"My Lord, Milady de Winter is an angel; you know that she is, and I demand her liberty of you."
"Bah! Are you mad, to talk to me thus?" said Buckingham.
"My Lord, excuse me! I speak as I can; I restrain myself. But, my Lord, think of what you're about to do, and beware of going too far!"
"What do you say? God pardon me!" cried Buckingham, "I really think he threatens me!"
"No, my Lord, I still plead. And I say to you: one drop of water suffices to make the full vase overflow; one slight fault may draw down punishment upon the head spared, despite many crimes."
"Mr. Felton," said Buckingham, "you will withdraw, and place yourself at once under arrest."
"You will hear me to the end, my Lord. You have seduced this young girl; you have outraged, defiled her. Repair your crimes toward her; let her go free, and I will exact nothing else from you."
"You will exact!" said Buckingham, looking at Felton with astonishment, and dwelling upon each syllable of the three words as he pronounced them.
"My Lord," continued Felton, becoming more excited as he spoke, "my Lord, beware! All England is tired of your iniquities; my Lord, you have abused the royal power, which you have almost usurped; my Lord, you are held in horror by God and men. God will punish you hereafter, but I will punish you here!"
"Ah, this is too much!" cried Buckingham, making a step toward the door.
Felton barred his passage.
"I ask it humbly of you, my Lord," said he; "sign the order for the liberation of Milady de Winter. Remember that she is a woman whom you have dishonored."
"Withdraw, sir," said Buckingham, "or I will call my attendant, and have you placed in irons."
"You shall not call," said Felton, throwing himself between the duke and the bell placed on a stand encrusted with silver. "Beware, my Lord, you are in the hands of God!"
"In the hands of the devil, you mean!" cried Buckingham, raising his voice so as to attract the notice of his people, without absolutely shouting.
"Sign, my Lord; sign the liberation of Milady de Winter," said Felton, holding out a paper to the duke.
"By force? You are joking! Holloa, Patrick!"
"Sign, my Lord!"
"Help!" shouted the duke; and at the same time he sprang toward his sword.
But Felton did not give him time to draw it. He held the knife with which Milady had stabbed herself, open in his bosom; at one bound he was upon the duke.
At that moment Patrick entered the room, crying, "A letter from France, my Lord."
"From France!" cried Buckingham, forgetting everything in thinking from whom that letter came.
Felton took advantage of this moment, and plunged the knife into his side up to the handle.
"Ah, traitor," cried Buckingham, "you have killed me!"
"Murder!" screamed Patrick.
Felton cast his eyes round for means of escape, and seeing the door free, he rushed into the next chamber, in which, as we have said, the deputies from La Rochelle were waiting, crossed it as quickly as possible, and rushed toward the staircase; but upon the first step he met Lord de Winter, who, seeing him pale, confused, livid, and stained with blood both on his hands and face, seized him by the throat, crying, "I knew it! I guessed it! But too late by a minute, unfortunate, unfortunate that I am!"
Felton made no resistance. Lord de Winter placed him in the hands of the guards, who led him, while awaiting further orders, to a little terrace commanding the sea; and then the baron hastened to the duke's chamber.
At the cry uttered by the duke and the scream of Patrick, the man whom Felton had met in the antechamber rushed into the chamber.
He found the duke reclining upon a sofa, with his hand pressed upon the wound.
"Laporte," said the duke, in a dying voice, "Laporte, do you come from her?"
"Yes, monseigneur," replied the faithful cloak bearer of Anne of Austria, "but too late, perhaps."
"Silence, Laporte, you may be overheard. Patrick, let no one enter. Oh, I cannot tell what she says to me! My God, I am dying!"
And the duke swooned.
Meanwhile, Lord de Winter, the deputies, the leaders of the expedition, the officers of Buckingham's household, had all made their way into the chamber. Cries of despair resounded on all sides. The news, which filled the palace with tears and groans, soon became known, and spread itself throughout the city.
The report of a cannon announced that something new and unexpected had taken place.
Lord de Winter tore his hair.
"Too late by a minute!" cried he, "too late by a minute! Oh, my God, my God! what a misfortune!"
He had been informed at seven o'clock in the morning that a rope ladder floated from one of the windows of the castle; he had hastened to Milady's chamber, had found it empty, the window open, and the bars filed, had remembered the verbal caution d'Artagnan had transmitted to him by his messenger, had trembled for the duke, and running to the stable without taking time to have a horse saddled, had jumped upon the first he found, had galloped off like the wind, had alighted below in the courtyard, had ascended the stairs precipitately, and on the top step, as we have said, had encountered Felton.
The duke, however, was not dead. He recovered a little, reopened his eyes, and hope revived in all hearts.
"Gentlemen," said he, "leave me alone with Patrick and Laporte — ah, is that you, de Winter? You sent me a strange madman this morning! See the state in which he has put me."
"Oh, my Lord!" cried the baron, "I shall never console myself."
"And you would be quite wrong, my dear de Winter," said Buckingham, holding out his hand to him. "I do not know the man who deserves being regretted during the whole life of another man; but leave us, I pray you."
The baron went out sobbing.
There only remained in the closet of the wounded duke Laporte and Patrick. A physician was sought for, but none was yet found.
"You will live, my Lord, you will live!" repeated the faithful servant of Anne of Austria, on his knees before the duke's sofa.
"What has she written to me?" said Buckingham, feebly, streaming with blood, and suppressing his agony to speak of her he loved, "what has she written to me? Read me her letter."
"Oh, my Lord!" said Laporte.
"Obey, Laporte, do you not see I have no time to lose?"
Laporte broke the seal, and placed the paper before the eyes of the duke; but Buckingham in vain tried to make out the writing.
"Read!" said he, "read! I cannot see. Read, then! For soon, perhaps, I shall not hear, and I shall die without knowing what she has written to me."
Laporte made no further objection, and read:
"My Lord, By that which, since I have known you, have suffered by you and for you, I conjure you, if you have any care for my repose, to countermand those great armaments which you are preparing against France, to put an end to a war of which it is publicly said religion is the ostensible cause, and of which, it is generally whispered, your love for me is the concealed cause. This war may not only bring great catastrophes upon England and France, but misfortune upon you, my Lord, for which I should never console myself.
"Be careful of your life, which is menaced, and which will be dear to me from the moment I am not obliged to see an enemy in you.