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57. MEANS FOR CLASSICAL TRAGEDY

After a moment of silence employed by Milady in observing the
young man who listened to her, Milady continued her recital.

"It was nearly three days since I had eaten or drunk anything. I
suffered frightful torments. At times there passed before me
clouds which pressed my brow, which veiled my eyes; this was
delirium.

"When the evening came I was so weak that every time I fainted I
thanked God, for I thought I was about to die.

"In the midst of one of these swoons I heard the door open.
Terror recalled me to myself.

"He entered the apartment followed by a man in a mask. He was
masked likewise; but I knew his step, I knew his voice, I knew
him by that imposing bearing which hell has bestowed upon his
person for the curse of humanity.

"'Well,' said he to me, 'have you made your mind up to take the
oath I requested of you?'

"'You have said Puritans have but one word. Mine you have heard,
and that is to pursue you--on earth to the tribunal of men, in
heaven to the tribunal of God.'

"'You persist, then?'

"'I swear it before the God who hears me. I will take the whole
world as a witness of your crime, and that until I have found an
avenger.'

"'You are a prostitute,' said he, in a voice of thunder, 'and you
shall undergo the punishment of prostitutes! Branded in the eyes
of the world you invoke, try to prove to that world that you are
neither guilty nor mad!'

"Then, addressing the man who accompanied him, 'Executioner,'
said he, 'do your duty.'"

"Oh, his name, his name!" cried Felton. "His name, tell it me!"

"Then in spite of my cries, in spite of my resistance--for I
began to comprehend that there was a question of something worse
than death--the executioner seized me, threw me on the floor,
fastened me with his bonds, and suffocated by sobs, almost
without sense, invoking God, who did not listen to me, I uttered
all at once a frightful cry of pain and shame. A burning fire, a
red-hot iron, the iron of the executioner, was imprinted on my
shoulder."

Felton uttered a groan.

"Here," said Milady, rising with the majesty of a queen, "here,
Felton, behold the new martyrdom invented for a pure young girl,
the victim of the brutality of a villain. Learn to know the
heart of men, and henceforth make yourself less easily the
instrument of their unjust vengeance."

Milady, with a rapid gesture, opened her robe, tore the cambric
that covered her bosom, and red with feigned anger and simulated
shame, showed the young man the ineffaceable impression which
dishonored that beautiful shoulder.

"But," cried Felton, "that is a FLEUR-DE-LIS which I see there."

"And therein consisted the infamy," replied Milady. "The brand
of England!--it would be necessary to prove what tribunal had
imposed it on me, and I could have made a public appeal to all
the tribunals of the kingdom; but the brand of France!--oh, by
that, by THAT I was branded indeed!"

This was too much for Felton.

Pale, motionless, overwhelmed by this frightful revelation,
dazzled by the superhuman beauty of this woman who unveiled
herself before him with an immodesty which appeared to him
sublime, he ended by falling on his knees before her as the early
Christians did before those pure and holy martyrs whom the
persecution of the emperors gave up in the circus to the
sanguinary sensuality of the populace. The brand disappeared;
the beauty alone remained.

"Pardon! Pardon!" cried Felton, "oh, pardon!"

Milady read in his eyes LOVE! LOVE!

"Pardon for what?" asked she.

"Pardon me for having joined with your persecutors."

Milady held out her hand to him.

"So beautiful! so young!" cried Felton, covering that hand with
his kisses.

Milady let one of those looks fall upon him which make a slave of
a king.

Felton was a Puritan; he abandoned the hand of this woman to kiss
her feet.

He no longer loved her; he adored her.

When this crisis was past, when Milady appeared to have resumed
her self-possession, which she had never lost; when Felton had
seen her recover with the veil of chastity those treasures of
love which were only concealed from him to make him desire them
the more ardently, he said, "Ah, now! I have only one thing to
ask of you; that is, the name of your true executioner. For to
me there is but one; the other was an instrument, that was all."

"What, brother!" cried Milady, "must I name him again? Have you
not yet divined who he is?"

"What?" cried Felton, "he--again he--always he? What--the truly
guilty?"

"The truly guilty," said Milady, "is the ravager of England, the
persecutor of true believers, the base ravisher of the honor of
so many women--he who, to satisfy a caprice of his corrupt heart,
is about to make England shed so much blood, who protects the
Protestants today and will betray them tomorrow--"

"Buckingham! It is, then, Buckingham!" cried Felton, in a high
state of excitement.

Milady concealed her face in her hands, as if she could not
endure the shame which this name recalled to her.

"Buckingham, the executioner of this angelic creature!" cried
Felton. "And thou hast not hurled thy thunder at him, my God!
And thou hast left him noble, honored, powerful, for the ruin of
us all!"

"God abandons him who abandons himself," said Milady.

"But he will draw upon his head the punishment reserved for the
damned!" said Felton, with increasing exultation. "He wills that
human vengeance should precede celestial justice."

"Men fear him and spare him."

"I," said Felton, "I do not fear him, nor will I spare him."

The soul of Milady was bathed in an infernal joy.

"But how can Lord de Winter, my protector, my father," asked
Felton, "possibly be mixed up with all this?"

"Listen, Felton," resumed Milady, "for by the side of base and
contemptible men there are often found great and generous
natures. I had an affianced husband, a man whom I loved, and who
loved me--a heart like yours, Felton, a man like you. I went to
him and told him all; he knew me, that man did, and did not doubt
an instant. He was a nobleman, a man equal to Buckingham in
every respect. He said nothing; he only girded on his sword,
wrapped himself in his cloak, and went straight to Buckingham
Palace.

"Yes, yes," said Felton; "I understand how he would act. But
with such men it is not the sword that should be employed; it is
the poniard."

"Buckingham had left England the day before, sent as ambassador
to Spain, to demand the hand of the Infanta for King Charles I,
who was then only Prince of Wales. My affianced husband
returned.

"'Hear me,' said he; 'this man has gone, and for the moment has
consequently escaped my vengeance; but let us be united, as we
were to have been, and then leave it to Lord de Winter to
maintain his own honor and that of his wife.'"

"Lord de Winter!" cried Felton.

"Yes," said Milady, "Lord de Winter; and now you can understand
it all, can you not? Buckingham remained nearly a year absent.
A week before his return Lord de Winter died, leaving me his sole
heir. Whence came the blow? God who knows all, knows without
doubt; but as for me, I accuse nobody."

"Oh, what an abyss; what an abyss!" cried Felton.

"Lord de Winter died without revealing anything to his brother.
The terrible secret was to be concealed till it burst, like a
clap of thunder, over the head of the guilty. Your protector had
seen with pain this marriage of his elder brother with a
portionless girl. I was sensible that I could look for no
support from a man disappointed in his hopes of an inheritance.
I went to France, with a determination to remain there for the
rest of my life. But all my fortune is in England.
Communication being closed by the war, I was in want of
everything. I was then obliged to come back again. Six days
ago, I landed at Portsmouth."

"Well?" said Felton.

"Well; Buckingham heard by some means, no doubt, of my return.
He spoke of me to Lord de Winter, already prejudiced against me,
and told him that his sister-in-law was a prostitute, a branded
woman. The noble and pure voice of my husband was no longer here
to defend me. Lord de Winter believed all that was told him with
so much the more ease that it was his interest to believe it. He
caused me to be arrested, had me conducted hither, and placed me
under your guard. You know the rest. The day after tomorrow he
banishes me, he transports me; the day after tomorrow he exiles
me among the infamous. Oh, the train is well laid; the plot is
clever. My honor will not survive it! You see, then, Felton, I
can do nothing but die. Felton, give me that knife!"

And at these words, as if all her strength was exhausted, Milady
sank, weak and languishing, into the arms of the young officer,
who, intoxicated with love, anger, and voluptuous sensations
hitherto unknown, received her with transport, pressed her
against his heart, all trembling at the breath from that charming
mouth, bewildered by the contact with that palpitating bosom.

"No, no," said he. "No, you shall live honored and pure; you
shall live to triumph over your enemies."

Milady put him from her slowly with her hand, while drawing him
nearer with her look; but Felton, in his turn, embraced her more
closely, imploring her like a divinity.

"Oh, death, death!" said she, lowering her voice and her eyelids,
"oh, death, rather than shame! Felton, my brother, my friend, I
conjure you!"

"No," cried Felton, "no; you shall live and you shall be
avenged."

"Felton, I bring misfortune to all who surround me! Felton,
abandon me! Felton, let me die!"

"Well, then, we will live and die together!" cried he, pressing
his lips to those of the prisoner.

Several strokes resounded on the door; this time Milady really
pushed him away from her.

"Hark," said she, "we have been overheard! Someone is coming!
All is over! We are lost!"

"No," said Felton; it is only the sentinel warning me that they
are about to change the guard."

"Then run to the door, and open it yourself."

Felton obeyed; this woman was now his whole thought, his whole
soul.

He found himself face to face with a sergeant commanding a watch-
patrol.

"Well, what is the matter?" asked the young lieutenant.

"You told me to open the door if I heard anyone cry out," said
the soldier; "but you forgot to leave me the key. I heard you
cry out, without understanding what you said. I tried to open
the door, but it was locked inside; then I called the sergeant."

"And here I am," said the sergeant.

Felton, quite bewildered, almost mad, stood speechless.

Milady plainly perceived that it was now her turn to take part in
the scene. She ran to the table, and seizing the knife which
Felton had laid down, exclaimed, "And by what right will you
prevent me from dying?"

"Great God!" exclaimed Felton, on seeing the knife glitter in her
hand.

At that moment a burst of ironical laughter resounded through the
corridor. The baron, attracted by the noise, in his chamber
gown, his sword under his arm, stood in the doorway.

"Ah," said he, "here we are, at the last act of the tragedy. You
see, Felton, the drama has gone through all the phases I named;
but be easy, no blood will flow."

Milady perceived that all was lost unless she gave Felton an
immediate and terrible proof of her courage.

"You are mistaken, my Lord, blood will flow; and may that blood
fall back on those who cause it to flow!"

Felton uttered a cry, and rushed toward her. He was too late;
Milady had stabbed herself.

But the knife had fortunately, we ought to say skillfully, come
in contact with the steel busk, which at that period, like a
cuirass, defended the chests of women. It had glided down it,
tearing the robe, and had penetrated slantingly between the flesh
and the ribs. Milady's robe was not the less stained with blood
in a second.

Milady fell down, and seemed to be in a swoon.

Felton snatched away the knife.

"See, my Lord," said he, in a deep, gloomy tone, "here is a woman
who was under my guard, and who has killed herself!"

"Be at ease, Felton," said Lord de Winter. "She is not dead;
demons do not die so easily. Be tranquil, and go wait for me in
my chamber."

"But, my Lord--"

"Go, sir, I command you!"

At this injunction from his superior, Felton obeyed; but in going
out, he put the knife into his bosom.

As to Lord de Winter, he contented himself with calling the woman
who waited on Milady, and when she was come, he recommended the
prisoner, who was still fainting, to her care, and left them
alone.

Meanwhile, all things considered and notwithstanding his
suspicions, as the wound might be serious, he immediately sent
off a mounted man to find a physician.





The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Category:
General Fiction

Romance Literatures
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