martial passed through the village. They had just heard of the murder at the Borderie, and the abbe was now closeted with the justice of the peace, relating the circumstances of the poisoning.
After a prolonged inquest the following verdict was rendered: “That a man known as Chupin, a notoriously bad character, had entered the house of Marie-Anne Lacheneur, and taken advantage of her absence to mingle poison with her food.”
The report added that: “Said Chupin had been himself assassinated, soon after his crime, by a certain Balstain, whose whereabouts were unknown.”
But this affair interested the community much less than the visits which Martial was paying to Mme. Blanche.
It was soon rumored that the Marquis and the Marquise de Sairmeuse were reconciled, and in a few weeks they left for Paris with the intention of residing there permanently. A few days after their departure, the eldest of the Chupins announced his determination of taking up his abode in the same great city.
Some of his friends endeavored to dissuade him, assuring him that he would certainly die of starvation.
“Nonsense!” he replied, with singular assurance; “I, on the contrary, have an idea that I shall not want for anything there.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08