She had barely disappeared when the boy, listening eagerly, heard the great door below flung open, and instinctively sank down again. A breath of cold air rose from below. A harsh voice--a voice he knew--cursed someone or something in the hall, a heavy step came stumbling up the stairs, and in a moment M. de Vidoche, followed by a sleepy servant, pushed his way through the curtains. He was flushed with drink, yet he was not drunk for as he crossed the floor he shot a swift sidelong glance at his wife's door--a glance of dark meaning; and, though he railed savagely at the servant for letting the fire go out, he had the air of listening while he spoke, and swore, to show himself at ease.
The man muttered some excuse, and, keeling, began to blow the embers, while Vidoche looked on moodily. He had not taken off his hat and cloak. "Has madame been out this evening?" he said suddenly.
"No, my lord."
"Her woman is lying with her?"
"Yes, my lord."
A moment's silence. Then, "Trim the lamp, curse you! Don't you see it is going out? Do you want to leave me in the dark? Sacre! This might be a pigsty from the way it is kept!"
The man was used to be kicked and abused, but it seemed to him that his master's caprices were taking a fresh direction. It was not his business to think, however. He trimmed the lamp and took the cloak and hat, and was going when Vidoche called him back again. "Put on a log," he said, "and give me that drink. Nom du diable, it is cold! You lazy hound, you have been sleeping!"
The man vowed he had not, and M. de Vidoche listened to his protestations as if he heard them. In reality his thoughts were busy with other things. Would it be to-night, or to-morrow, or the next day? he was wondering darkly. And how would it--take her? Would he be there, or would they come and tell him? Would she sicken and fade slowly, and die of some common illness to all appearance, with the priest by her side? Or would he awake in the night to hear her screaming, and be summoned to see her writhing in torture, gasping, choking, praying them to save--to save her from this horrible pain? God! The perspiration broke out on his brow. He shivered. "Give me that!" he muttered hoarsely, holding out a shaking hand. "Give it me, I say!"
The man was warming the posset, but he rose hastily and handed it.
"Put lights in my room! And, hark you--you will sleep there to-night. I am not well. Go and get your straw, and be quick about it."
Vidoche listened with the cup in his hand while the man went down and fetched a taper and some coverings from the hall, and, coming up again, opened one of the doors on the right--not the one against which the boy lay. The servant went into the room and busied himself there for a time, while the master sat crouching over the fire, thinking, with a gloomy face. He tried to turn his thoughts to the Farincourt, and to what would happen afterward, and to a dozen things with which his mind had been only too ready to occupy itself of late. But now his thoughts would not be ordered. They returned again and again to the door on his left. He caught himself listening, waiting, glancing at it askance. And this might go on for days. Dieu! the house would be a hell! He would go away. He would make some excuse to leave until--until after Christmas.
He shivered, cursed himself under his breath for a fool, and drank half the mulled wine at a draught. As he took the cup from his lips, his ear caught a slight sound behind him, and, starting, he peered hastily over his shoulder. But the noise came apparently from the next room, where the servant was moving about; and, with another oath, Vidoche drained the cup and set it down on the table.
He had scarcely done so when he drew himself suddenly upright and remained in that position for a moment, his mouth half open, his eyes glaring. A kind of spasm seized him. His teeth shut with a click. He staggered and clutched at the table. his face grew red--purple. His brain seemed to be bursting; his eyes filled with blood. He tried to cry, to give the alarm, to get breath, but his throat was held in an iron vice. He was choking and reeling on his feet, when the man came by chance out of the bedroom.
By a tremendous effort Vidoche spoke. "Who--made--this?" he muttered, in a hissing voice.
The servant started, scared by his appearance. He answered, nevertheless, that he had mixed it himself.
"Look at--the bottom of--the cup!" Vidoche replied in a terrible voice. He was swaying to and fro, and kept himself up only by his grip on the table. "Is there--anything there?"
The servant was terribly frightened, but he had the sense to obey. He took up the cup and looked in it. "Is there--a powder--in it?" Vidoche asked, a frightful spasm distorting his features.
"There is--something," the man answered, his teeth chattering. "But let me fetch help, my lord. You are not well. You are--"
"A dead man!" the baffled murderer cried, his voice rising in a scream of indescribable despair and horror. "A dead man! I am poisoned! My wife!" He reeled with that word. He lost his hold of the table. "Ha, mon Dieu! Mercy! Mercy!" he cried.
In a moment he was down, writhing on the floor, and uttering shriek on shriek: cries so dreadful that on the instant doors flew open and sleepers awoke, and in a twinkling the room--though the lamp lay quenched, overturned in his struggles--was full of lights and frightened faces and huddled forms, and women who stopped their ears and wept. The doorways framed more faces, the staircase rang with sounds of alarm. Everywhere was turmoil and a madness of hurrying feet. One ran for the doctor, another for the priest, a third for the watch. The house seemed on a sudden alive; nay, the very courtyard, where the porter was gone from his post, and the doors stood open, was full of staring strangers, who gaped at the windows and the hurrying lights, and asked whose was the hotel, or answered it was M. de Vidoche's.
It had been. But already the man who had gone up the stairs so full of strength and evil purpose lay dying, speechless, all but dead. They had lifted him on to a pallet which someone drew from a neighboring room, and at first there had been no lack of helpers or ready hands. One untied his cravat, and another his doublet, and two or three of the coolest held him in his paroxysms. But then the magic word "Poison!" was whispered; and one by one, all, even the man who had been with him, even madam's woman, drew off, and left those two alone. The livid body lay on the pallet, and madame, stunned and horror-stricken, hung over it; but the servants stood away in a dense circle, and looking on with gloom and fear in their faces, some mechanically holding lights, some still grasping the bowls and basins they were afraid to use, whispered that word again and again.
It seemed as if the tell-tale syllables passed the walls; for the first to arrive, before doctor or priest, was the captain of the watch. He came up-stairs, his sword clanking, and, thrusting the curtains aside, stood looking at the strange scene, which the many lights, irregularly held and distributed, lit up as if it had been a pageant on the stage. "Who is it?" he muttered, touching the nearest servant on the arm.
"M. de Vidoche," the man answered.
"Is he dead?"
The man cringed before him. "Dead, or as good," he whispered. "Yes, sir."
"then he is not dead?"
"I do not know, sir."
"Then why the devil are you all standing like mutes at a funeral?" the soldier answered, with an oath. "Leaving madame alone, too. Poison, eh? Oh!" and he whistled softly. "So that is why you are all looking on as if the man had got the plague, is it? A pretty set of curs you are! but here is the doctor. Out of the way now," he added contemptuously, "and let no one leave the room."
He went forward with the physician, and, while the latter knelt and made his examination, the captain muttered a few words of comfort in madame's ear. For all she heard or heeded, however, he might have spared his pains. She had been summoned so abruptly, and the call had so entirely snapped the thread of her thoughts, that she had not yet connected her husband's illness with any act of hers. She had absolutely forgotten the enterprise of the evening, its anticipations and hopes. For the time she was spared that horror. But this illness alone sufficed to overwhelm her, to sink her beyond the reach of present comfort. She no longer remembered her husband's coldness, but only the early days when he had come to her in her country home, a black-bearded, bold-eyed Apollo, and wooed her impetuously and with irresistible will. All his faults, all his unkindnesses, were forgotten now: only his beauty, his vigor, h is great passion, his courage were remembered. A dreadful pain seized her heart when she recognized that his had ceased to beat. She peered white-faced into the physician's eyes, she hung on his lips. If she remembered her journey to the Rue Touchet at all, it was only to think how futile her hopes were now. He, whom she would have won back to her, was gone from her for ever!
The doctor shook his head gravely as he rose. He had tried to bleed the patient, without waiting, in this emergency, for a barber to be summoned; but the blood would not flow. "It is useless," he said. "You must have courage, madame. More courage than is commonly required," he continued, in a tone of solemnity, almost of severity. He looked round and met the captain's eyes. He made a slight sign.
"He is dead?" she muttered.
"He is dead," the physician answered slowly.
"More, Madame--my task goes farther. It is my duty to say that he has been poisoned."
"Dead!" she muttered, with a dry sob. "Dead!"
"Poisoned, I said, madame," the physician answered almost harshly. "In an older man the symptoms might be taken for those of apoplexy. But in this case not so. M de Vidoche has been poisoned."
"You are clear on the point?" the captain of the watch said. He was a grey-haired, elderly man, lately transferred from the field to the slums of Paris, and his kindly nature had not been wholly obliterated by contact with villainy.
"Perfectly," the doctor answered. "More, the poison must have been administered within the hour."
Madame rose shivering from the dead man's side. This new terror, so much worse than that of death, seemed to thrust her from him, to raise a barrier between them. The soft white robe she had thrown round her when she ran from her bed was not whiter than her cheeks; the lights were not brighter than her eyes, distended with horror. "Poisoned!" she muttered. "Who would poison him?"
"That is the question, madame," the captain of the watch answered, not without pity--not without admiration. "And if, as we are told, the poison must have been given within the hour, it should not be difficult to answer it. Let no one leave the room," he continued, pulling his mustachios. "Where is the valet who waited on M de Vidoche?"
The man stood forward from the rest, shaking with alarm, and told briefly all he knew; how he had left his master in his usual health, and found him in some kind of seizure; how Vidoche had bidden him look in the cup, and how he had found a sediment in it which should not have been there.
"You mixed this wine yourself?" the captain of the watch said sharply.
The man allowed he had, whimpering and excusing himself.
"Very well. Let me see madam's woman," was the answer. "Where is she? She is here, I suppose. Let her stand out."
A dozen hands were ready to point her out, a dozen lights were held up that the Chevalier du Guet might see her the better. She was pushed, nudged, impelled forward, until she stood trembling where the man had stood. But not for long. The captain's first question was still on his lips when, with a sudden gesture of despair, the woman threw herself on her knees before him, and, grovelling in a state of abject terror, cried out that she would tell all--all! All if they would let her go! All if they would not torture her!
The captain's face grew stern, the lines about his mouth hardened. "Speak!" he said curtly, and with a swift side-glance at the mistress, who stood as if turned to stone. "Speak, but the truth only, woman!" while a murmur of astonishment and fear ran round the circle.
It should be mentioned that at this time the crime of secret poisoning was held in especial abhorrence in France, the poisoning of husbands by wives more particularly. It was believed to be common; it was suspected in many cases where it could not be proved. Men felt themselves at the mercy of women who, sharing their bed and board, had often the motive and always the opportunity; and in proportion as the crime was easy of commission and difficult to detect was the rigor with which it was rewarded when detected. The high rank of the Princess of Conde--a Tremouille by birth and a Bourbon by marriage--did not avail to save her from torture when suspected of this; while the sudden death of a man of position was often sufficient to expose his servants, and particularly his wife's confidante, to the horrors of the question. Madam's woman knew all this. Such things formed the gossip of her class, and in a paroxysm of fear, in terror, in dread lest the moment should pass and another forestall her, she flung both fidelity and prudence to the winds.
"I will! I Will! All!" she cried. "And I swear it is true! She went to a house in the Tournelles quarter to-night!"
"She? Who is she, woman?" the captain asked sharply.
"My lady there! She stayed an hour. I waited outside. As we came back a boy ran after us, and talked with her by the porch of St. Gervais. She sent me away, and I do not know what was his business. But after we got home, and when she thought me asleep, she crept out of the room and came here, and put something in that cup. I heard her go, and stole to the door, and through the curtains saw her do it, but I did not know what it was, or what she intended. I have told the truth. But I did not know, I did not I swear I did not!"
The captain silenced her protestations with a fierce gesture, and turned from her to the woman she accused. "Madam," he said, in a low, unsteady voice, "is this true?"
She stood with both her hands on her breast, and looked, with a face of stone, not at him, but beyond him. She scarcely seemed to breathe, so perfect was the dreadful stillness which held her. He thought she did not hear: and he was about to repeat his question when she moved her lips in a strange, mechanical fashion, and, after an effort, spoke. "Is it true?" she whispered--in that stricken silence every syllable was audible, and even at her first word some women fell to shuddering--"is it true that I have killed my husband? Yes, I have killed him. I loved him, and I have killed him. I loved him--I had no one else to love--and I have killed him. God has let this be in this world. You are real and I am real. It is no dream. He has let it be."
"Mon Dieu!" the captain muttered, while one woman broke into noisy weeping. "She is mad!"
But madame was not mad, or only mad for the moment. "It is strange," she continued, with writhing lips, but in the same even tone--which to those who had ears to hear was worse than any loud outcry--"that such a thing should be. God should not let it be, because I loved him. I loved him and I have killed him. I--but perhaps I shall awake presently and find it a dream. Or perhaps he is not dead. Is he? Ha! is he, man? Tell me!"
With the last words, which leaped from her lips in sudden frantic questioning, she awoke as from a trance. She sprang toward the doctor; then, turning swiftly, looked where the corpse lay, and with a dreadful peal of laughter threw herself upon it. Her shrill cries so filled the air, so rang through the empty hall below, so pierced the brain, that the captain raised his hands to his ears, and the men shrank back, looking at the women.
"See to her!" said the captain, stamping his foot in a rage and addressing the physician. "I must take her away, but I cannot take her like this. See to her, man. Give her something; drug her, poison her, if you like--anything to stop her! Her cries will ring in my ears a twelve month hence. Well, woman, what is it?" he continued impatiently. Madam's woman had touched his arm.
"The boy!" she muttered. "The boy!" Her teeth were chattering with terror. She pointed to the place where the servants stood most thickly near the great curtains which shut off the staircase.
He followed the direction of her hand, but saw nothing except scared faces and cringing figures. "What boy, woman?" he retorted. "What do you mean?"
"The boy who came after us to the church," she answered. "I saw him a minute ago--there!" He was standing behind that man, looking under his arm." Three strides brought the captain of the watch to the place indicated. But there was no boy there--there was no boy to be seen. Moreover, the frightened servants who stood in that part declared that they had seen no boy--that no boy could have been there. The captain, believing that they had had eyes only for Madame de Vidoche, put small faith in their protestations; but the fact remained that the boy was gone, and the searcher returned baffled and perplexed: more than half inclined to think that this might be a ruse on the woman's part, yet at a loss to see what good it could do her. He asked her roughly how old the boy was.
"About twelve," she answered, looking nervously over her shoulder. In truth, she began to fancy that the boy was a familiar. Or what could bring him here? How had he entered? And whither had he vanished?
"How was he dressed?" the captain asked angrily, waving back the servants, who would have pressed on him in their curiosity.
"In black velvet," she answered. "But he had no cap. He was bareheaded. And I noticed that he had black hair and blue eyes."
"Are you sure that the boy you saw here was the boy who followed you and spoke to madame in the street?" he urged. "Be careful, woman!"
"I am certain of it," she answered feverishly "I knew him in a moment."
"Are you sure that madame did not bring him in with you?"
She vowed positively that she had not, and equally positively that the boy could not have followed them in without being seen. In this we know that she was mistaken; but she believed it, and her belief communicated itself to her questioner.
He rubbed his head with his hand in extreme perplexity. If the boy were a messenger from the villain whom this wretched woman had been to visit, what could have brought him to the house? Why had he risked himself on the scene of the murder? Unless--unless, indeed, his mission where to learn what happened, and to warn his master!
The captain caught that in a moments, and, thrusting the servants on one side, despatched three or four men on the instant to the Rue Touchet. "Pardieu!" he exclaimed, wiping his forehead when they were gone, "I was nearly forgetting him. The villain! I will be sworn he tempted her! But now I think I have netted all--madame, the maid, the man, the devil!" He ticked them off on his fingers. "There is only the lad wanting. The odds are they will get him, too, in the Rue Touchet. So far, so good. But it is hateful work," the old soldier continued, with an oath, looking askance at the group which surrounded madame and the doctor. "They will--ugh! it is horrible. It would be a mercy to give her a dose now, and end all."
But there was no one to take the responsibility, and so the few who were abroad very early that morning saw a strange and mournful procession pass through the streets of Paris; those streets which have seen so many grisly and so many fantastic things. An hour before daybreak a litter, surrounded by a crowd of armed men, some bearing torches and some pikes and halberds, came out of the Hotel Vidoche and passed slowly down the Rue St. Dennis. The night was at its darkest, the wind at its keenest. Vagrant wretches, lying out in the Halles, rose up and walked for their lives, or slowly froze and perished.
But there are worse things than death in the open; worse, at any rate, than that death which comes with kindly numbing power. And some of these knew it; nay, all. The poorest outcast whom the glare of the cressets surprised as he lurked in porch or penthouse, the leanest beggar who looked out startled by the clang and tramp, knew himself happier than the king's prisoner bound for the Chatelet; and, hugging his rags, thanked Heaven for it.
Chapter 6 Chapter 8