The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
M. Daburon had been surprised at Claire's visit.
M. de Commarin was still more so, when his valet whispered to him that Mademoiselle d'Arlange desired a moment's conversation with him.
M. Daburon had broken a handsome card-plate; M. de Commarin, who was at breakfast, dropped his knife on his plate.
Like the magistrate he exclaimed, "Claire!"
He hesitated to receive her, fearing a painful and disagreeable scene. She could only have, as he knew, a very slight affection for him, who had for so long repulsed her with such obstinacy. What could she want with him? To inquire about Albert, of course. And what could he reply?
She would probably have some nervous attack or other; and he would be thoroughly upset. However, he thought of how much she must have suffered; and he pitied her.
He felt that it would be cruel, as well as unworthy of him, to keep away from her who was to have been his daughter-in-law, the Viscountess de Commarin.
He sent a message, asking her to wait a few minutes in one of the little drawing-rooms on the ground floor.
He did not keep her waiting long, his appetite having been destroyed by the mere announcement of her visit. He was fully prepared for anything disagreeable.
As soon as he appeared, Claire saluted him with one of those graceful, yet highly dignified bows, which distinguished the Marchioness d'Arlange.
"Sir--," she began.
"You come, do you not, my poor child, to obtain news of the unhappy boy?" asked M. de Commarin.
He interrupted Claire, and went straight to the point, in order to get the disagreeable business more quickly over.
"No sir," replied the young girl, "I come, on the contrary, to bring you news. Albert is innocent."
The count looked at her most attentively, persuaded that grief had affected her reason; but in that case her madness was very quiet.
"I never doubted it," continued Claire; "but now I have the most positive proof."
"Are you quite sure of what you are saying?" inquired the count, whose eyes betrayed his doubt.
Mademoiselle d'Arlange understood his thoughts; her interview with M. Daburon had given her experience.
"I state nothing which is not of the utmost accuracy," she replied, "and easily proved. I have just come from M. Daburon, the investigating magistrate, who is one of my grandmother's friends; and, after what I told him, he is convinced that Albert is innocent."
"He told you that, Claire!" exclaimed the count. "My child, are you sure, are you not mistaken?"
"No, sir. I told him something, of which every one was ignorant, and of which Albert, who is a gentleman, could not speak. I told him that Albert passed with me, in my grandmother's garden, all that evening on which the crime was committed. He had asked to see me--"
"But your word will not be sufficient."
"There are proofs, and justice has them by this time."
"Heavens! Is it really possible?" cried the count, who was beside himself.
"Ah, sir!" said Mademoiselle d'Arlange bitterly, "you are like the magistrate; you believed in the impossible. You are his father, and you suspected him! You do not know him, then. You were abandoning him, without trying to defend him. Ah, I did not hesitate one moment!"
One is easily induced to believe true that which one is anxiously longing for. M. de Commarin was not difficult to convince. Without thinking, without discussion, he put faith in Claire's assertions. He shared her convictions, without asking himself whether it were wise or prudent to do so.
Yes, he had been overcome by the magistrate's certitude, he had told himself that what was most unlikely was true; and he had bowed his head. One word from a young girl had upset this conviction. Albert innocent! The thought descended upon his heart like heavenly dew.
Claire appeared to him like a bearer of happiness and hope.
During the last three days, he had discovered how great was his affection for Albert. He had loved him tenderly, for he had never been able to discard him, in spite of his frightful suspicions as to his paternity.
For three days, the knowledge of the crime imputed to his unhappy son, the thought of the punishment which awaited him, had nearly killed the father. And after all he was innocent!
No more shame, no more scandalous trial, no more stains upon the escutcheon; the name of Commarin would not be heard at the assizes.
"But, then, mademoiselle," asked the count, "are they going to release him?"
"Alas! sir, I demanded that they should at once set him at liberty. It is just, is it not, since he is not guilty? But the magistrate replied that it was not possible; that he was not the master; that Albert's fate depended on many others. It was then that I resolved to come to you for aid."
"Can I then do something?"
"I at least hope so. I am only a poor girl, very ignorant; and I know no one in the world. I do not know what can be done to get him released from prison. There ought, however, to be some means for obtaining justice. Will you not try all that can be done, sir, you, who are his father?"
"Yes," replied M. de Commarin quickly, "yes, and without losing a minute."
Since Albert's arrest, the count had been plunged in a dull stupor. In his profound grief, seeing only ruin and disaster about him, he had done nothing to shake off this mental paralysis. Ordinarily very active, he now sat all day long without moving. He seemed to enjoy a condition which prevented his feeling the immensity of his misfortune. Claire's voice sounded in his ear like the resurrection trumpet. The frightful darkness was dispelled; he saw a glimmering in the horizon; he recovered the energy of his youth.
"Let us go," he said.
Suddenly the radiance in his face changed to sadness, mixed with anger.
"But where," he asked. "At what door shall we knock with any hope of success? In the olden times, I would have sought the king. But to-day! Even the emperor himself cannot interfere with the law. He will tell me to await the decision of the tribunals, that he can do nothing. Wait! And Albert is counting the minutes in mortal agony! We shall certainly have justice; but to obtain it promptly is an art taught in schools that I have not frequented."
"Let us try, at least, sir," persisted Claire. "Let us seek out judges, generals, ministers, any one. Only lead me to them. I will speak; and you shall see if we do not succeed."
The count took Claire's little hands between his own, and held them a moment pressing them with paternal tenderness.
"Brave girl!" he cried, "you are a noble, courageous woman, Claire! Good blood never fails. I did not know you. Yes, you shall be my daughter; and you shall be happy together, Albert and you. But we must not rush about everywhere, like wild geese. We need some one to tell us whom we should address,--some guide, lawyer, advocate. Ah!" he cried, "I have it,--Noel!"
Claire raised her eyes to the count's in surprise.
"He is my son," replied M. de Commarin, evidently embarrassed, "my other son, Albert's brother. The best and worthiest of men," he added, repeating quite appropriately a phrase already uttered by M. Daburon. "He is a advocate; he knows all about the Palais; he will tell us what to do."
Noel's name, thus thrown into the midst of this conversation so full of hope, oppressed Claire's heart.
The count perceived her affright.
"Do not feel anxious, dear child," he said. "Noel is good; and I will tell you more, he loves Albert. Do not shake your head so; Noel told me himself, on this very spot, that he did not believe Albert guilty. He declared that he intended doing everything to dispel the fatal mistake, and that he would be his advocate."
These assertions did not seem to reassure the young girl. She thought to herself, "What then has this Noel done for Albert?" But she made no remark.
"I will send for him," continued M. de Commarin; "he is now with Albert's mother, who brought him up, and who is now on her deathbed."
"Yes, my child. Albert will explain to you what may perhaps seem to you an enigma. Now time presses. But I think--"
He stopped suddenly. He thought, that, instead of sending for Noel at Madame Gerdy's, he might go there himself. He would thus see Valerie! and he had longed to see her again so much!
It was one of those actions which the heart urges, but which one does not dare risk, because a thousand subtle reasons and interests are against it.
One wishes, desires, and even longs for it; and yet one struggles, combats, and resists. But, if an opportunity occurs, one is only too happy to seize it; then one has an excuse with which to silence one's conscience.
In thus yielding to the impulse of one's feelings, one can say: "It was not I who willed it, it was fate."
"It will be quicker, perhaps," observed the count, "to go to Noel."
"Let us start then, sir."
"I hardly know though, my child," said the old gentleman, hesitating, "whether I may, whether I ought to take you with me. Propriety--"
"Ah, sir, propriety has nothing to do with it!" replied Claire impetuously. "With you, and for his sake, I can go anywhere. Is it not indispensable that I should give some explanations? Only send word to my grandmother by Schmidt, who will come back here and await my return. I am ready, sir."
"Very well, then," said the count.
Then, ringing the bell violently, he called to the servant, "My carriage."
In descending the steps, he insisted upon Claire's taking his arm. The gallant and elegant politeness of the friend of the Count d'Artois reappeared.
"You have taken twenty years from my age," he said; "it is but right that I should devote to you the youth you have restored to me."
As soon as Claire had entered the carriage, he said to the footman: "Rue St. Lazare, quick!"
Whenever the count said "quick," on entering his carriage, the pedestrians had to get out of the way. But the coachman was a skillful driver, and arrived without accident.
Aided by the concierge's directions, the count and the young girl went towards Madame Gerdy's apartments. The count mounted slowly, holding tightly to the balustrade, stopping at every landing to recover his breath. He was, then, about to see her again! His emotion pressed his heart like a vice.
"M. Noel Gerdy?" he asked of the servant.
The advocate had just that moment gone out. She did not know where he had gone; but he had said he should not be out more than half an hour.
"We will wait for him, then," said the count.
He advanced; and the servant drew back to let them pass. Noel had strictly forbidden her to admit any visitors; but the Count de Commarin was one of those whose appearance makes servants forget all their orders.
Three persons were in the room into which the servant introduced the count and Mademoiselle d'Arlange.
They were the parish priest, the doctor, and a tall man, an officer of the Legion of Honour, whose figure and bearing indicated the old soldier.
They were conversing near the fireplace, and the arrival of strangers appeared to astonish them exceedingly.
In bowing, in response to M. de Commarin's and Claire's salutations, they seemed to inquire their business: but this hesitation was brief, for the soldier almost immediately offered Mademoiselle d'Arlange a chair.
The count considered that his presence was inopportune; and he thought that he was called upon to introduce himself, and explain his visit.
"You will excuse me, gentlemen," said he, "if I am indiscreet. I did not think of being so when I asked to wait for Noel, whom I have the most pressing need of seeing. I am the Count de Commarin."
At this name, the old soldier let go the back of the chair which he was still holding and haughtily raised his head. An angry light flashed in his eyes, and he made a threatening gesture. His lips moved, as if he were about to speak; but he restrained himself, and retired, bowing his head, to the window.
Neither the count nor the two other men noticed his strange behaviour; but it did not escape Claire.
While Mademoiselle d'Arlange sat down rather surprised, the count, much embarrassed at his position, went up to the priest, and asked in a low voice, "What is, I pray, M. l'Abbe; Madame Gerdy's condition?"
The doctor, who had a sharp ear, heard the question, and approached quickly.
He was very pleased to have an opportunity to speak to a person as celebrated as the Count de Commarin, and to become acquainted with him.
"I fear, sir," he said, "that she cannot live throughout the day."
The count pressed his hand against his forehead, as though he had felt a sudden pain there. He hesitated to inquire further.
After a moment of chilling silence, he resolved to go on.
"Does she recognise her friends?" he murmured.
"No, sir. Since last evening, however, there has been a great change. She was very uneasy all last night: she had moments of fierce delirium. About an hour ago, we thought she was recovering her senses, and we sent for M. l'Abbe."
"Very needlessly, though," put in the priest, "and it is a sad misfortune. Her reason is quite gone. Poor woman! I have known her ten years. I have been to see her nearly every week; I never knew a more worthy person."
"She must suffer dreadfully," said the doctor.
Almost at the same instant, and as if to bear out the doctor's words, they heard stifled cries from the next room, the door of which was slightly open.
"Do you hear?" exclaimed the count, trembling from head to foot.
Claire understood nothing of this strange scene. Dark presentiments oppressed her; she felt as though she were enveloped in an atmosphere of evil. She grew frightened, rose from her chair, and drew near the count.
"She is, I presume, in there?" asked M. de Commarin.
"Yes, sir," harshly answered the old soldier, who had also drawn near.
At any other time, the count would have noticed the soldier's tone, and have resented it. Now, he did not even raise his eyes. He remained insensible to everything. Was she not there, close to him? His thoughts were in the past; it seemed to him but yesterday that he had quitted her for the last time.
"I should very much like to see her," he said timidly.
"That is impossible." replied the old soldier.
"Why?" stammered the count.
"At least, M. de Commarin," replied the soldier, "let her die in peace."
The count started, as if he had been struck. His eyes encountered the officer's; he lowered them like a criminal before his judge.
"Nothing need prevent the count's entering Madame Gerdy's room," put in the doctor, who purposely saw nothing of all this. "She would probably not notice his presence; and if--"
"Oh, she would perceive nothing!" said the priest. "I have just spoken to her, taken her hand, she remained quite insensible."
The old soldier reflected deeply.
"Enter," said he at last to the count; "perhaps it is God's will."
The count tottered so that the doctor offered to assist him. He gently motioned him away.
The doctor and the priest entered with him; Claire and the old soldier remained at the threshold of the door, facing the bed.
The count took three or four steps, and was obliged to stop. He wished to, but could not go further.
Could this dying woman really be Valerie?
He taxed his memory severely; nothing in those withered features, nothing in that distorted face, recalled the beautiful, the adored Valerie of his youth. He did not recognise her.
But she knew him, or rather divined his presence. With supernatural strength, she raised herself, exposing her shoulders and emaciated arms; then pushing away the ice from her forehead, and throwing back her still plentiful hair, bathed with water and perspiration, she cried, "Guy! Guy!"
The count trembled all over.
He did not perceive that which immediately struck all the other persons present--the transformation in the sick woman. Her contracted features relaxed, a celestial joy spread over her face, and her eyes, sunken by disease, assumed an expression of infinite tenderness.
"Guy," said she in a voice heartrending by its sweetness, "you have come at last! How long, O my God! I have waited for you! You cannot think what I have suffered by your absence. I should have died of grief, had it not been for the hope of seeing you again. Who kept you from me? Your parents again? How cruel of them! Did you not tell them that no one could love you here below as I do? No, that is not it; I remember. You were angry when you left me. Your friends wished to separate us; they said that I was deceiving you with another. Who have I injured that I should have so many enemies! They envied my happiness; and we were so happy! But you did not believe the wicked calumny, you scorned it, for are you not here?"
The nun, who had risen on seeing so many persons enter the sick room, opened her eyes with astonishment.
"I deceive you?" continued the dying woman; "only a madman would believe it. Am I not yours, your very own, heart and soul? To me you are everything: and there is nothing I could expect or hope for from another which you have not already given me. Was I not yours, alone, from the very first? I never hesitated to give myself entirely to you; I felt that I was born for you, Guy, do you remember? I was working for a lace maker, and was barely earning a living. You told me you were a poor student; I thought you were depriving yourself for me. You insisted on having our little apartment on the Quai Saint-Michel done up. It was lovely, with the new paper all covered with flowers, which we hung ourselves. How delightful it was! From the window, we could see the great trees of the Tuileries gardens; and by leaning out a little we could see the sun set through the arches of the bridges. Oh, those happy days! The first time that we went into the country together, one Sunday, you brought me a more beautiful dress than I had ever dreamed of, and such darling little boots, that it was a shame to walk out in them! But you had deceived me! You were not a poor student. One day, when taking my work home, I met you in an elegant carriage, with tall footmen, dressed in liveries covered with gold lace, behind. I could not believe my eyes. That evening you told me the truth, that you were a nobleman and immensely rich. O my darling, why did you tell me?"
Had she her reason, or was this a mere delirium?
Great tears rolled down the Count de Commarin's wrinkled face, and the doctor and the priest were touched by the sad spectacle of an old man weeping like a child.
Only the previous evening, the count had thought his heart dead; and now this penetrating voice was sufficient to regain the fresh and powerful feelings of his youth. Yet, how many years had passed away since then!
"After that," continued Madame Gerdy, "we left the Quai Saint-Michel. You wished it; and I obeyed, in spite of my apprehensions. You told me, that, to please you, I ought to look like a great lady. You provided teachers for me, for I was so ignorant that I scarcely knew how to sign my name. Do you remember the queer spelling in my first letter? Ah, Guy, if you had really only been a poor student! When I knew that you were so rich, I lost my simplicity, my thoughtlessness, my gaiety. I feared that you would think me covetous, that you would imagine that your fortune influenced my love. Men who, like you, have millions, must be unhappy! They must be always doubting and full of suspicions, they can never be sure whether it is themselves or their gold which is loved, and this awful doubt makes them mistrustful, jealous, and cruel. Oh my dearest, why did we leave our dear little room? There, we were happy. Why did you not leave me always where you first found me? Did you not know that the sight of happiness irritates mankind? If we had been wise, we would have hid ours like a crime. You thought to raise me, but you only sunk me lower. You were proud of our love; you published it abroad. Vainly I asked you in mercy to leave me in obscurity, and unknown. Soon the whole town knew that I was your mistress. Every one was talking of the money you spent on me. How I blushed at the flaunting luxury you thrust upon me! You were satisfied, because my beauty became celebrated; I wept, because my shame became so too. People talked about me, as those women who make their lovers commit the greatest follies. Was not my name in the papers? And it was through the same papers that I heard of your approaching marriage. Unhappy woman! I should have fled from you, but I had not the courage. I resigned myself, without an effort, to the most humiliating, the most shameful of positions. You were married; and I remained your mistress. Oh, what anguish I suffered during that terrible evening. I was alone in my own home, in that room so associated with you; and you were marrying another! I said to myself, 'At this moment, a pure, noble young girl is giving herself to him.' I said again, 'What oaths is that mouth, which has so often pressed my lips, now taking?' Often since that dreadful misfortune, I have asked heaven what crime I had committed that I should be so terribly punished? This was the crime. I remained your mistress, and your wife died. I only saw her once, and then scarcely for a minute, but she looked at you, and I knew that she loved you as only I could. Ah, Guy, it was our love that killed her!"
She stopped exhausted, but none of the bystanders moved. They listened breathlessly, and waited with feverish emotion for her to resume.
Mademoiselle d'Arlange had not the strength to remain standing; she had fallen upon her knees, and was pressing her handkerchief to her mouth to keep back her sobs. Was not this woman Albert's mother?
The worthy nun was alone unmoved; she had seen, she said to herself, many such deliriums before. She understood absolutely nothing of what was passing.
"These people are very foolish," she muttered, "to pay so much attention to the ramblings of a person out of her mind."
She thought she had more sense than the others, so, approaching the bed, she began to cover up the sick woman.
"Come, madame," said she, "cover yourself, or you will catch cold."
"Sister!" remonstrated the doctor and priest at the same moment.
"For God's sake!" exclaimed the soldier, "let her speak."
"Who," continued the sick woman, unconscious of all that was passing about her, "who told you I was deceiving you? Oh, the wretches! They set spies upon me; they discovered that an officer came frequently to see me. But that officer was my brother, my dear Louis! When he was eighteen years old, and being unable to obtain work, he enlisted, saying to my mother, that there would then be one mouth the less in the family. He was a good soldier, and his officers always liked him. He worked whilst with his regiment; he taught himself, and he quickly rose in rank. He was promoted a lieutenant, then captain, and finally became major. Louis always loved me; had he remained in Paris I should not have fallen. But our mother died, and I was left all alone in this great city. He was a non-commissioned officer when he first knew that I had a lover; and he was so enraged that I feared he would never forgive me. But he did forgive me, saying that my constancy in my error was its only excuse. Ah, my friend, he was more jealous of your honour than you yourself! He came to see me in secret, because I placed him in the unhappy position of blushing for his sister. I had condemned myself never to speak of him, never to mention his name. Could a brave soldier confess that his sister was the mistress of a count? That it might not be known, I took the utmost precautions, but alas! only to make you doubt me. When Louis knew what was said, he wished in his blind rage to challenge you; and then I was obliged to make him think that he had no right to defend me. What misery! Ah, I have paid dearly for my years of stolen happiness! But you are here, and all is forgotten. For you do believe me, do you not, Guy? I will write to Louis; he will come, he will tell you that I do not lie, and you cannot doubt his, a soldier's word."
"Yes, on my honour," said the old soldier, "what my sister says is the truth."
The dying woman did not hear him; she continued in a voice panting from weariness: "How your presence revives me. I feel that I am growing stronger. I have nearly been very ill. I am afraid I am not very pretty today; but never mind, kiss me!"
She opened her arms, and thrust out her lips as if to kiss him.
"But it is on one condition, Guy, that you will leave me my child? Oh! I beg of you, I entreat you not to take him from me; leave him to me. What is a mother without her child? You are anxious to give him an illustrious name, an immense fortune. No! You tell me that this sacrifice will be for his good. No! My child is mine; I will keep him. The world has no honours, no riches, which can replace a mother's love. You wish to give me in exchange, that other woman's child. Never! What! you would have that woman embrace my boy! It is impossible. Take away this strange child from me; he fills me with horror; I want my own! Ah, do not insist, do not threaten me with anger, do not leave me. I should give in, and then, I should die. Guy, forget this fatal project, the thought of it alone is a crime. Cannot my prayers, my tears, can nothing move you? Ah, well, God will punish us. All will be discovered. The day will come when these children will demand a fearful reckoning. Guy, I foresee the future; I see my son coming towards me, justly angered. What does he say, great heaven! Oh, those letters, those letters, sweet memories of our love! My son, he threatens me! He strikes me! Ah, help! A son strike his mother. Tell no one of it, though. O my God, what torture! Yet he knows well that I am his mother. He pretends not to believe me. Lord, this is too much! Guy! pardon! oh, my only friend! I have neither the power to resist, nor the courage to obey you."
At this moment the door opening on to the landing opened, and Noel appeared, pale as usual, but calm and composed. The dying woman saw him, and the sight affected her like an electric shock. A terrible shudder shook her frame; her eyes grew inordinately large, her hair seemed to stand on end. She raised herself on her pillows, stretched out her arm in the direction where Noel stood, and in a loud voice exclaimed, "Assassin!"
She fell back convulsively on the bed. Some one hastened forward: she was dead.
A deep silence prevailed.
Such is the majesty of death, and the terror which accompanies it, that, in its presence, even the strongest and most sceptical bow their heads.
For a time, passions and interests are forgotten. Involuntarily we are drawn together, when some mutual friend breathes his last in our presence.
All the bystanders were deeply moved by this painful scene, this last confession, wrested so to say from the delirium.
And the last word uttered by Madame Gerdy, "assassin," surprised no one.
All, excepting the nun, knew of the awful accusation which had been made against Albert.
To him they applied the unfortunate mother's malediction.
Noel seemed quite broken hearted. Kneeling by the bedside of her who had been as a mother to him, he took one of her hands, and pressed it close to his lips.
"Dead!" he groaned, "she is dead!"
The nun and the priest knelt beside him, and repeated in a low voice the prayers for the dead.
They implored God to shed his peace and mercy on the departed soul.
They begged for a little happiness in heaven for her who had suffered so much on earth.
Fallen into a chair, his head thrown back, the Count de Commarin was more overwhelmed and more livid than this dead woman, his old love, once so beautiful.
Claire and the doctor hastened to assist him.
They undid his cravat, and took off his shirt collar, for he was suffocating. With the help of the old soldier, whose red, tearful eyes, told of suppressed grief, they moved the count's chair to the half-opened window to give him a little air. Three days before, this scene would have killed him. But the heart hardens by misfortune, like hands by labour.
"His tears have saved him," whispered the doctor to Claire.
M. de Commarin gradually recovered, and, as his thoughts became clearer, his sufferings returned.
Prostration follows great mental shocks. Nature seems to collect her strength to sustain the misfortune. We do not feel all its intensity at once; it is only afterwards that we realize the extent and profundity of the evil.
The count's gaze was fixed upon the bed where lay Valerie's body. There, then, was all that remained of her. The soul, that soul so devoted and so tender, had flown.
What would he not have given if God would have restored that unfortunate woman to life for a day, or even for an hour? With what transports of repentance he would have cast himself at her feet, to implore her pardon, to tell her how much he detested his past conduct! How had he acknowledged the inexhaustible love of that angel? Upon a mere suspicion, without deigning to inquire, without giving her a hearing, he had treated her with the coldest contempt. Why had he not seen her again? He would have spared himself twenty years of doubt as to Albert's birth. Instead of an isolated existence, he would have led a happy, joyous life.
Then he remembered the countess's death. She also had loved him, and had died of her love.
He had not understood them; he had killed them both.
The hour of expiation had come; and he could not say: "Lord, the punishment is too great."
And yet, what punishment, what misfortunes, during the last five days!
"Yes," he stammered, "she predicted it. Why did I not listen to her?"
Madame Gerdy's brother pitied the old man, so severely tried. He held out his hand.
"M. de Commarin," he said, in a grave, sad voice, "my sister forgave you long ago, even if she ever had any ill feeling against you. It is my turn to-day; I forgive you sincerely."
"Thank you, sir," murmured the count, "thank you!" and then he added: "What a death!"
"Yes," murmured Claire, "she breathed her last in the idea that her son was guilty of a crime. And we were not able to undeceive her."
"At least," cried the count, "her son should be free to render her his last duties; yes, he must be. Noel!"
The advocate had approached his father, and heard all.
"I have promised, father," he replied, "to save him."
For the first time, Mademoiselle d'Arlange was face to face with Noel. Their eyes met, and she could not restrain a movement of repugnance, which the advocate perceived.
"Albert is already saved," she said proudly. "What we ask is, that prompt justice shall be done him; that he shall be immediately set at liberty. The magistrate now knows the truth."
"The truth?" exclaimed the advocate.
"Yes; Albert passed at my house, with me, the evening the crime was committed."
Noel looked at her surprised; so singular a confession from such a mouth, without explanation, might well surprise him.
She drew herself up haughtily.
"I am Mademoiselle Claire d'Arlange, sir," said she.
M. de Commarin now quickly ran over all the incidents reported by Claire.
When he had finished, Noel replied: "You see, sir, my position at this moment, to-morrow--"
"To-morrow?" interrupted the count, "you said, I believe, to-morrow! Honour demands, sir, that we act to-day, at this moment. You can show your love for this poor woman much better by delivering her son than by praying for her."
Noel bowed low.
"To hear your wish, sir, is to obey it," he said; "I go. This evening, at your house, I shall have the honour of giving you an account of my proceedings. Perhaps I shall be able to bring Albert with me."
He spoke, and, again embracing the dead woman, went out.
Soon the count and Mademoiselle d'Arlange also retired.
The old soldier went to the Mayor, to give notice of the death, and to fulfil the necessary formalities.
The nun alone remained, awaiting the priest, which the cure had promised to send to watch the corpse.
The daughter of St. Vincent felt neither fear nor embarrassment, she had been so many times in a similar position. Her prayers said, she arose and went about the room, arranging everything as it should be in the presence of death. She removed all traces of the illness, put away the medicine bottles, burnt some sugar upon the fire shovel, and, on a table covered with a white cloth at the head of the bed, placed some lighted candles, a crucifix with holy water, and a branch of palm.