Martial de Sairmeuse’s unexpected visit to the Chateau de Courtornieu had alarmed Aunt Medea even more than Blanche.
In ten seconds, more ideas passed through her brain than had visited it for ten years.
She saw the gendarmes at the chateau; she saw her niece arrested, incarcerated in the Montaignac prison, and brought before the Court of Assizes.
If this were all she had to fear! But suppose she, too, were compromised, suspected of complicity, dragged before the judge, and even accused of being the sole culprit!
Finding the suspense intolerable, she left her room; and, stealing on tiptoe to the great drawing-room, she applied her ear to the door of the little blue salon, in which Blanche and Martial were seated.
The conversation which she heard convinced her that her fears were groundless.
She drew a long breath, as if a mighty burden had been lifted from her breast. But a new idea, which was to grow, flourish, and bear fruit, had just taken root in her brain.
When Martial left the room, Aunt Medea at once opened the communicating door and entered the blue salon, thus avowing that she had been a listener.
Twenty-four hours earlier she would not have dreamed of committing such an enormity.
“Well, Blanche, we were frightened at nothing,” she exclaimed.
Blanche did not reply.
She was deliberating, forcing herself to weigh the probable consequences of all these events which had succeeded each other with such marvellous rapidity.
“Perhaps the hour of my revenge is almost here,” murmured Blanche, as if communing with herself.
“What do you say?” inquired Aunt Medea, with evident curiosity.
“I say, aunt, that in less than a month I shall be Marquise de Sairmeuse in reality as well as in name. My husband will return to me, and then — oh, then!”
“God grant it!” said Aunt Medea, hypocritically.
In her secret heart she had but little faith in this prediction, and whether it was realized or not mattered little to her.
“Still another proof that your jealousy led you astray; and that — that what you did at the Borderie was unnecessary,” she said, in that low tone that accomplices always use in speaking of their crime.
Such had been the opinion of Blanche; but she now shook her head, and gloomily replied:
“You are wrong; that which took place at the Borderie has restored my husband to me. I understand it all, now. It is true that Marie-Anne was not Martial’s mistress, but Martial loved her. He loved her, and the rebuffs which he received only increased his passion. It was for her sake that he abandoned me; and never, while she lived, would he have thought of me. His emotion on seeing me was the remnant of the emotion which had been awakened by another. His tenderness was only the expression of his sorrow. Whatever happens, I shall have only her leavings — what she has disdained!” the young marquise added, bitterly; and her eyes flashed, and she stamped her foot in ungovernable anger. “And shall I regret what I have done?” she exclaimed; “never! no, never!”
From that moment, she was herself again, brave and determined.
But horrible fears assailed her when the inquest began.
Officials came from Montaignac charged with investigating the affair. They examined a host of witnesses, and there was even talk of sending to Paris for one of those detectives skilled in unravelling all the mysteries of crime.
Aunt Medea was half crazed with terror; and her fear was so apparent that it caused Blanche great anxiety.
“You will end by betraying us,” she remarked, one evening.
“Ah! my terror is beyond my control.”
“If that is the case, do not leave your room.”
“It would be more prudent, certainly.”
“You can say that you are not well; your meals shall be served in your own apartment.”
Aunt Medea’s face brightened. In her inmost heart she was enraptured. To have her meals served in her own room, in her bed in the morning, and on a little table by the fire in the evening, had long been the ambition and the dream of the poor dependent. But how to accomplish it! Two or three times, being a trifle indisposed, she had ventured to ask if her breakfast might be brought to her room, but her request had been harshly refused.
“If Aunt Medea is hungry, she will come down and take her place at the table as usual,” had been the response of Mme. Blanche.
To be treated in this way in a chateau where there were a dozen servants standing about idle was hard indeed.
But now ——
Every morning, in obedience to a formal order from Blanche, the cook came up to receive Aunt Medea’s commands; she was permitted to dictate the bill-of-fare each day, and to order the dishes that she preferred.
These new joys awakened many strange thoughts in her mind, and dissipated much of the regret which she had felt for the crime at the Borderie.
The inquest was the subject of all her conversation with her niece. They had all the latest information in regard to the facts developed by the investigation through the butler, who took a great interest in such matters, and who had won the good-will of the agents from Montaignac, by making them familiar with the contents of his wine-cellar.
Through him, Blanche and her aunt learned that suspicion pointed to the deceased Chupin. Had he not been seen prowling around the Borderie on the very evening that the crime was committed? The testimony of the young peasant who had warned Jean Lacheneur seemed decisive.
The motive was evident; at least, everyone thought so. Twenty persons had heard Chupin declare, with frightful oaths, that he should never be tranquil in mind while a Lacheneur was left upon earth.
So that which might have ruined Blanche, saved her; and the death of the old poacher seemed really providential.
Why should she suspect that Chupin had revealed her secret before his death?
When the butler told her that the judges and the police agents had returned to Montaignac, she had great difficulty in concealing her joy.
“There is no longer anything to fear,” she said to Aunt Medea.
She had, indeed, escaped the justice of man. There remained the justice of God.
A few weeks before, this thought of “the justice of God” might, perhaps, have brought a smile to the lips of Mme. Blanche.
She then regarded it as an imaginary evil, designed to hold timorous spirits in check.
On the morning that followed her crime, she almost shrugged her shoulders at the thought of Marie-Anne’s dying threats.
She remembered her promise, but she did not intend to fulfil it.
She had considered the matter, and she saw the terrible risk to which she exposed herself if she endeavored to find the missing child.
“The father will be sure to discover it,” she thought.
But she was to realize the power of her victim’s threats that same evening.
Overcome with fatigue, she retired to her room at an early hour, and instead of reading, as she was accustomed to do before retiring, she extinguished her candle as soon as she had undressed, saying:
“I must sleep.”
But sleep had fled. Her crime was ever in her thoughts; it rose before her in all its horror and atrocity. She knew that she was lying upon her bed, at Courtornieu; and yet it seemed as if she was there in Chanlouineau’s house, pouring out poison, then watching its effects, concealed in the dressing-room.
She was struggling against these thoughts; she was exerting all her strength of will to drive away these terrible memories, when she thought she heard the key turn in the lock. She lifted her head from the pillow with a start.
Then, by the uncertain light of her night-lamp, she thought she saw the door open slowly and noiselessly. Marie-Anne entered — gliding in like a phantom. She seated herself in an arm-chair near the bed. Great tears were rolling down her cheeks, and she looked sadly, yet threateningly, around her.
The murderess hid her face under the bed-covers; and her whole body was bathed in an icy perspiration. For her, this was not a mere apparition — it was a frightful reality.
But hers was not a nature to submit unresistingly to such an impression. She shook off the stupor that was creeping over her, and tried to reason with herself aloud, as if the sound of her voice would reassure her.
“I am dreaming!” she said. “Do the dead return to life? Am I childish enough to be frightened by phantoms born of my own imaginations?”
She said this, but the phantom did not disappear.
She shut her eyes, but still she saw it through her closed eyelids — through the coverings which she had drawn up over her head, she saw it still.
Not until daybreak did Mme. Blanche fall asleep.
And it was the same the next night, and the night following that, and always and always; and the terrors of each night were augmented by the terrors of the nights which had preceded it.
During the day, in the bright sunshine, she regained her courage, and became sceptical again. Then she railed at herself.
“To be afraid of something that does not exist, is folly!” she said, vehemently. “To-night I will conquer my absurd weakness.”
But when evening came all her brave resolution vanished, and the same fear seized her when night appeared with its cortege of spectres.
It is true that Mme. Blanche attributed her tortures at night to the disquietude she suffered during the day.
For the officials were at Sairmeuse then, and she trembled. A mere nothing might divert suspicion from Chupin and direct it toward her. What if some peasant had seen her with Chupin? What if some trifling circumstance should furnish a clew which would lead straight to Courtornieu?
“When the investigation is over, I shall forget,” she thought.
It ended, but she did not forget.
Darwin has said:
“It is when their safety is assured that great criminals really feel remorse.”
Mme. Blanche might have vouched for the truth of this assertion, made by the most profound thinker and closest observer of the age.
And yet, the agony she was enduring did not make her abandon, for a single moment, the plan she had conceived on the day of Martial’s visit.
She played her part so well, that, deeply moved, almost repentant, he returned five or six times, and at last, one day, he besought her to allow him to remain.
But even the joy of this triumph did not restore her peace of mind.
Between her and her husband rose that dread apparition; and Marie-Anne’s distorted features were ever before her. She knew only too well that this heart-broken man had no love to give her, and that she would never have the slightest influence over him. And to crown all, to her already intolerable sufferings was added another, more poignant than all the rest.
Speaking one evening of Marie-Anne’s death, Martial forgot himself, and spoke of his oath of vengeance. He deeply regretted that Chupin was dead, he remarked, for he should have experienced an intense delight in making the wretch who murdered her die a lingering death in the midst of the most frightful tortures.
He spoke with extreme violence and in a voice vibrant with his still powerful passion.
And Blanche, in terror, asked herself what would be her fate if her husband ever discovered that she was the culprit — and he might discover it.
She now began to regret that she had not kept the promise she had made to her victim; and she resolved to commence the search for Marie-Anne’s child.
To do this effectually it was necessary for her to be in a large city — Paris, for example — where she could procure discreet and skilful agents.
It was necessary to persuade Martial to remove to the capital. Aided by the Duc de Sairmeuse, she did not find this a very difficult task; and one morning, Mme. Blanche, with a radiant face, announced to Aunt Medea:
“Aunt, we leave just one week from to-day.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08