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The Count de Tremorel did not anticipate that the respite which Bertha begged would last long. Sauvresy had seemed better during the last week. He got up every day, and commenced to go about the house; he even received numerous visits from the neighbors; without apparent fatigue. But alas, the master of Valfeuillu was only the shadow of himself. His friends would never have recognized in that emaciated form and white face, and burning, haggard eye, the robust young man with red lips and beaming visage whom they remembered. He had suffered so! He did not wish to die before avenging himself on the wretches who had filched his happiness and his life. But what punishment should he inflict? This fixed idea burning in his brain, gave his look a fiery eagerness. Ordinarily, there are three modes in which a betrayed husband may avenge himself. He has the right, and it is almost a duty - to deliver the guilty ones up to the law, which is on his side. He may adroitly watch them, surprise them and kill them. There is a law which does not absolve, but excuses him, in this. Lastly, he may affect a stolid indifference, laugh the first and loudest at his misfortune, drive his wife from his roof, and leave her to starve. But what poor, wretched methods of vengeance. Give up his wife to the law? Would not that be to offer his name, honor, and life to public ridicule? To put himself at the mercy of a lawyer, who would drag him through the mire. They do not defend the erring wife, they attack her husband. And what satisfaction would he get? Bertha and Tremorel would be condemned to a year's imprisonment, perhaps eighteen months, possibly two years. It seemed to him simpler to kill them. He might go in, fire a revolver at them, and they would not have time to comprehend it, for their agony would be but for a moment; and then? Then, he must become a prisoner, submit to a trial, invoke the judge's mercy, and risk conviction. As to turning his wife out of doors, that was to hand her over quietly to Hector. He imagined them leaving Valfeuillu, hand in hand, happy and smiling, and laughing in his face. At this thought he had a fit of cold rage; his self-esteem adding the sharpest pains to the wounds in his heart. None of these vulgar methods could satisfy him. He longed for some revenge unheard-of, strange, monstrous, as his tortures were. Then he thought of all the horrible tales he had read, seeking one to his purpose; he had a right to be particular, and he was determined to wait until he was satisfied. There was only one thing that could balk his progress - Jenny's letter. What had become of it? Had he lost it in the woods? He had looked for it everywhere, and could not find it.
He accustomed himself, however, to feign, finding a sort of fierce pleasure in the constraint. He learned to assume a countenance which completely hid his thoughts. He submitted to his wife's caresses without an apparent shudder; and shook Hector by the hand as heartily as ever. In the evening, when they were gathered about the drawing-room table, he was the gayest of the three. He built a hundred air-castles, pictured a hundred pleasure-parties, when he was able to go abroad again. Hector rejoiced at his returning health.
"Clement is getting on finely," said he to Bertha, one evening.
She understood only too well what he meant.
"Always thinking of Laurence?"
"Did you not permit me to hope?"
"I asked you to wait, Hector, and you have done well not to be in a hurry. I know a young girl who would bring you, not one, but three millions as dowry."
This was a painful surprise. He really had no thoughts for anyone but Laurence, and now a new obstacle presented itself.
"And who is that?"
She leaned over, and whispered tremblingly in his ear:
"I am Clement's sole heiress; perhaps he'll die; I might be a widow to-morrow."
Hector was petrified.
"But Sauvresy, thank God! is getting well fast."
Bertha fixed her large, clear eyes upon him, and with frightful calmness said:
"What do you know about it?"
Tremorel dared not ask what these strange words meant. He was one of those men who shun explanations, and who, rather than put themselves on their guard in time, permit themselves to be drawn on by circumstances; soft and feeble beings, who deliberately bandage their eyes so as not to see the danger which threatens them, and who prefer the sloth of doubt, and acts of uncertainty to a definite and open position, which they have not the courage to face.
Besides, Hector experienced a childish satisfaction in seeing Bertha's distress, though he feared and detested her. He conceived a great opinion of his own value and merit, when he saw the persistency and desperation with which she insisted on keeping her hold on him.
"Poor woman!" thought he. "In her grief at losing me, and seeing me another's, she has begun to wish for her husband's death!"
Such was the torpor of his moral sense that he did not see the vileness of Bertha's and his own thoughts.
Meanwhile Sauvresy's state was not reassuring for Hector's hopes and plans. On the very day when he had this conversation with Bertha, her husband was forced to take to his bed again. This relapse took place after he had drank a glass of quinine and water, which he had been accustomed to take just before supper; only, this time, the symptoms changed entirely, as if one malady had yielded to another of a very different kind. He complained of a pricking in his skin, of vertigo, of convulsive twitches which contracted and twisted his limbs, especially his arms. He cried out with excruciating neuralgic pains in the face. He was seized with a violent, persistent, tenacious craving for pepper, which nothing could assuage. He was sleepless, and morphine in large doses failed to bring him slumber; while he felt an intense chill within him, as if the body's temperature were gradually diminishing. Delirium had completely disappeared, and the sick man retained perfectly the clearness of his mind. Sauvresy bore up wonderfully under his pains, and seemed to take a new interest in the business of his estates. He was constantly in consultation with bailiffs and agents, and shut himself up for days together with notaries and attorneys. Then, saying that he must have distractions, he received all his friends, and when no one called, he sent for some acquaintance to come and chat with him in order to forget his illness. He gave no hint of what he was doing and thinking, and Bertha was devoured by anxiety. She often watched for her husband's agent, when, after a conference of several hours, he came out of his room; and making herself as sweet and fascinating as possible, she used all her cunning to find out something which would enlighten her as to what he was about. But no one could, or at least would, satisfy her curiosity; all gave evasive replies, as if Sauvresy had cautioned them, or as if there were nothing to tell.
No complaints were heard from Sauvresy. He talked constantly of Bertha and Hector; he wished all the world to know their devotion to him; he called them his "guardian' angels," and blessed Heaven that had given him such a wife and such a friend. Sauvresy's illness now became so serious that Tremorel began to despair; he became alarmed; what position would his friend's death leave him in? Bertha, having become a widow, would be implacable. He resolved to find out her inmost thoughts at the first opportunity; she anticipated him, and saved him the trouble of broaching the subject. One afternoon, when they were alone, M. Plantat being in attendance at the sick man's bedside, Bertha commenced.
"I want some advice, Hector, and you alone can give it to me. How can I find out whether Clement, within the past day or two, has not changed his will in regard to me?"
"Yes, I've already told you that by a will of which I myself have a copy, Sauvresy has left me his whole fortune. I fear that he may perhaps revoke it."
"What an idea!"
"Ah, I have reasons for my apprehensions. What are all these agents and attorneys doing at Valfeuillu? A stroke of this man's pen may ruin me. Don't you see that he can deprive me of his millions, and reduce me to my dowry of fifty thousand francs?"
But he will not do it; he loves you - "
"Are you sure of it? I've told you, there are three millions; I must have this fortune - not for myself, but for you; I want it, I must have it! But how can I find out - how? how?"
Hector was very indignant. It was to this end, then, that his delays had conducted him! She thought that she had a right now to dispose of him in spite of himself, and, as it were, to purchase him. And he could not, dared not, say anything!
"We must be patient," said he, "and wait - "
"Wait-for what? Till he's dead?"
"Don't speak so."
"Why not?" Bertha went up to him, and in a low voice, muttered:
"He has only a week to live; and see here - "
She drew a little vial from her pocket, and held it up to him.
"That is what convinces me that I am not mistaken."
Hector became livid, and could not stifle a cry of horror. He comprehended all now - he saw how it was that Bertha had been so easily subdued, why she had refrained from speaking of Laurence, her strange words, her calm confidence.
"Poison!" stammered he, confounded.
"You have not used it?"
She fixed a hard, stern look upon him - the look which had subdued his will, against which he had struggled in vain - and in a calm voice, emphasizing each word, answered:
"I have used it."
The count was, indeed, a dangerous man, unscrupulous, not recoiling from any wickedness when his passions were to be indulged, capable of everything; but this horrible crime awoke in him all that remained of honest energy.
"'Well," he cried, in disgust, "you will not use it again!"
He hastened toward the door, shuddering; she stopped him.
"Reflect before you act," said she, coldly. "I will betray the fact of your relations with me; who will then believe that you are not my accomplice?"
He saw the force of this terrible menace, coming from Bertha.
"Come," said she, ironically, "speak - betray me if you choose. Whatever happens, for happiness or misery, we shall no longer be separated; our destinies will be the same."
Hector fell heavily into a chair, more overwhelmed than if he had been struck with a hammer. He held his bursting forehead between his hands; he saw himself shut up in an infernal circle, without outlet.
"I am lost!" he stammered, without knowing what he said," I am lost!
He was to be pitied; his face was terribly haggard, great drops of perspiration stood at the roots of his hair, his eyes wandered as if he were insane. Bertha shook him rudely by the arm, for his cowardice exasperated her.
"You are afraid," she said. "You are trembling! Lost? You would not say so, if you loved me as I do you. Will you be lost because I am to be your wife, because we shall be free to love in the face of all the world? Lost! Then you have no idea of what I have endured? You don't know, then, that I am tired of suffering, fearing, feigning."
"Such a crime!"
She burst out with a laugh that made him shudder.
"You ought to have said so," said she, with a look full of contempt, "the day you won me from Sauvresy - the day that you stole the wife of this friend who saved your life. Do you think that was a less horrid crime? You knew as well as I did how much my husband loved me, and that he would have preferred to die, rather than lose me thus."
"But he knows nothing, suspects nothing of it."
"You are mistaken; Sauvresy knows all."
"All, I tell you-and he has known all since that day when he came home so late from hunting. Don't you remember that I noticed his strange look, and said to you that my husband suspected something? You shrugged your shoulders. Do you forget the steps in the vestibule the night I went to your room? He had been spying on us. Well, do you want a more certain proof? Look at this letter, which I found, crumpled up and wet, in one of his vest pockets."
She showed him the letter which Sauvresy had forcibly taken from Jenny, and he recognized it well.
"It is a fatality," said he, overwhelmed. "But we can separate and break off with each other. Bertha, I can go away."
"It's too late. Believe me, Hector, we are to-day defending our lives. Ah, you don't know Clement! You don't know what the fury of a man like him can be, when he sees that his confidence has been outrageously abused, and his trust vilely betrayed. If he has said nothing to me, and has not let us see any traces of his implacable anger, it is because he is meditating some frightful vengeance."
This was only too probable, and Hector saw it clearly.
"What shall we do?" he asked, in a hoarse voice; he was almost speechless.
"Find out what change he has made in his will."
"I don't know yet. I came to ask your advice, and I find you more cowardly than a woman. Let me act, then; don't do anything yourself; I will do all."
He essayed an objection.
"Enough," said she. "He must not ruin us after all - I will see - I will think."
Someone below called her. She went down, leaving Hector overcome with despair.
That evening, during which Bertha seemed happy and smiling, his face finally betrayed so distinctly the traces of his anguish, that Sauvresy tenderly asked him if he were not ill?
"You exhaust yourself tending on me, my good Hector," said he. "How can I ever repay your devotion?"
Tremorel had not the strength to reply.
"And that man knows all," thought he. "What courage! What fate can he be reserving for us?"
The scene which was passing before Hector's eyes made his flesh creep. Every time that Bertha gave her husband his medicine, she took a hair-pin from her tresses, and plunged it into the little vial which she had shown him, taking up thus some small, white grains, which she dissolved in the potions prescribed by the doctor.
It might be supposed that Tremorel, enslaved by his horrid position, and harassed by increasing terror, would renounce forever his proposed marriage with Laurence. Not so. He clung to that project more desperately than ever. Bertha's threats, the great obstacles now intervening, his anguish, crime, only augmented the violence of his love for her, and fed the flame of his ambition to secure her as his wife. A small and flickering ray of hope which lighted the darkness of his despair, consoled and revived him, and made the present more easy to bear. He said to himself that Bertha could not be thinking of marrying him the day after her husband's death. Months, a whole year must pass, and thus he would gain time; then some day he would declare his will. What would she have to say? Would she divulge the crime, and try to hold him as her accomplice? Who would believe her? How could she prove that he, who loved and had married another woman, had any interest in Sauvresy's death? People don't kill their friends for the mere pleasure of it. Would she provoke the law to exhume her husband? She was now in a position, thought he, wherein she could, or would not exercise her reason. Later on, she would reflect, and then she would be arrested by the probability of those dangers, the certainty of which did not now terrify her.
He did not wish that she should ever be his wife at any price. He would have detested her had she possessed millions; he hated her now that she was poor, ruined, reduced to her own narrow means. And that she was so, there was no doubt, Sauvresy indeed knew all. He was content to wait; he knew that Laurence loved him enough to wait for him one, or three years, if necessary. He already had such absolute power over her, that she did not try to combat the thoughts of him, which gently forced themselves on her, penetrated to her soul, and filled her mind and heart. Hector said to himself that in the interest of his designs, perhaps it was well that Bertha was acting as she did. He forced himself to stifle his conscience in trying to prove that he was not guilty. Who thought of this crime? Bertha. Who was executing it? She alone. He could only be reproached with moral complicity in it, a complicity involuntary, forced upon him, imposed somehow by the care for his own life. Sometimes, however, a bitter remorse seized him. He could have understood a sudden, violent, rapid murder; could have explained to himself a knife-stroke; but this slow death, given drop by drop, horribly sweetened by tenderness, veiled under kisses, appeared to him unspeakably hideous. He was mortally afraid of Bertha, as of a reptile, and when she embraced him he shuddered from head to foot.
She was so calm, so engaging, so natural; her voice had the same soft and caressing tones, that he could not forget it. She plunged her hair-pin into the fatal vial without ceasing her conversation, and he did not surprise her in any shrinking or shuddering, nor even a trembling of the eyelids. She must have been made of brass. Yet he thought that she was not cautious enough; and that she put herself in danger of discovery; and he told her of these fears, and how she made him tremble every moment.
Have confidence in me," she answered. "I want to succeed - I am prudent."
"But you may be suspected."
"Eh! How do Iknow? Everyone - the servants, the doctor."
"No danger. And suppose they did suspect?"
"They would make examinations, Bertha; they would make a minute scrutiny."
She gave a smile of the most perfect security.
"They might examine and experiment as much as they pleased, they would find nothing. Do you think I am such a fool as to use arsenic?"
"For Heaven's sake, hush!"
"I have procured one of those poisons which are as yet unknown, and which defy all analysis; one of which many doctors - and learned ones, too - could not even tell the symptoms!"
"But where did you get this - this - "
He dared not say, "poison."
"Who gave you that?" resumed he.
"What matters it? I have taken care that he who gave it to me should run the same danger as myself, and he knows it. There's nothing to fear from that quarter. I've paid him enough to smother all his regrets."
An objection came to his lips; he wanted to say, "It's too slow;" but he had not the courage, though she read his thought in his eyes.
"It is slow, because that suits me," said she. "Be fore all, I must know about the will - and that I am trying to find out."
She occupied herself constantly about this will, and during the long hours that she passed at Sauvresy's bedside, she gradually, with the greatest craft and delicacy, led her husband's mind in the direction of his last testament, with such success that he himself mentioned the subject which so absorbed Bertha.
He said that he did not comprehend why people did not always have their worldly affairs in order, and their wishes fully written down, in case of accident. What difference did it make whether one were ill or well? At these words Bertha attempted to stop him. Such ideas, she said, pained her too much. She even shed real tears, which fell down her cheeks and made her more beautiful and irresistible than before; real tears which moistened her handkerchief.
"You dear silly creature," said Sauvresy, "do you think that makes one die?"
"No; but I do not wish it."
"But, dear, have we been any the less happy because, on the day after our marriage, I made a will bequeathing you all my fortune? And, stop; you have a copy of it, haven't you? If you were kind, you would go and fetch it for me."
She became very red, then very pale. Why did he ask for this copy? Did he want to tear it up? A sudden thought reassured her; people do not tear up a document which can be cancelled by a scratch of the pen on another sheet of paper. Still, she hesitated a moment.
"I don't know where it can be."
"But I do. It is in the left-hand drawer of the glass cupboard; come, please me by getting it."
While she was gone, Sauvresy said to Hector:
"Poor girl! Poor dear Bertha! If I died, she never would survive me!"
Tremorel thought of nothing to reply; his anxiety was intense and visible.
"And this man," thought he, "suspects something! No; it is not possible."
"I have found it," said she.
"Give it to me."
He took the copy of his will, and read it with evident satisfaction, nodding his head at certain passages in which he referred to his love for his wife. When he had finished reading, he said:
"Now give me a pen and some ink."
Hector and Bertha reminded him that it would fatigue him to write; but he insisted. The two guilty ones, seated at the foot of the bed and out of Sauvresy's sight, exchanged looks of alarm. What was he going to write? But he speedily finished it.
"Take this," said he to Tremorel, "and read aloud what I have just added."
Hector complied with his friend's request, with trembling voice:
"This day, being sound in mind, though much suffering, I declare that I do not wish to change a line of this will. Never have I loved my wife more - never have I so much desired to leave her the heiress of all I possess, should I die before her.
Mistress of herself as Bertha was, she succeeded in concealing the unspeakable satisfaction with which she was filled. All her wishes were accomplished, and yet she was able to veil her delight under an apparent sadness.
"Of what good is this?" said she, with a sigh.
She said this, but half an hour afterward, when she was alone with Hector, she gave herself up to the extravagance of her delight.
"Nothing more to fear," exclaimed she. "Nothing! Now we shall have liberty, fortune, love, pleasure, life! Why, Hector, we shall have at least three millions; you see, I've got this will myself, and I shall keep it. No more agents or notaries shall be admitted into this house henceforth. Now I must hasten!"
The count certainly felt a satisfaction in knowing her to be rich, for he could much more easily get rid of a millionnaire widow than of a poor penniless woman. Sauvresy's conduct thus calmed many sharp anxieties. Her restless gayety, however, her confident security, seemed monstrous to Hector. He would have wished for more solemnity in the execution of the crime; he thought that he ought at least to calm Bertha's delirium.
"You will think more than once of Sauvresy," said he, in a graver tone.
She answered with a "prrr," and added vivaciously:
"Of him? when and why? Oh, his memory will not weigh on me very heavily. I trust that we shall be able to live still at Valfeuillu, for the place pleases me; but we must also have a house at Paris - or we will buy yours back again. What happiness, Hector!"
The mere prospect of this anticipated felicity so shocked Hector, that his better self for the moment got the mastery; he essayed to move Bertha.
"For the last time," said he, "I implore you to renounce this terrible, dangerous project. You see that you were mistaken - that Sauvresy suspects nothing, but loves you as well as ever."
The expression of Bertha's face suddenly changed; she sat quite still, in a pensive revery.
"Don't let's talk any more of that," said she, at last. "Perhaps I was mistaken. Perhaps he only had doubts - perhaps, although he has discovered something, he hopes to win me back by his goodness. But you see - "
She stopped. Doubtless she did not wish to alarm him.
He was already much alarmed. The next day he went off to Melun without a word; being unable to bear the sight of this agony, and fearing to betray himself. But he left his address, and when she sent word that Sauvresy was always crying out for him, he hastily returned. Her letter was most imprudent and absurd, and made his hair stand on end. He had intended, on his arrival, to reproach her; but it was she who upbraided him.
"Why this flight?"
"I could not stay here - I suffered, trembled, felt as if I were dying."
"What a coward you are!"
He would have replied, but she put her finger on his mouth, and pointed with her other hand to the door of the next room.
"Sh! Three doctors have been in consultation there for the past hour, and I haven't been able to hear a word of what they said. Who knows what they are about? I shall not be easy till they go away."
Bertha's fears were not without foundation. When Sauvresy had his last relapse, and complained of a severe neuralgia in the face and an irresistible craving for pepper, Dr. R- had uttered a significant exclamation. It was nothing, perhaps - yet Bertha had heard it, and she thought she surprised a sudden suspicion on the doctor's part; and this now disturbed her, for she thought that it might be the subject of the consultation. The suspicion, however, if there had ever been any, quickly vanished. The symptoms entirely changed twelve hours later, and the next day the sick man felt pains quite the opposite of those which had previously distressed him. This very inconstancy of the distemper served to puzzle the doctor's conclusions. Sauvresy, in these latter days, had scarcely suffered at all, he said, and had slept well at night; but he had, at times, strange and often distressing sensations. He was evidently failing hourly; he was dying - everyone perceived it. And now Dr. R- asked for a consultation, the result of which had not been reached when Tremorel returned.
The drawing-room door at last swung open, and the calm faces of the physicians reassured the poisoner. Their conclusions were that the case was hopeless; everything had been tried and exhausted; no human resources had been neglected; the only hope was in Sauvresy's strong constitution.
Bertha, colder than marble, motionless, her eyes full of tears, seemed so full of grief on hearing this cruel decision, that all the doctors were touched.
"Is there no hope then? Oh, my God!" cried she, in agonizing tones.
Dr. R- hardly dared to attempt to comfort her; he answered her questions evasively.
"We must never despair," said he, "when the invalid is of Sauvresy's age and constitution; nature often works miracles when least expected."
The doctor, however, lost no time in taking Hector apart and begging him to prepare the poor, devoted, loving young lady for the terrible blow about to ensue.
"For you see," added he, "I don't think Monsieur Sauvresy can live more than two days!"
Bertha, with her ear at the keyhole, had heard the doctor's prediction; and when Hector returned from conducting the physician to the door, he found her radiant. She rushed into his arms.
"Now' cried she, "the future truly belongs to us. Only one black point obscured our horizon, and it has cleared away. It is for me to realize Doctor R-'s prediction." They dined together, as usual, in the dining-room, while one of the chambermaids remained beside the sick-bed. Bertha was full of spirits which she could scarcely control. The certainty of success and safety, the assurance of reaching the end, made her imprudently gay. She spoke aloud, even in the presence of the servants, of her approaching liberty. During the evening she was more reckless than ever. If any of the servants should have a suspicion, or a shadow of one she might be discovered and lost. Hector constantly nudged her under the table and frowned at her, to keep her quiet; he felt his blood run cold at her conduct; all in vain. There are times when the armor of hypocrisy becomes so burdensome that one is forced, cost what it may, to throw it off if only for an instant.
While Hector was smoking his cigar, Bertha was more freely pursuing her dream. She was thinking that she could spend the period of her mourning at Valfeuillu, and Hector, for the sake of appearances, would hire a pretty little house somewhere in the suburbs. The worst of it all was that she would be forced to seem to mourn for Sauvresy, as she had pretended to love him during his lifetime. But at last a day would come when, without scandal, she might throw off her mourning clothes, and then they would get married. Where? At Paris or Orcival?
Hector's thoughts ran in the same channel. He, too, wished to see his friend under the ground to end his own terrors, and to submit to Bertha's terrible yoke.
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