The Champdoce Mystery by Emile Gaboriau - HTML preview
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As the miner, who sets fire to the fuse and seeks shelter from the coming explosion, so did Diana de Laurebourg return to her father's house after her visit to Daumon. During dinner it was impossible for her to utter a word, and it was with the greatest difficulty that she succeeded in swallowing a mouthful. Fortunately neither her father nor mother took any notice of her. They had that day received a letter announcing the news that their son, for whose future prosperity they had sacrificed Diana, was lying dangerously ill in Paris, where he was living in great style. They were in terrible affliction, and spoke of starting at once, so as to be with him. They therefore expressed no surprise when, on leaving the table, Diana pleaded a severe headache as an excuse for retiring to her own room. When once she was alone, having dismissed her maid, she heaved a deep sigh of relief. She never thought of retiring to bed, but throwing open her window, leaned out with her elbow on the window-sill.
It seemed to her that Norbert would certainly make some effort to see her, or at any rate by some means to let her know whether he had succeeded or failed.
"But I must be patient," murmured she, "for I can't hear anything until the afternoon of to-morrow."
In spite, however, of her resolutions, patience fled from her mind, and as soon as the servants had begun moving about, she went out into the garden and took up a position which commanded a view of the highroad, but no one appeared. The bell rang for breakfast. Again she had to seat herself at table with her parents, and the terrible penance of the past evening had to be repeated. At three o'clock she could endure the suspense no longer, and making her escape from the Chateau, she went over to Daumon, who, she felt, must have obtained some intelligence. Even if she found that he knew nothing, it would be a relief to speak to him and to ask him when he thought that this terrible delay would come to an end. But she got no comfort at Daumon's, for he had passed as miserable a night as herself, and was nearly dead with affright. He had remained in his office all the morning, starting at the slightest sound, and though he was as anxious as Diana for information, he had only gone out a little before her arrival. He met Mademoiselle Laurebourg on his return at the door of his cottage, and taking her inside, he informed her that at a late hour the night before the doctor had been sent for to Champdoce to attend the Duke, who was supposed to be dying. Then he reproved her bitterly for her imprudence in visiting him.
"Do you wish," said he, "to show all Bevron that you and I are Norbert's accomplices?"
"What do you mean?" asked she. "I mean that if the Duke does not die, we are lost. When I say we, I mean myself, for you, as the daughter of a noble family, will be sure to escape scot free, and I shall be left to pay for all."
"You said that the effect was immediate."
"I did say so, and I thought so too. Ah, if I had but reflected a little! You will however see that I do not intend to give in without a fight. I will defend myself by accusing you. I am an honest man, and have been your dupe. You have thought to make me a mere tool; your fine Norbert is a fool, but he will pay for his doings with his head all the same."
At these gross insults Mademoiselle de Laurebourg rose to her feet and attempted to speak, but he cut her short.
"I can't stop to pick and choose my words, for I feel at the present moment as if the axe of the guillotine were suspended over my head. Now just oblige me by getting out of this, and never show your face here again."
"As you like. I will communicate with Champdoce."
"You shall not," exclaimed Daumon with a gesture of menace. "You might as well go and ask how the Duke enjoyed the taste of the poison."
His words, however, did not deter Diana, for any risk seemed preferable to her than the present state of suspense.
With a glance of contempt at the Counsellor she left the cottage, determined to act as she thought fit.
After Diana's departure, Daumon felt too that he must learn how matters were going on, and going over to the Widow Rouleau's, he despatched her daughter Francoise to the Chateau de Champdoce, under the pretext that he wanted some money which he had lent to one of the Duke's servants. He had instructed the girl so cunningly that she had no suspicion of the real end and object of her mission, and set out on it with the most implicit confidence. He had not long to wait for her return, for in about half an hour his messenger returned.
"Well," said he anxiously, "has the scamp sent my money?"
"No, sir, I am sorry to say that I could not even get to speak to him."
"How was that? Was he not at Champdoce?"
"I cannot even tell you that. Ever since the Duke has been ill, the great gates of the Chateau have been bolted, for it seems that the poor old gentleman is at his last gasp."
"Did you not hear what was the matter with him?"
"No, sir, the little I have told you I got from a stable boy, who spoke to me through a grating in the gate, but before he could say ten words Jean came up and sent him off."
"Do you mean Jean, the Duke's confidential man?"
"Just so," returned the girl, "and very angry he was. He abused the lad and told him to be off to the stables, and then asked, 'Well, my girl, and pray what do you want?' I told him that I had come with a message to the man Mechenit; but before I could say any more he broke in with, 'Well, he isn't here, you can call again in a month.' "
"You silly little fool, was that all you said?"
"Not quite, for I said that I must see Mechenit. Then, looking at me very suspiciously, he said, 'And who sent you here, you little spy?' "
The Counsellor started.
"Indeed! and what did you say in return?" asked he.
"Why, of course I said that you had sent me."
"Yes, yes, that was right."
"And then Jean rubbed his hand over his chin, and looking at me very curiously, said sternly,--
" 'So you have come from the Counsellor, have you? Ah, I see it all, and so shall he one of these days.' "
At these words Daumon felt his knees give way under him; but all further questioning was stopped by the appearance of M. de Puymandour on his way to Champdoce. He therefore dismissed Francoise, and awaited the return of this gentleman, from whom he hoped to gain the fullest information regarding the Duke's malady. The intelligence which he received calmed him a little, and repenting of his treatment of Diana, he went and hung about the gates of the Chateau de Laurebourg, until he was lucky enough to catch sight of the girl in the garden, for her anxiety would not permit her to remain in the house. He beckoned to her, and then said,--
"M. Norbert did not make the dose strong enough. The Duke is as strong as a horse; but it is all right, for should he live, he will be an idiot, and so our end is as much gained as if he had died."
"But why does not Norbert write to me?" asked Diana seriously.
"Why, because he has some faint glimmerings of common sense. How do you know that he may not have half a dozen spies about him? You must wait."
Diana and the Counsellor waited for a week, but Norbert made no sign. Diana suffered agonies, and the days seemed to pass with leaden feet. Sunday came at last. The Marchioness de Laurebourg had attended early Mass, and had given orders that her daughter should go to high Mass under the escort of her maid. Diana was highly pleased with this arrangement, for she hoped to have a chance of seeing Norbert, but she was disappointed. The Mass had commenced when she entered, but the spot occupied by the Duke and his son was vacant. She followed the service in a purely mechanical manner, and at last noticed that the priest had taken his place in the pulpit.
This was generally an exciting moment for the inhabitants of Bevron, for it was immediately before the sermon that the banns of marriage were published. The priest gazed blandly down upon the expectant crowd, coughed slightly, used his handkerchief, and finally took from his breviary a sheet of paper.
"I have," said he, "to publish the banns of marriage between----" here he made a little pause, and all the congregation were on the tenterhooks of expectation; "between," he continued, "Monsieur Louis Norbert, Marquis de Champdoce, a minor, and only legitimate son of Guillaume Caesar, Duke de Champdoce, and of his wife Isabella de Barnaville, now deceased, but who both formerly resided in this parish, and Desiree Anne Marie Palouzet, minor, and legitimate daughter of Rene Augustus Palouzet, Count de Puymandour, and of Zoe Staplet, his wife, but now deceased, also residents of this parish."
This was the thunderbolt launched from the pulpit, which seemed to crush Diana into the earth, and her heart almost ceased to beat.
"Let any one," continued the priest, "who knows of any impediment to this marriage, take warning that he or she must acquaint us with it, under the penalty of excommunication. At the same time let him be warned under the same penalty to bring forward nothing in malice or without some foundation."
An impediment! What irony lay veiled beneath that word. Mademoiselle de Laurebourg knew of more than one. A wild desire filled her heart to start from her seat and cry out,--
"It is impossible for this marriage to take place, for that Norbert was her affianced husband in the sight of Heaven, and that he was bound to her by the strongest of all links, that of crime."
But by a gigantic effort she controlled herself, and remained motionless, pallid as a spectre, but with a forced smile on her lips, and with unparalleled audacity made a little sign to one of her female friends, which plainly meant, "This is, indeed, something unexpected." All her mind was concentrated to preserve a calm and unmoved aspect. The singing of the choir seemed to die away, the strong odor of the incense almost overpowered her, and she felt that unless the service soon came to an end, she must fall insensible from her chair. At last the priest turned again to the congregation and droned out the Ita missa est, and all was over. Diana grasped the arm of her maid and forced her away, without saying a word. As she reached home, a servant ran up to her with a face upon which agitation was strongly painted.
"Ah, mademoiselle," gasped he, "such a frightful calamity. Your father and mother are expecting you; it is really too terrible."
Diana hastened to obey the summons. Her father and mother were seated near each other, evidently in deep distress. She went towards them, and the Marquis, drawing her to him, pressed her against his heart.
"Poor child! My dear daughter!" murmured he, "you are all that is left to us now."
Their son had died, and the sad news had been brought to the Chateau while Diana was at Mass. By her brother's death she had succeeded to a princely fortune, and would now be one of the richest heiresses for many a mile round. Had this event happened but a week before, her marriage to Norbert would have met with no opposition from his father, and she would never have plunged into this abyss of crime. It was more than the irony of fate; it was the manifest punishment of an angry Divinity. She shed no tear for her brother's death. Her thoughts were all firmly fixed on Norbert, and that fearful announcement made in the house of God rang still in her ears. What could be the meaning of this sudden arrangement, and why had the marriage been so suddenly decided on?
She felt that some mystery lay beneath it all, and vowed that she would fathom it to its nethermost depths. What was it that had taken place at Champdoce? Had the Duke, contrary to Daumon's prognostications, recovered? Had he discovered his son' insidious attack upon his life, and only pardoned it upon a blind compliance being given to his will? She passed away the whole day in these vain suppositions, and tried to think of every plan to stay the celebration of this union, for she had not given up her hopes, nor did she yet despair of ultimate success. Her new and unlooked-for fortune placed a fresh weapon at her disposal, and she felt that the victory would yet be hers if she could but see Norbert again, were it but for a single instant. Was she not certain of the absolute power that she exercised over him, for had she not by a few words induced him to enter upon the terrible path of crime? She must see him, and that without a moment's delay, for the danger was imminent. A day now would be worth a year hereafter. She determined that, upon that very night, she would visit Champdoce. A little after midnight, when the inhabitants of the Chateau were wrapped in slumber, she crept on tiptoe down the grand staircase, and made her exit by a side door. She had arranged her plan as to how she would find Norbert, for he had often described the interior arrangements of the Chateau to her. She knew that his room was on the ground floor, with two windows looking on to the courtyard. When, however, she reached the old Chateau, she hesitated. Suppose that she should go to the wrong window. But she had gone too far to recede, and determined that if any one else than Norbert should open the window, she would turn and fly. She tapped at the window softly, and then more loudly. She had made no mistake. Norbert threw open the window, with the words,--
"Who is there?"
"It is I, Norbert; I, Diana."
"What do you want?" asked Norbert in an agitated tone of voice. What do you want to do here?"
She looked at him anxiously and hardly recognized his face, so great was the change that had come over it. It absolutely terrified her.
"Are you going to marry Mademoiselle de Puymandour?" asked she.
"Yes I am."
"And yet you pretended to love me?"
"Yes, I loved you ardently, devotedly, with a love that drove me to crime; but you had no love; you cared but for rank and fortune."
Diana raised her hands to heaven in an agony of despair.
"Should I be here at this hour if what you say is true?" asked she wildly. "My brother is dead, and I am as wealthy as you are, Norbert, and yet I am here. You accuse me of being mercenary, and for what reason? Was it because I refused to fly with you from my father's house? Oh, Norbert, it was but the happiness of our future life that I strove to protect. It was----"
Her speech failed her, and her eyes dilated with horror, for the door behind Norbert opened, and the Duke de Champdoce entered the room, uttering a string of meaningless words, and laughing with that mirthless laugh which is so sure a sign of idiotcy.
"Can you understand now," exclaimed Norbert, pointing to his father, "why the remembrance of my love for you has become a hateful reminiscence? Do you dare to talk of happiness to me, when this spectre of a meditated crime will ever rise between us?" and with a meaning gesture he pointed to the open gate of the courtyard.
She turned; but before passing away, she cast a glance upon him full of the deepest fury and jealousy. She could not forgive Norbert for his share in the crime that she herself prompted,--for the crime which had blighted all her hopes of happiness. Her farewell was a menace.
"Norbert," she said, as she glided through the gate like a spectre of the night, "I will have revenge, and that right soon."