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Kneeling by the half-open door, Blanche eagerly watched the workings of the poison which she had administered.
She was so near her victim that she could distinguish the throbbing of her temples, and sometimes she fancied she could feel upon her cheek her rival's breath, which scorched like flame.
An utter prostration followed Marie-Anne's paroxysm of agony. One would have supposed her dead had it not been for the convulsive workings of the jaws and her labored breathing.
But soon the nausea returned, and she was seized with vomiting. Each effort to relieve seemed to wrench her whole body; and gradually a ghastly tint crept over her face, the spots upon her cheeks became more pronounced in tint, her eyes appeared ready to burst from their sockets, and great drops of perspiration rolled down her cheeks.
Her sufferings must have been intolerable. She moaned feebly at times, and occasionally rendered heart-rending shrieks. Then she faltered fragmentary sentences; she begged piteously for water or entreated God to shorten her torture.
"Ah, it is horrible! I suffer too much! Death! My God! grant me death!"
She invoked all the friends she had ever known, calling for aid in a despairing voice.
She called Mme. d'Escorval, the abbe, Maurice, her brother, Chanlouineau, Martial!
Martial, this name was more than sufficient to extinguish all pity in the heart of Mme. Blanche.
"Go on! call your lover, call!" she said to herself, bitterly. "He will come too late."
And as Marie-Anne repeated the name in a tone of agonized entreaty:
"Suffer!" continued Mme. Blanche, "suffer, you who have inspired Martial with the odious courage to forsake me, his wife, as a drunken lackey would abandon the lowest of degraded creatures! Die, and my husband will return to me repentant."
No, she had no pity. She felt a difficulty in breathing, but that resulted simply from the instinctive horror which the sufferings of others inspire--an entirely different physical impression, which is adorned with the fine name of sensibility, but which is, in reality, the grossest selfishness.
And yet, Marie-Anne was perceptibly sinking. Soon she had not strength even to moan; her eyes closed, and after a spasm which brought a bloody foam to her lips, her head sank back, and she lay motionless.
"It is over," murmured Blanche.
She rose, but her limbs trembled so that she could scarcely stand.
Her heart remained firm and implacable; but the flesh failed.
Never had she imagined a scene like that which she had just witnessed. She knew that poison caused death; she had not suspected the agony of that death.
She no longer thought of augmenting Marie-Anne's sufferings by upbraiding her. Her only desire now was to leave this house, whose very floor seemed to scorch her feet.
A strange, inexplicable sensation crept over her; it was not yet fright, it was the stupor that follows the commission of a terrible crime--the stupor of the murderer.
Still, she compelled herself to wait a few moments longer; then seeing that Marie-Anne still remained motionless and with closed eyes, she ventured to softly open the door and to enter the room in which her victim was lying.
But she had not advanced three steps before Marie-Anne suddenly, and as if she had been galvanized by an electric battery, rose and extended her arms to bar her enemy's passage.
This movement was so unexpected and so frightful that Mme. Blanche recoiled.
"The Marquise de Sairmeuse," faltered Marie-Anne. "You, Blanche-- here!"
And her suffering, explained by the presence of this young girl who once had been her friend, but who was now her bitterest enemy, she exclaimed:
"You are my murderer!"
Blanche de Courtornieu's was one of those iron natures that break, but never bend.
Since she had been discovered, nothing in the world would induce her to deny her guilt.
She advanced resolutely, and in a firm voice:
"Yes," she said, "I have taken my revenge. Do you think I did not suffer that evening when you sent your brother to take away my newly wedded husband, upon whose face I have not gazed since?"
"Your husband! I sent to take him away! I do not understand you."
"Do you then dare to deny that you are not Martial's mistress!"
"The Marquis de Sairmeuse! I saw him yesterday for the first time since Baron d'Escorval's escape."
The effort which she had made to rise and to speak had exhausted her strength. She fell back in the armchair.
But Blanche was pitiless.
"You have not seen Martial! Tell me, then, who gave you this costly furniture, these silken hangings, all the luxury that surrounds you?"
Blanche shrugged her shoulders.
"So be it," she said, with an ironical smile, "but is it Chanlouineau for whom you are waiting this evening? Is it for Chanlouineau you have warmed these slippers and laid this table? Was it Chanlouineau who sent his clothing by a peasant named Poignot? You see that I know all----"
But her victim was silent.
"For whom are you waiting?" she insisted. "Answer!"
"You know that it is your lover! wretched woman--my husband, Martial!"
Marie-Anne was considering the situation as well as her intolerable sufferings and troubled mind would permit.
Could she tell what guests she was expecting?
To name Baron d'Escorval to Blanche, would it not ruin and betray him? They hoped for a safe-conduct, a revision of judgment, but he was none the less under sentence of death, executory in twenty-four hours.
"So you refuse to tell me whom you expect here in an hour--at midnight."
But a sudden impulse took possession of the sufferer's mind.
Though the slightest movement caused her intolerable agony, she tore open her dress and drew from her bosom a folded paper.
"I am not the mistress of the Marquis de Sairmeuse," she said, in an almost inaudible voice; "I am the wife of Maurice d'Escorval. Here is the proof--read."
No sooner had Blanche glanced at the paper, than she became as pale as her victim. Her sight failed her; there was a strange ringing in her ears, a cold sweat started from every pore.
This paper was the marriage-certificate of Maurice and Marie-Anne, drawn up by the cure of Vigano, witnessed by the old physician and Bavois, and sealed with the seal of the parish.
The proof was indisputable. She had committed a useless crime; she had murdered an innocent woman.
The first good impulse of her life made her heart beat more quickly. She did not stop to consider; she forgot the danger to which she exposed herself, and in a ringing voice she cried:
Eleven o'clock was sounding; the whole country was asleep. The farm- house nearest the Borderie was half a league distant.
The voice of Blanche was lost in the deep stillness of the night.
In the garden below Aunt Medea heard it, perhaps; but she would have allowed herself to be chopped in pieces rather than stir from her place.
And yet, there was one who heard that cry of distress. Had Blanche and her victim been less overwhelmed with despair, they would have heard a noise upon the staircase which creaked beneath the tread of a man who was cautiously ascending it. But it was not a saviour, for he did not answer the appeal. But even though there had been aid near at hand, it would have come too late.
Marie-Anne felt that there was no longer any hope for her, and that it was the chill of death which was creeping up to her heart. She felt that her life was fast ebbing away.
So, when Blanche seemed about to rush out in search of assistance, she detained her by a gesture, and gently said:
The murderess paused.
"Do not summon anyone; it would do no good. Remain; be calm, that I may at least die in peace. It will not be long now."
"Hush! do not speak so. You must not, you shall not die! If you should die--great God! what would my life be afterward?"
Marie-Anne made no reply. The poison was pursuing its work of dissolution. Her breath made a whistling sound as it forced its way through her inflamed throat; her tongue, when she moved it, produced in her mouth the terrible sensation of a piece of red-hot iron; her lips were parched and swollen; her hands, inert and paralyzed, would no longer obey her will.
But the horror of the situation restored Blanche's calmness.
"All is not yet lost," she exclaimed. "It was in that great box there upon the table, where I found"--she dared not utter the word poison-- "the white powder which I poured into the bowl. You know this powder; you must know the antidote."
Marie-Anne sadly shook her head.
"Nothing can save me now," she murmured, in an almost inaudible voice; "but I do not complain. Who knows the misery from which death may preserve me? I do not crave life; I have suffered so much during the past year; I have endured such humiliation; I have wept so much! A curse was upon me!"
She was suddenly endowed with that clearness of mental vision so often granted to the dying. She saw how she had wrought her own undoing by consenting to accept the perfidious role imposed upon her by her father, and how she, herself, had paved the way for the falsehoods, slander, crimes and misfortunes of which she had been the victim.
Her voice grew fainter and fainter. Worn out by suffering, a sensation of drowsiness stole over her. She was falling asleep in the arms of death.
Suddenly such a terrible thought pierced the stupor which enveloped her that she uttered a heart-breaking cry:
Collecting, by a superhuman effort, all the will, energy, and strength that the poison had left her, she straightened herself in her arm- chair, her features contracted by mortal anguish.
"Blanche!" she said, with an energy of which one would have supposed her incapable. "Blanche, listen to me. It is the secret of my life which I am about to disclose; no one suspects it. I have a son by Maurice. Alas! many months have elapsed since my husband disappeared. If he is dead, what will become of my child? Blanche, you, who have killed me, must swear to me that you will be a mother to my child!"
Blanche was utterly overcome.
"I swear!" she sobbed, "I swear!"
"On that condition, but on that condition alone, I pardon you. But take care! Do not forget your oath! Blanche, God sometimes permits the dead to avenge themselves! You have sworn, remember.
"My spirit will allow you no rest if you do not fulfil your vow."
"I will remember," sobbed Blanche; "I will remember. But the child----"
"Ah! I was afraid--cowardly creature that I was! I dreaded the shame-- then Maurice insisted--I sent my child away--your jealousy and my death are my punishment. Poor child! I abandoned him to strangers. Wretched woman that I am! Ah! this suffering is too horrible. Blanche, remember----"
She spoke again, but her words were indistinct, inaudible.
Blanche frantically seized the dying woman's arm, and endeavored to arouse her.
"To whom have you confided your child?" she repeated; "to whom? Marie- Anne--a word more--a single word--a name, Marie-Anne!"
The unfortunate woman's lips moved, but the death-rattle sounded in her throat; a terrible convulsion shook her form; she slid down from the chair, and fell full length upon the floor.
Marie-Anne was dead--dead, and she had not disclosed the name of the old physician at Vigano to whom she had intrusted her child. She was dead, and the terrified murderess stood in the middle of the room, as rigid and motionless as a statue. It seemed to her that madness--a madness like that which had stricken her father--was developing itself in her brain.
She forgot everything; she forgot that a guest was expected at midnight, that time was flying, and that she would surely be discovered if she did not flee.
But the man who had entered when she cried for aid was watching over her. When he saw that Marie-Anne had breathed her last, he made a slight noise at the door, and thrust his leering face into the room.
"Chupin!" faltered Mme. Blanche.
"In the flesh," he responded. "This was a grand chance for you. Ah, ha! The business riled your stomach a little, but nonsense! that will soon pass off. But we must not dawdle here; someone may come in. Let us make haste."
Mechanically the murderess advanced; but Marie-Anne's dead body lay between her and the door, barring the passage. To leave the room it was necessary to step over the lifeless form of her victim. She had not courage to do this, and recoiled with a shudder.
But Chupin was troubled by no such scruples. He sprang across the body, lifted Blanche as if she had been a child and carried her out of the house.
He was drunk with joy. Fears for the future no longer disquieted him, now that Mme. Blanche was bound to him by the strongest of chains-- complicity in crime.
He saw himself on the threshold of a life of ease and continual feasting. Remorse for Lacheneur's betrayal had ceased to trouble him. He saw himself sumptuously fed, lodged and clothed; above all, effectually guarded by an army of servants.
Blanche, who had experienced a feeling of deadly faintness, was revived by the cool night air.
"I wish to walk," said she.
Chupin placed her on the ground about twenty paces from the house.
"And Aunt Medea!" she exclaimed.
Her relative was beside her; like one of those dogs who are left at the door when their master enters a house, she had, instinctively followed her niece on seeing her borne from the cottage by the old poacher.
"We must not stop to talk," said Chupin. "Come, I will lead the way."
And taking Blanche by the arm, he hastened toward the grove.
"Ah! so Marie-Anne had a child," he said, as they hurried on. "She was pretending to be such a saint! But where the devil has she put it?"
"I shall find it."
"Hum! That is easier said than done."
A shrill laugh, resounding in the darkness, interrupted him. He released his hold on the arm of Blanche and assumed an attitude of defence.
Vain precaution! A man concealed behind a tree bounded upon him, and, plunging his knife four times into the old poacher's writhing body, cried:
"Holy Virgin! now is my vow fulfilled! I shall no longer be obliged to eat with my fingers!"
"The innkeeper!" groaned the wounded man, sinking to the earth.
For once in her life, Aunt Medea manifested some energy.
"Come!" she shrieked, wild with fear, dragging her niece away. "Come-- he is dead!"
Not quite. The traitor had strength to crawl home and knock at the door.
His wife and youngest son were sleeping soundly. His eldest son, who had just returned home, opened the door.
Seeing his father prostrate on the ground, he thought he was intoxicated, and tried to lift him and carry him into the house, but the old poacher begged him to desist.
"Do not touch me," said he. "It is all over with me; but listen; Lacheneur's daughter has just been poisoned by Madame Blanche. It was to tell you this that I dragged myself here. This knowledge is worth a fortune, my boy, if you are not a fool!"
And he died, without being able to tell his family where he had concealed the price of Lacheneur's blood.
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