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Chapter 15

THE PAPERS.


Mercy from him!
And how can I expect it?
By what right
Can I demand he should withhold his claim,
The proofs once in his power?—Anonymous.

Paul ran to Marguerite, and caught her in his arms; she was pale and icy cold. He carried her into the first room, placed her in an arm chair, returned to the door which had remained open, and closed it, and then hastened back.

"What is it that so terrifies you? who is pursuing you? and how does it happen that you come here at this unusual hour?"

"Oh!" exclaimed Marguerite, "at any hour, whether by day or night, I should have flown as long as the earth would have borne me! I should have flown till I had found some heart in which I could have poured forth my sorrows, an arm capable of defending me. Paul! Paul! my father is dead?"

"Poor child!" said Paul, pressing Marguerite to his heart, "who flies from one house of death to fall into another; who leaves death in the castle, to find it in the cottage."

"Yes, yes!" cried Marguerite rising, still trembling with terror, and convulsively pressing Paul's arm. "Death is yonder, and I find death here! but yonder it is attended with despair and fear, while here it is met with tranquillity and hope. Oh! Paul! Paul! had you but seen that which I have seen!"

"Tell me all that happened."

"You saw the terrible effect produced by your appearance, and the mere sound of your voice?"

"Yes, I saw that."

"They carried him still fainting and speechless into his own room."

"It was to your mother that I spoke," said Paul, "and he heard me; I could not foresee it would so much have terrified him."

"You full well know all that had passed, for you must have heard from the room in which you were concealed, every word we uttered. My father, my poor father, had recognized me, and I, seeing him thus, could, not repress my uneasiness: notwithstanding the risk I ran of irritating my mother, I went up to his room—the door was locked; I knocked softly at it. He had recovered his senses, for I heard a faint voice asking 'who was there?'"

"And your mother?" said Paul eagerly.

"My mother," replied Marguerite, "was no longer there, and she had locked him in as she would have done to a child; but when he had recognized my voice, when I had told him that it was his daughter Marguerite who wished to see him, he told me that I could get into the room by going down stairs again, and that in the study I should find a private staircase which led to it. A minute afterwards, I was kneeling by his bedside, and he gave me his blessing. Yes, Paul, I received his blessing before he died, his paternal benediction, which I trust will bring down the blessing of God upon my head."

"Yes," said Paul, "God will pardon you; you may now feel tranquil. Weep for your father, Marguerite, but weep no longer for yourself, for you are saved."

"You have heard nothing yet, Paul!" exclaimed Marguerite. "Hear me still."

"Proceed!"

"At the very moment when I was kneeling, kissing the hand of my father, and thanking him for the relief he had afforded my afflicted mind, I heard my mothers footstep on the staircase. I recognized her voice, and my father also recognized it, for he again embraced me, and made a sign to me to leave him. I obeyed him, but such was my terror and confusion, that I mistook the door, and instead of the staircase by which I had ascended, I found myself in a small cabinet which had no issue. I felt all around its walls, but could find no door. I was compelled to remain there. I then heard my mother, accompanied by the priest, entering my father's room—I restrained my breathing, fearing that she should hear me. I saw then through the glass window of the door, and I assure you, Paul, that she was paler than my father who was about to die."

"Gracious heaven!" murmured Paul.

"The priest seated himself by the bed-side," continued Marguerite, so terrified that she pressed still closer against Paul; "my mother remained standing at the foot of the bed—I was there, just opposite to them, compelled to remain a witness of that mournful spectacle, without the means of retreat!—a daughter, obliged to hear the dying confession of her father!—was it not horrible? I fell upon my knees, closing my eyes that I might not see—praying that I might not hear—and yet in spite of myself—and this I swear to you, Paul—I saw and I heard—Oh! what I then heard, can never be obliterated from my memory—I saw my father, whose recollections seemed to inspire him with a feverish strength, sit up in his bed, the paleness of death imprinted on his face. I heard him—I heard him pronounce the words, a duel—adultery—assassination!—and at each word he uttered, I saw my mother turn pale—and paler even than before—and I heard her raise her voice so that it might drown the voice of the dying man, saying to the priest: 'believe him not—believe him not, reverend father; what he says is false—or rather, he is mad, he knows not what he says—believe him not!' Oh! Paul, it was a dreadful spectacle, an impious sacrilege; a cold perspiration stood upon my forehead, and I fainted."

"Justice of Heaven!" cried Paul. "I know not how long I remained without consciousness. When I recovered my senses, the room was as silent as the tomb. My mother and the priest had disappeared, and two wax lights were burning near my father. I opened the door of the cabinet, and cast my eyes on the bed; it appeared to me that I could distinguish beneath the sheet which completely covered it, the stiffened form of a corpse. I divined that all was over! I remained motionless, divided between the funereal awe which such a sight inspired, and the pious desire of raising the covering to kiss once more before he should be inclosed in his coffin, the venerable forehead of my dear father. Fear, however, overcame every other feeling—an ice-like mortal, and invincible terror drove me from the room. I flew down the staircase, I know not how, but I believe without touching a single step,—I fled across the rooms and through the corridors, till the freshness of the air convinced me that I had left the castle. I fled, completely unconscious of whither my steps were leading me, until I remembered you had told me I should find you here. A secret instinct—tell me what it was—for I cannot myself comprehend it, had led me in this direction. It appeared to me that I was pursued by shadows, horrid phantoms. At the corner of one of the avenues I thought—(had I then lost my senses?)—I thought I saw my mother, dressed all in black, and walking as noiselessly as a sceptre. Oh! then, then! terror lent me wings—I at first fled without knowing whither; after this my strength failed me, and it was then you heard my cries. I dragged myself along a few more paces, and fell motionless at this door; had you not opened it, I should have expired upon the spot, for I was so much terrified, that it appeared to me,"—then suddenly pausing, Marguerite trembled, and whispered to Paul, "Silence! do you not hear?"

"Yes," replied Paul, instantly extinguishing the lamp, "yes, yes—footsteps—I hear them also."

"Look! look!" cried Marguerite, concealing herself behind the curtain of the window, and throwing them around Paul at the same moment—"look! I was not mistaken—it was my mother."

The door had been opened, and the marchioness, pale as a spectre, entered the room slowly, closed the door after her, and locked it, and then without observing Paul and Marguerite, went into the second room where Achard was lying. She then walked up to his bed, as she had only a short time before to that of the marquis, only that she was not now accompanied by a priest.

"Who is there?" said Achard, drawing back one of the curtains of his bed.

"It is I," replied the marchioness, drawing back the other curtain.

"You, madam," cried the old man with terror; "for what purpose have you come to the bedside of a dying man?"

"I have come to make a proposal to him."

"One that will lose his soul! is it not?"

"To save it, on the contrary. There is only one thing in this world, Achard, of which you stand in need," rejoined the marchioness, bending down over the bed of the dying man, "and that is a priest."

"You refused to allow the one who is attached to the castle to attend me."

"In five minutes, if you wish it, he shall be here."

"Let him be sent then," said the old man, "and believe me there is not a moment to be lost. He must come quickly."

"But if I give you the peace of heaven, you will give me in exchange peace on earth."

"What can I do for you?" murmured the dying man, closing his eyes, that he might not see a woman whose looks chilled him.

"You stand in need of a priest, that you may die in peace," said the marchioness, "you know the gift I require, in order to exist in tranquillity."

"You would close heaven to me by a perjury."

"I would open it to you by a pardon."

"That pardon I have already received."

"And from whom?—"

"From him who, perhaps, had alone the right to grant it to me."

"Has Morlaix then descended from heaven?" asked the marchioness, in a tone in which there was almost as much terror as irony.

"No, madam," replied he, "but have you forgotten that he left a son upon this earth?"

"Then you have also seen him," exclaimed the marchioness.

"Yes," replied Achard.

"And you have told him all——"

"All!"

"And the papers which prove his birth?" asked the marchioness, with trembling anxiety.

"The marquis was not dead—the papers are still there."

"Achard!" cried the marchioness, falling upon her knees, by the bedside. "Achard! you will take pity on me?"

"You, on your knees, before me, madam?"

"Yes, old man," replied the marchioness, in a supplicating tone, "yes, I am on my knees before you—and I beg, I implore you, for you hold in your hands the honor of one of the most ancient families in France—my past, my future life! Those papers are my heart, my soul—they are more than this—they are my name—the name of my forefathers—of my children—and you well know all that I have suffered to preserve that name unsullied. Do you believe that I had not a heart as other women have? the feelings of a lover, of a wife, and of a mother? Well! I have overcome them all, one by one, and the struggle has been long. I am twenty years younger than you are, old man, I am still in the prime of life, and you are on the verge of the grave. Look, then, upon these hairs; they are even whiter than your own."

"What says she?" whispered Marguerite, who had softly crept to the door, and could see all that was passing in the inner room. "Gracious heaven!"

"Listen, listen, dear child," said Paul, "it is the Lord who permits that all shall be thus revealed."

"Yes, yes," murmured Achard, who was becoming weaker every moment. "Yes, you doubted the goodness of the Lord, you had forgotten that he had forgiven the adulterous woman—"

"Yes, but when she met with Christ, men were about to cast stones at her—men, who for twenty generations have been accustomed to revere our name, to honor our family—did they but learn, that which, thank heaven! has heretofore been hidden from them—would hear it uttered with shame and with contempt. I have so much suffered, that God will pardon me—but man! men are so implacable, that they will not pardon—moreover, am I alone exposed to their insults—on either side, the cross I bear, have I not a child?—and is not the other that we speak of, the first-born? In the eyes of the law, is he not the son of the Marquis d'Auray? do you forget that he is the first-born, the head of the family? Do you not know, that in order to possess himself of the title, the estates, the fortune of the family of Auray, he has only to invoke the law? and then what would remain to Emanuel? The cross of the order of Malta—and to Marguerite?—a convent."

"Oh! yes, yes," whispered Marguerite, and stretching out her arms, toward the marchioness, "yes, a convent, in which I would pray for you, my mother."

"Silence! silence!" whispered Paul.

"Oh! you know him not," said Achard, whose voice was scarcely audible.

"No! but I know human nature," replied the marchioness, "he may recover a name, he! who has no name—a fortune, he! who has no fortune. And do you believe he would renounce that fortune and that name."

"Should you ask it of him, he would."

"And by what right could I demand it?" said the marchioness; "by what right could I ask him to spare me, to spare Emanuel, to spare Marguerite? He would say, 'I do not know you, madam—I have never seen you—you are my mother, and that is all I know.'"

"In his name," stammered Achard, whose tongue death was beginning to benumb, "in his name, madam, I engage, I swear—oh! my God! my God!"

The marchioness arose, observing attentively by the old man's features, the approach of death.

"You engage, you swear!" she said, "is he here to ratify this engagement—you engage! you swear! and on your word, you would, that I should stake the years I have yet to live, against the moments which yet remain between you and death! I have entreated, I have implored, and again, I entreat and implore you to give up those papers to me."

"Those papers now are his."

"I must have them! I repeat, I must have them," continued the marchioness, gaining strength, as the dying man became more feeble.

"My God! my God! have mercy upon me!" murmured Achard.

"No one can now come," rejoined the marchioness "you told me that you wore the key of that closet always about you——"

"Would you wrest it from the hands of a dying man?"

"No," replied the marchioness, "I will wait."

"Let me die in peace," exclaimed Achard tearing the crucifix from the head of his bed, and raising it between, himself and the marchioness, he cried: "leave me! leave me; in the name of Jesus Christ!"

The marchioness fell upon her knees, bowing her head to the ground. The old man, for a moment, remained in the same awful attitude; then, by degrees, his strength forsook him, and he fell back on his bed, crossed his arms, and pressed the image of the Saviour to his breast.

The marchioness seized the lower part of the two curtains, and without raising her head, she crossed them in such a manner as to conceal the last struggles of the dying man.

"Horror! horror!" murmured Marguerite.

"Let us kneel, and pray," said Paul.

A moment of solemn and dreadful silence then ensued, which was only interrupted by the last gasps of the dying man; these gasps became fainter by degrees, and then ceased altogether. All was over; the old man was dead.

The marchioness slowly raised her head, listened with intense anxiety for some minutes, and then, without opening the curtains, passed her hand between them, and after some effort, withdrew her hand again—she had obtained the key. She then silently arose, and with her face still turned toward the bed, walked to the closet. But at the moment she was about to unlock it, Paul, who was observing all her movements, rushed into the room, and seizing her by the arm, said—?

"Give me that key, my mother! for the marquis is dead, and those papers now belong to me."

"Justice of heaven!" exclaimed the marchioness, starting back with terror, and falling into a chair, "justice of heaven! it is my son!"

"Merciful heaven!" murmured Marguerite, throwing herself upon her knees in the outer room: "merciful heaven! he is my brother!"

Paul opened the closet, and took the casket which contained the papers.



Alexandre Dumas pere

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