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All M. Lecoq's anticipations were realized. Laurence was not dead, and her letter to her parents was an odious trick. It was really she who lived in the house as Mme. Wilson. How had the lovely young girl, so much beloved by the old justice, come to such a dreadful extremity? The logic of life, alas, fatally enchains all our determinations to each other. Often an indifferent action, little wrongful in itself, is the beginning of an atrocious crime. Each of our new resolutions depends upon those which have preceded it, and is their logical sequence just as the sum-total is the product of the added figures. Woe to him who, being seized with a dizziness at the brink of the abyss, does not fly as fast as possible, without turning his head; for soon, yielding to an irresistible attraction, he approaches, braves the danger, slips, and is lost. Whatever thereafter he does or attempts he will roll down the faster, until he reaches the very bottom of the gulf.
Tremorel had by no means the implacable character of an assassin; he was only feeble and cowardly; yet he had committed abominable crimes. All his guilt came from the first feeling of envy with which he regarded Sauvresy, and which he had not taken the pains to subdue. Laurence, when, on the day that she became enamoured of Tremorel, she permitted him to press her hand, and kept it from her mother, was lost. The hand-pressure led to the pretence of suicide in order to fly with her lover. It might also lead to infanticide.
Poor Laurence, when she was left alone by Hector's departure to the Faubourg St. Germain, on receiving M. Lecoq's letter, began to reflect upon the events of the past year. How unlooked-for and rapidly succeeding they had been! It seemed to her that she had been whirled along in a tempest, without a second to think or act freely. She asked herself if she were not a prey to some hideous nightmare, and if she should not presently awake in her pretty maidenly chamber at Orcival. Was it really she who was there in a strange house, dead to everyone, leaving behind a withered memory, reduced to live under a false name, without family or friends henceforth, or anyone in the world to help her feebleness, at the mercy of a fugitive like herself, who was free to break to-morrow the bonds of caprice which to-day bound him to her? Was it she, too, who was about to become a mother, and found herself suffering from the excessive misery of blushing for that maternity which is the pride of pure young wives? A thousand memories of her past life flocked through her brain and cruelly revived her despair. Her heart sank as she thought of her old friendships, of her mother, her sister, the pride of her innocence, and the pure joys of the home fireside.
As she half reclined on a divan in Hector's library, she wept freely. She bewailed her life, broken at twenty, her lost youth, her vanished, once radiant hopes, the world's esteem, and her own self-respect, which she should never recover.
Of a sudden the door was abruptly opened.
Laurence thought it was Hector returned, and she hastily rose, passing her handkerchief across her face to try to conceal her tears.
A man whom she did not know stood upon the threshold, respectfully bowing. She was afraid, for Tremorel had said to her many times within the past two days, "We are pursued; let us hide well ;" and though it seemed to her that she had nothing to fear, she trembled without knowing why.
"Who are you?" she asked, haughtily, "and who has admitted you here? What do you want?"
M. Lecoq left nothing to chance or inspiration; he foresaw everything, and regulated affairs in real life as he would the scenes in a theatre. He expected this very natural indignation and these questions, and was prepared for them. The only reply he made was to step one side, thus revealing M. Plantat behind him.
Laurence was so much overcome on recognizing her old friend, that, in spite of her resolution, she came near falling.
"You!" she stammered; "you!"
The old justice was, if possible, more agitated than Laurence. Was that really his Laurence there before him? Grief had done its work so well that she seemed old.
"Why did you seek for me?" she resumed. "Why add another grief to my life? Ah, I told Hector that the letter he dictated to me would not be believed. There are misfortunes for which death is the only refuge."
M. Plantat was about to reply, but Lecoq was determined to take the lead in the interview.
"It is not you, Madame, that we seek," said he, "but Monsieur de Tremorel."
"Hector! And why, if you please? Is he not free?"
M. Lecoq hesitated before shocking the poor girl, who had been but too credulous in trusting to a scoundrel's oaths of fidelity. But he thought that the cruel truth is less harrowing than the suspense of intimations.
"Monsieur de Tremorel," he answered, "has committed a great crime."
"He! You lie, sir."
The detective sorrowfully shook his head.
"Unhappily I have told you the truth. Monsieur de Tremorel murdered his wife on Wednesday night. I am a detective and I have a warrant to arrest him."
He thought this terrible charge would overwhelm Laurence; he was mistaken. She was thunderstruck, but she stood firm. The crime horrified her, but it did not seem to her entirely improbable, knowing as she did the hatred with which Hector was inspired by Bertha.
Well, perhaps he did," cried she, sublime in her energy and despair; "I am his accomplice, then - arrest me."
This cry, which seemed to proceed from the most senseless passion, amazed the old justice, but did not surprise M. Lecoq.
"No, Madame," he resumed, "you are not this man's accomplice. Besides, the murder of his wife is the least of his crimes. Do you know why he did not marry you? Because in concert with Bertha, he poisoned Monsieur Sauvresy, who saved his life and was his best friend. We have the proof of it."
This was more than poor Laurence could bear; she staggered and fell upon a sofa. But she did not doubt the truth of what M. Lecoq said. This terrible revelation tore away the veil which, till then, had hidden the past from her. The poisoning of Sauvresy explained all Hector's conduct, his position, his fears, his promises, his lies, his hate, his recklessness, his marriage, his flight. Still she tried not to defend him, but to share the odium of his crimes.
"I knew it," she stammered, in a voice broken by sobs, "I knew it all."
The old justice was in despair.
"How you love him, poor child!" murmured he.
This mournful exclamation restored to Laurence all her energy; she made an effort and rose, her eyes glittering with indignation:
"I love him!" cried she. "I! Ah, I can explain my conduct to you, my old friend, for you are worthy of hearing it. Yes, I did love him, it is true - loved him to the forgetfulness of duty, to self-abandonment. But one day he showed himself to me as he was; I judged him, and my love did not survive my contempt. I was ignorant of Sauvresy's horrible death. Hector confessed to me that his life and honor were in Bertha's hands - and that she loved him. I left him free to abandon me, to marry, thus sacrificing more than my life to what I thought was his happiness; yet I was not deceived. When I fled with him I once more sacrificed myself, when I saw that it was impossible to conceal my shame. I wanted to die. I lived, and wrote an infamous letter to my mother, and yielded to Hector's prayers, because he pleaded with me in the name of my - of our child!"
M. Lecoq, impatient at the loss of time, tried to say something; but Laurence would not listen to him.
"But what matter?" she continued. "I loved him, followed him, and am his: Constancy at all hazards is the only excuse for a fault like mine. I will do my duty. I cannot be innocent when Hector has committed a crime; I desire to suffer half the punishment."
She spoke with such remarkable animation that the detective despaired of calming her, when two whistles in the street struck his ear. Tremorel was returning and there was not a moment to be lost. He suddenly seized Laurence by the arm.
"You will tell all this to the judges, Madame," said he, sternly. "My orders are only for M. de Tremorel. Here is the warrant to arrest him."
He took out the warrant and laid it upon the table. Laurence, by the force of her will, had become almost calm.
"You will let me speak five minutes with the Count de Tremorel, will you not?" she asked.
M. Lecoq was delighted; he had looked for this request, and expected it.
"Five minutes? Yes," he replied. "But abandon all hope, Madame, of saving the prisoner; the house is watched; if you look in the court and in the street you will see my men in ambuscade. Besides, I am going to stay here in the next room."
The count was heard ascending the stairs.
"There's Hector!" cried Laurence, "quick, quick! conceal yourselves!"
She added, as they were retiring, in a low tone, but not so low as to prevent the detective from hearing her:
"Be sure, we will not try to escape."
She let the door-curtain drop; it was time. Hector entered. He was paler than death, and his eyes had a fearful, wandering expression.
"We are lost!" said he, "they are pursuing us. See, this letter which I received just now is not from the man whose signature it professes to bear; he told me so himself. Come, let us go, let us leave this house - "
Laurence overwhelmed him with a look full of hate and contempt, and said:
"It is too late."
Her countenance and voice were so strange that Tremorel, despite his distress, was struck by it, and asked:
"What is the matter?"
"Everything is known; it is known that you killed your wife."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Well, then, it is true," he added, "for I loved you so - "
"Really! And it was for love of me that you poisoned Sauvresy?"
He saw that he was discovered, that he bad been caught in a trap, that they had come, in his absence, and told Laurence all. He did not attempt to deny anything.
"What shall I do?" cried he, "what shall I do?"
Laurence drew him to her, and muttered in a shuddering voice:
"Save the name of Tremorel; there are pistols here."
He recoiled, as if he had seen death itself.
"No," said he. "I can yet fly and conceal myself; I will go alone, and you can rejoin me afterward."
"I have already told you that it is too late. The police have surrounded the house. And - you know - it is the galleys, or - the scaffold!"
"I can get away by the courtyard."
"It is guarded; look."
He ran to the window, saw M. Lecoq's men, and returned half mad and hideous with terror.
"I can at least try," said he, "by disguising myself - "
"Fool! A detective is in there, and it was he who left that warrant to arrest you on the table."
He saw that he was lost beyond hope.
"Must I die, then?" he muttered.
"Yes, you must; but before you die write a confession of your crimes, for the innocent may be suspected - "
He sat down mechanically, took the pen which Laurence held out to him, and wrote:
"Being about to appear before God, I declare that I alone, and without accomplices, poisoned Sauvresy and murdered the Countess de Tremorel, my wife."
When he had signed and dated this, Laurence opened a bureau drawer; Hector seized one of the brace of pistols which were lying in it, and she took the other. But Tremorel, as before at the hotel, and then in the dying Sauvresy's chamber, felt his heart fail him as he placed the pistol against his forehead. He was livid, his teeth chattered, and he trembled so violently that he let the pistol drop.
"Laurence, my love," he stammered, "what will - become of you?"
"Me! I have sworn that I will follow you always and everywhere. Do you understand?"
"Ah, 'tis horrible!" said he. "It was not I who poisoned Sauvresy - it was she - there are proofs of it; perhaps, with a good advocate - "
M. Lecoq did not lose a word or a gesture of this tragical scene. Either purposely or by accident, he pushed the door-curtain, which made a slight noise.
Laurence thought the door was being opened, that the detective was returning, and that Hector would fall alive into their hands.
"Miserable coward!" she cried, pointing her pistol at him, "shoot, or else - "
He hesitated; there was another rustle at the door; she fired.
Tremorel fell dead.
Laurence, with a rapid movement, took up the other pistol, and was turning it against herself, when M. Lecoq sprung upon her and tore the weapon from her grasp.
"Unhappy girl!" cried he, "what would you do?"
"Die. Can I live now?"
"Yes, you can live," responded M. Lecoq. "And more, you ought to live."
"I am a lost woman - "
"No, you are a poor: child lured away by a wretch. You say you are very guilty; perhaps so; live to repent of it. Great sorrows like yours have their missions in this world, one of devotion and charity. Live, and the good you do will attach you once more to life. You have yielded to the deceitful promises of a villain remember, when you are rich, that there are poor innocent girls forced to lead a life of miserable shame for a morsel of bread. Go to these unhappy creatures, rescue them from debauchery, and their honor will be yours."
M. Lecoq narrowly watched Laurence as he spoke, and perceived that he had touched her. Still, her eyes were dry, and were lit up with a strange light.
"Besides, your life is not your own - you know."
"Ah," she returned, "I must die now, even for my child, if I would not die of shame when he asks for his father - "
"You will reply, Madame, by showing him an honest man and an old friend, who is ready to give him his name - Monsieur Plantat."
The old justice was broken with grief; yet he had the strength to say:
"Laurence, my beloved child, I beg you accept me - "
These simple words, pronounced with infinite gentleness and sweetness, at last melted the unhappy young girl, and determined her. She burst into tears.
She was saved.
M. Lecoq hastened to throw a shawl which he saw on a chair about her shoulders, and passed her arm through M. Plantat's, saying to the latter:
"Go, lead her away; my men have orders to let you pass, and Palot will lend you his carriage."
"But where shall we go?"
"To Orcival; Monsieur Courtois has been informed by a letter from me that his daughter is living, and he is expecting her. Come, lose no time."
M. Lecoq, when he was left alone, listened to the departure of the carriage which took M. Plantat and Laurence away; then he returned to Tremorel's body.
"There," said he to himself, "lies a wretch whom I have killed instead of arresting and delivering him up to justice. Have I done my duty? No; but my conscience will not reproach me, because I have acted rightly."
And running to the staircase, he called his men.
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