Read CHAPTER XVIII - THE HEIR OF CHAMPDOCE of The Champdoce Mystery , free online book, by Emile Gaboriau, on ReadCentral.com.

As long as she was in Norbert’s presence, anger and indignation gave the Duchess de Champdoce strength; but as soon as she was left alone her energy gave way, and with an outburst of tears she sank, half fainting, upon a couch.  Her despair was augmented from the fact that she felt that had it not been for her, George de Croisenois would never have met with his death.

“Had I not made that fatal appointment,” she sobbed, “he would be alive and well now; my love has slain him as surely as if my hand had held the steel that has pierced his heart!”

She at first thought of seeking refuge with her father, but abandoned the idea almost immediately, for she felt that he would refuse to enter into her grievance, or would say, “You are a duchess; you have an enormous fortune.  You must be happy; and if you are not, it must be your own fault.”

In terrible anguish the night passed away; and when her maids entered the room, they found her lying on the floor, dressed as she had been the night before.  No one knew what to do, and messengers were dispatched in all directions to summon medical advice.

Norbert’s return was eagerly welcomed by the terrified domestics, and a general feeling of relief pervaded the establishment.

The Duke had grown very uneasy as to what might have happened during his absence.  He questioned the servants as diplomatically as he could; and while he was thus engaged, the doctors who had been summoned arrived.

After seeing their patient, they did not for a moment conceal their opinion that the case was a very serious one, and that it was possible that she might not survive this mysterious seizure.  They impressed upon Norbert the necessity of the Duchess being kept perfectly quiet and never left alone, and then departed, promising to call again in the afternoon.

Their injunctions were unnecessary, for Norbert had established himself by his wife’s bedside, resolved not to quit her until her health was re-established or death had intervened to release her from suffering.  Fever had claimed her for its own, and in her delusion she uttered many incoherent ravings, the key to which Norbert alone held, and which filled his soul with dread and terror.

This was the second time that Norbert had been compelled to watch over a sick-bed, guarding within his heart a terrible secret.  At Champdoce he had sat by his father’s side, who could have revealed the terrible attempt against his life; and now it was his wife that he was keeping a watch on, lest her lips should utter the horrible secret of the death of George de Croisenois.

Compelled to remain by his wife’s side, the thoughts of his past life forced themselves upon him, and he shuddered to think that, at the age of twenty-five he had only to look back upon scenes of misery and crime, which cast a cloud of gloom and horror over the rest of his days.  What a terrible future to come after so hideous a past!

He had another source of anxiety, and frequently rang the bell to inquire for Jean.

“Send him to me as soon as he comes,” was his order.

At last Jean made his appearance, and his master led him into a deeply-recessed window.

“Well?” asked he.

“All is settled, my lord; be easy.”

“And Caroline?”

“Has left.  I gave her twenty thousand francs, and saw her into the train myself.  She is going to the States, where she hopes to find a cousin who will marry her; at least, that is her intention.”

Norbert heaved a deep sigh of relief, for the thought of Caroline Schimmel had laid like a heavy burden upon his heart.

“And how about the other matter?” asked he.

The old man shook his head.

“What has been done?”

“I have got hold of a young fellow who believes that I wish to send him to Egypt, to purchase cotton.  He will start to-morrow, and will post the two letters written by the Marquis de Croisenois, one at Marseilles, and the other at Cairo.”

“Do you not think that these letters will insure my perfect security?”

“I see that any indiscretion on our agent’s part, or a mere act of carelessness, may ruin us.”

“And yet it must be done.”

After consulting together, the doctors had given some slight hope, but the position of the patient was still very precarious.  It was suggested that her intellect might be permanently affected; and during all these long and anxious hours Norbert did not even dare to close his eyes, and it was with feelings of secret terror that he permitted the maids to perform their duties around their invalid mistress.

Upon the fourth day the fever took a favorable turn, and Marie slept, giving Norbert time to review his position.

How was it that Madame de Mussidan, who was a daily visitor, had not appeared at the house since that eventful night?  He was so much surprised at this that he ventured to dispatch a short note, acquainting her of the sudden illness of his wife.

In an hour he received a reply, merely containing these words: —

“Can you account for M. de Mussidan’s sudden determination to spend the winter in Italy?  We leave this evening.  Farewell. — D.”

And so she, too, had abandoned him, taking with her all the hopes he had in the world.  Still, however, his infatuation held its sway over him, and he forced himself to believe that she felt this separation as keenly as he did.

Some five days afterwards, when the Duchess de Champdoce had been pronounced out of immediate danger, one of the doctors took him mysteriously aside.  He said that he wanted to inform the Duke of a startling, but he hoped a welcome piece of intelligence — that the Duchess de Champdoce was in the way to present the Duke with an heir to his title and estates.

It was the knowledge of this that had decided her not to leave her husband’s roof, and had steeled her heart against George’s entreaties.  She had hesitated, and had almost yielded to the feelings of her heart, when this thought troubled her.

Unfortunately for herself, she had not disclosed her condition to her husband, and, at the news, all Norbert’s former suspicions revived, and his wrath rose once more to an extraordinary height.  His lips grew pale, and his eyes blazed with fury.

“Thank you, doctor!” exclaimed he.  “Of course, the news is very welcome.  Good-by.  I must go to the Duchess at once.”

Instead of going to his wife, Norbert went and locked himself up in his own private apartment.  He had need to be alone, in order to look this fresh complication more fully in the face, and the more he reflected, the more convinced was he that he had been the dupe of a guilty woman.  He had begun by doubting, and he ended by being convinced that the child was not his.  Was he to accept this degraded position, and rear up as his own the child of George de Croisenois?  The child would grow up under his own roof-tree, bear his name, and finally inherit his title and gigantic fortune.  “Never,” muttered he.  “No, never; for sooner than that, I will crush the life out of it with my own hands!”

The more he thought how he should have to deceive the world by feigning love and lavishing caresses upon this interloping child, the more he felt that it would be impossible to perform his task.  He had, however, much to do at present.  The sudden and mysterious disappearance of George de Croisenois had created much stir and excitement in Paris, and the letter which had been posed by the agent dispatched by Jean, instead of explaining matters, had only deepened the mystery and caused fresh grounds of surprise to arise in the minds of the friends of the Marquis and the police authorities.  But the disappearance of the Marquis was only a nine days’ wonder after all.  Some other strange event excited the attention of the fickle public, and George de Croisenois’ name was no longer in every one’s mouth.

Norbert breathed freely once more, for he felt his secret was safe.

Diana de Mussidan had now been absent for three months and had not vouchsafed him a single line.  A river of blood flowed between him and his wife.  Among all his acquaintances he had not one friend on whom he could rely, and his reckless life of debauchery and dissipation began to weary him.  His thoughts were always fixed upon this coming child.  How could he ever bear to bring it up as if it were his own?  He had thought over many plans, but always trusted to the first one he had conceived.  This was to procure an infant, it mattered not where or by what means, and substitute it for the new-born child of his wife.  As time rolled on, he became more imbued with this idea, and at length he summoned Jean to him, that faithful old man, who served his master so truly out of affection to the house of Champdoce.

For the first time Jean raised an objection to his master’s proposal, declaring that such an act would bring shame and misery upon all concerned in it; but when he found that Norbert was determined, and that, if he refused, his master would employ some less scrupulous agent, he, with tears in his eyes and a tremor in his voice, promised obedience.

About a month later, Jean came to his master and suggested that it would be best the accouchement of the Duchess should take place at a chateau belonging to the Champdoce family near Montroire, and that this once done, he, Jean would arrange everything.  The removal was effected almost at once, and the Duchess, who was a mere shadow of her former self, made no opposition.  She and Norbert lived together as perfect strangers.  Sometimes a week would elapse without their meeting; and if they had occasion to communicate, it was done by letter.

The estate to which Norbert had conducted the Duchess was admirably adapted for his purpose.  The unhappy woman was entirely alone in the world, and had no one to whom she could apply for protection or advice.  Her father, the Count de Puymandour, had died suddenly a month before, owing to chagrin caused by his defeat when a candidate for a seat in the Chamber.  The brief note from the despairing mother, in which followed the words, “Have mercy!  Give me back my child!” hardly describes the terrible events that occurred in the lonely Chateau to which Norbert had conducted his innocent victim.

The child of the Duchess de Champdoce had been placed by Jean in the Foundling Hospital at Vendome, while the infant that was baptized with the grandiloquent names of Anne René, Gontran de Duepair, Marquis de Champdoce, was the bastard child of a girl living near Montroire, who was known in the neighborhood as “The Witch.”