These were not words; they were electric shocks.
The two arms that gripped Rose's arms were paralyzed, and dropped off them; and there was silence.
Then first the thought of all she had done with those three words began to rise and grow and surge over her. She stood, her eyes turned downwards, yet inwards, and dilating with horror.
Now a mist began to spread over her eyes, and in it she saw indistinctly the figure of Raynal darting to her sister's side, and raising her head.
She dared not look round on the other side. She heard feet stagger on the floor. She heard a groan, too; but not a word.
With nerves strung to frenzy, and quivering ears, that magnified every sound, she waited for a reproach, a curse; either would have been some little relief. But no! a silence far more terrible.
Then a step wavered across the room. Her soul was in her ear. She could hear and feel the step totter, and it shook her as it went. All sounds were trebled to her. Then it struck on the stone step of the staircase, not like a step, but a knell; another step, another and another; down to the very bottom. Each slow step made her head ring and her heart freeze.
At last she heard no more. Then a scream of anguish and recall rose to her lips. She fought it down, for Josephine and Raynal. Edouard was gone. She had but her sister now, the sister she loved better than herself; the sister to save whose life and honor she had this moment sacrificed her own, and all a woman lives for.
She turned, with a wild cry of love and pity, to that sister's side to help her; and when she kneeled down beside her, an iron arm was promptly thrust out between the beloved one and her.
"This is my care, madame," said Raynal, coldly.
There was no mistaking his manner. The stained one was not to touch his wife.
She looked at him in piteous amazement at his ingratitude. "It is well," said she. "It is just. I deserve this from you."
She said no more, but drooped gently down beside the cradle, and hid her forehead in the clothes beside the child that had brought all this woe, and sobbed bitterly.
Then honest Raynal began to be sorry for her, in spite of himself. But there was no time for this. Josephine stirred; and, at the same moment, a violent knocking came at the door of the apartment, and the new servant's voice, crying, "Ladies, for Heaven's sake, what is the matter? The baroness heard a fall—she is getting up—she will be here. What shall I tell her is the matter?"
Raynal was going to answer, but Rose, who had started up at the knocking, put her hand in a moment right before his mouth, and ran to the door. "There is nothing the matter; tell mamma I am coming down to her directly." She flew back to Raynal in an excitement little short of frenzy. "Help me carry her into her own room," cried she imperiously. Raynal obeyed by instinct; for the fiery girl spoke like a general, giving the word of command, with the enemy in front. He carried the true culprit in his arms, and laid her gently on her bed.
"Now put IT out of sight—take this, quick, man! quick!" cried Rose.
Raynal went to the cradle. "Ah! my poor girl," said he, as he lifted it in his arms, "this is a sorry business; to have to hide your own child from your own mother!"
"Colonel Raynal," said Rose, "do not insult a poor, despairing girl. C'est lache."
"I am silent, young woman," said Raynal, sternly. "What is to be done?"
"Take it down the steps, and give it to Jacintha. Stay, here is a candle; I go to tell mamma you are come; and, Colonel Raynal, I never injured YOU: if you tell my mother you will stab her to the heart, and me, and may the curse of cowards light on you!—may"—
"Enough!" said Raynal, sternly. "Do you take me for a babbling girl? I love your mother better than you do, or this brat of yours would not be here. I shall not bring her gray hairs down with sorrow to the grave. I shall speak of this villany to but one person; and to him I shall talk with this, and not with the idle tongue." And he tapped his sword-hilt with a sombre look of terrible significance.
He carried out the cradle. The child slept sweetly through it all.
Rose darted into Josephine's room, took the key from the inside to the outside, locked the door, put the key in her pocket, and ran down to her mother's room; her knees trembled under her as she went.
Meantime, Jacintha, sleeping tranquilly, suddenly felt her throat griped, and heard a loud voice ring in her ear; then she was lifted, and wrenched, and dropped. She found herself lying clear of the steps in the moonlight; her head was where her feet had been, and her candle out.
She uttered shriek upon shriek, and was too frightened to get up. She thought it was supernatural; some old De Beaurepaire had served her thus for sleeping on her post. A struggle took place between her fidelity and her superstitious fears. Fidelity conquered. Quaking in every limb, she groped up the staircase for her candle.
It was gone.
Then a still more sickening fear came over her.
What if this was no spirit's work, but a human arm—a strong one—some man's arm?
Her first impulse was to dart up the stairs, and make sure that no calamity had befallen through her mistimed drowsiness. But, when she came to try, her dread of the supernatural revived. She could not venture without a light up those stairs, thronged perhaps with angry spirits. She ran to the kitchen. She found the tinderbox, and with trembling hands struck a light. She came back shading it with her shaky hands; and, committing her soul to the care of Heaven, she crept quaking up the stairs. Then she heard voices above, and that restored her more; she mounted more steadily. Presently she stopped, for a heavy step was coming down. It did not sound like a woman's step. It came further down; she turned to fly.
"Jacintha!" said a deep voice, that in this stone cylinder rang like thunder from a tomb.
"Oh! saints and angels save me!" yelled Jacintha; and fell on her knees, and hid her head for security; and down went her candlestick clattering on the stone.
"Don't be a fool!" said the iron voice. "Get up and take this."
She raised her head by slow degrees, shuddering. A man was holding out a cradle to her; the candle he carried lighted up his face; it was Colonel Raynal.
She stared at him stupidly, but never moved from her knees, and the candle began to shake violently in her hand, as she herself trembled from head to foot.
Then Raynal concluded she was in the plot; but, scorning to reproach a servant, he merely said, "Well, what do you kneel there for, gaping at me like that? Take this, I tell you, and carry it out of the house."
He shoved the cradle roughly down into her hands, then turned on his heel without a word.
Jacintha collapsed on the stairs, and the cradle beside her, for all the power was driven out of her body; she could hardly support her own weight, much less the cradle.
She rocked herself, and moaned out, "Oh, what's this? oh, what's this?"
A cold perspiration came over her whole frame.
"What could this mean? What on earth had happened?"
She took up the candle, for it was lying burning and guttering on the stairs; scraped up the grease with the snuffers, and by force of habit tried to polish it clean with a bit of paper that shook between her fingers; she did not know what she was doing. When she recovered her wits, she took the child out of the cradle, and wrapped it carefully in her shawl; then went slowly down the stairs; and holding him close to her bosom, with a furtive eye, and brain confused, and a heart like lead, stole away to the tenantless cottage, where Madame Jouvenel awaited her.
Meantime, Rose, with quaking heart, had encountered the baroness. She found her pale and agitated, and her first question was, "What is the matter? what have you been all doing over my head?"
"Darling mother," replied Rose, evasively, "something has happened that will rejoice your heart. Somebody has come home."
"My son? eh, no! impossible! We cannot be so happy."
"He will be with you directly."
The old lady now trembled with joyful agitation.
"In five minutes I will bring him to you. Shall you be dressed? I will ring for the girl to help you."
"But, Rose, the scream, and that terrible fall. Ah! where is Josephine?"
"Can't you guess, mamma? Oh, the fall was only the screen; they stumbled over it in the dark."
"Colonel Raynal, and—and Edouard. I will tell you, mamma, but don't be angry, or even mention it; they wanted to surprise us. They saw a light burning, and they crept on tiptoe up to the tapestried room, where Josephine and I were, and they did give us a great fright."
"What madness!" cried the baroness, angrily; "and in Josephine's weak state! Such a surprise might have driven her into a fit."
"Yes, it was foolish, but let it pass, mamma. Don't speak of it, for he is so sorry about it."
Then Rose slipped out, ordered a fire in the salon, and not in the tapestried room, and the next minute was at her sister's door. There she found Raynal knocking, and asking Josephine how she was.
"Pray leave her to me a moment," said she. "I will bring her down to you. Mamma is waiting for you in the salon."
Raynal went down. Rose unlocked the bedroom-door, went in, and, to her horror, found Josephine lying on the floor. She dashed water in her face, and applied every remedy; and at last she came back to life, and its terrors.
"Save me, Rose! save me—he is coming to kill me—I heard him at the door," and she clung trembling piteously to Rose.
Then Rose, seeing her terror, was almost glad at the suicidal falsehood she had told. She comforted and encouraged Josephine and—deceived her. (This was the climax.)
"All is well, my poor coward," she cried; "your fears are all imaginary; another has owned the child, and the story is believed."
"Another! impossible! He would not believe it."
"He does believe it—he shall believe it."
Rose then, feeling by no means sure that Josephine, terrified as she was, would consent to let her sister come to shame to screen her, told her boldly that Jacintha had owned herself the mother of the child, and that Raynal's only feeling towards HER was pity, and regret at having so foolishly frightened her, weakened as she was by illness. "I told him you had been ill, dear. But how came you on the ground?"
"I had come to myself; I was on my knees praying. He tapped. I heard his voice. I remember no more. I must have fainted again directly."
Rose had hard work to make her believe that her guilt, as she called it, was not known; and even then she could not prevail on her to come down-stairs, until she said, "If you don't, he will come to you." On that Josephine consented eagerly, and with trembling fingers began to adjust her hair and her dress for the interview.
All this terrible night Rose fought for her sister. She took her down-stairs to the salon; she put her on the sofa; she sat by her and pressed her hand constantly to give her courage. She told the story of the surprise her own way, before the whole party, including the doctor, to prevent Raynal from being called on to tell it his way. She laughed at Josephine's absurdity, but excused it on account of her feeble health. In short, she threw more and more dust in all their eyes.
But by the time when the rising sun came faintly in and lighted the haggard party, where the deceived were happy, the deceivers wretched, the supernatural strength this young girl had shown was almost exhausted. She felt an hysterical impulse to scream and weep: each minute it became more and more ungovernable. Then came an unexpected turn. Raynal after a long and tiring talk with his mother, as he called her, looked at his watch, and in a characteristic way coolly announced his immediate departure, this being the first hint he had given them that he was not come back for good.
The baroness was thunderstruck.
Rose and Josephine pressed one another's hands, and had much ado not to utter a loud cry of joy.
Raynal explained that he was the bearer of despatches. "I must be off: not an hour to lose. Don't fret, mother, I shall soon be back again, if I am not knocked on the head."
Raynal took leave of them all. When it came to Rose's turn, he drew her aside and whispered into her ear, "Who is the man?"
She started, and seemed dumfounded.
"Tell me, or I ask my wife."
"She has promised me not to betray me: I made her swear. Spare me now, brother; I will tell you all when you come back."
"That is a bargain: now hear ME swear: he shall marry you, or he shall die by my hand."
He confirmed this by a tremendous oath.
Rose shuddered, but said nothing, only she thought to herself, "I am forewarned. Never shall you know who is the father of that child."
He was no sooner gone than the baroness insisted on knowing what this private communication between him and Rose was about.
"Oh," said Rose, "he was only telling me to keep up your courage and Josephine's till he comes back."
This was the last lie the poor entangled wretch had to tell that morning. The next minute the sisters, exhausted by their terrible struggle, went feebly, with downcast eyes, along the corridor and up the staircase to Josephine's room.
They went hand in hand. They sank down, dressed as they were, on Josephine's bed, and clung to one another and trembled together, till their exhausted natures sank into uneasy slumbers, from which each in turn would wake ever and anon with a convulsive start, and clasp her sister tighter to her breast.
Theirs was a marvellous love. Even a course of deceit had not yet prevailed to separate or chill their sister bosoms. But still in this deep and wonderful love there were degrees: one went a shade deeper than the other now—ay, since last night. Which? why, she who had sacrificed herself for the other, and dared not tell her, lest the sacrifice should be refused.
It was the gray of the morning, and foggy, when Raynal, after taking leave, went to the stable for his horse. At the stable-door he came upon a man sitting doubled up on the very stones of the yard, with his head on his knees. The figure lifted his head, and showed him the face of Edouard Riviere, white and ghastly: his hair lank with the mist, his teeth chattering with cold and misery. The poor wretch had walked frantically all night round and round the chateau, waiting till Raynal should come out. He told him so.
"But why didn't you?—Ah! I see. No! you could not go into the house after that. My poor fellow, there is but one thing for you to do. Turn your back on her, and forget she ever lived; she is dead to you."
"There is something to be done besides that," said Edouard, gloomily.
"That is my affair, young man. When I come back from the Rhine, she will tell me who her seducer is. She has promised."
"And don't you see through that?" said Edouard, gnashing his teeth; "that is only to gain time: she will never tell you. She is young in years, but old in treachery."
He groaned and was silent a moment, then laying his hand on Raynal's arm said grimly, "Thank Heaven, we don't depend on her for information! I know the villain."
Raynal's eyes flashed: "Ah! then tell me this moment."
"It is that scoundrel Dujardin."
"Dujardin! What do you mean?"
"I mean that, while you were fighting for France, your house was turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers."
"And pray, sir, to what more honorable use could they put it?"
"Well, this Dujardin was housed by you, was nursed by your wife and all the family; and in return has seduced your sister, my affianced."
"I can hardly believe that. Camille Dujardin was always a man of honor, and a good soldier."
"Colonel, there has been no man near the place but this Dujardin. I tell you it is he. Don't make me tear my bleeding heart out: must I tell you how often I caught them together, how I suspected, and how she gulled me? blind fool that I was, to believe a woman's words before my own eyes. I swear to you he is the villain; the only question is, which of us two is to kill him."
"Where is the man?"
"In the army of the Rhine."
"Ah! all the better."
"Covered with glory and honor. Curse him! oh, curse him! curse him!"
"I am in luck. I am going to the Rhine."
"I know it. That is why I waited here all through this night of misery. Yes, you are in luck. But you will send me a line when you have killed him; will you not? Then I shall know joy again. Should he escape you, he shall not escape me."
"Young man," said Raynal, with dignity, "this rage is unmanly. Besides, we have not heard his side of the story. He is a good soldier; perhaps he is not all to blame: or perhaps passion has betrayed him into a sin that his conscience and honor disapprove: if so, he must not die. You think only of your wrong: it is natural: but I am the girl's brother; guardian of her honor and my own. His life is precious as gold. I shall make him marry her."
"What! reward him for his villany?" cried Edouard, frantically.
"A mighty reward," replied Raynal, with a sneer.
"You leave one thing out of the calculation, monsieur," said Edouard, trembling with anger, "that I will kill your brother-in-law at the altar, before her eyes."
"YOU leave one thing out of the calculation: that you will first have to cross swords, at the altar, with me."
"So be it. I will not draw on my old commandant. I could not; but be sure I will catch him and her alone some day, and the bride shall be a widow in her honeymoon."
"As you please," said Raynal, coolly. "That is all fair, as you have been wronged. I shall make her an honest wife, and then you may make her an honest widow. (This is what they call LOVE, and sneer at me for keeping clear of it.) But neither he nor you shall keep MY SISTER what she is now, a ——," and he used a word out of camp.
Edouard winced and groaned. "Oh! don't call her by such a name. There is some mystery. She loved me once. There must have been some strange seduction."
"Now you deceive yourself," said Raynal. "I never saw a girl that could take her own part better than she can; she is not like her sister at all in character. Not that I excuse him; it was a dishonorable act, an ungrateful act to my wife and my mother."
"And to you."
"Now listen to me: in four days I shall stand before him. I shall not go into a pet like you; I am in earnest. I shall just say to him, 'Dujardin, I know all!' Then if he is guilty his face will show it directly. Then I shall say, 'Comrade, you must marry her whom you have dishonored.'"
"He will not. He is a libertine, a rascal."
"You are speaking of a man you don't know. He WILL marry her and repair the wrong he has done."
"Suppose he refuses?"
"Why should he refuse? The girl is not ugly nor old, and if she has done a folly, he was her partner in it."
"But SUPPOSE he refuses?"
Raynal ground his teeth. "Refuse? If he does, I'll run my sword through his carcass then and there, and the hussy shall go into a convent."