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- Within an Inch of His Life - 90/111 -


you, if there were two victims instead of one?"

He stopped her by a threatening gesture, and cried,--

"Are you always the same? I am sinking, I am drowning; and she calculates, she bargains! And she said she loved me!"

"Jacques!" broke in the countess.

And drawing close up to him, she said,--

"Ah! I calculate, I bargain? Well, listen. Yes, it is true. I did value my reputation as an honest woman more highly, a thousand times more, than my life; but, above my life and my reputation, I valued you. You are drowning, you say. Well, then, let us flee. One word from you, and I leave all,--honor, country, family, husband, children. Say one word, and I follow you without turning my head, without a regret, without a remorse."

Her whole body was shivering from head to foot; her bosom rose and fell; her eyes shone with unbearable brilliancy.

Thanks to the violence of her action, her dress, put on in great haste, had opened, and her dishevelled hair flowed in golden masses over her bosom and her shoulders, which matched the purest marble in their dazzling whiteness.

And in a voice trembling with pent-up passion, now sweet and soft like a tender caress, and now deep and sonorous like a bell, she went on,--

"What keeps us? Since you have escaped from prison, the greatest difficulty is overcome. I thought at first of taking our girl, your girl, Jacques; but she is very ill; and besides a child might betray us. If we go alone, they will never overtake us. We will have money enough, I am sure, Jacques. We will flee to those distant countries which appear in books of travels in such fairy-like beauty. There, unknown, forgotten, unnoticed, our life will be one unbroken enjoyment. You will never again say that I bargain. I will be yours, entirely, and solely yours, body and soul, your wife, your slave."

She threw her head back, and with half-closed eyes, bending with her whole person toward him, she said in melting tones,--

"Say, Jacques, will you? Jacques!"

He pushed her aside with a fierce gesture. It seemed to him almost a sacrilege that she also, like Dionysia, should propose to him to flee.

"Rather the galleys!" he cried.

She turned deadly pale; a spasm of rage convulsed her features; and drawing back, stiff and stern, she said,--

"What else do you want?"

"Your help to save me," he replied.

"At the risk of ruining myself?"

He made no reply.

Then she, who had just now been all humility, raised herself to her full height, and in a tone of bitterest sarcasm said slowly,--

"In other words, you want me to sacrifice myself, and at the same time all my family. For your sake? Yes, but even more for Miss Chandore's sake. And you think that it is quite a simple thing. I am the past to you, satiety, disgust: she is the future to you, desire, happiness. And you think it quite natural that the old love should make a footstool of her love and her honor for the new love? You think little of my being disgraced, provided she be honored; of my weeping bitterly, if she but smile? Well, no, no! it is madness in you to come and ask me to save you, so that you may throw yourself into the arms of another. It is madness, when in order to tear you from Dionysia, I am ready to ruin myself, provided only that you be lost to her forever."

"Wretch!" cried Jacques.

She looked at him with a mocking air, and her eyes beamed with infernal audacity.

"You do not know me yet," she cried. "Go, speak, denounce me! M. Folgat no doubt has told you how I can deny and defend myself."

Maddened by indignation, and excited to a point where reason loses its power over us, Jacques de Boiscoran moved with uplifted hand towards the countess, when suddenly a voice said,--

"Do not strike that woman!"

Jacques and the countess turned round, and uttered, both at the same instant, the same kind of sharp, terrible cry, which must have been heard a great distance.

In the frame of the door stood Count Claudieuse, a revolver in his hand, and ready to fire.

He looked as pale as a ghost; and the white flannel dressing-gown which he had hastily thrown around him hung like a pall around his lean limbs. The first cry uttered by the countess had been heard by him on the bed on which he lay apparently dying. A terrible presentiment had seized him. He had risen from his bed, and, dragging himself slowly along, holding painfully to the balusters, he had come down.

"I have heard all," he said, casting crushing looks at both the guilty ones.

The countess uttered a deep, hoarse sigh, and sank into a chair. But Jacques drew himself up, and said,--

"I have insulted you terribly, sir. Avenge yourself."

The count shrugged his shoulders.

"Great God! You would allow me to be condemned for a crime which I have not committed. Ah, that would be the meanest cowardice."

The count was so feeble that he had to lean against the door-post.

"Would it be cowardly?" he asked. "Then, what do you call the act of that miserable man who meanly, disgracefully robs another man of his wife, and palms off his own children upon him? It is true you are neither an incendiary nor an assassin. But what is fire in my house in comparison with the ruin of all my faith? What are the wounds in my body in comparison with that wound in my heart, which never can heal? I leave you to the court, sir."

Jacques was terrified; he saw the abyss opening before him that was to swallow him up.

"Rather death," he cried,--"death."

And, baring his breast, he said,--

"But why do you not fire, sir? Why do you not fire? Are you afraid of blood? Shoot! I have been the lover of your wife: your youngest daughter is my child."

The count lowered his weapon.

"The courts of justice are more certain," he said. "You have robbed me of my honor: now I want yours. And, if you cannot be condemned without it, I shall say, I shall swear, that I recognized you. You shall go to the galleys, M. de Boiscoran."

He was on the point of coming forward; but his strength was exhausted, and he fell forward, face downward, and arms outstretched.

Overcome with horror, half mad, Jacques fled.

XXIX.

M. Folgat had just risen. Standing before his mirror, hung up to one of the windows in his room, he had just finished shaving himself, when the door was thrown open violently, and old Anthony appeared quite beside himself.

"Ah, sir, what a terrible thing!"

"What?"

"Run away, disappeared!"

"Who?"

"Master Jacques!"

The surprise was so great, that M. Folgat nearly let his razor drop: he said, however, peremptorily,--

"That is false!"

"Alas, sir," replied the old servant, "everybody is full of it in town. All the details are known. I have just seen a man who says he met master last night, about eleven o'clock, running like a madman down National Street."

"That is absurd."

"I have only told Miss Dionysia so far, and she sent me to you. You ought to go and make inquiry."

The advice was not needed. Wiping his face hastily, the young advocate went to dress at once. He was ready in a moment; and, having run down the stairs, he was crossing the passage when he heard somebody call his name. He turned round, and saw Dionysia making him a sign to come into the boudoir in which she was usually sitting. He did so.

Dionysia and the young advocate alone knew what a desperate venture Jacques had undertaken the night before. They had not said a word about it to each other; but each had noticed the preoccupation of the other. All the evening M. Folgat had not spoken ten words, and Dionysia had, immediately after dinner, gone up to her own room.

"Well?" she asked.


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