Marguerite de Therelles was dying. Although she was-only fifty-six years old she looked at least seventy-five. She gasped for breath, her face whiter than the sheets, and had spasms of violent shivering, with her face convulsed and her eyes haggard as though she saw a frightful vision.
Her elder sister, Suzanne, six years older than herself, was sobbing on her knees beside the bed. A small table close to the dying woman's couch bore, on a white cloth, two lighted candles, for the priest was expected at any moment to administer extreme unction and the last communion.
The apartment wore that melancholy aspect common to death chambers; a look of despairing farewell. Medicine bottles littered the furniture; linen lay in the corners into which it had been kicked or swept. The very chairs looked, in their disarray, as if they were terrified and had run in all directions. Death--terrible Death--was in the room, hidden, awaiting his prey.
This history of the two sisters was an affecting one. It was spoken of far and wide; it had drawn tears from many eyes.
Suzanne, the elder, had once been passionately loved by a young man, whose affection she returned. They were engaged to be married, and the wedding day was at hand, when Henry de Sampierre suddenly died.
The young girl's despair was terrible, and she took an oath never to marry. She faithfully kept her vow and adopted widow's weeds for the remainder of her life.
But one morning her sister, her little sister Marguerite, then only twelve years old, threw herself into Suzanne's arms, sobbing: "Sister, I don't want you to be unhappy. I don't want you to mourn all your life. I'll never leave you--never, never, never! I shall never marry, either. I'll stay with you always--always!"
Suzanne kissed her, touched by the child's devotion, though not putting any faith in her promise.
But the little one kept her word, and, despite her parents' remonstrances, despite her elder sister's prayers, never married. She was remarkably pretty and refused many offers. She never left her sister.
They spent their whole life together, without a single day's separation. They went everywhere together and were inseparable. But Marguerite was pensive, melancholy, sadder than her sister, as if her sublime sacrifice had undermined her spirits. She grew older more quickly; her hair was white at thirty; and she was often ill, apparently stricken with some unknown, wasting malady.
And now she would be the first to die.
She had not spoken for twenty-four hours, except to whisper at daybreak:
"Send at once for the priest."
And she had since remained lying on her back, convulsed with agony, her lips moving as if unable to utter the dreadful words that rose in her heart, her face expressive of a terror distressing to witness.
Suzanne, distracted with grief, her brow pressed against the bed, wept bitterly, repeating over and over again the words:
"Margot, my poor Margot, my little one!"
She had always called her "my little one," while Marguerite's name for the elder was invariably "sister."
A footstep sounded on the stairs. The door opened. An acolyte appeared, followed by the aged priest in his surplice. As soon as she saw him the dying woman sat up suddenly in bed, opened her lips, stammered a few words and began to scratch the bed-clothes, as if she would have made hole in them.
Father Simon approached, took her hand, kissed her on the forehead and said in a gentle voice:
"May God pardon your sins, my daughter. Be of good courage. Now is the moment to confess them--speak!"
Then Marguerite, shuddering from head to foot, so that the very bed shook with her nervous movements, gasped:
"Sit down, sister, and listen."
The priest stooped toward the prostrate Suzanne, raised her to her feet, placed her in a chair, and, taking a hand of each of the sisters, pronounced:
"Lord God! Send them strength! Shed Thy mercy upon them."
And Marguerite began to speak. The words issued from her lips one by one--hoarse, jerky, tremulous.
"Pardon, pardon, sister! pardon me! Oh, if only you knew how I have dreaded this moment all my life!"
Suzanne faltered through her tears:
"But what have I to pardon, little one? You have given me everything, sacrificed all to me. You are an angel."
But Marguerite interrupted her:
"Be silent, be silent! Let me speak! Don't stop me! It is terrible. Let me tell all, to the very end, without interruption. Listen. You remember--you remember--Henry--"
Suzanne trembled and looked at her sister. The younger one went on:
"In order to understand you must hear everything. I was twelve years old--only twelve--you remember, don't you? And I was spoilt; I did just as I pleased. You remember how everybody spoilt me? Listen. The first time he came he had on his riding boots; he dismounted, saying that he had a message for father. You remember, don't you? Don't speak. Listen. When I saw him I was struck with admiration. I thought him so handsome, and I stayed in a corner of the drawing-room all the time he was talking. Children are strange--and terrible. Yes, indeed, I dreamt of him.
"He came again--many times. I looked at him with all my eyes, all my heart. I was large for my age and much more precocious than--any one suspected. He came often. I thought only of him. I often whispered to myself:
"'Henry-Henry de Sampierre!'
"Then I was told that he was going to marry you. That was a blow! Oh, sister, a terrible blow--terrible! I wept all through three sleepless nights.
He came every afternoon after lunch. You remember, don't you? Don't answer. Listen. You used to make cakes that he was very fond of--with flour, butter and milk. Oh, I know how to make them. I could make them still, if necessary. He would swallow them at one mouthful and wash them down with a glass of wine, saying: 'Delicious!' Do you remember the way he said it?
"I was jealous--jealous! Your wedding day was drawing near. It was only a fortnight distant. I was distracted. I said to myself: 'He shall not marry Suzanne--no, he shall not! He shall marry me when I am old enough! I shall never love any one half so much.' But one evening, ten days before the wedding, you went for a stroll with him in the moonlight before the house--and yonder--under the pine tree, the big pine tree--he kissed you--kissed you--and held you in his arms so long--so long! You remember, don't you? It was probably the first time. You were so pale when you carne back to the drawing-room!
"I saw you. I was there in the shrubbery. I was mad with rage! I would have killed you both if I could!
"I said to myself: 'He shall never marry Suzanne--never! He shall marry no one! I could not bear it.' And all at once I began to hate him intensely.
"Then do you know what I did? Listen. I had seen the gardener prepare pellets for killing stray dogs. He would crush a bottle into small pieces with a stone and put the ground glass into a ball of meat.
"I stole a small medicine bottle from mother's room. I ground it fine with a hammer and hid the glass in my pocket. It was a glistening powder. The next day, when you had made your little cakes; I opened them with a knife and inserted the glass. He ate three. I ate one myself. I threw the six others into the pond. The two swans died three days later. You remember? Oh, don't speak! Listen, listen. I, I alone did not die. But I have always been ill. Listen--he died--you know--listen--that was not the worst. It was afterward, later--always--the most terrible-- listen.
"My life, all my life--such torture! I said to myself: 'I will never leave my sister. And on my deathbed I will tell her all.' And now I have told. And I have always thought of this moment--the moment when all would be told. Now it has come. It is terrible--oh!--sister--
"I have always thought, morning and evening, day and night: 'I shall have to tell her some day!' I waited. The horror of it! It is done. Say nothing. Now I am afraid--I am afraid! Oh! Supposing I should see him again, by and by, when I am dead! See him again! Only to think of it! I dare not--yet I must. I am going to die. I want you to forgive me. I insist on it. I cannot meet him without your forgiveness. Oh, tell her to forgive me, Father! Tell her. I implore you! I cannot die without it."
She was silent and lay back, gasping for breath, still plucking at the sheets with her fingers.
Suzanne had hidden her face in her hands and did not move. She was thinking of him whom she had loved so long. What a life of happiness they might have had together! She saw him again in the dim and distant past-that past forever lost. Beloved dead! how the thought of them rends the heart! Oh! that kiss, his only kiss! She had retained the memory of it in her soul. And, after that, nothing, nothing more throughout her whole existence!
The priest rose suddenly and in a firm, compelling voice said:
"Mademoiselle Suzanne, your sister is dying!"
Then Suzanne, raising her tear-stained face, put her arms round her sister, and kissing her fervently, exclaimed:
"I forgive you, I forgive you, little one!"