"Yes, yes!" said Felton, passing his hands over his brow, covered with sweat, as if to remove his last doubt. "Yes, I recognize the voice which speaks to me in my dreams; yes, I recognize the features of the angel who appears to me every night, crying to my soul, which cannot sleep: 'Strike, save England, save thyself — for thou wilt die without having appeased God!' Speak, speak!" cried Felton, "I can understand you now."
A flash of terrible joy, but rapid as thought, gleamed from the eyes of Milady.
However fugitive this homicide flash, Felton saw it, and started as if its light had revealed the abysses of this woman's heart. He recalled, all at once, the warnings of Lord de Winter, the seductions of Milady, her first attempts after her arrival. He drew back a step, and hung down his head, without, however, ceasing to look at her, as if, fascinated by this strange creature, he could not detach his eyes from her eyes.
Milady was not a woman to misunderstand the meaning of this hesitation. Under her apparent emotions her icy coolness never abandoned her. Before Felton replied, and before she should be forced to resume this conversation, so difficult to be sustained in the same exalted tone, she let her hands fall; and as if the weakness of the woman overpowered the enthusiasm of the inspired fanatic, she said: "But no, it is not for me to be the Judith to deliver Bethulia from this Holofernes. The sword of the eternal is too heavy for my arm. Allow me, then, to avoid dishonor by death; let me take refuge in martyrdom. I do not ask you for liberty, as a guilty one would, nor for vengeance, as would a pagan. Let me die; that is all. I supplicate you, I implore you on my knees — let me die, and my last sigh shall be a blessing for my preserver."
Hearing that voice, so sweet and suppliant, seeing that look, so timid and downcast, Felton reproached himself. By degrees the enchantress had clothed herself with that magic adornment which she assumed and threw aside at will; that is to say, beauty, meekness, and tears — and above all, the irresistible attraction of mystical voluptuousness, the most devouring of all voluptuousness.
"Alas!" said Felton, "I can do but one thing, which is to pity you if you prove to me you are a victim! But Lord de Winter makes cruel accusations against you. You are a Christian; you are my sister in religion. I feel myself drawn toward you — I, who have never loved anyone but my benefactor — I who have met with nothing but traitors and impious men. But you, madame, so beautiful in reality, you, so pure in appearance, must have committed great iniquities for Lord de Winter to pursue you thus."
"They have eyes," repeated Milady, with an accent of indescribable grief, "but they see not; ears have they, but they hear not."
"But," cried the young officer, "speak, then, speak!"
"Confide my shame to you," cried Milady, with the blush of modesty upon her countenance, "for often the crime of one becomes the shame of another — confide my shame to you, a man, and I a woman? Oh," continued she, placing her hand modestly over her beautiful eyes, "never! never! — I could not!"
"To me, to a brother?" said Felton.
Milady looked at him for some time with an expression which the young man took for doubt, but which, however, was nothing but observation, or rather the wish to fascinate.
Felton, in his turn a suppliant, clasped his hands.
"Well, then," said Milady, "I confide in my brother; I will dare to — "
At this moment the steps of Lord de Winter were heard; but this time the terrible brother-in-law of Milady did not content himself, as on the preceding day, with passing before the door and going away again. He paused, exchanged two words with the sentinel; then the door opened, and he appeared.
During the exchange of these two words Felton drew back quickly, and when Lord de Winter entered, he was several paces from the prisoner.
The baron entered slowly, sending a scrutinizing glance from Milady to the young officer.
"You have been here a very long time, John," said he. "Has this woman been relating her crimes to you? In that case I can comprehend the length of the conversation."
Felton started; and Milady felt she was lost if she did not come to the assistance of the disconcerted Puritan.
"Ah, you fear your prisoner should escape!" said she. "Well, ask your worthy jailer what favor I this instant solicited of him."
"You demanded a favor?" said the baron, suspiciously.
"Yes, my Lord," replied the young man, confused.
"And what favor, pray?" asked Lord de Winter.
"A knife, which she would return to me through the grating of the door a minute after she had received it," replied Felton.
"There is someone, then, concealed here whose throat this amiable lady is desirous of cutting," said de Winter, in an ironical, contemptuous tone.
"There is myself," replied Milady.
"I have given you the choice between America and Tyburn," replied Lord de Winter. "Choose Tyburn, madame. Believe me, the cord is more certain than the knife."
Felton grew pale, and made a step forward, remembering that at the moment he entered Milady had a rope in her hand.
"You are right," said she, "I have often thought of it." Then she added in a low voice, "And I will think of it again."
Felton felt a shudder run to the marrow of his bones; probably Lord de Winter perceived this emotion.
"Mistrust yourself, John," said he. "I have placed reliance upon you, my friend. Beware! I have warned you! But be of good courage, my lad; in three days we shall be delivered from this creature, and where I shall send her she can harm nobody."
"You hear him!" cried Milady, with vehemence, so that the baron might believe she was addressing heaven, and that Felton might understand she was addressing him.
Felton lowered his head and reflected.
The baron took the young officer by the arm, and turned his head over his shoulder, so as not to lose sight of Milady till he was gone out.
"Well," said the prisoner, when the door was shut, "I am not so far advanced as I believed. De Winter has changed his usual stupidity into a strange prudence. It is the desire of vengeance, and how desire molds a man! As to Felton, he hesitates. Ah, he is not a man like that cursed d'Artagnan. A Puritan only adores virgins, and he adores them by clasping his hands. A Musketeer loves women, and he loves them by clasping his arms round them."
Milady waited, then, with much impatience, for she feared the day would pass away without her seeing Felton again. At last, in an hour after the scene we have just described, she heard someone speaking in a low voice at the door. Presently the door opened, and she perceived Felton.
The young man advanced rapidly into the chamber, leaving the door open behind him, and making a sign to Milady to be silent; his face was much agitated.
"What do you want with me?" said she.
"Listen," replied Felton, in a low voice. "I have just sent away the sentinel that I might remain here without anybody knowing it, in order to speak to you without being overheard. The baron has just related a frightful story to me."