Half reclining upon a sofa, Mme. Blanche was listening to a new book which Aunt Medea was reading aloud, and she did not even raise her head as the servant delivered his message.
“A man?” she asked, carelessly; “what man?”
She was expecting no one; it must be one of the laborers employed by Martial.
“I cannot inform Madame,” replied the servant. “He is quite a young man; is dressed like a peasant, and is perhaps, seeking a place.”
“It is probably the marquis whom he desires to see.”
“Madame will excuse me, but he said particularly that he desired to speak to her.”
“Ask his name and his business, then. Go on, aunt,” she added; “we have been interrupted in the most interesting portion.”
But Aunt Medea had not time to finish the page when the servant reappeared.
“The man says Madame will understand his business when she hears his name.”
“And his name?”
It was as if a bomb-shell had exploded in the room.
Aunt Medea, with a shriek, dropped her book, and sank back, half fainting, in her chair.
Blanche sprang up with a face as colorless as her white cashmere peignoir, her eyes troubled, her lips trembling.
“Chupin!” she repeated, as if she hoped the servant would tell her she had not understood him correctly; “Chupin!”
“Tell this man that I will not see him, I will not see him, do you hear?”
But before the servant had time to bow respectfully and retire, the young marquise changed her mind.
“One moment,” said she; “on reflection I think I will see him. Bring him up.”
The servant withdrew, and the two ladies looked at each other in silent consternation.
“It must be one of Chupin’s sons,” faltered Blanche, at last.
“Undoubtedly; but what does he desire?”
“Money, probably.” Aunt Medea lifted her eyes to heaven.
“God grant that he knows nothing of your meetings with his father! Blessed Jesus! what if he should know.”
“You are not going to despair in advance! We shall know all in a few moments. Pray be calm. Turn your back to us; look out into the street; do not let him see your face. But why is he so long in coming?”
Blanche was not deceived. It was Chupin’s eldest son; the one to whom the dying poacher had confided his secret.
Since his arrival in Paris he had been running the streets from morning until evening, inquiring everywhere and of everybody the address of the Marquis de Sairmeuse. At last he discovered it; and he lost no time in presenting himself at the Hotel Meurice.
He was now awaiting the result of his application at the entrance of the hotel, where he stood whistling, with his hands in his pockets, when the servant returned, saying:
“She consents to see you; follow me.”
Chupin obeyed; but the servant, greatly astonished, and on fire with curiosity, loitered by the way in the hope of obtaining some explanation from this country youth.
“I do not say it to flatter you, my boy,” he remarked, “but your name produced a great effect upon madame.”
The prudent peasant carefully concealed the joy he felt on receiving this information.
“How does it happen that she knows you?” pursued the servant. “Are you both from the same place?”
“I am her foster-brother.”
The servant did not believe a word of this response; but they had reached the apartment of the marquise, he opened the door and ushered Chupin into the room.
The peasant had prepared a little story in advance, but he was so dazzled by the magnificence around him that he stood motionless with staring eyes and gaping mouth. His wonder was increased by a large mirror opposite the door, in which he could survey himself from head to foot, and by the beautiful flowers on the carpet, which he feared to crush beneath his heavy shoes.
After a moment, Mme. Blanche decided to break the silence.
“What do you wish?” she demanded.
With many circumlocutions Chupin explained that he had been obliged to leave Sairmeuse on account of the numerous enemies he had there, that he had been unable to find his father’s hidden treasure, and that he was consequently without resources.
“Enough!” interrupted Mme. Blanche. Then in a manner not in the least friendly, she continued: “I do not understand why you should apply to me. You and all the rest of your family have anything but an enviable reputation in Sairmeuse; still, as you are from that part of the country, I am willing to aid you a little on condition that you do not apply to me again.”
Chupin listened to this homily with a half-cringing, half-impudent air; when it was finished he lifted his head, and said, proudly:
“I do not ask for alms.”
“What do you ask then?”
The heart of Mme. Blanche sank, and yet she had courage to cast a glance of disdain upon the speaker, and said:
“Ah! do I owe you anything?”
“You owe me nothing personally, Madame; but you owe a heavy debt to my deceased father. In whose service did he perish? Poor old man! he loved you devotedly. His last words were of you. ‘A terrible thing has just happened at the Borderie, my boy,’ said he. ‘The young marquise hated Marie-Anne, and she has poisoned her. Had it not been for me she would have been lost. I am about to die; let the whole blame rest upon me; it will not hurt me, and it will save the young lady. And afterward she will reward you; and as long as you keep the secret you will want for nothing.’”
Great as was his impudence, he paused, amazed by the perfectly composed face of the listener.
In the presence of such wonderful dissimulation he almost doubted the truth of his father’s story.
The courage and heroism displayed by the marquise were really wonderful. She felt if she yielded once, she would forever be at the mercy of this wretch, as she was already at the mercy of Aunt Medea.
“In other words,” said she, calmly, “you accuse me of the murder of Mademoiselle Lacheneur; and you threaten to denounce me if I do not yield to your demands.”
Chupin nodded his head in acquiescence.
“Very well!” said the marquise; “since this is the case — go!”
It seemed, indeed, as if she would, by her audacity, win this dangerous game upon which her future peace depended. Chupin, greatly abashed, was standing there undecided what course to pursue when Aunt Medea, who was listening by the window, turned in affright, crying:
“Blanche! your husband — Martial! He is coming!”
The game was lost. Blanche saw her husband entering, finding Chupin, conversing with him, and discovering all!
Her brain whirled; she yielded.
She hastily thrust her purse in Chupin’s hand and dragged him through an inner door and to the servants’ staircase.
“Take this,” she said, in a hoarse whisper. “I will see you again. And not a word — not a word to my husband, remember!”
She had been wise to yield in time. When she re-entered the salon, she found Martial there.
His head was bowed upon his breast; he held an open letter in his hand.
He looked up when his wife entered the room, and she saw a tear in his eye.
“What has happened?” she faltered.
Martial did not remark her emotion.
“My father is dead, Blanche,” he replied.
“The Duc de Sairmeuse! My God! how did it happen?”
“He was thrown from his horse, in the forest, near the Sanguille rocks.”
“Ah! it was there where my poor father was nearly murdered.”
“Yes, it is the very place.”
There was a moment’s silence.
Martial’s affection for his father had not been very deep, and he was well aware that his father had but little love for him. He was astonished at the bitter grief he felt on hearing of his death.
“From this letter which was forwarded by a messenger from Sairmeuse,” he continued, “I judge that everybody believes it to have been an accident; but I— I——”
“I believe he was murdered.”
An exclamation of horror escaped Aunt Medea, and Blanche turned pale.
“Murdered!” she whispered.
“Yes, Blanche; and I could name the murderer. Oh! I am not deceived. The murderer of my father is the same man who attempted to assassinate the Marquis de Courtornieu ——”
Martial gravely bowed his head. It was his only reply.
“And you will not denounce him? You will not demand justice?”
Martial’s face grew more and more gloomy.
“What good would it do?” he replied. “I have no material proofs to give, and justice demands incontestable evidence.”
Then, as if communing with his own thoughts, rather than addressing his wife, he said, despondently:
“The Duc de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de Courtornieu have reaped what they have sown. The blood of murdered innocence always calls for vengeance. Sooner or later, the guilty must expiate their crimes.”
Blanche shuddered. Each word found an echo in her own soul. Had he intended his words for her, he would not have expressed himself differently.
“Martial,” said she, trying to arouse him from his gloomy revery, “Martial.”
He did not seem to hear her, and, in the same tone, he continued:
“These Lacheneurs were happy and honored before our arrival at Sairmeuse. Their conduct was above all praise; their probity amounted to heroism. We might have made them our faithful and devoted friends. It was our duty, as well as in our interests, to have done so. We did not understand this; we humiliated, ruined, exasperated them. It was a fault for which we must atone. Who knows but, in Jean Lacheneur’s place, I should have done what he has done?”
He was silent for a moment; then, with one of those sudden inspirations that sometimes enable one almost to read the future, he resumed:
“I know Jean Lacheneur. I alone can fathom his hatred, and I know that he lives only in the hope of vengeance. It is true that we are very high and he is very low, but that matters little. We have everything to fear. Our millions form a rampart around us, but he will know how to open a breach. And no precautions will save us. At the very moment when we feel ourselves secure, he will be ready to strike. What he will attempt, I know not; but his will be a terrible revenge. Remember my words, Blanche, if ruin ever threatens our house, it will be Jean Lacheneur’s work.”
Aunt Medea and her niece were too horror-stricken to articulate a word, and for five minutes no sound broke the stillness save Martial’s monotonous tread, as he paced up and down the room.
At last he paused before his wife.
“I have just ordered post-horses. You will excuse me for leaving you here alone. I must go to Sairmeuse at once. I shall not be absent more than a week.”
He departed from Paris a few hours later, and Blanche was left a prey to the most intolerable anxiety. She suffered more now than during the days that immediately followed her crime. It was not against phantoms she was obliged to protect herself now; Chupin existed, and his voice, even if it were not as terrible as the voice of conscience, might make itself heard at any moment.
If she had known where to find him, she would have gone to him, and endeavored, by the payment of a large sum of money, to persuade him to leave France.
But Chupin had left the hotel without giving her his address.
The gloomy apprehension expressed by Martial increased the fears of the young marquise. The mere sound of the name Lacheneur made her shrink with terror. She could not rid herself of the idea that Jean Lacheneur suspected her guilt, and that he was watching her.
Her wish to find Marie-Anne’s infant was stronger than ever.
It seemed to her that the child might be a protection to her some day. But where could she find an agent in whom she could confide?
At last she remembered that she had heard her father speak of a detective by the name of Chelteux, an exceedingly shrewd fellow, capable of anything, even honesty if he were well paid.
The man was really a miserable wretch, one of Fouche’s vilest instruments, who had served and betrayed all parties, and who, at last, had been convicted of perjury, but had somehow managed to escape punishment.
After his dismissal from the police-force, Chelteux founded a bureau of private information.
After several inquiries, Mme. Blanche discovered that he lived in the Place Dauphine; and she determined to take advantage of her husband’s absence to pay the detective a visit.
One morning she donned her simplest dress, and, accompanied by Aunt Medea, repaired to the house of Chelteux.
He was then, about thirty-four years of age, a man of medium height, of inoffensive mien, and who affected an unvarying good-humor.
He invited his clients into a nicely furnished drawing-room, and Mme. Blanche at once began telling him that she was married, and living in the Rue Saint-Denis, that one of her sisters, who had lately died, had been guilty of an indiscretion, and that she was ready to make any sacrifice to find this sister’s child, etc., etc. A long story, which she had prepared in advance, and which sounded very plausible.
Chelteux did not believe a word of it, however; for, as soon as it was ended, he tapped her familiarly on the shoulder, and said:
“In short, my dear, we have had our little escapades before our marriage.”
She shrank back as if from some venomous reptile.
To be treated thus! she — a Courtornieu — Duchesse de Sairmeuse!
“I think you are laboring under a wrong impression,” she said, haughtily.
He made haste to apologize; but while listening to further details given him by the young lady, he thought:
“What an eye! what a voice! — they are not suited to a denizen of the Saint-Denis!”
His suspicions were confirmed by the reward of twenty thousand francs, which Mme. Blanche imprudently promised him in case of success, and by the five hundred francs which she paid in advance.
“And where shall I have the honor of addressing my communications to you, Madame?” he inquired.
“Nowhere,” replied the young lady. “I shall be passing here from time to time, and I will call.”
When they left the house, Chelteux followed them.
“For once,” he thought, “I believe that fortune smiles upon me.”
To discover the name and rank of his new clients was but child’s play to Fouche’s former pupil.
His task was all the easier since they had no suspicion whatever of his designs. Mme. Blanche, who had heard his powers of discernment so highly praised, was confident of success.
All the way back to the hotel she was congratulating herself upon the step she had taken.
“In less than a month,” she said to Aunt Medea, “we shall have the child; and it will be a protection to us.”
But the following week she realized the extent of her imprudence. On visiting Chelteux again, she was received with such marks of respect that she saw at once she was known.
She made an attempt to deceive him, but the detective checked her.
“First of all,” he said, with a good-humored smile, “I ascertain the identity of the persons who honor me with their confidence. It is a proof of my ability, which I give, gratis. But Madame need have no fears. I am discreet by nature and by profession. Many ladies of the highest ranks are in the position of Madame la Duchesse!”
So Chelteux still believed that the Duchesse de Sairmeuse was searching for her own child.
She did not try to convince him to the contrary. It was better that he should believe this than suspect the truth.
The condition of Mme. Blanche was now truly pitiable. She found herself entangled in a net, and each movement far from freeing her, tightened the meshes around her.
Three persons knew the secret that threatened her life and honor. Under these circumstances, how could she hope to keep that secret inviolate? She was, moreover, at the mercy of three unscrupulous masters; and before a word, or a gesture, or a look from them, her haughty spirit was compelled to bow in meek subservience.
And her time was no longer at her own disposal. Martial had returned; and they had taken up their abode at the Hotel de Sairmeuse.
The young duchess was now compelled to live under the scrutiny of fifty servants — of fifty enemies, more or less, interested in watching her, in criticising her every act, and in discovering her inmost thoughts.
Aunt Medea, it is true, was of great assistance to her. Blanche purchased a dress for her, whenever she purchased one for herself, took her about with her on all occasions, and the humble relative expressed her satisfaction in the most enthusiastic terms, and declared her willingness to do anything for her benefactress.
Nor did Chelteux give Mme. Blanche much more annoyance. Every three months he presented a memorandum of the expenses of investigations, which usually amounted to about ten thousand francs; and so long as she paid him it was plain that he would be silent.
He had given her to understand, however, that he should expect an annuity of twenty-four thousand francs; and once, when Mme. Blanche remarked that he must abandon the search, if nothing had been discovered at the end of two years:
“Never,” he replied: “I shall continue the search as long as I live.” But Chupin, unfortunately, remained; and he was a constant terror.
She had been compelled to give him twenty thousand francs, to begin with.
He declared that his younger brother had come to Paris in pursuit of him, accusing him of having stolen their father’s hoard, and demanding his share with his dagger in his hand.
There had been a battle, and it was with a head bound up in a blood-stained linen, that Chupin made his appearance before Mme. Blanche.
“Give me the sum that the old man buried, and I will allow my brother to think that I had stolen it. It is not very pleasant to be regarded as a thief, when one is an honest man, but I will bear it for your sake. If you refuse, I shall be compelled to tell him where I have obtained my money and how.”
If he possessed all the vices, depravity, and coldblooded perversity of his father, this wretch had inherited neither his intelligence nor his finesse.
Instead of taking the precautions which his interest required, he seemed to find a brutal pleasure in compromising the duchess.
He was a constant visitor at the Hotel de Sairmeuse. He came and went at all hours, morning, noon, and night, without troubling himself in the least about Martial.
And the servants were amazed to see their haughty mistress unhesitatingly leave everything at the call of this suspicious-looking character, who smelled so strongly of tobacco and vile brandy.
One evening, while a grand entertainment was in progress at the Hotel de Sairmeuse, he made his appearance, half drunk, and imperiously ordered the servants to go and tell Mme. Blanche that he was there, and that he was waiting for her.
She hastened to him in her magnificent evening-dress, her face white with rage and shame beneath her tiara of diamonds. And when, in her exasperation, she refused to give the wretch what he demanded:
“That is to say, I am to starve while you are revelling here!” he exclaimed. “I am not such a fool. Give me money, and instantly, or I will tell all I know here and now!”
What could she do? She was obliged to yield, as she had always done before.
And yet he grew more and more insatiable every day. Money remained in his pockets no longer than water remains in a sieve. But he did not think of elevating his vices to the proportions of the fortune which he squandered. He did not even provide himself with decent clothing; from his appearance one would have supposed him a beggar, and his companions were the vilest and most degraded of beings.
One night he was arrested in a low den, and the police, surprised at seeing so much gold in the possession of such a beggarly looking wretch, accused him of being a thief. He mentioned the name of the Duchesse de Sairmeuse.
An inspector of the police presented himself at the Hotel de Sairmeuse the following morning. Martial, fortunately, was in Vienna at the time.
And Mme. Blanche was forced to undergo the terrible humiliation of confessing that she had given a large sum of money to this man, whose family she had known, and who, she added, had once rendered her an important service.
Sometimes her tormentor changed his tactics.
For example, he declared that he disliked to come to the Hotel de Sairmeuse, that the servants treated him as if he were a mendicant, that after this he would write.
And in a day or two there would come a letter bidding her bring such a sum, to such a place, at such an hour.
And the proud duchess was always punctual at the rendezvous.
There was constantly some new invention, as if he found an intense delight in proving his power and in abusing it.
He had met, Heaven knows where! a certain Aspasie Clapard, to whom he took a violent fancy, and although she was much older than himself, he wished to marry her. Mme. Blanche paid for the wedding-feast.
Again he announced his desire of establishing himself in business, having resolved, he said, to live by his own exertions. He purchased the stock of a wine merchant, which the duchess paid for, and which he drank in no time.
His wife gave birth to a child, and Mme. de Sairmeuse must pay for the baptism as she had paid for the wedding, only too happy that Chupin did not require her to stand as godmother to little Polyte. He had entertained this idea at first.
On two occasions Mme. Blanche accompanied her husband to Vienna and to London, whither he went charged with important diplomatic missions. She remained three years in foreign lands.
Each week during all that time she received one letter, at least, from Chupin.
Ah! many a time she envied the lot of her victim! What was Marie-Anne’s death compared with the life she led?
Her sufferings were measured by years, Marie-Anne’s by minutes; and she said to herself, again and again, that the torture of poison could not be as intolerable as her agony.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08