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- The Champdoce Mystery - 10/61 -
horrified at the terrible alteration that had taken place in the expression of her face. He seized her hand, which she made no effort to withdraw, and gazed fixedly into her eyes.
"Tell me," murmured he in accents of love and tenderness, "what it is that has gone wrong."
Diana sighed, then a tear coursed slowly down her cheek. Norbert was in the deepest despair at these signs of grief.
"Great heavens!" cried he. "Will you not trust me? Am not I your truest and most devoted friend?"
At first she refused to answer him, but at length she yielded to his entreaties, and confessed that the evening before her father had informed her that a young man had sought her hand in marriage, and one who was a perfectly eligible suitor.
Norbert listened to this avowal, trembling from head to foot, with a sudden access of jealousy.
"And did you make no objections?" asked he.
"How could I?" retorted she. "What can a girl do in opposition to the will of all her family, when she has to choose between the alternative that she loathes, or a life-long seclusion in a convent?"
Daumon shook with laughter, as he kept his ear closely to the keyhole.
"Good business," muttered he. "Not so bad. Here's a little girl from a convent. She has a clever brain and a glib tongue, and under my tuition would be a perfect wonder. If this country booby does not make an open declaration at once, I wonder what her next move will be?"
"And you hesitated," said Norbert reproachfully. "Remember you may escape from the walls of the convent, but not from the bonds of an ill-assorted marriage."
Diana, who looked more beautiful than ever in her despair, wrung her hands.
"What reason can I give to my father for declining this offer?" said she. "Every one knows that I am almost portionless, and that I am sacrificed to my brother, immolated upon the altar erected before the cruel idol of family pride; and how dare I refuse a suitable offer when one is made for my hand?"
"Have you forgotten me?" cried Norbert. "Have you no love for me?
"Ah, my poor friend, you are no more free than I am."
"Then you look on me as a mere weak boy?" asked he, biting his lips.
"Your father is very powerful," answered she in tones of the deepest resignation; "his determination is inflexible, and his will inexorable. You are completely in his power."
"What do I care for my father?" cried the young man fiercely. "Am not I a Champdoce too? Woe be to any one, father or stranger, who comes between me and the woman I love devotedly; for I do love you, Diana, and no mortal man shall take you from me."
He clasped Diana to his breast, and pressed a loving kiss upon her lips.
"Aha," muttered Daumon, who had lost nothing from his post of espial, "this is worth fifty thousand francs at least to me."
For a moment Diana remained clasped in her lover's embrace, and then, with a faint cry, released herself from him. She then felt that she loved him, and his kiss and caresses sent a thrill like liquid fire through her veins. She was half pleased and half terrified. She feared him, but she feared herself more.
"What, Diana! Would you refuse me?" asked he, after a moment's pause. "Do you refuse me, when I implore you to be my wife, and to share my name with me? Will you not be the Duchess of Champdoce?"
Diana only replied with a glance; but if her eyes spoke plainly, that look said "Yes."
"Why, then," returned Norbert, "should we alarm ourselves with empty phantoms? Do you not trust me? My father may certainly oppose my plans, but before long I shall escape from his tyrannical sway, for I shall be of age."
"Ah, Norbert," returned she sadly, "you are feeding upon vain hopes. You must be twenty-five years of age before you can marry and give the shelter of your name to the woman whom you have chosen for your wife."
This was exactly the explanation for which Daumon had been waiting.
"Good again, my young lady," cried he. "And so this is why she came here. There is some credit in giving a lesson to so apt a pupil."
"It is impossible," cried Norbert, violently agitated; "such an iniquitous thing cannot be."
"You are mistaken," answered Diana calmly. "Unfortunately I am telling you exactly how matters stand. The law clearly fixes the age at twenty-five. During all this time will you remember that a broken- hearted girl--"
"Why talk to me of law? When I am of age, I shall have plenty of money," broke in Norbert; "and do you think that I will tamely submit to my father's oppression? No, I will wrest his consent from him."
During this conversation the Counsellor was carefully removing the dust from the knees of his trousers.
"I will pop in suddenly," thought he, "and catch a word or two which will do away with the necessity of all lengthy explanations."
He suited the action to the word, and appeared suddenly before the lovers. He was not at all disconcerted at the effect his entrance produced upon them, and remarked placidly, "I could not find the sheriff's letter, but I assure you that Widow Rouleau's matter shall be speedily and satisfactorily arranged."
Diana and Norbert exchanged glances of annoyance at finding their secret at the mercy of such a man. This evident distrust appeared to wound Daumon deeply.
"You have a perfect right," remarked he dejectedly, "to say, 'Mind your own business;' but the fact is, that I hate all kinds of injustice so much that I always take the side of the weakest, and so, when I come in and find you deploring your troubles, I say to myself, 'Doubtless here are two young people made for each other.' "
"You forget yourself," broke in Diana haughtily.
"I beg your pardon," stammered Daumon. "I am but a poor peasant, and sometimes I speak out too plainly. I meant no harm, and I only hope that you will forgive me."
Daumon looked at Diana; and as she made no reply, he went on: "'Well,' says I to myself, 'here are two young folks that have fallen in love, and have every right to do so, and yet they are kept apart by unreasonable and cruel-minded parents. They are young and know nothing of the law, and without help they would most certainly get into a muddle. Now, suppose I take their matter in hand, knowing the law thoroughly as I do, and being up to its weak as well as its strong points.'"
He spoke on in this strain for some minutes, and did not notice that they had withdrawn a little apart, and were whispering to each other.
"Why should we not trust him?" asked Norbert. "He has plenty of experience."
"He would betray us; he would do anything for money."
"That is all the better for us then; for if we promise him a handsome sum, he will not say a word of what has passed to-day."
"Do as you think best, Norbert."
Having thus gained Diana's assent, the young man turned to Daumon. "I put every faith in you, and so does Mademoiselle de Laurebourg. You know our exact situation. What do you advise?"
"Wait and hope," answered the Counsellor. "The slightest step taken before you are of age will be fatal to your prospects, but the day you are twenty-one I will undertake to show you several methods of bringing the Duke on his knees."
Nothing could make this speech more explicit; but he was so cheerful and confident, that when Diana left the office, she felt a fountain of fresh hope well up in her heart.
This was nearly their last interview that year, for the winter came on rapidly and with increased severity, so that it was impossible for the lovers to meet out of doors, and the fear of spying eyes prevented them from taking advantage of Daumon's hospitality. Each day, however, the widow's daughter, Francoise, carried a letter to Laurebourg, and brought back a reply to Champdoce. The inhabitants of the various country houses had fled to more genial climates, and only the Marquis de Laurebourg, who was an inveterate sportsman, still lingered; but at the first heavy fall of snow he too determined to take refuge in the magnificent house that he owned in the town of Poitiers. Norbert had foreseen this, and had taken his measures accordingly. Two or three times in the week he mounted his horse and rode to the town. After changing his dress, he made haste to a certain garden wall in which there was a small door. At an agreed hour this door would gently open, and as Norbert slipped through he would find Diana ready to welcome him, looking more bewitching than ever. This great passion, which now enthralled his whole life, and the certainty that his love was returned, had done away with a great deal of his bashfulness and timidity. He had resumed his acquaintanceship with Montlouis, and had often been with him to the Café Castille. Montlouis was only for a short time at Poitiers, for as soon as spring began he was to join the young Count de Mussidan, who had promised to find some employment for him. The approaching departure was not at all to Montlouis' taste, as he was madly in love with a young girl who resided in the town. He told all to Norbert; and as confidence begets confidence, he more than once accompanied the young Marquis to the door in the garden wall of the Count de Laurebourg's town house.
April came at last. The gentry returned to their country houses, and in time the happy day arrived when Diana de Laurebourg was to return
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