Milady had however achieved a half-triumph, and success doubled her forces.
It was not difficult to conquer, as she had hitherto done, men prompt to le_hemselves be seduced, and whom the gallant education of a court led quickl_nto her net. Milady was handsome enough not to find much resistance on th_art of the flesh, and she was sufficiently skillful to prevail over all th_bstacles of the mind.
But this time she had to contend with an unpolished nature, concentrated an_nsensible by force of austerity. Religion and its observances had made Felto_ man inaccessible to ordinary seductions. There fermented in that sublimate_rain plans so vast, projects so tumultuous, that there remained no room fo_ny capricious or material love—that sentiment which is fed by leisure an_rows with corruption. Milady had, then, made a breach by her false virtue i_he opinion of a man horribly prejudiced against her, and by her beauty in th_eart of a man hitherto chaste and pure. In short, she had taken the measur_f motives hitherto unknown to herself, through this experiment, made upon th_ost rebellious subject that nature and religion could submit to her study.
Many a time, nevertheless, during the evening she despaired of fate and o_erself. She did not invoke God, we very well know, but she had faith in th_enius of evil—that immense sovereignty which reigns in all the details o_uman life, and by which, as in the Arabian fable, a single pomegranate see_s sufficient to reconstruct a ruined world.
Milady, being well prepared for the reception of Felton, was able to erect he_atteries for the next day. She knew she had only two days left; that whe_nce the order was signed by Buckingham—and Buckingham would sign it the mor_eadily from its bearing a false name, and he could not, therefore, recogniz_he woman in question—once this order was signed, we say, the baron would mak_er embark immediately, and she knew very well that women condemned to exil_mploy arms much less powerful in their seductions than the pretendedl_irtuous woman whose beauty is lighted by the sun of the world, whose styl_he voice of fashion lauds, and whom a halo of aristocracy gilds wit_nchanting splendors. To be a woman condemned to a painful and disgracefu_unishment is no impediment to beauty, but it is an obstacle to the recover_f power. Like all persons of real genius, Milady knew what suited her natur_nd her means. Poverty was repugnant to her; degradation took away two-third_f her greatness. Milady was only a queen while among queens. The pleasure o_atisfied pride was necessary to her domination. To command inferior being_as rather a humiliation than a pleasure for her.
She should certainly return from her exile—she did not doubt that a singl_nstant; but how long might this exile last? For an active, ambitious nature, like that of Milady, days not spent in climbing are inauspicious days. Wha_ord, then, can be found to describe the days which they occupy in descending?
To lose a year, two years, three years, is to talk of an eternity; to retur_fter the death or disgrace of the cardinal, perhaps; to return whe_'Artagnan and his friends, happy and triumphant, should have received fro_he queen the reward they had well acquired by the services they had rendere_er—these were devouring ideas that a woman like Milady could not endure. Fo_he rest, the storm which raged within her doubled her strength, and she woul_ave burst the walls of her prison if her body had been able to take for _ingle instant the proportions of her mind.
Then that which spurred her on additionally in the midst of all this was th_emembrance of the cardinal. What must the mistrustful, restless, suspiciou_ardinal think of her silence—the cardinal, not merely her only support, he_nly prop, her only protector at present, but still further, the principa_nstrument of her future fortune and vengeance? She knew him; she knew that a_er return from a fruitless journey it would be in vain to tell him of he_mprisonment, in vain to enlarge upon the sufferings she had undergone. Th_ardinal would reply, with the sarcastic calmness of the skeptic, strong a_nce by power and genius, "You should not have allowed yourself to be taken."
Then Milady collected all her energies, murmuring in the depths of her sou_he name of Felton—the only beam of light that penetrated to her in the hel_nto which she had fallen; and like a serpent which folds and unfolds it_ings to ascertain its strength, she enveloped Felton beforehand in th_housand meshes of her inventive imagination.
Time, however, passed away; the hours, one after another, seemed to awaken th_lock as they passed, and every blow of the brass hammer resounded upon th_eart of the prisoner. At nine o'clock, Lord de Winter made his customar_isit, examined the window and the bars, sounded the floor and the walls, looked to the chimney and the doors, without, during this long and minut_xamination, he or Milady pronouncing a single word.
Doubtless both of them understood that the situation had become too serious t_ose time in useless words and aimless wrath.
"Well," said the baron, on leaving her "you will not escape tonight!"
At ten o'clock Felton came and placed the sentinel. Milady recognized hi_tep. She was as well acquainted with it now as a mistress is with that of th_over of her heart; and yet Milady at the same time detested and despised thi_eak fanatic.
That was not the appointed hour. Felton did not enter.
Two hours after, as midnight sounded, the sentinel was relieved. This time i_AS the hour, and from this moment Milady waited with impatience. The ne_entinel commenced his walk in the corridor. At the expiration of ten minute_elton came.
Milady was all attention.
"Listen," said the young man to the sentinel. "On no pretense leave the door, for you know that last night my Lord punished a soldier for having quit hi_ost for an instant, although I, during his absence, watched in his place."
"Yes, I know it," said the soldier.
"I recommend you therefore to keep the strictest watch. For my part I am goin_o pay a second visit to this woman, who I fear entertains sinister intention_pon her own life, and I have received orders to watch her."
"Good!" murmured Milady; "the austere Puritan lies."
As to the soldier, he only smiled.
"Zounds, Lieutenant!" said he; "you are not unlucky in being charged with suc_ommissions, particularly if my Lord has authorized you to look into her bed."
Felton blushed. Under any other circumstances he would have reprimanded th_oldier for indulging in such pleasantry, but his conscience murmured too lou_or his mouth to dare speak.
"If I call, come," said he. "If anyone comes, call me."
"I will, Lieutenant," said the soldier.
Felton entered Milady's apartment. Milady arose.
"You are here!" said she.
"I promised to come," said Felton, "and I have come."
"You promised me something else."
"What, my God!" said the young man, who in spite of his self-command felt hi_nees tremble and the sweat start from his brow.
"You promised to bring a knife, and to leave it with me after our interview."
"Say no more of that, madame," said Felton. "There is no situation, howeve_errible it may be, which can authorize a creature of God to inflict deat_pon himself. I have reflected, and I cannot, must not be guilty of such _in."
"Ah, you have reflected!" said the prisoner, sitting down in her armchair, with a smile of disdain; "and I also have reflected."
"That I can have nothing to say to a man who does not keep his word."
"Oh, my God!" murmured Felton.
"You may retire," said Milady. "I will not talk."
"Here is the knife," said Felton, drawing from his pocket the weapon which h_ad brought, according to his promise, but which he hesitated to give to hi_risoner.
"Let me see it," said Milady.
"For what purpose?"
"Upon my honor, I will instantly return it to you. You shall place it on tha_able, and you may remain between it and me."
Felton offered the weapon to Milady, who examined the temper of i_ttentively, and who tried the point on the tip of her finger.
"Well," said she, returning the knife to the young officer, "this is fine an_ood steel. You are a faithful friend, Felton."
Felton took back the weapon, and laid it upon the table, as he had agreed wit_he prisoner.
Milady followed him with her eyes, and made a gesture of satisfaction.
"Now," said she, "listen to me."
The request was needless. The young officer stood upright before her, awaitin_er words as if to devour them.
"Felton," said Milady, with a solemnity full of melancholy, "imagine that you_ister, the daughter of your father, speaks to you. While yet young, unfortunately handsome, I was dragged into a snare. I resisted. Ambushes an_iolences multiplied around me, but I resisted. The religion I serve, the Go_ adore, were blasphemed because I called upon that religion and that God, bu_till I resisted. Then outrages were heaped upon me, and as my soul was no_ubdued they wished to defile my body forever. Finally—"
Milady stopped, and a bitter smile passed over her lips.
"Finally," said Felton, "finally, what did they do?"
"At length, one evening my enemy resolved to paralyze the resistance he coul_ot conquer. One evening he mixed a powerful narcotic with my water. Scarcel_ad I finished my repast, when I felt myself sink by degrees into a strang_orpor. Although I was without mistrust, a vague fear seized me, and I trie_o struggle against sleepiness. I arose. I wished to run to the window an_all for help, but my legs refused their office. It appeared as if the ceilin_ank upon my head and crushed me with its weight. I stretched out my arms. _ried to speak. I could only utter inarticulate sounds, and irresistibl_aintness came over me. I supported myself by a chair, feeling that I wa_bout to fall, but this support was soon insufficient on account of my wea_rms. I fell upon one knee, then upon both. I tried to pray, but my tongue wa_rozen. God doubtless neither heard nor saw me, and I sank upon the floor _rey to a slumber which resembled death.
"Of all that passed in that sleep, or the time which glided away while i_asted, I have no remembrance. The only thing I recollect is that I awoke i_ed in a round chamber, the furniture of which was sumptuous, and into whic_ight only penetrated by an opening in the ceiling. No door gave entrance t_he room. It might be called a magnificent prison.
"It was a long time before I was able to make out what place I was in, or t_ake account of the details I describe. My mind appeared to strive in vain t_hake off the heavy darkness of the sleep from which I could not rouse myself.
I had vague perceptions of space traversed, of the rolling of a carriage, of _orrible dream in which my strength had become exhausted; but all this was s_ark and so indistinct in my mind that these events seemed to belong t_nother life than mine, and yet mixed with mine in fantastic duality.
"At times the state into which I had fallen appeared so strange that _elieved myself dreaming. I arose trembling. My clothes were near me on _hair; I neither remembered having undressed myself nor going to bed. Then b_egrees the reality broke upon me, full of chaste terrors. I was no longer i_he house where I had dwelt. As well as I could judge by the light of the sun, the day was already two-thirds gone. It was the evening before when I ha_allen asleep; my sleep, then, must have lasted twenty-four hours! What ha_aken place during this long sleep?
"I dressed myself as quickly as possible; my slow and stiff motions al_ttested that the effects of the narcotic were not yet entirely dissipated.
The chamber was evidently furnished for the reception of a woman; and the mos_inished coquette could not have formed a wish, but on casting her eyes abou_he apartment, she would have found that wish accomplished.
"Certainly I was not the first captive that had been shut up in this splendi_rison; but you may easily comprehend, Felton, that the more superb th_rison, the greater was my terror.
"Yes, it was a prison, for I tried in vain to get out of it. I sounded all th_alls, in the hopes of discovering a door, but everywhere the walls returned _ull and flat sound.
"I made the tour of the room at least twenty times, in search of an outlet o_ome kind; but there was none. I sank exhausted with fatigue and terror int_n armchair.
"Meantime, night came on rapidly, and with night my terrors increased. I di_ot know but I had better remain where I was seated. It appeared that I wa_urrounded with unknown dangers into which I was about to fall at ever_nstant. Although I had eaten nothing since the evening before, my fear_revented my feeling hunger.
"No noise from without by which I could measure the time reached me; I onl_upposed it must be seven or eight o'clock in the evening, for it was in th_onth of October and it was quite dark.
"All at once the noise of a door, turning on its hinges, made me start. _lobe of fire appeared above the glazed opening of the ceiling, casting _trong light into my chamber; and I perceived with terror that a man wa_tanding within a few paces of me.
"A table, with two covers, bearing a supper ready prepared, stood, as if b_agic, in the middle of the apartment.
"That man was he who had pursued me during a whole year, who had vowed m_ishonor, and who, by the first words that issued from his mouth, gave me t_nderstand he had accomplished it the preceding night."
"Scoundrel!" murmured Felton.
"Oh, yes, scoundrel!" cried Milady, seeing the interest which the youn_fficer, whose soul seemed to hang on her lips, took in this strange recital.
"Oh, yes, scoundrel! He believed, having triumphed over me in my sleep, tha_ll was completed. He came, hoping that I would accept my shame, as my sham_as consummated; he came to offer his fortune in exchange for my love.
"All that the heart of a woman could contain of haughty contempt an_isdainful words, I poured out upon this man. Doubtless he was accustomed t_uch reproaches, for he listened to me calm and smiling, with his arms crosse_ver his breast. Then, when he thought I had said all, he advanced toward me; I sprang toward the table, I seized a knife, I placed it to my breast.
"Take one step more," said I, "and in addition to my dishonor, you shall hav_y death to reproach yourself with."
"There was, no doubt, in my look, my voice, my whole person, that sincerity o_esture, of attitude, of accent, which carries conviction to the most pervers_inds, for he paused.
"'Your death?' said he; 'oh, no, you are too charming a mistress to allow m_o consent to lose you thus, after I have had the happiness to possess yo_nly a single time. Adieu, my charmer; I will wait to pay you my next visi_ill you are in a better humor.'
"At these words he blew a whistle; the globe of fire which lighted the roo_eascended and disappeared. I found myself again in complete darkness. Th_ame noise of a door opening and shutting was repeated the instant afterward; the flaming globe descended afresh, and I was completely alone.
"This moment was frightful; if I had any doubts as to my misfortune, thes_oubts had vanished in an overwhelming reality. I was in the power of a ma_hom I not only detested, but despised—of a man capable of anything, and wh_ad already given me a fatal proof of what he was able to do."
"But who, then was this man?" asked Felton.
"I passed the night on a chair, starting at the least noise, for towar_idnight the lamp went out, and I was again in darkness. But the night passe_way without any fresh attempt on the part of my persecutor. Day came; th_able had disappeared, only I had still the knife in my hand.
"This knife was my only hope.
"I was worn out with fatigue. Sleeplessness inflamed my eyes; I had not dare_o sleep a single instant. The light of day reassured me; I went and thre_yself on the bed, without parting with the emancipating knife, which _oncealed under my pillow.
"When I awoke, a fresh meal was served.
"This time, in spite of my terrors, in spite of my agony, I began to feel _evouring hunger. It was forty-eight hours since I had taken any nourishment.
I ate some bread and some fruit; then, remembering the narcotic mixed with th_ater I had drunk, I would not touch that which was placed on the table, bu_illed my glass at a marble fountain fixed in the wall over my dressing table.
"And yet, notwithstanding these precautions, I remained for some time in _errible agitation of mind. But my fears were this time ill-founded; I passe_he day without experiencing anything of the kind I dreaded.
"I took the precaution to half empty the carafe, in order that my suspicion_ight not be noticed.
"The evening came on, and with it darkness; but however profound was thi_arkness, my eyes began to accustom themselves to it. I saw, amid the shadows, the table sink through the floor; a quarter of an hour later it reappeared, bearing my supper. In an instant, thanks to the lamp, my chamber was once mor_ighted.
"I was determined to eat only such things as could not possibly have anythin_oporific introduced into them. Two eggs and some fruit composed my repast; then I drew another glass of water from my protecting fountain, and drank it.
"At the first swallow, it appeared to me not to have the same taste as in th_orning. Suspicion instantly seized me. I paused, but I had already drunk hal_ glass.
"I threw the rest away with horror, and waited, with the dew of fear upon m_row.
"No doubt some invisible witness had seen me draw the water from tha_ountain, and had taken advantage of my confidence in it, the better to assur_y ruin, so coolly resolved upon, so cruelly pursued.
"Half an hour had not passed when the same symptoms began to appear; but as _ad only drunk half a glass of the water, I contended longer, and instead o_alling entirely asleep, I sank into a state of drowsiness which left me _erception of what was passing around me, while depriving me of the strengt_ither to defend myself or to fly.
"I dragged myself toward the bed, to seek the only defense I had left—m_aving knife; but I could not reach the bolster. I sank on my knees, my hand_lasped round one of the bedposts; then I felt that I was lost."
Felton became frightfully pale, and a convulsive tremor crept through hi_hole body.
"And what was most frightful," continued Milady, her voice altered, as if sh_till experienced the same agony as at that awful minute, "was that at thi_ime I retained a consciousness of the danger that threatened me; was that m_oul, if I may say so, waked in my sleeping body; was that I saw, that _eard. It is true that all was like a dream, but it was not the les_rightful.
"I saw the lamp ascend, and leave me in darkness; then I heard the well-know_reaking of the door although I had heard that door open but twice.
"I felt instinctively that someone approached me; it is said that the doome_retch in the deserts of America thus feels the approach of the serpent.
"I wished to make an effort; I attempted to cry out. By an incredible effor_f will I even raised myself up, but only to sink down again immediately, an_o fall into the arms of my persecutor."
"Tell me who this man was!" cried the young officer.
Milady saw at a single glance all the painful feelings she inspired in Felto_y dwelling on every detail of her recital; but she would not spare him _ingle pang. The more profoundly she wounded his heart, the more certainly h_ould avenge her. She continued, then, as if she had not heard hi_xclamation, or as if she thought the moment was not yet come to reply to it.
"Only this time it was no longer an inert body, without feeling, that th_illain had to deal with. I have told you that without being able to regai_he complete exercise of my faculties, I retained the sense of my danger. _truggled, then, with all my strength, and doubtless opposed, weak as I was, _ong resistance, for I heard him cry out, 'These miserable Puritans! I kne_ery well that they tired out their executioners, but I did not believe the_o strong against their lovers!'
"Alas! this desperate resistance could not last long. I felt my strength fail, and this time it was not my sleep that enabled the coward to prevail, but m_woon."
Felton listened without uttering any word or sound, except an inwar_xpression of agony. The sweat streamed down his marble forehead, and hi_and, under his coat, tore his breast.
"My first impulse, on coming to myself, was to feel under my pillow for th_nife I had not been able to reach; if it had not been useful for defense, i_ight at least serve for expiation.
"But on taking this knife, Felton, a terrible idea occurred to me. I hav_worn to tell you all, and I will tell you all. I have promised you the truth; I will tell it, were it to destroy me."
"The idea came into your mind to avenge yourself on this man, did it not?"
"Yes," said Milady. "The idea was not that of a Christian, I knew; but withou_oubt, that eternal enemy of our souls, that lion roaring constantly aroun_s, breathed it into my mind. In short, what shall I say to you, Felton?"
continued Milady, in the tone of a woman accusing herself of a crime. "Thi_dea occurred to me, and did not leave me; it is of this homicidal though_hat I now bear the punishment."
"Continue, continue!" said Felton; "I am eager to see you attain you_engeance!"
"Oh, I resolved that it should take place as soon as possible. I had no doub_e would return the following night. During the day I had nothing to fear.
"When the hour of breakfast came, therefore, I did not hesitate to eat an_rink. I had determined to make believe sup, but to eat nothing. I was forced, then, to combat the fast of the evening with the nourishment of the morning.
"Only I concealed a glass of water, which remained after my breakfast, thirs_aving been the chief of my sufferings when I remained forty-eight hour_ithout eating or drinking.
"The day passed away without having any other influence on me than t_trengthen the resolution I had formed; only I took care that my face shoul_ot betray the thoughts of my heart, for I had no doubt I was watched. Severa_imes, even, I felt a smile on my lips. Felton, I dare not tell you at wha_dea I smiled; you would hold me in horror—"
"Go on! go on!" said Felton; "you see plainly that I listen, and that I a_nxious to know the end."
"Evening came; the ordinary events took place. During the darkness, as before, my supper was brought. Then the lamp was lighted, and I sat down to table. _nly ate some fruit. I pretended to pour out water from the jug, but I onl_rank that which I had saved in my glass. The substitution was made s_arefully that my spies, if I had any, could have no suspicion of it.
"After supper I exhibited the same marks of languor as on the precedin_vening; but this time, as I yielded to fatigue, or as if I had becom_amiliarized with danger, I dragged myself toward my bed, let my robe fall, and lay down.
"I found my knife where I had placed it, under my pillow, and while feignin_o sleep, my hand grasped the handle of it convulsively.
"Two hours passed away without anything fresh happening. Oh, my God! who coul_ave said so the evening before? I began to fear that he would not come.
"At length I saw the lamp rise softly, and disappear in the depths of th_eiling; my chamber was filled with darkness and obscurity, but I made _trong effort to penetrate this darkness and obscurity.
"Nearly ten minutes passed; I heard no other noise but the beating of my ow_eart. I implored heaven that he might come.
"At length I heard the well-known noise of the door, which opened and shut; _eard, notwithstanding the thickness of the carpet, a step which made th_loor creak; I saw, notwithstanding the darkness, a shadow which approached m_ed."
"Haste! haste!" said Felton; "do you not see that each of your words burns m_ike molten lead?"
"Then," continued Milady, "then I collected all my strength; I recalled to m_ind that the moment of vengeance, or rather, of justice, had struck. I looke_pon myself as another Judith; I gathered myself up, my knife in my hand, an_hen I saw him near me, stretching out his arms to find his victim, then, wit_he last cry of agony and despair, I struck him in the middle of his breast.
"The miserable villain! He had foreseen all. His breast was covered with _oat-of-mail; the knife was bent against it.
"'Ah, ah!' cried he, seizing my arm, and wresting from me the weapon that ha_o badly served me, 'you want to take my life, do you, my pretty Puritan? Bu_hat's more than dislike, that's ingratitude! Come, come, calm yourself, m_weet girl! I thought you had softened. I am not one of those tyrants wh_etain women by force. You don't love me. With my usual fatuity I doubted it; now I am convinced. Tomorrow you shall be free.'
"I had but one wish; that was that he should kill me.
"'Beware!' said I, 'for my liberty is your dishonor.'
"'Explain yourself, my pretty sibyl!'
"'Yes; for as soon as I leave this place I will tell everything. I wil_roclaim the violence you have used toward me. I will describe my captivity. _ill denounce this place of infamy. You are placed on high, my Lord, bu_remble! Above you there is the king; above the king there is God!'
"However perfect master he was over himself, my persecutor allowed a movemen_f anger to escape him. I could not see the expression of his countenance, bu_ felt the arm tremble upon which my hand was placed.
"'Then you shall not leave this place,' said he.
"'Very well,' cried I, 'then the place of my punishment will be that of m_omb. I will die here, and you will see if a phantom that accuses is not mor_errible than a living being that threatens!'
"'You shall have no weapon left in your power.'
"'There is a weapon which despair has placed within the reach of ever_reature who has the courage to use it. I will allow myself to die wit_unger.'
"'Come,' said the wretch, 'is not peace much better than such a war as that? _ill restore you to liberty this moment; I will proclaim you a piece o_mmaculate virtue; I will name you the Lucretia of England.'
"'And I will say that you are the Sextus. I will denounce you before men, as _ave denounced you before God; and if it be necessary that, like Lucretia, _hould sign my accusation with my blood, I will sign it.'
"'Ah!' said my enemy, in a jeering tone, 'that's quite another thing. M_aith! everything considered, you are very well off here. You shall want fo_othing, and if you let yourself die of hunger that will be your own fault.'
"At these words he retired. I heard the door open and shut, and I remaine_verwhelmed, less, I confess it, by my grief than by the mortification of no_aving avenged myself.
"He kept his word. All the day, all the next night passed away without m_eeing him again. But I also kept my word with him, and I neither ate no_rank. I was, as I told him, resolved to die of hunger.
"I passed the day and the night in prayer, for I hoped that God would pardo_e my suicide.
"The second night the door opened; I was lying on the floor, for my strengt_egan to abandon me.
"At the noise I raised myself up on one hand.
"'Well,' said a voice which vibrated in too terrible a manner in my ear not t_e recognized, 'well! Are we softened a little? Will we not pay for ou_iberty with a single promise of silence? Come, I am a good sort of a prince,'
added he, 'and although I like not Puritans I do them justice; and it is th_ame with Puritanesses, when they are pretty. Come, take a little oath for m_n the cross; I won't ask anything more of you.'
"'On the cross,' cried I, rising, for at that abhorred voice I had recovere_ll my strength, 'on the cross I swear that no promise, no menace, no force, no torture, shall close my mouth! On the cross I swear to denounce yo_verywhere as a murderer, as a thief of honor, as a base coward! On the cros_ swear, if I ever leave this place, to call down vengeance upon you from th_hole human race!'
"'Beware!' said the voice, in a threatening accent that I had never yet heard.
'I have an extraordinary means which I will not employ but in the las_xtremity to close your mouth, or at least to prevent anyone from believing _ord you may utter.'
"I mustered all my strength to reply to him with a burst of laughter.
"He saw that it was a merciless war between us—a war to the death.
"'Listen!' said he. 'I give you the rest of tonight and all day tomorrow.
Reflect: promise to be silent, and riches, consideration, even honor, shal_urround you; threaten to speak, and I will condemn you to infamy.'
"'You?' cried I. 'You?'
"'To interminable, ineffaceable infamy!'
"'You?' repeated I. Oh, I declare to you, Felton, I thought him mad!
"'Yes, yes, I!' replied he.
"'Oh, leave me!' said I. 'Begone, if you do not desire to see me dash my hea_gainst that wall before your eyes!'
"'Very well, it is your own doing. Till tomorrow evening, then!'
"'Till tomorrow evening, then!' replied I, allowing myself to fall, and bitin_he carpet with rage."
Felton leaned for support upon a piece of furniture; and Milady saw, with th_oy of a demon, that his strength would fail him perhaps before the end of he_ecital.