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- The Champdoce Mystery - 30/61 -


nothing to reproach himself with? Ten days after their marriage he had deserted her entirely; and if during the last few weeks he had paid her any attention, it was because he was acting in obedience to the whims of another woman. Suppose a lover was with her now, what right had he to interfere? The law gave him leave, but what did his conscience say? He leaned against the chill stone until he almost became as cold as it was. It seemed to him at that moment that life and hope were rapidly drifting away from him. He had lost all count of how long he had been on guard. He pulled out his watch, but it was too dark to distinguish the hands or the figures on the dial-plate. A neighboring clock struck the half-hour, but this gave him no clue as to the time. He had almost made up his mind to leave, when he heard the sound of a quick step coming down the street. It was the light, quick step of a sportsman,--of a man more accustomed to the woods and fields than the pavement and asphalt of Paris. Then a shadow fell upon the opposite wall, and almost immediately disappeared. Then Norbert knew that the door had opened and closed, and that the man had entered the garden. There could be no doubt upon this point, and yet the Duke would have given worlds to be able to disbelieve the evidence of his senses. It might be a burglar, but burglars seldom work alone; or it might be a visitor to one of the servants, but all the servants were absent. He again raised his eyes to the windows of his wife's room. All of a sudden the light grew brighter; either the lamp had been turned up, or fresh candles lighted. Yes, it was a candle, for he saw it borne across the room in the direction of the great staircase, and now he saw that the anonymous letter had spoken the truth, and that he was on the brink of a discovery. A lover had entered the garden, and the lighted candle was a signal to him. Norbert shuddered; the blood seemed to course through his veins like streams of molten fire, and the misty atmosphere that surrounded him appeared to stifle him. He ran across the street, forced the lock, and rushed wildly into the garden.

CHAPTER XVI.

HUSBAND AND LOVER.

The writer of the anonymous communication had only known the secret too well, for the Duchess de Champdoce was awaiting a visit that evening from George de Croisenois; this was, however, the first time. Step by step she had yielded, and at length had fallen into the snare laid for her by the treacherous woman whom she believed to be her truest friend. The evening before this eventful night she had been alone in Madame de Mussidan's drawing-room with George de Croisenois. She had been impressed by his ardent passion, and had listened with pleasure to his loving entreaties.

"I yield," said she. "Come to-morrow night, at half-past ten, to the little door in the garden wall; it will only be kept closed by a stone being placed against it inside; push it, and it will open; and when you have entered the garden, acquaint me with your presence by clapping yours hands gently once or twice."

Diana had, from a secure hiding-place, overheard these words, and feeling certain that the Duchess would repent her rash promise, she kept close to her side until George's departure, to give her no chance of retracting her promise. The next day she was constantly with her victim, and made an excuse for dining with her, so as not to quit her until the hour for the meeting had almost arrived.

It was not until she was left alone that the Duchess saw the full extent of her folly and rashness. She was terrified at the promise that she had given in a weak moment, and would have given worlds had she been able to retract.

There was yet, however, one means of safety left her--she could hurry downstairs and secure the garden gate. She started to her feet, determined to execute her project; but she was too late for the appointed signal was heard through the chill gloom of the night. Unhappy woman! The light sound of George de Croisenois' palms striking one upon the other resounded in her ears like the dismal tolling of the funereal bell. She stooped to light a candle at the fire, but her hand trembled so that she could scarcely effect her object. She felt sure that George was still in the garden, though she had made no answer to his signal. She had never thought that he would have had the audacity to open a door that led into the house from the garden, but this is what he had done. In the most innocent manner imaginable, and so that her listener in no way suspected the special reason that she had for making this communication, Diana de Mussidan had informed George de Croisenois that upon this night all the domestics of the Champdoce household would be attending the coachman's wedding, and that consequently the mansion would be deserted. George knew also that the Duke was away at his training establishment, and he therefore opened the door, and walked boldly up the main staircase, so that when the Duchess, with the lighted candle in her hand, came to the top steps she found herself face to face with George de Croisenois, pallid with emotion and quivering with excitement.

At the sight of the man she loved she started backwards with a low cry of anguish and despair.

"Fly!" she said "fly, or we are lost!"

He did not, however, seem to hear her, and the Duchess recoiled slowly, step by step, through the open door of her chamber, across the carpeted floor, until she reached the opposite wall of her room, and could go no farther.

George followed her, and pushed to the door of the room as he entered it. This brief delay, however, had sufficed to restore Marie to the full possession of her senses. "If I permit him to speak," thought she,--"if he once suspects that my love for him is still as strong as ever, I am lost."

Then she said aloud,--

"You must leave this house, and that instantly. I was mad when I said what I did yesterday. You are too noble and too generous not to listen to me when I tell you that the moment of infatuation is over, and that all my reason has returned to me, and my openness will convince you of the truth of what I say--George de Croisenois, I love you."

The young man uttered an exclamation of delight upon hearing this news.

"Yes," continued Marie, "I would give half the years of my remaining life to be your wife. Yes, George, I love you; but the voice of duty speaks louder than the whispers of the heart. I may die of grief, but there will be no stain upon my marriage robe, no remorse eating out my heart. Farewell!"

But the Marquis would not consent to this immediate dismissal, and appeared to be about to speak.

"Go!" said the Duchess, with an air of command. "Leave me at once!" Then, as he made no effort to obey her, she went on, "If you really love me, let my honor be as dear to you as your own, and never try to see me again. The peril we are now in shows how necessary this last determination of mine is. I am the Duchess de Champdoce, and I will keep the name that has been intrusted to me pure and unsullied, nor will I stoop to treachery or deception."

"Why do you use the word deception?" asked he. "I do, it is true, despise the woman who smiles upon the husband she is betraying, but I respect and honor the woman who risks all to follow the fortunes of the man she loves. Lay aside, Marie, name, title, fortune, and fly with me."

"I love you too much, George," answered she gently, "to ruin your future, for the day would surely come when you would regret all your self-denial, for a woman weighed down with a sense of her dishonor is a heavy burden for a man to bear."

George de Croisenois did not understand her thoroughly.

"You do not trust me," said he. "You would be dishonored. Shall I not share a portion of the world's censure? And, if you wish me, I will be a dishonored man also. To-night I will cheat at play at the club, be detected, and leave the room an outcast from the society of all honorable men for the future. Fly with me to some distant land, and we will live happily under whatever name you may choose."

"I must not listen to you," cried she wildly. "It is impossible now."

"Impossible!--and why? Tell me, I entreat you."

"Ah, George," sobbed she, "if you only knew----"

He placed his arm around her waist, and was about to press his lips on that fair brow, when all at once he felt Marie shiver in his clasp, and, raising one of her arms, point towards the door, which had opened silently during their conversation, and upon the threshold of which stood Norbert de Champdoce, gloomy and threatening.

The Marquis saw in an instant the terrible position in which his insensate folly had placed the woman he loved.

"Do not come any nearer," said he, addressing Norbert; "remain where you are."

A bitter laugh from the Duke made him realize the folly of his command. He supported the Duchess to a couch, and seated her upon it. She recovered consciousness almost immediately, and, as she opened her eyes, George read in them the most perfect forgiveness for the man who had ruined her life and hopes.

This look, and the fond assurance conveyed in it, restored all George's coolness and self-possession, and he turned towards Norbert.

"However compromising appearances may seem, I am the only one deserving punishment; the Duchess has nothing to reproach herself with in any way; it was without her knowledge, and without any encouragement from her, that I dared to enter this house, knowing as I did that the servants were all absent."

Norbert, however, still maintained the same gloomy silence. He too had need to collect his thoughts. As he ascended the stairs he knew that he should find the Duchess with a lover, but he had not calculated upon that lover being George de Croisenois, a man whom he loathed and detested more than any one that he was in the habit of meeting in society. When he recognized George, it was with the utmost difficulty that he restrained himself from springing upon him and endeavoring to strangle him. He had suspected this man of having gained Diana's affections, and now he found him in the character of the lover of his wife, and he was silent simply because he had not yet made up his mind what he would say. If his face was outwardly calm and rigid as marble, while the flames of hell were raging in his heart, it was because his limbs for the moment refused to obey his will; but, in spite of this,


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