"Oh, you know her, then, that lovely and noble queen, that you speak of her thus!" cried the novice, with enthusiasm.
"That is to say," replied Milady, driven into her entrenchment, "that I have not the honor of knowing her personally; but I know a great number of her most intimate friends. I am acquainted with Monsieur de Putange; I met Monsieur Dujart in England; I know Monsieur de Treville."
"Monsieur de Treville!" exclaimed the novice, "do you know Monsieur de Treville?"
"Yes, perfectly well — intimately even."
"The captain of the king's Musketeers?"
"The captain of the king's Musketeers."
"Why, then, only see!" cried the novice; "we shall soon be well acquainted, almost friends. If you know Monsieur de Treville, you must have visited him?"
"Often!" said Milady, who, having entered this track, and perceiving that falsehood succeeded, was determined to follow it to the end.
"With him, then, you must have seen some of his Musketeers?"
"All those he is in the habit of receiving!" replied Milady, for whom this conversation began to have a real interest.
"Name a few of those whom you know, and you will see if they are my friends."
"Well!" said Milady, embarrassed, "I know Monsieur de Louvigny, Monsieur de Courtivron, Monsieur de Ferussac."
The novice let her speak, then seeing that she paused, she said, "Don't you know a gentleman named Athos?"
Milady became as pale as the sheets in which she was lying, and mistress as she was of herself, could not help uttering a cry, seizing the hand of the novice, and devouring her with looks.
"What is the matter? Good God!" asked the poor woman, "have I said anything that has wounded you?"
"No; but the name struck me, because I also have known that gentleman, and it appeared strange to me to meet with a person who appears to know him well."
"Oh, yes, very well; not only him, but some of his friends, Messieurs Porthos and Aramis!"
"Indeed! you know them likewise? I know them," cried Milady, who began to feel a chill penetrate her heart.
"Well, if you know them, you know that they are good and free companions. Why do you not apply to them, if you stand in need of help?"
"That is to say," stammered Milady, "I am not really very intimate with any of them. I know them from having heard one of their friends, Monsieur d'Artagnan, say a great deal about them."
"You know Monsieur d'Artagnan!" cried the novice, in her turn seizing the hands of Milady and devouring her with her eyes.
Then remarking the strange expression of Milady's countenance, she said, "Pardon me, madame; you know him by what title?"
"Why," replied Milady, embarrassed, "why, by the title of friend."
"You deceive me, madame," said the novice; "you have been his mistress!"
"It is you who have been his mistress, madame!" cried Milady, in her turn.
"I?" said the novice.
"Yes, you! I know you now. You are Madame Bonacieux!"
The young woman drew back, filled with surprise and terror.
"Oh, do not deny it! Answer!" continued Milady.
"Well, yes, madame," said the novice, "Are we rivals?"
The countenance of Milady was illumined by so savage a joy that under any other circumstances Mme. Bonacieux would have fled in terror; but she was absorbed by jealousy.
"Speak, madame!" resumed Mme. Bonacieux, with an energy of which she might not have been believed capable. "Have you been, or are you, his mistress?"
"Oh, no!" cried Milady, with an accent that admitted no doubt of her truth. "Never, never!"
"I believe you," said Mme. Bonacieux; "but why, then, did you cry out so?"
"Do you not understand?" said Milady, who had already overcome her agitation and recovered all her presence of mind.
"How can I understand? I know nothing."
"Can you not understand that Monsieur d'Artagnan, being my friend, might take me into his confidence?"
"Do you not perceive that I know all — your abduction from the little house at St. Germain, his despair, that of his friends, and their useless inquiries up to this moment? How could I help being astonished when, without having the least expectation of such a thing, I meet you face to face — you, of whom we have so often spoken together, you whom he loves with all his soul, you whom he had taught me to love before I had seen you! Ah, dear Constance, I have found you, then; I see you at last!"
And Milady stretched out her arms to Mme. Bonacieux, who, convinced by what she had just said, saw nothing in this woman whom an instant before she had believed her rival but a sincere and devoted friend.
"Oh, pardon me, pardon me!" cried she, sinking upon the shoulders of Milady. "Pardon me, I love him so much!"
These two women held each other for an instant in a close embrace. Certainly, if Milady's strength had been equal to her hatred, Mme. Bonacieux would never have left that embrace alive. But not being able to stifle her, she smiled upon her.
"Oh, you beautiful, good little creature!" said Milady. "How delighted I am to have found you! Let me look at you!" and while saying these words, she absolutely devoured her by her looks. "Oh, yes it is you indeed! From what he has told me, I know you now. I recognize you perfectly."
The poor young woman could not possibly suspect what frightful cruelty was behind the rampart of that pure brow, behind those brilliant eyes in which she read nothing but interest and compassion.
"Then you know what I have suffered," said Mme. Bonacieux, "since he has told you what he has suffered; but to suffer for him is happiness."
Milady replied mechanically, "Yes, that is happiness." She was thinking of something else.
"And then," continued Mme. Bonacieux, "my punishment is drawing to a close. Tomorrow, this evening, perhaps, I shall see him again; and then the past will no longer exist."
"This evening?" asked Milady, roused from her reverie by these words. "What do you mean? Do you expect news from him?"
"I expect himself."
"Himself? D'Artagnan here?"
"But that's impossible! He is at the siege of La Rochelle with the cardinal. He will not return till after the taking of the city."
"Ah, you fancy so! But is there anything impossible for my d'Artagnan, the noble and loyal gentleman?"
"Oh, I cannot believe you!"
"Well, read, then!" said the unhappy young woman, in the excess of her pride and joy, presenting a letter to Milady.
"The writing of Madame de Chevreuse!" said Milady to herself. "Ah, I always thought there was some secret understanding in that quarter!" And she greedily read the following few lines:
My Dear Child, Hold yourself ready. OUR FRIEND will see you soon, and he will only see you to release you from that imprisonment in which your safety required you should be concealed. Prepare, then, for your departure, and never despair of us.
Our charming Gascon has just proved himself as brave and faithful as ever. Tell him that certain parties are grateful for the warning he has given.