Valentine was alone; two other clocks, slower than that of Saint-Philippe d_oule, struck the hour of midnight from different directions, and exceptin_he rumbling of a few carriages all was silent. Then Valentine's attention wa_ngrossed by the clock in her room, which marked the seconds. She bega_ounting them, remarking that they were much slower than the beatings of he_eart; and still she doubted, — the inoffensive Valentine could not imagin_hat any one should desire her death. Why should they? To what end? What ha_he done to excite the malice of an enemy? There was no fear of her fallin_sleep. One terrible idea pressed upon her mind, — that some one existed i_he world who had attempted to assassinate her, and who was about to endeavo_o do so again. Supposing this person, wearied at the inefficacy of th_oison, should, as Monte Cristo intimated, have recourse to steel! — What i_he count should have no time to run to her rescue! — What if her last moment_ere approaching, and she should never again see Morrel! When this terribl_hain of ideas presented itself, Valentine was nearly persuaded to ring th_ell, and call for help. But through the door she fancied she saw the luminou_ye of the count — that eye which lived in her memory, and the recollectio_verwhelmed her with so much shame that she asked herself whether any amoun_f gratitude could ever repay his adventurous and devoted friendship.
Twenty minutes, twenty tedious minutes, passed thus, then ten more, and a_ast the clock struck the half-flour. Just then the sound of finger-nail_lightly grating against the door of the library informed Valentine that th_ount was still watching, and recommended her to do the same; at the sam_ime, on the opposite side, that is towards Edward's room, Valentine fancie_hat she heard the creaking of the floor; she listened attentively, holdin_er breath till she was nearly suffocated; the lock turned, and the doo_lowly opened. Valentine had raised herself upon her elbow, and had scarcel_ime to throw herself down on the bed and shade her eyes with her arm; then, trembling, agitated, and her heart beating with indescribable terror, sh_waited the event.
Some one approached the bed and drew back the curtains. Valentine summone_very effort, and breathed with that regular respiration which announce_ranquil sleep. "Valentine!" said a low voice. Still silent: Valentine ha_romised not to awake. Then everything was still, excepting that Valentin_eard the almost noiseless sound of some liquid being poured into the glas_he had just emptied. Then she ventured to open her eyelids, and glance ove_er extended arm. She saw a woman in a white dressing-gown pouring a liquo_rom a phial into her glass. During this short time Valentine must have hel_er breath, or moved in some slight degree, for the woman, disturbed, stoppe_nd leaned over the bed, in order the better to ascertain whether Valentin_lept — it was Madame de Villefort.
On recognizing her step-mother, Valentine could not repress a shudder, whic_aused a vibration in the bed. Madame de Villefort instantly stepped bac_lose to the wall, and there, shaded by the bed-curtains, she silently an_ttentively watched the slightest movement of Valentine. The latte_ecollected the terrible caution of Monte Cristo; she fancied that the han_ot holding the phial clasped a long sharp knife. Then collecting all he_emaining strength, she forced herself to close her eyes; but this simpl_peration upon the most delicate organs of our frame, generally so easy t_ccomplish, became almost impossible at this moment, so much did curiosit_truggle to retain the eyelid open and learn the truth. Madame de Villefort, however, reassured by the silence, which was alone disturbed by the regula_reathing of Valentine, again extended her hand, and half hidden by th_urtains succeeded in emptying the contents of the phial into the glass. The_he retired so gently that Valentine did not know she had left the room. Sh_nly witnessed the withdrawal of the arm — the fair round arm of a woman bu_wenty-five years old, and who yet spread death around her.
It is impossible to describe the sensations experienced by Valentine durin_he minute and a half Madame de Villefort remained in the room. The gratin_gainst the library-door aroused the young girl from the stupor in which sh_as plunged, and which almost amounted to insensibility. She raised her hea_ith an effort. The noiseless door again turned on its hinges, and the Coun_f Monte Cristo reappeared. "Well," said he, "do you still doubt?"
"Oh," murmured the young girl.
"Have you seen?"
"Did you recognize?" Valentine groaned. "Oh, yes;" she said, "I saw, but _annot believe!"
"Would you rather die, then, and cause Maximilian's death?"
"Oh," repeated the young girl, almost bewildered, "can I not leave the house?
— can I not escape?"
"Valentine, the hand which now threatens you will pursue you everywhere; you_ervants will be seduced with gold, and death will be offered to you disguise_n every shape. You will find it in the water you drink from the spring, i_he fruit you pluck from the tree."
"But did you not say that my kind grandfather's precaution had neutralized th_oison?"
"Yes, but not against a strong dose; the poison will be changed, and th_uantity increased." He took the glass and raised it to his lips. "It i_lready done," he said; "brucine is no longer employed, but a simple narcotic!
I can recognize the flavor of the alcohol in which it has been dissolved. I_ou had taken what Madame de Villefort has poured into your glass, Valentine — Valentine — you would have been doomed!"
"But," exclaimed the young girl, "why am I thus pursued?"
"Why? — are you so kind — so good — so unsuspicious of ill, that you canno_nderstand, Valentine?"
"No, I have never injured her."
"But you are rich, Valentine; you have 200,000 livres a year, and you preven_er son from enjoying these 200,000 livres."
"How so? The fortune is not her gift, but is inherited from my relations."
"Certainly; and that is why M. and Madame de Saint-Meran have died; that i_hy M. Noirtier was sentenced the day he made you his heir; that is why you, in your turn, are to die — it is because your father would inherit you_roperty, and your brother, his only son, succeed to his."
"Edward? Poor child! Are all these crimes committed on his account?"
"Ah, then you at length understand?"
"Heaven grant that this may not be visited upon him!"
"Valentine, you are an angel!"
"But why is my grandfather allowed to live?"
"It was considered, that you dead, the fortune would naturally revert to you_rother, unless he were disinherited; and besides, the crime appearin_seless, it would be folly to commit it."
"And is it possible that this frightful combination of crimes has bee_nvented by a woman?"
"Do you recollect in the arbor of the Hotel des Postes, at Perugia, seeing _an in a brown cloak, whom your stepmother was questioning upon aqua tofana?
Well, ever since then, the infernal project has been ripening in her brain."
"Ah, then, indeed, sir," said the sweet girl, bathed in tears, "I see that _m condemned to die!"
"No, Valentine, for I have foreseen all their plots; no, your enemy i_onquered since we know her, and you will live, Valentine — live to be happ_ourself, and to confer happiness upon a noble heart; but to insure this yo_ust rely on me."
"Command me, sir — what am I to do?"
"You must blindly take what I give you."
"Alas, were it only for my own sake, I should prefer to die!"
"You must not confide in any one — not even in your father."
"My father is not engaged in this fearful plot, is he, sir?" asked Valentine, clasping her hands.
"No; and yet your father, a man accustomed to judicial accusations, ought t_ave known that all these deaths have not happened naturally; it is he wh_hould have watched over you — he should have occupied my place — he shoul_ave emptied that glass — he should have risen against the assassin. Spectr_gainst spectre!" he murmured in a low voice, as he concluded his sentence.
"Sir," said Valentine, "I will do all I can to live. for there are two being_hose existence depends upon mine — my grandfather and Maximilian."
"I will watch over them as I have over you."
"Well, sir, do as you will with me;" and then she added, in a low voice, "oh, heavens, what will befall me?"
"Whatever may happen, Valentine, do not be alarmed; though you suffer; thoug_ou lose sight, hearing, consciousness, fear nothing; though you should awak_nd be ignorant where you are, still do not fear; even though you should fin_ourself in a sepulchral vault or coffin. Reassure yourself, then, and say t_ourself: `At this moment, a friend, a father, who lives for my happiness an_hat of Maximilian, watches over me!'"
"Alas, alas, what a fearful extremity!"
"Valentine, would you rather denounce your stepmother?"
"I would rather die a hundred times — oh, yes, die!"
"No, you will not die; but will you promise me, whatever happens, that yo_ill not complain, but hope?"
"I will think of Maximilian!"
"You are my own darling child, Valentine! I alone can save you, and I will."
Valentine in the extremity of her terror joined her hands, — for she felt tha_he moment had arrived to ask for courage, — and began to pray, and whil_ttering little more than incoherent words, she forgot that her whit_houlders had no other covering than her long hair, and that the pulsations o_er heart could he seen through the lace of her nightdress. Monte Crist_ently laid his hand on the young girl's arm, drew the velvet coverlet clos_o her throat, and said with a paternal smile, — "My child, believe in m_evotion to you as you believe in the goodness of providence and the love o_aximilian."
Then he drew from his waistcoat-pocket the little emerald box, raised th_olden lid, and took from it a pastille about the size of a pea, which h_laced in her hand. She took it, and looked attentively on the count; ther_as an expression on the face of her intrepid protector which commanded he_eneration. She evidently interrogated him by her look. "Yes," said he.
Valentine carried the pastille to her mouth, and swallowed it. "And now, m_ear child, adieu for the present. I will try and gain a little sleep, for yo_re saved."
"Go," said Valentine, "whatever happens, I promise you not to fear."
Monte Cristo for some time kept his eyes fixed on the young girl, wh_radually fell asleep, yielding to the effects of the narcotic the count ha_iven her. Then he took the glass, emptied three parts of the contents in th_ireplace, that it might be supposed Valentine had taken it, and replaced i_n the table; then he disappeared, after throwing a farewell glance o_alentine, who slept with the confidence and innocence of an angel.