Read CHAPTER XVI - HUSBAND AND LOVER of The Champdoce Mystery , free online book, by Emile Gaboriau, on ReadCentral.com.

The writer of the anonymous communication had only known the secret too well, for the Duchess de Champdoce was awaiting a visit that evening from George de Croisenois; this was, however, the first time.  Step by step she had yielded, and at length had fallen into the snare laid for her by the treacherous woman whom she believed to be her truest friend.  The evening before this eventful night she had been alone in Madame de Mussidan’s drawing-room with George de Croisenois.  She had been impressed by his ardent passion, and had listened with pleasure to his loving entreaties.

“I yield,” said she.  “Come to-morrow night, at half-past ten, to the little door in the garden wall; it will only be kept closed by a stone being placed against it inside; push it, and it will open; and when you have entered the garden, acquaint me with your presence by clapping yours hands gently once or twice.”

Diana had, from a secure hiding-place, overheard these words, and feeling certain that the Duchess would repent her rash promise, she kept close to her side until George’s departure, to give her no chance of retracting her promise.  The next day she was constantly with her victim, and made an excuse for dining with her, so as not to quit her until the hour for the meeting had almost arrived.

It was not until she was left alone that the Duchess saw the full extent of her folly and rashness.  She was terrified at the promise that she had given in a weak moment, and would have given worlds had she been able to retract.

There was yet, however, one means of safety left her — she could hurry downstairs and secure the garden gate.  She started to her feet, determined to execute her project; but she was too late for the appointed signal was heard through the chill gloom of the night.  Unhappy woman!  The light sound of George de Croisenois’ palms striking one upon the other resounded in her ears like the dismal tolling of the funereal bell.  She stooped to light a candle at the fire, but her hand trembled so that she could scarcely effect her object.  She felt sure that George was still in the garden, though she had made no answer to his signal.  She had never thought that he would have had the audacity to open a door that led into the house from the garden, but this is what he had done.  In the most innocent manner imaginable, and so that her listener in no way suspected the special reason that she had for making this communication, Diana de Mussidan had informed George de Croisenois that upon this night all the domestics of the Champdoce household would be attending the coachman’s wedding, and that consequently the mansion would be deserted.  George knew also that the Duke was away at his training establishment, and he therefore opened the door, and walked boldly up the main staircase, so that when the Duchess, with the lighted candle in her hand, came to the top steps she found herself face to face with George de Croisenois, pallid with emotion and quivering with excitement.

At the sight of the man she loved she started backwards with a low cry of anguish and despair.

“Fly!” she said “fly, or we are lost!”

He did not, however, seem to hear her, and the Duchess recoiled slowly, step by step, through the open door of her chamber, across the carpeted floor, until she reached the opposite wall of her room, and could go no farther.

George followed her, and pushed to the door of the room as he entered it.  This brief delay, however, had sufficed to restore Marie to the full possession of her senses.  “If I permit him to speak,” thought she, — “if he once suspects that my love for him is still as strong as ever, I am lost.”

Then she said aloud, —

“You must leave this house, and that instantly.  I was mad when I said what I did yesterday.  You are too noble and too generous not to listen to me when I tell you that the moment of infatuation is over, and that all my reason has returned to me, and my openness will convince you of the truth of what I say — George de Croisenois, I love you.”

The young man uttered an exclamation of delight upon hearing this news.

“Yes,” continued Marie, “I would give half the years of my remaining life to be your wife.  Yes, George, I love you; but the voice of duty speaks louder than the whispers of the heart.  I may die of grief, but there will be no stain upon my marriage robe, no remorse eating out my heart.  Farewell!”

But the Marquis would not consent to this immediate dismissal, and appeared to be about to speak.

“Go!” said the Duchess, with an air of command.  “Leave me at once!” Then, as he made no effort to obey her, she went on, “If you really love me, let my honor be as dear to you as your own, and never try to see me again.  The peril we are now in shows how necessary this last determination of mine is.  I am the Duchess de Champdoce, and I will keep the name that has been intrusted to me pure and unsullied, nor will I stoop to treachery or deception.”

“Why do you use the word deception?” asked he.  “I do, it is true, despise the woman who smiles upon the husband she is betraying, but I respect and honor the woman who risks all to follow the fortunes of the man she loves.  Lay aside, Marie, name, title, fortune, and fly with me.”

“I love you too much, George,” answered she gently, “to ruin your future, for the day would surely come when you would regret all your self-denial, for a woman weighed down with a sense of her dishonor is a heavy burden for a man to bear.”

George de Croisenois did not understand her thoroughly.

“You do not trust me,” said he.  “You would be dishonored.  Shall I not share a portion of the world’s censure?  And, if you wish me, I will be a dishonored man also.  To-night I will cheat at play at the club, be detected, and leave the room an outcast from the society of all honorable men for the future.  Fly with me to some distant land, and we will live happily under whatever name you may choose.”

“I must not listen to you,” cried she wildly.  “It is impossible now.”

“Impossible! — and why?  Tell me, I entreat you.”

“Ah, George,” sobbed she, “if you only knew — ”

He placed his arm around her waist, and was about to press his lips on that fair brow, when all at once he felt Marie shiver in his clasp, and, raising one of her arms, point towards the door, which had opened silently during their conversation, and upon the threshold of which stood Norbert de Champdoce, gloomy and threatening.

The Marquis saw in an instant the terrible position in which his insensate folly had placed the woman he loved.

“Do not come any nearer,” said he, addressing Norbert; “remain where you are.”

A bitter laugh from the Duke made him realize the folly of his command.  He supported the Duchess to a couch, and seated her upon it.  She recovered consciousness almost immediately, and, as she opened her eyes, George read in them the most perfect forgiveness for the man who had ruined her life and hopes.

This look, and the fond assurance conveyed in it, restored all George’s coolness and self-possession, and he turned towards Norbert.

“However compromising appearances may seem, I am the only one deserving punishment; the Duchess has nothing to reproach herself with in any way; it was without her knowledge, and without any encouragement from her, that I dared to enter this house, knowing as I did that the servants were all absent.”

Norbert, however, still maintained the same gloomy silence.  He too had need to collect his thoughts.  As he ascended the stairs he knew that he should find the Duchess with a lover, but he had not calculated upon that lover being George de Croisenois, a man whom he loathed and detested more than any one that he was in the habit of meeting in society.  When he recognized George, it was with the utmost difficulty that he restrained himself from springing upon him and endeavoring to strangle him.  He had suspected this man of having gained Diana’s affections, and now he found him in the character of the lover of his wife, and he was silent simply because he had not yet made up his mind what he would say.  If his face was outwardly calm and rigid as marble, while the flames of hell were raging in his heart, it was because his limbs for the moment refused to obey his will; but, in spite of this, Norbert was, for the time, literally insane.

Croisenois folded his arms, and continued, —

“I had only just come here at the moment of your arrival.  Why were you not here to listen to all that passed between us?  Would to heaven that you had been!  Then you would have understood all the grandeur and nobility of your wife’s soul.  I admit the magnitude of my fault, but I am at your service, and am prepared to give you the satisfaction that you will doubtless demand.”

“From your words,” answered Norbert slowly, “I presume that you allude to a duel; that is to say, that having effected my dishonor to-night, you purpose to kill me to-morrow morning.  In the game that you have been playing a man stakes his life, and you, I think, have lost.”

Croisenois bowed.  “I am a dead man,” thought he as he glanced towards the Duchess, “and not for your sake, but on account of quite another woman.”

The sound of his own voice excited Norbert, and he went on more rapidly:  “What need have I to risk my life in a duel?  I come to my own home, I find you with my wife, I blow out your brains, and the law will exonerate me.”  As he said these last words, he drew a revolver from his pocket and levelled it at George.  The moment was an intensely exciting one, but Croisenois did not show any sign of emotion, Norbert did not press the trigger, and the suspense became more than could be borne.

“Fire!” cried George, “fire!”

“No,” returned Norbert coldly; “on reflection I have come to the conclusion that your dead body would be a source of extreme inconvenience to me.”

“You try my forbearance too far.  What are your intentions?”

“I mean to kill you,” answered Norbert in such a voice of concentrated ferocity that George shuddered in spite of all his courage, “but it shall not be with a pistol shot.  It is said that blood will wash out any stain, but it is false; for even if all yours is shed, it will not remove the stain from my escutcheon.  One of us must vanish from the face of the earth in such a manner that no trace of him may remain.”

“I agree.  Show me how this is to be done.”

“I know a method,” answered Norbert.  “If I was certain that no human being was aware of your presence here to-night — ”

“No one can possibly know it.”

“Then,” answered the Duke, “instead of taking advantage of the rights that the law gives me and shooting you down on the spot, I will consent to risk my life against yours.”

George de Croisenois breathed a sigh of relief.  “I am ready,” replied he, “as I before told you.”

“I heard you; but remember that this will be no ordinary duel, in the light of day, with seconds to regulate the manner of our conduct.”

“We will fight exactly as you wish.”

“In that case, I name swords as the weapons, the garden as the spot, and this instant as the hour.”

The Marquis cast a glance at the window.

“You think,” observed Norbert, comprehending his look, “that the night is so dark that we cannot see the blades of our swords?”

“Quite so.”

“You need not fear; there will be light enough for this death struggle of the one who remains in the garden, for you understand that one will remain.”

“I understand you; shall we go down at once?”

Norbert shook his head in the negative.

“You are in too great a hurry,” said he, “and have not given me time to fix my conditions.”

“I am listening.”

“At the end of the garden there is a small plot of ground, so damp that nothing will grow there, and consequently is almost unfrequented; but for all that it is thither that you must follow me.  We will each take spade and pick-axe, and in a very brief period we can hollow out a receptacle for the body of the one who falls.  When this work is completed, we will take to our swords and fight to the death, and the one who can keep his feet shall finish his fallen adversary, drag his body to the hole, and shovel the earth over his remains.”

“Never!” exclaimed Croisenois.  “Never will I agree to such barbarous terms.”

“Have a care then,” returned Norbert; “for I shall use my rights.  That clock points to five minutes to eleven.  If, when it strikes, you have not decided to accept my terms, I shall fire.”

The barrel of the revolver was but a few inches from George de Croisenois’ heart, and the finger of his most inveterate enemy was curved round the trigger; but his feelings had been so highly wrought up that he thought not of this danger.  He only remembered that he had four minutes in which to make up his mind.  The events of the last thirty minutes had pressed upon each other’s heels with such surprising alacrity that he could hardly believe that they had really occurred, and it seemed to him as if it might not, after all, be only a hideous vision of the night.

“You have only two minutes more,” remarked the Duke.

Croisenois started; his soul was far away from the terrible present.  He glanced at the clock, then at his enemy, and lastly at Marie, who lay upon the couch, and from her ashen complexion might have been regarded as dead, save for the hysterical sobs which convulsed her frame.  He felt that it was impossible to leave her in such a condition without aid of any kind, but he saw well that any show of pity on his part would only aggravate his offence.  “Heaven have mercy on us!” muttered he.  “We are at the mercy of a maniac,” and with a feeling of deadly fear he asked himself what would be the fate of this woman, whom he loved so devotedly, were he to die.  “For her sake,” he thought, “I must slay this man, or her life will be one endless existence of torture — and slay him I will.”

“I accept your terms,” said he aloud.

He spoke just in time, for as the words were uttered came the whirr of the machinery and then the first clear stroke of the bell.

“I thank you,” answered Norbert coldly as he lowered the muzzle of his revolver.

The icy frigidity of manner in a period of extreme danger, which is the marked characteristic of a certain type of education, had now vanished from the Marquis’s tone and behavior.

“But that is not all,” he continued; “I, too, have certain conditions to propose.”

“But we agreed — ”

“Let me explain; we are going to fight in the dark in your garden without seconds.  We are to dig a grave and the survivor is to bury his dead antagonist.  Tell me, am I right?”

Norbert bowed.

“But,” went on the Marquis, “how can you be certain that all will end here, and that the earth will be content to retain our secret?  You do not know, and you do not seem to care, that if one day the secret will be disclosed and the survivor accused of being the murderer of the other, arrested, dragged before a tribunal, condemned, and sent to a life-long prison — ”

“There is a chance of that, of course.”

“And do you think that I will consent to run such a risk as that?”

“There is such a risk, of course,” answered Norbert phlegmatically; “but that will be an incentive for you to conceal my death as I should conceal yours.”

“That will not be sufficient for me,” returned De Croisenois.

“Ah! take care,” sneered Norbert, “or I shall begin to think that you are afraid.”

“I am afraid; that is, afraid of being called a murderer.”

“That is a danger to which I am equally liable with yourself.”

Croisenois, however, was fully determined to carry his point.  “You say,” continued he, “that our chances are equal; but if I fall, who would dream of searching here for my remains?  You are in your own house and can take every precaution; but suppose, on the other hand, I kill you.  Shall I look to the Duchess to assist me?  Will not the finger of suspicion be pointed at her?  Shall she say to her gardener when all Paris is hunting for you, ’Mind that you do not meddle with the piece of land at the end of the garden.’”

The thought of the anonymous letter crossed Norbert’s mind, and he remembered that the writer of it must be acquainted with the coming of George de Croisenois.  “What do you propose then?” asked he.

“Merely that each of us, without stating the grounds of our quarrel, write down the conditions and sign our names as having accepted them.”

“I agree; but use dispatch.”

The two men, after the conditions had been described, wrote two letters, dated from a foreign country, and the survivor of the combat was to post his dead adversary’s letter, which would not fail to stop any search after the vanished man.  When this talk was concluded, Norbert rose to his feet.

“One word in conclusion,” said he:  “a soldier is leading the horse on which I rode here up and down in the Place des Invalides.  If you kill me, go and take the horse from the man, giving him the twenty francs I promised him.”

“I will.”

“Now let us go down.”

They left the room together.  Norbert was stepping aside to permit Croisenois to descend the stairs first, when he felt his coat gently pulled, and, turning round, saw that the Duchess, too weak to rise to her feet, had crawled to him on her knees.  The unhappy woman had heard everything, and in an almost inaudible voice she uttered an agonized prayer: 

“Mercy, Norbert!  Have mercy!  I swear to you that I am guiltless.  You never loved me, why should you fight for me.  Have pity!  To-morrow, by all that I hold sacred, I swear to you that I will enter a convent, and you shall never see my face again.  Have pity!”

“Pray heaven, madame, that it may be your lover’s sword that pierces my heart.  It is your only hope, for then you will be free.”

He tore his coat from her fingers with brutal violence, and the unhappy woman fell to the floor with a shriek as he closed the door upon her, and followed his antagonist downstairs.