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Time passed. Hector and Bertha repaired to Sauvresy's room; he was asleep. They noiselessly took chairs beside the fire, as usual, and the maid retired. In order that the sick man might not be disturbed by the light of the lamp, curtains had been hung so that, when lying down, he could not see the fireplace and mantel. In order to see these, he must have raised himself on his pillow and leaned forward on his right arm. But now he was asleep, breathing painfully, feverish, and shuddering convulsively. Bertha and Hector did not speak; the solemn and sinister silence was only broken by the ticking of the clock, or by the leaves of the book which Hector was reading. Ten o'clock struck; soon after Sauvresy moved, turned over, and awoke. Bertha was at his side in an instant; she saw that his eyes were open.
Do you feel a little better, dear Clement?" she asked.
"Neither better nor worse."
"Do you want anything?"
"I am thirsty."
Hector, who had raised his eyes when his friend spoke, suddenly resumed his reading.
Bertha, standing by the mantel, began to prepare with great care Dr. R.-'s last prescription; when it was ready, she took out the fatal little vial as usual, and thrust one of her hair-pins into it.
She had not time to draw it out before she felt a light touch upon her shoulder. A shudder shook her from head to foot; she suddenly turned and uttered a loud scream, a cry of terror and horror.
The hand which had touched her was her husband's. While she was busied with the poison at the mantel, Sauvresy had softly raised himself; more softly still, he had pulled the curtain aside, and had stretched out his arm and touched her. His eyes glittered with hate and anger.
Bertha's cry was answered by another dull cry, or rather groan; Tremorel had seen and comprehended all; he was overwhelmed.
"All is discovered!" Their eyes spoke these three words to each other. They saw them everywhere, written in letters of fire. There was a moment of stupor, of silence so profound that Hector heard his temples beat. Sauvresy had got back under the bed-clothes again. He laughed loudly, wildly, just as a skeleton might have laughed whose jaws and teeth rattled together.
But Bertha was not one of those persons who are overcome by a single blow, terrible as it might be. She trembled like a leaf; her legs staggered; but her mind was already at work seeking a subterfuge. What had Sauvresy seen - anything? What did he know? For even had he seen the vial, this might be explained. It could only have been by simple chance that he had touched her at the moment when she was using the poison. All these thoughts flashed across her mind in a moment, as rapid as lightning shooting between the clouds. And then she dared to approach the bed, and, with a frightfully constrained smile, to say:
"How you frightened me then!"
He looked at her a moment, which seemed to her an age - and simply replied:
"I understand it."
There was no longer any uncertainty. Bertha saw only too well in her husband's eyes that he knew something. But what - how much? She nerved herself to go on:
"Are you still suffering?"
"Then why did you get up?"
He raised himself upon his pillow, and with a sudden strength, he continued:
"I got up to tell you that I have had enough of these tortures, that I have reached the limits of human energy, that I cannot endure one day longer the agony of seeing myself put to death slowly, drop by drop, by the hands of my wife and my best friend!"
He stopped. Hector and Bertha were thunderstruck. "I wanted to tell you also, that I have had enough of your cruel caution, and that I suffer. Ah, don't you see that I suffer horribly? Hurry, cut short my agony! Kill me, and kill me at a blow - poisoners!"
At the last word, the Count de Tremorel sprang up as if he had moved by a spring, his eyes haggard, his arms stretched out. Sauvresy, seeing this, quickly slipped his hand under the pillow, pulled out a revolver, and pointed the barrel at Hector, crying out:
"Don't advance a step!"
He thought that Tremorel, seeing that they were discovered, was going to rush upon him and strangle him; but he was mistaken. It seemed to Hector as though he were losing his mind. He fell down as heavily as if he were a log. Bertha was more self-possessed; she tried to resist the torpor of terror which she felt coming on.
"You are worse, my Clement," said she. "This is that dreadful fever which frightens me so. Delirium - "
"Have I really been delirious?" interrupted he, with a surprised air.
"Alas, yes, dear, that is what haunts you, and fills your poor sick head with horrid visions."
He looked at her curiously. He was really stupefied by this boldness, which constantly grew more bold.
"What! you think that we, who are so dear to you, your friends, I, your - "
Her husband's implacable look forced her to stop, and the words expired on her lips.
"Enough of these lies, Bertha," resumed Sauvresy, "they are useless. No, I have not been dreaming, nor have I been delirious. The poison is only too real, and I could tell you what it is without your taking it out of your pocket."
She recoiled as if she had seen her husband's hand stretched out to snatch the blue vial.
"I guessed it and recognized it at the very first; for you have chosen one of those poisons which, it is true, leave scarcely any trace of themselves, but the symptoms of which are not deceptive. Do you remember the day when I complained of a morbid taste for pepper? The next day I was certain of it, and I was not the only one. Doctor R-, too, had a suspicion."
Bertha tried to stammer something; her husband interrupted her.
"People ought to try their poisons," pursued he, in an ironical tone, "before they use them. Didn't you understand yours, or what its effects were? Why, your poison gives intolerable neuralgia, sleeplessness, and you saw me without surprise, sleeping soundly all night long! I complained of a devouring fire within me, while your poison freezes the blood and the entrails, and yet you are not astonished. You see all the symptoms change and disappear, and that does not enlighten you. You are fools, then. Now see what I had to do to divert Doctor R-'s suspicions. I hid the real pains which your poison caused, and complained of imaginary, ridiculous ones. I described sensations just the opposite of those which I felt. You were lost, then - and I saved you."
Bertha's malignant energy staggered beneath so many successive blows. She wondered whether she were not going mad; had she heard aright? Was it really true that her husband bad perceived that he was being poisoned, and yet said nothing; nay, that he had even deceived the doctor? Why? What was his purpose?
Sauvresy paused several minutes, and then went on:
"I have held my tongue and so sayed you, because the sacrifice of my life had already been made. Yes, I had been fatally wounded in the heart on the day that I learned that you were faithless to me."
He spoke of his death without apparent emotion; but at the words, "You were faithless to me," his voice faltered and trembled.
"I would not, could not believe it at first. I doubted the evidence of my senses, rather than doubt you. But I was forced to believe at last. I was no longer anything in my house but a laughing-stock. But I was in your way. You and your lover needed more room and liberty. You were tired of constraint and hypocrisy. Then it was that, believing that my death would make you free and rich, you brought in poison to rid yourselves of me."
Bertha had at least the heroism of crime. All was discovered; well, she threw down the mask. She tried to defend her accomplice, who lay unconscious in a chair.
"It is I that have done it all," cried she. "He is innocent."
Sauvresy turned pale with rage.
"Ah, really," said he, "my friend Hector is innocent! It wasn't he, then, who, to pay me up - not for his life, for he was too cowardly to kill himself; but for his honor, which he owes to me - took my wife from me? Wretch! I hold out my hand to him when he is drowning, I welcome him like a brother, and in return, he desolates my hearth! . . . And you knew what you were doing, my friend Hector - for I told you a hundred times that my wife was my all here below, my present and my future, my dream and happiness and hope and very life! You knew that for me to lose her was to die. But if you had loved her - no, it was not that you loved her; you hated me. Envy devoured you, and you could not tell me to my face, "You are too happy." Then, like a coward, you dishonored me in the dark. Bertha was only the instrument of your rancor; and she weighs upon you to-day - you despise and fear her. My friend, Hector, you have been in this house the vile lackey who thinks to avenge his baseness by spitting upon the meats which he puts on his master's table!"
The count only responded by a shudder. The dying man's terrible words fell more cruelly on his conscience than blows upon his cheek.
"See, Bertha," continued Sauvresy, "that's the man whom you haye preferred to me, and for whom you have betrayed me. You never loved me - I see it now - your heart was never Mine. And I - I loved you so! From the day I first saw you, you were my only thought; as if your heart had beaten in place of Mine. Everything about you was dear and precious to me; I adored your whims, caprices, even your faults. There was nothing I would not do for a smile from you, so that you would say to me, Thank you, between two kisses. You don't know that for years after our marriage it was my delight to wake up first so as to gaze upon you as you lay asleep, to admire and touch your lovely hair, lying dishevelled across the pillow. Bertha!"
He softened at the remembrance of these past joys, which would not come again. He forgot their presence, the infamous treachery, the poison; that he was about to die, murdered by this beloved wife; and his eyes filled with tears, his voice choked.
Bertha, more motionless and pallid than marble, listened to him breathlessly.
It is true, then," continued the sick man, "that these lovely eyes conceal a soul of filth! Ah, who would not have been deceived, as I was? Bertha, what did you dream of when you were sleeping in my arms? Tremorel came, and you thought you saw in him the ideal of your dreams. You admired the precocious wrinkles which betrayed an exhausted life, like the fatal seal which marks the fallen archangel's forehead. Your love, without thought of mine, rushed toward him, though he did not think of you. You went to evil as if it were your nature. And yet I thought you more immaculate than the Alpine snows. You did not even have a struggle with yourself; you betrayed no confusion which would reveal your first fault to me. You brought me your forehead soiled with his kisses without blushing."
Weariness overcame his energies; his voice became little by little feebler and less distinct.
"You had your happiness in your hands, Bertha, and you carelessly destroyed it, as the child breaks the toy of whose value he is ignorant. What did you expect from this wretch for whom you had the frightful courage to kill me, with a kiss upon your lips, slowly, hour by hour? You thought you loved him, but disgust ought to have come at last. Look at him, and judge between us. See which is the - man - I, extended on this bed where I shall soon die, or he shivering there in a corner. You have the energy of crime, but he has only the baseness of it. Ah, if my name was Hector de Tremorel, and a man had spoken as I have just done, that man should live no longer, even if he had ten revolvers like this I am holding to defend himself with!"
Hector, thus taunted, tried to get up and reply; but his legs would not support him, and his throat only gave hoarse, unintelligible sounds. Bertha, as she looked at the two men, recognized her error with rage and indignation. Her husband, at this moment, seemed to her sublime; his eyes gleamed, his face was radiant; while the other - the other! She felt sick with disgust when she but glanced toward him.
Thus all these deceptive chimeras after which she had run, love, passion, poetry, were already hers; she had held them in her hands and she had not been able to perceive it. But what was Sauvresy's purpose?
He continued, painfully:
"This then, is our situation; you have killed me, you are going to be free, yet you hate and despise each other - "
He stopped, and seemed to be suffocating; he tried to raise himself on his pillow and to sit up in bed, but found himself too feeble.
"Bertha," said he, "help me get up."
She leaned over the bed, and taking her husband in her arms, succeeded in placing him as he wished. He appeared more at ease in his new position, and took two or three long breaths.
"Now," he said, "I should like something to drink. The doctor lets me take a little old wine, if I have a fancy for it; give me some."
She hastened to bring him a glass of wine, which he emptied and handed back to her.
"There wasn't any poison in it, was there?" he asked.
This ghastly question and the smile which accompanied it, melted Bertha's callousness; remorse had already taken possession of her, as her disgust of Tremorel increased.
"Poison?" she cried, eagerly, "never!"
"You must give me some, though, presently, so as to help me to die."
"You die, Clement? No; I went you to live, so that I may redeem the past. I am a wretch, and have committed a hideous crime - but you are good. You will live; I don't ask to be your wife, but only your servant. I will love you, humiliate myself, serve you on my knees, so that some day, after ten, twenty years of expiation, you will forgive me!"
Hector in his mortal terror and anguish, was scarcely able to distinguish what was taking place. But he saw a dim ray of hope in Bertha's gestures and accent, and especially in her last words; he thought that perhaps it was all going to end and be forgotten, and that Sauvresy would pardon them. Half-rising, he stammered:
"Yes, forgive us, forgive us!"
Sauvresy's eyes glittered, and his angry voice vibrated as if it came from a throat of metal.
"Forgive!" cried he, "pardon! Did you have pity on me during all this year that you have leen playing with my happiness, during this fortnight that you have been mixing poison in all my potions? Pardon? What, are you fools? Why do you think I held my tongue, when I discovered your infamy, and let myself be poisoned, and threw the doctors off the scent? Do you really hope that I did this to prepare a scene of heartrending farewells, and to give you my benediction at the end? Ah, know me better!"
Bertha was sobbing; she tried to take her husband's hand, but he rudely repulsed her.
"Enough of these falsehoods," said he. "Enough of these perfidies. I hate you! You don't seem to perceive that hate is all that is still living in me."
Sauvresy's expression was at this moment ferocious. "It is almost two months since I learned the truth; it broke me up, soul and body. Ab, it cost me a good deal to keep quiet - it almost killed me. But one thought sustained me; I longed to avenge myself. My mind was always bent on that; I searched for a punishment as great as this crime; I found none, could find none. Then you resolved to poison me. Mark this - that the very day when I guessed about the poison I had a thrill of joy, for I had discovered my vengeance!"
A constantly increasing terror possessed Bertha, and now stupefied her, as well as Tremorel.
"Why do you wish for my death? To be free and marry each other? Very well; I wish that also. The Count de Tremorel will be Madame Sauvresy's second husband."
"Never!" cried Bertha. "No, never!"
"Never!" echoed Hector.
"It shall be so; nevertheless because I wish it. Oh, my precautions have been well taken, and you can't escape me. Now hear me. When I became certain that I was being poisoned, I began to write a minute history of all three of us; I did more - I have kept a journal day by day and hour by hour, narrating all the particulars of my illness; then I kept some of the poison which you gave me - "
Bertha made a gesture of denial. Sauvresy proceeded:
"Certainly, I kept it, and I will tell you how. Every time that Bertha gave me a suspicious potion, I kept a portion of it in my mouth, and carefully ejected it into a bottle which I kept hid under the bolster. Ah, you ask how I could have done all this without your suspecting it, or without being seen by any of the servants. Know that hate is stronger than love, be sure that I have left nothing to chance, nor have I forgotten anything."
Hector and Bertha looked at Sauvresy with a dull, fixed gaze. They forced themselves to understand him, but could scarcely do so.
"Let's finish," resumed the dying man, "my strength is waning. This very morning, the bottle containing the poison I have preserved, our biographies, and the narrative of my poisoning, have been put in the hands of a trustworthy and devoted person, whom, even if you knew him, you could not corrupt. He does not know the contents of what has been confided to him. The day that you get married this friend will give them all up to you. If, however, you are not married in a year from to-day, he has instructions to put these papers and this bottle into the hands of the officers of the law."
A double cry of horror and anguish told Sauvresy that he had well chosen his vengeance.
"And reflect," added he, "that this package once delivered up to justice, means the galleys, if not the scaffold for both of you."
Sauvresy had overtasked his strength. He fell panting upon the bed, his mouth open, his eyes filmy, and his features so distorted that he seemed to be on the point of death. But neither Bertha nor Tremorel thought of trying to relieve him. They remained opposite each other with dilated eyes, stupefied, as if their thoughts were bent upon the torments of that future which the implacable vengeance of the man whom they had outraged imposed upon them. They were indissolubly united, confounded in a common destiny; nothing could separate them but death. A chain stronger and harder than that of the galley-slave bound them together; a chain of infamies and crimes, of which the first link was a kiss, and the last a murder by poison. Now Sauvresy might die; his vengeance was on their heads, casting a cloud upon their sun. Free in appearance, they would go through life crushed by the burden of the past, more slaves than the blacks in the American rice-fields. Separated by mutual hate and contempt, they saw themselves riveted together by the common terror of punishment, condemned to an eternal embrace.
Bertha at this moment admired her husband. Now that he was so feeble that he breathed as painfully as an infant, she looked upon him as something superhuman. She had had no idea of such constancy and courage allied with so much dissimulation and genius. How cunningly he had found them out! How well he had known how to avenge himself! To be the master, he had only to will it. In a certain way she rejoiced in the strange atrocity of this scene; she felt something like a bitter pride in being one of the actors in it. At the same time she was transported with rage and sorrow in thinking that she had had this man in her power, that he had been at her feet. She almost loved him. Of all men, it was he whom she would have chosen were she mistress of her destinies; and he was going to escape her.
Tremorel, while these strange ideas crowded upon Bertha's mind, began to come to himself. The certainty that Laurence was now forever lost for him occurred to him, and his despair was without bounds. The silence continued a full quarter of an hour. Sauvresy at last subdued the spasm which had exhausted him, and spoke.
"I have not said all yet," he commenced.
His voice was as feeble as a murmur, and yet it seemed terrible to his hearers.
"You shall see whether I have reckoned and foreseen well. Perhaps, when I was dead, the idea of flying and going abroad would strike you. I shall not permit that. You must stay at Orcival - at Valfeuillu. A - friend-not he with the package - is charged, without knowing the reason for it, with the task of watching you. Mark well what I say - if either of you should disappear for eight days, on the ninth, the man who has the package would receive a letter which would cause him to resort at once to the police."
Yes, he had foreseen all, and Tremorel, who had already thought of flight, was overwhelmed.
"I have so arranged, besides, that the idea of flight shall not tempt you too much. It is true I have left all my fortune to Bertha, but I only give her the use of it; the property itself will not be hers until the day after your marriage."
Bertha made a gesture of repugnance which her husband misinterpreted.
"You are thinking of the copy of my will which is in your possession. It is a useless one, and I only added to it some valueless words because I wanted to put your suspicions to sleep. My true will is in the notary's hands, and bears a date two days later. I can read you the rough draft of it."
He took a sheet of paper from a portfolio which was concealed; like the revolver, under the bolster, and read:
"Being stricken with a fatal malady, I here set down freely, and in the fulness of my faculties, my last wishes:
"My dearest wish is that my well-beloved widow, Bertha, should espouse, as soon as the delay enjoined by law has expired, my dear friend, the Count Hector de Tremorel. Having appreciated the grandeur of soul and nobleness of sentiment which belong to my wife and friend, I know that they are worthy of each other, and that each will be happy in the other. I die the more peacefully, as I leave my Bertha to a protector whose - "
It was impossible for Bertha to hear more.
"For pity's sake," cried she, "enough."
"Enough? Well, let it be so," responded Sauvresy. "I have read this paper to you to show you that while I have arranged everything to insure the execution of my will; I have also done all that can preserve to you the world's respect. Yes, I wish that you should be esteemed and honored, for it is you alone upon whom I rely for my vengeance. I have knit around you a net-work which you can never burst asunder. You triumph; my tombstone shall be, as you hoped, the altar of your nuptials, or else - the galleys."
Tremorel's pride at last revolted against so many humiliations, so many whip-strokes lashing his face.
"You have only forgotten one thing, Sauvresy; that a man can die."
"Pardon me," replied the sick man, coldly. "I have foreseen that also, and was just going to tell you so. Should one of you die suddenly before the marriage, the police will be called in."
"You misunderstood me; I meant that a man can kill himself."
"You kill yourself? Humph! Jenny, who disdains you almost as much as I do, has told me about your threats to kill yourself. You! See here; here is my revolver; shoot yourself, and I will forgive my wife!"
Hector made a gesture of anger, but did not take the pistol.
"You see," said Sauvresy, "I knew it well. You are afraid." Turning to Bertha, he added, "This is your lover."
Extraordinary situations like this are so unwonted and strange that the actors in them almost always remain composed and natural, as if stupefied. Bertha, Hector, and Sauvresy accepted, without taking note of it, the strange position in which they found themselves; and they talked naturally, as if of matters of every-day life, and not of terrible events. But the hours flew, and Sauvresy perceived his life to be ebbing from him.
"There only remains one more act to play," said he. "Hector, go and call the servants, have those who have gone to bed aroused, I want to see them before dying."
"Come, go along; or shall I ring, or fire a pistol to bring them here?"
Hector went out; Bertha remained alone with her husband - alone! She had a hope that perhaps she might succeed in making him change his purpose, and that she might obtain his forgiveness. She knelt beside the bed. Never had she been so beautiful, so seductive, so irresistible. The keen emotions of the evening had brought her whole soul into her face, and her lovely eyes supplicated, her breast heaved, her mouth was held out as if for a kiss, and her new-born passion for Sauvresy burst out into delirium.
"Clement," she stammered, in a voice full of tenderness, "my husband, Clement!"
He directed toward her a glance of hatred.
"What do you wish?"
She did not know how to begin - she hesitated, trembled and sobbed.
"Hector would not kill himself," said she, "but I - "
"Well, what do you wish to say? Speak!"
"It was I, a wretch, who have killed you. I will not survive you."
An inexpressible anguish distorted Sauvresy's features. She kill herself! If so, his vengeance was vain; his own death would then appear only ridiculous and absurd. And he knew that Bertha would not be wanting in courage at the critical moment.
She waited, while he reflected.
"You are free," said he, at last, "this would merely be a sacrifice to Hector. If you died, he would marry Laurence Courtois, and in a year would forget even our name."
Bertha sprang to her feet; she pictured Hector to herself married and happy. A triumphant smile, like a sun's ray, brightened Sauvresy's pale face. He had touched the right chord. He might sleep in peace as to his vengeance. Bertha would live. He knew how hateful to each other were these enemies whom he left linked together.
The servants came in one by one; nearly all of them had been long in Sauvresy's service, and they loved him as a good master. They wept and groaned to see him lying there so pale and haggard, with the stamp of death already on his forehead. Sauvresy spoke to them in a feeble voice, which was occasionally interrupted by distressing hiccoughs. He thanked them, he said, for their attachment and fidelity, and wished to apprise them that he had left each of them a goodly sum in his will. Then turning to Bertha and Hector, he resumed:
"You have witnessed, my people, the care and solicitude with which my bedside has been surrounded by this incomparable friend and my adored Bertha. You have seen their devotion. Alas, I know how keen their sorrow will be! But if they wish to soothe my last moments and give me a happy death, they will assent to the prayer which I earnestly make, to them, and will swear to espouse each other after I am gone. Oh, my beloved friends, this seems cruel to you now; but you know not how all human pain is dulled in me. You are young, life has yet much happiness in store for you. I conjure you yield to a dying man's entreaties!"
They approached the bed, and Sauvresy put Bertha's hand into Hector's.
"Do you swear to obey me?" asked he.
They shuddered to hold each other's hands, and seemed near fainting; but they answered, and were heard to murmur:
"We swear it."
The servants retired, grieved at this distressing scene, and Bertha muttered:
Oh, 'tis infamous, 'tis horrible!"
"Infamous - yes," returned Sauvresy, "but not more so than your caresses, Bertha, or than your hand-pressures, Hector; not more horrible than your plans, than your hopes - "
His voice sank into a rattle. Soon the agony commenced. Horrible convulsions distorted his limbs; twice or thrice he cried out:
"I am cold; I am cold!"
His body was indeed stiff, and nothing could warm it.
Despair filled the house, for a death so sudden was not looked for. The domestics came and went, whispering to each other, "He is going, poor monsieur; poor madame!"
Soon the convulsions ceased. He lay extended on his back, breathing so feebly that twice they thought his breath had ceased forever. At last, a little before ten o'clock, his cheeks suddenly colored and he shuddered. He rose, up in bed, his eye staring, his arm stretched out toward the window, and he cried:
"There-behind the curtain - I see them - I see them!"
A last convulsion stretched him again on his pillow.
Clement Sauvresy was dead!
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
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