"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.