Her sufferings were measured by years, Marie-Anne’s by minutes; and she said to herself, again and again, that the torture of poison could not be as intolerable as her agony.
How was it that Martial had failed to discover or to suspect this state of affairs?
A moment’s reflection will explain this fact which is so extraordinary in appearance, so natural in reality.
The head of a family, whether he dwells in an attic or in a palace, is always the last to know what is going on in his home. What everybody else knows he does not even suspect. The master often sleeps while his house is on fire. Some terrible catastrophe—an explosion—is necessary to arouse him from his fancied security.
The life that Martial led was likely to prevent him from arriving at the truth. He was a stranger to his wife. His manner toward her was perfect, full of deference and chivalrous courtesy; but they had nothing in common except a name and certain interests.
Each lived their own life. They met only at dinner, or at the entertainments which they gave and which were considered the most brilliant in Paris society.
The duchess had her own apartments, her servants, her carriages, her horses, her own table.
At twenty-five, Martial, the last descendant of the great house of Sairmeuse—a man upon whom destiny had apparently lavished every blessing—the possessor of youth, unbounded wealth, and a brilliant intellect, succumbed beneath the burden of an incurable despondency and ennui.
The death of Marie-Anne had destroyed all his hopes of happiness; and realizing the emptiness of his life, he did his best to fill the void with bustle and excitement. He threw himself headlong into politics, striving to find in power and in satisfied ambition some relief from his despondency.
It is only just to say that Mme. Blanche had remained superior to circumstances; and that she had played the role of a happy, contented woman with consummate skill.
Her frightful sufferings and anxiety never marred the haughty serenity of her face. She soon won a place as one of the queens of Parisian society; and plunged into dissipation with a sort of frenzy. Was she endeavoring to divert her mind? Did she hope to overpower thought by excessive fatigue?
To Aunt Medea alone did Blanche reveal her secret heart.
“I am like a culprit who has been bound to the scaffold, and then abandoned by the executioner, who says, as he departs: ’Live until the axe falls of its own accord.’”
And the axe might fall at any moment. A word, a trifle, an unlucky chance—she dared not say “a decree of Providence,” and Martial would know all.
Such, in all its unspeakable horror, was the position of the beautiful and envied Duchesse de Sairmeuse. “She must be perfectly happy,” said the world; but she felt herself sliding down the precipice to the awful depths below.