Read CHAPTER XVII - BLADE TO BLADE of The Champdoce Mystery , free online book, by Emile Gaboriau, on ReadCentral.com.

Several times in the course of this interview Norbert de Champdoce had been on the point of bursting into a furious passion, but he restrained himself from a motive of self-pride; but now that his wife was no longer present, he showed a savage intensity of purpose and a deadly earnestness that was absolutely appalling.  As he followed Croisenois down the great staircase, he kept repeating the words, “Quick! quick! we have lost too much time already;” for he saw that a mere trifle might upset all his plans — such as a servant returning home before the others.  When they reached the ground-floor, he led George into a by-room which looked like an armory, so filled was it with arms of all kinds and nations.

“Here,” said he, with a bitter sneer, “we can find, I think, what we want;” and placing the candle he carried on the mantelpiece, he leaped upon the cushioned seat that ran round the room, and took down from the wall several pairs of duelling swords, and, throwing them upon the floor, exclaimed, “Choose your own weapon.”

George was an anxious as Norbert to bring this painful scene to a close, for anything was preferable to this hideous state of suspense.  The last despairing glance of the Duchess had pierced his heart like a dagger thrust, and when he saw Norbert thrust aside his trembling wife with such brutality, it was all he could do to refrain from striking him down.  He made no choice of weapons, but grasped the nearest, saying, —

“One will do as well as another.”

“We cannot fight in this darkness,” said Norbert, “but I have a means to remedy that.  Come with me this way, so that we may avoid the observation of the porter.”

They went into the stables, where he took up a large lantern, which he lighted.

“This,” said he, “will afford ample light for our work.”

“Ah, but the neighbors will see it, too; and at this hour a light in the garden is sure to attract attention,” observed George.

“Don’t be afraid; my grounds are not overlooked.”

They entered the garden, and soon reached the spot to which the Duke had alluded.  Norbert hung the lantern on the bough of a tree, and it gave the same amount of light as an ordinary street lamp.

“We will dig the grave in that corner,” observed he; “and when it is filled in, we can cover it with that heap of stones over there.”

He threw off his great coat, and, handing a spade to Croisenois, took another himself, repeating firmly the words, —

“To work!  To work!”

Croisenois would have toiled all night before he could have completed the task, but the muscles of the Duke were hardened by his former laborious life, and in forty minutes all was ready.

“That will do,” said Norbert, exchanging his spade for a sword.  “Take your guard.”

Croisenois, however, did not immediately obey.  Impressible by nature, he felt a cold shiver run through his frame; the dark night, the flickering lantern, and all these preparations, made in so cold-blooded a manner, affected his nerves.  The grave, with its yawning mouth, fascinated him.

“Well,” said Norbert impatiently, “are you not ready?”

“I will speak,” exclaimed De Croisenois, driven to desperation.  “In a few minutes one of us will be lying dead on this spot.  In the presence of death a man’s words are to be relied on.  Listen to me.  I swear to you, on my honor and by all my hopes of future salvation, that the Duchess de Champdoce is entirely free from guilt.”

“You have said that before; why repeat it again?”

“Because it is my duty; because I am thinking that, if I die, it will be my insane passions that have caused the ruin of one of the best and purest women in the world.  I entreat you to believe that she has nothing to repent of.  See, I am not ashamed to descend to entreaty.  Let my death, if you kill me, be an expiation for everything.  Be gentle with your wife; and if you survive me, do not make her life one prolonged existence of agony.”

“Silence, or I shall look upon you as a dastard,” returned Norbert fiercely.

“Miserable fool!” said De Croisenois.  “On guard, then, and may heaven decide the issue!”

There was a sharp clash as their swords crossed, and the combat began with intense vigor.

The space upon which the rays of the lantern cast a glimmering and uncertain light was but a small one; and while one of the combatants was in complete shade the other was in the light, and exposed to thrusts which he could not see.  This was fatal to Croisenois, and, as he took a step forward, Norbert made a fierce lunge which pierced him to the heart.

The unfortunate man threw up his arms above his head; his sword escaping from his nerveless fingers and his knees bending under him, he fell heavily backwards without a word escaping from his lips.  Thrice he endeavored to regain his feet, and thrice he failed in his attempts.  He strove to speak, but he could only utter a few unintelligible words, for his life blood was suffocating him.  A violent convulsion shook every limb, then arose a long, deep-drawn sigh, and then silence — George de Croisenois was dead.

Yes, he was dead, and Norbert de Champdoce stood over him with a wild look of terror in his eyes, and his hair bristling upon his head, as a shudder of horror convulsed his body.  Then, for the first time, he realized the horror of seeing a man slain by his own hand; and yet what affected Norbert most was not that he had killed George de Croisenois — for he believed that justice was on his side and that he could not have acted otherwise — but the perspiration stood in thick beads upon his forehead, as he thought that he must raise up that still warm and quivering body, and place it in its unhallowed grave.

He hesitated and reasoned with himself for some time, going over all the reasons that made dispatch so absolutely necessary — the risk of detection, and the honor of his name.

He stooped and prepared to raise it, but recoiled again before his hands had touched the body.  His heart failed him, and once more he assumed an erect position.  At last he nerved himself, grasped the body, and, with an immense exertion of strength, hurled it into the gaping grave.  It fell with a dull, heavy sound which seemed to Norbert like the roar of an earthquake.  The violent emotions which he had endured had ended by acting on his brain, and, snatching up the spade which his late antagonist had used with so unpracticed a hand, shovelled the earth upon the body, flattened down the ground, and finally covered it with straw and dead leaves.

“And this is the end of a man who wronged a Champdoce; yes, his life has paid the penalty of his deed.”

All at once, a few paces off, in the deep shadow of the trees, he thought that he detected the outline of a human head with a pair of glittering eyes fixed upon him.  The shock was so terrible that for an instant he stopped and nearly fell, but he quickly recovered himself, and, snatching up his blood-stained sword, he dashed to the spot where he fancied he had seen this terrible witness of his deed.

At this rapid movement on the part of the Duke, a figure started up with a faint cry for mercy.  It was a woman.

She fled with inconceivable swiftness towards the house, but he caught her just as she had gained the steps.

“Have mercy on me!” cried she.  “Do not murder me!”

He dragged her back to where the lantern was hanging.  She was a girl of about eighteen years of age, ugly, badly clothed, and dirty looking.  Norbert looked earnestly at her, but could not say who she was, though he was certain that he had seen her face somewhere.

“Who are you?” asked he.

She burst into a flood of tears, but made no other reply.

“Come,” resumed he, in more soothing accents; “you shall not be hurt.  Tell me who you are.”

“Caroline Schimmel.”

“Caroline?” repeated he.

“Yes.  I have been in your service as scullery maid for the last three months.”

“How is it that you did not go to the wedding with the rest of them?”

“It was not my fault.  I was asked, and I did so long to go, but I was too shabby; I had no finery to put on.  I am very poor now, for I have only fifteen francs a month, and none of the other maids would lend me anything to wear.”

“How did you come into the garden?” asked Norbert.

“I was very miserable, and was sitting in the garden crying, when I suddenly saw a light down there.  I thought it was theirs, and crept down the back stairs.”

“And what did you see?”

“I saw it all.”

“All what?”

“When I got down here, you and the other were digging.  I thought you were looking for money! but ah, dear me!  I was wrong.  Then the other began to say something, but I couldn’t catch a word; then you fought.  Oh, it was awful!  I was so frightened, I could not take my eyes off you.  Then the other fell down on his back.”

“And then?”

“Then,” she faltered, “you buried him, and then — ”

“Could you recognize this — this other?”

“Yes, my lord duke, I did.”

“Had you ever seen him before?  Do you know who he was?”

“No.”

“Listen to me, my girl.  If you know how to hold your tongue, if you can forget all you have seen to-night, it will be the greatest piece of luck for you in the world that you did not go to this wedding.”

“I won’t open my lips to a soul, my lord duke.  Hear me swear, I won’t.  Oh, do believe me!”

“Very well; keep your oath, and your fortune is made.  To-morrow I will give you a fine, large sum of money, and you can go back to your village and marry some honest fellow to whom you have taken a fancy.”

“Are you not making game of me?”

“No; go to your room and go to bed, as if nothing had happened.  Jean will tell you what to do to-morrow, and you must obey him as you would me.”

“Oh, my lord!  Oh, my lord duke!”

Unable to contain her delight, she mingled her laughter and her tears.

And Norbert knew that his name, his honor, and perhaps his life were in the hands of a wretched girl like this.  All the peace and happiness of his life were gone, and he felt like some unhappy prisoner who through the bars of his dungeon sees his jailer’s children sporting with lighted matches and a barrel of gunpowder.  He was at her mercy, for well he knew that it would resolve into this — that the smallest wish of this girl would become an imperative command that he dared not disobey.  However absurd might be her whims and caprices, she had but to express them, and he dared not resist.  What means could he adopt to free himself from this odious state of servitude?  He knew but of one — the dead tell no tales.  There were four persons who were the sharer of Norbert’s secret.  First, the writer of the anonymous letter; then the Duchess; then Caroline Schimmel; and, finally, Jean, to whom he must confide all.  With these thoughts ringing through his brain, Norbert carefully effaced the last traces of the duel, and then bent his steps towards his wife’s chamber.

He had expected to find her still unconscious on the spot where he had left her lying.  Marie was seated in an armchair by the side of the fire; her face was terribly pale, and her eyes sparkling with the inward flame that consumed her.

“My honor has been vindicated; the Marquis de Croisenois is no more; I have slain your lover, madame.”

Marie did not start; she had evidently prepared herself for this blow.  Her face assumed a more proud and disdainful expression, and the light in her dark eyes grew brighter and brighter.

“You are wrong,” said she, “M. de Croisenois was not my lover.”

“You need no longer take the pains to lie; I ask nothing now.”

Marie’s utter calmness jarred inexpressibly upon Norbert’s exasperated frame of mind.  He would have given much to change this mood of hers, which he could not at all understand.  But in vain did he say the most cutting things, and coupled them with bitter taunts, for she had reached a pitch of exaltation far above his sarcasms and abuse.

“I am not lying,” answered she frigidly.  “What should I gain by it?  What more have I to gain in this world?  You desire to learn the truth; here it is then:  It was with my knowledge and permission that George was here to-night.  He came because I had asked him to do so, and I left the gate in the garden wall open, so as to facilitate his entrance.  He had not been more than five minutes in the room, when you arrived, and he had never been there before.  It would have been easy for me to have left you; but as I bear your name, I could not dishonor it.  As you entered, he was entreating me to fly with him; both his life and his honor were in my hands.  Ah, why did I pause for an instant?  Had I consented, he would still have been alive, and in some far distant country he and I might have learned that this world has something more to offer than unhappiness and misery.  Yes, as you will have it, you shall have all.  I loved him ere I knew that you even existed.  I have only my own folly to blame, only my own unhappy weakness to deplore.  Why did I not steadily refuse to become your wife?  You say that you have slain George.  Not so, for in my heart his memory will ever remain bright and ineffaceable.”

“Beware!” said Norbert furiously, “beware if — ”

“Ah, would you kill me too?  Do not fear resistance; my life is a blank without him.  He is dead; let death come to me; it would be a welcome visitant.  The only kindness that you could now bestow upon me would be my death-blow.  Strike then, and end it all!  In death we should be united, George and I; and as my limbs grew stiff and my breath passed away, my whitening lips would murmur words of thanks.”

Norbert listened to her, overwhelmed by the intensity of her passion, and marvelling that he had any power to feel after the terrible event which had fallen upon his devoted head.

Could this be Marie, the soft and gentle woman, who spoke with such passionate vehemence and boldly braved his anger?  How could he have so misunderstood her?  He forgot all his anger in his admiration.  She seemed to him to have undergone a complete change.  There was an unearthly style of beauty around her — her eyes blazed and shone with the lurid light of a far-distant planet, while her wealth of raven hair fell in disordered masses on her shoulders.  It was passion, real passion, that he beheld to-night, not that mere empty delusion which he had so long followed blindly.  Marie was really capable of a deep-rooted feeling of adoration for the man she loved, while with Diana de Mussidan, the woman with her fair hair and the steel-blue eyes, love was but the lust of conquest, or the desire to jeer at a suitor’s earnestness.  Ah, what a revelation had been made to him now!  And what would he not have given to have wiped out the past!  He advanced towards her with outstretched arms.

“Marie!” said he, “Marie!”

“I forbid you to call me Marie!” shrieked she wildly.

He made no reply, but still advanced towards her, when, with a terrible cry, she recoiled from him.

“Blood!” she screamed, “ah, heavens! he has blood upon his hands!”

Norbert glanced downwards; upon the wristband of his shirt there was a tell-tale crimson stain.

The Duchess raised her hand, and pointed towards the door.

“Leave me,” said she, with an extraordinary assumption of energy, “leave me; the secret of your crime is safe; I will not betray you or hand you over to justice.  But remember that a murdered man stands between us, and that I loathe and execrate you.”

Rage and jealousy tortured Norbert’s soul.  Though George de Croisenois was no more, he was still his successful rival in Marie’s love.

“You forget,” said he in a voice hoarse with passion, “that you are mine, and that, as your husband, I can make your existence one long scene of agony and misery.  Keep this fact in your memory.  To-morrow, at six o’clock, I shall be here.”

The clock was striking two as he left the house and hastened to the spot where he had left his horse.

The soldier was still pacing backwards and forwards, leading the Duke’s horse.

“My faith!” said the man, as soon as he perceived Norbert, “you pay precious long visits.  I had only leave to go to the theatre, and I shall get into trouble over this.”

“Pshaw!  I promised you twenty francs.  Here are two louis.”

The soldier pocketed the money with an air of delighted surprise, and Norbert sprang into the saddle.

An hour later he gave the appointed signal upon the window pane, behind which the trusty Jean was waiting.

“Take care that no one sees you as you take the horse to the stable,” said the Duke hastily, “and then come to me, for I want your assistance and advice.”