Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII | HTML | PDF ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Monsieur Lecoq, v. 2
Author: Gaboriau, Emile
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Monsieur Lecoq, v. 2" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



produced from images available at The Internet Archive)



[Illustration: “‘I shall never be able to accept another in his
place.’”]



MONSIEUR LECOQ

VOL. II

TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH OF

EMILE GABORIAU

PEARSON’S LIBRARY EDITION

“Monsieur Lecoq” Vol. 1 “Monsieur Lecoq” Vol. 2

“The Gilded Clique” “The Lerouge Case”

“In Peril of His Life”

“File 113”

Illustrated

[Illustration: colophon]

THE PEARSON PUBLISHING CO.

NEW YORK



MONSIEUR LECOQ.



PART II.

THE HONOUR OF THE NAME.



IX.


The cottage where M. Lacheneur had taken refuge stood on a hill
overlooking the river. It was a small and humble dwelling, though
scarcely so miserable in its aspect and appointments as most of peasant
abodes round about. It comprised a single storey divided into three
rooms and roofed with thatch. In front was a tiny garden, where a vine
straggling over the walls of the house, a few fruit-trees, and some
withered vegetables just managed to exist. Small as was this garden
patch, and limited as was its production, still Lacheneur’s aunt, to
whom the dwelling had formerly belonged, had only succeeded in
conquering the natural sterility of the soil after long years of patient
perseverance. Day after day, during a lengthy period, she had regularly
spread in front of the cottage three or four basketfulls of arable soil
brought from a couple of miles distant; and though she had been dead for
more than a twelvemonth, one could still detect a narrow pathway across
the waste, worn by her patient feet in the performance of this daily
task.

This was the path which M. d’Escorval, faithful to his resolution, took
the following day, in the hope of obtaining from Marie-Anne’s father
some explanation of his singular conduct. The baron was so engrossed in
his own thoughts that he failed to realise the excessive heat as he
climbed the rough hillside in the full glare of the noonday sun. When
he reached the summit, however, he paused to take breath; and while
wiping the perspiration from his brow, turned to look back on the valley
whence he had come. It was the first time he had visited the spot, and
he was surprised at the extent of the landscape offered to his view.
From this point, the most elevated in the surrounding country, one can
survey the course of the Oiselle for many miles; and in the distance a
glimpse may be obtained of the ancient citadel of Montaignac, perched on
an almost inaccessible rock. A man in the baron’s mood could, however,
take but little interest in the picturesqueness of the scenery, though,
when he turned his back to the valley and prepared to resume his walk,
he was certainly struck by the aspect of Lacheneur’s new abode. His
imagination pictured the sufferings of this unfortunate man, who, only
two days before, had relinquished the splendours of the Chateau du
Sairmeuse to resume the peasant life of his early youth.

“Come in!” cried a female voice when M. d’Escorval rapped at the door of
the cottage. He lifted the latch, and entered a small room with
white-washed walls, having no other ceiling than the thatched roof, and
no other flooring than the bare ground. A table with a wooden bench on
either side stood in the middle of this humble chamber, in one corner of
which was an old bedstead. On a stool near the narrow casement sat
Marie-Anne, working at a piece of embroidery, and clad in a
peasant-girl’s usual garb.

At the sight of M. d’Escorval, she rose to her feet, and for a moment
they remained standing in front of one another, she apparently calm, he
visibly agitated. Lacheneur’s daughter was paler than usual, she seemed
even thinner, but there was a strange, touching charm about her person;
the consciousness of duty nobly fulfilled, of resignation calling for
accomplishment, lending, as it were, a new radiance to her beauty.

Remembering his son, M. d’Escorval was surprised at Marie-Anne’s
tranquillity. “You don’t inquire after Maurice,” he said, with a touch
of reproachfulness in his voice.

“I had news of him this morning, as I have had every day,” quietly
replied Marie-Anne. “I know that he is getting better, and that he was
able to take some food yesterday.”

“You have not forgotten him, then?”

She trembled; a faint blush suffused her cheeks and forehead, but it was
in a calm voice that she replied: “Maurice knows that it would be
impossible for me to forget him, even if I wished to do so.”

“And yet you told him that you approved your father’s decision!”

“Yes, I told him so; and I shall have the courage to repeat it.”

“But you have made Maurice most wretched and unhappy, my dear child; he
almost died of grief.”

She raised her head proudly, looked M. d’Escorval fully in the face and
answered, “Do you think then that I haven’t suffered myself?”

M. d’Escorval was abashed for a moment; but speedily recovering himself,
he took hold of Marie-Anne’s hand and, pressing it affectionately,
exclaimed: “So Maurice loves you, and you love him; you are both
suffering: he has nearly died of grief and still you reject him!”

“It must be so, sir.”

“You say this, my dear child--you say this, and you undoubtedly believe
it. But I, who have sought to discover the necessity of this immense
sacrifice, have quite failed to find any plausible reason. Explain to me
why it must be so, Marie-Anne. Have you no confidence in me? Am I not an
old friend? It may be that your father in his despair has adopted
extreme resolutions. Let me know them and we will conquer them together.
Lacheneur knows how deeply I am attached to him. I will speak to him: he
will listen to _me_.”

“I can tell you nothing, sir.”

“What! you remain inflexible when a father entreats you to assist him,
when he says to you: ‘Marie-Anne, you hold my son’s happiness, life, and
reason in your hands. Can you be so cruel----’”

“Ah! it is you who are cruel, sir,” answered Marie-Anne with tears
glittering in her eyes; “it is you who are without pity. Cannot you see
what I suffer? No, I have nothing to tell you; there is nothing you can
say to my father. Why try to unnerve me when I require all my courage to
struggle against my despair? Maurice must forget me; he must never see
me again. This is fate; and he must not fight against it. It would be
folly. Beseech him to leave the country, and if he refuses, you, who are
his father, must command him to do so. And you too, in heaven’s name fly
from us. We shall bring misfortune upon you. Never return here; our
house is accursed. The fate that overshadows us may ruin you as well.”

She spoke almost wildly, and her voice was so loud that it reached an
adjoining room, the door of which suddenly opened, M. Lacheneur
appearing upon the threshold. At the sight of M. d’Escorval the whilom
lord of Sairmeuse could not restrain an oath; but there was more sorrow
and anxiety than anger in his manner, as he said: “What, you here,
baron?”

The consternation into which Marie-Anne’s words had thrown M. d’Escorval
was so intense that he could only just manage to stammer a reply. “You
have abandoned us entirely; I was anxious about you. Have you forgotten
your old friendship? I come to you----”

“Why did you not inform me of the honour that the baron had done me,
Marie-Anne?” said Lacheneur sternly.

She tried to speak, but could not; and it was the baron who replied;
“Why, I have but just arrived, my dear friend.”

M. Lacheneur looked suspiciously, first at his daughter and then at the
baron. His brow was overcast as he was evidently wondering what M.
d’Escorval and Marie-Anne had said to each other whilst they were alone.
Still, however great his disguise may have been, he seemed to master it;
and it was with his old-time affability of manner that he invited M.
d’Escorval to follow him into the adjoining room. “It is my reception
room and study combined,” he said smilingly.

This room, although much larger than the first, was, however, quite as
scantily furnished, but piled up on the floor and table were a number of
books and packages, which two men were busy sorting and arranging. One
of these men was Chanlouineau, whom M. d’Escorval at once recognized,
though he did not remember having ever seen the other one, a young
fellow of twenty or thereabouts. With the latter’s identity he was,
however, soon made acquainted.

“This is my son, Jean,” said Lacheneur. “He has changed since you last
saw him ten years ago.”

It was true. Fully ten years had elapsed since the baron last saw
Lacheneur’s son. How time flies! He had known Jean as a boy and he now
found him a man. Young Lacheneur was just in his twenty-first year, but
with his haggard features and precocious beard he looked somewhat older.
He was tall and well built, and his face indicated more than average
intelligence. Still he did not convey a favorable impression. His
restless eyes betokened a prying curiosity of mind, and his smile
betrayed an unusual degree of shrewdness, amounting almost to cunning.
He made a deep bow when his father introduced him; but he was evidently
out of temper.

“Having no longer the means to keep Jean in Paris,” resumed M.
Lacheneur, “I have made him return as you see. My ruin will, perhaps,
prove a blessing to him. The air of great cities is not good for a
peasant’s son. Fools that we are, we send our children to Paris that
they may learn to rise above their fathers. But they do nothing of the
kind. They think only of degrading themselves.”

“Father,” interrupted the young man; “father, wait at least until we are
alone!”

“M. d’Escorval is not a stranger,” retorted M. Lacheneur, and then
turning again to the baron, he continued; “I must have wearied you by
telling you again and again; ‘I am very pleased with my son. He has a
commendable ambition; he is working faithfully and is bound to succeed.’
Ah! I was a poor foolish father! The friend whom I commissioned to call
on Jean and tell him to return here has enlightened me as to the truth.
The model young man you see here only left the gaming-house to run to
some public ball. He was in love with a wretched little ballet girl at
some low theatre; and to please this creature, he also went on the stage
with his face painted red and white.”

“It’s not a crime to appear on the stage,” interrupted Jean with a
flushed face.

“No; but it is a crime to deceive one’s father and to affect virtues one
doesn’t possess! Have I ever refused you money? No; and yet you have got
into debt on all sides. You owe at least twenty thousand francs!”

Jean hung his head; he was evidently angry, but he feared his father.

“Twenty thousand francs!” repeated M. Lacheneur. “I had them a fortnight
ago; now I haven’t a halfpenny. I can only hope to obtain this sum
through the generosity of the Duke or the Marquis de Sairmeuse.”

The baron uttered an exclamation of surprise. He only knew of the scene
at the parsonage and believed that there would be no further connection
between Lacheneur and the duke’s family. Lacheneur perceived M.
d’Escorval’s amazement, and it was with every token of sincerity and
good faith that he resumed: “What I say astonishes you. Ah! I understand
why. My anger at first led me to indulge in all sorts of absurd threats.
But I am calm now, and realize my injustice. What could I expect the
duke to do? To make me a present of Sairmeuse? He was a trifle brusque,
I confess, but that is his way; at heart he is the best of men.”

“Have you seen him again?”

“No; but I have seen his son. I have even been with him to the chateau
to select the articles which I desire to keep. Oh! he refused me
nothing. Everything was placed at my disposal--everything. I selected
what I wanted, furniture, clothes, linen. Everything is to be brought
here; and I shall be quite a great man.”

“Why not seek another house? This----”

“This pleases me. Its situation suits me perfectly.”

In fact, after all, thought M. d’Escorval, why should not the
Sairmeuse’s have regretted their odious conduct? And if they had done so
might not Lacheneur, in spite of indignation, agree to accept honourable
conditions?

“To say that the marquis has been kind is saying too little,” continued
Lacheneur. “He has shown us the most delicate attentions. For example,
having noticed how much Marie-Anne regrets the loss of her flowers, he
has promised to send her plants to stock our small garden, and they will
be renewed every month.”

Like all passionate men, M. Lacheneur overdid his part. This last remark
was too much; it awakened a terrible suspicion in M. d’Escorval’s mind.
“Good heavens!” he thought, “does this wretched man meditate some
crime?” He glanced at Chanlouineau, and his anxiety increased, for on
hearing Lacheneur speak of the marquis and Marie-Anne, the stalwart
young farmer had turned livid.

“It is decided,” resumed Lacheneur with an air of unbounded
satisfaction, “that they will give me the ten thousand francs bequeathed
to me by Mademoiselle Armande. Moreover, I am to fix upon such a sum as
I consider a just recompense for my services. And that is not all: they
have offered me the position of manager at Sairmeuse; and I was to be
allowed to occupy the game-keeper’s cottage, where I lived so long. But
on reflection I refused this offer. After having enjoyed a fortune which
did not belong to me during so many years, I am now anxious to amass a
fortune of my own.”

“Would it be indiscreet in me to inquire what you intend to do?”

“Not the least in the world. I am going to turn pedlar.”

M. d’Escorval could not believe his ears. “Pedlar?” he repeated.

“Yes, M. le Baron. Look, there is my pack in that corner.”

“But that’s absurd,” exclaimed M. d’Escorval. “People can scarcely earn
their daily bread in this way!”

“You are wrong, sir. I have considered the subject carefully; the
profits are thirty per cent. And besides, there will be three of us to
sell the goods, for I shall confide one pack to my son, and another to
Chanlouineau.”

“What! Chanlouineau?”

“He has become my partner in the enterprise.”

“And his farm--who will take care of that?”

“He will employ day labourers.” And then, as if wishing to make M.
d’Escorval understand that his visit had lasted quite long enough,
Lacheneur began arranging such of the little packages as were intended
for his own pack.

But the baron was not to be got rid of so easily, especially now that
his suspicions had almost ripened into certainty. “I must speak with you
alone,” he said in a curt tone.

M. Lacheneur turned round. “I am very busy,” he replied with evident
reluctance of manner.

“I only ask for five minutes. But if you haven’t the time to spare
to-day, I can return to-morrow--the day after to-morrow--or any day when
I can see you in private.”

Lacheneur saw plainly that it would be impossible to escape this
interview, so with a gesture of a man who resigns himself to a
necessity, he bade his son and Chanlouineau withdraw.

They left the room, and as soon as the door had closed behind them,
Lacheneur exclaimed: “I know very well, M. le Baron, the arguments you
intend to advance; and the reason of your coming. You come to ask me
again for Marie-Anne. I know that my refusal has nearly killed Maurice.
Believe me, I have suffered cruelly at the thought; but my refusal is
none the less irrevocable. There is no power in the world capable of
changing my resolution. Don’t ask my motives; I cannot reveal them; but
rest assured that they are sufficiently weighty.”

“Are we not your friends?” asked M. d’Escorval.

“You--!” exclaimed Lacheneur with affectionate cordiality--”ah! You know
it well!--you are the best, the only friends I have here below. I should
be the greatest wretch living if I did not retain the recollection of
your kindness until my eyes close in death. Yes, you are my friends,
yes, I am devoted to you--and it is for that very reason, that I answer
your proposals with no, no, never!”

There was no longer any room for doubt. M. d’Escorval seized Lacheneur’s
hands, and almost crushing them in his grasp, “Unfortunate man!” he
exclaimed, “What do you intend to do? Of what terrible vengeance are you
dreaming!”

“I swear to you----”

“Oh! do not swear. You cannot deceive a man of my age and of my
experience. I divine your intentions--you hate the Sairmeuse family more
mortally than ever.”

“I----”

“Yes, you; and if you pretend to forget the way they treated you, it is
only that they may forget it. These people have offended you too cruelly
not to fear you; you understand this, and you are doing all in your
power to reassure them. You accept their advances--you kneel before
them--why? Because they will be more completely in your power when you
have lulled their suspicions to rest; and then you can strike them more
surely--”

He paused; the door of the front room opened, and Marie-Anne appeared
upon the threshold. “Father,” said she, “Here is the Marquis de
Sairmeuse.”

The mention of this name at such a juncture was so ominously significant
that M. d’Escorval could not restrain a gesture of surprise and fear.
“He dares to come here!” he thought. “What, is he not afraid the very
walls will fall and crush him?”

M. Lacheneur cast a withering glance at his daughter. He suspected her
of a ruse which might force him to reveal his secret; and for a second
his features were distorted by a fit of passionate rage. By an effort,
however, he succeeded in regaining his composure. He sprang to the door,
pushed Marie-Anne aside, and leaning out exclaimed: “Deign to excuse me,
M. le Marquis, if I take the liberty of asking you to wait a moment; I
am just finishing some business, and I will be with you in a few
minutes.”

Neither agitation nor anger could be detected in his voice; but rather,
a respectful deference and a feeling of profound gratitude. Having
spoken in this fashion he closed the door again and turned to M.
d’Escorval. The baron, still standing with folded arms, had witnessed
this scene with the air of a man who distrusts the evidence of his own
senses; and yet he understood the meaning of the incident only too well.
“So this young man comes here?” he said to Lacheneur.

“Almost every day--not at this hour usually, but a trifle later.”

“And you receive him? You welcome him?”

“Certainly. How can I be insensible to the honour he confers upon me?
Moreover, we have subjects of mutual interest to discuss. We are now
occupied in legalising the restitution of Sairmeuse. I can also give him
much useful information, and many hints regarding the management of the
property.”

“And do you expect to make me, your old friend, believe that a man of
your superior intelligence is deceived by the excuses the marquis makes
for these frequent visits? Look me in the eye, and then tell me, if you
dare, that you believe these visits are addressed to you!”

Lacheneur’s glance did not waver. “To whom else could they be
addressed?” he inquired.

This obstinate serenity disappointed the baron’s expectations. He could
not have received a heavier blow. “Take care Lacheneur,” he said
sternly. “Think of the situation in which you place your daughter,
between Chanlouineau, who wishes to make her his wife, and M. de
Sairmeuse, who hopes to make her--”

“Who hopes to make her his mistress--is that what you mean? Oh, say the
word. But what does that matter? I am sure of Marie-Anne.”

M. d’Escorval shuddered. “In other words,” said he, in bitter
indignation, “you make your daughter’s honour and reputation your stake
in the game you are playing.”

This was too much. Lacheneur could restrain his furious passion no
longer. “Well, yes!” he exclaimed, with a frightful oath; “yes, you have
spoken the truth. Marie-Anne must be, and will be the instrument of my
plans. A man in my situation is free from the considerations by which
others are guided. Fortune, friends, life, honour--I have been forced to
sacrifice everything. Perish my daughter’s virtue--perish my daughter
herself--what do they signify if I can but succeed?”

Never had M. d’Escorval seen Lacheneur so excited. His eyes flashed, and
as he spoke, shook his clenched fist wildly in the air, as though he
were threatening some miserable enemy. “So you admit it,” exclaimed M.
d’Escorval; “you admit that you propose revenging yourself on the
Sairmeuse family, and that Chanlouineau is to be your accomplice?”

“I admit nothing,” Lacheneur replied. “Let me reassure you.” Then
raising his hand as if to take an oath, he added in a solemn voice:
“Before God, who hears my word, by all that I hold sacred in this world,
by the memory of the wife I loved and whom I mourn to-day, I swear to
you, that I am plotting nothing against the Sairmeuse family; that I
have no thought of touching a hair of their heads. I use them only
because they are absolutely indispensable to me. They will aid me
without injuring themselves.”

For a moment the baron remained silent. He was evidently trying to
reconcile Lacheneur’s conflicting utterances. “How can one believe this
assurance after your previous avowal?” he evidently enquired.

“Oh, you may refuse to believe me if you choose,” rejoined Lacheneur,
who had now regained all his self-possession. “But whether you believe
me or not I must decline to speak any further on the subject. I have
said too much already. I know that your visit and your questions have
been solely prompted by your friendship, and I cannot help feeling both
proud and grateful. Still I can tell you no more. The events of the last
few days demand that we should separate. Our paths in life lie far
apart, and I can only say to you what I said yesterday to the
Abbe-Midon. If you are my friend never come here again under any pretext
whatever. Even if you hear I am dying, do not come, and should you meet
me, turn aside, shun me as you would some deadly pestilence.”

Lacheneur paused, as if expecting some further observation from the
baron, but the latter remained silent, reflecting that the words he had
just heard were substantially a repetition of what Marie-Anne had
previously told him.

“There is still a wiser course you might pursue,” resumed the ex-lord of
Sairmeuse, after a brief interval. “Here in the district there is but
little chance of your son’s sorrow soon subsiding. Turn which way he
will--alas, I know myself, that even the very trees and flowers will
remind him of a happier time. So leave this neighborhood, take him with
you, and go far away.”

“Ah! how can I do that when Fouche has virtually imprisoned me here!”

“All the more reason why you should listen to my advice. You were one of
the emperor’s friends, hence you are regarded with suspicion. You are
surrounded by spies, and your enemies are watching for an opportunity to
ruin you. They would seize on the slightest pretext to throw you into
prison--a letter, a word, an act capable of misconstruction. The
frontier is not far off; so I repeat, go and wait in a foreign land for
happier times.”

“That I will never do,” said M. d’Escorval proudly. His words and accent
showing plainly enough how futile further discussion would be.

“Ah! you are like the Abbe Midon,” sadly rejoined Lacheneur; “you won’t
believe me. Who knows how much your coming here this morning may cost
you? It is said that no one can escape his destiny. But if some day the
executioner lays his hand on your shoulder, remember that I warned you,
and don’t curse me for what may happen.”

Lacheneur paused once more, and seeing that even this sinister prophecy
produced no impression on the baron, he pressed his hand as if to bid
him an eternal farewell, and opened the door to admit the Marquis de
Sairmeuse. Martial was, perhaps, annoyed at meeting M d’Escorval; but he
nevertheless bowed with studied politeness, and began a lively
conversation with M. Lacheneur, telling him that the articles he had
selected at the chateau were at that moment on their way.

M. d’Escorval could do no more. It was quite impossible for him to speak
with Marie-Anne, over whom Chanlouineau and Jean were both jealously
mounting guard. Accordingly, he reluctantly took his leave, and
oppressed by cruel forebodings, slowly descended the hill which he had
climbed an hour before so full of hope.

What should he say to Maurice? He was revolving this query in his mind
and had just reached the little pine grove skirting the waste, when the
sound of hurried footsteps behind induced him to look back. Perceiving
to his great surprise that the young Marquis de Sairmeuse was
approaching and motioning him to stop, the baron paused, wondering what
Martial could possibly want of him.

The latter’s features wore a most ingenuous air, as he hastily raised
his hat and exclaimed: “I hope, sir, that you will excuse me for having
followed you when you hear what I have to say. I do not belong to your
party and our doctrines and preferences are very different. Still I have
none of your enemies’ passion and malice. For this reason I tell you
that if I were in your place I would take a journey abroad. The frontier
is but a few miles off; a good horse, a short gallop, and you have
crossed it. A word to the wise is--salvation!”

Having thus spoken and without waiting for any reply, Martial abruptly
turned and retraced his steps.

“One might suppose there was a conspiracy to drive me away!” murmured M.
d’Escorval in his amazement. “But I have good reason to distrust this
young man’s disinterestedness.” The young marquis was already far off.
Had he been less preoccupied, he would have perceived two figures in the
grove--Mademoiselle Blanche de Courtornieu, followed by the inevitable
Aunt Medea, had come to play the spy.



X.


The Marquis de Courtornieu idolised his daughter. This was alike an
incontestable and an uncontested fact. When people spoke to him
concerning the young lady they invariably exclaimed: “You who adore your
daughter--” And in a like manner whenever the marquis spoke of her
himself, he always contrived to say: “I who adore Blanche.” In point of
fact, however, he would have given a good deal, even a third of his
fortune, to get rid of this smiling, seemingly artless girl, who,
despite her apparent simplicity, had proved more than a match for him
with all his diplomatic experience. Her fancies were legion, and however
capricious they chanced to be it was useless to resist them. At one time
he had hoped to ward his daughter off by inviting Aunt Medea to come and
live at the chateau, but the weak-minded spinster had proved a most
fragile barrier, and soon Blanche had returned to the charge more
audacious and capricious than ever. Sometimes the marquis revolted, but
nine times out of ten he paid dearly for his attempts at rebellion. When
Blanche turned her cold, steel-like eyes upon him with a certain
peculiar expression, his courage evaporated. Her weapon was irony; and
knowing his weak points she dealt her blows with wonderful precision.

Such being the position of affairs, it is easy to understand how
devoutly M. de Courtornieu prayed and hoped that some eligible young
aristocrat would ask for his daughter’s hand, and thus free him from
bondage. He had announced on every side that he intended to give her a
dowry of a million francs, a declaration which had brought a host of
eager suitors to Courtornieu. But, unfortunately, though many of these
wooers would have suited the marquis well enough, not one had been so
fortunate as to please the capricious Blanche. Her father presented a
candidate; she received him graciously, lavished all her charms upon
him; but as soon as his back was turned, she disappointed all her
father’s hopes by rejecting him. “He is too short, or too tall. His rank
is not equal to ours. He is a fool--his nose is so ugly.” Such were the
reasons she would give for her refusal; and from these summary decisions
there was no appeal. Arguments and persuasion were alike useless. The
condemned man had only to take himself off and be forgotten.

Still, as this inspection of would-be husbands amused the capricious
Blanche, she encouraged her father in his efforts to find a suitor.
Despite all his perseverance, however, to please her, the poor marquis
was beginning to despair, when fate dropped the Duke de Sairmeuse and
his son at his very door. At sight of Martial he had a presentiment that
the _rara avis_ he was seeking was found at last; and believing best to
strike the iron while it was hot, he broached the subject to the duke on
the morrow of their first meeting. M. de Courtornieu’s overtures were
favourably received, and the matter was soon decided. Indeed, having the
desire to transform Sairmeuse into a principality, the duke could not
fail to be delighted with an alliance with one of the oldest and
wealthiest families in the neighbourhood. “Martial, my son,” he said,
“Possesses in his own right, an income of at least six hundred thousand
francs.”

“I shall give my daughter a dowry of at least--yes, at least fifteen
hundred thousand,” replied M. de Courtornieu.

“His majesty is favourably disposed towards me,” resumed his grace. “I
can obtain any important diplomatic position for Martial.”

“In case of trouble,” was the retort, “I have many friends among the
opposition.”

The treaty was thus concluded; but M. de Courtornieu took good care not
to speak of it to his daughter. If he told her how much he desired the
match, she would be sure to oppose it. Non-intervention accordingly
seemed advisable. The correctness of his policy was soon fully
demonstrated. One morning Blanche entered her father’s study and
peremptorily declared, “Your capricious daughter has decided, papa, that
she would like to become the Marchioness de Sairmeuse.”

It cost M. de Courtornieu quite an effort to conceal his delight; but he
feared that if Blanche discovered his satisfaction the game would be
lost. Accordingly, he presented several objections, which were quickly
disposed of; and, at last, he ventured to opine: “Then the marriage is
half decided as one of the parties consents. It only remains to
ascertain if--”

“The other will consent,” retorted the vain heiress; who, it should be
remarked, had for several days previously been assiduously engaged in
the agreeable task of fascinating Martial and bringing him to her feet.
With a skilful affectation of simplicity and frankness, she had allowed
the young marquis to perceive that she enjoyed his society, and without
being absolutely forward she had made him evident advances. Now,
however, the time had come to beat a retreat--a manœuvre so
successfully practised by coquettes, and which usually suffices to
enslave even a hesitating suitor. Hitherto, Blanche had been gay,
spiritual, and coquettish; now she gradually grew quiet and reserved.
The giddy school girl had given place to a shrinking maiden; and it was
with rare perfection that she played her part in the divine comedy of
“first love.” Martial could not fail to be fascinated by the modest
timidity and chaste fears of a virgin heart now awaking under his
influence to a consciousness of the tender passion. Whenever he made his
appearance Blanche blushed and remained silent. Directly he spoke she
grew confused; and he could only occasionally catch a glimpse of her
beautiful eyes behind the shelter of their long lashes. Who could have
taught her this refinement of coquetry? Strange as it may seem, she had
acquired her acquaintance with all the artifices of love during her
convent education.

One thing she had not learnt, however, that clever as one may be, one is
ofttimes duped by one’s own imagination. Great actresses so enter into
the spirit of their part that they frequently end by shedding real
tears. This knowledge came to Blanche one evening when a bantering
remark from the Duke de Sairmeuse apprised her of the fact that Martial
was in the habit of going to Lacheneur’s house every day. She had
previously been annoyed at the young marquis’s admiration of Marie-Anne,
but now she experienced a feeling of real jealousy; and her sufferings
were so intolerable that fearing she might reveal them she hurriedly
left the drawing-room and hastened to her own room.

“Can it be that he does not love me?” she murmured. She shivered at the
thought; and for the first time in her life this haughty heiress
distrusted her own power. She reflected that Martial’s position was so
exalted that he could afford to despise rank; that he was so rich that
wealth had no attractions for him; and that she herself might not be so
pretty and so charming as her flatterers had led her to suppose. Still
Martial’s conduct during the past week--and heaven knows with what
fidelity her memory recalled each incident!--was well calculated to
reassure her. He had not, it is true, formally declared himself; but it
was evident that he was paying his addresses to her. His manner was that
of the most respectful, but the most infatuated of lovers.

Her reflections were interrupted by the entrance of her maid, bringing a
large bouquet of roses which Martial had just sent. She took the
flowers, and while arranging them in a vase, bedewed them with the first
sincere tears she had shed since she was a child.

She was so pale and sad, so unlike herself when she appeared the next
morning at breakfast, that Aunt Medea felt alarmed. But Blanche had
prepared an excuse, which she presented in such sweet tones that the old
lady was as much amazed as if she had witnessed a miracle. M. de
Courtornieu was no less astonished, and wondered what new freak it was
that his daughter’s doleful face betokened. He was still more alarmed
when immediately after breakfast, Blanche asked to speak with him. She
followed him into his study, and as soon as they were alone, before he
had even had time to sit down she entreated him to tell her what had
passed between the Duke de Sairmeuse and himself; she wished to know if
Martial had been informed of the intended alliance, and what he had
replied. Her voice was meek, her eyes tearful; and her manner indicated
the most intense anxiety.

The marquis was delighted. “My wilful daughter has been playing with
fire,” he thought, stroking his chin caressingly; “and upon my word she
has scorched herself.” Then with a smile on his face he added aloud.
“Yesterday, my child, the Duke de Sairmeuse formally asked for your hand
on his son’s behalf; and your consent is all that is lacking. So rest
easy, my beautiful lovelorn damsel--you will be a duchess.”

She hid her face in her hands to conceal her blushes. “You know my
decision, father,” she faltered in an almost inaudible voice; “we must
make haste.”

He started back thinking he had not heard her words aright. “Make
haste!” he repeated.

“Yes, father. I have fears.”

“What fears, in heaven’s name?”

“I will tell you when everything is settled,” she replied, at the same
time making her escape from the room.

She did not doubt the reports which had reached her concerning Martial’s
frequent visits to Marie-Anne, still she wished to ascertain the truth
for herself. Accordingly, on leaving her father, she told Aunt Medea to
dress herself, and without vouchsafing a single word of explanation,
took her with her to the Reche and stationed herself in the pine grove
so as to command a view of M. Lacheneur’s cottage.

It chanced to be the very day when M. d’Escorval called on Marie-Anne’s
father, in hopes of obtaining some definite explanation of his conduct.
Blanche saw the baron climb the slope, and shortly afterwards Martial
followed the same route. She had been rightly informed; there was no
room for further doubt, and her first impulse was to return home. But on
reflection she resolved to wait and ascertain how long the Marquis
remained with this girl she hated. M. d’Escorval’s visit was a brief
one, and scarcely had he left the cottage than she saw Martial hasten
out after him, and speak to him. She breathed again.

The marquis had only made a brief call, perhaps, on some matter of
business, and no doubt, like M. d’Escorval, he was now going home again.
Not at all, however, after a moment’s conversation with the baron,
Martial returned to the cottage.

“What are we doing here?” asked Aunt Medea.

“Let me alone! Hold your tongue!” angrily replied Blanche, whose
attention had just been attracted by a number of wheels, a tramp of
horse’s hoofs, a loud cracking of whips, and a brisk exchange of oaths,
such as waggoners in a difficulty usually resort to.

All this racket heralded the approach of the vehicles conveying M.
Lacheneur’s furniture and clothes. The noise must have reached the
cottage on the slope, for Martial speedily appeared on the threshold,
followed by Lacheneur, Jean, Chanlouineau, and Marie-Anne. Every one was
soon busy unloading the waggons, and judging from the young marquis’s
gestures and manner, it seemed as if he were directing the operation. He
was certainly bestirring himself immensely. Hurrying to and fro,
talking to everybody, and at times not even disdaining to lend a hand.

“He, a nobleman makes himself at home in that wretched hovel!” quoth
Blanche to herself. “How horrible! Ah! I see only too well that this
dangerous creature can do what she likes with him.”

All this, however, was nothing compared with what was to come. A third
cart drawn by a single horse, and laden with shrubs and pots of flowers
soon halted in front of the cottage. At this sight Blanche was
positively enraged. “Flowers!” she exclaimed, in a voice hoarse with
passion. “He sends her flowers, as he does me--only he sends me a
bouquet, while for her he pillages the gardens of Sairmeuse.”

“What are you saying about flowers?” inquired the impoverished relative.

Blanche curtly rejoined that she had not made the slightest allusion to
flowers. She was suffocating; and yet she obstinately refused to leave
the grove, and go home as Aunt Medea repeatedly suggested. No; she must
see the finish, and although a couple of hours were spent in unloading
the furniture, still she lingered with her eyes fixed on the cottage and
its surroundings. Some time after the empty waggons had gone off,
Martial re-appeared on the threshold, Marie-Anne was with him, and they
remained talking in full view of the grove where Blanche and her
chaperone were concealed. For a long while it seemed as if the young
marquis could not promptly make up his mind to leave, and when he did
so, it was with evident reluctance that he slowly walked away.
Marie-Anne still standing on the door-step waved her hand after him with
a friendly gesture of farewell.

The young marquis was scarcely out of sight when Blanche turned to her
aunt and hurriedly exclaimed: “I must speak to that creature; come
quick!” Had Marie-Anne been within speaking distance at that moment, she
would certainly have learnt the cause of her former friend’s anger and
hatred. But fate willed it otherwise. Three hundred yards of rough
ground intervened between the two; and in crossing this space Blanche
had time enough to reflect.

She soon bitterly regretted having shown herself at all. But
Marie-Anne, who was still standing on the threshold of the cottage had
seen her approaching, and it was consequently quite impossible to
retreat. She accordingly utilized the few moments still at her disposal
in recovering her self-control, and composing her features; and she had
her sweetest smile on her lips when she greeted the girl who she had
styled “that creature,” only a few minutes previously. Still she was
embarrassed, scarcely knowing what excuse to give for her visit, hence
with the view of gaining time she pretended to be quite out of breath.
“Ah! It is not very easy to reach you, dear Marie-Anne,” she said at
last; “you live on the top of a perfect mountain.”

Mademoiselle Lacheneur did not reply. She was greatly surprised, and did
not attempt to conceal the fact.

“Aunt Medea pretended to know the road,” continued Blanche; “but she led
me astray. Didn’t you aunt?”

As usual the impecunious relative assented, and her niece resumed: “But
at last we are here. I couldn’t resign myself to hearing nothing about
you, my dear, especially after all your misfortunes. What have you been
doing? Did my recommendation procure you the work you wanted?”

Marie-Anne was deeply touched by the kindly interest which her former
friend displayed in her welfare, and with perfect frankness, she
confessed that all her efforts had been fruitless. It had even seemed to
her that several ladies had taken pleasure in treating her unkindly.

Blanche was not listening, however. Close by stood the flowers brought
from Sairmeuse; and there perfume rekindled her anger. “At all events,”
she interrupted, “you have something here which will almost make you
forget the gardens of Sairmeuse. Who sent you those beautiful flowers?”

Marie-Anne turned crimson. For a moment she did not speak, but at last
she stammered: “They are a mark of attention from the Marquis de
Sairmeuse.”

“So she confesses it!” thought Mademoiselle de Courtornieu, amazed at
what she was pleased to consider an outrageous piece of impudence. But
she succeeded in concealing her rage beneath a loud burst of laughter;
and it was in a tone of raillery that she rejoined: “Take care, my dear
friend, I am going to call you to account. You are accepting flowers
from my _fiance_.”

“What, the Marquis de Sairmeuse!”

“Yes, he has asked for my hand; and my father has promised it to him. It
is a secret as yet; but I see no danger in confiding in your
friendship.”

Blanche really believed that this information would crush her rival; but
though she watched her closely, she failed to detect the slightest trace
of emotion in her face. “What dissimulation!” thought the heiress, and
then with affected gaiety, she resumed aloud: “And the country folks
will see two weddings at about the same time, since you are going to be
married as well, my dear.”

“I married?”

“Yes, you--you little deceiver! Everybody knows that you are engaged to
a young man in the neighbourhood, named--wait, I know--Chanlouineau.”

Thus the report which annoyed Marie-Anne so much reached her from every
side. “Everybody is for once mistaken,” she replied energetically. “I
shall never be that young man’s wife.”

“But why? People speak well of him personally, and he is very well off.”

“Because,” faltered Marie-Anne; “because----” Maurice d’Escorval’s name
trembled on her lips; but unfortunately she did not give it utterance.
She was as it were abashed by a strange expression on Blanche’s face.
How often one’s destiny depends on such an apparently trivial
circumstance as this!

“What an impudent worthless creature!” thought Blanche; and then in cold
sneering tones that unmistakably betrayed her hatred, she said: “You are
wrong, believe me, to refuse such an offer. This young fellow
Chanlouineau will at all events save you from the painful necessity of
toiling with your own hands, and of going from door to door in quest of
work which is refused you. But no matter; _I_”--she laid great stress
upon this word--”_I_ will be more generous than your other old
acquaintances. I have a great deal of embroidery to be done. I shall
send it to you by my maid, and you two may settle the price together.
It’s late now, and we must go. Good-bye, my dear. Come, Aunt Medea.”

So saying, the haughty heiress turned away, leaving Marie-Anne
petrified with surprise, sorrow, and indignation. Although less
experienced than Blanche, she understood well enough that this strange
visit concealed some mystery--but what? She stood motionless, gazing
after her departing visitors, when she felt a hand laid gently on her
shoulder. She trembled, and turning quickly found herself face to face
with her father.

Lacheneur was intensely pale and agitated, and a sinister light
glittered in his eyes. “I was there,” said he pointing to the door, “and
I heard everything.”

“Father!”

“What! would you try to defend her after she came here to crush you with
her insolent good fortune--after she overwhelmed you with her ironical
pity and scorn! I tell you they are all like this--these girls, whose
heads have been turned by flattery, and who believe that the blood in
their veins is different to ours. But patience! The day of reckoning is
near at hand!”

He paused. Those whom he threatened would have trembled had they seen
him at that moment, so plain it was that he harboured in his mind some
terrible design of retributive vengeance.

“And you, my darling, my poor Marie-Anne,” he continued, “you did not
understand the insults she heaped upon you. You are wondering why she
treated you with such disdain. Ah, well! I will tell you: she imagines
that the Marquis de Sairmeuse is your lover.”

Marie-Anne turned as pale as her father, and quivered from head to foot.
“Can it be possible?” she exclaimed. “Great God! What shame! What
humiliation!”

“Why should it astonish you?” said Lacheneur, coldly. “Haven’t you
expected this result ever since the day when, to ensure the success of
my plans, you consented to receive the attentions of this marquis, whom
you loathe as much as I despise?”

“But Maurice! Maurice will despise me! I can bear anything, yes,
everything but that.”

Lacheneur made no reply. Marie-Anne’s despair was heart-rending; he felt
that he could not bear to witness it, that it would shake his
resolution, and accordingly he re-entered the house.

His penetration was not at fault, in surmising that Blanche’s visit
would lead to something new, for biding the time when she might fully
revenge herself in a way worthy of her hatred, Mademoiselle de
Courtornieu availed herself of a favourite weapon among the
jealous--calumny, and two or three abominable stories which she
concocted, and which she induced Aunt Medea to circulate in the
neighbourhood virtually ruined Marie-Anne’s reputation.

These scandalous reports even came to Martial’s ears, but Blanche was
greatly mistaken if she had imagined that they would induce him to cease
his visits to Lacheneur’s cottage. He went there more frequently than
ever and stayed much longer than he had been in the habit of doing
before. Dissatisfied with the progress of his courtship, and fearful
that he was being duped, he even watched the house. And then one
evening, when the young marquis was quite sure that Lacheneur, his son,
and Chanlouineau were absent, it so happened that he perceived a man
leave the cottage, descend the slope and hasten across the fields. He
followed in pursuit, but the fugitive escaped him. He believed, however,
that he had recognized Maurice d’Escorval.



XI.


When Maurice narrated to his father the various incidents which had
marked his interview with Marie-Anne in the pine grove near La Reche, M.
d’Escorval was prudent enough to make no allusion to the hopes of final
victory which he, himself, still entertained. “My poor Maurice,” he
thought, “is heart-broken, but resigned. It is better for him to remain
without hope than to be exposed to the danger of another possible
disappointment.”

But passion is not always blind, and Maurice divined what the baron
tried to conceal--and clung to this faint hope in his father’s
intervention, as tenaciously as a drowning man clings to the proverbial
straw. If he refrained from speaking on the subject, it was only because
he felt convinced that his parents would not tell him the truth. Still
he watched all that went on in the house with that subtlety of
penetration which fever so often imparts, and nothing that his father
said or did escaped his vigilant eyes and ears. He heard the baron put
on his boots, ask for his hat, and select a cane from among those placed
in the hall stand; and a moment later he, moreover, heard the
garden-gate grate upon its hinges. Plainly enough M. d’Escorval was
going out. Weak as he was, Maurice succeeded in dragging himself to the
window in time to ascertain the truth of his surmise. “If my father is
going out,” he thought, “it can only be to visit M. Lacheneur; and if he
is going to La Reche he has evidently not relinquished all hope.”

With this thought in his mind Maurice sank into an arm-chair close at
hand, intending to watch for his father’s return; by doing so, he might
know his fate a few moments sooner. Three long hours elapsed before the
baron returned, and by his dejected manner Maurice plainly saw that all
hope was lost. Of this, he was sure, as sure as the criminal who reads
the fatal verdict in the judge’s solemn face. He required all his energy
to regain his couch, and for a moment he felt that he should die. Soon,
however, he grew ashamed of this weakness, which he judged unworthy of
him, and prompted by a desire to know exactly what had happened he rang
the bell, and told the servant who answered his summons that he wished
to speak with his father. M. d’Escorval promptly made his appearance.

“Well!” exclaimed Maurice, as his father crossed the threshold of the
room.

The baron felt that all denial would be useless. “Lacheneur is deaf to
my remonstrances and entreaties,” he replied, sadly. “There is no hope,
my poor boy; you must submit. I will not tell you that time will assuage
the sorrow that now seems insupportable--for you wouldn’t believe me if
I did. But I do say to you be a man, and prove your courage. I will say
even more: fight against all thought of Marie-Anne, as a traveller on
the brink of a precipice fights against the thought of vertigo.”

“Have you seen Marie-Anne, father? Have you spoken to her?”

“I found her even more inflexible than Lacheneur.”

“They reject me, and yet no doubt they receive Chanlouineau.”

“Chanlouineau is living there.”

“Good heavens! And Martial de Sairmeuse?”

“He is their familiar guest. I saw him there.”

Evidently enough each of these replies fell upon Maurice like a
thunderbolt. But M. d’Escorval had armed him self with the
imperturbable courage of a surgeon, who only grasps his instrument more
firmly when the patient groans and writhes beneath his touch. He felt
that it was necessary to extinguish the last ray of hope in his son’s
heart.

“It is evident that M. Lacheneur has lost his reason!” exclaimed
Maurice.

The baron shook his head despondently. “I thought so myself at first,”
he murmured.

“But what does he say in justification of his conduct? He must say
something.”

“Nothing: he refuses any explanation.”

“And you, father, with all your knowledge of human nature, with all your
wide experience, have not been able to fathom his intentions?”

“I have my suspicions,” M. d’Escorval replied; “but only suspicions. It
is possible that Lacheneur, listening to the voice of hatred, is
dreaming of some terrible revenge. He may, perhaps, think of organizing
some conspiracy against the emigres. Such a supposition would explain
everything. Chanlouineau would be his aider and abettor; and he pretends
to be reconciled to the Marquis de Sairmeuse in order to obtain
information through him--”

The blood had returned to Maurice’s pale cheeks. “Such a conspiracy,”
said he, “would not explain M. Lacheneur’s obstinate rejection of my
suit.”

“Alas! yes, it would, my poor boy. It is through Marie-Anne that
Lacheneur exerts such great influence over Chanlouineau and the marquis.
If she became your wife to-day, they would desert him to-morrow. Then,
too, it is precisely because he has such sincere regard for us, that he
is determined to keep us out of a hazardous, even perilous enterprise.
However, of course, this is merely a conjecture.”

“Still, I see that it is necessary to submit,” faltered Maurice. “I must
resign myself; forget, I cannot.”

He said this because he wished to reassure his father; though, in
reality, he thought exactly the reverse. “If Lacheneur is organizing a
conspiracy,” he murmured to himself, “he must need assistance. Why
should I not offer mine? If I aid him in his preparations, if I share
his hopes and dangers, he cannot refuse me his daughter’s hand. Whatever
he may wish to undertake, I can surely be of greater assistance to him
than Chanlouineau.”

From that moment Maurice dwelt upon this thought; and the result was
that he no longer pined and fretted, but did all he could to hasten his
convalescence. This passed so rapidly that the Abbe Midon, who had taken
the place of the physician from Montaignac, was positively astonished.
Madame d’Escorval was delighted at her son’s wonderful improvement in
health and spirits, and declared that she would never have believed he
could be so soon and so easily consoled. The baron did not try to
diminish his wife’s satisfaction, though he regarded this almost
miraculous recovery with considerable distrust, having, indeed, a vague
perception of the truth. Skilfully, however, as he questioned his son he
could draw nothing from him; for Maurice had decided to keep whatever
determinations he had formed a secret even from his parents. What good
would it do to trouble them? and, besides, he feared remonstrance and
opposition; which he was anxious to avoid although firmly resolved to
carry out his plans, even if he were compelled to leave the paternal
roof.

One day in the second week of September the abbe declared that Maurice
might resume his ordinary life, and that, as the weather was pleasant it
would be well for him to spend much of his time in the open air. In his
delight, Maurice embraced the worthy priest, at the same time remarking
that he had felt afraid the shooting season would pass by without his
bagging a single bird. In reality he cared but little for a day on the
cover; the partiality he feigned being prompted by the idea that
“shooting” would furnish him with an excuse for frequent and protracted
absences from home.

He had never felt happier then he did the morning when, with his gun
over his shoulder, he crossed the Oiselle and started for M. Lacheneur’s
cottage at La Reche. He had just reached the little pine grove, and was
about to pause, when he perceived Jean Lacheneur and Chanlouineau leave
the house, each laden with a pedlar’s pack. This circumstance delighted
him, as he might now expect to find M. Lacheneur and Marie-Anne alone in
the cottage.

He hastened up the slope and lifted the door latch without pausing to
rap. Marie-Anne and her father were kneeling on the hearth in front of a
blazing fire. On hearing the door open, they turned; and at the sight
of Maurice, they both sprang to their feet. Lacheneur with a composed
look on his face, and Marie-Anne blushing to the roots of her hair.
“What brings you here?” they exclaimed in the same breath.

Under other circumstances, Maurice d’Escorval would have been dismayed
by such an unengaging greeting, but now he scarcely noticed it.

“You have no business to return here against my wishes, and after what I
said to you, M. d’Escorval,” exclaimed Lacheneur, rudely.

Maurice smiled, he was perfectly cool, and not a detail of the scene
before him had escaped his notice. If he had felt any doubts before,
they were now dispelled. On the fire he saw a large cauldron of moulten
lead, while several bullet-moulds stood on the hearth, besides the
andirons.

“If, sir, I venture to present myself at your house,” said young
d’Escorval in a grave, impressive voice, “it is because I know
everything. I have discovered your revengeful projects. You are looking
for men to aid you, are you not? Very well! look me in the face, in the
eyes, and tell me if I am not one of those a leader is glad to enrol
among his followers?”

Lacheneur seemed terribly agitated. “I don’t know what you mean,” he
faltered, forgetting his feigned anger; “I have no such projects as you
suppose.”

“Would you assert this upon oath? If so, why are you casting those
bullets? You are clumsy conspirators. You should lock your door; some
one else might have opened it.” And adding example to precept, he turned
and pushed the bolt. “This is only an imprudence,” he continued: “but to
reject a willing volunteer would be a mistake for which your associates
would have a right to call you to account. Pray understand that I have
no desire to force myself into your confidence. Whatever your cause may
be, I declare it mine; whatever you wish, I wish; I adopt your plans;
your enemies are my enemies; command me and I will obey you. I only ask
one favour, that of fighting, conquering, or dying by your side.”

“Oh! father refuse him!” exclaimed Marie-Anne, “refuse him! It would be
a crime to accept his offer.”

“A crime! And why, if you please?” asked Maurice.

“Because our cause is not your cause; because its success is doubtful;
because dangers surround us on every side.”

Maurice interrupted her with a cry of scorn. “And you think to dissuade
me,” said he, “by warning one of the dangers which you a girl can yet
afford to brave. You cannot think me a coward! If peril threatens you,
all the more reason to accept my aid. Would you desert me if I were
menaced, would you hide yourself, saying, ‘Let him perish, so that I be
saved!’ Speak! would you do this?”

Marie-Anne averted her face and made no reply. She could not force
herself to utter an untruth; and on the other hand she was unwilling to
answer: “I would act as you are acting.” She prudently waited for her
father’s decision.

“If I complied with your request, Maurice,” said M. Lacheneur, “in less
than three days you would curse me, and ruin us by some outburst of
anger. Loving Marie-Anne as you do, you could not behold her equivocal
position unmoved. Remember, she must neither discourage Chanlouineau nor
the marquis. I know as well as you do that the part is a shameful one;
and that it must result in the loss of a girl’s most precious
possession--her reputation; still, to ensure our success, it must be
so.”

Maurice did not wince. “So be it,” he said calmly. “Marie-Anne’s fate
will be that of all women who have devoted themselves to the political
cause of the man they love, be he father, brother, or lover. She will be
slandered and insulted, and still what does it matter! Let her continue
her task. I consent to it, for I shall never doubt her, and I shall know
how to hold my peace. If we succeed, she shall be my wife, if we fail--”
The gesture with which young d’Escorval concluded his sentence expressed
more strongly than any verbal protestations that come what might he was
ready and resigned.

Lacheneur seemed deeply moved. “At least give me time for reflection,”
said he.

“There is no necessity, sir, for further reflection.”

“But you are only a child, Maurice; and your father is my friend.”

“What of that?”

“Rash boy! don’t you understand that by compromising yourself you also
compromise the Baron d’Escorval? You think you are only risking your own
head, but you are also endangering your father’s life--”

“Oh, there has been too much parleying already!” interrupted Maurice,
“there have been too many remonstrances. Answer me in a word! Only
understand this: if you refuse, I shall immediately return home and blow
out my brains.”

It was plain from the young man’s manner that this was no idle threat.
The strange fire gleaming in his eyes, and the impressive tone of his
voice, convinced both his listeners that he really intended to effect
his deadly purpose; and Marie-Anne, with a heart full of cruel
apprehensions, clasped her hands and turned to her father with a
pleading look.

“You are one of us, then,” sternly exclaimed Lacheneur after a brief
pause; “but do not forget that your threats alone induced me to consent;
and whatever may happen to you or yours, remember that you would have it
so.”

These gloomy words, ominous as they were, produced, however, no
impression upon Maurice, who, feverish with anxiety a moment before, was
now well-nigh delirious with joy.

“At present,” continued Lacheneur, “I must tell you my hopes, and
acquaint you with the cause for which I am toiling--”

“What does that matter to me?” replied Maurice gaily; and springing
towards Marie-Anne he seized her hand and raised it to his lips, crying,
with the joyous laugh of youth: “Here is my cause--none other!”

Lacheneur turned aside. Perhaps he remembered that a sacrifice of his
own obstinate pride would suffice to assure his daughter’s and her
lover’s happiness.

Still if a feeling of remorse crept into his mind, he swiftly banished
it, and with increased sternness of manner exclaimed: “It is necessary,
however, that you should understand our agreement.”

“Let me know your conditions, sir,” said Maurice.

“First of all your visits here--after certain rumours that I have
circulated--would arouse suspicion. You must only come here at night
time, and then only at hours agreed upon in advance--never when you are
not expected.” Lacheneur paused, and then seeing that Maurice’s
attitude implied unreserved consent, he added: “You must also find some
way to cross the river without employing the ferryman, who is a
dangerous fellow.”

“We have an old skiff; I will persuade my father to have it repaired.”

“Very well. Will you also promise me to avoid the Marquis de Sairmeuse?”

“I will.”

“Wait a moment--we must be prepared for any emergency. Perhaps in spite
of our precautions you may meet him here. M. de Sairmeuse is arrogance
itself; and he hates you. You detest him, and you are very hasty. Swear
to me that if he provokes you, you will ignore his insults.”

“But I should be considered a coward.”

“Probably; but will you swear?”

Maurice was hesitating when an imploring look from Marie-Anne decided
him. “I swear it!” he said gravely.

“As far as Chanlouineau is concerned it would be better not to let him
know of our agreement; but I will see to that point myself.” Lacheneur
paused once more and reflected for a moment whether he had left anything
forgotten. “All that remains, Maurice,” he soon resumed, “is to give you
a last and very important piece of advice. Do you know my son?”

“Certainly; we were formerly the best of friends when we met during the
holidays.”

“Very well. When you know my secret--for I shall confide it to you
without reserve--beware of Jean.”

“What, sir?”

“Beware of Jean. I repeat it.” And Lacheneur’s face flushed as he added:
“Ah! it is a painful avowal for a father; but I have no confidence in my
own son. He knows no more of my plans than I told him on the day of his
arrival. I deceive him, because I fear he might betray us. Perhaps it
would be wise to send him away; but in that case, what would people say?
Most assuredly they would say that I wanted to save my own blood, while
I was ready to risk the lives of others. Still I may be mistaken; I may
misjudge him.” He sighed, and again added: “Beware!”

It will be understood from the foregoing that it was really Maurice
d’Escorval whom the Marquis de Sairmeuse perceived leaving Lacheneur’s
cottage on the night he played the spy. Martial was not positively
certain of the fugitive’s identity, but the very idea made his heart
swell with anger. “What part am I playing here, then?” he exclaimed
indignantly.

Passion had hitherto so completely blinded him that even if no pains had
been taken to deceive him, he would probably have remained in blissful
ignorance of the true condition of affairs. He fully believed in the
sincerity of Lacheneur’s formal courtesy and politeness and of Jean’s
studied respect; while Chanlouineau’s almost servile obsequiousness did
not surprise him in the least. And since Marie-Anne welcomed him
cordially he had concluded that his suit was favourably progressing.
Having himself forgotten the incidents which marked the return of his
family to Sairmeuse, he concluded that every one else had ceased to
remember them. Moreover, he was of opinion that he had acted with great
generosity, and that he was fully entitled to the gratitude of the
Lacheneurs; for Marie-Anne’s father had received the legacy bequeathed
him by Mademoiselle Armande, with an indemnity for his past services;
and in addition he had selected whatever furniture he pleased among the
appointments of the chateau. In goods and coin he had been presented
with quite sixty thousand francs; and the hard fisted old duke, enraged
at such prodigality, although it did not cost him a penny, had
discontentedly growled, “He must be hard to please indeed if he is not
satisfied with what we’ve done for him.”

Such being the position of affairs, and having for so long supposed that
he was the only visitor to the cottage on La Reche, Martial was
perfectly incensed when he discovered that such was not the case. Was
he, after all, merely a shameless girl’s foolish dupe? So great was his
anger, that for more than a week he did not go to Lacheneur’s house. His
father concluded that his ill humour was caused by some misunderstanding
with Marie-Anne; and he took advantage of this opportunity to obtain his
son’s consent to a marriage with Blanche de Courtornieu. Goaded to the
last extremity, tortured by doubt and fear, the young marquis eventually
agreed to his father’s proposals; and, naturally enough, the duke did
not allow such a good resolution to grow cold. In less than forty-eight
hours the engagement was made public; the marriage contract was drawn
up, and it was announced that the wedding would take place early in the
spring. A grand banquet was given at Sairmeuse in honour of the
betrothal--a banquet all the more brilliant since there were other
victories to be celebrated, for the Duke de Sairmeuse had just received,
with his brevet of lieutenant-general, a commission placing him in
command of the military district of Montaignac; while the Marquis de
Courtornieu had also been appointed provost-marshal of the same region.

Thus it was that Blanche triumphed, for, after this public betrothal,
might she not consider that Martial was bound to her? For a fortnight,
indeed, he scarcely left her side, finding in her society a charm which
almost made him forget his love for Marie-Anne. But, unfortunately, the
haughty heiress could not resist the temptation to make a slighting
allusion to the lowliness of the marquis’s former tastes; finding,
moreover, an opportunity to inform him that she furnished Marie-Anne
with work to aid her in earning a living. Martial forced himself to
smile; but the disparaging remarks made by his betrothed concerning
Marie-Anne aroused his sympathy and indignation; and the result was that
the very next day he went to Lacheneur’s house.

In the warmth of the greeting which there awaited him all his anger
vanished, and all his suspicions were dispelled. He perceived that
Marie-Anne’s eyes beamed with joy on seeing him again, and could not
help thinking he should win her yet. All the household were really
delighted at his return; as the son of the commander of the military
forces at Montaignac, and the prospective son-in-law of the
provost-marshal, Martial was bound to prove a most valuable instrument.
“Through him, we shall have an eye and an ear in the enemy’s camp,” said
Lacheneur. “The Marquis de Sairmeuse will be our spy.”

And such he soon became, for he speedily resumed his daily visits to the
cottage. It was now December, and the roads were scarcely passable; but
neither rain, snow, nor mud could keep Martial away. He generally made
his appearance at ten o’clock in the morning, seated himself on a stool
in the shadow of a tall fire-place, and then he and Marie-Anne began to
talk by the hour. She always seemed greatly interested in what was going
on at Montaignac, and he told her everything he knew, whether it were
of a military, political, or social character.

At times they remained alone. Lacheneur, Chanlouineau, and Jean were
tramping about the country with their pedlar’s packs. Business was
indeed prospering so well that Lacheneur had even purchased a horse in
order to extend the circuit of his rounds. But, although the usual
occupants of the cottage might be away, it so happened that Martial’s
conversation was generally interrupted by visitors. It was indeed really
surprising to see how many peasants called at the cottage to speak with
M. Lacheneur. They called at all hours and in rapid succession,
sometimes alone, and at others in little batches of two or three. And to
each of these peasants Marie-Anne had something to say in private. Then
she would offer them refreshments; and at times one might have imagined
oneself in an ordinary village wine shop. But what can daunt a lover’s
courage? Martial endured the peasants and their carouses without a
murmur. He laughed and jested with them, shook them by the hand, and at
times he even drained a glass in their company.

He gave many other proofs of moral courage. He offered to assist M.
Lacheneur in making up his accounts; and once--it happened about the
middle of February--seeing Chanlouineau worrying over the composition of
a letter, he actually volunteered to act as his amanuensis. “The letter
is not for me, but for an uncle of mine who is about to marry his
daughter,” said the stalwart young farmer.

Martial took a seat at the table, and at Chanlouineau’s dictation, but
not without many erasures, indited the following epistle:

“My dear friend--We are at last agreed, and the marriage is decided on.
We are now busy preparing for the wedding, which will take place on ----
We invite you to give us the pleasure of your company. We count upon
you, and be assured that the more friends you bring with you the better
we shall be pleased.”

Had Martial seen the smile upon Chanlouineau’s lips when he requested
him to leave the date for the wedding a blank, he would certainly have
suspected that he had been caught in a snare. But he did not see it,
and, besides, he was in love.

“Ah! marquis,” remarked his father one day, “Chupin tells me you are
always at Lacheneur’s. When will you recover from your foolish fancy for
that little girl?”

Martial did not reply. He felt that he was at that “little girl’s”
mercy. Each glance she gave him made his heart throb wildly. He lingered
by her side a willing captive; and if she had asked him to make her his
wife he would certainly not have refused. But Marie-Anne had no such
ambition. All her thoughts and wishes were for her father’s success.

Maurice and Marie-Anne had become M. Lacheneur’s most intrepid
auxiliaries. They were looking forward to such a magnificent reward.
Feverish, indeed, was the activity which Maurice displayed! All day long
he hurried from hamlet to hamlet, and in the evening, as soon as dinner
was over, he made his escape from the drawing-room, sprang into his
boat, and hastened to La Reche.

M. d’Escorval could not fail to notice his son’s long and frequent
absences. He watched him, and soon discovered that some secret
understanding existed between Maurice and Lacheneur. Recollecting his
previous suspicion that Lacheneur was harbouring some seditious design
he became greatly alarmed for his son’s safety, and decided to go to La
Reche and try once more to learn the truth. Previous repulses had
diminished his confidence in his own persuasive powers, and being
anxious for an auxiliary’s assistance he asked the Abbe Midon to
accompany him.

It was the 4th of March, and half-past four in the evening when M.
d’Escorval and the cure started from Sairmeuse bound for the cottage at
La Reche. They were both anxious as to the result of the step they were
taking, and scarcely exchanged a dozen words as they walked towards the
banks of the Oiselle. They had crossed the river and traversed the
familiar pine grove, when on reaching the outskirts of the waste they
witnessed a strange sight well calculated to increase their anxiety and
alarm.

Night was swiftly approaching, but yet it was still sufficiently light
to distinguish objects at a short distance, and on the summit of the
slope they could perceive in front of Lacheneur’s cottage a group of
twenty persons who, judging by their frequent gesticulations, were
engaged in animated conversation. Lacheneur himself was there, and his
manner plainly indicated that he was in a state of great excitement.
Suddenly he waved his hand, the others clustered round him, and he began
to speak. What was he saying? The baron and the priest were still too
far off to distinguish his words, but when he ceased they were startled
by a loud acclamation which literally rent the air. Suddenly the former
lord of Sairmeuse struck a match, and setting fire to a bundle of straw
lying before him he tossed it on to the roof of the cottage, shouting as
he did so, “Yes, the die is cast! and this will prove to you that I
shall not draw back!”

Five minutes later the house was in flames and in the distance the baron
and his companion could perceive a ruddy glare illuminating the windows
of the citadel at Montaignac, while on every hillside round about glowed
the light of other incendiary fires. The whole district was answering
Lacheneur’s signal.



XII.


Ah! ambition is a fine thing! The Duke de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de
Courtornieu were considerably past middle-age; they had weathered many
storms and vicissitudes; they possessed millions in hard cash, and owned
the finest estates in the province. Under these circumstances it might
have been supposed that their only desire was to end their days in peace
and quietness. It would have been easy for them to lead a happy and
useful life by seeking to promote the welfare of the district, and they
might have gone down to their graves amid a chorus of benedictions and
regrets.

But no. They longed to have a hand in managing the state vessel; they
were not content with remaining simple passengers. The duke, appointed
to the command of the military forces, and the marquis, invested with
high judicial functions at Montaignac, were both obliged to leave their
beautiful chateaux and install themselves in somewhat dingy quarters in
the town. And yet they did not murmur at the change, for their vanity
was satisfied. Louis XVIII. was on the throne; their prejudices were
triumphant; and they felt supremely happy. It is true that sedition was
already rife on every side, but had they not hundreds and thousands of
allies at hand to assist them in suppressing it? And when thoughtful
politicians spoke of “discontent,” the duke and his associates looked at
them with the thorough contempt of the sceptic who does not believe in
ghosts.

On the 4th of March, 1816, the duke was just sitting down to dinner at
his house in Montaignac when he heard a loud noise in the hall. He rose
to go and see what was the matter when the door was suddenly flung open
and a man entered the room panting and breathless. This man was Chupin,
once a poacher, but now enjoying the position of head gamekeeper on the
Sairmeuse estates. It was evident, from his manner and appearance, that
something very extraordinary had happened.

“What is the matter?” inquired the duke.

“They are coming!” cried Chupin; “they are already on the way!”

“Who are coming? who?”

Chupin made no verbal reply, but handed the duke a copy of the letter
written by Martial under Chanlouineau’s dictation. “My dear friend,” so
M. de Sairmeuse read. “We are at last agreed, and the marriage is
decided on. We are now busy preparing for the wedding, which will take
place on the fourth of March.” The date was no longer blank: but still
the duke had naturally failed to understand the purport of the missive.
“Well, what of it?” he asked.

Chupin tore his hair. “They are on the way,” he repeated. “The
peasants--all the peasants of the district, they intend to take
possession of Montaignac, dethrone Louis XVIII., bring back the emperor,
or at least, the emperor’s son, and crown him as Napoleon II. Ah, the
wretches! they have deceived me. I suspected this outbreak, but I did
not think it was so near at hand.”

This unexpected intelligence well-nigh stupefied the duke. “How many are
there?” he asked.

“Ah! how do I know, your grace? Two thousand, perhaps--perhaps ten
thousand.”

“All the town’s people are with us.”

“No, your grace, no. The rebels have accomplices here. All the retired
officers of the imperial army are waiting to assist them.”

“Who are the leaders of the movement?”

“Lacheneur, the Abbe Midon, Chanlouineau, the Baron d’Escorval----”

“Enough!” cried the duke.

Now that the danger was certain, his coolness returned, and his
herculean form, a trifle bowed by the weight of years, rose to its full
height. He gave the bell-rope a violent pull; and directly his valet
entered, he bade him bring his uniform and pistols at once. The servant
was about to obey, when the duke added: “Wait! Let some one take a
horse, and go and tell my son to come here without a moment’s delay.
Take one of the swiftest horses. The messenger ought to go to Sairmeuse
and back in two hours.” On hearing these words, Chupin pulled at the
duke’s coat tail to attract his attention.

“Well, what is it now?” asked M. de Sairmeuse impatiently.

The old poacher raised his finger to his lips, as if recommending
silence, and as soon as the valet had left the room, he exclaimed: “It
is useless to send for the marquis!”

“And why, you fool?”

“Because, because--excuse me--I----”

“Zounds! will you speak, or not?”

Chupin regretted that he had gone so far. “Because the marquis----”

“Well?”

“He is engaged in it.”

The duke overturned the dinner-table with a terrible blow of his
clenched fist. “You lie, you wretch!” he thundered with terrible oaths.

His anger was so threatening, that the old poacher sprang to the door
and turned the knob, ready for flight. “May I lose my head if I do not
speak the truth,” he insisted. “Ah! Lacheneur’s daughter is a regular
sorceress. All the gallants of the neighbourhood are in the ranks;
Chanlouineau, young D’ Escorval, your son----”

M. de Sairmeuse was pouring forth a torrent of curses upon Marie-Anne
when his valet re-entered the room. He suddenly checked himself, put on
his uniform, and ordering Chupin to follow him, he hastened from the
house. He was still hoping that Chupin had exaggerated the danger; but
when he reached the Place d’Armes commanding an extensive view of the
surrounding country, whatever illusions he may have retained immediately
vanished. Signal lights gleamed on every side, and Montaignac seemed
surrounded by a circle of flame.

“There are the signals,” murmured Chupin. “The rebels will be here
before two o’clock in the morning.”

The duke made no reply, but hastened towards M. de Courtornieu’s house.
He was striding onward, when on turning a corner, he espied two men
talking in a doorway; they also had perceived him, and at sight of his
glittering epaulettes they both took flight. The duke instinctively
started in pursuit, overtook one of the men, and seizing him by the
collar, sternly asked: “Who are you? What is your name?”

The man was silent, and his captor shook him so roughly that two pistols
concealed under his over-coat, fell to the ground. “Ah, brigand!”
exclaimed M. de Sairmeuse, “so you are one of the conspirators against
the king!”

Then without another word, he dragged the man to the citadel, gave him
in charge of the astonished soldiers, and again hastened after M. de
Courtornieu. He expected to find the marquis terrified; but on the
contrary he seemed perfectly delighted.

“At last,” he said, “there comes an opportunity for us to display our
devotion and our zeal--and without danger! We have good walls, strong
gates, and three thousand soldiers at our command. These peasants are
fools! But be grateful for their folly, my dear duke, and run and order
out the Montaignac chasseurs----” He suddenly paused, and then with a
gesture of annoyance, he resumed: “The deuce! I am expecting Blanche
this evening. She was to leave Courtornieu after dinner. Heaven grant
she may meet with no misfortune on the way!”

The Duke de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de Courtornieu had more time
before them than they supposed. The rebels were advancing, but not so
rapidly as Chupin had stated, for Lacheneur’s plans had been disarranged
by two unforeseen circumstances.

When standing beside his burning cottage, he had counted the signal
fires that blazed out in answer to his own, and found their number
corresponded with his expectations; he joyfully exclaimed: “See all our
friends keep their word! They are ready; and are now on their way to the
meeting place. Let us start at once, for we must be there first!”

His horse was brought him, and one foot was already in the stirrup when
two men sprang from the neighbouring grove and darted towards him. One
of them seized the horse by the bridle.

“The Abbe Midon!” exclaimed Lacheneur, in amazement; “M. d’Escorval!”
And foreseeing, perhaps, what was to come, he added, in a tone of
concentrated fury: “What do you two want with me?”

“We wish to prevent the accomplishment of an act of madness!” exclaimed
M. d’Escorval. “Hatred has crazed you, Lacheneur!”

“You know nothing of my projects!”

“Do you think that I don’t suspect them? You hope to capture
Montaignac----”

“What does that matter to you?” interrupted Lacheneur, angrily.

But M. d’Escorval would not be silenced. He seized his former friend by
the arm, and in a voice loud enough to be heard distinctly by every one
present, he continued: “You foolish fellow! You have forgotten that
Montaignac is a fortified city, surrounded by deep moats and high walls!
You have forgotten that behind these fortifications there is a garrison
commanded by a man whose energy and bravery are beyond all question--the
Duke de Sairmeuse.”

Lacheneur struggled to free himself from the baron’s grasp. “Everything
has been arranged,” he replied, “and they are expecting us at
Montaignac. You would be as sure of this as I am myself, if you had only
seen the lights gleaming in the windows of the citadel. And look, you
can see them yet. These lights tell me that two or three hundred of
Napoleon’s old officers will come and open the gates of the town as soon
as we make our appearance.”

“And after that! If you take Montaignac, what will you do then? Do you
imagine the English will give you back your emperor? Isn’t Napoleon II.
an Austrian prisoner. Have you forgotten that the allied sovereigns have
left a hundred and fifty thousand soldiers within a day’s march of
Paris?”

Sullen murmurs were heard among Lacheneur’s followers.

“But all this is nothing,” continued the baron. “The chief danger lies
in the fact that there are generally as many traitors as dupes in an
undertaking of this sort.”

“Whom do you call dupes?”

“All those who mistake their illusions for realities, as you have done;
all those who wishing something to happen, are convinced that it _will_
happen--simply because they wish it so. And besides do you really
suppose that neither the Duke de Sairmeuse nor the Marquis de
Courtornieu has been warned of your attempt?”

Lacheneur shrugged his shoulders. “Who could have warned them?” he asked
complacently. But his tranquility was feigned; as the glance he cast on
Jean only too plainly proved. Frigid indeed was the tone in which he
added: “It is probable that the duke and the marquis are at this very
moment in the power of our friends.”

The cure now attempted to second the baron’s efforts. “You will not go,
Lacheneur,” he said. “You cannot remain deaf to the voice of reason. You
are an honest man; think of the frightful responsibility you assume!
Upon these frail hopes you are imperilling hundreds of brave lives? I
tell you that you will not succeed; you will be betrayed; I am sure you
will be betrayed!”

An expression of horrible agony contracted Lacheneur’s features. It was
evident to every one that he was deeply moved; and, perhaps, matters
might have taken a very different course, had it not been for
Chanlouineau’s intervention. “We are wasting too much time in foolish
prattle,” he exclaimed, stepping forward and brandishing his gun.

Lacheneur started as if he had been struck by a whip. He rudely freed
himself from his friend’s grasp, and leaped into the saddle. “Forward!”
he ordered.

But the baron and the priest did not yet despair; they sprang to the
horse’s head. “Lacheneur,” cried the priest, “beware! The blood you are
about to spill will fall on your own head, and on the heads of your
children!”

Arrested by these prophetic words, the little band paused, and at the
same moment a figure clad in the costume of a peasant issued from the
ranks.

“Marie-Anne!” exclaimed the abbe and the baron in the same breath.

“Yes it is I,” replied the young girl, doffing the large hat which had
partially concealed her face; “I wish to share the dangers of those who
are dear to me--share in their victory or their defeat. Your advice
comes too late, gentlemen. Do you see those lights on the horizon? They
tell us that the people of the province are repairing to the cross-roads
at the Croix d’Arcy, our general meeting place. Before two o’clock
fifteen hundred men will be gathered there awaiting my father’s
commands. Would you have him leave these men, whom he has called from
their peaceful firesides, without a leader? No, it is impossible!”

She evidently shared her lover’s and her father’s madness, even if she
did not share all their hopes. “No, there must be no more hesitation, no
more parleying,” she continued. “Prudence now would be the height of
folly. There is no more danger in a retreat than in an advance. Do not
try to detain my father, gentlemen; each moment of delay may, perhaps,
cost a man’s life. And now, my friends, forward!”

A loud cheer answered her, and the little band descended the hill.

But M. d’Escorval could not allow his own son, whom he now perceived in
the ranks, to depart in this fashion: “Maurice!” he cried.

The young fellow hesitated, but finally stepped forward.

“You will not follow these madmen, Maurice?” said the baron.

“I must follow them, father.”

“I forbid it.”

“Alas! father, I can’t obey you. I have promised--I have sworn. I am
second in command.” If his voice had a mournful ring, plainly enough he
was at all events determined.

“My son!” exclaimed M. d’Escorval; “unfortunate boy! Don’t you know that
you are marching to certain death?”

“Then all the more reason, father, why I shouldn’t break my word.”

“And your mother, Maurice, your mother whom you forget!”

A tear glistened in the young fellow’s eye. “I am sure,” he replied,
“that my mother would rather weep for her dead son than keep him near
her dishonoured, and branded as a coward and a traitor. Farewell!
father.”

M. d’Escorval appreciated the nobility of mind which Maurice’s conduct
implied. He opened his arms, and pressed his son convulsively to his
heart, feeling that it might be for the last time in life. “Farewell!”
he faltered, “Farewell!”

A minute later Maurice had rejoined his comrades, now on the plain
below, leaving the baron standing motionless and overwhelmed with
sorrow.

Suddenly M. d’Escorval started from his reverie. “A single hope remains,
abbe!” he cried.

“Alas!” murmured the priest.

“Oh--I am not mistaken. Marie-Anne just told us the place of rendezvous.
By running to Escorval and harnessing the cabriolet, we might be able to
reach the Croix d’Arcy before this party arrives there. Your voice,
which touched Lacheneur, will touch the hearts of his accomplices. We
will persuade these poor, misguided men to return home. Come, abbe; come
quickly!”

They tarried no longer, but swiftly descended towards the ferry.



XIII.


The clock in the church tower of Sairmeuse was just striking eight when
Lacheneur and his little band of followers left La Reche. An hour later,
Blanche de Courtornieu, after dining alone with Aunt Medea at the
chateau, ordered the carriage to take her to Montaignac. Since her
father’s duties had compelled him to reside in the town they only met on
Sundays, when it either happened that Blanche went to Montaignac, or the
marquis paid a visit to his estate.

Now this was Thursday evening, and the servants were consequently
somewhat surprised when they heard that their young mistress was going
to “the town.” Her journey was prompted, however, by somewhat singular
circumstances.

Six days had elapsed since Martial’s last visit to Courtornieu, six days
of suspense and anguish for the jealous Blanche. What Aunt Medea had to
endure during this interval, only poor dependents in rich families can
understand. For the first three days Blanche succeeded in preserving a
semblance of self-control; but on the fourth she could endure the
suspense no longer, and in spite of the breach of etiquette the step
involved, she despatched a messenger to Sairmeuse to inquire if Martial
were ill, or if he had been summoned away?

The messenger learnt that the young marquis was in very good health, and
that he spent the entire day, from early morn to dewy eve, shooting in
the neighbouring preserves; going to bed every evening as soon as dinner
was over.

What a horrible insult this conduct implied for Blanche! However, it did
not so much distress her as she felt certain that directly Martial heard
of her enquiries he would hasten to her with a full apology. Her hope
was vain; he did not come; nor even condescend to give a sign of life.

“Ah! no doubt he is with that wretch,” said Blanche to Aunt Medea. “He
is on his knees before that miserable Marie-Anne--his mistress.” For she
had finished by believing--as is not unfrequently the case--the very
calumnies which she herself had invented.

Scarcely knowing how to act she at last decided to make her father her
confidant; and accordingly wrote him a note to the effect that she was
coming to Montaignac for his advice. In reality, she wished her father
to compel Lacheneur to leave the country. This would be an easy matter
for the marquis, since he was armed with discretionary judicial
authority at an epoch when lukewarm devotion furnished an ample excuse
for sending a man into exile.

Fully decided upon executing this plan, Mademoiselle Courtornieu grew
calmer on leaving the chateau; and her hopes overflowed in incoherent
phrases, which poor Aunt Medea listened to with all her accustomed
resignation. “At last,” exclaimed the revengeful Blanche, “I shall be
rid of this shameless creature. We will see if he has the audacity to
follow her. Ah, no; he cannot dare to do that!”

She was talking in this strain, or reflecting how she should lay the
matter before her father, while the carriage which she and Aunt Medea
occupied rolled over the highway and through the village of Sairmeuse.

There were lights in every house, the wine-shops seemed full of
tipplers, and groups of people could be seen in every direction. All
this animation was no doubt most unusual, but what did it matter to
Mademoiselle de Courtornieu! It was not until they were a mile or so
from Sairmeuse that she was startled from her reverie.

“Listen, Aunt Medea,” she suddenly exclaimed. “What is that noise?”

The poor dependent listened as she was bid, and both occupants of the
carriage could distinguish a confused babel of shouts and singing, which
grew nearer and more distinct as the vehicle rolled onward.

“Let us find out the meaning of all this hubbub,” said Blanche. And
lowering one of the carriage windows, she asked the coachman if he knew
what the disturbance was about.

“I can see a great crowd of peasants on the hill,” he replied; “they
have torches and--”

“Blessed Jesus!” interrupted Aunt Medea in alarm.

“It must be a wedding,” added the coachman, whipping up his horses.

It was not a wedding, however, but Lacheneur’s little band, which had
now swollen to five hundred men.

The Bonapartist ringleader should have been at the Croix d’Arcy two
hours earlier. But he had shared the fate of most popular chieftains. He
had given an impetus to the movement, and now it was beyond his control.
The Baron d’Escorval had made him lose twenty minutes at La Reche, and
he was delayed four times as long in Sairmeuse. When he reached that
village, a little behind time, he found the peasants scattered through
the wine-shops, drinking to the success of the enterprise; and it proved
a long and difficult talk to wrest them from their merry-making. To
crown everything, when the insurgents were finally induced to resume
their line of march, they could not possibly be persuaded to extinguish
the torches they had lighted. Prayers and threats were alike unavailing.
They declared that they wished to see their way, and their leader had to
submit to this foolish fancy. Poor deluded beings! They had not the
slightest conception of the difficulties and the perils of the
enterprise they had undertaken. They had set out to capture a fortified
town, defended by a numerous garrison, just as if they had been bound on
a pleasure-jaunt. Gay, thoughtless, and animated with childlike
confidence, they marched along, arm in arm, singing some patriotic
refrain. Lacheneur, who was on horseback in the center of the band,
suffered the most intolerable anguish. Would not this delay ruin
everything? What would the others, who were waiting at Croix d’Arcy,
think of him! What were they doing at this very moment? Maurice,
Chanlouineau, Jean, Marie-Anne, and some twenty old soldiers of the
Empire who accompanied the party, understood and shared Lacheneur’s
despair. They knew the terrible danger they were incurring, and like
their captain they constantly repeated: “Faster! Let us march faster!”

Vain was the exhortation! The peasantry openly declared that they
preferred walking slowly. Soon, indeed they did not walk at all, but
came to an abrupt halt. Still it was not hesitation that induced them to
pause. The fact was that some of the band, chancing to look back, had
perceived the lamps of Mademoiselle de Courtornieu’s carriage gleaming
in the darkness. The vehicle came rapidly onward, and soon overtook
them. The peasants at once recognized the coachman’s livery, and greeted
the carriage with derisive shouts.

M. de Courtornieu’s avarice had made him even more enemies than the Duke
de Sairmeuse’s pride, and all the peasants who thought they had more or
less to complain of his extortions were delighted at this opportunity to
frighten him; for as this was his carriage, no doubt he was inside.
Hence, their disappointment was great indeed when, on opening the
carriage-door, they perceived that the vehicle only contained Blanche
and her elderly aunt. The latter shrieked with terror, but her niece,
who was certainly a brave girl, haughtily asked: “Who are you? and what
do you want?”

“You shall know to-morrow,” replied Chanlouineau. “Until then, you are
our prisoners.”

“I see that you do not know who I am, boy.”

“Excuse me. I do know who you are, and, for this very reason, I must
request you to alight from your carriage. She must leave the carriage,
must she not, M. d’Escorval?”

“I won’t leave my carriage,” retorted the infuriated heiress. “Tear me
from it if you dare!”

They would certainly have dared to do so had it not been for Marie-Anne,
who checked several peasants as they were springing towards the vehicle.
“Let Mademoiselle de Courtornieu pass without hindrance,” said she.

But this permission might produce such serious consequences that
Chanlouineau found courage to resist. “That cannot be, Marie-Anne,” said
he. “She will warn her father. We must keep her as a hostage; her life
may save the lives of our friends.”

Blanche had not hitherto recognized her former friend, any more than she
had suspected the intentions of the crowd. But Marie-Anne’s name,
coupled with that of D’Escorval enlightened her at once. She understood
everything, and trembled with rage at the thought that she was at her
rival’s mercy. She immediately resolved to place herself under no
obligation to Marie-Anne Lacheneur.

“Very well,” said she, “we will alight.”

But Marie-Anne checked her. “No,” said she, “no! This is not proper
company for a young girl.”

“For an honest young girl, you should say,” replied Blanche, with a
sneer.

Chanlouineau was standing only a few feet off with his gun in his hand.
If a man had spoken in this manner he would certainly have killed him on
the spot.

“Mademoiselle will turn back,” calmly rejoined Marie-Anne, disdaining to
notice the insult which her former friend’s words implied. “As she can
reach Montaignac by the other road, two men will accompany her as far as
Courtornieu.”

The order was obeyed. The carriage turned and rolled away, though not
before Blanche had found time to cry: “Beware, Marie-Anne! I will make
you pay dearly for your insulting patronage!”

The hours were flying by. This incident had occupied ten minutes
more--ten centuries--and the last trace of order had vanished. Lacheneur
could have wept with rage. Suddenly calling Maurice and Chanlouineau to
his side, he said: “I place you in command, do everything you can to
hurry these idiots onward. I will ride as fast as possible to the Croix
d’Arcy.”

He started, but he was only a short distance in advance of his followers
when he perceived two men running towards him at full speed. One was
clad in the attire of the middle classes; the other wore the old uniform
of captain in the emperor’s guard.

“What has happened?” cried Lacheneur in alarm.

“Everything is discovered!”

“Good heavens!”

“Major Carini has been arrested.”

“By whom? How?”

“Ah! there was a fatality about it! Just as we were perfecting our
arrangements to seize the Duke de Sairmeuse, he himself surprised us. We
fled, but the cursed noble pursued us, overtook Carini, caught him by
the collar, and dragged him to the citadel.”

Lacheneur was overwhelmed; the abbe’s gloomy prophecy again resounded in
his ears.

“So I warned my friends, and hastened to warn you,” continued the
officer. “The affair is an utter failure!”

He was only too correct; and Lacheneur knew it even better than he did.
But, blinded by hatred and anger, he would not acknowledge that the
disaster was irreparable. He affected a calmness which he was far from
feeling. “You are easily discouraged, gentlemen,” he said, bitterly.
“There is, at least, one more chance.”

“The deuce! Then you have resources of which we are ignorant?”

“Perhaps--that depends. You have just passed the Croix d’Arcy; did you
tell any of those people what you have just told me?”

“Not a word.”

“How many men are assembled there?”

“At least two thousand.”

“And what is their mood?”

“They are all eagerness to begin the fight. They are cursing your
slowness, and told me to entreat you to make haste.”

“In that case our cause is not lost,” said Lacheneur, with a determined
gesture. “Wait here until the peasants come up, and impress upon them
that you were sent to tell them to make haste. Bring them on as quickly
as possible, and have confidence in me; I will be responsible for the
success of the enterprise.”

So speaking he put spurs to his horse and galloped away. In point of
fact, he had deceived the men he had just spoken with. He had no other
resources, nor even the slightest hope that the enterprise might now
prove successful. He had told an abominable falsehood. But if this
edifice, which he had raised with such infinite care and labour was to
totter and fall, he wished to be buried beneath its ruins. They would be
defeated; he felt sure of it, but what did that matter? In the conflict
he would seek death and find it.

Bitter discontent pervaded the crowd at the Croix d’Arcy, the murmurs of
dissatisfaction having changed to curses after the messengers despatched
to warn Lacheneur of the disaster at Montaignac had passed by. These
peasants, nearly two thousand in number, were indignant not to find
their leader waiting for them at the rendezvous. “Where is he?” they
asked each other. “Who knows, perhaps he has turned tail at the last
moment? Perhaps he is concealing himself while we are here risking our
lives and our children’s bread.”

Soon the epithets of mischief-maker and traitor flew from lip to lip,
increasing the anger that swelled in every heart. Some were of opinion
that it would be best to disperse; while others wished to march against
Montaignac without waiting any longer for Lacheneur. The point was being
deliberated when a vehicle appeared in sight. It was the Baron
d’Escorval’s cabriolet. He and the abbe were in advance of Lacheneur,
and trusted that they had arrived in time to prevent any further
prosecution of the enterprise. But although only a few minutes
previously several of the insurgents had wavered, the peacemakers found
all their entreaties and warnings useless. Instead of arresting the
movement, their intervention only precipitated it.

“We have gone too far to draw back,” exclaimed one of the neighbouring
farmers, who was the recognized leader in Lacheneur’s absence. “If death
is before us, it is also behind us. To attack and conquer--that is our
only hope of salvation. Forward, then, at once. That is the only way of
disconcerting our enemies. He who hesitates is a coward! So forward!”

“Yes, forward!” re-echoed the excited crowd. They unfurled the
tricolour, the banner banished by the Bourbon kings, which reminded them
of so much glory and such great misfortunes; the drums beat, and with
loud shouts of, “Long live Napoleon the Second!” the whole column took
up its line of march.

Pale, in disordered garb, and with voices husky with emotion and
fatigue, M. d’Escorval and the abbe followed in the wake of the rebels,
imploring them to listen to reason. These two alone perceived the
precipice towards which these misguided men were rushing, and they
prayed to providence for an inspiration that might enable them to arrest
this foolish enterprise while there was yet time. In fifty minutes the
distance separating the Croix d’Arcy from Montaignac is covered. Soon
the insurgents perceive the gate of the citadel, which was to have been
opened for them by their friends within the town. It is eleven o’clock,
and this gate is opened. Does not this circumstance prove that their
friends are masters of the town, and that they are awaiting them in
force? Hence, the column boldly advances, so certain of success that
those who carry guns do not even take the trouble to load them.

M. d’Escorval and the abbe alone foresee the catastrophe. They entreat
the leader of the expedition not to neglect the commonest precautions;
they implore him to send some two men on in advance to reconnoitre; they
themselves offer to go, on condition that the peasants will await their
return before proceeding farther.

But their prayers are unheeded. The peasants pass the outer line of
fortification in safety, and the head of the advancing column reaches
the drawbridge. The enthusiasm now amounts to delirium; and who will be
the first to enter is the only thought.

Alas! at that very moment they hear a pistol fired. It is a signal, for
instantly, and on every side, resounds a terrible fusillade. Three or
four peasant fall, mortally wounded. The remainder pause, terror
stricken and thinking only of escape. Still the leader encourages his
men, there are a few of Napoleon’s old soldiers in the ranks; and a
struggle begins, all the more frightful owing to the darkness!

But it is not the cry of “Forward!” that suddenly rends the air. The
voice of a coward raises the cry of panic: “We are betrayed! Let him
save himself who can!”

Then comes the end of all order. A wild fear seizes the throng; and
these men fly madly, despairingly, scattered like withered leaves are
scattered by the force of the tempest.



XIV.


At first Chupin’s extraordinary revelations and the thought that
Martial, the heir of his name and dukedom, should so degrade himself as
to enter into a conspiracy with vulgar peasants, had well-nigh overcome
the Duke de Sairmeuse. However, M. de Courtornieu’s composure soon
restored his _sang froid_. He hastened to the barracks, and in less than
half-an-hour five hundred linesmen and three hundred Montaignac
chasseurs were under arms. With those forces at his disposal it would
have been easy enough to suppress the movement without the slightest
bloodshed. It was only necessary to close the gates of the city, for it
was not with clubs and fowling-pieces that these infatuated peasants
could force an entrance into a fortified town.

Such moderation did not, however, suit a man of the duke’s violent
nature. Struggle and excitement were his elements, and ambition fanned
his zeal. He ordered the gates of the citadel to be left open, and
concealed numerous soldiers behind the parapets of the outer
fortifications. He then stationed himself where he could command a view
of the insurgents’ approach, and deliberately choose his moment for
giving the signal to fire. Still a strange thing happened. Out of four
hundred shots fired into a dense mass of fifteen hundred men, only three
hit their mark. More humane than their commander, nearly all the
soldiers had fired into the air.

However, the duke had no time to investigate this strange occurrence
now. He leaped into the saddle, and placing himself at the head of
several hundred men, both cavalry and infantry, he started in pursuit of
the fugitives. The peasants were, perhaps, some twenty minutes in
advance. These simple minded fellows might easily have made their
escape. They had only to disperse in twenty different directions; but
unfortunately, this thought never once occurred to the majority of them.
A few ran across the fields and then gained their homes in safety; while
the others fled panic stricken, like a flock of frightened sheep before
the pursuing soldiers. Fear lent them wings, for at each moment they
could hear the shots fired at the laggards.

There was one man, however, who was still steady galloping in the
direction of Montaignac; and this was Lacheneur. He had just reached
the Croix d’Arcy when the firing began. He listened and waited. No
discharge of musketry answered the first fusillade. What could be
happening? Plainly there was no combat. Had the peasantry been butchered
then? Lacheneur had a perception of the truth, and regretted that the
bullets just discharged had not pierced his own heart. He put spurs to
his horse and galloped past the cross-roads towards Montaignac. At last
he perceived the fugitives approaching in the distance. He dashed
forward to meet them, and mingling curses and insults together he vainly
tried to stay their flight. “You cowards!” he vociferated, “you
traitors! you fly and you are ten against one! Where are you going? To
your own homes? Fools! you will only find the gendarmes there, waiting
your coming to conduct you to the scaffold. Is it not better to die with
your weapons in your hands? Come--right about. Follow me! We may still
conquer. Re-enforcements are at hand; two thousand men are following
me!”

He promised them two thousand men; had he promised them ten thousand,
twenty thousand--an army and cannon, it would have made no difference.
Not until they reached the wide open space of the cross-roads, where
they had talked so confidently scarcely an hour before, did the more
intelligent of the throng regain their senses, while the others fled in
every direction.

About a hundred of the bravest and most determined of the conspirators
gathered round Lacheneur. In the midst of the little crowd was the Abbe
Midon with a gloomy and despondent countenance. He had been separated
from the baron, of whose fate he was ignorant. Had M. d’Escorval been
killed or taken prisoner? or was it possible that he had made his
escape? The worthy priest dared not return home. He waited, hoping that
his companion might rejoin him, and deemed himself fortunate in finding
the baron’s cabriolet still standing at a corner of the open space,
formed by the four cross roads. He was still waiting when the remnant of
the column confided to Maurice and Chanlouineau came up. Of the five
hundred men that composed this troop on its departure from Sairmeuse,
only fifteen remained, including the two retired officers, who had
escaped from Montaignac, and brought Lacheneur intelligence that the
conspiracy was discovered. Marie-Anne was in the centre of this little
party.

Her father and his friends were trying to decide what course should be
pursued. Should each man go his own way? or should they unite, and by an
obstinate resistance, give their comrades time to reach their homes?

Chanlouineau’s voice put an end to the hesitation. “I have come to
fight,” he exclaimed, “and I shall sell my life dearly.”

“We will make a stand then!” cried the others.

But Chanlouineau did not immediately follow them to the spot they
considered best adapted for a prolonged defence; he called Maurice and
drew him a little aside. “You must leave us at once M. d’Escorval,” he
said, in a rough voice.

“I--I came here, Chanlouineau, as you did, to do my duty.”

“Your duty, sir, is to serve Marie-Anne. Go at once, and take her with
you.”

“I shall remain,” said Maurice firmly.

He was going to join his comrades when Chanlouineau stopped him. “You
have no right to sacrifice your life here,” he said quickly. “It belongs
to the woman who has given herself to you.”

“Wretch! how dare you--”

Chanlouineau sadly shook his head. “What is the use of denying it?” said
he. “It was so great a temptation that only an angel could have resisted
it. It was not your fault, nor was it hers. Lacheneur was a bad father.
There was a day when I wanted either to kill myself or to kill you, I
didn’t know which. Ah! you certainly were near death that day. You were
scarcely five paces from the muzzle of my gun. It was God who stayed my
hand by reminding me what her despair would be. But now that I have to
die, and Lacheneur as well, some one must take care of Marie-Anne. Swear
that you will marry her. You may be involved in some difficulty on
account of this affair; but I have the means of saving you.”

He was suddenly interrupted by a fusillade. The Duke de Sairmeuse’s
soldiers were approaching. “Good heavens!” exclaimed Chanlouineau, “and
Marie-Anne.”

They rushed in pursuit of her, and Maurice was the first to find her,
standing in the centre of the open space clinging to the neck of her
father’s horse. He took her in his arms, trying to drag her away.
“Come!” said he, “come!”

But she refused. “Leave me, leave me!” she entreated.

“But all is lost!”

“Yes, I know that all is lost--even honour. Leave me here. I must
remain; I must die, and thus hide my shame. It must, it shall be so!”

Just then Chanlouineau reached them. Had he divined the secret of her
resistance? Perhaps so, but at all events without uttering a word, he
lifted her in his strong arms as if she had been a child, and carried
her to the cabriolet, beside which the Abbe Midon was standing. “Get
in,” he said, addressing the priest, “and quick--take Mademoiselle
Lacheneur. Now, Maurice it’s your turn!”

But the duke’s soldiers were already masters of the field. They had
perceived this little group and hastened forward. Brave Chanlouineau
certainly was. He seized his gun, and brandishing it like a club managed
to hold the enemy at bay, while Maurice sprang into the carriage, caught
the reins and started the horse off at a gallop. All the cowardice and
all the heroism displayed on that terrible night will never be really
known. Two minutes after the departure of the vehicle, Chanlouineau was
still battling with the foe. He had at least a dozen men to deal with.
Twenty shots had been fired, and yet he was unwounded, and his enemies
almost believed him to be invulnerable.

“Surrender!” cried the soldiers, amazed by his bravery; “surrender!”

“Never! never!” he shrieked in reply, at the same time warding his
assailants off with well-nigh superhuman strength and agility. The
struggle might have lasted some time longer, had not one of the soldiers
managed to crawl behind him, without being perceived. This linesman
seized Chanlouineau by the legs, and although the latter struggled
furiously, he was taken at such a disadvantage that further resistance
was impossible. He fell to the ground with a loud cry of “Help! friends,
help!”

But no one responded to this appeal. At the other end of the open space
those upon whom he called had virtually yielded, after a desperate
struggle. The main body of the duke’s infantry was near at hand. The
rebels could hear the drums beating the charge; and see the bayonets
gleaming in the moonlight.

Lacheneur, who had remained on horseback amid his partisans, utterly
ignoring the bullets that whistled round him, felt that his few
remaining friends were about to be exterminated. At that supreme moment
a vision of the past flitted before his mind’s eye, with the rapidity of
a flash of lightning. He read and judged his own heart. Hatred had led
him to crime. He loathed himself for the humiliation which he had
imposed upon his daughter, and cursed himself for the falsehoods with
which he had deceived these brave men, for whose death he would be
accountable to God. Enough blood had flowed; he must save those who
remained. “Cease firing, my friends,” he commanded; “retreat!”

They obeyed--he could see them scatter in every direction. He too could
fly, for was he not mounted on a swift steed which would bear him beyond
the reach of the enemy? But he had sworn that he would not survive
defeat. Maddened with remorse, despair, sorrow, and impotent rage, he
saw no refuge except in death. He had only to wait for it, for it was
fast approaching; and yet he preferred to rush to meet it. Gathering up
the reins, and applying the spurs he charged upon the enemy.

The shock was rude, the ranks opened, and there was a moment’s
confusion. Then Lacheneur’s horse, wounded by a dozen bayonet thrusts,
reared on its hind-legs, beat the air with its forehoofs, and, falling
backwards, pinned its rider underneath. And the soldiers marched onward
not suspecting that the rider was struggling to free himself.

It was half-past one in the morning--the open space where the cross
roads met was virtually deserted. Nothing could be heard save the moans
of a few wounded men, calling on their comrades for succour. Before
thinking of attending to the wounded, M. de Sairmeuse had to occupy
himself with his own personal interests and glory. Now that the
insurrection had, so to say, been suppressed, it was necessary to
exaggerate its magnitude as much as possible, in order that his grace’s
reward might be in proportion with the services he would be supposed to
have rendered. Some fifteen or twenty rebels had been captured; but
these were not sufficient to give the victory all the _eclat_ which the
duke desired. He must find more culprits to drag before the
provost-marshal or before a military commission. He, therefore, divided
his troops into several detachments, and sent them in every direction
with orders to explore the villages, search the houses, and arrest all
suspected persons. Having given this order and recommended implacable
severity, he turned his horse and started at a brisk trot for
Montaignac.

Like his friend, M. de Courtornieu, he would have blessed these honest,
artless conspirators, had not a growing fear impaired his satisfaction.
Was his son, the Marquis de Sairmeuse, really implicated in this
conspiracy or not? The duke could scarcely believe in Martial’s
connivance, and yet the recollection of Chupin’s assertions troubled
him. On the other hand, what could have become of Martial? Had he been
met by the servant sent to warn him? Was he returning? And, in that
case, by which road? Had he fallen into the hands of the peasants? So
many questions which could not with certainty be answered.

His grace’s relief was intense when, on reaching his residence in
Montaignac, after a conference with M. de Courtornieu, he learnt that
Martial had returned home about a quarter of an hour before. The servant
who brought him this news added that the marquis had gone to his own
room directly he dismounted from his horse.

“All right,” replied the duke. “I will go to him there.” At the same
time, however, despite his outward placidity of manner, he was secretly
murmuring, “What abominable impertinence! What! I am on horseback at the
head of my troops, my life imperilled, and my son goes quietly to bed
without even assuring himself of my safety!”

He reached Martial’s room, and finding the door closed and locked on the
inside, rapped angrily against the panel.

“Who is there?” inquired the young marquis.

“It is I,” replied the duke; “open the door.”

Martial at once complied, and M. de Sairmeuse entered; but the sight
that met his gaze made him tremble. On the table stood a basin full of
blood, and Martial, with bare chest, was bathing a large wound near the
right nipple.

“You have been fighting!” exclaimed the duke, in an agitated voice.

“Yes.”

“Ah!--then you were, indeed--”

“I was where?--what?”

“Why, at the rendezvous of those miserable peasants who, in their folly,
dared to dream of overthrowing the best of princes!”

“I think you must be jesting, sir,” replied Martial, in a tone of deep
surprise, which somewhat reassured his father, though it failed to
dissipate his suspicions entirely.

“Then these vile rascals attacked you?” inquired M. de Sairmeuse.

“Not at all. I have been simply obliged to fight a duel.”

“With whom? Name the scoundrel who has dared to insult you?”

A faint flush tinged Martial’s cheek; but it was with his usual careless
manner that he replied: “Upon my word, no; I shall not give his name.
You would trouble him, perhaps; and I really owe the fellow a debt of
gratitude. It happened upon the highway; he might have murdered me
without ceremony had he only chosen, but he offered me open combat.
Besides, he was wounded far more severely than I.”

All M. de Sairmeuse’s doubts had now returned. “And why, instead of
summoning a physician, are you attempting to dress this wound yourself?”

“Because it is a mere trifle, and because I wish to keep it a secret.”

The duke shook his head. “All this is scarcely plausible,” he remarked;
“especially after the statements made to me concerning your complicity
in the revolt.”

“Ah!” said the young marquis, “so your head spy has been at work again.
However, I am certainly surprised that you can hesitate for a moment
between your son’s word and the stories told you by such a wretch.”

“Don’t speak ill of Chupin, marquis; he is a very useful man. Had it not
been for him, we should have been taken unawares. It was through him
that I learned of this vast conspiracy organized by Lacheneur--”

“What! is it Lacheneur--”

“Who is at the head of the movement?--yes, marquis. Ah! your usual
discernment has failed you in this instance. What, you were a constant
visitor at his house, and yet you suspected nothing? And you contemplate
a diplomatic career! But this is not everything. Now you know what
became of the money you so lavishly bestowed on these people. They used
it to purchase guns, powder and ammunition.”

The duke was satisfied that his earlier suspicions concerning his son’s
complicity were without foundation; still he could not resist the
temptation to taunt Martial anent his intimacy with the ex-steward of
Sairmeuse. But, despite the bitterness of the situation, it proved a
fruitless effort. Martial knew very well that he had been duped, but he
did not think of resentment. “If Lacheneur has been captured,” he
murmured to himself, “if he were condemned to death, and if I could only
save him, then Marie-Anne would have nothing to refuse me.”



XV.


When the Baron d’Escorval divined the reason of his son’s frequent
absences from home, he studiously avoided speaking on the matter to his
wife; and, indeed, he did not even warn her of his purpose when he went
to ask the Abbe Midon to go with him to Lacheneur’s. This was the first
time that he had ever had a secret from the faithful partner of his
life; and his silence fully explains the intensity of Madame
d’Escorval’s astonishment when at dinner time Maurice was sometimes
late; but the baron, like all great workers, was punctuality itself.
Hence his non-arrival could only be due to some extraordinary
occurrence. Madame d’Escorval’s surprise developed into uneasiness when
she ascertained that her husband had started off in the Abbe Midon’s
company, that they had harnessed a horse to the cabriolet themselves,
driving through the stable-yard into a lane leading to the public road,
in lieu of passing through the court-yard in front of the house, as was
the usual practice. This strange precaution must necessarily conceal
some mystery.

Madame d’Escorval waited, oppressed by vague forebodings. The servants
shared her anxiety; for the baron’s affability and kindness had greatly
endeared him to all his dependants. Long hours passed by, but
eventually, at about ten o’clock in the evening, a peasant returning
from Sairmeuse passed by the chateau, and seeing the servants clustering
in front of the garden gate he stopped short, and with the loquacity of
a man who has just been sacrificing at the altar of Bacchus proceeded to
relate the most incredible stories. He declared that all the peasantry
for ten leagues around were under arms, and that the Baron d’Escorval
was the leader of a revolt organized for the restoration of the Empire.
He did not doubt the final success of the movement, boldly stating that
Napoleon II., Marie-Louise, and all the marshals were concealed in
Montaignac. Alas! it must be confessed that Lacheneur had not hesitated
to utter the grossest falsehoods in his anxiety to gain followers to his
cause. Madame d’Escorval, before whom this peasant was conducted, could
not be deceived by these ridiculous stories, but she could and did
believe that the baron was the prime mover in the insurrection. And this
belief, which would have carried consternation to many women’s hearts,
absolutely reassured her. She had entire, unlimited faith in her
husband. She believed him superior to all other men--infallible, in
short. Hence, if he had organized a movement, that movement was right.
If he had attempted it, it was because he expected to succeed; and if he
looked for success, to her mind it was certain.

Impatient, however, to know the result, she despatched the gardener to
Sairmeuse with orders to obtain information without awakening suspicion,
if possible, and to hasten back as soon as he could learn anything of a
positive nature. He returned shortly after midnight, pale, frightened,
and in tears. The disaster had already become known, and had been
described to him with any amount of exaggeration. He had been told that
hundreds of men had been killed, and that a whole army was scouring the
country, massacring the defenceless peasants and their families.

While he was telling his story, Madame d’Escorval felt as if she were
going mad. She saw--yes, positively, saw her son and her husband,
dead--or still worse, mortally wounded, stretched on the public
highway--lying with their arms crossed upon their breasts, livid,
bloody, their eyes staring wildly--begging for water--a drop of water to
assuage their burning thirst. “I will find them!” she exclaimed, in
frenzied accents. “I will go to the battlefield and seek for them among
the dead, until I find them. Light some torches, my friends, and come
with me, for you will aid me, will you not? You loved them; they were so
good! You would not leave their dead bodies unburied! Oh! the wretches!
The wretches who have killed them!”

The servants were hastening to obey when the furious gallop of a horse
and the rapid roll of carriage-wheels were heard. “Here they come!”
exclaimed the gardener, “here they come!”

Madame d’Escorval, followed by the servants, rushed to the gate just in
time to see a cabriolet enter the courtyard, and the panting horse,
flecked with foam, miss his footing, and fall. The Abbe Midon and
Maurice had already sprung to the ground and were removing an apparently
lifeless body from the vehicle. Even Marie-Anne’s great energy had not
been able to resist so many successive shocks. The last trial had
overwhelmed her. Once in the carriage, all immediate danger having
disappeared, the excitement which had sustained her fled. She became
unconscious, and all efforts had hitherto failed to restore her. Madame
d’Escorval, however, did not recognize Mademoiselle Lacheneur in her
masculine attire. She only saw that the body Maurice and the priest were
carrying was not her husband, and turning to her son exclaimed in a
stifled voice. “And your father--your father where is he?”

Until that moment, Maurice and the cure had comforted themselves with
the hope that M. d’Escorval would reach home before them. They were now
cruelly undeceived. Maurice tottered, and almost dropped his precious
burden. The abbe perceived his anguish and made a sign to two servants
who gently lifted Marie-Anne, and bore her to the house. Then turning to
Madame d’Escorval the cure exclaimed at hazard. “The baron will soon be
here, madame, he fled first--”

“The baron d’Escorval could not have fled,” she interrupted. “A general
does not desert when he is face to face with the enemy. If a panic
seizes his soldiers, he rushes to the front, and either leads them back
to combat, or sacrifices his own life.”

“Mother!” faltered Maurice; “mother!”

“Oh! do not try to deceive me. My husband was the organizer of this
conspiracy--If his confederates have been beaten and dispersed they must
have proved themselves cowards. Heaven have mercy upon me, my husband is
dead!”

In spite of the abbe’s quickness of perception, he could not understand
these assertions on the part of the baroness; and feared that sorrow and
terror had tampered with her mind. “Ah! madame,” he exclaimed, “the
baron had nothing to do with this movement: far from it--” He paused;
they were standing in the court-yard, in the full glare of the torches
lighted by the servants a moment previously. Any one passing along the
public road could hear and see everything; and in the present situation
such imprudence might have fatal results. “Come, Madame,” accordingly
resumed the priest, leading the baroness toward the house “and you
Maurice, come as well!”

Madame d’Escorval and her son passively obeyed the summons. The former
seemed crushed by unspeakable anguish, but on entering the drawing-room
she instinctively glanced at the seemingly lifeless form extended on the
sofa. This time she recognized Marie-Anne. “What, Mademoiselle
Lacheneur!” she faltered, “here in this costume? dead?”

One might indeed believe that the poor girl was dead, to see her lying
there rigid, cold, and as white as if the last drop of blood had been
drained from her veins. Her beautiful face had the motionless pallor of
marble; her half-open colourless lips disclosed her teeth, clenched
convulsively, and a large dark blue circle surrounded her closed
eyelids. Her long black hair, which she had rolled up closely, so as to
slip it under her peasant’s hat was now unwound, and fell confusedly
over the sofa and her shoulders.

“There is no danger,” declared the abbe, after he had examined her. “She
has only fainted, and it will not be long before she regains
consciousness.” And then, rapidly but clearly, he gave the necessary
directions to the servants, who were as astonished as their mistress.

“What a night!” murmured Madame d’Escorval, as staring on the scene
with dilated eyes she mechanically wiped her forehead, covered with cold
perspiration.

“I must remind you, madame,” said the priest sympathizingly, but firmly,
“that reason and duty alike forbid your yielding to despair! Wife, where
is your energy? Christian, what has become of your confidence in a just
and protecting providence!”

“Oh! I have courage left,” faltered the wretched woman. “I am brave!”

The abbe led her to a large arm-chair and compelled her to sit down.
Then in a gentler tone, he resumed: “Besides, why should you despair,
madame? Your son is with you in safety. Your husband has not compromised
himself; he has done nothing more than I have done myself.” And briefly,
but with rare precision, the priest explained the part which he and the
baron had played during this unfortunate evening.

Instead of reassuring the baroness, however, his recital seemed to
increase her anxiety. “I understand you,” she interrupted, “and I
believe you. But I also know that all the people in the country round
about are convinced that my husband commanded the rebels. They believe
it, and they will say it.”

“And what of that?”

“If he has been arrested, as you give me to understand may be the case,
he will be summoned before a court-martial. Was he not one of the
emperor’s friends? That alone is a crime, as you know very well
yourself. He will be convicted and sentenced to death.”

“No, madame, no! Am I not here? I will go to the tribunal, and say: ‘I
have seen and know everything.’”

“But they will arrest you as well, for you are not a priest after their
cruel hearts. They will throw you into prison, and you will meet him on
the scaffold.”

Maurice had been listening with a pale, haggard face. “Ah, I shall have
been the cause of the death of my father,” he exclaimed, as he heard
these last words, and then despite all the abbe’s attempts to silence
him, he continued. “Yes, I shall have killed him. He was ignorant even
of the existence of this conspiracy desired by Lacheneur; but I knew of
it, and wished to succeed, because on it the success, the happiness of
my life depended. And then--wretch that I was!--at times when I wished
to gain a waverer to our ranks, I mentioned the honoured name of
D’Escorval. Ah! I was mad!--I was mad! And yet, even now, I have not the
courage to curse my folly! Oh, mother, mother, if you knew----”

The young fellow paused, the sobs which convulsively rose in his throat,
choking all further utterances. Just then a faint moan was heard.
Marie-Anne was slowly regaining consciousness. She seemed intensely
puzzled by the scene around her, and passed her hands before her
wandering eyes as if to ascertain whether she were really awake or not.
At one moment she opened her mouth as if to speak, but the Abbe Midon
checked her with a hasty gesture. Maurice’s confession, and his mother’s
remarks had fully enlightened the priest as to the danger threatening
the D’Escorvals. How could it be averted? There was no time for
reflection. He must decide, and act at once. Accordingly he darted to
the door, and summoned the servants still clustering in the hall and on
the staircase. “Listen to me attentively,” said he, in that quick
imperious voice which unhesitatingly impresses the hearer with the
certainty of approaching peril, “and remember that your master’s life
depends, perhaps, upon your discretion. We can rely upon you, can we
not?”

Simultaneously the little group of dependents raised their hands, as if
to call upon heaven to witness their fidelity.

“In less than an hour,” continued the priest, “the soldiers sent in
pursuit of the fugitives will be here. Not a word must be said
concerning what has happened this evening. Whoever questions you must be
led to suppose that I went away with the baron, and returned alone. Not
one of you must have seen Mademoiselle Lacheneur. We are going to
conceal her. Remember, my friends that all is lost if the slightest
suspicion of her presence here is roused. Should the soldiers question
you, try and convince them that M. Maurice has not left the house this
evening.” The priest paused for a moment, trying to think if he had
forgotten any other precaution that human prudence could suggest; then
he added again. “One word more; to see you standing about at this hour
of the night will awaken suspicion at once. However, we must plead in
justification the alarm we feel at the baron’s prolonged absence.
Besides, Madame d’Escorval is ill and that will furnish another excuse.
She must go to bed at once, for by this means she may escape all
awkward questioning. As for you, Maurice, run and change your clothes;
and above all, wash your hands, and sprinkle some scent over them.”

Those who heard the abbe were so impressed with the imminence of the
danger, that they were more than willing to obey his orders. As soon as
Marie-Anne could be moved, she was carried to a tiny garret under the
roof; while Madame d’Escorval retired to her own room, and the servants
went back to the kitchen. Maurice and the abbe remained alone in the
drawing-room. They were both cruelly oppressed by anxiety, and shared
the opinion that the Baron d’Escorval had been made a prisoner. In that
event, the abbe Midon felt that all he could usefully attempt, was to
try and save Maurice from any charge of complicity. “And who knows,” he
muttered, “the son’s freedom may save the father’s life.”

At that moment, his meditations were interrupted by a violent pull at
the bell of the front gate. The gardener could be heard hastening to
answer the summons, the gate grated on its hinges, and then the measured
tread of soldiers resounded over the gravel. Half-a-minute later a loud
voice commanded: “Halt!”

The priest looked at Maurice and saw that he was as pale as death. “Be
calm,” he entreated, “don’t be alarmed. Don’t lose your
self-possession--and, above all, don’t forget my instructions.”

“Let them come,” replied Maurice. “I am prepared.”

Scarcely had he spoken than the drawing-room door was flung violently
open, and a captain of grenadiers entered the apartment. He was a young
fellow of five-and-twenty, tall, fair-haired, with blue eyes, and a
little, carefully waxed moustache. No doubt on ordinary occasions this
military dandy’s features wore the coxcomb’s usual look of
self-complacency, but for the time being he had a really ferocious air.
The soldiers by whom he was accompanied awaited his orders in the hall.
After glancing suspiciously round the apartment, he asked in a harsh
voice; “Who is the master of this house?”

“The Baron d’Escorval, my father, who is absent,” replied Maurice.

“Where is he?”

The abbe, who had hitherto remained seated, now rose to his feet. “On
hearing of the unfortunate outbreak of this evening,” he replied, “the
baron and myself went after the peasants in the hope of inducing them to
relinquish their foolish undertaking. They would not listen to us. In
the confusion that ensued, I became separated from the baron; I returned
here very anxious, and am now waiting for his return.”

The captain twisted his moustache with a sneering air. “Not a bad
invention!” said he. “Only I don’t believe a word of it.”

A threatening light gleamed in the priest’s eyes, and his lips trembled
for a moment. However, he prudently held his peace.

“Who are you?” rudely asked the officer.

“I am the cure of Sairmeuse.”

“Honest men ought to be in bed at this hour. And you are racing about
the country after rebellious peasants. Really, I don’t know what
prevents me from ordering your arrest.”

What did prevent him was the priestly robe, all powerful under the
Restoration. With Maurice, however, the swaggering swashbuckler was more
at ease. “How many are there in this family of yours?” he asked.

“Three; my father, my mother--ill at this moment--and myself.”

“And how many servants?”

“Seven--four men and three women.”

“You haven’t housed or concealed any one here this evening?”

“No one.”

“It will be necessary to prove that,” rejoined the captain; and turning
towards the door he called, “Corporal Bavois, step here!”

This corporal proved to be one of the old soldiers who had followed the
emperor all over Europe. Two tiny, but piercing grey eyes lighted his
tanned, weather-beaten face, and an immense hooked nose surmounted a
heavy, bristling moustache. “Bavois,” commanded the officer, “take half
a dozen men and search this house from top to bottom. You are an old
fox, and if there be any hiding-place here, you will be sure to discover
it. If you find any one concealed here, bring the person to me. Go, and
make haste!”

The corporal saluted and turned on his heels; while the captain walked
towards Maurice: “And now,” said he, “what have you been doing this
evening?”

The young man hesitated for a moment: then, with well-feigned
indifference, replied: “I have not put my head out of doors.”

“Hum! that must be proved. Let me see your hands.”

The soldier’s tone was so offensive that Maurice felt the blood rise to
his forehead. Fortunately a warning glance from the abbe made him
restrain himself. He offered his hands for inspection, and the captain,
after examining them carefully on either side, took the final precaution
to smell them. “Ah!” quoth he, “these hands are too white and smell too
sweet to have been dabbling with powder.”

At the same time he was somewhat surprised that this young man should
have so little courage as to remain by the fireside at home, while his
father was leading the peasants on to battle. “Another thing,” said he:
“you must have some weapons here?”

“Yes, a few hunting rifles.”

“Where are they?”

“In a small room on the ground floor.”

“Take me there.”

They conducted him to the room, and on finding that none of the guns had
been used, at least for some days, he seemed considerably annoyed. But
his disappointment reached a climax when Corporal Bavois returned and
stated that he had searched everywhere, without finding anything of a
suspicious character.

“Send for the servants,” was the officer’s next order; but all the
dependents faithfully confined themselves to the story indicated by the
abbe Midon, and the captain perceived that even if a mystery existed, as
he suspected, he was not likely to fathom it. Swearing that all the
inmates of the house should pay a heavy penalty if they were deceiving
him, he again called Bavois and told him that he should resume the
search himself. “You,” he added, “will remain here with two men, and I
shall expect you to render a strict account of all you see and hear. If
M. d’Escorval returns, bring him to me at once; do not allow him to
escape. Keep your eyes open and good luck to you!”

He added a few words in a low voice, and then left the room as abruptly
as he had entered it. Scarcely had the sound of his footsteps died away,
than the corporal gave vent to his disgust in a frightful oath.
“_Hein!_” said he, to his men, “did you hear that cadet. Listen, watch,
arrest, report. So he takes us for spies! Ah! if the Little Corporal
only knew how his old soldiers were degraded!”

The two men responded with sullen growls.

“As for you,” pursued the old trooper, addressing Maurice and the abbe,
“I Bavois, corporal of the grenadiers, declare in my own name and in
that of my comrades here, that you are as free as birds, and that we
shall arrest no one. More than that, if we can aid you in any way, we
are at your service. The little fool who commands us this evening
thought we were fighting. Look at my gun--I have not fired a shot from
it--and my comrades only fired blank cartridges.” The statement might
possibly be a sincere one, but was scarcely probable. “We have nothing
to conceal,” replied the cautious priest.

The old corporal gave a knowing wink. “Ah! you distrust me!” said he.
“You are wrong, as I’ll show you. It may be easy to gull that fool who
has just left here, but it’s not so easy to deceive Corporal Bavois. And
if you had intended to do so, you shouldn’t have left a gun in the
courtyard, which was certainly never loaded for firing at swallows.”

The cure and Maurice exchanged glances of consternation. Maurice now
recollected, for the first time, that on alighting from the cabriolet on
his return, he had hastily propped the loaded gun against the wall. The
weapon had subsequently escaped the servants’ notice.

“Secondly!” resumed Bavois, “there is some one concealed in the attic. I
have excellent ears. Thirdly, I arranged matters so that no one should
enter the sick lady’s room.”

Maurice needed no further proof. He held out his hand to the corporal,
and, in a voice trembling with emotion, replied: “You are a noble
fellow!”

A few moments later--the three grenadiers having retired to another
room, where they were served with supper--Maurice, the abbe, and Madame
d’Escorval were again deliberating concerning their future action, when
Marie-Anne entered the apartment with a pale face, but firm step. “I
must leave this house,” she said, to the baroness, in a tone of quiet
resolution. “Had I been conscious, I would never have accepted
hospitality which is likely to bring such misfortune on your family.
Your acquaintance with me has cost you too much sorrow already. Don’t
you understand now, why I wished you to look on us as strangers? A
presentiment told me that my family would prove fatal to yours!”

“Poor child!” exclaimed Madame d’Escorval; “where will you go?”

Marie-Anne raised her beautiful eyes to heaven. “I don’t know, madame,”
she replied, “but duty commands me to go. I must learn what has become
of my father and brother, and share their fate.”

“What!” exclaimed Maurice, “still this thought of death. You, who no
longer----” He paused; for a secret which was not his own had almost
escaped his lips. But visited by a sudden inspiration, he threw himself
at his mother’s feet. “Oh, my mother! my dearest mother, do not allow
her to go,” he cried. “I may perish in my attempt to save my father. She
will be your daughter then--she whom I have loved so dearly. She cannot
leave us. You will encircle her with your tender and protecting love;
and may be, after all these trials, happier times will come.”

Touched by her son’s despair, Madame d’Escorval turned to Marie-Anne,
and with her winning words soon prevailed upon her to remain.



XVI.


The baroness knew nothing of the secret which Marie-Anne had revealed at
the Croix d’Arcy, when she proclaimed her desire to die by her father’s
side; but Maurice was scarcely uneasy on that score, for his faith in
his mother was so great that he felt sure she would forgive them both
when she learnt the truth. Not unfrequently does it happen, that of all
women, chaste and loving wives and mothers are precisely the most
indulgent towards those whom the voice of passion has led astray.
Comforted by this reflection, which reassured him as to the future of
the girl he loved, Maurice now turned all his thoughts towards his
father.

The day was breaking, and he declared that he would disguise himself as
best he could, and go to Montaignac at once. It was not without a
feeling of anxiety that Madame d’Escorval heard him speak in this
manner. She was trembling for her husband’s life, and now her son must
hurry into danger. Perhaps before the day was over neither husband nor
son would be left to her. And yet she did not forbid his going; for she
felt that he was only fulfilling a sacred duty. She would have loved him
less had she supposed him capable of cowardly hesitation, and would have
dried her tears, if necessary to bid him “go.” Moreover, was not
anything preferable to the agony of suspense which they had been
enduring for hours?

Maurice had reached the drawing-room door when the abbe called him back.
“You must certainly go to Montaignac,” said he, “but it would be folly
to disguise yourself. You would surely be recognized, and the saying:
‘He who conceals himself is guilty,’ would at once be applied to you.
You must proceed openly, with head erect, and you must even exaggerate
the assurance of innocence. Go straight to the Duke de Sairmeuse and the
Marquis de Courtornieu. I will accompany you; we will go together in the
carriage.”

“Take this advice, Maurice,” said Madame d’Escorval, seeing that her son
seemed undecided, “the abbe knows what is best much better than we do.”

The cure had not waited for the assent which Maurice gave to his
mother’s words, but had already gone to order the carriage to be got
ready. On the other hand, Madame d’Escorval now left the room to write a
few lines to a lady friend, whose husband had considerable influence in
Montaignac; and Maurice and Marie-Anne were thus left alone. This was
the first moment of freedom they had found since Marie-Anne’s
confession. “My darling,” whispered Maurice, clasping the young girl to
his heart, “I did not think it was possible to love more fondly than I
loved you yesterday; but now---- And you--you wish for death when
another precious life depends on yours.”

“I was terrified,” faltered Marie-Anne. “I was terrified at the prospect
of shame which I saw--which I still see before me; but now I am
resigned. My frailty deserves punishment, and I must submit to the
insults and disgrace awaiting me.”

“Insults! Let any one dare insult you! But will you not now be my wife
in the sight of men, as you are in the sight of heaven? The failure of
your father’s scheme sets you free!”

“No, no, Maurice, I am not free! Ah! it is you who are pitiless! I see
only too well that you curse me, that you curse the day when we met for
the first time! Confess it!” And so speaking Marie-Anne lifted her
streaming eyes to his. “As for me,” she resumed, “I could not say so.
Grievous my fault is, no doubt, I am disgraced and humiliated, but
still----”

She could not finish; Maurice drew her to him, and their lips and their
tears met in one long embrace. “You love me,” he exclaimed, “you love me
in spite of everything! We shall succeed. I will save your father, and
mine--I will save your brother too.”

He had no time to say more. The baron’s berline, to which a couple of
horses had been harnessed, that they might reach Montaignac with greater
speed, was waiting in the courtyard; and the abbe’s voice could be heard
calling on Maurice to make haste, and Madame d’Escorval, moreover, now
returned, carrying a letter which she handed to her son. One long, last
embrace, and then leaving the two women to their tears and prayers,
Maurice and the abbe sprang into the carriage, which was soon dashing
along the high road towards Montaignac.

“If, by confessing your own guilt, you could save your father,” said the
Abbe Midon as they rolled through the village of Sairmeuse, “I should
tell you to give yourself up, and confess the whole truth. Such would be
your duty. But such a sacrifice would be not only useless, but
dangerous. Your confessions of guilt would only implicate your father
still more. You would be arrested, but they would not release him, and
you would both be tried and convicted. Let us then allow--I will not say
justice, for that would be blasphemy--but these blood-thirsty men, who
call themselves judges, to pursue their course, and attribute all that
you yourself have done to your father. When the trial comes on you will
be able to prove his innocence, and to produce _alibis_ of so
unimpeachable a character, that they will be forced to acquit him. And I
understand the people of our province well enough to feel sure that none
of them will reveal our stratagem.”

“And if we should not succeed in that way,” asked Maurice, gloomily,
“what could I do then?”

The question was so grave a one that the priest did not even try to
answer it, and tortured with anxiety and cruel forebodings, he and
Maurice remained silent during the rest of the journey. When they
reached the town young d’Escorval realised the abbe’s wisdom in
preventing him from assuming a disguise; for, armed as they were with
absolute power the Duke de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de Courtornieu had
closed all the gates of Montaignac but one, through which all those who
desired to leave or enter the town were obliged to pass; two officers
being moreover stationed beside it, to examine and question all comers
and goers. Maurice noticed these officers’ surprise when, on being asked
who he was, he gave them the name of d’Escorval. “Ah! you know what has
become of my father!” he exclaimed.

“The Baron d’Escorval is a prisoner,” replied one of the officers.

Although Maurice had expected this reply, he turned pale with suppressed
emotion. “Is he wounded?” he asked, eagerly.

“He hasn’t a scratch,” was the answer; “but please pass on.” From the
tone of this last remark, and the anxious looks the officers exchanged
one might have supposed that they feared they might compromise
themselves by conversing with the son of so great a criminal.

The carriage rolled under the archway, and had gone a couple of hundred
yards or so along the Grande Rue when Maurice noticed a large poster
affixed to one of the walls, and which an elderly man was busy perusing.
Instinctively both the inmates of the vehicle felt that this notice must
have some connection with the revolt; and they were not mistaken, for on
springing to the ground they themselves read as follows: “We, commander
of the Military Division of Montaignac, in virtue of the State of Siege,
decree--Article I.--The inmates of the house in which the elder
Lacheneur is found shall be handed over to a military commission for
trial. Article II.--Whoever shall deliver up the body of the elder
Lacheneur, dead or alive, will receive a reward of twenty thousand
francs. _Signed_: DUKE DE SAIRMEUSE.”

“God be praised!” exclaimed Maurice when he had finished his perusal.
“Then Marie-Anne’s father has escaped! He had a good horse, and in two
hours--”

A glance and a nudge from the abbe checked him; and in turning he
recognized that the man standing near them was none other than Father
Chupin. The old scoundrel had also recognized them, for he took off his
hat to the cure, and with an expression of intense covetousness
remarked: “Twenty thousand francs! What a sum! A man could live
comfortably all his life on the interest.”

The abbe and Maurice shuddered as they re-entered the carriage.
“Lacheneur is lost if that man discovers his whereabouts,” murmured the
priest.

“Fortunately he must have crossed the frontier before now,” replied
Maurice. “A hundred to one he is beyond reach.”

“And if you should be mistaken. What, if wounded and faint from loss of
blood, Lacheneur only had strength enough to drag himself to the nearest
house and implore the hospitality of its inmates?”

“Oh! even in that case he is safe; I know our peasants. There is not one
who is capable of selling the life of a proscribed man.”

This youthful enthusiasm elicited a sad smile from the priest. “You
forget the dangers to be incurred by those who shelter him,” he said.
“Many a man who would not soil his hands with the price of blood might
deliver up a fugitive from fear.”

They were passing through the principal street, and were struck with the
mournful aspect of the little city, usually so gay and full of bustle.
The shops were closed; and even the window shutters of the houses had
not been opened. So lugubrious was the silence that one might have
supposed there was a general mourning, and that each family had lost one
or more of its members. The manner of the few persons passing along the
footways testified to their deep anxiety. They hurried along, casting
suspicious glances on every side; and two or three who were
acquaintances of the Baron d’Escorval averted their heads directly they
saw his carriage, so as to avoid the necessity of bowing.

The terror prevailing in the town was explained when Maurice and the
abbe reached the Hotel de France, where they proposed taking up their
quarters; and which establishment the former’s father had always
patronized whenever he visited Montaignac; the landlord being
Laugeron--Lacheneur’s friend, who had been so anxious to warn him of
the Duke de Sairmeuse’s return to France. On catching sight of his
visitors, this worthy man hastened into the courtyard, cap in hand, to
give them a fitting greeting. In such a situation politeness amounted to
heroism; but it has always been supposed that Laugeron was in some way
connected with the conspiracy. He at once invited Maurice and the abbe
to take some refreshments, doing so in such a way as to make them
understand that he was anxious to speak to them in private. Thanks to
one of the Duke de Sairmeuse’s valets who frequented the house, the
landlord knew as much as the authorities; and, indeed, he knew even
more, since he had also received information from several rebels who had
escaped capture. He conducted Maurice and the abbe to a room looking on
to the back of the house, where he knew they would be secure from
observation, and then it was that they obtained their first positive
information. In the first place, nothing had been heard either of
Lacheneur or his son Jean, who had so far eluded all pursuit. Secondly,
there were, at that moment, no fewer than two hundred prisoners in the
citadel, including both the Baron d’Escorval and Chanlouineau. And
finally, that very morning there had been at least sixty additional
arrests in Montaignac. It was generally supposed that these arrests were
due to traitorous denunciations, and all the inhabitants were trembling
with fear. M. Laugeron knew the real cause, however, for it had been
confided to him under pledge of secrecy by his customer, the duke’s
valet. “It certainly seems an incredible story, gentlemen,” he remarked;
“but yet it is quite true. Two officers, belonging to the Montaignac
militia, were returning from the expedition this morning at daybreak,
when on passing the Croix d’Arcy they perceived a man, wearing the
uniform of the emperor’s body guard, lying dead in a ditch. Not
unnaturally they examined the body, and to their great astonishment they
found a slip of paper between the man’s clenched teeth. It proved to be
a list of Montaignac conspirators, which this old soldier, finding
himself mortally wounded, had endeavored to destroy; but the agonies of
death had prevented him from swallowing it----.”

The abbe and Maurice had no time to listen to the general news the
landlord might have to impart. They requested him to procure a
messenger, who was at once despatched to Escorval, so that the baroness
and Marie-Anne might be made acquainted with the information they had
obtained concerning both the baron and Lacheneur. They then left the
hotel and hastened to the house occupied by the Duke de Sairmeuse. There
was a crowd at the door; a crowd of a hundred persons or so--men with
anxious faces, women in tears--all of them begging for an audience.
These were the friends and relatives of the unfortunate men who had been
arrested. Two footmen, wearing gorgeous liveries, of haughty mien, stood
in the doorway, their time being fully occupied in keeping back the
struggling throng. Hoping that his priestly dress would win him a
hearing, the Abbe Midon approached and gave his name. But he was
repulsed like the others. “M. le Duc is busy, and can receive nobody,”
said one of the servants. “M. le Duc is preparing his report to his
majesty.” And in support of his assertion, he pointed to the horses,
standing saddled in the courtyard, and waiting for the couriers who were
to carry the despatches.

The priest sadly rejoined his companions. “We must wait!” said he. And
yet, intentionally or not, the servants were deceiving these poor
people; for, just then, the duke was in no wise troubling himself about
his despatches. In point of fact, he happened to be engaged in a violent
altercation with the Marquis de Courtornieu. Each of these noble
personages was anxious to play the leading part--that which would meet
with the highest reward at the hands of the supreme authorities at
Paris. This quarrel had begun on some petty point, but soon they both
lost their tempers and stinging words, bitter allusions, and even
threats were rapidly exchanged. The marquis declared it necessary to
inflict the most frightful--he said the most _salutary_ punishment upon
the offenders; while the duke, on the contrary, was inclined to be
indulgent. The marquis opined that since Lacheneur, the prime mover, and
his son, had both eluded pursuit, it was absolutely requisite that
Marie-Anne should be arrested. M. de Sairmeuse, however, would not
listen to the suggestion. To his mind it would be most impolitic to
arrest this young girl. Such a course would render the authorities
odious, and would exasperate all the rebels who were still at large.

“These men must be put down with a strong hand!” urged M. de
Courtornieu.

“I don’t wish to exasperate the populace,” replied the duke.

“Bah! what does public sentiment matter?”

“It matters a great deal when you cannot depend upon your soldiers. Do
you know what happened last night? There was enough powder burned to win
a battle, and yet there were only fifteen peasants wounded. Our men
fired in the air. You forget that the Montaignac corps is for the most
part composed of men who formerly fought under Bonaparte, and who are
burning to turn their weapons against us.”

Thus did the dispute continue, ostensibly for motives of public policy,
though, in reality, both the duke and the marquis had a secret reason
for their obstinacy. Blanche de Courtornieu had reached Montaignac that
morning and had confided her anxiety and her sufferings to her father,
with the result that she had made him swear to profit of this
opportunity to rid her of Marie-Anne. On his side, the duke was
convinced that Marie-Anne was his son’s mistress, and wished, at any
cost, to prevent her appearance at the tribunal. Finding that words had
no influence whatever on his coadjutor, his grace at last finished the
dispute by a skillful stratagem. “As we are of different opinions we
can’t possibly work together,” quoth he; “we are one too many.” And
speaking in this fashion he glanced so meaningly at a pair of pistols
that the noble marquis felt a disagreeable chilliness creep up his
spine. He had never been noted for bravery, and did not in the least
relish the idea of having a bullet lodged in his brains. Accordingly he
waived his proposal, and eventually agreed to go to the citadel with the
duke to inspect the prisoners.

The whole day passed by without M. de Sairmeuse consenting to give a
single audience, and Maurice spent his time in watching the moving arms
of the semaphore perched on the tall keep-tower. “What orders are
travelling through space?” he said to the abbe. “Are these messages of
life, or death?”

The messenger despatched from the Hotel de France had been instructed
to make haste, and yet he did not reach Escorval until night-fall. Beset
by a thousand fears, he had taken the longest but less frequented roads,
and had made numerous circuits to avoid the people he had seen
approaching in the distance. Scarcely had the baroness read the letter,
written to her by Maurice, than turning to Marie-Anne, she exclaimed,
“We must go to Montaignac at once!”

But this was easier said than done; for they only kept three horses at
Escorval. The one which had been harnessed to the cabriolet the
preceding night was lame--indeed, nearly dead: while the other two had
been taken to Montaignac that morning by Maurice and the priest. What
were the ladies to do? They appealed to some neighbours for assistance,
but the latter, having heard of the baron’s arrest, firmly refused to
lend a horse, believing they should gravely compromise themselves if
they in any way helped the wife of a man charged with such grievous
offences as high treason and revolt. Madame d’Escorval and Marie-Anne
were talking of making the journey on foot, when Corporal Bavois, still
left on guard at the chateau, swore by the sacred name of thunder that
this should not be. He hurried off with his two men, and, after a brief
absence, returned leading an old plough-horse by the mane. He had, more
or less forcibly, requisitioned this clumsy steed, which he harnessed to
the cabriolet as best he could. This was not his only demonstration of
good will. His duties at the chateau were over, now that M. d’Escorval
had been arrested, and nothing remained for him but to rejoin his
regiment. Accordingly he declared that he would not allow these ladies
to travel unattended at night-time, along a road where they might be
exposed to many disagreeable encounters, but should escort them to their
journey’s end with his two subordinates. “And it will go hard with
soldier or civilian who ventures to molest them, will it not, comrades?”
he exclaimed.

As usual, his companions assented with an oath; and as Madame d’Escorval
and Marie-Anne journeyed onward, they could perceive the three men
preceding or following the vehicle, or oftener walking beside it. Not
until they reached the gates of Montaignac did the old soldier forsake
his protegees, and then, not without bidding them a respectful
farewell, in his own name and that of his subordinates, adding that if
they had need of his services, they had only to call upon Bavois,
corporal of grenadiers in company No. 1., stationed at the citadel.

The clocks were striking half-past ten when Madame d’Escorval and
Marie-Anne alighted at the Hotel de France. They found Maurice in
despair, and even the abbe disheartened, for since the morning events
had progressed with fearful rapidity. The semaphore signals were now
explained; orders had come from Paris; and there they could be read in
black and white, affixed to the walls of the town. “Montaignac must be
regarded as in a state of siege. The military authorities have been
granted discretionary powers. A military commission will exercise
jurisdiction in lieu of all other courts. Let peaceable citizens take
courage; let the evil disposed tremble! As for the rabble, the sword of
the law is about to strike!” Only six lines in all--but each word
fraught with menace!

The abbe most regretted that trial before a military commission had been
substituted for the customary court-martial. Indeed this upset all the
plans he had devised in the hope of saving his friend. A court-martial
is, of course, hasty and often unjust in its decisions; but still, it
observes some of the forms of procedure practiced in judicial tribunals.
It still retains some of the impartiality of legal justice, which asks
to be enlightened before condemning. But the military commission now to
be appointed would naturally neglect all legal forms; and the prisoners
would be summarily condemned and punished after the fashion in which
spies are treated in time of war.

“What!” exclaimed Maurice, “would they dare to condemn without
investigating, without listening to testimony, without allowing the
prisoners time to prepare their defence?” The abbe remained silent. The
turn events had taken exceeded his worst apprehensions. Now, indeed, he
believed that anything was possible.

Maurice had spoken of investigation. Investigation, if such it could be
called, had indeed begun that very day, and was still continuing by the
light of a jailor’s lantern. That is to say, the Duke de Sairmeuse and
the Marquis de Courtornieu were passing the prisoners in review. They
now numbered three hundred, and the duke and his companion had decided
to begin by summoning before the commission thirty of the most
dangerous conspirators. How were they to select them? By what method
could they hope to discover the extent of each prisoner’s guilt? It
would have been difficult for them to explain the course they took. They
simply went from one man to another, asking any question that entered
their minds, and when the terrified captive had answered them they
either said to the head jailor, “Keep this one until another time,” or,
“This one for to-morrow,” their decision being guided by the impression
the man’s language and demeanour had created. By daylight, they had
thirty names upon their list, at the head of which figured those of the
Baron d’Escorval and Chanlouineau.

Although the unhappy party at the Hotel de France were not aware of this
circumstance, they passed a sleepless, anxious night; and it was relief,
indeed, when the daylight peered through the windows and the _reveille_
could be heard beating at the citadel; for now at least they might renew
their efforts. The abbe intimated his intention of going alone to the
duke’s house, declaring that he would find a way to force an entrance.
He had just bathed his red and swollen eyes in fresh water, and was
preparing to start, when a rap was heard at the door. Directly
afterwards M. Laugeron, the landlord, entered the room. His face
betokened some dreadful misfortune; and indeed he had just been made
acquainted with the composition of the military commission. In defiance
of all equity and justice, the presidency of this tribunal of vengeance
had been offered to the Duke de Sairmeuse who had unblushingly accepted
it--he who was at the same time both witness and executioner. Moreover,
he was to be assisted by other officers hitherto placed under his
immediate orders.

“And when does the commission enter upon its functions?” inquired the
abbe.

“To-day,” replied the host, hesitatingly; “this morning--in an
hour--perhaps sooner!”

The priest understood well enough what M. Laugeron meant, but what he
dared not say: “The commission is assembling, make haste.” “Come!” said
the abbe Midon turning to Maurice, “I wish to be present when your
father is examined.”

The baroness would have given anything to accompany the priest and her
son; but this could not be; she understood it, and submitted. As
Maurice and his companion stepped into the street they saw a soldier a
short distance off who made a friendly gesture. Recognizing Corporal
Bavois, they paused instinctively. But he now passing them by with an
air of the utmost indifference, and apparently without observing them,
hastily exclaimed: “I have seen Chanlouineau. Be of good cheer: he
promises to save the baron!”



XVII.


Within the limits of the citadel of Montaignac stands an old building
known as the chapel. Originally consecrated to purposes of worship, this
structure had, at the time of which we write, fallen into disuse. It was
so damp that it could not even be utilized for storage purposes, and yet
this was the place selected by the Duke de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de
Courtornieu for the assembling of the military commission. When Maurice
and the abbe entered this gloomy building they found that the
proceedings had not yet commenced. The little trouble taken to transform
the old chapel into a hall of justice impressed them sadly, for it
testified beyond power of mistake to the precipitation of the judges,
and revealed their determination to carry out the work of vengeance
without either delay or mercy. Three large tables taken from a soldier’s
mess-room, and covered with horse blankets instead of baize, stood on a
raised platform formerly occupied by the chief altar. Behind these
tables were ranged a few rush-seated chairs, waiting the president’s
assessors, and in their midst glittered a richly-carved and gilt arm
chair which his grace had had sent from his own house for his personal
accommodation. In front of the tables three or four long wooden benches
had been placed in readiness for the prisoners, while several strong
ropes were stretched from one wall to the other, so as to divide the
chapel into two parts and allow considerable room for the public. This
last precaution had proved quite superfluous, for, contrary to
expectation, there were not twenty persons in the building. Prominent
among these were ten or twelve men of martial mien, but clad in civilian
attire. Their scarred and weather beaten features testified to many an
arduous campaign fought in imperial times; and indeed they had all
served Napoleon--this one as a lieutenant, that other as a captain--but
the Restoration had dismissed them with scanty pensions and given their
well-earned commissions to cadets of the old nobility. Their pale faces
and the sullen fire gleaming in their eyes showed plainly enough what
they thought of the Duke de Sairmeuse’s proceedings. In addition to
these retired officers there were three men dressed in professional
black who stood conversing in low tones near the chapel door; while in a
corner one could perceive several peasant women with their aprons thrown
over their faces; they were the mothers, wives, and daughters of some of
the imprisoned rebels. Save for their constant sobs the silence would
have been well-nigh undisturbed.

Nine o’clock had just struck when a rolling of drums shook the window
panes; a loud voice was heard outside exclaiming, “Present arms!” and
then the members of the commission entered, followed by the Marquis de
Courtornieu and various civil functionaries. The Duke de Sairmeuse was
in full uniform, his face rather more flushed, and his air a trifle more
haughty than usual. “The sitting is open!” he announced, and adding in a
rough voice, “Bring in the culprits.”

They came in, one by one, to the number of thirty, and sat themselves
down on the benches at the foot of the platform. Chanlouineau held his
head proudly erect, and looked about him with an air of great composure.
The Baron d’Escorval was calm and grave; but not more so than when, in
days gone by, he had been called upon to express his opinion in the
councils of the empire. Both of them perceived Maurice, who was so
overcome that he had to lean upon the abbe for support. But while the
baron greeted his son with a simple bend of the head, Chanlouineau made
a gesture that clearly signified: “Have confidence in me--fear nothing.”
The attitude of the other prisoners indicated surprise rather than fear.
Perhaps they were unconscious of the peril they had braved, and the
extent of the danger that now threatened them.

When the prisoners had taken their places, a colonel who filled the
office of commissary for the prosecution rose to his feet. His
presentation of the case was violent but brief. He narrated a few
leading facts, exalted the merits of the government of his majesty King
Louis XVIIIth, and concluded by demanding that sentence of death should
be pronounced upon the culprits. When he had ceased speaking, the duke
rudely bade the first prisoner on the nearest bench to stand up and give
his name, age, and profession.

“Eugene Michel Chanlouineau,” was the reply, “aged twenty nine, a farmer
by occupation.”

“An owner of national lands, probably?”

“The owner of lands which, having been paid for with good money and made
fertile by my own labour, are rightfully mine.”

The duke did not wish to waste time in useless discussion. “You took
part in this rebellion?” he asked; and receiving an affirmative reply,
pursued, “You are right in confessing, for witnesses will be introduced
who will prove this fact conclusively.”

Five grenadiers entered--the same that Chanlouineau held at bay while
Maurice, the abbe, and Marie-Anne were getting into the cabriolet near
the cross roads. They all of them declared upon oath that they
recognized the prisoner; and one of them even went so far as to say he
was a solid fellow of remarkable courage. During this evidence
Chanlouineau’s eyes betrayed an agony of anxiety. Would the soldiers
allude to the circumstance of the cabriolet and Marie-Anne’s escape?
Perhaps they might have done so had not the Duke de Sairmeuse abruptly
stated that as the prisoner confessed he had heard quite enough.

“What were your motives in fomenting this outbreak?” asked his grace,
turning to Chanlouineau.

“We hoped to free ourselves from a government brought back by foreign
bayonets; to free ourselves from the insolence of the nobility, and to
retain the lands that are justly ours.”

“Enough! You were one of the leaders of the revolt?”

“One of the leaders--yes.”

“Who were the others?”

A faint smile flitted over the young farmer’s lips as he replied: “The
others were M. Lacheneur, his son Jean, and the Marquis de Sairmeuse.”

The duke bounded from his carved arm-chair. “You wretch! you rascal! you
vile scoundrel!” he exclaimed, catching up a heavy inkstand that stood
on the table before him. Every one supposed that he was about to hurl
it at the prisoner’s head.

But Chanlouineau stood perfectly unmoved in the midst of the assembly,
which had been excited to the highest pitch by his startling
declaration. “You questioned me,” he resumed, “and I replied. You may
gag me if my answers don’t please you. If there were witnesses _for_ me
as there are against me, I could prove the truth of what I say. As it
is, all the prisoners here will tell you that I am speaking the truth.
Is it not so, you others?”

With the exception of the Baron d’Escorval, there was not one of the
other prisoners who was capable of understanding the real bearing of
these audacious allegations; nevertheless, they all nodded assent.

“The Marquis de Sairmeuse was so truly our leader,” exclaimed the daring
peasant, “that he was wounded by a sabre-thrust while fighting by my
side.”

The duke’s face was as purple as if he had been struck with apoplexy;
and his fury almost deprived him of the power of speech. “You lie,
scoundrel! you lie!” he gasped.

“Send for the marquis,” said Chanlouineau, quietly, “and see whether
he’s wounded or not.”

A refusal on the duke’s part was bound to arouse suspicion. But what
could he do? Martial had concealed his wound on the previous day, and it
was now impossible to confess that he had been wounded. Fortunately for
his grace, one of the commissioners relieved him of his embarrassment.
“I hope, sir,” he said, “that you will not give this arrogant rebel the
satisfaction he desires. The commission opposes his demand.”

“Very naturally,” retorted Chanlouineau. “To-morrow my head will be off,
and you think nothing will then remain to prove what I say. But,
fortunately, I have other proof--material and indestructible
proof--which it is beyond your power to destroy, and which will speak
when my body is six feet under ground.”

“What is this proof?” asked another commissioner, on whom the duke
looked askance.

The prisoner shook his head. “You shall have it,” he said, “when you
promise me my life in exchange for it. It is now in the hands of a
trusty person, who knows its value. It will go to the king if necessary.
We should like to understand the part which the Marquis de Sairmeuse
played in this affair--whether he was truly with us, or whether he was
only an instigating agent.”

A tribunal regardful of the simplest rules of justice, or even of its
own honour, would have instantly required the Marquis de Sairmeuse’s
attendance. But the military commission considered such a course quite
beneath its dignity. These men arrayed in glittering uniforms were not
judges charged with the vindication of the law; but simply agents
selected by the conquerors to strike the conquered in virtue of that
savage saying, “Woe to the vanquished!” The president, the noble Duke de
Sairmeuse, would not have consented to summon Martial on any
consideration. Nor did his associate judges wish him to do so. Had
Chanlouineau foreseen this result? Probably he had; and yet, why had he
ventured on so hazardous a course? The tribunal, after a short
deliberation, decided that it would not admit this “unjustifiable”
denunciation which, while exciting the whole audience, had quite
stupefied Maurice and the Abbe Midon.

The examination was continued, therefore, with increased bitterness.
“Instead of designating imaginary leaders,” resumed the duke, “you would
do well to name the real instigator of this revolt--not Lacheneur, but
an individual seated at the other end of the bench, the elder
D’Escorval--”

“Monsieur le Baron d’Escorval was entirely ignorant of the conspiracy, I
swear it by all that I hold most sacred--”

“Hold your tongue!” interrupted the emmissary for the prosecution.
“Instead of trying the patience of the commission with such ridiculous
stories, you should endeavour to merit its indulgence.”

Chanlouineau’s glance and gesture expressed such disdain that his
interrupter was abashed. “I wish for no indulgence,” said the young
farmer. “I have played my game and lost it; here is my head. But if you
are not wild beasts you will take pity on the poor wretches who surround
me. I see at least ten among them who were not our accomplices, and who
certainly did not take up arms. Even the others did not know what they
were doing.”

With these words he resumed his seat, proud, indifferent, and apparently
oblivious of the murmur which ran through the audience, the soldiers of
the guard, and even to the platform, at the sound of his ringing voice.
His appeal for clemency towards his fellow prisoners had reawakened the
grief of the poor peasant women, whose sobs and moans now filled the
hall. The retired officers had grown paler than before, and as they
nervously pulled at their long moustaches they murmured among
themselves, “That’s a man, and no mistake!” Just then, moreover, the
abbe leant towards Maurice and whispered in his ear: “Chanlouineau
evidently has some plan. He intends to save your father, though I don’t
at all understand how.”

The judges were conversing with considerable animation, although in an
undertone. A difficulty had presented itself. The prisoners, ignorant of
the charges which would be brought against them, and not expecting
instant trial, had not thought of procuring defenders. And this
circumstance, bitter mockery! caused great annoyance to this iniquitous
tribunal, despite the complacency with which it was prepared to trample
justice under foot. The commissioners had made up their minds, they had
already determined on their verdict, and yet they wished to hear a voice
raised in defence of those who were already doomed. It chanced that
three lawyers, retained by the friends of a few prisoners, were in the
hall. They were the three men whom Maurice had noticed conversing near
the door when he entered the chapel. The duke was informed of their
presence. He turned to them, and motioned them to approach; then,
pointing to Chanlouineau, asked, “Will you undertake this culprit’s
defence?”

For a moment the lawyers hesitated. They were disgusted with these
monstrous proceedings, and looked inquiringly at one another. “We are
all disposed to undertake the prisoner’s defence,” at last replied the
eldest of the three; “but we see him for the first time; we do not know
what defence he can present. He must ask for a delay; it is
indispensable, in order to confer with him.”

“The court can grant you no delay,” interrupted M. de Sairmeuse; “will
you undertake his defence, yes or no?”

The advocate hesitated, not that he was afraid, for he was a brave man:
but he was endeavouring to find some argument strong enough to turn
these mock judges from the course on which they seemed bent. “I will
speak on his behalf,” said the advocate, at last, “but not without
first protesting with all my strength against these unheard of modes of
trial.”

“Oh! spare us your homilies, and be brief.”

After Chanlouineau’s examination, it was difficult to improvise any plea
for him, and especially so on the spur of the moment. Still, in his
indignation, the courageous advocate managed to present a score of
arguments which would have made any other tribunal reflect. But all the
while he was speaking the Duke de Sairmeuse fidgeted in his arm-chair
with every sign of angry impatience. “Your speech was very long,” he
remarked, when the lawyer had finished, “terribly long. We shall never
get through with this business if each prisoner takes up as much time!”

He turned to his colleagues and proposed that they should unite all the
cases, in fact try all the culprits in a body, with the exception of the
elder d’Escorval. “This will shorten our task,” said he, “and there will
then be but two judgments to be pronounced. This will not, of course,
prevent each individual from defending himself.”

The lawyers protested against such a course; for a general judgment such
as the duke suggested would destroy all hope of saving any one of these
unfortunate men. “How can we defend them,” pleaded one advocate, “when
we know nothing of their precise situations; why, we do not even know
their names. We shall be obliged to designate them by the cut of their
coats or by the colour of their hair.”

They implored the tribunal to grant a week for preparation, four days,
even twenty-four hours; but all their efforts were futile, for the
president’s proposition was adopted by his colleagues. Consequently,
each prisoner was called to the table, according to the place which he
occupied on the different benches. Each man gave his name, age, dwelling
place, and profession, and received an order to return to his seat. Six
or seven of the prisoners were actually granted time to say that they
were absolutely ignorant of the conspiracy, and that they had been
arrested while conversing quietly on the public highway. They begged to
be allowed to furnish proof of the truth of their assertions, and they
invoked the testimony of the soldiers who had arrested them. M.
d’Escorval, whose case had been separated from the others, was not
summoned to the table. He would be examined last of all.

“Now the counsel for the defence will be heard,” said the duke; “but
make haste; lose no time for it is already twelve o’clock.”

Then began a shameful and revolting scene. The duke interrupted the
lawyers every other moment, bidding them be silent, questioning them, or
jeering at their arguments. “It seems incredible,” said he, “that any
one can think of defending such wretches!” Or again: “Silence! You
should blush with shame for having constituted yourself the defender of
such rascals!”

However, the advocates courageously persevered, even although they
realized the utter futility of their efforts. But what could they do
under such circumstances? The defence of these twenty-nine prisoners
lasted only one hour and a half.

Before the last word was fairly uttered, the Duke de Sairmeuse gave a
sigh of relief, and in a tone which betrayed his inward delight,
exclaimed: “Prisoner d’Escorval, stand up.”

Thus called upon, the baron rose to his feet, calm and dignified.
Terrible as his sufferings must have been, there was no trace of them on
his noble face. He had even repressed the smile of disdain which the
duke’s paltry spite in not giving him the title he had a right to almost
brought to his lips. But Chanlouineau sprang up at the same time,
trembling with indignation, and his face all aglow with anger.

“Remain seated,” ordered the duke, “or you shall be removed from the
court-room.”

Despite this order the young farmer declared that he would speak: that
he had some remarks to add to the plea made by the defending counsel. At
a sign from the duke, two gendarmes approached him and placed their
hands on his shoulders. He allowed them to force him back into his seat,
though he could easily have crushed them with one blow of his brawny
arm. An observer might have supposed that he was furious; but in reality
he was delighted. He had attained the end he had in view. Whilst
standing he had been able to glance at the Abbe Midon, and the latter
had plainly read in his eyes: “Whatever happens, watch over Maurice;
restrain him. Do not allow him to defeat my plans by any outburst.”

This caution was not unnecessary, for Maurice was terribly agitated;
his sight failed him, his head swam, he felt that he was suffocating,
that he was losing his reason. “Where is the self-control you promised
me?” murmured the priest.

But no one observed the young man’s condition. The attention of the
audience was elsewhere, and the silence was so perfect that one could
distinctly hear the measured tread of the sentinels pacing to and fro in
the courtyard outside. It was plain to every one that the decisive
moment for which the tribunal had reserved all its attention and efforts
had now arrived. The conviction and condemnation of the poor peasants
were, after all, mere trifles; otherwise, indeed, was the task of
humbling a prominent statesman, who had been the emperor’s faithful
friend and counsellor. Seldom could circumstances offer so splendid an
opportunity to satisfy the cravings of royalist prejudice and ambition;
and the Duke de Sairmeuse and his colleagues had fully determined not to
allow it to slip by. If they had acted informally in the case of the
obscure conspirators, they had carefully prepared their suit against the
baron. Thanks to the activity of the Marquis de Courtornieu, the
prosecution had found no fewer than seven charges against him, the least
notable of which was alone punishable with death. “Which of you,” asked
the president, turning to the lawyers, “will consent to defend this
great culprit?”

“I!” exclaimed the three advocates all in one breath.

“Take care,” said the duke, with a malicious smile; “the task may prove
a difficult one.”

“Difficult, indeed!” It would have been better to have said dangerous,
for the defender risked his career, his peace, his liberty, and very
probably--his life.

“Our profession has its exigencies,” nobly replied the oldest of the
advocates. And then the two courageously took their places beside the
baron, thus avenging the honour of their robe.

“Prisoner,” resumed M. de Sairmeuse, “state your name and profession.”

“Louis Guillaume, Baron d’Escorval, Commander of the order of the Legion
of Honour, formerly Councillor of State under the Empire.”

“So you avow these shameful services? You confess----”

“Excuse me; I am proud of having had the honour of serving my country,
and of being useful to her in proportion to my abilities----”

“Ah ha! very good indeed!” interrupted the duke with a furious gesture.
“These gentlemen, my fellow commissioners, will appreciate those words
of yours. No doubt it was in the hope of regaining your former position
that you entered into this shameful conspiracy against a magnanimous
prince.”

“You know as well as I do myself, sir, that I have had no hand in this
conspiracy.”

“Why, you were arrested in the ranks of the conspirators with weapons in
your hands!”

“I was unarmed, as you are well aware; and if I was among the peasantry,
it was only because I hoped to induce them to relinquish their senseless
enterprise.”

“You lie!”

The baron paled beneath the insult, but he made no response. There was,
however, one man in the assemblage who could no longer endure such
abominable injustice, and this was the Abbe Midon, who, only a moment
before, had advised Maurice to remain calm. Abruptly leaving his place,
he advanced to the foot of the platform.

“The Baron d’Escorval speaks the truth,” he cried, in a ringing voice:
“as each of the three hundred prisoners in the citadel will swear. Those
who are here would say the same, even if they stood upon the guillotine;
and I, who accompanied him, who walked beside him, I, a priest, swear
before the God who one day will judge us all, Monsieur de Sairmeuse, I
swear we did everything that was humanly possible to do to arrest this
movement!”

The duke listened with an ironical smile. “I was not deceived, then,” he
answered, “when I was told that this army of rebels had a chaplain! Ah!
sir, you should sink to the earth with shame. What! You, a priest,
mingle with such scoundrels as these--with these enemies of our good
king and of our holy religion! Do not deny it! Your haggard features,
your swollen eyes, your disordered attire, plainly betray your guilt.
Must I, a soldier, remind you of what is due to your sacred calling?
Hold your peace, sir, and depart!”

But the prisoner’s advocates were on their feet. “We demand,” cried
they, “we demand that this witness be heard. He must be heard! Military
commissions are not above the laws that regulate ordinary tribunals.”

“If I do not speak the truth,” resumed the abbe, “I am a perjured
witness--worse yet, an accomplice. It is your duty, in that case, to
have me arrested.”

The duke’s face assumed a look of hypocritical compassion. “No, Monsieur
le Cure,” said he, “I shall not arrest you. I wish to avert the scandal
which you are trying to cause. We will show your priestly garb the
respect the wearer does not deserve. Again, and for the last time,
retire, or I shall be obliged to employ force.”

What would further resistance avail? Nothing. The abbe, with a face
whiter than the plastered walls, and eyes filled with tears, returned to
his place beside Maurice.

In the meanwhile, the advocates were protesting with increasing energy.
But the duke, hammering on the table with both fists, at last succeeded
in reducing them to silence. “Ah! you want evidence!” he exclaimed.
“Very well then, you shall have it. Soldiers, bring in the first
witness.”

There was some little movement among the guards, and then Father Chupin
made his appearance. He advanced with a deliberate step, but his
restless, shrinking eyes showed plainly enough that he was ill at ease.
And there was a very perceptible tremor in his voice when, with hand
uplifted, he swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but
the truth.

“What do you know concerning the prisoner d’Escorval?” asked the duke.

“I know that he took part in the rising the other night.”

“Are you sure of this?”

“I can furnish proofs.”

“Submit them to the consideration of the commission.”

The old scoundrel began to grow more confident. “First of all,” he
replied, “directly Lacheneur had given up your grace’s family estates,
much against his will, he hastened to M. d’Escorval’s house, where he
met Chanlouineau. It was then that they plotted this insurrection
between them.”

“I was Lacheneur’s friend,” observed the baron, “and it was perfectly
natural that he should come to me for consolation after a great
misfortune.”

M. de Sairmeuse turned to his colleagues. “Do you hear that!” said he.
“This D’Escorval calls the restitution of a deposit a great misfortune!
Proceed, witness.”

“In the second place,” resumed Chupin, “M. d’Escorval was always
prowling round about Lacheneur’s house.”

“That’s false,” interrupted the baron. “I never visited the house but
once, and on that occasion I implored him to renounce--” He paused,
understanding only when it was too late the terrible significance of
these few words. However, having begun, he would not retract, but calmly
added: “I implored him to renounce all idea of provoking an
insurrection.”

“Ah! then you knew of his infamous intentions?”

“I suspected them.”

“At all events you must be perfectly well aware that the fact of not
revealing this conspiracy made you an accomplice, which implies the
guillotine.”

The Baron d’Escorval had just signed his death-warrant. How strange is
destiny! He was innocent, and yet he was the only one among all the
prisoners, whom a regular tribunal could have legally condemned. Maurice
and the abbe were overcome with grief; but Chanlouineau, who turned
towards them, had still the same smile of confidence on his lips. How
could he hope when all hope seemed absolutely lost?

The commissioners made no attempt to conceal their satisfaction, and M.
de Sairmeuse, especially, evinced an indecent joy. “Ah, well! gentlemen,
what do you say to that?” he remarked to the lawyers, in a sneering
tone.

The counsel for the defence were unable to conceal their discouragement;
though they still endeavoured to question the validity of their client’s
declaration. He had said that he _suspected_ the conspiracy, not that he
_knew_ of it, which was a very different thing.

“Say at once that you wish for still more overwhelming testimony,”
interrupted the duke. “Very well! You shall have it. Continue your
evidence, witness.”

“The prisoner,” continued Chupin, “was present at all the conferences
held at Lacheneur’s house; and having to cross the Oiselle each time,
and fearing lest the ferryman might speak about his frequent nocturnal
journeys, he had an old boat repaired, which he had not used for years.”

“Ah! that’s a remarkable circumstance, prisoner; do you recollect having
your boat repaired?”

“Yes; but not for the purpose this man mentions.”

“For what purpose, then?”

The baron made no reply. Was it not in compliance with Maurice’s
request, that this boat had been put in order?

“And finally,” continued Chupin, “when Lacheneur set fire to his house
as a signal for the insurrection, the prisoner was with him.”

“That,” exclaimed the duke, “is conclusive evidence.”

“Yes, I was at La Reche,” interrupted the baron; “but as I have already
told you, it was with the firm determination of preventing this
outbreak.”

M. de Sairmeuse laughed disdainfully. “Ah, gentlemen!” he said,
addressing his fellow commissioners, “you see that the prisoner’s
courage does not equal his depravity. But I will confound him. What did
you do, prisoner, when the insurgents left La Reche?”

“I returned home with all possible speed, took a horse and hastened to
the Croix-d’Arcy.”

“Then you knew that this was to be the general meeting place?”

“Lacheneur had just informed me of it.”

“Even if I believed your story,” retorted the duke, “I should have to
remind you, that your duty was to have hastened to Montaignac and
informed the authorities. But what you say is untrue. You did not leave
Lacheneur, you accompanied him.”

“No, sir, no!”

“And what if I could prove that you did so, beyond all question?”

“Impossible, since such was not the case.”

By the malicious satisfaction that sparkled in M. de Sairmeuse’s eyes,
the Abbe Midon divined that he had some terrible weapon in reserve, and
that he was about to overwhelm the Baron d’Escorval with false evidence,
or fatal coincidence, which would place Maurice’s father beyond all
possibility of being saved. At a sign from the commissary for the
prosecution the Marquis de Courtornieu now left his seat and advanced to
the front of the platform. “I must request you, Monsieur le Marquis,”
said the duke, “to be kind enough to read us the statement your daughter
has prepared and signed.”

This scene had evidently been prepared beforehand. M. de Courtornieu
cleared his glasses, produced a paper which he slowly unfolded, and then
amid a death-like silence, emphatically read as follows: “I, Blanche de
Courtornieu, do declare upon oath that, on the evening of the fourth of
March, between ten and eleven o’clock on the public road leading from
Sairmeuse to Montaignac, I was assailed by a band of armed brigands.
While they were deliberating as to whether they should take possession
of my person and pillage my carriage, I overheard one of them say to
another, speaking of me: ‘She must get out, must she not, M.
d’Escorval?’ I believe that the brigand who uttered these words was a
peasant named Chanlouineau, but I can not assert this, on oath.”

At this moment a loud cry of anguish abruptly interrupted the marquis’s
perusal. The trial was too great for Maurice’s reason, and if the Abbe
Midon had not restrained him, he would have sprung forward, and
exclaimed: “It was to me, not to my father that Chanlouineau addressed
those words. I alone am guilty; my father is innocent!” But fortunately
the abbe had sufficient presence of mind to hold the young fellow back,
and place his hand before his mouth. One or two of the retired officers
standing near, also tendered their help, and probably divining the
truth, seized hold of Maurice, and despite all his attempts at
resistance carried him from the room by main force. The whole incident
scarcely occupied ten seconds.

“What is the cause of this disturbance!” asked the duke, looking angrily
at the spectators, none of whom uttered a word. “At the least noise the
hall shall be cleared,” added his grace. “And you, prisoner, what have
you to say in self-justification, after Mademoiselle de Courtornieu’s
crushing evidence?”

“Nothing,” murmured the baron.

But to return to Maurice. Once outside the court-room, the Abbe Midon
confided him to the care of three officers, who promised to go with him,
to carry him by main force, if need be, to the Hotel de France, and keep
him there. Relieved on this score, the priest re-entered the hall just
in time to see the baron re-seat himself without replying to M. de
Sairmeuse’s final sneer, that by bearing Mademoiselle Blanche’s
testimony unchallenged M. d’Escorval had virtually confessed his guilt.
But then in truth, how could he have challenged it? How could he defend
himself without betraying his son? Until this moment every one present
had believed in the baron’s innocence. Could it be that he was guilty?
His silence seemed to imply that such was the case; and this alone was a
sufficient triumph for the Duke de Sairmeuse and his friends. His grace
now turned to the lawyers, and with an air of weariness and disdain,
remarked. “At present you may speak, since it is absolutely necessary;
but no long phrases, mind! we ought to have finished here an hour ago.”

The eldest of the three advocates rose, trembling with indignation, and
prepared to dare anything for the sake of giving free utterance to his
thoughts, but before a word was spoken the baron hastily checked him.
“Do not try to defend me,” he said calmly; “it would be labour wasted. I
have only one word to say to my judges. Let them remember what noble
Marshal Moncey wrote to the king: ‘The scaffold does not make friends.’”

But this reminder was not of a nature to soften the judges’ hearts. For
that very phrase the marshal had been deprived of his office, and
condemned to three months’ imprisonment. As the advocates made no
further attempt to argue the case, the commission retired to deliberate.
This gave M. d’Escorval an opportunity to speak with his defenders. He
shook them warmly by the hand, and thanked them for their courage and
devotion. Then drawing the eldest among them on one side, he quickly
added, in a low voice: “I have a last favour to ask of you. When
sentence of death has been pronounced upon me, go at once to my son. Say
to him that his dying father commands him to live--he will understand
you. Tell him that it is my last wish; that he live--live for his
mother!”

He said no more; the judges were returning. Of the thirty prisoners,
nine were declared not guilty, and released. The remaining twenty-one
including both M. d’Escorval and Chanlouineau were then formally
condemned to death. But Chanlouineau’s lips still retained their
enigmatical smile.



XVIII.


The three military men to whose care the Abbe Midon had entrusted
Maurice had considerable difficulty in getting him to the Hotel de
France, for he made continual attempts to return to the court-room,
having the fallacious idea that by telling the truth he might yet save
his father. In point of fact, however, the only effect of his confession
would have been to provide the Duke de Sairmeuse with another welcome
victim. When he and his custodians at length entered the room where
Madame d’Escorval and Marie-Anne were waiting in cruel suspense, the
baroness eagerly asked whether the trial was over.

“Nothing is decided yet,” replied one of the retired officers. “The cure
will come here as soon as the verdict is given.”

Then as the three military men had promised not to lose sight of
Maurice, they sat themselves down in gloomy silence. Not the slightest
stir could be heard in the hotel, which seemed indeed as if it were
deserted. At last, a little before four o’clock, the abbe came in,
followed by the lawyer, to whom the baron had confided his last wishes.

“My husband!” exclaimed Madame d’Escorval, springing wildly from her
chair. The priest bowed his head. “Death!” she faltered, fully
understanding the significance of this impressive gesture. “What? they
have condemned him!” And overcome with the terrible blow, she sank back,
with hanging arms. But this weakness did not last long. “We must save
him!” she exclaimed, abruptly springing to her feet again, her eyes
bright with some sudden resolution, “we must wrest him from the
scaffold. Up, Maurice! up, Marie-Anne! No more lamentations. To work!
You also, gentlemen, will assist me; and I can count on your help,
Monsieur le Cure. I do not quite know how to begin, but something must
be done. The murder of so good, so noble a man as he would be too great
a crime. God will not permit it.” She paused, with clasped hands, as if
seeking for inspiration. “And the king,” she resumed--”can the king
consent to such a crime? No. A king can refuse mercy, but he cannot
refuse justice. I will go to him. I will tell him everything. Ah! why
didn’t this thought occur to me sooner? We must start for Paris without
losing an instant. Maurice you must accompany me; and one of you
gentlemen go at once and order post-horses.” Then, thinking they would
obey her, she hastened into the next room to make preparations for her
journey.

“Poor woman!” whispered the lawyer to the abbe, “she does not know that
the sentence of a military commission is executed in twenty-four hours,
and that it requires four days to make the journey to Paris.” He
reflected a moment, and then added: “But, after all, to let her go would
be an act of mercy. Did not Ney, on the morning of his execution,
implore the king to order the removal of his wife who was sobbing and
moaning in his cell?”

The abbe shook his head. “No,” said he; “Madame d’Escorval would never
forgive us if we prevented her from receiving her husband’s last
farewell.”

At that very moment, the baroness re-entered the room, and the priest
was trying to gather sufficient courage to tell her the cruel truth,
when a loud knock was heard at the door. One of the retired officers
went to open it, and our old friend Bavois, the corporal of grenadiers,
entered, raising his right hand to his cap, as if he were in his
captain’s presence. “Is Mademoiselle Lacheneur here?” he asked.

Marie-Anne stepped forward. “I am she, sir,” she replied; “what do you
want with me?”

“I am ordered to conduct you to the citadel, mademoiselle.”

“What?” exclaimed Maurice, in a tone of anger; “so they imprison women
as well?”

The worthy corporal struck his forehead with his open hand. “I am an old
fool!” he exclaimed, “and don’t know how to express myself. I meant to
say that I came to fetch mademoiselle at the request of one of the
prisoners, a man named Chanlouineau, who wishes to speak with her.”

“Impossible, my good fellow,” said one of the officers; “they would not
allow this lady to visit one of the prisoners without special
permission----”

“Well, she has this permission,” said the old soldier. And then
persuaded he had nothing to fear from any one present, he added, in
lower tones: “This Chanlouineau told me that the cure would understand
his reasons.”

Had the brave peasant really found some means of salvation. The abbe
almost began to believe that such was the case. “You must go with this
worthy fellow, Marie-Anne,” said he.

The poor girl shuddered at the thought of seeing Chanlouineau again, but
the idea of refusing never once occurred to her. “Let me go,” she said
quietly.

But the corporal did not budge. Winking in a desperate fashion, as was
his wont whenever he wished to attract attention, he exclaimed: “Wait a
bit. I’ve something else to tell you. This Chanlouineau, who seems to be
a shrewd fellow, told me to say that all was going well. May I be hung
if I can see how! Still such is his opinion. He also told me to tell you
not to stir from this place, and not to attempt anything until
mademoiselle comes back again, which will be in less than an hour. He
swears that he will keep his promise, and only asks you to pledge your
word that you will obey him----”

“We will wait for an hour,” replied the abbe. “I can promise that----”

“Then that’ll do,” rejoined Bavois. “Salute company. And now,
mademoiselle, on the double, quick march! The poor devil over there must
be on coals of fire.”

That a condemned conspirator should be allowed to receive a visit from
his leader’s daughter--from the daughter of that Lacheneur who had
succeeded in making his escape--was indeed surprising. But Chanlouineau
had been ingenious enough to discover a means of procuring this special
permission; and with this aim in view, he had feigned the most abject
terror on hearing the sentence of death passed upon him. He even
contrived to weep in a bellowing fashion, and the guards could scarcely
believe their eyes when they saw this robust young fellow, so insolent
and defiant a few hours before, now utterly overcome, and even unable to
walk back to his cell. They had to carry him there, and then his
lamentations became still more boisterous, concluding with an urgent
prayer that one of the guard should go to the Duke de Sairmeuse, or the
Marquis de Courtornieu, and tell them he had revelations of the greatest
importance to make.

That potent word “revelations” made M. de Courtornieu hasten to the
prisoner’s cell. He found Chanlouineau on his knees, his features
distorted by what appeared to be an agony of fear. The crafty fellow
dragged himself towards the marquis, took hold of his hands and kissed
them, imploring mercy and forgiveness, and swearing that to save his own
life, he was ready to do anything, yes, anything, even to deliver
Lacheneur up to the authorities. Such a prospect had powerful
attractions for the Marquis de Courtornieu. “Do you know, then, where
this brigand is concealed?” he asked.

Chanlouineau admitted that he did not know, but declared that
Marie-Anne, Lacheneur’s daughter, was well acquainted with her father’s
hiding-place. She had, he said, perfect confidence in him, Chanlouineau;
and if they would only send for her, and allow him ten minutes private
conversation with her, he was positive he could ascertain where the
leader of the insurrection was concealed. So the bargain was quickly
concluded; and Chanlouineau’s life was promised him in exchange for
Lacheneur’s. A soldier, who fortunately chanced to be Corporal Bavois,
was then sent to summon Marie-Anne; and the young farmer awaited her
coming with feelings of poignant anxiety. He loved her, remember, and
the thought of seeing her once more--for the last time on earth--made
his heart throb wildly with mingled passion and despair. At last, at the
end of the corridor, he could hear footsteps approaching. The heavy
bolts securing the entrance to his cell were drawn back, the door
opened, and Marie-Anne appeared, accompanied by Corporal Bavois. “M. de
Courtornieu promised me that we should be left alone!” exclaimed
Chanlouineau.

“Yes, I know he did, and I am going,” replied the old soldier. “But I
have orders to return for mademoiselle in half-an-hour.”

When the door closed behind the worthy corporal, Chanlouineau took hold
of Marie-Anne’s hand and drew her to the tiny grated window. “Thank you
for coming,” said he, “thank you. I can see you and speak to you once
more. Now that my hours are numbered, I may reveal the secret of my soul
and of my life. Now, I can venture to tell you how ardently I have loved
you--how much I still love you.”

Involuntarily Marie-Anne drew away her hand and stepped back; for this
outburst of passion, at such a moment and in such a place, seemed at
once unspeakably sad and shocking.

“Have I, then, offended you?” asked Chanlouineau, sadly. “Forgive
me--for I am about to die! You cannot refuse to listen to the voice of
one, who, to-morrow, will vanish from earth forever. I have loved you
for a long time, Marie-Anne, for more than six years. Before I saw you,
I only cared for my belongings, and to raise fine crops and gather money
together seemed to me the greatest possible happiness here below. And
when at first I did meet you--you were so high, and I so low, that in my
wildest dreams I did not dare to aspire to you. I went to the church
each Sunday only that I might worship you as peasant women worship the
Virgin; I went home with my eyes and heart full of you--and that was
all. But then came your father’s misfortunes, which brought us nearer to
each other; and your father made me as insane, yes, as insane as
himself. After the insults he received from the Duke de Sairmeuse, M.
Lacheneur resolved to revenge himself upon all these arrogant nobles,
and selected me for his accomplice. He had read my heart as easily as if
it had been an open book; and when we left the baron’s house that Sunday
evening we both have such good reason to remember, he said to me: ‘You
love my daughter, my boy. Very well, assist me, and I promise you, that
if we succeed, she shall be your wife. Only,’ he added, ‘I must warn you
that you risk your life.’ But what was life in comparison with the hopes
that dazzled me? From that night, I gave body, soul, and fortune to his
cause. Others were influenced by hatred, or ambition; but I was actuated
by neither of these motives. What did the quarrels of these great folks
matter to me--a simple labourer? I knew that the greatest were powerless
to give my crops a drop of rain in seasons of drought, or a ray of
sunshine during long spells of rain. I took part in the conspiracy, it
was because I loved you----”

It seemed to Marie-Anne that he was reproaching her for the deception
she had been forced to practise, and for the cruel fate to which
Lacheneur’s wild designs had brought him. “Ah, you are cruel,” she
cried, “you are pitiless!”

But Chanlouineau scarcely heard her words. All the bitterness of the
past was rising to his brain like fumes of alcohol; and he was scarcely
conscious of what he said himself. “However, the day soon came,” he
continued, “when my foolish illusions were destroyed. You could not be
mine since you belonged to another. I might have broken my compact! I
thought of doing so, but I did not have the courage. To see you, to hear
your voice, to spend my time under the same roof as you, was happiness
enough. I longed to see you happy and honoured; I fought for the triumph
of another, for him you had chosen----” A sob rose in his throat and
choked his utterance; he buried his face in his hands to hide his tears,
and, for a moment, seemed completely overcome. But he mastered his
weakness after a brief interval, and in a firm voice, exclaimed: “We
must not linger any longer over the past. Time flies, and the future is
ominous.”

As he spoke, he went to the door and applied first his eyes and then his
ear to the grating, to see that there were no spies outside. But he
could perceive no one, nor could he hear a sound. He came back to
Marie-Anne’s side, and tearing the sleeve of his jacket open with his
teeth, he drew from the lining two letters, wrapped carefully in a piece
of cloth. “Here,” he said, in a low voice, “is a man’s life!”

Marie-Anne knew nothing of Chanlouineau’s promises and hopes, and she
was moreover so distressed by what the young farmer had previously said
that at first she did not understand his meaning. All she could do was
to repeat mechanically, “This is a man’s life!”

“Hush speak lower!” interrupted Chanlouineau. “Yes, one of these letters
might, perhaps, save the life of a prisoner now under sentence of
death.”

“Unfortunate man! Why do you not make use of it and save yourself?”

The young farmer shook his head. “Would it ever be possible for you to
love me?” he said. “No it wouldn’t be possible; and so what wish can I
have to live? At least I shall be able to forget everything when I am
underground. Moreover, I have been justly condemned. I knew what I was
doing when I left La Reche with my gun over my shoulder, and my sword by
my side; I have no right to complain. But these judges of ours have
condemned an innocent man----”

“The Baron d’Escorval?”

“Yes--Maurice’s father!” His voice changed as he pronounced the name of
his envied rival--envied, no doubt, and yet to assure this rival’s
happiness and Marie-Anne’s he would have given ten lives had they been
his to give. “I wish to save the baron,” he added, “and I can do so.”

“Oh! if what you said were true? But you undoubtedly deceive yourself.”

“I know what I am saying,” rejoined Chanlouineau; and still fearful lest
some spy might be concealed outside; he now came close to Marie-Anne and
in a low voice spoke rapidly as follows: “I never believed in the
success of this conspiracy, and when I sought for a weapon of defence in
case of failure, the Marquis de Sairmeuse furnished it. When it became
necessary to send out a circular, warning our accomplices of the date
decided upon for the rising, I persuaded M. Martial to write a model. He
suspected nothing. I told him it was for a wedding, and he did what I
asked. This letter, which is now in my possession, is the rough draft of
the circular we sent; and it is in the Marquis de Sairmeuse’s
handwriting. It is impossible for him to deny it. There is an erasure in
every line, and every one would look at the letter as the handiwork of a
man seeking to convey his real meaning in ambiguous phrases.”

With these words Chanlouineau opened the envelope and showed her the
famous letter he had dictated, in which the space for the date of the
insurrection was left blank. “My dear friend, we are at last agreed, and
the marriage is decided on, etc.”

The light that had sparkled in Marie-Anne’s eyes was suddenly bedimmed.
“And you think that this letter can be of any use?” she inquired, with
evident discouragement.

“I don’t _think_ so!”

“But----”

With a gesture, he interrupted her. “We must not lose time in
discussion--listen to me. Of itself, this letter might be unimportant,
but I have arranged matters in such a way that it will produce a
powerful effect. I declared before the commission that the Marquis de
Sairmeuse was one of the leaders of the movement. They laughed; and I
read incredulity on all the judges’ faces. But calumny is never without
its effect. When the Duke de Sairmeuse is about to receive a reward for
his services, there will be enemies in plenty to remember and repeat my
words. He knew this so well that he was greatly agitated, even while his
colleagues sneered at my accusation.”

“It’s a great crime to charge a man falsely,” murmured Marie-Anne, with
simple honesty. “No doubt,” rejoined Chanlouineau, “but I wish to save
the baron, and I cannot choose my means. As I knew that the marquis had
been wounded, I declared that he was fighting against the troops by my
side and asked that he should be summoned before the tribunal; swearing
that I had in my possession unquestionable proofs of his complicity.”

“Did you say that the Marquis de Sairmeuse had been wounded?” inquired
Marie-Anne.

Chanlouineau’s face wore a look of intense astonishment. “What!” he
exclaimed, “don’t you know----?” Then after an instant’s reflection:
“Fool that I am!” he resumed. “After all who could have told you what
happened? However, you remember that while we were on our way to the
Croix-d’Arcy, after your father had rode on in advance, Maurice placed
himself at the head of one division, and you walked beside him, while
your brother Jean and myself stayed behind to urge the laggards forward.
We were performing our duty conscientiously enough, when suddenly we
heard the gallop of a horse behind us. ‘We must know who is coming,’
said Jean to me. So we paused. The horse soon reached us; we caught the
bridle and held him. Can you guess who the rider was? Why, Martial de
Sairmeuse. It would be impossible to describe your brother’s fury when
he recognized the marquis. ‘At last I find you, you wretched noble!’ he
exclaimed, ‘and now we will settle our account! After reducing my
father, who had just given you a fortune, to despair and penury, you
tried to degrade my sister. I will have my revenge! Down, we must
fight!’”

Marie-Anne could scarcely tell whether she was awake or dreaming. “What,
my brother challenged the marquis!” she murmured, “Is it possible?”

“Brave as the marquis may be,” pursued Chanlouineau, “he did not seem
inclined to accept the invitation. He stammered out something like this:
‘You are mad--you are jesting--haven’t we always been friends? What does
all this mean?’ Jean ground his teeth in rage. ‘This means that we have
endured your insulting familiarity long enough,’ he replied, ‘and if you
don’t dismount and fight me fairly, I will blow your brains out!’ Your
brother, as he spoke, manipulated his pistol in so threatening a manner
that the marquis jumped off his horse and addressing me: ‘You see,
Chanlouineau,’ he said, ‘I must fight a duel or submit to murder. If
Jean kills me there is no more to be said--but if I kill him, what is to
be done?’ I told him he would be free to go off unmolested on condition
he gave me his word not to proceed to Montaignac before two o’clock.
‘Then I accept the challenge,’ said he, ‘give me a weapon.’ I gave him
my sword, your brother drew his, and they took their places in the
middle of the highway.”

The young farmer paused to take breath, and then more slowly he resumed:
“Marie-Anne, your father and I misjudged your brother. Poor Jean’s
appearance is terribly against him. His face indicates a treacherous,
cowardly nature, his smile is cunning, and his eyes always shun yours.
We distrusted him, but we should ask his forgiveness for having done so.
A man who fights as I saw him fight, deserves all our confidence. For
this combat in the road, and in the darkness, was terrible. They
attacked each other furiously, and at last Jean fell.”

“Ah! my brother is dead!” exclaimed Marie Anne.

“No,” promptly replied Chanlouineau; “at least I have reason to hope
not; and I know he has been well cared for. The duel had another
witness, a man named Poignot, whom you must remember as he was one of
your father’s tenants. He took Jean away with him, and promised me that
he would conceal him and care for him. As for the marquis, he showed me
that he was wounded as well, and then he remounted his horse, saying:
‘What could I do? He would have it so.’”

Marie-Anne now understood everything. “Give me the letter,” she said to
Chanlouineau, “I will go to the duke. I will find some way of reaching
him, and then God will guide me in the right course to pursue.”

The noble-hearted young farmer calmly handed her the scrap of paper
which might have been the means of his own salvation. “You must on no
account allow the duke to suppose that you have the proof with which you
threaten him about your person. He might be capable of any infamy under
such circumstances. He will probably say, at first, that he can do
nothing--that he sees no way to save the baron; but you must tell him
that he must find a means, if he does not wish this letter sent to
Paris, to one of his enemies----”

He paused, for the bolt outside was being withdrawn. A moment later
Corporal Bavois re-appeared. “The half-hour expired ten minutes ago,”
said the old soldier sadly, “and I must obey my orders.”

“Coming,” replied Chanlouineau; “we have finished.” And then handing
Marie-Anne the second letter he had taken from his sleeve, “This is for
you,” he added. “You will read it when I am no more. Pray, pray, do not
cry so! Be brave! You will soon be Maurice’s wife. And when you are
happy, think sometimes of the poor peasant who loved you so.”

Marie-Anne could not utter a word, but she raised her face to his. “Ah!
I dare not ask it!” he exclaimed. And for the first and only time in
life he clasped her in his arms, and pressed his lips to her pallid
cheek. “Now, good-bye,” he said once more. “Do not lose a moment.
Good-bye, for ever!”



XIX.


The prospect of capturing Lacheneur, the chief conspirator, had so
excited the Marquis de Courtornieu that he had not been able to tear
himself away from the citadel to go home to dinner. Stationed near the
entrance of the dark corridor leading to Chanlouineau’s cell, he watched
Marie-Anne hasten away; but as he saw her go out into the twilight with
a quick, alert step, he felt a sudden doubt concerning Chanlouineau’s
sincerity. “Can it be that this miserable peasant has deceived me?”
thought he; and so strong was this new-born suspicion that he hastened
after the young girl, determined to question her--to ascertain the
truth--to arrest her even, if need be. But he no longer possessed the
agility of youth, and when he reached the gateway the sentinel told him
that Mademoiselle Lacheneur had already left the citadel. He rushed out
after her, looked about on every side, but could see no trace of the
nimble fugitive. Accordingly, he was constrained to return again,
inwardly furious with himself for his own credulity. “Still, I can visit
Chanlouineau,” thought he, “and to-morrow will be time enough to summon
this creature and question her.”

“This creature” was, even then, hastening up the long, ill-paved street
leading to the Hotel de France. Regardless of the inquisitive glances of
the passers-by, she ran on, thinking only of shortening the terrible
suspense which her friends at the hotel must be enduring. “All is not
lost!” she exclaimed, as she re-entered the room where they were
assembled.

“My God, Thou hast heard my prayers!” murmured the baroness. Then,
suddenly seized by a horrible dread, she added: “But do not try to
deceive me. Are you not trying to comfort me with false hopes?”

“No! I am not deceiving you, madame. Chanlouineau has placed a weapon in
my hands, which, I hope and believe, will place the Duke de Sairmeuse in
our power. He is only omnipotent at Montaignac, and the only man who
would oppose him, M. de Courtornieu, is his friend. I believe that M.
d’Escorval can be saved.”

“Speak!” cried Maurice; “what must we do?”

“Pray and wait, Maurice, I must act alone in this matter, but be assured
that I will do everything that is humanly possible. It is my duty to do
so, for am I not the cause of all your misfortune?”

Absorbed in the thought of the task before her, Marie-Anne had failed to
remark a stranger who had arrived during her absence--an old
white-haired peasant. The abbe now drew her attention to him. “Here is a
courageous friend,” said he, “who ever since morning, has been searching
for you everywhere, in order to give you some news of your father.”

Marie-Anne could scarcely falter her gratitude. “Oh, you need not thank
me,” said the old peasant. “I said to myself: ‘The poor girl must be
terribly anxious, and I ought to relieve her of her misery.’ So I came
to tell you that M. Lacheneur is safe and well, except for a wound in
the leg, which causes him considerable suffering, but which will be
healed in a few weeks. My son-in-law, who was hunting yesterday in the
mountains, met him near the frontier in company of two of his friends.
By this time he must be in Piedmont, beyond the reach of the gendarmes.”

“Let us hope now,” said the abbe, “that we shall soon hear what has
become of Jean.”

“I know already,” replied Marie-Anne, “that my brother has been badly
wounded, but some kind friends are caring for him.”

Maurice, the abbe, and the retired officers now surrounded the brave
young girl. They wished to know what she was about to attempt, and to
dissuade her from incurring useless danger. But she refused to reply to
their pressing questions; and when they suggested accompanying her, or,
at least, following her at a distance, she declared that she must go
alone. “However, I shall be here again in a couple of hours,” she said,
“and then I shall be able to tell you if there is anything else to be
done.” With these words she hastened away.

To obtain an audience of the Duke de Sairmeuse was certainly a difficult
matter, as Maurice and the abbe had ascertained on the previous day.
Besieged by weeping and heart-broken families, his grace had shut
himself up securely, fearing, perhaps, that he might be moved by their
entreaties. Marie-Anne was aware of this, but she was not at all
anxious, for by employing the same word that Chanlouineau had used--that
same word “revelation”--she was certain to obtain a hearing. When she
reached the Duke de Sairmeuse’s mansion she found three or four lacqueys
talking in front of the principal entrance.

“I am the daughter of M. Lacheneur,” said she, speaking to one of them.
“I must see the duke at once, on matters connected with the revolt.”

“The duke is absent.”

“I come to make a revelation.”

The servant’s manner suddenly changed. “In that case follow me,
mademoiselle,” said he.

She did follow him up the stairs and through two or three rooms. At last
he opened a door and bade her enter; but, to her surprise, it was not
the Duke de Sairmeuse who was in the room, but his son, Martial, who,
was stretched upon a sofa, reading a paper by the light of a large
candelabra. On perceiving Marie-Anne he sprang up, pale and agitated.
“You here!” he stammered; and then, swiftly mastering his emotion, he
bethought himself of the possible motive of such a visit: “Lacheneur
must have been arrested,” he continued, “and wishing to save him from
the military commission you have thought of me. Thank you for doing so,
dear Marie-Anne, thank you for your confidence in me. I will not abuse
it. Be reassured. We will save your father, I promise you--I swear it.
We will find a means, for he must be saved. I will have it so!” As he
spoke his voice betrayed the passionate joy that was surging in his
heart.

“My father has not been arrested,” said Marie-Anne, coldly.

“Then,” said Martial, with some hesitation--”Then it is Jean who is a
prisoner.”

“My brother is in safety. If he survives his wounds he will evade all
attempts at capture.”

The pale face of the Marquis de Sairmeuse turned a deep crimson.
Marie-Anne’s manner showed him that she was acquainted with the duel. It
would have been useless to try and deny it; still he endeavoured to
excuse himself. “It was Jean who challenged me,” he said; “I tried to
avoid fighting, and I only defended my life in fair combat, and with
equal weapons----”

Marie-Anne interrupted him. “I do not reproach you, Monsieur le
Marquis,” she said, quietly.

“Ah! Marie-Anne, I am more severe than you. Jean was right to challenge
me. I deserved his anger. He knew my guilty thoughts, of which you were
ignorant. Oh! Marie-Anne, if I wronged you in thought it was because I
did not know you. Now I know that you, above all others, are pure and
chaste----”

He tried to take her hands, but she instantly repulsed him, and broke
into a fit of passionate sobbing. Of all the blows she had received this
last was most terrible. What shame and humiliation? Now, indeed, her cup
of sorrow was filled to overflowing. “Chaste and pure!” he had said. Oh,
the bitter mockery of those words!

But Martial misunderstood the meaning of her grief. “Your indignation is
just,” he resumed, with growing eagerness. “But if I have injured you
even in thought, I now offer you reparation. I have been a fool--a
miserable fool--for I love you; I love, and can love you only. I am the
Marquis de Sairmeuse. I am wealthy. I entreat you, I implore you to be
my wife.”

Marie-Anne listened in utter bewilderment. But an hour before
Chanlouineau in his cell cried aloud that he died for love of her, and
now it was Martial, who avowed his willingness to sacrifice his ambition
and his future for her sake. And the poor peasant condemned to death,
and the son of the all-powerful Duke de Sairmeuse, had confessed their
passion in almost the same words.

Martial paused, awaiting some reply--a word, a gesture. None came; and
then with increased vehemence, “You are silent,” he cried. “Do you
question my sincerity? No, it is impossible! Then why this silence? Do
you fear my father’s opposition? You need not. I know how to gain his
consent. Besides, what does his approbation matter to us? Have we any
need of him? Am I not my own master? Am I not rich--immensely rich? I
should be a miserable fool, a coward, if I hesitated between his stupid
prejudices and the happiness of my life.” He was evidently weighing all
the possible objections, in order to answer and overrule them
beforehand. “Is it on account of your family that you hesitate?” he
continued. “Your father and brother are pursued, and France is closed
against them. But we will leave France, and they shall come and live
near you. Jean will no longer dislike me when you are my wife. We will
all live in England or in Italy. Now I am grateful for the fortune that
will enable me to make your life a continual enchantment. I love
you--and in the happiness and tender love which shall be yours in the
future, I will make you forget all the bitterness of the past!”

Marie-Anne knew the Marquis de Sairmeuse well enough to understand the
intensity of the love revealed by these astounding proposals. And for
that very reason she hesitated to tell him that he had triumphed over
his pride in vain. She was anxiously wondering to what extremity his
wounded vanity would carry him, and if a refusal might not transform him
into a bitter foe.

“Why do you not answer?” asked Martial, with evident anxiety.

She felt that she must reply, that she must speak, say something; and
yet it was with intense reluctance that she at last unclosed her lips.
“I am only a poor girl, Monsieur le Marquis,” she murmured. “If I
accepted your offer, you would regret it for ever.”

“Never!”

“But you are no longer free. You have already plighted your troth.
Mademoiselle Blanche de Courtornieu is your promised wife.”

“Ah! say one word--only one--and this engagement which I detest shall be
broken.”

She was silent. It was evident that her mind was fully made up, and that
she refused his offer.

“Do you hate me, then?” asked Martial, sadly.

If she had allowed herself to tell the whole truth, Marie-Anne would
have answered “Yes;” for the Marquis de Sairmeuse did inspire her with
almost insurmountable aversion. “I no more belong to myself than you
belong to yourself,” she faltered.

A gleam of hatred shone for a second in Martial’s eyes. “Always
Maurice!” said he.

“Always.”

She expected an angry outburst, but he remained perfectly calm. “Then,”
said he, with a forced smile, “I must believe this and other evidence. I
must believe that you forced me to play a ridiculous part. Until now I
doubted it.”

Marie-Anne bowed her head, blushing with shame to the roots of her hair;
still she made no attempt at denial. “I was not my own mistress,” she
stammered; “my father commanded and threatened, and I--I obeyed him.”

“That matters little,” he interrupted; “a pure minded young girl should
not have acted so.” This was the only reproach he allowed himself to
utter, and he even regretted it, perhaps because he did not wish her to
know how deeply he was wounded, perhaps because--as he afterwards
declared--he could not overcome his love for her. “Now,” he resumed, “I
understand your presence here. You come to ask mercy for M. d’Escorval.”

“Not mercy, but justice. The baron is innocent.”

Martial drew close to Marie-Anne, and lowering his voice: “If the father
is innocent,” he whispered, “then it is the son who is guilty.”

She recoiled in terror. What! he knew the secret which the judges could
not, or would not penetrate!

But seeing her anguish, he took pity on her. “Another reason,” said he,
“for attempting to save the baron! If his blood were shed upon the
guillotine there would be an abyss between you and Maurice which neither
of you could cross. So I will join my efforts to yours.”

Blushing and embarrassed, Marie-Anne dared not thank him; for was she
not about to requite his generosity by charging him with a complicity of
which, as she well knew, he was innocent. Indeed, she would have by far
preferred to find him angry and revengeful.

Just then a valet opened the door, and the Duke de Sairmeuse entered.
“Upon my word!” he exclaimed, as he crossed the threshold, “I must
confess that Chupin is an admirable hunter. Thanks to him--” He paused
abruptly: he had not perceived Marie-Anne until now. “What! Lacheneur’s
daughter!” said he, with an air of intense surprise. “What does she want
here?”

The decisive moment had come--the baron’s life depended upon
Marie-Anne’s courage and address. Impressed by this weighty
responsibility she at once recovered all her presence of mind. “I have a
revelation to sell to you, sir,” she said, with a resolute air.

The duke looked at her with mingled wonder and curiosity; then, laughing
heartily, he threw himself on to the sofa, exclaiming: “Sell it, my
pretty one--sell it! I can’t speak of that until I am alone with you.”

At a sign from his father, Martial left the room. “Now tell me what it
is,” said the duke.

She did not lose a moment. “You must have read the circular convening
the conspirators,” she began.

“Certainly; I have a dozen copies of it in my pocket.”

“Who do you suppose wrote it?”

“Why, the elder d’Escorval, or your father.”

“You are mistaken, sir; that letter was prepared by the Marquis de
Sairmeuse, your son.”

The duke sprang to his feet, his face purple with anger. “Zounds! girl!
I advise you to bridle your tongue!” cried he.

“There is proof of what I assert; and the lady who sends me here,”
interrupted Marie-Anne, quite unabashed, “has the original of this
circular in safe keeping. It is in the handwriting of Monsieur le
Marquis, and I am obliged to tell you--”

She did not have time to complete her sentence, for the duke sprang to
the door, and, in a voice of thunder, called his son. As soon as Martial
entered the room his grace turned to Marie-Anne, “Now, repeat,” said he,
“repeat before my son what you have just said to me.”

Boldly, with head erect, and in a clear, firm voice, Marie-Anne repeated
her charge. She expected an indignant denial, a stinging taunt, or, at
least, an angry interruption from the marquis; but he listened with a
nonchalant air, and she almost believed she could read in his eyes an
encouragement to proceed, coupled with a promise of protection.

“Well! what do you say to that?” imperiously asked the duke, when
Marie-Anne had finished.

“First of all,” replied Martial, lightly, “I should like to see this
famous circular.”

The duke handed him a copy. “Here--read it,” said he.

Martial glanced over the paper, laughed heartily, and exclaimed: “A
clever trick.”

“What do you say?”

“I say that this Chanlouineau is a sly rascal. Who the devil would have
thought the fellow so cunning to see his honest face. Another lesson to
teach one not to trust in appearances.”

In all his life the Duke de Sairmeuse had never received so severe a
shock. “So Chanlouineau was not lying, then,” he ejaculated, in a
choked, unnatural voice, “you _were_ one of the instigators of this
rebellion?”

Martial’s brow bent as, in a tone of marked disdain, he slowly replied:
“This is the fourth time that you have addressed that question to me,
and for the fourth time I answer: ‘No.’ That should suffice for you. If
the fancy had seized me to take part in this movement, I should frankly
confess it. What possible reason could I have for concealing anything
from you?”

“The facts!” interrupted the duke, in a frenzy of passion; “the facts!”

“Very well,” rejoined Martial, in his usual indifferent tone; “the fact
is that the original of this circular does exist, that it was written in
my best hand on a very large sheet of very poor paper. I recollect that
in trying to find appropriate expressions I erased and re-wrote several
words. Did I date this writing? I think I did, but I could not swear to
it.”

“How do you reconcile this with your denials?” exclaimed M. de
Sairmeuse.

“I can do this easily. Did I not tell you just now that Chanlouineau had
made a tool of me?”

The duke no longer knew what to believe; but what exasperated him more
than everything else was his son’s imperturbable coolness. “You had much
better confess that you were led into this by your mistress,” he
retorted, pointing at Marie-Anne.

“Mademoiselle Lacheneur is not my mistress,” replied Martial, in an
almost threatening tone. “Though it only rests with her to become the
Marchioness de Sairmeuse if she chooses to-morrow. But let us leave
recriminations on one side, they cannot further the progress of our
business.”

It was with difficulty that the duke checked another insulting
rejoinder. However, he had not quite lost all reason. Trembling with
suppressed rage, he walked round the room several times, and at last
paused in front of Marie-Anne, who had remained standing in the same
place, as motionless as a statue. “Come, my good girl,” said he, “give
me the writing.”

“It is not in my possession, sir.”

“Where is it?”

“In the hands of a person who will only give it to you under certain
conditions.”

“Who is this person?”

“I am not at liberty to tell you.”

There was both admiration and jealousy in the look that Martial fixed
upon Marie-Anne. He was amazed by her coolness and presence of mind. Ah!
indeed powerful must be the passion that imparted such a ringing
clearness to her voice, such brilliancy to her eyes, and such precision
to her words!

“And if I should not accept the--the conditions, what then?” asked M. de
Sairmeuse.

“In that case the writing will be utilized.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean, sir, that early to-morrow morning a trusty messenger will start
for Paris, with the view of submitting this document to certain persons
who are not exactly friends of yours. He will show it to M. Laine, for
example--or to the Duke de Richelieu; and he will, of course, explain to
them its significance and value. Will this writing prove the Marquis de
Sairmeuse’s complicity? Yes, or no? Have you, or have you not, dared to
condemn to death the unfortunate men who were only your son’s tools?”

“Ah, you little wretch, you hussy, you little viper!” interrupted the
duke in a passionate rage. “You want to drive me mad! Yes, you know that
I have enemies and rivals who would gladly give anything for this
execrable letter. And if they obtain it they will demand an
investigation, and then farewell to the rewards due to my services. It
will be shouted from the housetops that Chanlouineau, in the presence of
the tribunal, declared that you, marquis, were his leader and his
accomplice. You will be obliged to submit to the scrutiny of physicians,
who, finding a freshly-healed wound, will require you to state how and
where you received it, and why you concealed it. And then, of course, I
shall be accused! It will be said I expedited matters in order to
silence the voices raised against my son. Perhaps my enemies will even
say that I secretly favoured the insurrection. I shall be vilified in
the newspapers. And remember that it is you, you alone, marquis, who
have ruined the fortunes of our house, our brilliant prospects, in this
foolish fashion. You pretend to believe in nothing, to doubt
everything--you are cold, sceptical, disdainful. But only let a pretty
woman make her appearance on the scene, and you grow as wild as a
school-boy, and you are ready to commit any act of folly. It is you that
I am speaking to, marquis. Don’t you hear me? Speak! what have you to
say?”

Martial had listened to this tirade with unconcealed scorn, and without
even attempting to interrupt it. But now he slowly replied, “I think,
sir, that if Mademoiselle Lacheneur _had_ any doubts of the value of the
document she possesses, she certainly can have them no longer.”

This answer fell upon the duke’s wrath like a bucket of iced water. He
instantly realised his folly; and frightened by his own words, stood
literally stupefied with astonishment.

Without deigning to speak any further to his father, the marquis turned
to Marie-Anne. “Will you be kind enough to explain what is required in
exchange for this letter?” he said.

“The life and liberty of M. d’Escorval.”

The duke started as if he had received an electric shock. “Ah!” he
exclaimed. “I knew they would ask for something that was impossible!” He
sank back into an arm chair; and his despair now seemed as deep as his
frenzy had been violent. He hid his face in his hands, evidently seeking
for some expedient. “Why didn’t you come to me before judgment was
pronounced?” he murmured. “Then, I could of done anything--now, my hands
are bound. The commission has spoken, and the sentence must be
executed--” He rose, and added in the tone of a man who is utterly
resigned: “Decidedly, I should risk more in attempting to save the
baron”--in his anxiety he gave M. d’Escorval his title--”a thousand
times more than I have to fear from my enemies. So, mademoiselle”--he no
longer said, “my good girl”--”you can utilize your document.”

Having spoken, he was about to leave the room, when Martial detained
him, “Think again before you decide,” said the marquis. “Our situation
is not without a precedent. Don’t you remember that a few months ago the
Count de Lavalette was condemned to death. Now the king wished to pardon
him, but the ministers had contrary views. No doubt his majesty was the
master; still what did he do? He effected to remain deaf to all the
supplications made on the prisoner’s behalf. The scaffold was even
erected, and yet Lavalette was saved! And no one was compromised--yes, a
jailer lost his position; but he is living on his pension now.”

Marie-Anne caught eagerly at the idea which Martial had so cleverly
presented. “Yes,” she exclaimed, “the Count de Lavalette was favoured by
royal connivance, and succeeded in making his escape.”

The simplicity of the expedient, and the authority of the example,
seemed to make a vivid impression on the duke. He remained silent for a
moment, but Marie-Anne fancied she could detect an expression of relief
steal over his face. “Such an attempt would be very hazardous,” he
murmured; “yet, with care, and if one were sure that it would remain a
secret--”

“Oh! the secret will be religiously kept, sir,” interrupted Marie-Anne.

With a glance Martial recommended her to remain silent then turning to
his father, he said: “We can always consider this expedient, and
calculate the consequences--that won’t bind us. When is this sentence to
be carried into effect?”

“To-morrow,” replied the duke. Terrible as this curt answer seemed, it
did not alarm Marie-Anne. She had perceived by the duke’s acute anxiety
that she had good grounds for hope, and she was now aware that Martial
would favour her designs.

“We have, then, only the night before us,” resumed the marquis.
“Fortunately, it is only half-past seven, and until ten o’clock my
father can visit the citadel without exciting suspicion.” He paused, and
seemed embarrassed. The fact was, he had just realised the existence of
a difficulty which might thwart all his plans. “Have we any intelligent
men in the citadel?” he murmured. “A jailer or a soldier’s assistance is
indispensable.” Turning to his father, he abruptly asked him: “Have you
any man whom one can trust?”

“I have three or four spies--they can be bought--”

“No! the wretch who betrays his comrade for a few sous would betray you
for a few louis. We must have an honest man who sympathizes with Baron
d’Escorval’s opinions--an old soldier who fought under Napoleon, if
possible.”

“I know the man you require!” exclaimed Marie-Anne with sudden
inspiration, and noticing Martial’s surprise. “Yes, a man at the
citadel.”

“Take care,” observed the marquis. “Remember he will have a great deal
to risk, for should this be discovered the accomplices must be
sacrificed.”

“The man I speak of is the one you need. I will be responsible for him.
His name is Bavois, and he is a corporal in the first company of
grenadiers.”

“Bavois,” repeated Martial, as if to fix the name in his memory;
“Bavois. Very well, I will confer with him. My father will find some
pretext for having him summoned here.”

“It is easy to find a pretext,” rejoined Marie-Anne. “He was left on
guard at Escorval after the searching party left the house.”

“That’s capital,” said Martial, walking towards his father’s chair. “I
suppose,” he continued, addressing the duke, “that the baron has been
separated from the other prisoners.”

“Yes, he is alone, in a large, comfortable room, on the second floor of
the corner tower.”

“The corner tower!” said Martial, “is that the very tall one, built on
the edge of the cliff, where the rock rises almost perpendicularly?”

“Precisely,” answered M. de Sairmeuse, whose promptness plainly implied
that he was ready to risk a good deal to enable the prisoner to escape.

“What kind of a window is there in the baron’s room?” inquired Martial.

“Oh, a tolerably large one, with a double row of iron bars, securely
riveted into the stone walls. It overlooks the precipice.”

“The deuce! The bars can easily be cut through, but that precipice is a
serious difficulty, and yet, in one respect, it is an advantage, for no
sentinels are stationed there, are they?”

“No, never. Between the walls and the citadel and the edge of the rock
there is barely standing room. The soldiers don’t venture there even in
the day time.”

“There is one more important question. What is the distance from M.
d’Escorval’s window to the ground?”

“I should say it is about forty feet from the base of the tower.”

“Good! And from the base of the tower to the foot of the cliff--how far
is that?”

“I really scarcely know. However, I should think fully sixty feet.”

“Ah, that’s terribly high; but fortunately the baron is still pretty
vigorous.”

The duke was growing impatient. “Now,” said he to his son, “will you be
so kind as to explain your plan?”

“My plan is simplicity itself,” replied Martial. “Sixty and forty are
one hundred; so it is necessary to procure a hundred feet of strong
rope. It will make a very large bundle; but no matter. I will twist it
round me, wrap myself up in a large cloak, and accompany you to the
citadel. You will send for Corporal Bavois, leave me alone with him in a
quiet place; and I will explain our wishes to him.”

The Duke de Sairmeuse shrugged his shoulders. “And how will you procure
a hundred feet of rope at this hour in Montaignac? Will you go about
from shop to shop? You might as well trumpet your project all over
France at once.”

“I shall attempt nothing of the kind. What I can’t do, the friends of
the D’Escorval family will do.” Then seeing that the duke was about to
offer some fresh objections, Martial earnestly added: “Pray don’t forget
the danger that threatens us, nor the little time that is left us. I
have made a blunder, let me repair it.” And turning to Marie-Anne: “You
may consider the baron saved,” he pursued; “but it is necessary for me
to confer with one of his friends. Return at once to the Hotel de France
and tell the cure to meet me on the Place d’Armes, where I shall go at
once and wait for him.”



XX.


Directly the Baron d’Escorval was arrested, although he was unarmed and
although he had taken no part in the insurrection, he fully realised the
fact that he was a lost man. He knew how hateful he was to the royalist
party, and having made up his mind that he would have to die, he turned
all his attention to the danger threatening his son. The unfortunate
blunder he made in contradicting Chupin’s evidence was due to his
preoccupation, and he did not breathe freely until he saw Maurice led
from the hall by the Abbe Midon and the friendly officers; for he feared
that his son would be unable to restrain himself, that he would declare
his guilt all to no purpose since the commission in its blind state
would never forgive the father, but rather satisfy its rancour by
ordering the execution of the son as well. When Maurice was eventually
got away, the baron became more composed, and with head erect, and
steadfast eye, he listened to his sentence. In the confusion that ensued
in removing the prisoners from the hall M. d’Escorval found himself
beside Chanlouineau, who had begun his noisy lamentations. “Courage, my
boy,” he said, indignant at such apparent cowardice.

“Ah! it is easy to talk,” whined the young farmer, who seeing that he
was momentarily unobserved, leant towards the baron, and whispered; “It
is for you that I am working. Save all your strength for to-night.”

Chanlouineau’s words and his burning glance surprised M. d’Escorval, but
he attributed both to fear. When the guards took him back to his cell,
he threw himself on to his pallet, and became absorbed in that vision of
the last hour, which is at once the hope and despair of those who are
about to die. He knew the terrible laws that govern a military
commission. The next day--in a few hours--at dawn, perhaps, he would be
taken from his cell, and placed in front of a squad of soldiers, an
officer would lift his sword, and then all would be over. All over! ay,
but what would become of his wife and son? His agony on thinking of
those he loved was terrible. He was alone; he wept. But suddenly he
started up, ashamed of his weakness. He must not allow these thoughts to
unnerve him. Had he not already determined to meet death without
flinching? Resolved to shake off this fit of melancholy, he walked round
and round his cell forcing his mind to occupy itself with material
objects.

The room which had been allotted to him was very large. It had once
communicated with an adjoining apartment, but the door had long since
been walled up. The cement which held the stone together had crumbled
away, leaving crevices through which one might look from one room into
the other. M. d’Escorval mechanically applied his eye to one of these
crevices. Perhaps he had a friend for a neighbour, some wretched man who
was to share his fate. No. He could not see anyone. He called, first in
a whisper, and then louder; but no voice replied. “If I could only tear
down this thin partition,” he thought. He trembled, then shrugged his
shoulders. And if he did, what then? He would only find himself in
another apartment similar to his own, and communicating like his with a
corridor full of guards, whose monotonous tramp he could plainly hear as
they passed to and fro. What folly to think of escape! He knew that
every possible precaution must have been taken to guard against it. Yes,
he knew this, and yet he could not refrain from examining his window.
Two rows of iron bars protected it. These were placed in such a way
that it was impossible for him to protrude his head and see how far he
was above the ground. The height, however, must be considerable, judging
from the extent of the view. The sun was setting; and through the violet
haze the baron could discern an undulating line of hills, the
culminating point of which must be the waste land of La Reche. The dark
mass of foliage that he saw on the right was probably the forest of
Sairmeuse. On the left, he divined rather than saw, nestling between the
hills, the valley of the Oiselle and Escorval. Escorval, that lovely
retreat where he had known such happiness, where he had hoped to die in
peace. And remembering past times, and thinking of his vanished dreams,
his eyes once more filled with tears. But he quickly dried them as he
heard some one draw back the bolts securing the door of his room.

Two soldiers entered, one of whom carried a torch, while the other had
with him one of those long baskets divided into compartments which are
used in carrying meals to officers on guard. These men were evidently
deeply moved, and yet, obeying a sentiment of instinctive delicacy, they
affected a semblance of gaiety. “Here is your dinner, sir,” said one
soldier, “it ought to be good, since it comes from the commander’s
kitchen.”

M. d’Escorval smiled sadly. Some attentions have a sinister significance
coming from your jailer. Still, when he seated himself before the little
table prepared for him, he found that he was really hungry. He ate with
a relish, and was soon chatting quite cheerfully with the soldiers.
“Always hope for the best, sir,” said one of these worthy fellows. “Who
knows? Stranger things have happened!”

When the baron had finished his meal, he asked for pen, ink, and paper,
which were almost immediately brought to him. He found himself again
alone; but his conversation with the soldiers had been of service, for
his weakness had passed away, his self-possession had returned, and he
could not reflect. He was surprised that he had heard nothing from his
wife or son. Had they been refused admittance to the prison? No, that
could not be; he could not imagine his judges sufficiently cruel to
prevent him from pressing his wife and son to his heart, in a last
embrace. Yet, how was it that neither the baroness nor Maurice had made
an attempt to see him! Something must have prevented them from doing so.
What could it be? He imagined the worst misfortunes. He saw his wife
writhing in agony, perhaps dead. He pictured Maurice, wild with grief,
on his knees at his mother’s bedside. Still they might come yet, for on
consulting his watch, he found that it was only seven o’clock. But alas,
he waited in vain. No one came. At last, he took up his pen, and was
about to write, when he heard a bustle in the corridor outside. The
clink of spurs resounded over the flagstones, and he heard the sharp
clink of a musket as the sentinel presented arms. Trembling in spite of
himself, the baron sprang up. “They have come at last!” he exclaimed.

But he was mistaken; the footsteps died away in the distance, and he
reflected that this must have been some round of inspection. At the same
moment, however, two objects thrown through the little grated opening in
the door of his cell, fell on to the floor in the middle of the room. M.
d’Escorval caught them up. Somebody had thrown him two files. His first
feeling was one of distrust. He knew that there were jailers who left no
means untried to dishonour their prisoners before delivering them over
to the executioner. Who had sent him these instruments of deliverance, a
friend or an enemy? Chanlouineau’s last words and the look that
accompanied them recurred to his mind, perplexing him still more. He was
standing with knitted brows, turning and re-turning the files in his
hands, when he suddenly noticed on the floor a scrap of paper which at
first had escaped his attention. He picked it up, unfolded it, and read:
“Your friends are at work. Everything is prepared for your escape. Make
haste and saw the bars of your window. Maurice and his mother embrace
you. Hope, courage!” Beneath these few lines was the letter M.

But the baron did not need this initial to feel assured, for he had at
once recognized the Abbe Midon’s handwriting. “Ah! he is a true friend,”
he murmured. “And this explains why neither my wife nor son came to
visit me; and yet I doubted their energy--and was complaining of their
neglect!” Intense joy filled his heart, he raised the letter that
promised him life and liberty to his lips, and enthusiastically
exclaimed: “To work! to work!”

He had chosen the finest of the two files which were both well tempered,
and was about to attack the bars, when he fancied he heard some one open
the door of the next room. Some one had opened it, certainly, and had
closed it again, but without locking it. The baron could hear this
person moving cautiously about. What did it all mean? Were they
incarcerating some fresh prisoner, or were they stationing a spy there?
Holding his breath and listening with the greatest attention, the baron
now heard a singular sound, the cause of which it was quite impossible
to explain. He stealthily advanced to the door that had been walled up,
knelt down and peered through one of the crevices in the masonry. The
sight that met his eyes amazed him. A man was standing in a corner of
the room, and the baron could see the lower part of his body by the
light of a large lantern which he had deposited on the floor at his
feet. He was turning quickly round and round, thus unwinding a long rope
which had been twined round his body as thread is wound about a bobbin.
M. d’Escorval rubbed his eyes as if to assure himself that he was not
dreaming. Evidently this rope was intended for him. It was to be
attached to the broken bars. But how had this man succeeded in gaining
admission to this room? Who could it be that enjoyed such liberty in the
prison? He was not a soldier--or, at least, he did not wear a uniform.
Unfortunately, the highest crevice was so situated that the baron could
not see the upper part of the man’s body; and despite all his efforts,
he failed to distinguish the features of this friend--he judged him to
be such--whose boldness verged on folly. Unable to resist his intense
curiosity, M. d’Escorval was on the point of rapping against the wall to
question him, when the door of the room where this man stood was
impetuously thrown open. Another man entered, but his lineaments also
were beyond the baron’s range of vision. However, his voice could be
heard quite plainly, and M. d’Escorval was seized with despair when this
new comer ejaculated in a tone of intense astonishment: “Good heavens!
what are you about?”

“All is discovered!” thought the baron, growing sick at heart; while to
his increased surprise the man he believed to be his friend calmly
continued unwinding the rope, and quietly replied: “As you see, I am
freeing myself from this burden, which I find extremely uncomfortable.
There are at least sixty yards of it, I should think--and what a bundle
it makes! I feared they would discover it under my cloak.”

“And what are you going to do with all this rope?” inquired the
newcomer.

“I am going to hand it to the Baron d’Escorval, to whom I have already
given a file. He must make his escape to-night.”

The scene was so improbable that the baron could not believe his own
ears. “I can’t be awake; I must be dreaming,” he thought.

But the new-comer uttered a terrible oath, and, in an almost threatening
tone, exclaimed: “We will see about that! If you have gone mad, thank
God I still possess my reason! I will not permit----”

“Excuse me!” interrupted the other, coldly, “you will permit it. This is
merely the result of your own--credulity. The time to say, ‘I won’t
permit it,’ was when Chanlouineau asked you to allow him to receive a
visit from Mademoiselle Lacheneur. Do you know what that cunning fellow
wanted? Simply to give Mademoiselle Lacheneur a letter of mine, so
compromising in its nature, that if it ever reaches the hands of a
certain person of my acquaintance, my father and I will be obliged to
reside in London for the future. Then good-bye to all our projects of an
alliance between our two families!” The newcomer heaved a mighty sigh,
followed by a half angry, half sorrowful exclamation; but the man with
the rope, without giving him any opportunity to reply, resumed: “You,
yourself, marquis, would no doubt be compromised. Were you not a
chamberlain during Bonaparte’s reign? Ah, marquis! how could a man of
your experience, so subtle, penetrating, and acute, allow himself to be
duped by a low, ignorant peasant?”

Now M. d’Escorval understood everything. He was not dreaming; it was the
Marquis de Courtornieu and Martial de Sairmeuse who were talking on the
other side of the wall. The former had been so crushed by Martial’s
revelation that he made no effort to oppose him. “And this terrible
letter?” he groaned.

“Marie-Anne Lacheneur gave it to the Abbe Midon, who came to me and
said: ‘Either the baron will escape, or this letter will be taken to
the Duke de Richelieu.’ I voted for the baron’s escape, I assure you.
The abbe procured all that was necessary; he met me at a rendezvous I
appointed in a quiet place; he coiled all this rope round my body, and
here I am.”

“Then you think that if the baron escapes they will give you back your
letter?”

“Most assuredly I do.”

“You deluded man! Why, as soon as the baron is safe, they will demand
the life of another prisoner, with the same threats.”

“By no means.”

“You will see.”

“I shall see nothing of the kind, for a very simple reason. I have the
letter now in my pocket. The abbe gave it to me in exchange for my word
of honour.”

M. de Courtornieu uttered an ejaculation which showed that he considered
the abbe to be an egregious fool. “What!” he exclaimed. “You hold the
proof, and---- But this is madness! Burn this wretched letter in your
lantern, and let the baron go where his slumbers will be undisturbed.”

Martial’s silence betrayed something like stupefaction. “Ah! so that’s
what you would do?” he asked at last.

“Certainly--and without the slightest hesitation.”

“Ah well! I can’t say that I quite congratulate you.”

The sneer was so apparent that M. de Courtornieu was sorely tempted to
make an angry reply. But he was not a man to yield to his first
impulse--this ex-Imperial chamberlain now a _grand prevot_ under His
Majesty King Louis XVIII. He reflected. Should he, on account of a sharp
word, quarrel with Martial--with the only suitor who had ever pleased
his daughter? A quarrel and he would be left without any prospect of a
son-in-law! When would heaven send him such another? And how furious
Blanche would be! He concluded to swallow the bitter pill; and it was in
a tone of paternal indulgence that he remarked: “I see that you are very
young, my dear Martial.”

The baron was still kneeling beside the partition, holding his breath in
an agony of suspense, and with his right ear against one of the
crevices.

“You are only twenty, my dear Martial,” pursued the Marquis de
Courtornieu; “you are imbued with all the enthusiasm and generosity of
youth. Complete your undertaking; I shall not oppose you; but remember
that all may be discovered--and then----”

“Have no fear, sir, on that score,” interrupted the young marquis; “I
have taken every precaution. Did you see a single soldier in the
corridor, just now? No. That is because my father, at my request, has
just assembled all the officers and guards together under pretext of
ordering exceptional precautions. He is talking to them now. This gave
me an opportunity to come here unobserved. No one will see me when I go
out. Who, then, will dare suspect me of having any hand in the baron’s
escape?”

“If the baron escapes, justice will require to know who aided him.”

Martial laughed. “If justice seeks to know, she will find a culprit of
my providing. Go, now; I have told you everything. I had but one person
to fear--yourself. A trusty messenger requested you to join me here. You
came; you know all, you have agreed to remain neutral. I am at ease, and
the baron will be safe in Piedmont when the sun rises.” He picked up his
lantern, and added, gaily: “But let us go--my father can’t harangue
those soldiers forever.”

“But you have not told me----” insisted M. de Courtornieu.

“I will tell you everything, but not here. Come, come!”

They went out, locking the door behind them; and then the baron rose
from his knees. All sorts of contradictory ideas, doubts, and
conjectures filled his mind. What could this letter have contained? Why
had not Chanlouineau used it to procure his own salvation? Who would
have believed that Martial would be so faithful to a promise wrested
from him by threats? But this was a time for action, not for reflection.
The bars were heavy, and there were two rows of them. M. d’Escorval set
to work. He had supposed that the task would be difficult, but, as he
almost immediately discovered, it proved a thousand times more arduous
than he had expected. It was the first time that he had ever worked with
a file, and he did not know how to use it. His progress was despairingly
slow. Nor was that all. Though he worked as cautiously as possible,
each movement of the instrument across the iron caused a harsh, grating
sound which made him tremble. What if some one overheard this noise? And
it seemed to him impossible for it to escape notice, since he could
plainly distinguish the measured tread of the guards, who had resumed
their watch in the corridor. So slight was the result of his labours,
that at the end of twenty minutes he experienced a feeling of profound
discouragement. At this rate, it would be impossible for him to sever
the first bar before daybreak. What, then, was the use of spending his
time in fruitless labour? Why mar the dignity of death by the disgrace
of an unsuccessful effort to escape?

He was hesitating when footsteps approached his cell. At once he left
the window and seated himself at the table. Almost directly afterwards
the door opened and a soldier entered; an officer who did not cross the
threshold remarking at the same moment: “You have your instructions,
corporal, keep a close watch. If the prisoner needs anything, call.”

M. d’Escorval’s heart throbbed almost to bursting. What was coming now?
Had M. de Courtornieu’s advice carried the day, or had Martial sent some
one to assist him? But the door was scarcely closed when the corporal
whispered: “We must not be dawdling here.”

M. d’Escorval sprang from his chair. This man was a friend. Here was
help and life.

“I am Bavois,” continued the corporal. “Some one said to me just now:
‘One of the emperor’s friends is in danger; are you willing to lend him
a helping hand!’ I replied, ‘Present,’ and here I am.”

This certainly was a brave fellow. The baron held out his hand, and in a
voice trembling with emotion: “Thanks,” said he; “thanks. What, you
don’t even know me, and yet you expose yourself to the greatest danger
for my sake.”

Bavois shrugged his shoulders disdainfully. “Positively my old hide is
no more precious than yours. If we don’t succeed they will chop off our
heads with the same ax. But we _shall_ succeed. Now, let’s stop talking
and proceed to business.”

As he spoke he drew from under his long overcoat a strong iron crowbar
and a small vial of brandy, both of which he laid upon the bed. He then
took the candle and passed it five or six times before the window.

“What are you doing?” inquired the baron in suspense.

“I am signalling to your friends that everything is progressing
favourably. They are down there waiting for us; and see they are now
answering.” The baron looked, and three times they both perceived a
little flash of flame, such as is produced by burning a pinch of
gunpowder.

“Now,” said the corporal, “we are all right. Let us see what progress
you have made with the bars.”

“I have scarcely begun,” murmured M. d’Escorval.

The corporal inspected the work. “You may indeed say that you have made
no progress,” said he; “but never mind, I was ‘prenticed to a locksmith
once, and I know how to handle a file.” Then drawing the cork from the
vial of brandy, he fastened it to the end of one of the files, and
swathed the handle of the tool with a piece of damp linen. “That’s what
they call putting a _stop_ on the instrument,” he remarked, by way of
explanation. Immediately afterwards he made an energetic attack on the
bars, and it was at once evident that he had by no means exaggerated
either his knowledge of the task, or the efficacy of his precautions for
deadening the sound. The harsh grating which had so alarmed the baron
was no longer heard, and Bavois, finding he had nothing more to dread
from the keenest ears, now made preparations to shelter himself from
observation. Suspicion would be at once aroused if the gratings in the
door were covered over, so the corporal hit upon another expedient.
Moving the little table to another part of the room, he stood the
candle-stick on it in such a position that the window remained entirely
in shadow. Then he ordered the baron to sit down, and handing him a
paper, said: “Now read aloud, without pausing for a minute, until you
see me stop work.”

By this method they might reasonably hope to deceive the guards outside
in the corridor; some of whom, indeed did come to the door and look in;
but after a brief glance they walked away, and remarked to their
companions: “We have just taken a look at the prisoner. He is very pale,
and his eyes are glistening feverishly. He is reading aloud to divert
his mind. Corporal Bavois is looking out of the window. It must be dull
music for him.”

They little suspected why the baron’s eyes glistened in this feverish
fashion; and had no idea that if he read aloud it was with the view of
overpowering any suspicious sound which might result from Corporal
Bavois’ labour. The time passed on, and while the latter worked, M.
d’Escorval continued reading. He had completed the perusal of the entire
paper, and was about to begin it again, when the old soldier, leaving
the window, motioned him to stop.

“Half the task is completed,” he said in a whisper. “The lower bars are
cut.”

“Ah! how can I ever repay you for your devotion!” murmured the baron.

“Hush! not a word!” interrupted Bavois. “If I escape with you, I can
never return here; and I shan’t know where to go, for the regiment, you
see, is my only family. Ah, well! if you give me a home with you I shall
be very well content.” Thereupon he swallowed some of the brandy, and
set to work again with renewed ardour.

He had cut one of the bars of the second row, when he was interrupted by
M. d’Escorval who, without pausing in his renewed perusal, was pulling
him by the coat tails to attract attention. The corporal turned round at
once. “What’s up?” said he.

“I heard a singular noise just now in the adjoining room where the ropes
are.”

Honest Bavois muttered a terrible oath. “Do they intend to betray us?”
he asked. “I risked my life, and they promised me fair play.” He placed
his ear against a crevice in the partition, and listened for a long
while. Nothing, not the slightest sound could be detected. “It must have
been some rat that you heard,” he said at last. “Go on with your
reading.” And he turned to his work again.

This was the only interruption, and a little before four o’clock
everything was ready. The bars were cut, and the ropes, which had been
drawn through an opening in the wall, were coiled under the window. The
decisive moment had come. Bavois took the counterpane from the bed,
fastened it over the opening in the door, and filled up the keyhole.
“Now,” said he, in the same measured tone he would have used in
instructing a recruit, “attention! sir, and obey the word of command.”

Then he calmly explained that the escape would consist of two distinct
operations; first, one would have to gain the narrow platform at the
base of the tower; next one must descend to the foot of the precipitous
rock. The abbe, who understood this, had brought Martial two ropes; the
one to be used in the descent of the precipice being considerably longer
than the other. “I will fasten the shortest rope under your arms,” said
Bavois to the baron, “and I will let you down to the base of the tower.
When you have reached it I will pass you the longer rope and the
crowbar. Don’t miss them. If we find ourselves without them on that
narrow ledge of rock, we shall either be compelled to deliver ourselves
up, or throw ourselves down the precipice. I shan’t be long in joining
you. Are you ready?”

In reply M. d’Escorval lifted his arms, the rope was fastened securely
about him, and he crawled through the window.

From above the height seemed immense. Below, in the barren fields
surrounding the citadel, eight persons were waiting, silent, anxious,
breathless with suspense. They were Madame d’Escorval and Maurice,
Marie-Anne, the Abbe Midon, and four retired officers. There was no
moon, but the night was very clear, and they could see the tower
plainly. Soon after four o’clock struck from the church steeples, they
perceived a dark object glide slowly down the side of the tower--this
was the baron. A short interval and then another form followed
rapidly--this was Bavois. Half of the perilous journey was accomplished.
The watchers below could see the two figures moving about on the narrow
platform. The corporal and the baron were exerting all their strength to
fix the crowbar securely in a crevice of the rock. Suddenly one of the
figures stepped forward and glided gently down the side of the
precipice. It could be none other than M. d’Escorval. Transported with
happiness, his wife sprang forward with open arms to receive him. Alas!
at that same moment a terrible cry rent the still night air.

M. d’Escorval was falling from a height of fifty feet; he was being
hurled to the foot of the precipice. The rope had parted. Had it broken
naturally? Maurice examined it; and then with a vow of vengeance
exclaimed that they had been betrayed--that their enemy had arranged to
deliver only a dead body into their hands--that the rope had been
foully tampered with, intentionally cut with a knife beforehand!



XXI.


Father Chupin, the false witness and the crafty spy, had refrained from
sleeping and almost from drinking ever since that unfortunate morning
when the Duke de Sairmeuse affixed to the walls of Montaignac the decree
in which he promised twenty thousand francs to the person who delivered
up Lacheneur, dead or alive. “Twenty thousand francs,” muttered the old
rascal gloomily; “twenty sacks with a hundred golden pistoles in each!
Ah! if I could only discover this Lacheneur, even if he were dead and
buried a hundred feet under ground, I should gain the reward.”

He cared nothing for the shame which such a feat would entail. His sole
thought was the reward--the blood-money. Unfortunately for his greed he
had nothing whatever to guide him in his researches; no clue, however
vague. All that was known in Montaignac was that Lacheneur’s horse had
been killed at the Croix-d’Arcy. But no one could say whether Lacheneur
himself had been wounded, or whether he had escaped from the fray
uninjured. Had he gained the frontier? or had he found an asylum in some
friend’s house. Chupin was thus hungering for the price of blood, when,
on the day of the baron’s trial, as he was returning from the citadel,
after giving his evidence, he chanced to enter a wine-shop. He was
indulging in a strong potation when he suddenly heard a peasant near him
mention Lacheneur’s name in a low voice. This peasant was an old man who
sat at an adjoining table, emptying a bottle of wine in a friend’s
company, and he was telling the latter that he had come to Montaignac on
purpose to give Mademoiselle Lacheneur some news of her father. He said
that his son-in-law had met the chief conspirator in the mountains which
separate the arrondissement of Montaignac from Savoy, and he even
mentioned the exact place of meeting, which was near Saint
Pavin-des-Grottes, a tiny village of only a few houses. Certainly the
worthy fellow did not think he was committing a dangerous indiscretion,
for in his opinion Lacheneur had already crossed the frontier, and put
himself out of danger. But in this surmise he was grievously mistaken.

The frontier bordering on Savoy was guarded by soldiers, who had
received orders to prevent any of the conspirators passing into Italian
territory. And even if Piedmont was gained it seemed likely that the
Italian authorities would themselves arrest the fugitive rebels, and
hand them over to their judges. Chupin was aware of all this, and
resolved to act at once. He threw a coin on the counter, and without
waiting for his change, rushed back to the citadel, and asked a sergeant
at the gate for pen and paper. Writing was for him usually a most
laborious task, but to-day it only took him a moment to pen these lines:
“I know Lacheneur’s retreat, and beg monseigneur to order some mounted
soldiers to accompany me, so that we may capture him.

“CHUPIN.”

       *       *       *       *       *

This letter was given to one of the guards, with a request to take it to
the Duke de Sairmeuse, who was then presiding over the military
commission. Five minutes later the soldier returned with the same note,
on the margin of which the duke had written an order, placing a
lieutenant and eight men of the Montaignac chasseurs, who could be
relied upon, at Chupin’s disposal. The old spy also asked the loan of a
horse for his own use, and this was granted him: and the party then
started off at once in the direction of St. Pavin.

When, at the finish of the final stand made by the insurgents at the
Croix-d’Arcy, Lacheneur’s horse received a bayonet wound in the chest,
and reared and fell, burying its rider underneath; the latter lost
consciousness, and it was not till some hours later that, restored by
the fresh morning air, he regained his senses and was able to look about
him. All he perceived was a couple of dead bodies lying some little
distance off. It was a terrible moment, and in his soul he cursed the
fate which had left him still alive. Had he been armed, he would no
doubt have put an end to the mental tortures he was suffering by
suicide--but then he had no weapon. So he must resign himself to life.
Perhaps, too, the voice of honour whispered that it was cowardice to
strive to escape responsibility by self-inflicted death. At last, he
endeavoured to draw himself from under his horse, which proved no easy
task, as his foot was still in the stirrup, and his limbs were so
cramped that he could scarcely move them. Finally, however, he succeeded
in freeing himself, and, on examination, discovered that he had only one
wound, inflicted by a bayonet thrust, in the left leg. It caused him
considerable pain, and he was trying to bandage it with his
handkerchief, when he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. He had
no time for reflection; but at once darted into the forest that lies to
the left of the Croix-d’Arcy. The troops were returning to Montaignac
after pursuing the rebels for more than three miles. There were some two
hundred soldiers, who were bringing back a score of peasants as
prisoners. Crouching behind an oak tree scarcely fifteen paces from the
road, Lacheneur recognized several of the captives in the grey light of
dawn. It was only by the merest chance that he escaped discovery; and he
fully realized how difficult it would be for him to gain the frontier
without falling into the hands of the many detachments of soldiery, who
were doubtless scouring the country in every direction.

Still he did not despair. The mountains lay only two leagues away; and
he firmly believed that he would be able to successfully elude his
pursuers could he only gain the shelter of the hills. He began his
journey courageously, but soon he was obliged to admit that he had
greatly over estimated his strength, which was well nigh quite exhausted
by the excessive labour and excitement of the past few days, coupled
with the loss of blood occasioned by his wound. He tore up a stake in an
adjacent vineyard, and using it as a staff, slowly dragged himself
along, keeping in the shelter of the woods as much as possible, and
creeping beside the hedges and in the ditches whenever he was obliged to
cross an open space. Physical suffering and mental anguish, were soon
supplemented by the agony of hunger. He had eaten nothing for thirty
hours, and felt terribly weak from lack of nourishment. Soon the craving
for food became so intolerable that he was willing to brave anything to
appease it. At last he perceived the thatched roofs of a little hamlet.
He was going forward, decided to enter the first house and ask for food;
the outskirts of the village were reached, and a cottage stood within a
few yards--when suddenly he heard the rolling of a drum. Surmising that
a party of troops was near at hand, he instinctively hid himself behind
a wall. But the drum proved to be that of a public crier summoning the
village folk together; and soon he could hear a clear, penetrating voice
reciting the following words: “This is to give notice that the
authorities of Montaignac promise a reward of twenty thousand francs to
whosoever delivers up the man known as Lacheneur, dead or alive. Dead or
alive! Understand, that if he be dead, the compensation will be the
same; twenty thousand francs! to be paid in gold. God save the king.”

Then came another roll of the drum. But with a bound, Lacheneur had
already risen; and though he had believed himself utterly exhausted, he
now found superhuman strength to fly. A price had been set upon his
head; and the circumstance awakened in his breast the frenzy that
renders a hunted beast so dangerous. In all the villages around him he
fancied he could hear the rolling of drums, and the voices of criers
proclaiming him an outlaw. Go where he would now, he was a tempting bait
offered to treason and cupidity. Whom could he dare confide in? Whom
could he ask for shelter? And even if he were dead, he would still be
worth a fortune. Though he might die from lack of nourishment and
exhaustion under a bush by the way side, yet his emaciated body would
still be worth twenty thousand francs. And the man who found his corpse
would not give it burial. He would place it on his cart and convey it to
Montaignac, present it to the authorities and say: “Here is Lacheneur’s
body--give me the reward.”

How long and by what paths he pursued his flight, he could not tell. But
several hours afterwards, while he was wandering through the wooded
hills of Charves, he espied two men, who sprang up and fled at his
approach. In a terrible voice, he called after them: “Eh! you fellows!
do you each want to earn a thousand pistoles? I am Lacheneur.”

They paused when they recognized him, and Lacheneur saw that they were
two of his former followers, both of them well-to-do farmers, whom it
had been difficult to induce to join in the revolt. They happened to
have with them some bread and a little brandy, and they gave both to the
famished man. They sat down beside him on the grass, and while he was
eating they related their misfortunes. Their connection with the
conspiracy had been discovered, and soldiers were hunting for them, but
they hoped to reach Italy with the help of a guide who was waiting for
them at an appointed place.

Lacheneur held out his hand. “Then I am saved,” said he. “Weak and
wounded as I am, I should have perished, all alone.”

But the two farmers did not take the hand he offered. “We ought to leave
you,” said the younger man gloomily, “for you are the cause of our
misfortunes. You deceived us, Monsieur Lacheneur.”

The leader of the revolt dared not protest; the reproach was so well
deserved. However, the other farmer gave his companion a peculiar glance
and suggested that they might let Lacheneur accompany them all the same.
So they walked on all three together, and that same evening, after nine
hours journey through the mountains, they crossed the frontier. But, in
the meanwhile, many and bitter had been the reproaches they had
exchanged. On being closely questioned by his companions, Lacheneur,
exhausted both in mind and body, finally admitted the insincerity of his
promises, by means of which he had inflamed his followers’ zeal. He
acknowledged that he had spread the report that Marie-Louise and the
young king of Rome were concealed in Montaignac, and that it was a gross
falsehood. He confessed that he had given the signal for the revolt
without any chance of success, and without any precise means of action,
leaving everything to chance. In short he confessed that nothing was
real except the hatred, the bitter hatred he felt against the Sairmeuse
family. A dozen times, at least, during this terrible confession, the
peasants who accompanied him were on the point of hurling him over the
precipice by the banks of which they walked. “So it was to gratify his
own spite,” they thought, quivering with rage, “that he set every one
fighting and killing each other--that he has ruined us and driven us
into exile. We’ll see if he is to escape unpunished.”

After crossing the frontier the fugitives repaired to the first hostelry
they could find, a lonely inn, a league or so from the little village of
Saint-Jean-de-Coche, and kept by a man named Balstain. It was past
midnight when they rapped, but, despite the lateness of the hour, they
were admitted, and ordered supper. Lacheneur, weak from loss of blood,
and exhausted by his long tramp, went off to bed, however, without
eating. He threw himself on to a pallet in an adjoining room and soon
fell asleep. For the first time since meeting him, the two farmers now
found an opportunity to talk in private. The same idea had occurred to
both of them. They believed that by delivering Lacheneur up to the
authorities, they might secure pardon for themselves. Neither of them
would have consented to receive a single sou of the blood-money; but
they did not consider there would be any disgrace in exchanging their
own lives and liberty for Lacheneur’s, especially as he had so deceived
them. Eventually they decided to go to Saint-Jean-de-Coche directly
supper was over, and inform the Piedmontese guards.

But they reckoned without their host. They had spoken loud enough to be
overheard by Balstain, the inn-keeper, who, during the day, had been
told of the magnificent reward promised for Lacheneur’s capture. On
learning that the exhausted man, now quietly sleeping under his roof,
was the famous conspirator, he was seized with a sudden thirst for gold,
and whispering a word to his wife he darted through the window of a back
room to run and fetch the carabineers, as the Italian gendarmes are
termed. He had been gone half-an-hour or so when the two peasants left
the house; for they had drunk heavily with the view of mustering
sufficient courage to carry their purpose into effect. They closed the
door so violently on going out that Lacheneur woke up. He rose from his
bed and came into the front room, where he found the innkeeper’s wife
alone. “Where are my friends?” he asked, anxiously. “And where is your
husband?”

Moved by sympathy, the woman tried to falter some excuse, but finding
none, she threw herself at his feet, exclaiming: “Fly, save
yourself--you are betrayed!”

Lacheneur rushed back into his bedroom, trying to find a weapon with
which to defend himself, or a mode of egress by which he could escape
unperceived. He had thought they might abandon him, but betray him--no
never! “Who has sold me?” he asked, in an agitated voice.

“Your friends--the two men who supped at that table.”

“That’s impossible!” he retorted: for he ignored his comrades’ designs
and hopes; and could not, would not believe them capable of betraying
him for lucre.

“But,” pleaded the innkeeper’s wife, still on her knees before him,
“they have just started for Saint-Jean-de-Coche, where they mean to
denounce you. I heard them say that your life would purchase theirs.
They certainly mean to fetch the carabineers; and, alas, must I also say
that my own husband has gone to betray you.”

Lacheneur understood everything now! And this supreme misfortune, after
all the misery he had endured, quite prostrated him. Tears gushed from
his eyes, and sinking on to a chair, he murmured: “Let them come; I am
ready for them. No, I will not stir from here! My miserable life is not
worth such a struggle.”

But the landlady rose, and grasping at his clothing, shook and dragged
him to the door--she would have carried him had she possessed sufficient
strength. “You shall not be taken here; it will bring misfortune on our
house!”

Bewildered by this violent appeal, and urged on by the instinct of
self-preservation, so powerful in every human heart, Lacheneur advanced
to the threshold. The night was very dark, and chilly fog intensified
the gloom.

“See, madame,” said he, in a gentle voice, “how can I find my way
through these mountains, which I do not know, where there are no
roads--where the foot-paths are scarcely traced.”

But Balstain’s wife would not argue; pushing him forward and turning him
as one does a blind man to set him on the right track. “Walk straight
before you,” said she, “always against the wind. God will protect you.
Farewell!”

He turned to ask further directions, but she had re-entered the house
and closed the door. Upheld by a feverish excitement, he walked on
during long hours. Soon he lost his way, and wandered among the
mountains, benumbed with cold, stumbling over the rocks, at times
falling to the ground. It was a wonder that he was not precipitated over
the brink of some precipice. He had lost all idea of his whereabouts,
and the sun was already high in the heavens when at last he met some one
of whom he could ask his way. This was a little shepherd boy, who was
looking for some stray goats, but the lad frightened by the stranger’s
wild and haggard aspect, at first refused to approach. At last the offer
of a piece of money induced him to come a little nearer. “You are just
on the frontier line,” said he. “Here is France; and there is Savoy.”

“And which is the nearest village?”

“On the Savoy side, Saint-Jean-de-Coche; on the French side,
Saint-Pavin.”

So after all his terrible exertions, Lacheneur was not a league from the
inn. Appalled by this discovery, he remained for a moment undecided
which course to pursue. Still, after all what did it matter? Was he not
doomed, and would not every road lead him to death? However, at last he
remembered the carabineers, the innkeeper’s wife had warned him against,
and slowly crawled down the steep mountain-side leading back into
France. He was near Saint-Pavin, when he espied a cottage standing alone
and in front of it a young peasant-woman spinning in the sunshine. He
dragged himself towards her, and in a weak voice begged her hospitality.

The woman rose, surprised and somewhat alarmed by the aspect of this
stranger, whose face was ghastly pale, and whose clothes were torn and
soiled with dust and blood. She looked at him more closely, and then
perceived that his age, stature, and features correspond with the
descriptions of Lacheneur, which had been distributed round about the
frontier. “Why you are the conspirator they are hunting for, and for
whom they promise a reward of twenty thousand francs,” she said.

Lacheneur trembled. “Yes,” he replied, after a moment’s hesitation; “I
am Lacheneur. Betray me if you will, but in charity’s name give me a
morsel of bread, and allow me to rest a little.”

“We betray you, sir!” said she. “Ah! you don’t know the Antoines! Come
into our house, and lie down on the bed while I prepare some refreshment
for you. When my husband comes home, we will see what can be done.”

It was nearly sunset when the master of the house, a sturdy mountaineer,
with a frank face, entered the cottage. On perceiving the stranger
seated at his fireside he turned frightfully pale. “Unfortunate woman!”
he murmured to his wife, “don’t you know that anyone who shelters this
fugitive will be shot, and his house levelled to the ground?”

Lacheneur overheard these words; he rose with a shudder. He knew that a
price had been set upon his head, but until now he had not realised the
danger to which his presence exposed these worthy people. “I will go at
once,” said he, gently.

But the peasant laid his broad hand kindly on the outlaw’s shoulder and
forced him to resume his seat. “It was not to drive you away that I said
that,” he remarked. “You are at home, and you shall remain here until I
can find some means of ensuring your safety.”

The woman flung her arms round her husband’s neck, and in a loving
voice, exclaimed: “Ah! you are a noble man Antoine.”

He smiled, tenderly kissed her, then, pointing to the open door:
“Watch!” said he, and turning to Lacheneur: “It won’t be easy to save
you, for the promise of that big reward has set a number of evil-minded
people on the alert. They know that you are in the neighbourhood, and a
rascally innkeeper has crossed the frontier for the express purpose of
betraying your whereabouts to the French gendarmes.”

“Balstain?”

“Yes, Balstain; and he is hunting for you now. But that’s not
everything, as I passed through Saint-Pavin, coming back a little while
ago I saw eight mounted soldiers, with a peasant guide who was also on
horseback. They declared that they knew you were concealed in the
village, and were going to search each house in turn.”

These soldiers were the Montaignac chasseurs, placed at Chupin’s
disposal by the Duke de Sairmeuse. The task was certainly not at all to
their taste, but they were closely watched by the lieutenant in command,
who hoped to receive some substantial reward if the expedition was
crowned with success.

But to return to Lacheneur. “Wounded and exhausted as you are,”
continued Antoine, “you can’t possibly make a long march for a fortnight
hence, and till then you must conceal yourself. Fortunately, I know a
safe retreat in the mountain, not far from here. I will take you there
to-night, with provisions enough to last you for a week.”

Just then he was interrupted by a stifled cry from his wife. He turned,
and saw her fall almost fainting against the door, her face white as her
linen cap, her finger pointing to the path that led from Saint-Pavin to
the cottage. “The soldiers--they are coming!” she gasped.

Quicker than thought, Lacheneur and the peasant sprang to the door to
see for themselves. The young woman had spoken the truth; for here came
the Montaignac chasseurs, slowly climbing the steep foot-path. Chupin
walked in advance, urging them on with voice, gesture, and example. An
imprudent word from the little shepherd-boy, had decided the fugitive’s
fate; for on returning to Saint-Pavin, and hearing that the soldiers
were searching for the chief conspirator, the lad had chanced to say: “I
met a man just now on the mountain who asked me where he was; and I saw
him go down the foot-path leading to Antoine’s cottage.” And in proof of
his words, he proudly displayed the piece of silver which Lacheneur had
given him.

“One more bold stroke and we have our man!” exclaimed Chupin. “Come,
comrades!” And now the party were not more than two hundred feet from
the house in which the outlaw had found an asylum.

Antoine and his wife looked at each other with anguish in their eyes.
They saw that their visitor was lost.

“We must save him! we must save him!” cried the woman.

“Yes, we must save him!” repeated the husband gloomily. “They shall kill
me before I betray a man in my own house.”

“If he could hide in the stable behind the bundles of straw--”

“Oh, they would find him! These soldiers are worse than tigers, and the
wretch who leads them on must have a bloodhound’s scent.” He turned
quickly to Lacheneur. “Come, sir,” said he, “let us leap from the back
window and fly to the mountains. They will see us, but no matter! These
horsemen are always clumsy runners. If you can’t run, I’ll carry you.
They will probably fire at us, but miss their aim.”

“And your wife?” asked Lacheneur.

The honest mountaineer shuddered; still he simply said: “She will join
us.”

Lacheneur grasped his protector’s hand. “Ah! you are a noble people,” he
exclaimed, “and God will reward you for your kindness to a poor
fugitive. But you have done too much already. I should be the basest of
men if I exposed you to useless danger. I can bear this life no longer;
I have no wish to escape.” Then drawing the sobbing woman to him and
kissing her on the forehead. “I have a daughter, young and beautiful
like yourself,” he added. “Poor Marie-Anne! And I pitilessly sacrificed
her to my hatred! I must not complain; come what may, I have deserved my
fate.”

The sound of the approaching footsteps became more and more distinct.
Lacheneur straightened himself up, and seemed to be gathering all his
energy for the decisive moment. “Remain inside,” he said imperiously, to
Antoine and his wife. “I am going out; they must not arrest me in your
house.” And as he spoke, he crossed the threshold with a firm tread. The
soldiers were but a few paces off. “Halt!” he exclaimed, in a loud
ringing voice. “Are you not seeking for Lacheneur? I am he! I surrender
myself.”

His manner was so dignified, his tone so impressive, that the soldiers
involuntarily paused. This man before them was doomed; they knew the
fate awaiting him, and seemed as awed as if they had been in the
presence of death itself. One there was among the search party, whom
Lacheneur’s ringing words had literally terrified, and this was Chupin.
Remorse filled his cowardly heart, and pale and trembling, he sought to
hide himself behind the soldiers.

But Lacheneur walked straight towards him. “So it is you who have sold
my life, Chupin?” he said scornfully. “You have not forgotten, I
perceive, how often my daughter filled your empty larder--so now you
take your revenge.”

The old scoundrel seemed crushed by these words. Now that he had done
this foul deed, he knew what betrayal really was. “So be it,” resumed
Lacheneur. “You will receive the price of my blood; but it will not
bring you good fortune--traitor!”

Chupin, however, indignant with his own weakness, was already making a
vigorous effort to recover a semblance of self composure. “You have
conspired against the king,” he stammered. “I only did my duty in
denouncing you.” And turning to the soldiers, he added: “As for you,
comrades, you may be sure the Duke de Sairmeuse will remember your
services.”

Lacheneur’s hands were bound, and the party was about to descend the
slope, when a man, roughly clad, bare-headed, covered with perspiration,
and panting for breath, suddenly made his appearance. The twilight was
falling, but Lacheneur recognized Balstain. “Ah! you have him!”
exclaimed the innkeeper, pointing to the prisoner, as soon as he was
within speaking distance. “The reward belongs to me--I denounced him
first on the other side of the frontier, as the carabineers at
Saint-Jean-de-Coche will testify. He would have been captured last night
in my house if he hadn’t managed to run away in my absence. I’ve been
following the bandit for sixteen hours.” He spoke with extraordinary
vehemence, being full of fear lest he might lose his reward, and only
reap disgrace and obliquy in recompense for his treason.

“If you have any right to the money, you must prove it before the proper
authorities,” said the officer in command.

“If I have any right!” interrupted Balstain; “who contests my right,
then?” He looked threateningly around him, and casting his eyes on
Chupin, “Is it you?” he asked. “Do you dare to assert that you
discovered the brigand?”

“Yes, it was I who discovered his hiding place.”

“You lie, you impostor!” vociferated the innkeeper; “you lie!” The
soldiers did not budge. This scene repaid them for the disgust they had
experienced during the afternoon. “But,” continued Balstain, “what else
could one expect from such a knave as Chupin? Every one knows that he’s
been obliged to fly from France over and over again on account of his
crimes. Where did you take refuge when you crossed the frontier, Chupin?
In my house, in Balstain’s inn. You were fed and protected there. How
many times haven’t I saved you from the gendarmes and the galleys? More
times than I can count. And to reward me you steal my property; you
steal this man who was mine----”

“The fellow’s insane!” ejaculated the terrified Chupin, “he’s mad!”

“At least you will be reasonable,” exclaimed the inn keeper, suddenly
changing his tactics. “Let’s see, Chupin, what you’ll do for an old
friend? Divide, won’t you? No, you say no? How much will you give me,
comrade? A third? Is that too much? A quarter, then----”

Chupin felt that the soldiers were enjoying his humiliation. They were
indeed, sneering at him, and only an instant before they had, with
instinctive loathing, avoided coming in contact with him. The old
knave’s blood was boiling, and pushing Balstain aside, he cried to the
chasseurs:--”Come--are we going to spend the night here?”

On hearing these words, Balstain’s eyes sparkled with revengeful fury,
and suddenly drawing his knife from his pocket and making the sign of
the cross in the air: “Saint-Jean-de-Coche,” he exclaimed, in a ringing
voice, “and you, Holy Virgin, hear my vow. May my soul burn in hell if I
ever use a knife at meals until I have plunged the one I now hold, into
the heart of the scoundrel who has defrauded me!” With these words he
hurried away into the woods, and the soldiers took up their line of
march.

But Chupin was no longer the same. His impudence had left him and he
walked along with hanging head, his mind full of sinister presentiments.
He felt sure that such an oath as Balstain’s, and uttered by such a man,
was equivalent to a death warrant, or at least to a speedy prospect of
assassination. The thought tormented him so much indeed, that he would
not allow the detachment to spend the night at Saint-Pavin, as had been
agreed upon. He was impatient to leave the neighbourhood. So after
supper he procured a cart; the prisoner was placed in it, securely
bound, and the party started for Montaignac. The great bell was tolling
two in the morning when Lacheneur was conducted into the citadel; and at
that very moment M. d’Escorval and Corporal Bavois were making their
final preparations for escape.



XXII.


On being left alone in his cell after Marie-Anne’s departure,
Chanlouineau gave himself up to despair. He loved Marie-Anne most
passionately, and the idea that he would never see her again on earth
proved heart-rending. Some little comfort he certainly derived from the
thought that he had done his duty, that he had sacrificed his own life
to secure her happiness, but then this result had only been obtained by
simulating the most abject cowardice, which must disgrace him for ever
in the eyes of his fellow prisoners, and the guards. Had he not offered
to sell Lacheneur’s life for his own moreover. True it was but a ruse,
and yet those who knew nothing of his secret would always brand him as a
traitor and a coward. To a man of his true valiant heart such a prospect
was particularly distressing, and he was still brooding over the idea
when the Marquis de Courtornieu entered his cell to ascertain the result
of Marie-Anne’s visit. “Well, my good fellow----” began the old
nobleman, in his most condescending manner; but Chanlouineau did not
allow him time to finish. “Leave,” he cried, in a fit of rage. “Leave
or----”

Without waiting to hear the end of the sentence the marquis made his
escape, greatly surprised and not a little dismayed by this sudden
change in the prisoner’s manner. “What a dangerous bloodthirsty rascal!”
he remarked to the guard. “It would, perhaps, be advisable to put him
into a strait-jacket!”

But there was no necessity for that; for scarcely had the marquis left,
than the young farmer threw himself on to his pallet, oppressed with
feverish anxiety. Would Marie-Anne know how to make the best use of the
weapon he had placed in her hands? He hoped so, for she would have the
Abbe Midon’s assistance, and besides he considered that the possession
of this letter would frighten the Marquis de Sairmeuse into any
concessions. In this last surmise Chanlouineau was entirely mistaken.
The fear which Martial seemingly evinced during the interview with
Marie-Anne and his father was all affected. He pretended to be alarmed,
in order to frighten the duke, for he really wished to assist the girl
he so passionately loved, and besides the idea of saving an enemy’s
life, of wresting him from the executioner on the very steps of the
scaffold, was very pleasing to his mind which at times took a decidedly
chivalrous turn. Poor Chanlouineau, however, was ignorant of all this,
and consequently his anxiety was perfectly natural. Throughout the
afternoon he remained in anxious suspense, and when the night fell,
stationed himself at the window of his cell gazing on to the plain
below, and trusting that if the baron succeeded in escaping, some sign
would warn him of the fact. Marie-Anne had visited him, she knew the
cell he occupied and surely she would find some means of letting him
know that his sacrifice had not been in vain. Shortly after two o’clock
in the morning he was alarmed by a great bustle in the corridor outside.
Doors were thrown open, and then slammed to; there was a loud rattle of
keys; guards hurried to and fro, calling each other; the passage was
lighted up, and then as Chanlouineau peered through the grating in the
door of his cell he suddenly perceived Lacheneur as pale as a ghost walk
by conducted by some soldiers. The young farmer almost doubted his
eyesight; for he really believed his former leader had escaped. Another
hour, and another hour passed by and yet did he prolong his anxious
vigil. Not a sound, save the tramp of the guards in the corridor, and
the faint echo of some distant challenge as sentinels were relieved
outside. At last, however, there abruptly came a despairing cry. What
was it? He listened; but it was not repeated. After all the occurrence
was not so surprising. There were twenty men in that citadel under
sentence of death, and the agony of that their last night, might well
call forth a lamentation. At length the grey light of dawn stole through
the window bars, the sun rose rapidly and Chanlouineau, hopeful for some
sign, till then murmured in despair, that the letter must have been
useless. Poor generous peasant! His heart would have leapt with joy if
as he spoke those words he could only have cast a glance on the
court-yard of the citadel.

An hour after the _reveille_ had sounded, two country-women, carrying
butter and eggs to market, presented themselves at the fortress gate,
and declared that while passing through the fields below the cliff on
which the citadel was built, they had perceived a rope dangling from the
side of the rock. A rope! Then one of the condemned prisoners must have
escaped. The guards hastened from cell to cell and soon discovered that
the Baron d’Escorval’s room was empty. And not merely had the baron
fled, but he had taken with him the man who had been left to guard
him--Corporal Bavois, of the grenadiers. Everyone’s amazement was
intense, but their fright was still greater. There was not a single
officer who did not tremble on thinking of his responsibility; not one
who did not see his hopes of advancement forever blighted. What should
be said to the formidable Duke de Sairmeuse and to the Marquis de
Courtornieu, who in spite of his calm polished manners, was almost as
much to be feared? It was necessary to warn them, however, and so a
sergeant was despatched with the news. Soon they made their appearance,
accompanied by Martial; and to look at all three it would have been said
that they were boiling over with anger and indignation. The Duke de
Sairmeuse’s rage was especially conspicuous. He swore at everybody,
accused everybody, and threatened everybody. He began by consigning all
the keepers and guards to prison, and even talked of demanding the
dismissal of all the officers. “As for that miserable Bavois,” he
exclaimed--”as for that cowardly deserter, he shall be shot as soon as
we capture him, and we will capture him, you may depend upon it!”

The officials had hoped to appease the duke’s wrath a little, by
informing him of Lacheneur’s arrest; but he knew of this already, for
Chupin had ventured to wake him up in the middle of the night to tell
him the great news. The baron’s escape afforded his grace an opportunity
to exalt Chupin’s merits. “The man who discovered Lacheneur will know
how to find this traitor D’Escorval,” he remarked.

As for M. de Courtornieu, he took what he called “measures for restoring
this great culprit to the hands of justice.” That is to say, he
despatched couriers in every direction, with orders to make close
inquiries throughout the neighbourhood. His commands were brief, but to
the point; they were to watch the frontier, to submit all travellers to
a rigorous examination, to search the houses and sow the description of
D’Escorval’s appearance broadcast through the land. But first of all he
issued instructions for the arrest of the Abbe Midon and Maurice
d’Escorval.

Among the officers present there was an old lieutenant, who had felt
deeply wounded by some of the imputations which the Duke de Sairmeuse
had cast right and left in his affected wrath. This lieutenant heard the
Marquis de Courtornieu give his orders, and then stepped forward with a
gloomy air, remarking that these measures were doubtless all very well,
but at the same time it was urgent that an investigation should take
place at once, so as to learn for certain how the baron had escaped and
who were his accomplices if he had any. At the mention of this word
“investigation,” both the Duke de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de
Courtornieu shuddered. They could not ignore the fact that their
reputations were at stake, and that the merest trifle might disclose the
truth. A neglected precaution, any insignificant detail, an imprudent
word or gesture might ruin their ambitious hopes forever. They trembled
to think that this officer might be a man of unusual shrewdness, who had
suspected their simplicity, and was impatient to verify his
presumptions. In point of fact, they were unnecessarily alarmed, for the
old lieutenant had not the slightest suspicion of the truth. He had
spoken on the impulse of the moment, merely to give vent to his
displeasure. He was not even keen enough to remark a rapid glance which
the duke and the marquis exchanged. Martial noticed this look, however,
and with studied politeness, remarked: “Yes we must institute an
investigation; that suggestion is as shrewd as it is opportune.”

The old lieutenant turned away with a muttered oath. “That coxcomb is
poking fun at me,” he thought; “and he and his father and that prig the
marquis deserve a box on the ears.”

In reality, however, Martial was not poking fun at him. Bold as was his
remark it was made advisedly. To silence all future suspicions it was
absolutely necessary that an investigation should take place
immediately. But then it would, by reason of their position and
functions, naturally devolve on the duke and the marquis, who would know
just how much to conceal, and how much to disclose. They began their
task immediately, with a haste which could not fail to dispel all
doubts, if indeed any existed in the minds of their subordinates.

Martial thought he knew the details of the escape as well as the
fugitives themselves, for even if they had been the actors, he was at
any rate the author of the drama played that night. However, he was soon
obliged to admit that he was mistaken in his opinion; for the
investigation revealed several incomprehensible particulars. It had been
determined beforehand that the baron and the corporal would have to make
two successive descents. Hence the necessity of having two ropes. These
ropes had been provided, and the prisoners must have used them. And yet
only one rope could be found--the one which the peasant woman had
perceived hanging from the rocky platform at the base of the citadel
where it was made fast to an iron crowbar. From the window of the cell,
to the platform, there was no rope, however. “This is most
extraordinary!” murmured Martial, thoughtfully.

“Very strange!” approved M. de Courtornieu.

“How the devil could they have reached the base of the tower?”

“That is what I can’t understand.”

But Martial soon found other causes for surprise. On examining the rope
that remained--the one which had been used in making the descent of the
cliff--he discovered that it was not of a single piece. Two pieces had
been knotted together. The longest piece had evidently been too short.
How did this happen? Could the duke have made a mistake in the height of
the cliff? or had the abbe measured the rope incorrectly? But Martial
had also measured it with his eye, while it was wound round him, and it
had then seemed to him that the rope was much longer, fully a third
longer, than it now appeared.

“There must have been some accident,” he remarked to his father and the
marquis; “what I can’t say.”

“Well, what does it matter?” replied M. de Courtornieu, “you have the
compromising letter, haven’t you?”

But Martial’s mind was one of these that never rest, until they have
solved the problem before them. Accordingly, he insisted on going to
inspect the rocks at the foot of the precipice. Here they discovered
several stains, formed of coagulated blood. “One of the fugitives must
have fallen,” said Martial, quickly, “and been dangerously wounded!”

“Upon my word!” exclaimed the Duke de Sairmeuse, “if it is the Baron
d’Escorval, who has broken his neck, I shall be delighted!”

Martial turned crimson, and looked searchingly at his father. “I
suppose, sir, that you do not mean one word of what you are saying,” he
observed, coldly. “We pledged ourselves upon the honour of our name, to
save the baron. If he has been killed it will be a great misfortune for
us, a very great misfortune.”

When his son addressed him in this haughty freezing tone of his, the
duke never knew how to reply. He was indignant, but his son’s was the
stronger nature.

“Nonsense!” exclaimed M. de Courtornieu; “if the rascal had merely been
wounded we should have known it.”

Such also was Chupin’s opinion. He had been sent for by the duke, and
had just made his appearance. But the old scoundrel, usually so
loquacious and officious, now replied in the briefest fashion; and,
strange to say, he did not offer his services. His habitual assurance
and impudence, and his customary cunning smile, had quite forsaken him;
and in lieu thereof his brow was overcast, and his manners strangely
perturbed. So marked was the change that even the Duke de Sairmeuse
observed it. “What misfortune have you had Master Chupin?” he asked.

“Why, while I was coming here,” replied the old knave in a sullen tone,
“a band of ragamuffins pelted me with mud and stones, and ran after me,
shouting, ‘Traitor! traitor!’ as loud as they could.” He clenched his
fists, as he spoke, as if he were meditating vengeance; then suddenly he
added: “The people of Montaignac are quite pleased this morning. They
know that the baron has escaped, and they are rejoicing.”

Alas! the joy which Chupin spoke of, was destined to be of short
duration, for the execution of the conspirators sentenced on the
preceding afternoon was to take place that very day. At noon the gate of
the citadel was closed, and the drums rolled loudly as a preface to the
coming tragedy. Consternation spread through the town. Doors were
carefully secured, shutters closed, and window-blinds pulled down. The
streets became deserted, and a death-like silence prevailed. At last,
just as three o’clock was striking, the gate of the fortress was
re-opened, and under the lofty archway came fourteen doomed men, each
with a priest by his side. One and twenty had been condemned to death,
but the Baron d’Escorval had eluded the executioner, and remorse or fear
had tempered the Duke de Sairmeuse’s thirst for blood. He and M. de
Courtornieu had granted reprieves to six of the prisoners, and at that
very moment a courier was starting for Paris with six petitions for
pardon, signed by the military commission.

Chanlouineau was not among those for whom royal clemency was solicited.
When he left his cell, without knowing whether his plan for saving the
Baron d’Escorval, had proved of any use or not, he counted and examined
his thirteen comrades with keen anxiety. His eyes betrayed such an agony
of anguish that the priest who accompanied him asked him in a whisper.
“Who are you looking for, my son?”

“For the Baron d’Escorval.”

“He escaped last night.”

“Ah! now I shall die content!” exclaimed the heroic peasant. And he died
as he had sworn he would--without even changing colour--calm and proud,
the name of Marie-Anne upon his lips.

There was one woman, a fair young girl, who was not in the least degree
affected by the tragic incidents attending the repression of the
Montaignac revolt. This was Blanche de Courtornieu, who smiled as
brightly as ever, and who, although her father exercised almost
dictatorial power in conjunction with the Duke de Sairmeuse, did not
raise as much as her little finger to save any one of the condemned
prisoners from execution. These rebels had dared to stop her carriage on
the public road, and this was an offence which she could neither forgive
nor forget. She also knew that she had only owed her liberty to
Marie-Anne’s intercession, and to a woman of such jealous pride this
knowledge was galling in the extreme. Hence, it was with bitter
resentment that, on the morning following her arrival in Montaignac, she
denounced to her father what she styled that Lacheneur girl’s
inconceivable arrogance, and the peasantry’s frightful brutality. And
when the Marquis de Courtornieu asked her if she would consent to give
evidence against the Baron d’Escorval, she coldly replied that she
considered it was her duty to do so. She was fully aware that her
testimony would send the baron to the scaffold, and yet she did not
hesitate a moment. True, she carefully concealed her personal spite, and
declared she was only influenced by the interests of justice.
Impartiality compells us to add, moreover, that she really believed the
Baron d’Escorval to be a leader of the rebels. Chanlouineau had
pronounced the name in her presence, and her error was all the more
excusable as Maurice was usually known in the neighbourhood by his
Christian name. Had the young farmer called to “Monsieur Maurice” for
instructions, Blanche would have understood the situation, but he had
exclaimed, “M. d’Escorval,” and hence her mistake.

After she had delivered to her father her written statement of what
occurred on the highroad on the night of the revolt, the heiress assumed
an attitude of seeming indifference, and when any of her friends chanced
to speak of the rising, she alluded to the plebian conspirators in tones
of proud disdain. In her heart, however, she blessed this timely
outbreak, which had removed her rival from her path. “For now,” thought
she, “the marquis will return to me, and I will make him forget the bold
creature who bewitched him!” In this she was somewhat mistaken. True,
Martial returned and paid his court, but he no longer loved her. He had
detected the calculating ambition she had sought to hide under a mask of
seeming simplicity. He had realised how vain and selfish she was, and
his former admiration was now well nigh transformed into repugnance; for
he could but contrast her character with the noble nature of Marie-Anne,
now lost to him for ever. It was mainly the knowledge that Lacheneur’s
daughter could never be his which prompted him to a seeming
reconciliation with Blanche. He said to himself that the duke, his
father, and the Marquis de Courtornieu had exchanged a solemn pledge,
that he, too, had given his word, and that after all Blanche was his
promised wife. Was it worth while to break off the engagement? Would he
not be compelled to marry some day or another? His rank and name
required him to do so, and such being the case what did it matter who he
married, since the only woman he had ever truly loved--the only woman he
ever could love--was never to be his? To a man of Martial’s education it
was no very difficult task to pay proper court to the jealous Blanche,
to surround her with every attention, and to affect a love he did not
really feel; and, indeed, so perfectly did he play his part, that
Mademoiselle de Courtornieu might well flatter herself with the thought
that she reigned supreme in his affections.

While Martial seemed wholly occupied with thoughts of his approaching
marriage, he was really tortured with anxiety as to the fate which had
overtaken the Baron d’Escorval and the other fugitives. The three
members of the D’Escorval family, the abbe, Marie-Anne, Corporal Bavois,
and four half-pay officers, had all disappeared, leaving no trace
behind them. This was very remarkable, as the search prescribed by MM.
de Sairmeuse and Courtornieu had been conducted with feverish activity,
greatly to the terror of its promoters. Still what could they do? They
had imprudently excited the zeal of their subordinates, and now they
were unable to allay it. Fortunately, however, all the efforts to
discover the fugitives proved unsuccessful; and the only information
that could be obtained came from a peasant, who declared that on the
morning of the escape, just before day-break, he had met a party of a
dozen persons, men and women, who seemed to be carrying a dead body.
This circumstance, taken in connection with the broken rope and the
stains of blood at the bottom of the cliff, made Martial tremble. He was
also strongly impressed by another circumstance, which came to light
when the soldiers on guard the night of the escape were questioned as to
what transpired. “I was on guard in the corridor communicating with the
prisoner’s quarters in the tower,” said one of these soldiers, “when at
about half-past two o’clock, just after Lacheneur had been placed in his
cell, I saw an officer approaching me. I challenged him; he gave me the
countersign, and, naturally, I let him pass. He went down the passage,
and entered the empty room next to M. d’Escorval’s. He remained there
about five minutes.”

“Did you recognize this officer?” asked Martial eagerly.

“No,” answered the soldier. “He wore a large cloak, the collar of which
was turned up so high that it hid his face to the very eyes.”

“Who could this mysterious officer have been?” thought Martial, racking
his brains. “What was he doing in the room where I left the ropes?”

The Marquis de Courtornieu, present at the examination, seemed much
disturbed. Turning to the witness he asked him angrily, “How could you
be ignorant that there were so many sympathizers with this movement
among the garrison? You might have known that this visitor, who
concealed his face so carefully, was an accomplice warned by Bavois, who
had come to see if he needed a helping hand.”

This seemed a plausible explanation, but it did not satisfy Martial. “It
is very strange,” he thought, “that M. d’Escorval has not even deigned
to let me know he is in safety. The service I rendered him deserves
that acknowledgment, at least.”

Such was the young marquis’s anxiety, that despite his repugnance for
Chupin the spy, he resolved to seek that archtraitor’s assistance, with
the view of discovering what had become of the fugitives. It was no
longer easy, however, to secure the old rascal’s services, for since he
had received the price of Lacheneur’s blood--these twenty thousand
francs which had so fascinated him--he had deserted the Duke of
Sairmeuse’s house, and taken up his quarters in a small inn at the
outskirts of the town; where he spent his days alone in a large room on
the second floor. At night-time he barricaded the door, and drank,
drank, drank; and till daybreak he might be heard cursing and singing,
or struggling against imaginary enemies. Still he dared not disobey the
summons which a soldier brought him to hasten to the Hotel de Sairmeuse
at once.

“I wish to discover what has become of the Baron d’Escorval,” said
Martial when the old spy arrived.

Chupin trembled, and a fleeting colour dyed his cheeks. “The Montaignac
police are at your disposal,” he answered sulkily. “They, perhaps, can
satisfy your curiosity, Monsieur le Marquis, but I don’t belong to the
police.”

Was he in earnest, or was he merely simulating a refusal with the view
of obtaining a high price for his services? Martial inclined to the
latter opinion. “You shall have no reason to complain of my generosity,”
said he. “I will pay you well.”

That word “pay” would have made Chupin’s eyes gleam with delight a week
before, but on hearing it now he at once flew into a furious passion.
“So it was to tempt me again that you summoned me here!” he exclaimed.
“You would do much better to leave me quietly at my inn.”

“What do you mean, you fool?”

But Chupin did not even hear the interruption. “People told me,” quoth
he, with increasing fury, “that, by betraying Lacheneur, I should be
doing my duty and serving the king. I betrayed him, and now I am treated
as if I had committed the worst of crimes. Formerly, when I lived by
stealing and poaching, folks despised me, perhaps; but they didn’t shun
me as they did the pestilence. They called me rascal, robber, and the
like; but they would drink with me all the same. To-day, I’ve twenty
thousand francs in my pocket, and yet I’m treated as if I were a
venomous beast. If I approach any one he draws back, and if I enter a
room, those who are there hasten out of it.” At the recollection of the
insults heaped upon him since Lacheneur’s capture, the old rascal’s rage
reached a climax. “Was what I did so abominable?” he pursued. “Then why
did your father propose it? The shame should fall on him. He shouldn’t
have tempted a poor man with wealth like that. If, on the contrary, I
did my duty, let them make laws to protect me.”

Martial perceived the necessity of reassuring this troubled mind.
“Chupin, my boy,” said he, “I don’t ask you to discover M. d’Escorval in
order to denounce him; far from it--I only want you to ascertain if any
one at Saint-Pavin, or at Saint-Jean-de-Coche, knows of his having
crossed the frontier.”

The mention of Saint-Jean-de-Coche made Chupin shudder. “Do you want me
to be murdered?” he exclaimed, remembering Balstain’s vow. “I must let
you know that I value my life now that I’m rich.” And seized with a sort
of panic he fled precipitately.

Martial was stupefied with astonishment. “One might really suppose that
the rascal was sorry for what he had done,” thought he.

If that were really the case, Chupin was not the only person afflicted
with qualms of conscience, for both M. de Courtornieu and the Duke de
Sairmeuse were secretly blaming themselves for the exaggeration of their
first reports, and the manner in which they had magnified the
proportions of the rebellion. They accused each other of undue haste, of
neglecting the proper forms of process, and had to admit in their hearts
that the sentences were most unjust. They each tried to make the other
responsible for the blood which had been spilt; and were certainly doing
all that they could to obtain a pardon for the six prisoners who had
been reprieved. But their efforts did not succeed; for one night a
courier arrived at Montaignac, bearing the following laconic despatch:
“The twenty-one convicted prisoners must all be executed.” That is to
say, the Duke de Richelieu, and M. Decazes, with their colleagues of the
council of ministers, had decided that the petitions for clemency must
be refused.

This despatch was a terrible blow for the Duke de Sairmeuse and M. de
Courtornieu. They knew, better than any one else, how little these poor
fellows were deserving of death. They knew it would soon be publicly
proved that two of these six men had taken no part whatever in the
conspiracy. What was to be done? Martial wished his father to resign his
authority; but the duke had not the strength of mind to do so. Besides,
M. de Courtornieu encouraged him to retain his functions, remarking,
that no doubt all this was very unfortunate, but, since the wine was
drawn, it was necessary to drink it; indeed, his grace could not now
draw back without causing a terrible scandal.

Accordingly, the next day a dismal roll of drums was heard again, and
the six doomed men, two of whom were known to be innocent, were led
outside the walls of the citadel and shot, on the same spot where, only
a week before, fourteen of their comrades had fallen.

The prime mover in the conspiracy had not, however, yet been tried. He
had fallen into a state of gloomy despondency, which lasted during his
whole term of imprisonment. He was terribly broken, both in body and
mind. Once only did the blood mount to his pallid cheeks, and that was
on the morning when the Duke de Sairmeuse entered the cell to examine
him. “It was you who drove me to do what I did,” exclaimed Lacheneur.
“God sees us and judges us both!”

Unhappy man! his faults had been great: his chastisement was terrible.
He had sacrificed his children on the altar of his wounded pride; and
did not even have the consolation of pressing them to his heart and of
asking their forgiveness before he died. Alone in his cell, he could not
turn his mind from his son and daughter; but such was the terrible
situation in which he had placed himself that he dared not ask what had
become of them. Through a compassionate keeper, however, he learned that
nothing had been heard of Jean, and that it was supposed Marie-Anne had
escaped to some foreign country with the D’Escorval family. When
summoned before the court for trial, Lacheneur was calm and dignified in
manner. He made no attempt at defence, but answered every question with
perfect frankness. He took all the blame upon himself, and would not
give the name of any one accomplice. Condemned to be beheaded, he was
executed on the following day, walking to the scaffold and mounting to
the platform with a firm step. A few seconds later the blade of the
guillotine fell with a loud whirr, and the rebellion of the fourth of
March counted its twenty-first victim.

That same evening the townsfolk of Montaignac were busy talking of the
magnificent rewards which were to be bestowed on the Duke de Sairmeuse
and the Marquis de Courtornieu, for their services to the royal cause,
and a report was flying abroad to the effect that Martial and
Mademoiselle Blanche were now to be married with great pomp, and with as
little delay as possible.



XXIII.


After Lacheneur had been executed, the co-dictators, regretting, as we
have already said, the precipitation with which they had sentenced many
of the minor partisans of the revolt, sought to propitiate public
opinion by treating the remaining prisoners with unexpected clemency.
Out of a hundred peasants still confined in the citadel, only eighteen
or twenty were tried, and the sentences pronounced upon them were light
in the extreme; all the others were released. Major Carini, the leader
of the military conspirators in Montaignac, had expected to lose his
head, but to his own astonishment he was only sentenced to two years’
imprisonment. This tardy indulgence did not, however, efface popular
recollections of previous severity, and the townsfolk of Montaignac
openly declared that if MM. de Sairmeuse and de Courtornieu were
clement, it was only because they were afraid of the consequences that
might await continued tyranny. So thus it came to pass that people
execrated them for their past cruelty, and despised them for their
subsequent cowardice. However, both the duke and the marquis were
ignorant of the true current of public opinion, and hurried on with
their preparations for their children’s wedding. It was arranged that
the ceremony should take place on the 17th of April, at the village
church of Sairmeuse, and that a grand entertainment should be given to
the guests in the duke’s chateau, which was indeed transformed into a
fairy palace for the occasion.

A new priest, who had taken the Abbe Midon’s place, celebrated the
nuptial mass, and then addressed the newly-wedded pair in congratulatory
terms. “You will be, you _must_ be happy!” he exclaimed in conclusion,
fully believing for the moment that he spoke the words of prophecy. And
who would not have believed as he did? Where could two young people be
found more richly dowered with all the attributes of worldly
happiness--youth, health, opulence, and rank. And yet although the new
marchioness’s eyes sparkled joyfully, the bridegroom seemed strangely
preoccupied. Blanche was before him radiant with beauty, proud with
success; but his mind, despite all efforts, wandered back to
Marie-Anne--to the Marie-Anne he had lost, who had disappeared, whom he
might never behold again. “Ah! if she had but loved him,” thought
Martial, “what happiness would have been his. But now he was bound for
life to a woman whom he did not love.”

At dinner, however, he succeeded in shaking off his sadness, thanks,
perhaps, to the exhilarating influence of several glasses of champagne,
and when the guests rose from table he had almost forgotten his
forebodings. He was rising in his turn, when a servant approached him
and whispered: “There is a young peasant in the hall who wishes to speak
with Monsieur le Marquis. He would not give me his name.”

“Wouldn’t give his name?” ejaculated Martial. “Ah, well, on one’s
wedding-day one must grant an audience to everybody.” And with a smile
he descended the staircase. Beside the fragrant flowering plants with
which the vestibule was lined, he found a young a man with a pale face,
whose eyes glittered with feverish brilliancy. On recognising him
Martial could not restrain an exclamation of surprise. “Jean Lacheneur!”
he exclaimed; “you imprudent fellow!”

Young Lacheneur stepped forward. “You thought you were rid of me,” he
said, bitterly. “But you see you were mistaken. However, you can order
your people to arrest me if you choose.”

Martial’s brow lowered on hearing these insulting words. “What do you
want?” he asked coldly.

“I am to give you this on behalf of Maurice d’Escorval,” replied Jean,
drawing a letter from his pocket.

With an eager hand, Martial broke the seal; but scarcely had he glanced
at the contents than he turned as pale as death and staggered back,
exclaiming, “Infamous!”

“What am I to say to Maurice,” insisted Jean. “What do you intend to
do?”

“Come--you shall see,” replied the young marquis, seizing Jean by the
arm and dragging him up the staircase. The expression of Martial’s
features had so changed during his brief absence that the wedding guests
looked at him with astonishment when he re-entered the grand saloon
holding an open letter in one hand, and leading with the other a young
peasant whom no one recognised. “Where is my father?” he asked, in a
husky voice; “where is the Marquis de Courtornieu?”

The duke and the marquis were with Blanche in a little drawing-room
leading out of the main hall. Martial hastened there, followed by a
crowd of wondering guests, who, foreseeing a stormy scene, were
determined to witness it. He walked straight towards M. de Courtornieu,
who was standing by the fire-place, and handing him the letter: “Read!”
said he, in a threatening voice.

M. de Courtornieu mechanically obeyed the injunction; but suddenly he
turned livid; the paper trembled in his hands: he averted his glance,
and was obliged to lean against the mantelpiece for support. “I don’t
understand,” he stammered: “no, I don’t understand.”

The duke and Blanche had both sprung forward. “What is the matter?” they
both asked in one breath; “what has happened?”

Martial’s reply was to tear the letter from the Marquis de Courtornieu’s
hands, and to turn to his father with these words: “Listen to this note
I have just received.”

Three hundred people were assembled in the room, or clustering round the
doorway, but the silence was so perfect that Martial’s voice reached the
farthest extremity of the grand hall as he read: “Monsieur le
Marquis--Upon the honour of your name, and in exchange for a dozen lines
that threatened you with ruin, you promised us the Baron d’Escorval’s
life. You did, indeed, bring the ropes by which he was to make his
escape, but they had been previously cut, and my father was precipitated
on to the rocks below. You have forfeited your honour, sir. You have
soiled your name with opprobrium, and while a drop of blood remains in
my veins, I will leave no means untried to punish you for your cowardice
and treason. By killing me you would, it is true, escape the
chastisement I am reserving for you. I challenge you to fight with me.
Shall I wait for you to-morrow on La Reche? At what hour? With what
weapons? If you are the vilest of men, you can appoint a meeting, and
then send your gendarmes to arrest me. That would be an act worthy of
you.

“MAURICE D’ESCORVAL.”

       *       *       *       *       *

On hearing these words the Duke de Sairmeuse was seized with despair. He
saw the secret of the baron’s flight made public, and his own political
prospects ruined. “Hush!” he hurriedly exclaimed in a low voice; “hush,
wretched fellow, you will ruin us!”

But Martial did not even seem to hear him. He finished his perusal, and
then looking the Marquis de Courtornieu full in the face: “_Now_, what
do you think?” he asked.

“I am still unable to comprehend,” replied the old nobleman, coldly.

Martial raised his hand; and every one present believed that he was
about to strike his father-in-law. “You don’t comprehend,” he exclaimed
sarcastically. “Ah, well, if _you_ don’t, _I_ do. I know who that
officer was who entered the room where I deposited the ropes--and I know
what took him there.” He paused, crumpled the letter between his hands,
and threw it in M. de Courtornieu’s face, with these last words: “Here,
take your reward, you cowardly traitor!”

Overwhelmed by this denouement the marquis sank back into an arm-chair,
and Martial, still holding Jean Lacheneur by the arm, was on the point
of leaving the room, when his young wife, wild with despair, tried to
detain him. “You shall not go!” she exclaimed, “you cannot! Where are
you going? That young fellow with you is Jean Lacheneur. I recognize
him. You want to join his sister--your mistress!”

Martial indignantly pushed his wife aside. “How dare you insult the
noblest and purest of women,” he exclaimed. “Ah, well--yes--I am going
to find Marie-Anne. Farewell!” And with these words he left the
chateau.



XXIV.


The ledge of rock on which the Baron d’Escorval and Corporal Bavois
rested on descending from the tower was not more than a yard and a half
across its widest part. It sloped down towards the edge of the
precipice, and its surface was so rugged and uneven that it was
considered very imprudent to stand there, even in the day-time. Thus it
will be understood that the task of lowering a man from this ledge, at
dead of night, was perilous in the extreme. Before allowing the baron to
descend, Bavois took every possible precaution to save himself from
being dragged over the verge of the precipice by his companion’s weight.
He fixed his crowbar firmly in a crevice of the rock, seated himself,
braced his feet against the bar, threw his shoulders well back, and then
feeling that his position was secure he bid the baron let himself down.
The sudden parting of the rope hurled the corporal against the tower
wall, and then he rebounded forward on his knees. For an instant he hung
suspended over the abyss, his hands clutching at the empty air. A hasty
movement, and he would have fallen. But he possessed a marvellous power
of will, and had faced danger so often in his life that he was able to
restrain himself. Prudently, but with determined energy, he screwed his
feet and knees into the crevices of the rock, feeling with his hands for
some point of support; then gradually sinking on to one side, he at last
succeeded in dragging himself from the verge of the precipice.

The effort had been a terrible one, his limbs were quite cramped, and he
was obliged to sit down and rest himself. He fully believed that the
baron had been killed by his fall, but this catastrophe did not produce
much effect upon the old soldier, who had seen so many comrades fall by
his side on fields of battle. What did amaze him, however, was the
breaking of the rope--a rope so thick that one would have supposed it
capable of sustaining the weight of ten men like the baron. It was too
dark to examine the fragment remaining in his possession, but on feeling
it at the lower end with his finger, the corporal was surprised to find
it quite smooth and even, not rough and ragged as is usual after a
break. “It must have been cut--yes cut nearly through,” exclaimed Bavois
with an oath. And at the same time a previous incident recurred to his
mind. “This,” thought he, “explains the noise which the poor baron heard
in the next room! And I said to him: ‘Nonsense! it is a rat!’”

With the view of verifying his conjectures, Bavois passed the cord round
about the crowbar and pulled at it with all his strength. It parted in
three places. The discovery appalled him. A part of the rope had fallen
with the baron, and it was evident that the remaining fragments even if
tied together would not be long enough to reach the base of the rock.
What was to be done? How could he escape? If he could not descend the
precipice he must remain on the ledge from which there was no other mode
of escape. “It’s all up, corporal,” he murmured to himself. “At daybreak
they will find the baron’s cell empty. They will poke their heads out of
the window, and see you here perched like a stone saint on his pedestal.
Of course you’ll be captured, tried, and condemned, and have to take
your turn in the ditches. Ready! Aim! Fire! That’ll be the end of your
story.”

He stopped short, for a vague idea had just entered his mind, which he
felt might lead to salvation. It had come to him in touching the rope
which he and the baron had used in their descent from the latter’s cell
to the rocky ledge, and which, firmly attached to the bars above hung
down the side of the tower. “If you had that rope which hangs there,
corporal,” said he, you could tie it to these bits, and then the cord
would be long enough to take you down the precipice. But how can one
obtain it? If one goes back after it, one can’t bring it down and come
down again ones’ self at the same time. He pondered for a moment and
then began talking to himself again. “Attention, corporal,” said he.
“You are going to knot the five pieces of rope you’ve got here together,
and you’re going to fasten them to your waist; next you’re going to
climb up to that window, hand over hand. Not an easy matter! A staircase
would be preferable. But no matter, you mustn’t be finical, corporal. So
you will climb up and find yourself in the cell again. What are you
going to do there? A mere nothing. You will unfasten the cord secured to
the window bars, you will tie it to this one and that will give you
eighty feet of good strong rope. Then you will pass the rope about one
of the bars that remain intact, you will tie the two ends together, and
then the rope will be doubled. Next you must let yourself down here
again, and when you are here, you will only have to untie one of the
knots, and the rope will be at your service. Do you understand,
corporal?”

The corporal did understand so well that in less than twenty minutes he
was back again upon the narrow shelf of rock, having successfully
accomplished the dangerous feat which he had planned. Not without a
terrible effort, however, not without torn and bleeding hands and knees.
Still he had succeeded in obtaining the rope, and now he was certain
that he could make his escape from his dangerous position. He was
chuckling gleefully at the prospect when suddenly he bethought himself
of M. d’Escorval whom he had forgotten first in his anxiety, and then in
his joy. “Poor baron,” murmured the corporal remorsefully. “I shall
succeed in saving my miserable life, for which no one cares, but I was
unable to save his. No doubt, by this time his friends have carried him
away.”

As he uttered these words he leant forward, and to his intense amazement
perceived a faint light moving here and there in the depths below. What
could have happened? Something extraordinary, that was evident; or else
intelligent men like the baron’s friends would never have displayed this
light, which, if noticed from the citadel, would betray their presence
and ruin them. However, the corporal’s time was too precious to be
wasted in idle conjectures. “Better go down on the double-quick,” he
said aloud, as if to spur on his courage. “Come, my friend, spit on your
hands and be off!”

As he spoke the old soldier threw himself flat on his belly and crawled
slowly backwards to the verge of the precipice. The spirit was strong,
but the flesh shuddered. To march upon a battery had been a mere pastime
for him in days of imperial glory; but to face an unknown peril, to
suspend one’s life upon a cord, was a very different matter. Great drops
of perspiration, caused by the horror of his situation, stood out upon
his brow when he felt that half his body had passed over the edge of the
precipice, and that the slightest movement would now launch him into
space. Still he did not hesitate, but allowed himself to glide on,
murmuring: “If there is a God who watches over honest people let Him
open His eyes this instant!”

Providence was watching; and Bavois arrived at the end of his dangerous
journey alive and safe. He fell like a mass of rock; and groaned aloud
when at last, after a swift flight through space, he sank heavily on to
the rugged soil below. For a minute he lay stunned and dizzy on the
ground. He was rising when he felt himself seized by either arm. “No
foolishness,” he cried quickly. “It is I, Bavois.”

But his captors did not loosen their hold. “How does it happen,” asked
one of them in a threatening tone, “that the Baron d’Escorval is
precipitated half way down the cliff, and that you alight in safety a
few moments later?”

The old soldier was too shrewd not to understand the import of this
insinuation; and the indignation he felt, gave him sufficient strength
to free himself with a violent jerk from his captor’s hand. “A thousand
thunderclaps!” he cried, “so I pass for a traitor, do I! No, it is
impossible, well, just listen to me.” Then rapidly, but with great
clearness, he recounted all the phases of his escape, his despair, his
perilous situation, and the almost insurmountable obstacles which he had
overcome. His tone was so sincere, the details he gave so
circumstantial, that his questioners--two of the retired officers who
had been waiting for the baron--at once held out their hands, sorry that
they had wounded the feelings of a man so worthy of their respect and
gratitude. “Forgive us, corporal,” said one of them sadly. “Misery makes
men suspicious and unjust, and we are very unhappy.”

“No offence,” he growled. “If I had trusted poor M. d’Escorval, he would
be alive now.”

“The baron still breathes,” observed one of the officers.

This was such astounding news that for a moment Bavois was utterly
confounded. “Ah! I will give my right hand, if necessary, to save him!”
he exclaimed, at last.

“If it is possible to save him, he will be saved, my friend. That worthy
priest whom you see there, is an excellent physician. He is examining M.
d’Escorval’s wounds at this moment. It was by his order that we procured
and lighted that candle, which may bring our enemies upon us at any
moment; but this is not a time for hesitation.”

Bavois looked with all his eyes, but from where he was standing he could
only distinguish a confused group of moving figures. On stepping
forward, however, he perceived that Marie-Anne was holding a candle over
the baron who lay stretched upon the ground, his head reclining on his
wife’s knees. His face was not disfigured; but he was extremely pale,
and his eyes were closed at intervals. He shuddered, and then the blood
would trickle from his mouth. His clothing was hacked--literally hacked
to pieces; and it was easy to see that he had been frightfully mauled
and wounded. Kneeling beside the unconscious man, the Abbe Midon was
dexterously staunching the blood and applying bandages, torn from the
linen of those present. Maurice and one of the officers were assisting
him. “Ah! if I had my hands on the scoundrel who cut the rope,” cried
the corporal, with passionate indignation; “but patience. I shall have
him yet.”

“Do you know who it was?”

“Only too well!” He said no more. The abbe had done all it was possible
to do, and was now lifting the wounded man a little higher on Madame
d’Escorval’s knees. This change of position elicited a moan which
betrayed the baron’s intense sufferings. He opened his eyes and faltered
a few words--the first he had uttered. “Firmin!” he murmured, “Firmin!”
This was the name of his former secretary, a devoted helpmate who had
been dead for several years. It was evident that the baron’s mind was
wandering. Still he had some vague idea of his terrible situation, for
in a stifled, almost inaudible voice, he added: “Oh! how I suffer!
Firmin, I will not fall into the hands of the Marquis de Courtornieu
alive. I would rather kill myself.”

This was all; his eyes closed again, and his head fell back a dead
weight. The officers clustering round believed that he had expired, and
it was with poignant anxiety that they drew the abbe aside. “Is it all
over?” they asked. “Is there any hope?”

The priest shook his head sadly, and pointing to heaven: “My hope is in
God!” he said reverently.

The hour, the place, the catastrophe, the present danger, the
threatening future, all combined to impart solemnity to the priest’s few
words; and so profound was the impression that, for a moment, these men,
familiar with death and peril, stood in awed silence. Maurice, who
approached, followed by Corporal Bavois, brought them back to the
exigencies of the situation. “Ought we not to make haste and carry my
father away?” he asked. “Mustn’t we be in Piedmont before evening?”

“Yes!” exclaimed one of the officers, “let us start at once.”

But the priest did not move, and it was in a despondent voice that he
remarked: “Any attempt to carry M. d’Escorval across the frontier in his
present condition would cost him his life.”

This seemed so inevitably a death-warrant for them all, that they
shuddered. “My God! what shall we do?” faltered Maurice. “What course
shall we adopt?”

No one replied. It was clear that they hoped for salvation through the
priest alone. He was lost in thought, and it was some time before he
spoke. “About an hour’s walk from here,” he said, at last, “beyond the
Croix-d’Arcy, lives a peasant on whom I can rely. His name is Poignot;
and he was formerly in M. Lacheneur’s employ. With the assistance of his
three sons, he now tills quite a large farm. We must procure a litter
and carry M. d’Escorval to this honest peasant’s house.”

“What,” interrupted one of the officers, “you want us to procure a
litter at this hour of the night, and in this neighbourhood?”

“It must be done.”

“But won’t it awake suspicion?”

“Most assuredly.”

“The Montaignac police will follow us.”

“I am certain of it.”

“The baron will be recaptured?”

“No.” The abbe spoke in the tone of a man who, having assumed all the
responsibility, feels that he has a right to be obeyed. “When the baron
had been conveyed to Poignot’s house,” he continued, “one of you
gentlemen will take the wounded man’s place on the litter; the others
will carry him, and the party will remain together until you have
reached Piedmontese territory. Then you must separate and pretend to
conceal yourselves, but do it in such a way that you are seen
everywhere.”

The priest’s simple plan was readily understood. The royalist emissaries
must be thrown off the track; and at the very moment when it seemed to
them that the baron was in the mountains, he would be safe in Poignot’s
house.

“One word more,” added the cure. “The party which will accompany the
pretended baron must look as much like the people one would expect to
find with him, as possible. So Mademoiselle Lacheneur will go with you,
and Maurice also. Again, people know that I would not leave the baron;
and as my priestly robe would attract attention, one of you must assume
it. God will forgive the deception on account of its worthy motive.”

It was now necessary to procure the litter; and the officers were trying
to decide where they should go to obtain it, when Corporal Bavois
interrupted them. “Give yourselves no uneasiness,” he remarked; “I know
an inn not far from here where I can procure one.”

He started off on the run, and a few minutes later returned with a small
litter, a thin mattress, and a coverlid. He had thought of everything.
The baron was lifted carefully from the ground and placed on the
mattress--a long and difficult operation which, in spite of extreme
caution, provoked many terrible groans from the wounded man. When
everything was ready, each officer took an end of the litter, and the
little procession, headed by the abbe, started on its way. They were
obliged to proceed slowly as the least jolting increased the baron’s
sufferings. Still they made some progress, and by daybreak they were
about half way to Poignot’s house. They then chanced to meet some
peasants going to their daily toil. The latter paused to look at them,
and when the group had passed by stood gazing curiously after these
strange folks who were apparently carrying a dead body. However, these
meetings did not at all seem to worry the Abbe Midon. At all events, he
made no attempt to avoid them. At last they came in sight of Poignot’s
cottage. There was a little grove not far from the house, and here the
party halted, the priest bidding his companions conceal themselves while
he went forward to reconnoitre and confer with the man upon whose
decision the safety of the whole party depended.

As the priest approached the house, a short, slim peasant with grey hair
and a sunburnt face emerged from the stable. This was Father Poignot
himself. “What! is this you, Monsieur le Cure!” he exclaimed,
delightedly. “Heavens! how pleased my wife will be. We have a great
favour to ask of you----” And then, without giving the abbe an
opportunity to open his lips, the farmer began to relate his
perplexities. The night of the revolt he had given shelter to a poor
fellow who had received an ugly swordthrust. Neither his wife nor
himself knew how to dress the wound, and he did not dare to send for a
doctor. “And this wounded man,” he added, “is Jean Lacheneur, my old
employer’s son.”

This recital made the priest feel very anxious. This peasant had already
given an asylum to one wounded conspirator, but would he consent to
receive another? He could not say, but his voice trembled as he
presented his petition. The farmer turned very pale and shook his head
gravely more than once, while the priest was speaking. When the abbe had
finished, he coldly asked: “Do you know, sir, that I incur a great risk
by converting my house into a hospital for these rebels?” The abbe dared
not answer. “They told me,” continued Father Poignot, “that I was a
coward, because I would not join in the revolt. Such was not my opinion.
Now, however, I choose to shelter these wounded men. In my opinion, it
requires quite as much courage to do that as to go and fight.”

“Ah! you are a brave fellow!” cried the abbe.

“Never mind about that, but bring M. d’Escorval here. There is no one
but my wife and boys, and they won’t betray him!”

The offer was at once accepted, and half-an-hour later the baron was
lying in a small loft, where Jean Lacheneur was already installed. From
the window, the Abbe Midon and Madame d’Escorval watched the little
party, organized for the purpose of deceiving the Duke de Sairmeuse’s
spies, as it moved rapidly away. Corporal Bavois, with his head bound up
with blood-stained linen, had taken the baron’s place on the litter
carried by the retired officers. These latter only knew the baron by
name and reputation. But then he was the friend of their former
ruler--the friend of that great captain whom they had made their idol,
and they rejoiced with all their hearts when they saw him reposing under
Father Poignot’s roof in comparative security. After this, there was the
task of misleading the government emissaries, and they took various
skilful precautions, not knowing that they were quite unnecessary.
Public sentiment had declared itself in an unmistakable manner, and the
police did not ascertain a single detail of the escape. They did not
even hear of the little party that travelled nearly three leagues in the
full light of day, bearing a wounded man upon a litter. Among the two
thousand peasants who believed that this wounded man was the Baron
d’Escorval, there was not one who turned informer, or made an indiscreet
remark.

The fugitives were ignorant of this willing connivance, and on
approaching the frontier, which they had heard was strictly guarded,
they became extremely cautious. They waited until nightfall before
presenting themselves at a lonely inn, where they hoped to procure a
guide to lead them through the mountain passes. Sad news awaited them
there, for the inn-keeper informed them of the executions that had taken
place that day at Montaignac, giving the particulars as he had heard
them from an eye witness. Fortunately, or unfortunately, he knew nothing
of M. d’Escorval’s flight or of M. Lacheneur’s arrest. But he was well
acquainted with Chanlouineau, and was quite inconsolable concerning the
death of that “handsome young fellow, the best farmer in the country.”

Finding this man’s views so favourable, the officers, who had left the
litter a short distance from the inn, decided to confide in him, at
least in some degree. “We are carrying one of our wounded comrades,”
they said. “Can you guide us across the frontier to-night?”

The inn-keeper replied that he would do so willingly, that he could
promise to take them safely past the military posts; but that he could
not think of starting before the moon rose. At midnight the fugitives
were on their way; and at daybreak they set foot on the territory of
Piedmont. They had dismissed their guide some time before. They now
proceeded to break the litter in pieces; and handful by handful cast the
wool of the mattress to the wind.

“Our task is accomplished,” said one of the officers to Maurice. “We
will now return to France. May God protect you! Farewell!”

It was with tears in his eyes that Maurice parted from these brave
fellows who had proved so instrumental in saving his father’s life. Now
he was the sole protector of Marie-Anne, who, pale and overcome with
fatigue and emotion trembled on his arm. But no--for Corporal Bavois
still lingered by his side. “And you, my friend,” he asked, sadly, “what
are you going to do?”

“Follow you,” replied the old soldier. “I have a right to a home with
you; that was agreed between your father and myself! so don’t hurry, for
the young lady does not seem well, and I can see a village only a short
distance off.”



XXV.


Essentially a woman in grace and beauty, as well as in devotion and
tenderness, Marie-Anne, as we have shown, was moreover capable of truly
virile bravery. Her energy and coolness during those trying days had
been the admiration and astonishment of all around her. But human
endurance has its limits, and after excessive efforts there invariably
comes a moment when the shrinking flesh fails the firmest will. Thus,
when Marie-Anne tried to resume her journey she found that her strength
was exhausted; her swollen feet and limbs scarcely supported her, her
head whirled, and she shivered feverishly. Maurice and the old soldier
were both obliged to support her, almost to carry her; but fortunately
they were not far from a village, as was evident from an old church
tower just discernible through the morning mist. Soon, however, they
distinguished several cottages, and with the prospect of speedy rest
before them they were hastening forward, when suddenly Bavois stopped
short, “A thousand thunderclaps!” he exclaimed; “why, I’m in uniform! It
would excite suspicion at once if I went into the village dressed like
this; before we had a chance to sit down, the Piedmontese gendarmes
would arrest us.” He reflected for a moment, twirling his moustache
furiously; then, in a tone that would have made a passer-by tremble, he
remarked, “All things are fair in love and war. The next person who
passes----”

“But I have money with me,” interrupted Maurice, unbuckling a belt
filled with gold, which he had put on under his clothing on the night of
the revolt.

“Eh! then we are fortunate!” cried Bavois. “Give me some, and I will
soon find a shop where I can purchase a change of clothing.”

He started; and it was not long before he re-appeared clad in peasant’s
garb, his thin weazened countenance well-nigh hidden by a large
broad-brimmed slouching hat. “Now, steady, forward, march!” he said to
Maurice and Marie-Anne, who scarcely recognized him in this disguise.

What they had taken to be a mere village proved to be almost a small
town, called Saliente, as they almost immediately afterwards ascertained
from a sign-post. The fourth house they met with was a hostelry, the
Traveller’s Rest. They went in, and at once asked the hostess to take
the young lady to a room, and to assist her in undressing. While these
instructions were being complied with, Maurice and the corporal
proceeded to the dining-room, and ordered something to eat. Refreshments
were served at once, but the glances cast upon the new arrivals were by
no means friendly. They were evidently regarded with suspicion. A tall
man, who was apparently the landlord, hovered round them, and at last
embraced a favourable opportunity to ask their names. “My name is
Dubois,” replied Maurice, without the slightest hesitation. “I am
travelling on business, and this man with me is a farmer of mine.”

The landlord seemed somewhat reassured by this reply. “And what is your
business?” he enquired.

“I have come into this land of inquisitive people to buy mules,” laughed
Maurice, striking his belt of money.

On hearing the jingle of the coin the landlord deferentially raised his
cap. Breeding mules was the chief industry of the district. This
would-be purchaser was very young, but he had a well-filled purse, and
that was enough. “You will excuse me,” resumed the landlord, in quite a
different tone. “You see, we are obliged to be very careful. There has
been some trouble at Montaignac.”

The imminence of the peril and the responsibility devolving upon him,
gave Maurice unusual assurance; and it was in the most careless,
off-hand manner possible that he concocted quite a plausible story to
explain his early arrival on foot with his wife, who had been taken
poorly on the way. He congratulated himself upon his address, but the
old corporal was far from satisfied. “We are too near the frontier to
bivouac here,” he grumbled. “As soon as the young lady is on her feet
again we must hurry on.”

He believed, and Maurice hoped, that twenty-four hours’ rest would set
Marie-Anne right again. But they were both mistaken. She could not move,
but remained in a state of torpor from which it was impossible to rouse
her. When she was spoken to she made no reply, and it seemed very
doubtful whether she could even hear and understand. Fortunately the
landlord’s mother proved to be a good, kind-hearted old woman, who would
not leave the so-called Madame Dubois’s bed-side, but nursed her with
the greatest care during three long days, while Marie-Anne remained in
this strange and alarming condition. When at last she spoke, Maurice
could at first scarcely understand the import of her words. “Poor girl!”
she sighed; “poor, wretched girl!” In point of fact she was alluding to
herself. By a phenomenon which often manifests itself after a crisis in
which reason has been temporarily imperilled, it seemed to her that it
was some one else who had been the victim of all these misfortunes, the
recollection of which gradually returned to her like the memory of a
painful dream. What strange and terrible events had taken place since
that August Sunday when, on leaving church with her father, she first
heard of the Duke de Sairmeuse’s return to France. And that was only
nine months ago. What a difference between the past--when she lived
happy and envied in that beautiful Chateau de Sairmeuse, of which she
believed herself the mistress--and the present, when she found herself
lying in the comfortless room of a miserable country inn, attended by an
old woman whom she did not know, and with no other protectors than her
proscribed lover, and an old soldier--a deserter, whose life was in
constant peril. Hope, fortune, and future happiness, had all been
wrecked, and she had not even saved her honour. But was she alone
responsible? Who was it that had forced her to play that odious part
with Maurice, Martial, and Chanlouineau? As this last name darted
through her mind, she recalled with startling clearness all the
incidents of her last meeting with the young farmer. She saw him at her
feet in that dingy cell of the citadel at Montaignac; she felt his
first and only kiss upon her cheek, and remembered that he had given her
a second letter, saying as he did so: “You will read this when I am
dead.”

She might read it now, for he had already cruelly expiated his share in
her father’s enterprise. But then what had become of it? She had not
given it a thought till now; but at present, raising herself up in bed,
she exclaimed in an eager, imperious voice: “My dress, give me my
dress.”

The old nurse obeyed her, and Marie-Anne could not restrain an
exclamation of delight when, on examining the pocket, she found the
letter there. She opened it and read it slowly, then, sinking back on
her pillows, she burst into tears. Maurice hastily approached her. “What
is the matter?” he inquired anxiously. Her only reply was to hand him
the missive.

Chanlouineau, it should be remembered, was only a poor peasant. Scarcely
possessing the rudiments of education, as his letter (written on common
paper and closed with a huge wafer, specially purchased from a grocer in
Sairmeuse) evinced plainly enough. The heavy, laboured, distorted
characters, had evidently been traced by a man who was more at home when
guiding a plough than a pen. There was but one straight line, and every
third word, at least, was mis-spelt. And yet the thoughts expressed were
noble and generous, well worthy of the true heart that had beat in the
young farmer’s breast. “Marie-Anne,”--So the letter began. “The outbreak
is at hand, and whether it succeeds or fails, at all events, I shall
die. I decided that on the day when I learned that you could marry no
other man than Maurice d’Escorval. The conspiracy cannot succeed; and I
understand your father well enough to know that he will not survive
defeat. And if Maurice and your brother should both be killed, what
would become of you? Oh, my God, would you not be reduced to beggary?
The thought has haunted me continually. I have reflected, and this is my
last will: I give and bequeath to you all my property, everything that I
possess: My house, the Borderie, with its gardens and vineyards, the
woodland and pastures of Berarde, and five lots of lands at Valrollier.
An inventory of this property, and of the other possessions I leave to
you is deposited with the notary at Sairmeuse. You can accept this
bequest without fear; for I have no relatives, and am at liberty to
dispose of my belongings as I please. If you do not wish to remain in
France, the property can be sold for at least forty thousand francs. But
it would, it seems to me, be better for you to remain in your own
province. The house on the Borderie is comfortable and convenient, for I
have had it thoroughly repaired. Upstairs you will find a room that has
been fitted up by the best upholsterer in Montaignac. I intended it for
you. Under the hearth-stone in this same room I have deposited a box
containing three hundred and twenty-seven louis d’or and one hundred and
forty-six livres. If you refuse this gift, it will be because you scorn
me even after I am dead. Accept it, if not for your own sake, for the
sake of--I dare not finish, but you will understand my meaning only too
well. If Maurice is not killed, and I shall try my best to stand between
him and danger, he will marry you. Then, perhaps, you will be obliged to
ask his consent in order to accept my gift. I hope that he will not
refuse his permission. One is not jealous of the dead! Besides, he knows
well enough that you scarcely ever vouchsafed a glance to the poor
peasant who loved you so much. Do not be offended at anything I have
said, I am in such agony that I cannot weigh my words. Farewell,
Marie-Anne. Farewell for ever.

CHANLOUINEAU.”

       *       *       *       *       *

Maurice read this letter carefully, at times pausing with suppressed
emotion. After finishing its perusal he remained silent for a moment,
and then in a husky voice exclaimed: “You cannot refuse; it would be
wrong.” Then, fearing lest he might betray his feelings, he hastily left
the room. Chanlouineau’s words had evidently made a deep impression on
his mind. This noble peasant had saved their lives at the Croix d’Arcy,
he had wrested the Baron d’Escorval from the hands of the executioner,
and he had never allowed either a complaint or a reproach to escape his
lips. His abnegation had been sublime; and yet, as if what he had done
in life were not sufficient, he sought to protect the woman he loved,
even after he was dead. When Maurice recalled all that he and Marie-Anne
owed to Chanlouineau, he could not help reproaching himself with
inferiority and unworthiness. But, good heavens! what if this same
comparison should arise in Marie-Anne’s mind as well? How could he
compete with the memory of such nobility of soul and such
self-sacrifice? Ay, Chanlouineau was mistaken; one may, perhaps, be
jealous of the dead! However, Maurice took good care to conceal his
anxiety, and when he returned to Marie-Anne’s room his face was calm and
even cheerful.

Although, as we have seen, Marie-Anne had recovered the full possession
of her mental faculties, her strength had not yet returned. She was
almost unable to sit up; and Maurice had to relinquish all thought of
leaving Saliente for the present. The so-called Madame Dubois’
persistent weakness began to astonish the old nurse, and her faith in
herbs, gathered by moonlight, was considerably shaken. Fortunately,
however, Bavois had succeeded in finding a medical man in the
neighbourhood--a physician of great ability, who, after being at one
time attached to Prince Eugene Beauharnais’ vice-regal court at Milan
had, for political reasons, been forced to take refuge in this secluded
spot. The corporal’s discovery was a happy one, for in these days the
smaller towns and villages of Italy rarely possessed any other doctors
than some ignorant barber, who invariably treated all complaints with a
lancet and a stock of leeches. Bavois’ physician was at once summoned,
and he promptly made his appearance. He was a man of uncertain age, with
a furrowed brow and a keen and piercing glance. After visiting the
sick-room, he drew Maurice aside. “Is this young lady really your wife,
Monsieur--Dubois?” he asked, hesitating so strangely over this name,
Dubois, that Maurice’s face crimsoned to the roots of his hair.

“I do not understand your question,” he retorted, angrily.

“I beg your pardon, of course, but you seem very young for a married
man, and your hands are too soft for a farmer’s. And when I spoke to
this young lady about her husband, she turned scarlet. The man who
accompanies you, moreover, has terrible moustaches for a farmer, and
besides, you must remember that there have been troubles across the
frontier at Montaignac.”

From crimson Maurice had turned white. He felt that he was
discovered--that he was in this man’s power. What should he do? What was
the use of denial? At times it is only prudent to confess, and extreme
confidence often meets with sympathy and protection. He weighed these
considerations in his mind, and then in an anxious voice replied: “You
are not mistaken, monsieur. My friend and myself are both fugitives,
undoubtedly condemned to death in France by this time.” And then,
without giving the doctor an opportunity to respond, he briefly narrated
the terrible events that had recently happened at Sairmeuse. He neither
concealed his own name nor Marie-Anne’s, and when his recital was
completed, the physician, whom his confidence had plainly touched,
warmly shook his hand.

“It is just as I supposed,” said the medical man. “Believe me, Monsieur
Dubois, you must not tarry here. What I have discovered others will
discover as well. And, above everything, don’t warn the hotel-keeper of
your departure. He has not been deceived by your explanation.
Self-interest alone has kept his mouth shut. He has seen your money, and
so long as you spend it at his house he will hold his tongue; but if he
discovers that you are going away, he will probably betray you.”

“Ah! sir, but how is it possible for us to leave this place?”

“In two days the young lady will be on her feet again,” interrupted the
physician. “And take my advice. At the next village, stop and give your
name to Mademoiselle Lacheneur.”

“Ah! sir,” exclaimed Maurice, “have you considered the advice you offer
me? How can I, a proscribed man--a man condemned to death perhaps--how
can I obtain, how can I display the proofs of identity necessary for
marriage.”

“Excuse me,” observed the physician shaking his head, “but you are no
longer in France, Monsieur d’Escorval, you are in Piedmont.”

“Another difficulty!”

“No, because in this country, people marry, or at least they can marry,
without all the formalities that cause you so much anxiety.”

“Is it possible?” exclaimed Maurice.

“Yes, if you can find a consenting priest, when he has inscribed your
name on his parish register and given you a certificate, you will be so
undoubtedly married, Mademoiselle Lacheneur and yourself, that the court
of Rome would never grant you a divorce.”

“That may be,” said Maurice hesitatingly, “but how could I find a
priest----”

The physician was silent, and it might have been supposed he was blaming
himself for meddling with matters that did not concern him. Suddenly,
however, he abruptly said: “Listen to me attentively, Monsieur
d’Escorval. I am about to take my leave, but before I go, I shall find
occasion to recommend your wife to take as much exercise as possible--I
will do this in the landlord’s presence. Consequently, on the day after
to-morrow, Wednesday, you must hire mules, and you, Mademoiselle
Lacheneur and your old friend, the soldier, must start from the hotel as
if you were going on a pleasure excursion. You will push on to Vigano,
three leagues from here, where I live. Then I will take you to a priest,
one of my friends; and upon my recommendation, he will perform the
marriage ceremony. Now, reflect, shall I expect you on Wednesday?”

“Oh, yes, yes. How can I ever thank you sufficiently?”

“By not thanking me at all. See, here is the innkeeper; you are M.
Dubois, again.”

Maurice was intoxicated with joy. He understood the irregularity of such
a marriage, but he knew it would reassure Marie-Anne’s troubled
conscience. Poor girl! she was suffering an agony of remorse. It was
that which was killing her. However, he did not speak to her on the
matter, fearing lest something might occur to interfere with the
project. But the old physician had not spoken lightly, and everything
took place as he had promised. The priest at Vigano blessed the marriage
of Maurice d’Escorval and Marie-Anne Lacheneur, and after inscribing
their names upon the church register, he gave them a certificate, which
the physician and Corporal Bavois signed as witnesses. That same evening
the mules were sent back to Saliente, and the fugitives resumed their
journey. The Abbe Midon had advised them to reach Turin as quickly as
possible. “It is a large city,” he had said, when bidding them good-bye
near Father Poignot’s house, “you will be lost in the crowd. I have
several friends there, whose names and addresses are on this paper. Go
to them, for through them I will try to send you news of M. d’Escorval.”

So it was towards Turin that Maurice, Marie-Anne, and Corporal Bavois
directed their steps. Their progress was slow, however, for they were
obliged to avoid the more frequented roads, and renounce all ordinary
modes of transport. Still the fatigue of travel, instead of exhausting
Marie-Anne, seemed to revive her, and when five or six days had elapsed
the colour came back to her cheeks, and her strength had fully returned.
“Fate seems to have abandoned the pursuit,” said Maurice one day. “Who
knows but what the future may have many compensations in store for us!”

But he was mistaken. Fate far from forgetting them had merely granted
them a short respite. One April morning the fugitives stopped to
breakfast at an inn in the outskirts of a large town. Maurice had
finished eating, and was just leaving the table to settle with the
landlady, when Marie-Anne uttered a loud shriek and fell back on her
chair. She held in her hand a French newspaper about a fortnight old,
which she had found lying on the sideboard where some traveller had
probably left it. Maurice seized the print rapidly, and read as follows,
“Lacheneur, the leader of the revolt in Montaignac, was executed
yesterday. The miserable mischief-maker exhibited on the scaffold the
audacity for which he had always been famous.”

“My father has been put to death!” cried Marie-Anne, “and I--his
daughter--was not there to receive his last farewell!” She rose, and in
an imperious voice: “I will go no farther,” she said; “we must turn back
now without losing an instant. I wish to return to France.”

To return to France was to expose themselves to frightful peril. What
good would it do? Was not the misfortune irreparable? So Corporal Bavois
suggested, very timidly it is true, for the old soldier trembled at the
thought that they might suspect him of being afraid. But Maurice would
not listen. He shuddered. He did not know what had transpired since
their flight, but it seemed to him that the Baron d’Escorval must have
been discovered and re-arrested at the same time that Lacheneur was
captured. Accordingly they at once procured a vehicle to convey them to
the frontier. One important question, however, remained to be decided.
Should Maurice and Marie-Anne make their marriage public? She wished to
do so, but Maurice with tears in his eyes entreated her to conceal it.
“Our marriage certificate will not silence those who are disposed
against us,” said he. “Let us keep our secret for the present. No doubt
we shall only remain in France for a few days.” Unfortunately,
Marie-Anne yielded. “Since you wish it,” said she, “I will obey you. No
one shall know of it.”

It was the evening of the seventeenth of April, the same day that
Martial was married to Blanche, when the fugitives at last reached
Father Poignot’s house. Maurice and Corporal Bavois were disguised as
peasants and the old soldier had made a sacrifice that drew tears from
his eyes; he had shaved off his moustaches.



XXVI.


When the Abbe Midon and Martial de Sairmeuse held their conference, to
decide upon the arrangements for the Baron de Escorval’s escape, a
difficulty presented itself which threatened to break off the
negotiations. “Return my letter,” said Martial, “and I will save the
baron.”

“Save the baron,” replied the abbe, “and your letter shall be returned.”

The idea that any one should suppose him to be influenced by danger when
in reality he was only yielding to Marie-Anne’s tears, angered Martial
beyond endurance. “These are my last words, sir,” he retorted,
emphatically. “Give me the letter now, and I swear to you, by the honour
of my name, that I will do everything that is possible for any human
being to do to save the baron. If you distrust my word, good-evening.”

The situation was desperate, the danger imminent, the time limited, and
Martial’s tone betrayed an inflexible determination. The abbe could not
hesitate. He drew the letter from his pocket and handing it to Martial:
“Here it is, sir,” he said, solemnly, “remember that you have pledged
the honour of your name.”

“I will remember it, Monsieur le Cure. Go and obtain the ropes.”

Thus the abbe’s sorrow and amazement were intense, when, after the
baron’s terrible fall, Maurice declared that the cord had been cut
beforehand. And yet the priest could not make up his mind that Martial
was guilty of such execrable duplicity, which is rarely found in men
under twenty-five years of age. However, no one suspected the abbe’s
secret thoughts. It was with perfect composure that he dressed the
baron’s wounds and made arrangements for the flight, though not until he
saw M. d’Escorval installed in Poignot’s house did he breathe freely.
The fact that the baron had been able to endure the journey, proved that
he retained a power of vitality for which the priest had scarcely dared
to hope. Some way must now be discovered to procur the surgical
instruments and pharmaceutical remedies which the wounded man’s
condition would necessitate. But where and how could they be procured.
The police kept a close watch over all the medical men and druggists in
Montaignac, in hopes of discovering the wounded conspirators through one
or the other medium. However, the cure had for ten years acted as
physician and surgeon for the poor of his parish, and he possessed an
almost complete set of surgical instruments, and a well-filled medicine
chest. Accordingly at nightfall he put on a long blue blouse, concealed
his features under a large slouch hat, and wended his way towards
Sairmeuse. There was not a single light in the parsonage; Bibiane, the
old housekeeper, having gone out to gossip with some of the neighbours.
The priest effected an entrance into the house, by forcing the lock of
the garden door; he speedily found the things he wanted and was able to
retire without having been perceived. That night the abbe hazarded a
cruel but indispensable operation. His heart trembled, but although he
had never before attempted so difficult a task, the hand that held the
knife was firm. “It is not upon my weak powers that I rely,” he
murmured, “I have placed my trust in One who is on High.”

His faith was rewarded. Three days later the wounded man, after a
comfortable night, seemed to regain consciousness. His first glance was
for his devoted wife, who was sitting by the bedside; his first word was
for his son. “Maurice?” he asked.

“Is in safety,” replied the abbe. “He must be on the road to Turin.”

M. d’Escorval’s lips moved as if he were murmuring a prayer; then, in a
feeble voice: “We owe you a debt of gratitude which we can never pay,”
he murmured, “for I think I shall pull through.”

He did “pull through,” but not without terrible suffering, and not
without severe relapses that made those around him tremble with anxiety.
Jean Lacheneur was more fortunate, for he was on his legs by the end of
the week.

On the evening of the seventeenth of April the abbe was seated in the
loft reading a newspaper to the baron when suddenly the door was quietly
opened, and one of the Poignot boys looked into the room. He did not
speak, however, but merely gave the cure a glance, and then quickly
withdrew.

The priest finished the paragraph he was perusing, laid down the paper,
and went out on to the landing. “What’s the matter?” he inquired.

“Ah!” answered the young fellow, “M. Maurice, Mademoiselle Lacheneur,
and the old corporal have just arrived; they want to come upstairs.”

Three bounds and the abbe reached the ground floor. “You imprudent
children!” he exclaimed, addressing the three travellers, “what has
induced you to return here?” Then turning to Maurice: “Isn’t it enough
that your father has nearly died for you and through you? Are you so
anxious for his recapture, that you return here to set our enemies on
his track? Be off at once!”

Utterly abashed, it was as much as Maurice could do to falter his
excuses; uncertainty, he said, had seemed worse to him than death; he
had heard of M. Lacheneur’s execution; he had started off at once
without reflection and only asked to see his father and embrace his
mother before leaving again.

The priest was inflexible. “The slightest emotion might kill your
father,” he declared; “and I should cause your mother the greatest
anxiety if I told her of your return, and the dangers to which you have
foolishly exposed yourself. Come, go at once, and cross the frontier
again this very night.”

The scene had been witnessed by Jean Lacheneur, who now approached. “The
time has come for me to take _my_ leave,” said he, “I shall go with
Maurice. But I scarcely think that the highway’s the right place for my
sister. You would cap all your kindness, Monsieur le Cure, if you would
only persuade Father Poignot to let her remain here, and if you would
watch over her yourself.”

The abbe deliberated for a moment, and then hurriedly replied: “So be
it; but go at once; your name is not on the proscribed list. You will
not be pursued.”

Suddenly separated from his wife in this fashion, Maurice wished to
confer with her, to give her some parting advice; but the abbe did not
allow him an opportunity to do so. “Go, go at once,” he insisted.
“Farewell!”

The priest’s intentions were excellent, no doubt, but in point of fact
he was too hasty. At the very moment when Maurice stood sorely in need
of wise and temperate counsel he was handed over to Jean Lacheneur’s
pernicious influence. Scarcely were they outside the house, than the
latter remarked: “We have to thank the Sairmeuses and the Marquis de
Courtornieu for all this. I don’t even know where they have thrown my
father’s corpse. I, his son, was even debarred from embracing him before
he was traitorously murdered.” He spoke in a harsh, bitter voice,
laughing the while in a strange discordant fashion. “And yet,” he
continued, “if we climbed that hill we should be able to see the Chateau
de Sairmeuse brightly illuminated. They are celebrating the marriage of
Martial de Sairmeuse and Blanche de Courtornieu. We are friendless
outcasts, succourless and shelterless, but they are feasting and making
merry.”

Less than this would have sufficed to rekindle Maurice’s wrath. Yes,
these Sairmeuses and these Courtornieus had killed the elder Lacheneur,
and they had betrayed the Baron d’Escorval, and delivered him up--a
mangled corpse--to his suffering relatives. It would be a rightful
vengeance to disturb their merrymaking now, and in the midst of hundreds
of assembled guests denounce their cruelty and perfidy. “I will start at
once,” exclaimed Maurice, “I will challenge Martial in the presence of
the revellers.”

But Jean interrupted him. “No, don’t do that! The cowards would arrest
you. Write to the young marquis, and I will take your letter.”

Corporal Bavois, who heard the conversation, did not make the slightest
attempt to oppose this foolish enterprise. Indeed, he thought the
undertaking quite natural, under the circumstances, and esteemed his
young friends all the more for their rashness. They all three entered
the first wine shop they came across, and Maurice wrote the challenge
which was confided to Jean Lacheneur.

The only object which Jean had in view was to disturb the bridal ball at
the Chateau de Sairmeuse. He merely hoped to provoke a scandal which
would disgrace Martial and his relatives in the eyes of all their
friends; for he did not for one moment imagine that the young marquis
would accept Maurice’s challenge. While waiting for Martial in the hall
of the chateau, he sought to compose a fitting attitude, striving to
steel himself against the sneering scorn with which he expected the
young nobleman would receive him. Martial’s kindly greeting was so
unlooked for that Jean was at first quite disconcerted, and he did not
recover his assurance until he perceived how cruelly Maurice’s insulting
letter made the marquis suffer. When the latter seized him by the arm
and led him upstairs, he offered no resistance; and as they crossed the
brightly-lighted drawing-rooms and passed through the throng of
astonished guests, his surprise was so intense that he forgot both his
heavy shoes and peasant’s blouse. Breathless with anxiety, he wondered
what was coming. Then standing on the threshold of the little saloon
leading out of the grand hall he heard Martial read Maurice d’Escorval’s
letter aloud, and finally saw him frantic with passion, throw the
missive in his father-in-law’s face. It might have been supposed that
these incidents did not in the least affect Jean Lacheneur, who stood by
cold and unmoved, with compressed lips and downcast eyes. However,
appearances were deceitful, for in reality his heart throbbed with
exultation; and if he lowered his eyes, it was only to conceal the joy
that sparkled in them. He had not hoped for so prompt and so terrible a
revenge.

Nor was this all. After brutally pushing Blanche, his newly-wedded wife,
aside when she attempted to detain him, Martial again seized Jean
Lacheneur’s arm. “Now,” said he, “follow me!”

Jean still obeyed him without uttering a word. They again crossed the
grand hall, and on passing out into an ante-room, Martial took a candle
burning on a side table, and opened a little door leading to a private
staircase. “Where are you taking me?” inquired Jean.

Martial, in his haste, was already a third of the way up the flight.
“Are you afraid?” he asked, turning round.

The other shrugged his shoulders. “If you put it in that way, let us go
on,” he coldly replied.

They entered the room which Martial had occupied since taking possession
of the chateau. It was the same room that had once belonged to Jean
Lacheneur; and nothing in it had been changed. The whilom steward’s son
recognized the brightly-flowered curtains, the figures on the carpet,
and even an old arm-chair ensconced wherein he had read many a novel in
secret. Martial hastened to a small writing-desk, and drew therefrom a
folded paper which he slipped into his pocket. “Now,” said he, “let us
be off. We must avoid another scene. My father and my wife will be
looking for me. I will explain everything when we are outside.”

They hastily descended the staircase, passed through the gardens, and
soon reached the long avenue. Then Jean Lacheneur suddenly paused.
“After all,” said he, “it was scarcely necessary for me to wait so long
for a simple yes or no. Have you decided? What answer am I to give
Maurice d’Escorval?”

“None at all! You will take me to him. I must see him and speak with him
in order to justify myself. Let us proceed!”

But Jean did not move. “What you ask is impossible!” he replied.

“Why so?”

“Because Maurice is pursued. If he is captured, he will be tried and
undoubtedly condemned to death. He is now in a safe retreat, and I have
no right to disclose it.” In point of fact, Maurice’s safe retreat, for
the time being, was only a neighbouring wood, where, in the corporal’s
company, he was waiting for Jean’s return. But the latter could not
resist the temptation to make this insinuating remark, which by reason
of its covert character, was far more insulting than if he had simply
said: “We fear informers!”

Strange as it may appear, and proud and violent as was Martial’s nature,
he did not resent the insult. “So you distrust me!” he merely said. Jean
Lacheneur was silent--another insult. “And yet,” insisted Martial,
“after what you’ve just seen and heard you can’t possibly suspect me of
having cut the ropes I carried to the baron.”

“No! I’m convinced that _you_ didn’t do it.”

“You saw how I punished the man who had dared to compromise my honour.
And this man is the father of the girl I married to-day.”

“Oh, I saw and heard everything, but as for taking you to Maurice, I
must still reply: ‘Impossible.’”

No doubt the younger Lacheneur’s severity was unjust; however, Martial
did not rebel against it. He merely drew from his pocket the paper which
he had taken from his desk a few minutes previously, and handed it to
Jean. “You doubt my word,” he said grimly. “I shall not forget to punish
those whose fault it is. However, here is a proof of my sincerity which
I expect you to give to Maurice, and which must convince even you.”

“What proof is it?”

“Why, the very letter in exchange for which we facilitated the baron’s
escape. A presentiment I can’t explain prevented me from burning it, and
now I’m very glad I didn’t. Take it, and do what you choose with it.”

Any one but Jean Lacheneur would have appreciated the young marquis’s
candour, and have been touched by the confidence he displayed. But
Jean’s hatred was implacable, and the more humble his enemy showed
himself, the more determined he was to carry out the project of
vengeance maturing in his brain. His only reply to Martial’s last remark
was a promise to give the letter to Maurice.

“It should be a bond of alliance, it seems to me,” said Martial, gently.

“A bond of alliance!” rejoined Jean with a threatening gesture. “You are
too fast, Monsieur le Marquis! Have you forgotten all the blood that
flows between us? You didn’t cut the ropes; but who condemned the Baron
d’Escorval to death? Wasn’t it your father, the Duke de Sairmeuse? An
alliance! why, you must have forgotten that you and yours sent my father
to the scaffold! How have you rewarded the man whose honesty gave you
back a fortune? By murdering him and ruining his daughter’s reputation.”

“I offered my name and fortune to your sister.”

“I would have killed her with my own hand had she accepted your offer.
Take that as a proof that I don’t forget; and if any great disgrace ever
tarnishes the proud name of Sairmeuse, think of Jean Lacheneur. My hand
will be in it.” He was so frantic with passion that he forgot his usual
caution. However, after a great effort he re covered his
self-possession, and added in calmer tones “If you are so desirous of
seeing Maurice, be at La Reche to-morrow at noon. He will be there.”
With these words he turned abruptly aside, sprang over the fence
skirting the avenue, and vanished into the darkness.

“Jean,” cried Martial, in almost supplicating tones; “Jean, come
back--listen to me!” There was no reply. The young marquis stood
bewildered in the middle of the road; and little short of a miracle
prevented his being run over by a horseman galloping in the direction of
Montaignac. The latter’s shouts to get out of the way awakened him from
his dream, and as the cold night breeze fanned his forehead he was able
to collect his thoughts and judge his conduct. Ah, there was no denying
it. He, the professed sceptic, a man who, despite his youth, boasted of
his indifference and insensibility, had forgotten all self-control. He
had acted generously, no doubt, but after all he had created a terrible
scandal, all to no purpose. When Blanche, his wife, had accused
Marie-Anne of being the cause of his frenzy, she had not been entirely
wrong. For though Martial might regard all other opinions with disdain,
the thought that Marie-Anne despised him, and considered him a traitor
and a coward, had, in truth, made him perfectly frantic. It was for her
sake, that on the impulse of the moment he had resorted to such a
startling justification. And if he had begged Jean to lead him to
Maurice d’Escorval, it was because he hoped to find Marie-Anne not far
off, and to say to her, “Appearances were against me, but I am innocent;
and have proved it by unmasking the real culprit.” It was to Marie-Anne
that he wished Chanlouineau’s circular to be given, thinking that she,
at least, would be surprised at his generosity. And yet all his
expectations had been disappointed. “It will be the devil to arrange!”
he thought; “but nonsense! it will be forgotten in a month. The best way
is to face those gossips at once: I will return immediately.” He said:
“I will return,” in the most deliberate manner; but his courage grew
weaker at each successive step he took in the direction of the chateau.
The guests must have already left, and Martial concluded that he would
probably find himself alone with his young wife, his father and the
Marquis de Courtornieu, whose reproaches, tears, and threats he would be
obliged to encounter. “No,” muttered he. “After all, let them have a
night to calm themselves. I will not appear until to-morrow.”

But where should he sleep? He was in evening dress and bare-headed, and
the night was chilly. On reflection he recollected his father’s house at
Montaignac. “I shall find a bed there,” he thought, “servants, a fire,
and a change of clothing--and to-morrow, a horse to come back again.”
The walk was a long one, no doubt; however, in his present mood, this
circumstance did not displease him. The servant who came to open the
door when he knocked, was at first speechless with astonishment. “You,
Monsieur le Marquis!” he exclaimed at last.

“Yes, it’s I. Light a good fire in the drawing-room, and bring me a
change of clothes.” The valet obeyed, and soon Martial found himself
alone, stretched on a sofa in front of the blazing logs. “It would be a
good thing to sleep and forget my troubles,” he thought; and accordingly
he tried to do so, but it was almost dawn when at last he fell into a
feverish slumber.

He woke up again at nine o’clock, gave the necessary instructions for
breakfast, and was eating with a good appetite, when suddenly he
remembered his rendezvous with Maurice. He ordered a horse and set out
at once, reaching La Reche at half-past eleven o’clock. The others had
not yet arrived; so he fastened his horse by the bridle to a tree near
by, and leisurely climbed to the summit of the hill. It was here that
Lacheneur’s cottage had formerly stood, and the four walls still
remained standing, blackened by fire. Martial was gazing at the ruins,
not without a feeling of emotion, when he heard the branches crackle in
the adjacent cover. He turned, and perceived that Maurice, Jean, and
Corporal Bavois were approaching. The old soldier carried under his arm,
in a piece of green serge, a couple of swords which Jean Lacheneur had
borrowed from a retired officer at Montaignac during the night. “We are
sorry to have kept you waiting,” began Maurice, “but you will observe
that it is not yet noon. Since we scarcely expected to see you----”

“I was too anxious to justify myself not to be here early,” interrupted
Martial.

Maurice shrugged his shoulders disdainfully. “This is not a question of
self-justification, but one of fighting,” he abruptly replied.

Insulting as were the words and the gesture that accompanied them,
Martial never so much as winced. “Grief has made you unjust,” said he,
gently, “or M. Lacheneur has not told you everything.”

“Yes, Jean has told me everything.”

“Well, then?”

Martial’s coolness drove Maurice frantic. “Well,” he replied, with
extreme violence, “my hatred is unabated even if my scorn is diminished.
I have waited for this occasion ever since the day we met on the square
at Sairmeuse in Mademoiselle Lacheneur’s presence. You said to me then,
‘We shall meet again.’ And now here we stand face to face. What insults
must I heap upon you to decide you to fight?”

With a threatening gesture Martial seized one of the swords which Bavois
offered him, and assumed an attitude of defence. “You will have it so,”
said he in a husky voice. “The thought of Marie-Anne can no longer save
you.”

But the blades had scarcely crossed before a cry from Jean arrested the
combat. “The soldiers!” he exclaimed; “we are betrayed.” A dozen
gendarmes were indeed approaching at full speed.

“Ah! I spoke the truth!” exclaimed Maurice. “The coward came, but the
guards accompanied him.” He bounded back, and breaking his sword over
his knee, hurled the fragments in Martial’s face. “Here, miserable
wretch!” he cried.

“Wretch!” repeated Jean and Corporal Bavois, “traitor! coward!” And then
they fled, leaving Martial literally thunderstruck.

He struggled hard to regain his composure. The soldiers were swiftly
approaching; he ran to meet them, and addressing the officer in command,
imperiously enquired, “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes,” replied the brigadier, respectfully, “you are the Duke de
Sairmeuse’s son.”

“Very well! I forbid you to follow those men.”

The brigadier hesitated at first; then, in a decided tone he replied: “I
can’t obey you, sir. I have my orders.” And turning to his men, he
added, “Forward!”

He was about to set the example, when Martial seized him by the arm: “At
least you will not refuse to tell me who sent you here?”

“Who sent us? The colonel, of course, in obedience to orders from the
grand provost, M. d’Courtornieu. He sent the order last night. We have
been hidden near here ever since daybreak. But thunder! let go your
hold, I must be off.”

He galloped away, and Martial, staggering like a drunken man, descended
the slope, and remounted his horse. But instead of repairing to the
Chateau of Sairmeuse, he returned to Montaignac, and passed the
remainder of the afternoon in the solitude of his own room. That evening
he sent two letters to Sairmeuse--one to his father, and the other to
his wife.



XXVII.


Martial certainly imagined that he had created a terrible scandal on the
evening of his marriage; but he had no conception of the reality. Had a
thunderbolt burst in these gilded halls, the guests at Sairmeuse could
not have been more amazed and horrified than they were by the scene
presented to their view. The whole assembly shuddered when Martial, in
his wrath, flung the crumpled letter full in the Marquis de
Courtornieu’s face. And when the latter sank back into an arm-chair,
several young ladies of extreme sensibility actually fainted away. The
young marquis had departed, taking Jean Lacheneur with him, and yet the
guests stood as motionless as statues, pale, mute, and stupefied. It was
Blanche who broke the spell. While the Marquis de Courtornieu was
panting for breath--while the Duke de Sairmeuse stood trembling and
speechless with suppressed anger--the young marchioness made an heroic
attempt to save the situation. With her hand still aching from Martial’s
brutal clasp, her heart swelling with rage and hatred, and her face
whiter than her bridal veil, she yet had sufficient strength to
restrain her tears and force her lips to smile. “Really this is placing
too much importance on a trifling misunderstanding which will be
explained to-morrow,” she said, almost gaily, to those nearest her. And
stepping into the middle of the hall she made a sign to the musicians to
play a country-dance.

But scarcely had the first note sounded, than, as if by unanimous
consent, the whole company hastened towards the door. It might have been
supposed that the chateau was on fire, for the guests did not withdraw,
they actually fled. An hour previously, the Marquis de Courtornieu and
the Duke de Sairmeuse had been overwhelmed with the most obsequious
homage and adulation. But now there was not one in all the assembly
daring enough to take them openly by the hand. Just when they both
believed themselves all-powerful they were rudely precipitated from
their lordly eminence. Indeed disgrace, and perhaps punishment, were to
be their portion. Heroic to the last, however, the abandoned bride
endeavoured to stay the tide of retreating guests. Standing near the
door, and with her most bewitching smile upon her lips, Blanche spared
neither flattering words nor entreaties in her efforts to retain the
deserters. The attempt was vain; and, in point of fact, many were not
sorry of this opportunity to repay the young Marchioness de Sairmeuse
for all her past disdain and criticism. Soon, of all the guests, there
only remained one old gentleman who, on account of his gout, had deemed
it prudent not to mingle with the crowd. He bowed as he passed before
Blanche, and could not even restrain a blush, for he rightly considered
that this swift flight was a cruel insult for the abandoned bride.
Still, what could he do alone? Under the circumstances, his presence
would prove irksome, and so he departed like the others.

Blanche was now alone, and there was no longer any necessity for
constraint. There were no more curious witnesses to enjoy her sufferings
and comment upon them. With a furious gesture she tore her bridal veil
and wreath of orange flowers from her head, and trampled them under
foot. “Extinguish the lights everywhere!” she cried to a servant passing
by, stamping her foot angrily, and speaking as imperiously as if she had
been in her father’s house, and not at Sairmeuse. The lacquey obeyed
her, and then, with flashing eyes and dishevelled hair, she hastened to
the little drawing-room at the end of the hall. Several servants stood
round the marquis, who was lying back in his chair with a swollen,
purple face, as if he had been stricken with apoplexy.

“All the blood in his body has flown to his head,” remarked the duke,
with a shrug of his shoulders. His grace was furious. He scarcely knew
whom he was most angry with--with Martial or the Marquis de Courtornieu.
The former, by his public confession, had certainly imperilled, if not
ruined, their political future. But, on the other hand, the Marquis de
Courtornieu had cast on the Sairmeuses the odium of an act of treason
revolting to any honourable heart. The duke was watching the clustering
servants with a contracted brow when his daughter-in-law entered the
room. She paused before him, and angrily exclaimed: “Why did you remain
here while I was left alone to endure such humiliation. Ah! if I had
been a man! All our guests have fled, monsieur--all of them!”

M. de Sairmeuse sprang up. “Ah, well! what if they have. Let them go to
the devil!” Among all the invited ones who had just left his house,
there was not one whom his grace really regretted--not one whom he
regarded as an equal. In giving a marriage feast for his son, he had
invited all the petty nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood. They had
come--very well! They had fled--_bon voyage_! If the duke cared at all
for their desertion, it was only because it presaged with terrible
eloquence the disgrace that was to come. Still he tried to deceive
himself. “They will come back again, madame,” said he; “you will see
them return, humble and repentant! But where can Martial be?”

Blanche’s eyes flashed, but she made no reply.

“Did he go away with the son of that rascal, Lacheneur?”

“I believe so.”

“It won’t be long before he returns----”

“Who can say?”

M. de Sairmeuse struck the mantlepiece with his clenched fist. “My God!”
he exclaimed, “this is an overwhelming misfortune.” The young wife
believed that he was anxious and angry on her account. But she was
mistaken: for his grace was only thinking of his disappointed ambition.
Whatever he might pretend, the duke secretly admitted his son’s
intellectual superiority and genius for intrigue, and he was now
extremely anxious to consult him. “He has wrought this evil,” he
murmured: “it is for him to repair it! And he is capable of doing so if
he chooses.” Then, aloud, he resumed: “Martial must be found--he must be
found----”

With an angry gesture Blanche interrupted him. “You must look for
Marie-Anne Lacheneur if you wish to find my husband,” said she.

The duke was of the same opinion, but he dared not admit it. “Anger
leads you astray, marchioness,” said he.

“I know what I say,” was the curt response.

“No, believe me, Martial will soon make his appearance. If he went away,
he will soon return. The servants shall go for him at once, or I will go
for him myself----”

The duke left the room with a muttered oath, and Blanche approached her
father, who still seemed to be unconscious. She seized his arm and shook
it roughly, peremptorily exclaiming, “Father, father!” This voice, which
had so often made the Marquis de Courtornieu tremble, proved more
efficacious than eau de Cologne. “I wish to speak with you,” added
Blanche: “do you hear me?”

The marquis dared not disobey; he slowly opened his eyes and raised
himself from his recumbent position. “Ah! how I suffer!” he groaned,
“how I suffer!”

His daughter glanced at him scornfully, and then in a tone of bitter
irony remarked: “Do you think that I’m in paradise?”

“Speak,” sighed the marquis. “What do you wish to say?”

The bride turned haughtily to the servants and imperiously ordered them
to leave the room. When they had done so and she had locked the door:
“Let us speak of Martial,” she began.

At the sound of his son-in-law’s name the marquis bounded from his chair
with clenched fists. “Ah, the wretch!” he exclaimed.

“Martial is my husband, father.”

“And you! after what he has done--you dare to defend him?”

“I don’t defend him; but I don’t wish him to be murdered.” At that
moment the news of Martial’s death would have given the Marquis de
Courtornieu infinite satisfaction. “You heard, father,” continued
Blanche, “that young D’Escorval appointed a meeting for to-morrow, at
mid-day, at La Reche. I know Martial; he has been insulted, and will go
there. Will he encounter a loyal adversary? No. He will find a band of
assassins. You alone can prevent him from being murdered.”

“I--and how?”

“By sending some soldiers to La Reche, with orders to conceal themselves
in the grove--with orders to arrest these murderers at the proper
moment.”

The marquis gravely shook his head. “If I do that,” said he, “Martial is
quite capable----”

“Of anything!--yes, I know it. But what does it matter to you, since I
am willing to assume the responsibility?”

M. de Courtornieu looked at his daughter inquisitively, and if she had
been less excited as she insisted on the necessity of sending
instructions to Montaignac at once, she would have discerned a gleam of
malice in his eye. The marquis was thinking that this would afford him
an ample revenge, since he could easily bring dishonour on Martial, who
had shown so little regard for the honour of others. “Very well; then,
since you will have it so, it shall be done,” he said, with feigned
reluctance.

His daughter hastily procured ink and pens, and then with trembling
hands he prepared a series of minute instructions for the commander at
Montaignac. Blanche herself gave the letter to a servant, with
directions to start at once; and it was not until she had seen him set
off at a gallop that she went to her own apartment, that luxurious
bridal chamber which Martial had so sumptuously adorned. But now its
splendour only aggravated the misery of the deserted wife, for that she
was deserted she did not for a moment doubt. She felt sure that her
husband would not return, and had no faith whatever in the promises of
the Duke de Sairmeuse, who at that moment was searching through the
neighbourhood with a party of servants. Where could the truant be? With
Marie-Anne most assuredly--and at the thought a wild desire to wreak
vengeance on her rival took possession of Blanche’s heart. She did not
sleep that night, she did not even undress, but when morning came she
exchanged her snowy bridal robe for a black dress, and wandered through
the grounds like a restless spirit. Most of the day, however, she spent
shut up in her room, refusing to allow either the duke or her father to
enter.

At about eight o’clock in the evening tidings came from Martial. A
servant brought two letters; one sent by the young marquis to his
father, and the other to his wife. For a moment Blanche hesitated to
open the one addressed to her. It would determine her destiny, and she
felt afraid. At last, however, she broke the seal and read:
“Madame--Between you and me all is ended; reconciliation is impossible.
From this moment you are free. I esteem you enough to hope that you will
respect the name of Sairmeuse, from which I cannot relieve you. You will
agree with me, I am sure, in thinking a quiet separation preferable to
the scandal of legal proceedings. My lawyer will pay you an allowance
befitting the wife of a man whose income amounts to five hundred
thousand francs. MARTIAL DE SAIRMEUSE.”

Blanche staggered beneath the terrible blow. She was indeed
deserted--and deserted, as she supposed, for another. “Ah!” she
exclaimed, “that creature! that creature! I will kill her!”

While Blanche was measuring the extent of her misfortune his grace the
Duke de Sairmeuse raved and swore. After a fruitless search for his son
he returned to the chateau, and began a continuous tramp to and fro in
the great hall. On the morrow he scarcely ate, and was well nigh sinking
from weariness when his son’s letter was handed him. It was very brief.
Martial did not vouchsafe any explanation; he did not even mention the
conjugal separation he had determined on, but merely wrote: “I cannot
return to Sairmeuse, and yet it is of the utmost importance that I
should see you. You will, I trust, approve the resolution I have taken
when I explain the reasons that have guided me in adopting it. Come to
Montaignac, then, the sooner the better. I am waiting for you.”

Had he listened to the prompting of his own impatience, his grace would
have started at once. But he could not abandon the Marquis de
Courtornieu and his son’s wife in this abrupt fashion. He must at least
see them, speak to them, and warn them of his intended departure. He
attempted to do this in vain. Blanche had shut herself up in her own
apartments, and remained deaf to all entreaties for admittance. Her
father had been put to bed, and the physician who had been summoned to
attend him, declared that the marquis was well nigh at death’s door. The
duke was therefore obliged to resign himself to the prospect of another
night of suspense, which was almost intolerable to such a nature as his.
“However,” thought he, “to-morrow, after breakfast, I will find some
pretext to escape, without telling them I am going to see Martial.”

He was spared this trouble, for on the following morning at about nine
o’clock, while he was dressing, a servant came to inform him that M. de
Courtornieu and his daughter were waiting to speak with him in the
drawing-room. Much surprised, he hastened downstairs. As he entered the
room, the marquis, who was seated in an arm-chair, rose to his feet
leaning for support on Aunt Medea’s shoulder; while Blanche, who was as
pale as if every drop of blood had been drawn from her veins--stepped
swiftly forward: “We are going, Monsieur le Duc,” she said, coldly, “and
we wish to bid you farewell.”

“What! you are going? Will you not----”

The young bride interrupted him with a mournful gesture, and drew
Martial’s letter from her bosom. “Will you do me the favour to peruse
this?” she said, handing the missive to his grace.

The duke glanced over the short epistle, and his astonishment was so
intense that he could not even find an oath. “Incomprehensible!” he
faltered; “incomprehensible!”

“Incomprehensible, indeed,” repeated the young wife sadly, but without
bitterness. “I was married yesterday; to-day I am deserted. It would
have been more generous to have reflected the evening before and not the
next day. Tell Martial, however, that I forgive him for having destroyed
my life, for having made me the most unhappy of women. I also forgive
him for the supreme insult of speaking to me of his fortune. I trust he
may be happy. Farewell, Monsieur le Duc, we shall never meet again.
Farewell!”

With these words she took her father’s arm, and they were about to
retire, when M. de Sairmeuse hastily threw himself between them and the
door. “You shall not go away like this!” he exclaimed. “I will not
suffer it. Wait at least until I have seen Martial. Perhaps he is not so
guilty as you suppose----”

“Enough!” interrupted the marquis; “enough! This is one of those
outrages which can never be repaired. May your conscience forgive you,
as I myself forgive you. Farewell!”

This was said with such a conventional air of benevolence, and with such
entire harmony of intonation and gesture that M. de Sairmeuse was
perfectly bewildered. With a dazed air he watched the marquis and his
daughter depart, and they had been gone some moments before he recovered
himself sufficiently to exclaim: “The old hypocrite! does he believe me
to be his dupe?” His dupe! M. de Sairmeuse was so far from being his
dupe, that his next thought was: “What’s going to follow this farce? If
he says he forgives us, that means that he has some crushing blow in
store for us.” This idea soon ripening into conviction made his grace
feel apprehensive, for he did not quite see how he would cope
successfully with the perfidious marquis. “But Martial is a match for
him!” he at last exclaimed. “Yes I must see Martial at once.”

So great was his anxiety that he lent a helping hand in harnessing the
horses he had ordered, and when the vehicle was ready, he announced his
determination to drive himself. As he urged the horses furiously onward,
he tried to reflect, but the most contradictory ideas were seething in
his brain and he lost all power of looking at the situation calmly. He
burst into Martial’s room like a bombshell. “I certainly think you must
have gone mad, marquis,” he exclaimed. “That is the only valid excuse
you can offer.”

But Martial, who had been expecting the visit, had fully prepared
himself for some such remark. “Never, on the contrary, have I felt more
calm and composed in mind,” he replied, “than I am now. Allow me to ask
you one question. Was it you who sent the gendarmes to the meeting which
Maurice d’Escorval appointed?”

“Marquis!”

“Very well! Then it was another act of infamy to be scored against the
Marquis de Courtornieu.”

The duke made no reply. In spite of all his faults and vices, this
haughty nobleman retained those characteristics of the old French
aristocracy--fidelity to his word and undoubted valour. He thought it
perfectly natural, even necessary, that Martial should fight with
Maurice; and he considered it a contemptible proceeding to send armed
soldiers to seize an honest and confiding opponent.

“This is the second time,” resumed Martial, “that this scoundrel has
tried to dishonour our name; and if I am to convince people of the truth
of this assertion, I must break off all connection with him and his
daughter. I have done so, and I don’t regret it, for I only married her
out of deference to your wishes, and because it seemed necessary for me
to marry, and because all women, excepting one, who can never be mine,
are alike to me.”

Such utterances were scarcely calculated to re-assure the duke. “This
sentiment is very noble, no doubt,” said he; “but it has none the less
ruined the political prospects of our house.”

An almost imperceptible smile curved Martial’s lips. “I believe, on the
contrary, I have saved them,” replied he. “It is useless for us to
attempt to deceive ourselves; this affair of the insurrection has been
abominable, and you ought to bless the opportunity this quarrel gives
you to free yourself from all responsibility in it. You must go to Paris
at once, and see the Duke de Richelieu--nay, the king himself, and with
a little address, you can throw all the odium on the Marquis de
Courtornieu, and retain for yourself only the prestige of the valuable
services you have rendered.”

The duke’s face brightened. “Zounds, marquis!” he exclaimed; “that is a
good idea! In the future I shall be infinitely less afraid of
Courtornieu.”

Martial remained thoughtful. “It is not the Marquis de Courtornieu that
I fear,” he murmured, “but his daughter--my wife.”



XXVIII.


In the country, news flies from mouth to mouth with inconceivable
rapidity, and, strange as it may seem, the scene at the Chateau de
Sairmeuse was known of at Father Poignot’s farm-house that same night.
After Maurice, Jean Lacheneur, and Bavois left the farm, promising to
recross the frontier as quickly as possible the Abbe Midon decided not
to acquaint M. d’Escorval either with his son’s return, or Marie-Anne’s
presence in the house. The baron’s condition was so critical that the
merest trifle might turn the scale. At about ten o’clock he fell asleep,
and the abbe and Madame d’Escorval then went downstairs to talk with
Marie-Anne. They were sitting together when Poignot’s eldest son came
home in a state of great excitement. He had gone out after supper with
some of his acquaintances to admire the splendours of the Sairmeuse
_fete_, and he now came rushing back to relate the strange events of the
evening to his father’s guests. “It is inconceivable!” murmured the abbe
when the lad had finished his narrative. The worthy ecclesiastic fully
understood that these strange events would probably render their
situation more perilous than ever. “I cannot understand,” added he, “how
Maurice could commit such an act of folly after what I had just said to
him. The baron has no worse enemy than his own son.”

In the course of the following day the inmates of the farm heard of the
meeting at La Reche; a peasant who had witnessed the preliminaries of
the duel from a distance being able to give them the fullest details. He
had seen the two adversaries take their places, and had then perceived
the soldiers hasten to the spot. After a brief parley with the young
Marquis de Sairmeuse, they had started off in pursuit of Maurice, Jean,
and Bavois, fortunately, however, without overtaking them; for this
peasant had met the same troopers again five hours later, when they were
harassed and furious; the officer in command declaring that their
failure was due to Martial, who had detained them. That same day,
moreover, Father Poignot informed the abbe that the Duke de Sairmeuse
and the Marquis de Courtornieu were at variance. Their quarrel was the
talk of the district. The marquis had returned home with his daughter,
and the duke had gone to Montaignac. The abbe’s anxiety on receiving
this intelligence was so intense that, strive as he might, he could not
conceal it from the Baron d’Escorval. “You have heard some bad news, my
friend,” said the latter.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing.”

“Some new danger threatens us.”

“None, none at all.”

But the priest’s protestations did not convince the wounded man. “Oh,
don’t deny it!” he exclaimed. “On the night before last, when you came
into my room after I woke up, you were paler than death, and my wife had
certainly been crying. What does all this mean?” As a rule, when the
cure did not wish to reply to his patient’s questions, it sufficed to
tell him that conversation and excitement would retard his recovery; but
this time the baron was not so docile. “It will be very easy for you to
restore my peace of mind,” he continued. “Confess now, you are afraid
they may discover my retreat. This fear is torturing me also. Very well,
swear to me that you will not let them take me alive, and then my mind
will be at rest.”

“I can’t take such an oath as that,” said the cure, turning pale.

“And why not?” insisted M. d’Escorval. “If I am recaptured, what will
happen? They will nurse me, and then, as soon as I can stand on my feet,
they will shoot me down again. Would it be a crime to save me from such
suffering? You are my best friend; swear you will render me this supreme
service. Would you have me curse you for saving my life?”

The abbe offered no verbal reply; but his eye, voluntarily or
involuntarily, turned with a peculiar expression to the medicine chest
standing upon the table near by. Did he wish to be understood as saying:
“I will do nothing myself, but you will find a poison there?”

At all events M. d’Escorval understood him so; and it was in a tone of
gratitude that he murmured: “Thanks!” He breathed more freely now that
he felt he was master of his life, and from that hour his condition, so
long desperate, began steadily to improve.

Day after day passed by, and yet the abbe’s gloomy apprehensions were
not realised. Instead of fomenting reprisals, the scandal at the Chateau
de Sairmeuse, and the imprudent temerity of which Maurice and Jean
Lacheneur had been guilty, seemed actually to have frightened the
authorities into increased indulgence; and it might have been reasonably
supposed that they quite had forgotten, and wished every one else to
forget, all about Lacheneur’s conspiracy, and the slaughter which had
followed it. The inmates of the farm soon learnt that Maurice and his
friend the corporal had succeeded in reaching Piedmont; though nothing
was heard of Jean Lacheneur, who had probably remained in France.
However, his safety was scarcely to be feared for, as he was not upon
the proscribed list. Later on it was rumoured that the Marquis de
Courtornieu was ill, and that Blanche his daughter did not leave his
bedside; and then just afterwards Father Poignot returning from an
excursion to Montaignac, reported that the Duke de Sairmeuse had lately
passed a week in Paris, and that he was now on his way home with one
more decoration--a convincing proof that he was still in the enjoyment
of royal favour. What was of more importance was, that his grace had
succeeded in obtaining an order for the release of all the conspirators
still detained in prison. It was impossible to doubt this news which the
Montaignac papers formally chronicled on the following day. The abbe
attributed this sudden and happy change of prospects to the quarrel
between the duke and the Marquis de Courtornieu, and such indeed was the
universal opinion in the neighbourhood. Even the retired officers
remarked: “The duke is decidedly better than he was supposed to be; if
he was so severe, it is only because he was influenced by his colleague
the odious provost marshal.”

Marie-Anne alone suspected the truth. A secret presentiment told her
that it was Martial de Sairmeuse who was working all these changes, by
utilizing his ascendancy over his father’s mind. “And it is for your
sake,” whispered an inward voice, “that Martial is working in this
fashion. He cares nothing for the obscure peasant prisoners, whose names
he does not even know! If he protects them, it is only that he may have
a right to protect you, and those whom you love!” With these thoughts in
her mind she could but feel her aversion for Martial diminish. Was not
his conduct truly noble? She had to confess it was, and yet the thought
of this ardent passion which she had inspired never once quickened the
throbbing of Marie-Anne’s heart. Alas! it seemed as if nothing were
capable of touching her heart now. She was but the ghost of her former
self. She would sit for whole days motionless in her chair, her eyes
fixed upon vacancy, her lips contracted as if by a spasm, while great
tears rolled silently down her cheeks. The Abbe Midon, who was very
anxious on her account, often tried to question her. “You are suffering
my child,” he said kindly one afternoon. “What is the matter?”

“Nothing, Monsieur le Cure. I am not ill.”

“Won’t you confide in me? Am I not your friend? What do you fear?”

She shook her head sadly and replied: “I have nothing to confide.” She
said this, and yet she was dying of sorrow and anguish. Faithful to the
promise she had made to Maurice, she had never spoken of her condition,
or of the marriage solemnized in the little church at Vigano. And she
saw with inexpressible terror the moment, when she could no longer keep
her secret, slowly approaching. Her agony was frightful; but what could
she do! Fly! but where could she go? And by going, would she not lose
all chance of hearing from Maurice, which was the only hope that
sustained her in this trying hour? Still she had almost determined on
flight when circumstances--providentially, it seemed to her--came to her
aid.

Money was needed at the farm. The fugitives were unable to obtain any
without betraying their whereabouts, and Father Poignot’s little store
was almost exhausted. The Abbe Midon was wondering what they could do,
when Marie-Anne told him of the will which Chanlouineau had made in her
favour, and of the money concealed under the hearth-stone in the room on
the first floor. “I might go to the Borderie one night,” she suggested,
“enter the house, which is unoccupied, obtain the money and bring it
here. I have a right to do so, haven’t I?”

“You might be seen,” replied the priest, “and who knows--perhaps
arrested. If you were questioned, what plausible explanation could you
give?”

“What shall I do, then?”

“Act openly; you yourself are not compromised. You must appear at
Sairmeuse to-morrow as if you had just returned from Piedmont; go at
once to the notary, take possession of your property, and install
yourself at the Borderie.”

Marie-Anne shuddered. “What, live in Chanlouineau’s house,” she
faltered. “Live there alone?”

“Heaven will protect you, my dear child. I can only see an advantage in
your living at the Borderie. It will be easy to communicate with you;
and with ordinary precautions there can be no danger. Before you start
we will decide on a meeting place, and two or three times a week you can
join Father Poignot there. And in the course of two or three months you
can be still more useful to us. When people have grown accustomed to
your living at the Borderie, we will take the baron there. Such an
arrangement would hasten his convalescence; for in the narrow loft,
where we are obliged to conceal him now, he is really suffering for want
of light and air.”

Accordingly it was decided that Father Poignot should accompany
Marie-Anne to the frontier that very night; and that she should take the
diligence running between Piedmont and Montaignac, _via_ Sairmeuse.
Before she started, the Abbe Midon gave her minute instructions as to
the story she should tell of her sojourn in foreign lands. The
peasantry, possibly even the authorities, would question her, and all
her answers must tend to prove that the Baron d’Escorval was concealed
near Turin.

The plan was carried out as projected; and at eight o’clock on the
following morning, the people of Sairmeuse were greatly astonished to
see Marie-Anne alight from the passing diligence. “M. Lacheneur’s
daughter has come back again!” they exclaimed. The words flew from lip
to lip with marvellous rapidity, and soon all the villagers stood at
their doors and windows watching the poor girl as she paid the driver,
and entered the local hostelry, followed by a lad carrying a small
trunk. Urban curiosity has some sense of shame, and seeks to hide itself
when prying into other people’s affairs, but country folks are openly
and outrageously inquisitive. Thus when Marie-Anne emerged from the inn,
she found quite a crowd of sightseers awaiting her with gaping mouths
and staring eyes. And fully a score of chattering gossips thought fit to
escort her to the notary’s door. This notary was a man of importance,
and he welcomed Marie-Anne with all the deference due to the heiress of
a house and farm worth from forty to fifty thousand francs. However,
being jealous of his renown for perspicuity, he gave her clearly to
understand that, as a man of experience, he fully divined that love
alone had influenced Chanlouineau in drawing up this last will and
testament. He was no doubt anxious to obtain some information concerning
the young farmer’s passion, and Marie-Anne’s composure and reticence
disappointed him immensely.

“You forget what brings me here,” she said; “you don’t tell me what I
have to do!”

The notary, thus interrupted, made no further attempts at divination.
“Plague on it!” he thought, “she is in a hurry to get possession of her
property--the avaricious creature!” Then he added aloud, “The business
can be finished at once, for the magistrate is at liberty to-day, and
can go with us to break the seals this afternoon.”

So, before evening, all the legal requirements complied with, and
Marie-Anne was formally installed at the Borderie. She was alone in
Chanlouineau’s house, and as the darkness gathered round her, a great
terror seized hold of her heart. She fancied that the doors were about
to open, that this man who had loved her so much would suddenly appear
before her, and that she should hear his voice again as she heard it for
the last time in his grim prison cell. She struggled hard against these
foolish fears, and at last lighting a lamp she ventured to wander
through this house--now her’s--but wherein everything spoke so forcibly
of its former owner. She slowly examined the different rooms on the
ground floor, noting the recent repairs and improvements, and at last
climbed the stairs to the room above which Chanlouineau had designed to
be the altar of his love. Strange as it may seem, it was really
luxuriously upholstered--far more so than Chanlouineau’s letter had led
her to suppose. The young farmer, who for years had breakfasted off a
crust and an onion, had lavished a small fortune on this apartment,
which he meant to be his idol’s sanctuary.

“How he loved me!” murmured Marie-Anne, moved by that emotion, the bare
thought of which had awakened Maurice’s jealousy. But she had neither
the time nor the right to yield to her feelings. At that very moment
Father Poignot was no doubt waiting for her at the appointed meeting
place. Accordingly, she swiftly raised the hearth-stone, and found the
money which Chanlouineau had mentioned. She handed the larger part of it
to Poignot, who in his turn gave it to the abbe on reaching home.

The days that followed were peaceful ones for Marie-Anne, and this
tranquillity, after so many trials, seemed to her almost happiness.
Faithful to the priest’s instructions, she lived alone; but, by
frequent visits to Sairmeuse, she accustomed people to her presence.
Yes, she would have been almost happy if she could only have had some
news of Maurice. What had become of him! Why did he give no sign of
life? She would have given anything in exchange for one word of love and
counsel from him. Soon the time approached when she would require a
confidant; and yet there was no one in whom she dared confide. In her
dire need she at last remembered the old physician at Vigano, who had
been one of the witnesses at her marriage. She had no time to reflect
whether he would be willing or not; but wrote to him immediately,
entrusting her letter to a youth in the neighbourhood. “The gentleman
says you may rely upon him,” said the lad on his return. And that very
evening Marie-Anne was roused by a rap at her door. It was the
kind-hearted old man, who had hastened to her relief. He remained at the
Borderie nearly a fortnight, and when he left one morning before
daybreak, he took away with him under his cloak an infant--a little
boy--whom he had sworn to cherish as his own child.



XXIX.


It had cost Blanche an almost superhuman effort to leave Sairmeuse
without treating the duke to a display of violence, such as would have
fairly astonished even that irascible nobleman. She was tortured with
inward rage at the very moment, when, with an assumption of melancholy
dignity, she murmured the words of forgiveness we have previously
recorded. But vanity, after all, was more powerful than resentment. She
thought of the gladiators who fall in the arena with a smile on their
lips, and resolved that no one should see her weep, that no one should
hear her threaten or complain. Indeed, on her return to the Chateau de
Courtornieu her behaviour was truly worthy of a stoic philosopher. Her
face was pale, but not a muscle of her features moved as the servants
glanced at her inquisitively. “I am to be called mademoiselle as
formerly,” she said imperiously. “Any of you forgetting this order will
be at once dismissed.”

One maid did forget the injunction that very day, addressing her young
mistress as “madame,” and the poor girl was instantly dismissed, in
spite of her tears and protestations. All the servants were indignant.
“Does she hope to make us forget that she’s married, and that her
husband has deserted her?” they queried.

Ah! that was what she wished to forget herself. She wished to annihilate
all recollection of the day that had seen her successively maiden, wife,
and widow. For was she not really a widow? A widow, not by her husband’s
death, it is true; but, thanks to the machinations of an odious rival,
an infamous, perfidious creature, lost to all sense of shame. And yet,
though she had been disdained, abandoned, and repulsed, she was no
longer free. She belonged to this man whose name she bore like a badge
of servitude--to this man who hated her, who had fled from her. She was
not yet twenty; still her youth, her hopes, her dreams were ended.
Society condemned her to seclusion, while Martial was free to rove
wheresoever he listed. It was now that she realised the disadvantages of
isolation. She had not been without friends in her school-girl days; but
after leaving the convent she had estranged them by her haughtiness, on
finding them not as high in rank, or as wealthy as herself. So she was
now reduced to the irritating consolations of Aunt Medea, a very worthy
person, no doubt, but whose tears flowed as freely for the loss of a cat
as for the death of a relative. However, Blanche firmly persevered in
her determination to conceal her grief and despair in the deepest
recesses of her heart. She drove about the country, wore her prettiest
dresses, and forced herself to assume a gay and indifferent air. But on
going to church at Sairmeuse on the following Sunday, she realised the
futility of her efforts. Her fellow worshippers did not look at her
haughtily, or even inquisitively, but they turned aside to smile, and
she overheard remarks concerning “the maiden widow,” which pierced her
very soul. So she was an object of mockery and ridicule. “Oh! I will
have my revenge!” she muttered to herself.

She had indeed already thought of vengeance; and had found her father
quite willing to assist her. For the first time the father and the
daughter shared the same views. “The Duke de Sairmeuse shall learn what
it costs to favour a prisoner’s escape, and to insult a man like me,”
said the Marquis bitterly. “Fortune, favour, position--he shall lose
everything, and I will not rest content till I see him ruined and
dishonoured at my feet. And mind me, that day shall surely come!”

Unfortunately, however, for M. de Courtornieu’s projects, he was
extremely ill for three days after the scene at Sairmeuse; and then he
wasted three days more in composing a report, which was intended to
crush his former ally. This delay ruined him, for it gave Martial time
to perfect his plans, and to despatch the Duke de Sairmeuse to Paris
with full instructions. And what did the duke say to the king, who gave
him such a gracious reception? He undoubtedly pronounced the first
reports to be false, reduced the rising at Montaignac to its proper
proportions, represented Lacheneur as a fool, and his followers as
inoffensive idiots. It was said, moreover, that he led his majesty to
suppose that the Marquis de Courtornieu might have provoked the outbreak
by undue severity. He had served under Napoleon, and had possibly
thought it necessary to make a display of his zeal, so that his past
apostacy might be forgotten. As far as the duke himself was concerned,
he deeply deplored the mistakes into which he had been led by his
ambitious colleague, on whom he cast most of the responsibility of so
much bloodshed. To be brief, the result of the duke’s journey was, that
when the Marquis de Courtornieu’s report reached Paris, it was answered
by a decree depriving him of his office as provost-marshal of the
province.

This unexpected blow quite crushed the old intriguer. What! he had been
duped in this fashion, he so shrewd, so adroit, so subtle minded and
quick witted; he who had successfully battled with so many storms; who,
unlike most of his fellow patricians, had been enriched, not
impoverished, by the Revolution, and who had served with the same
obsequious countenance each master who was willing to accept his
services. “It must be that old imbecile, the Duke de Sairmeuse, who has
manœuvred so skilfully,” he groaned. “But who advised him? I can’t
imagine who it could have been.”

Who it was Blanche knew only too well. Like Marie-Anne, she recognized
Martial’s hand in all this business. “Ah! I was not deceived in him,”
she thought; “he is the great diplomatist I believed him to be. To think
that at his age he has outwitted my father, an old politician of such
experience and acknowledged skill! And he does all this to please
Marie-Anne,” she continued, frantic with rage. “It is the first step
towards obtaining pardon for that vile creature’s friends. She has
unbounded influence over him, and so long as she lives there is no hope
for me. But, patience, my time will come.”

She had not yet decided what form the revenge she contemplated should
take; but she already had her eye on a man whom she believed would be
willing to do anything for money. And, strange as it may seem, this man
was none other than our old acquaintance, Father Chupin. Burdened with
remorse, despised and jeered at; stoned whenever he ventured in the
streets, and horror-stricken whenever he thought of Balstain’s vow,
Chupin had left Montaignac, and sought an asylum at the Chateau de
Sairmeuse. In his ignorance, he fancied that the great nobleman who had
incited him to discover Lacheneur owed him, over and above the promised
reward, all needful aid and protection. But the duke’s servants shunned
the so-called traitor. He was not even allowed a seat at the kitchen
table, nor a straw pallet in the stables. The cook threw him a bone, as
he would have thrown it to a dog; and he slept just where he could.
However, he bore all these hardships uncomplainingly, deeming himself
fortunate in being able to purchase comparative safety, even at such a
price. But when the duke returned from Paris with a policy of
forgetfulness and conciliation in his pocket, his grace could no longer
tolerate in his establishment the presence of a man who was the object
of universal execration. He accordingly gave instructions for Chupin to
be dismissed. The latter resisted, however, swearing that he would not
leave Sairmeuse unless he were forcibly expelled, or unless he received
the order from the lips of the duke himself. This obstinate resistance
was reported to the duke, and made him hesitate; but a word from Martial
concerning the necessities of the situation eventually decided him. He
sent for Chupin and told him that he must not visit Sairmeuse again
under any pretext whatever, softening the harshness of expulsion,
however, by the offer of a small sum of money. But Chupin, sullenly
refusing the proffered coins, gathered his belongings together, and
departed, shaking his clenched fist at the chateau, and vowing vengeance
on the Sairmeuse family. He then went to his old home, where his wife
and his two boys still lived. He seldom left this filthy den, and then
only to satisfy his poaching proclivities. On these occasions, instead
of stealthily firing at a squirrel or a partridge from some safe post of
concealment, as he had done in former times, he walked boldly into the
Sairmeuse or the Courtornieu forests, shot his game, and brought it home
openly, displaying it in an almost defiant manner. He spent the rest of
his time in a state of semi-intoxication, for he drank constantly, and
more and more immoderately. When he had taken more than usual, his wife
and his sons usually attempted to obtain money from him, and if
persuasion failed they often resorted to blows. For he had never so much
as shown them the blood-money paid to him for betraying Lacheneur; and
though he had squandered a small sum at Montaignac, no one knew what he
had done with the great bulk of the 20,000 francs in gold paid to him by
the Duke de Sairmeuse. His sons believed he had buried it somewhere; but
they tried in vain to wrest his secret from him. All the people in the
neighbourhood were aware of this state of affairs, and one day when the
head gardener at Courtornieu was telling the story to two of his
assistants, Blanche, seated on a bench near by, chanced to overhear him.

“Ah, he’s an old scoundrel!” said the gardener indignantly. “And he
ought to be at the galleys, instead of at large among respectable
people.”

At that same moment the voice of hatred was whispering to Blanche,
“That’s the man to serve your purpose.” But how an opportunity was to be
found to confer with him? she wondered, being too prudent to think of
hazarding a visit to his house. However, she remembered that he
occasionally went shooting in the Courtornieu woods, and that it might
be possible for her to meet him there. “It will only require,” thought
she, “a little perseverance and a few long walks.” But, in point of
fact, it cost poor Aunt Medea, the inevitable chaperone, two long weeks
of almost constant perambulation. “Another freak!” groaned the
impoverished relative, overcome with fatigue; “my niece is certainly
crazy!”

However, at last, one lovely afternoon in May, Blanche came across the
object of her quest. She chanced to be standing in a sequestered nook
nigh the mere, situated in the depths of the forest of Courtornieu, when
she perceived Chupin, tramping sullenly along with his gun in his hand,
and glancing suspiciously on either side. Not that he feared either
game-keeper or judicial proceedings, but go wherever he would, still and
ever he fancied he could see Balstain the Piedmontese innkeeper, walking
in his shadow and brandishing the terrible knife, which, by St.
Jean-de-Coche, he had consecrated to his vengeance. Seeing Blanche in
turn, the old rascal would have fled into the cover, but before he could
do so she had called to him: “Eh, Father Chupin!”

He hesitated for a moment, then paused, dropped his gun, and waited.

Aunt Medea was pale with fright. “Blessed Jesus!” she murmured, pressing
her niece’s arm; “what are you calling that terrible man for?”

“I want to speak to him.”

“What Blanche, do you dare----”

“I must!”

“No, I can’t allow it. I must not----”

“There, that’s enough!” said Blanche, with one of those imperious
glances that deprive a dependent of all strength and courage; “quite
enough.” Then, in gentler tones: “I _must_ talk with this man,” she
added. “And you, Aunt Medea, must remain some little distance off. Keep
a close watch on every side, and if you see any one approaching, call me
at once.”

Aunt Medea, submissive as was her wont, immediately obeyed; and Blanche
walked straight towards the old poacher. “Well, my good Father Chupin,
and what sort of sport have you had to-day?” she began, directly she was
a few steps from him.

“What do you want with me?” growled Chupin; “for you do want something,
or you wouldn’t trouble yourself about a man like me.”

The old ruffian’s manner was so surly and aggressive that Blanche needed
all her strength of mind to carry out her purpose. “Yes, it is true that
I have a favour to ask you,” she replied, in a resolute tone.

“Ah, ha! I supposed so.”

“A mere trifle which will cost you no trouble, and for which you shall
be well paid.” She said this so carelessly that an ordinary person would
have supposed she was really asking for some unimportant service; but
cleverly as she played her part, Chupin was not deceived.

“No one asks trifling services of a man like me,” he said coarsely.
“Since I served the good cause, at the peril of my life, people seem to
suppose they’ve a right to come to me with money in their hands whenever
they want any dirty work done. It’s true that I was well paid for that
other job; but I would like to melt all the gold and pour it down the
throats of those who gave it to me. Ah! I know now what it costs the
poor to listen to the words of the great! Go your way; and if you have
any wickedness in your head, do it yourself!”

He shouldered his gun and was moving off, when Blanche coldly observed:
“It was because I knew of your wrongs that I stopped you; I thought you
would be glad to serve me, because I hate the Sairmeuses like you do.”

These words excited the old poacher’s interest, and he paused. “I know
very well that you hate the Sairmeuses now--but--”

“But what?”

“Why, in less than a month you will be reconciled. And then that old
wretch, Chupin--”

“We shall never be reconciled.”

“Hum!” growled the wily rascal, after deliberating awhile. “And if I did
assist you, what compensation will you give me?”

“I will give you whatever you wish for--money, land, a house--”

“Many thanks. I want something quite different.”

“What do you want then? Tell me.”

Chupin reflected for a moment, and then replied: “This is what I want. I
have a good many enemies, and I don’t even feel safe in my own house. My
sons abuse me when I’ve been drinking, and my wife is quite capable of
poisoning my wine. I tremble for my life and for my money. I can’t
endure such an existence much longer. Promise me an asylum at the
Chateau de Courtornieu and I’m yours. I shall be safe in your house. But
let it be understood I won’t be ill-treated by the servants like I was
at Sairmeuse.”

“Oh, I can promise you all that.”

“Swear it then by your hope of heaven.”

“I swear it.”

There was such evident sincerity in her accent that Chupin felt
re-assured. He leant towards her, and in a low voice, remarked: “Now
tell me your business.” His small grey eyes glittered in a threatening
fashion; his thin lips were drawn tightly over his sharp teeth; he
evidently expected some proposition of murder, and was ready to
accomplish it.

His attitude evinced his feelings so plainly that Blanche shuddered.
“Really, what I want of you is almost nothing,” she replied. “I only
want you to watch the Marquis de Sairmeuse.”

“Your husband?”

“Yes; my husband. I want to know what he does, where he goes, and what
persons he sees, I want to know how he spends all his time.”

“What! now is that really all you want me to do?” asked Chupin eagerly.

“For the present, yes. My plans are not yet decided; but circumstances
will guide me.”

“You can rely upon me,” replied Chupin at once; “but I must have a
little time.”

“Yes, I understand that. To-day is Saturday; can you give me a first
report on Thursday?”

“In five days? Yes, probably.”

“In that case, meet me here on Thursday, at the same hour.”

The conversation might have continued a few moments longer, but at this
very moment Aunt Medea was heard exclaiming. “Some one is coming!”

“Quick! we must not be seen together. Conceal yourself,” ejaculated
Blanche, and while the old poacher disappeared with one bound into the
forest, she hastily rejoined her chaperone. A few paces off she could
perceive one of her father’s servants approaching.

“Ah! mademoiselle,” exclaimed the lacquey, “we have been looking for you
everywhere during the last three hours. Your father M. le Marquis--good
heavens! what a misfortune! A physician has been sent for.”

“Whatever has happened? Is my father dead?”

“No, mademoiselle, no; but--how can I tell you. When the marquis went
out this morning his actions were very strange, and--and--when he
returned--” As he spoke the servant tapped his forehead with his
forefinger. “You understand me, mademoiselle--when he came home his
reason seemed to--to have left him!”

Without waiting for the servant to finish, or for her terrified aunt to
follow her, Blanche darted off in the direction of the chateau. “How is
the marquis?” she inquired of the first servant she met.

“He is in bed, and is quieter than he was,” answered the maid.

But Blanche had already reached her father’s room. He was sitting up in
bed, under the supervision of his valet and a footman. His face was
livid, and a white foam had gathered on his lips. Still, he recognized
his daughter. “Here you are,” said he. “I was waiting for you.”

She paused on the threshold, and though she was neither tender-hearted
nor impressionable, the sight seemed to appal her: “My father!” she
faltered. “Good heavens! what has happened?”

“Ah, ha!” exclaimed the marquis, with a discordant laugh. “I met him!
what, you doubt me? I tell you that I saw the wretch. I know him well;
haven’t I seen his cursed face before my eyes for more than a month--for
it never leaves me. I saw him. It was in the forest near the Sanguille
rocks. You know the place; it is always dark there, on account of the
trees. I was slowly walking home thinking of him, when suddenly he
sprang up before me, holding out his arms as if to bar my passage.
‘Come,’ said he, ‘you must join me.’ He was armed with a gun; he
fired--”

The marquis paused, and Blanche summoned up sufficient courage to
approach him. For more than a minute she looked at him attentively, with
a cold magnetic glance, such as often exercises great influence over
those who have lost their reason, then shaking him roughly by the arm,
she exclaimed: “Control yourself, father. You are the victim of an
hallucination. It is impossible that you can have seen the man you speak
of.”

Blanche knew only too well who was the man that M. de Courtornieu
alluded to; but she dared not, could not, utter his name.

However, the marquis had resumed his scarcely coherent narrative. “Was I
dreaming?” he continued. “No, it was Lacheneur, Lacheneur and none
other who stood in front of me. I am sure of it, and the proof is that
he reminded me of a circumstance which occurred in my youth, and which
was known only to him and me. It happened during the Reign of Terror. He
was all-powerful in Montaignac; and I was accused of being in
correspondence with the _emigres_. My property had been confiscated; and
I was every moment expecting to feel the executioner’s hand on my
shoulder, when Lacheneur took me to his house. He concealed me;
furnished me with a passport; saved my money, and saved my life as well;
and yet--and yet I sentenced him to death. That’s the reason why I’ve
seen him again. I must join him; he told me so--I’m a dying man!” With
these words the marquis fell back on his pillows, pulled the bed clothes
over his face, and lied there so rigid and motionless that one might
readily have supposed the counterpane covered some inanimate corpse.

Mute with horror, the servants exchanged frightened glances. Such
baseness and ingratitude amazed them. They could not understand why,
under such circumstances, the marquis had not pardoned Lacheneur.
Blanche alone retained her presence of mind. Turning to her father’s
valet, she said: “Hasn’t some one tried to injure my father?”

“I beg your pardon, mademoiselle, some one most certainly has: a little
more and Monsieur le Marquis would have been killed.”

“How do you know that?”

“In undressing the marquis I noticed that he had received a wound in the
head. I also examined his hat, and I found three holes in it, which
could only have been made by bullets.”

“Then some one must have tried to murder my father,” murmured Blanche,
“and this attack of delirium has been brought on by fright. How can we
find out who the would-be murderer was?”

The valet shook his head. “I suspect that old poacher, who is always
prowling about here, a man named--Chupin.”

“No, it couldn’t have been him.”

“Ah! I am almost sure of it. There’s no one else in the neighbourhood
capable of such an evil deed.”

Blanche could not give her reasons for declaring Chupin innocent.
Nothing in the world would have induced her to admit that she had met
him, talked with him for more than half-an-hour, and only just parted
from him. So she remained silent.

Soon afterwards the medical man arrived. He removed the coverlet from M.
de Courtornieu’s face, being almost compelled to use force in doing
so--examined the patient with evident anxiety, and then ordered mustard
plasters, applications of ice to the head, leeches, and a potion, for
which a servant was to gallop to Montaignac at once. Immediately
afterwards all was bustle and confusion in the house. When the physician
left the sickroom, Blanche followed him. “Well, doctor?” she said, with
a questioning look.

The physician hesitated, but at last he replied; “People sometimes
recover from such attacks.”

It really mattered little to Blanche whether her father recovered or
died, but she felt that an opportunity to recover her lost influence was
now afforded her. If she was to fight successfully against Martial’s
desertion, she must improvise a very different reputation to that which
she at present enjoyed. Now, if she could only appear to the world in
the character of a patient victim, and devoted daughter, public opinion,
which, as she had recently discovered, was after all worth having, might
yet turn in her favour. Such an occasion offering itself must not be
neglected. Accordingly, she lavished the most touching and delicate
attentions on her suffering father. It was impossible to induce her to
leave his bedside for a moment, and it was only with great difficulty
that she would be persuaded to sleep for a couple of hours, in an
arm-chair in the sick-room. But while she was playing this self-imposed
role of sister of charity with a talent worthy of a healthier mind, her
chief thoughts were for Chupin. What was he doing at Montaignac? Was he
watching Martial as he had promised? How slowly the time passed! Would
that Thursday which had been appointed for their meeting never come?

It came at last, and momentarily entrusting her father to Aunt Medea’s
care, Blanche made her escape. The old poacher was waiting for her at
the appointed place near the lake. “Well, what have you got to tell me?”
asked Blanche.

“Next to nothing, I’m sorry to say.”

“What! haven’t you been watching the marquis?”

“Your husband? Excuse me, I have followed him like his own shadow. But
I’m afraid the news I have of him won’t interest you very much. Since
the duke left for Paris, your husband has charge of everything. Ah! you
wouldn’t recognize him! He’s always busy now. He’s up at cock-crow; and
goes to bed with the chickens. He writes letters all the morning. In the
afternoon he receives every one who calls upon him. The retired officers
are hand and glove with him. He has re-instated five or six of them, and
has granted pensions to two others. He seldom goes out, and never in the
evening.”

He paused, and for a moment Blanche remained silent. A question rose to
her lips, and yet she scarcely dared to propound it. She blushed with
shame, and it was only after a supreme effort that she managed to
articulate, “But he must surely have a mistress?”

Chupin burst into a noisy laugh. “Well, we have come to it at last,” he
said, with an air of audacious familiarity that made Blanche positively
shudder. “You mean that scoundrel Lacheneur’s daughter, don’t you? that
stuck-up minx Marie-Anne?”

Blanche felt that denial was useless. “Yes,” she answered; “I do mean
Marie-Anne.”

“Ah, well! she’s neither been seen nor heard of. She must have fled with
her other lover, Maurice d’Escorval.”

“You are mistaken.”

“Oh, not at all! Of all the Lacheneurs, the only one remaining about
here is Jean the son, who leads a vagabond life, poaching much as I do.
He’s always in the woods, day and night, with his gun slung over his
shoulder. I caught sight of him once. He’s quite frightful to look at, a
perfect skeleton, with eyes that glitter like live coals. If he ever
meets me and sees me, my account will be settled then and there.”

Blanche turned pale. Plainly enough it was Jean Lacheneur who had fired
at her father. However, concealing her agitation, she replied, “I,
myself, feel sure that Marie-Anne is in the neighbourhood, concealed at
Montaignac, probably. I must know. Try and find out where she is by
Monday, when I will meet you here again.”

“All right, I’ll try,” answered Chupin, and he did indeed try; exerting
all his energy and cunning, but in vain. He was fettered by the
precautions which he took to shield himself against Balstain and Jean
Lacheneur; while, on the other hand, he had to prosecute his search
personally, as no one in the neighbourhood would have consented to give
him the least information. “Still no news!” he said to Blanche at each
succeeding interview. But she would not admit the possibility of
Marie-Anne having fled with Maurice. Jealousy will not yield even to
evidence. She had declared that Marie-Anne had taken her husband from
her, that Martial and Marie-Anne loved each other, and it must be so,
all proofs to the contrary notwithstanding. At last, one morning, she
found her spy jubilant. “Good news!” he cried, as soon as he perceived
her; “we have caught the minx at last.”



XXX.


THIS was three days after Marie-Anne’s arrival at the Borderie, which
event was the general topic of conversation throughout the
neighbourhood; Chanlouineau’s will especially forming the subject of
countless comments. The old folks looked grave, and repeated to one
another, “Ah, well, here’s M. Lacheneur’s daughter with an income of
more than two thousand francs, without counting the house.” While the
unattractive maidens who had not been fortunate enough to secure
husbands muttered in their turn, “An honest girl would have had no such
luck as that!”

When Chupin brought this great news to Blanche she trembled with anger,
and clenched her soft white hands, exclaiming: “What audacity! What
impudence!”

The old poacher seemed to be of the same opinion. “If each of her lovers
gives her as much she will be richer than a queen,” quothed he
maliciously. “She will be able to buy up Sairmeuse, and Courtornieu as
well if she chooses.”

“And this is the woman who has estranged Martial from me!” ejaculated
Blanche. “He abandons me for a filthy drab like that!” She was so
incensed that she entirely forgot Chupin’s presence, making no attempt
to restrain herself, or to hide the secret of her sufferings. “Are you
sure that what you tell me is true?” she asked.

“As sure as you stand there.”

“Who told you all this?”

“No one--I have eyes. That is, I overheard two villagers talking about
Mademoiselle Lacheneur’s return; so then I went to the Borderie to see
for myself, and I found all the shutters open. Marie-Anne was leaning
out of a window. She doesn’t even wear mourning, the heartless hussy!”
Chupin spoke the truth, but then the only dress the poor girl possessed
was the one that Madame d’Escorval had lent her on the night of the
insurrection, when it became necessary for her to doff her masculine
attire.

The old poacher was about to increase Blanche’s irritation by some
further malicious remarks, when she checked him with the
enquiry--”Whereabouts is the Borderie?”

“Oh, about a league and a half from here, opposite the water mills on
the Oiselle, and not far from the river bank.”

“Ah, yes! I remember now. Were you ever in the house?”

“Oh, scores and scores of times while Chanlouineau was living.”

“Then you can describe it to me?”

“I should think I could. It stands in an open space a little distance
from the road. There’s a small garden in front, and an orchard behind.
They are both hedged in. In the rear of the orchard, on the right, are
the vineyards; while on the left there’s a small grove planted round
about a spring.” Chupin paused suddenly in his description, and with a
knowing wink, inquired: “But what use do you mean to make of all this
information?”

“That’s no matter of yours. But tell me, what is the house like inside?”

“There are three large square rooms on the ground floor, besides the
kitchen and pantry. I can’t say what there is upstairs, as I’ve never
been there.”

“And what are the rooms you’ve seen furnished like?”

“Why, like those in any peasant’s house, to be sure.” Chupin, it should
be observed, knew nothing of the luxurious apartment which Chanlouineau
had intended for Marie-Anne. Indeed, the only stranger who was aware of
its existence was the leading upholsterer of Montaignac, for the young
farmer had never confided his secret to any one in the neighbourhood,
and the furniture had been brought to the Borderie one night in the
stealthiest fashion.

“How many doors are there to the house?” enquired Blanche.

“Three: one opening into the garden, one into the orchard, and another
communicating with the stables. The staircase is in the middle room.”

“And is Marie-Anne quite alone at the Borderie?”

“Quite alone at present; but I expect her brigand of a brother will join
her before long.”

After this reply, Blanche fell into so deep and prolonged a reverie that
Chupin at last became impatient. He ventured to touch her on the arm,
and, in a wily voice, enquired, “Well, what shall we decide?”

Blanche drew back shuddering. “My mind is not yet made up,” she
stammered. “I must reflect--I will see.” And then noting the old
poacher’s discontented face, she added, “I will do nothing lightly.
Don’t lose sight of the marquis. If he goes to the Borderie, and he will
go there, I must be informed of it. If he writes, and he will write, try
to procure one of his letters. I must see you every other day. Don’t
rest! Try to deserve the good place I am reserving for you at
Courtornieu. Now go!”

The old rascal trudged off without attempting a rejoinder, but his
manner plainly showed that he was intensely disappointed. “It serves me
deucedly well right,” he growled. “I oughtn’t to have listened to such a
silly, affected woman. She fills the air with her ravings, wants to kill
everybody, burn and destroy everything. She only asks for an
opportunity. Well, the occasion presents itself, and then of course her
heart fails her. She draws back, and gets afraid!”

In these remarks Chupin did Blanche great injustice. If, as he had
noted, she had shrunk back shuddering when he urged her to decide, it
was not because her will wavered, but rather because her flesh
instinctively revolted against the deed she had in her mind. The old
spy’s unwelcome touch, his perfidious voice and threatening glance, may
also in a minor degree have prompted this movement of repulsion. At all
events, Blanche’s reflections were by no means calculated to appease her
rancour. Whatever Chupin and the Sairmeuse villagers might say to the
contrary, she regarded the story which Marie-Anne, in obedience to the
Abbe Midon’s instructions, had told of her travels in Piedmont as a
ridiculous fable, and nothing more. In her opinion, Marie-Anne had
simply emerged from some retreat where Martial had previously deemed it
prudent to conceal her. But why this sudden re-appearance? Vindictive
Blanche was ready to swear that it was out of mere bravado, and intended
only as an insult to herself. “Ah, I _will_ have my revenge,” she
thought. “I would tear my heart out if it were capable of cowardly
weakness under such provocation!”

The voice of conscience was unheard, unheeded, in this tumult of
passion. Her sufferings, and Jean Lacheneur’s attempt upon her father’s
life, seemed to justify the most terrible reprisals. She had plenty of
time now to brood over her wrongs, and to concoct schemes of vengeance;
for her father no longer required her care. He had passed from the
frenzied ravings of delirium to the stupor of idiocy. And yet the
physician had confidently declared his patient to be cured. Cured! The
body was cured, perhaps, but reason had utterly fled. All traces of
intelligence had left the marquis’s once mobile face, so ready in former
times to assume the precise expression which his hypocrisy and duplicity
required. His eyes, which had gleamed with cunning, wore a dull, vacant
stare, and his under lip hung low, as is customary with idiots. Worst of
all, no hope of any improvement was to be entertained. A single
passion--indulgence at table--had taken the place of all those which in
former times had swayed the life of this ambitious man. The marquis, in
previous years most temperate in his habits, now ate and drank with
disgusting voracity, and was rapidly becoming extremely corpulent.
Between his meals he would wander about the Chateau and its surrounding
in a listless fashion, scarcely knowing what he did. His memory had
gone, and he had lost all sense of dignity, all knowledge of good and
evil. Even the instinct of self-preservation, the last which dies within
us, had departed, and he had to be watched like a child. Often, as he
roamed about the grounds, his daughter would gaze at him from her window
with a strange terror in her heart. But after all, this warning of
providence only increased her desire for revenge. “Who would not prefer
death to such a misfortune?” she murmured. “Ah! Jean Lacheneur’s revenge
is far more terrible than if his bullet had pierced my father’s heart.
It is a similar revenge that I must have, and I will have it!”

She saw Chupin every two or three days; sometimes going alone to the
meeting-place, and at others in Aunt Medea’s company. The old poacher
came punctually enough although he was beginning to tire of his task. “I
am risking a great deal,” he growled. “I fancied that Jean Lacheneur
would go and live at the Borderie with his sister. Then, I should have
been safe. But no; the brigand continues to prowl about with his gun
under his arm: and sleeps in the woods at night time. What game is he
after? Why, Father Chupin, of course. On the other hand, I know that my
rascally innkeeper over there has abandoned his inn and disappeared.
Where is he? Hidden behind one of these trees, perhaps, in settling what
part of my body he shall plunge his knife into.” What irritated the old
poacher most of all was, that after two months watching he had come to
the conclusion that whatever might have been Martial’s connection with
Marie-Anne in former times, everything was now all over between them.

But Blanche would not admit this. “Own that they are more cunning than
you are, Father Chupin, but don’t tell me they don’t see each other,”
she observed one day.

“Cunning--and how?” was the retort. “Since I have been watching the
marquis, he hasn’t once passed outside the fortifications of Montaignac,
while, on the other hand, the postman at Sairmeuse, whom my wife
cleverly questioned, declares that he hasn’t taken a single letter to
the Borderie.”

After this, if it had not been for the hope of a safe and pleasant
retreat at Courtornieu, Chupin would have abandoned his task altogether;
as it was, he relaxed his surveillance considerably; coming to the
rendezvous with Blanche, chiefly because he had fallen into the habit of
claiming some money for his expenses, on each occasion. And when Blanche
asked him for an account of everything that Martial had done since their
previous meeting, he generally told her anything that came into his
head. However, one day, early in September, she interrupted him as he
began the same old story, and, looking him steadfastly in the eyes,
exclaimed: “Either you are betraying me, Father Chupin, or else you are
a fool. Yesterday Martial and Marie-Anne spent a quarter of an hour
together at the Croix d’Arcy.”



XXXI.


After the old physician of Vigano had left the Borderie with his
precious burden, Marie-Anne fell into a state of bitter despondency.
Many in her situation would perhaps have experienced a feeling of
relief, for had she not succeeded in concealing the outcome of her
frailty, which none, save perhaps the Abbe Midon, so much as suspected?
Hence, her despondency may at first sight seem to have been uncalled
for. But then, let it be remembered that the sublime instinct of
maternity had been awakened in her breast; and when she saw the
physician leave her, carrying away her child she felt as if her soul and
body were being rent asunder. When might she hope to set her eyes again
on this poor babe who was doubly dear to her by reason of the very
sorrow and anguish he had cost her? Ah, if it had not been for her
promise to Maurice, she would have braved public opinion and kept her
infant son at the Borderie. Had she not braved calumny already? She had
been accused of having three lovers. Chanlouineau, Martial, and Maurice.
The comments of the villagers had not affected her; but she had been
tortured, and was still tortured by the thought that these people didn’t
know the truth. Maurice was her husband, and yet she dare not proclaim
the fact; she was “Mademoiselle Lacheneur” to all around--a maiden--a
living lie. Surely such a situation accounted only too completely for
her despondency and distress. And when she thought of her brother she
positively shuddered with dismal apprehensions.

Having learnt that Jean was roving about the country she sent for him;
but it was not without considerable persuasion that he consented to come
and see her at the Borderie. A glance at his appearance sufficed to
explain all Chupin’s terror. The young fellow’s clothes were in tatters,
and the expression of his weather-stained, unshaven, unkempt face was
ferocious in the extreme. When he entered the cottage, Marie-Anne
recoiled with fear. She did not recognize him until he spoke. “It is I,
sister,” he said gloomily.

“What, you--my poor Jean! you!”

He surveyed himself from head to foot, and with a sneering laugh
retorted, “Well, really, I shouldn’t like to meet myself at dusk in the
forest.”

Marie-Anne fancied she could detect a threat behind this ironical
remark, and her apprehensions were painful in the extreme. “What a life
you must be leading, my poor brother!” she said after a brief pause.
“Why didn’t you come here sooner? Now, I have you here, I shall not let
you go. You will not desert me. I need protection and love so much. You
will remain with me?”

“That’s impossible, Marie-Anne.”

“And why?”

Jean averted his glance; his face coloured, and it was with evident
hesitation that he replied--”Because I’ve a right to dispose of my own
life, but not of yours. We can’t be anything to each other any longer. I
deny you to-day, so that you may be able to deny me to-morrow. Yes,
although you are now the only person on earth I love. I must and do
renounce you. Your worst enemies haven’t slandered you more foully than
I have done, for before numerous witnesses I have openly declared that I
would never set my foot inside a house given you by Chanlouineau.”

“What, you said that--you, Jean--you, my brother?”

“Yes, I said it, and with a purpose; for it must be supposed that there
is a deadly feud between us, so that neither you nor Maurice d’Escorval
may be accused of complicity in any deed of mine.”

Marie-Anne gazed at her brother wonderingly. “He is mad!” she murmured,
and then with a burst of energy, she added, “What do you mean to do?
Tell me; I must know.”

“Nothing! leave me to myself.”

“Jean!”

“Leave me to myself,” he repeated roughly.

Marie-Anne felt that her apprehensions were correct. “Take care, take
care,” she said entreatingly. “Do not tamper with such matters. God’s
justice will punish those who have wronged us.”

But nothing could move Jean Lacheneur, or divert him from his purpose.
With a hoarse, discordant laugh, he clapped his hand on his gun and
retorted, “That’s my justice!”

Marie-Anne almost tottered as she heard these words. She discerned in
her brother’s mind the same fixed, fatal idea which had lured her father
on to destruction--the idea for which he had sacrificed
everything--family, friends, fortune, and even his daughter’s honour,
the idea which had caused so much bloodshed, which had cost the lives of
so many innocent men, and had finally led him to the scaffold himself.
“Jean,” she murmured, “remember our father.”

The young fellow’s face turned livid; and instinctively he clenched his
fists. But the words he uttered were the more impressive as his voice
was calm and low. “It is just because I do remember my father that I am
determined justice shall be done. Ah! these wretched nobles wouldn’t
display such audacity if all sons had my will and determination. A
scoundrel like the Duke de Sairmeuse would hesitate before he attacked
an honest man if he were only obliged to say to himself: ‘If I wrong
this man, and even should I kill him, I cannot escape retributive
justice, for his children will surely call me to account. Their
vengeance will fall on me and mine; they will pursue us by day and
night, at all hours and in all seasons. We must ever fear their hatred
for they will be implacable and merciless. I shall never leave my house
without fear of a bullet; never lift food to my lips without dread of
poison. And until I and mine have succumbed, these avengers will prowl
round about our home threatening us at every moment with death,
dishonour, ruin, infamy, and misery!’” The young fellow paused, laughed
nervously, and then, in a still slower voice, he added: “That is what
the Sairmeuses and the Courtornieus have to expect from me.” It was
impossible to mistake the import of these words. Jean Lacheneur’s
threats were not the wild ravings of anger. His was a cold, deep-set
premeditated desire for vengeance which would last as long as he
lived--and he took good care that his sister should understand him, for
between his teeth he added: “Undoubtedly these people are very high, and
I am very low; but when a tiny insect pierces the root of a giant oak,
that tree is doomed.”

Marie-Anne realized that all her entreaties would fail to turn her
brother from his purpose, and yet she could not allow him to leave,
without making one more effort it was with clasped hands and in a
supplicating voice that she begged him to renounce his projects, but he
still remained obdurate, and when changing her tactics she asked him to
remain with her, at least that evening and share her frugal supper,
adding in trembling tones that it might be the last time they would see
each other for long years, he again repeated, “You ask me an
impossibility!” And yet he was visibly moved, and if his voice was
stern, a tear trembled in his eye. She was clinging to him imploringly,
when, yielding for one moment to the impulse of nature, he took her in
his arms and pressed her to his heart. “Poor sister--poor Marie-Anne,”
he said, “you will never know what it costs me to refuse your
supplications. But I cannot yield to them. I have been most imprudent in
coming here at all. You don’t realize the danger to which you may be
exposed if folks suspect that there is any connection between us. I
trust that you and Maurice may lead a calm and happy life. It would be a
crime for me to mix you up with my wild schemes. Think of me sometimes,
but don’t try to see me, or even to find out what has become of me. A
man like me struggles, triumphs, or perishes alone.” He kissed
Marie-Anne passionately, and freed himself from her detaining hands.
“Farewell!” he cried; “when you see me again, our father will be
avenged!”

Then with one bound he reached the door. She sprang out after him,
meaning to call him back, but he had already disappeared. “It is all
over,” murmured the wretched girl; “my brother is lost. Nothing will
restrain him now.” And a vague, inexplicable, dread invaded her heart.
She felt as if she were being slowly but surely drawn into a whirlpool
of passion, rancour, vengeance, and crime, and a voice whispered that
she would be crushed.

Some days had elapsed after this incident, when one evening, while she
was preparing her supper, she heard a rustling sound outside. She turned
and looked: some one had slipped a letter under the front door. Without
a moments hesitation, she raised the latch and courageously sprang out
on to the threshold. No one could be seen. The gloom was well nigh
impenetrable, and when she listened not a sound broke the stillness.
With a trembling hand she picked up the letter, walked towards the lamp
burning on her supper table, and looked at the address. “From the
Marquis de Sairmeuse!” she exclaimed, in amazement, as she recognized
Martial’s hand-writing. So he had written to her! He had dared to write
to her! Her first impulse was to burn the letter; and she was already
holding it over the stove, when she suddenly thought of her friends
concealed at Father Poignot’s farm. “For their sake,” she thought, “I
must read it, and see if they are threatened with danger.”

Then hastily opening the missive, she found that it was as follows: “My
dear Marie-Anne--Perhaps you have suspected who it is that has given an
entirely new and certainly surprising turn to events. Perhaps you have
also understood the motives that guided him. In that case I am amply
repaid for my efforts, for you can no longer refuse me your esteem. But
my work of reparation is not yet perfect. I have prepared everything for
a revision of the judgment that condemned the Baron d’Escorval to death,
or for having him pardoned. You must know where the baron is concealed.
Acquaint him with my plans and ascertain whether he prefers a revision
of judgment, or a simple pardon. If he wishes for a new trial, I will
give him a letter of licence from the king. I await your reply before
acting. MARTIAL DE SAIRMEUSE.”

Marie-Anne’s head whirled. This was the second time that Martial had
astonished her by the chivalrous spirit of his love. How noble the two
men who had loved her and whom she had rejected, had proved themselves
to be. One of them Chanlouineau, after dying for her sake, had sought to
protect her from beyond the grave. The other, Martial de Sairmeuse had
sacrificed the connections and prejudices of his caste, and hazarded
with noble recklessness the political fortunes of his house, so as to
insure as far as possible her own happiness and that of those she loved.
And yet the man whom she had chosen, the father of her child, Maurice
d’Escorval, had not given as much as a sign of life since he left her
five months before. But suddenly and without reason, Marie-Anne passed
from profound admiration to deep distrust. “What if Martial’s offer were
only a trap?” This was the suspicion that darted through her mind. “Ah!”
she thought, “the Marquis de Sairmeuse would be a hero if he were
sincere!” And she did not wish him to be a hero.

The result of her suspicions was that she hesitated five days before
repairing to the meeting place where Father Poignot usually awaited her.
When she did go, in lieu of the worthy farmer she found the Abbe Midon,
who had been greatly alarmed by her prolonged absence. It was night
time, but Marie-Anne, fortunately, knew Martial’s letter by heart. The
abbe made her repeat it twice, the second time very slowly, and when she
had concluded, he remarked: “This young man no doubt has the prejudices
of his rank and his education; but his heart is noble and generous.” And
when Marie-Anne disclosed her suspicions: “You are wrong, my child,” he
added, “the marquis is certainly sincere, and it would be unwise not to
take advantage of his generosity. Such, at least, is my opinion. Entrust
this letter to me. I will consult the baron, and to-morrow you shall
know our decision.”

Four and twenty hours later the abbe and Marie-Anne met again at the
same spot. “M. d’Escorval,” said the priest, “agrees with me that we
must trust ourselves to the Marquis de Sairmeuse. Only the baron, being
innocent, cannot, will not, accept a pardon. He demands a revision of
the iniquitous judgment which condemned him--in one word, a new trial.”

Marie-Anne had foreseen this determination, and yet she could not help
exclaiming: “What! M. d’Escorval means to give himself up to his
enemies! To risk his life on the chance of acquittal?” The priest nodded
assent, and then knowing that it was quite useless to attempt arguing
the point Marie-Anne submissively remarked: “In this case, I must ask
you for a rough draft of the letter I ought to write to the marquis.”

For a moment the priest did not reply. He evidently had some misgivings.
At last, summoning all his courage, he answered. “It would be better not
to write.”

“But----”

“It is not that I distrust the marquis, not by any means, but a letter
is dangerous; it doesn’t always reach the person it’s addressed to. You
must see M. de Sairmeuse.”

Marie-Anne recoiled. “Never! never!” she exclaimed.

The abbe did not seem surprised. “I understand your repugnance, my
child,” he said, gently; “your reputation has suffered greatly through
the marquis’s attentions. But duty calls, and this is not the time to
hesitate. You know that the baron is innocent, and you know, alas, that
your father’s mad enterprise has ruined him. You must, at least, make
this atoning sacrifice.” He then explained to her everything she would
have to say, and did not leave her until she had promised to see the
marquis in person.

It must not be supposed that Marie-Anne’s aversion to this interview was
due to the reason which the abbe assigned. Her reputation! Alas, she
knew that it was lost for ever. A fortnight before the prospect of such
a meeting would have in no wise disquieted her. Then, though she no
longer hated Martial, she thought of him with indifference, whereas
now---- Perhaps, in choosing the Croix d’Arcy for the rendezvous, she
hoped that this spot with its cruel memories would restore aversion to
her heart. As she walked along towards the meeting place, she said to
herself that no doubt Martial would wound her feelings by his usual tone
of careless gallantry. But in this she was mistaken. The young marquis
was greatly agitated, but he did not utter a word unconnected with the
purport of the meeting. It was only when the conference was over, and he
had consented to all the conditions suggested by the abbe, that he sadly
remarked: “We are friends, are we not?”

And in an almost inaudible voice she answered, “Yes.”

And that was all. He remounted his horse, which had been held by a
servant, and galloped off in the direction of Montaignac. Breathless,
with cheeks on fire, Marie-Anne watched him as bending low in the saddle
he urged his horse onward over the dusty highway, until at last a bend
and some projecting trees finally hid him from view. Then, all of a
sudden, she became as it were conscious of her thoughts. “Ah, wretched
woman that I am,” she exclaimed, “is it possible I could ever love any
other man than Maurice, my husband, the father of my child?”

Her voice was still trembling with emotion when she related the
particulars of the interview to the abbe. But he did not perceive her
trouble, his thoughts being busy with the baron’s interests. “I felt
sure,” said he, “that Martial would agree to our conditions. I was,
indeed, so certain that I even made every arrangement for the baron to
leave the farm. He will leave it to-morrow night and wait at your house
till we receive the letters of licence from the king. The heat and bad
ventilation of Poignot’s loft are certainly retarding his recovery. One
of Poignot’s boys will bring our baggage to-morrow evening, and at
eleven o’clock or so we will place M. d’Escorval in a vehicle and all
sup together at the Borderie.”

“Heaven comes to my aid!” murmured Marie-Anne as she walked home,
reflecting that now she would no longer be alone. With Madame d’Escorval
at her side to talk to her of Maurice, and the cheerful presence of her
other friends, she would soon be able to chase away those thoughts of
Martial, now haunting her.

When she awoke the next morning she was in better spirits than she had
been for months, and once, while putting her little house in order, she
was surprised to find herself singing at her work. Just as eight o’clock
in the evening was striking she heard a peculiar whistle. This was a
signal from the younger Poignot, who soon appeared laden with an
arm-chair for the sick man, the abbe’s medicine chest, and a bag of
books. They were all placed in the room upstairs--the room which
Chanlouineau had decorated at such cost, and which Marie-Anne now
intended for the baron. Young Poignot told her that he had several other
things to bring, and nearly an hour afterwards, fancying that he might
be overloaded, she ventured out to meet him. The night was very dark,
and as she hastened on, Marie-Anne failed to notice two figures stooping
behind a clump of lilac bushes in her little garden.



XXXII.


Chupin was at first quite crestfallen when Blanche told him of Martial’s
meeting with Marie-Anne at the Croix d’Arcy. He was detected with a
falsehood on his lips, and feared that the discovery of his duplicity
would for ever wreck his prospects. He must say good-bye to a safe and
pleasant retreat at Courtornieu, and good-bye also to frequent gifts
which had enabled him to spare his hoarded treasure, and even to
increase it. However, his discomfiture only lasted for a moment. It
seemed best to put a bold face on the matter, and accordingly raising
his head, he remarked with an affection of frankness, “I may be stupid
no doubt, but I wouldn’t deceive a child. I scarcely fancy your
information can be correct. Some one must have told you falsely.”

Blanche shrugged her shoulders. “I obtained my information from two
persons, who were ignorant of the interest it possessed for me.”

“As truly as the sun is in the heavens I swear----”

“Don’t swear; simply confess that you have been very negligent.”

Blanche spoke so authoritatively that Chupin considered it best to
change his tactics. With an air of abject humility, he admitted that he
had relaxed his surveillance on the previous day; he had been very busy
in the morning; then one of his boys had injured his foot; and finally,
he had met some friends who persuaded him to go with them to a
wine-shop, where he had taken more than usual, so that----. He told his
story in a whining tone, frequently interrupting himself to affirm his
repentance and cover himself with reproaches. “Old drunkard!” he said,
“this will teach you not to neglect your duties.”

But far from reassuring Blanche, his protestations only made her more
suspicious. “All this is very good, Father Chupin,” she said, dryly,
“but what are you going to do now to repair your negligence?”

“What do I intend to do?” he exclaimed, feigning the most violent anger.
“Oh! you shall see. I will prove that no one can deceive me with
impunity. There is a small grove near the Borderie, and I shall station
myself there; and may the devil seize me if a cat enters that house
without my knowing it.”

Blanche drew her purse from her pocket, and handed three louis to
Chupin, saying as she did so, “Take these, and be more careful in
future. Another blunder of the kind, and I shall have to obtain some
other person’s assistance.”

The old poacher went away whistling contentedly. He felt quite
reassured. In this, however, he was wrong, for Blanche’s generosity was
only intended to prevent him fancying that she doubted his veracity. In
point of fact, she did doubt it. She believed his promises to be on a
par with his past conduct, which, as events had shown, had at the very
best been negligent in the extreme. This miserable wretch made it his
business to betray others--so why shouldn’t he have betrayed her as
well? What confidence could she place in his reports. She certainly paid
him, but the person who paid him more would unquestionably have the
preference. Still, she must know the truth, the whole truth, and how was
she to ascertain it? There was but one method--a certain, though a very
disagreeable one--she must play the spy herself.

With this idea in her head, she waited impatiently for evening to
arrive, and then, directly dinner was over, she summoned Aunt Medea, and
requested her company as she was going out for a walk. The impoverished
chaperone made a feeble protest concerning the lateness of the hour. But
Blanche speedily silenced her, and bade her get ready at once, adding
that she did not wish any one in the chateau to know that they had gone
out. Aunt Medea had no other resource than to obey, and in the twinkling
of an eye she was ready. The marquis had just been put to bed, the
servants were at dinner, and Blanche and her companion reached a little
gate leading from the grounds into the open fields without being
observed. “Good heavens! Where are we going?” groaned the astonished
chaperone.

“What does that matter to you? Come along!” replied Blanche, who, as it
may have been guessed, was going to the Borderie. She could have
followed the banks of the Oiselle, but she preferred to cut across the
fields, thinking she would be less likely to meet any one. The night was
very dark, and the hedges and ditches often impeded their progress. On
two occasions Blanche lost her way, while Aunt Medea stumbled again and
again over the rough ground, bruising herself against the stones. She
groaned; she almost wept; but her terrible niece was pitiless. “Come
along!” she cried, “or else I shall leave you to find your way as best
you can.” And so the poor dependent struggled on.

At last, after more than an hour’s tramp, Blanche ventured to breathe.
She recognized Chanlouineau’s house, a short distance off, and soon
afterwards she paused in the little grove of which Chupin had spoken.
Aunt Medea now timidly inquired if they were at their journey’s end--a
question which Blanche answered affirmatively. “But be quiet,” she
added, “and remain where you are. I wish to look about a little.”

“What! you are leaving me alone?” ejaculated the frightened chaperone.
“Blanche, I entreat you! What are you going to do? Good heavens! you
frighten me. You do indeed, Blanche!”

But her niece had gone. She was exploring the grove, looking for Chupin,
whom she did not find. This convinced her that the old poacher was
deceiving her, and she angrily asked herself if Martial and Marie-Anne
were not in the house hard by at that very hour, laughing at her
credulity. She then rejoined Aunt Medea, whom she found half dead with
fright, and they both advanced to the edge of the copse, where they
could view the front of the house. A flickering, ruddy light illuminated
two windows on the upper floor. There was evidently a fire in the room
upstairs. “That’s right,” murmured Blanche, bitterly; “Martial is such a
chilly personage.” She was about to approach the house, when a peculiar
whistle made her pause. She looked about her, and, through the darkness,
she managed to distinguish a man walking towards the Borderie, and
carrying a weighty burden. Almost immediately afterwards, a woman,
certainly Marie-Anne, opened the door of the house, and the stranger was
admitted. Ten minutes later he re-appeared, this time without his
burden, and walked briskly away. Blanche was wondering what all this
meant, but for the time being she did not venture to approach, and
nearly an hour elapsed before she decided to try and satisfy her
curiosity by peering through the windows. Accompanied by Aunt Medea, she
had just reached the little garden, when the door of the cottage opened
so suddenly that Blanche and her relative had scarcely time to conceal
themselves behind a clump of lilac-bushes. At the same moment,
Marie-Anne crossed the threshold, and walked down the narrow garden
path, gained the road, and disappeared. “Wait for me here,” said Blanche
to her aunt, in a strained, unnatural voice, “and whatever happens,
whatever you hear, if you wish to finish your days at Courtornieu, not a
word! Don’t stir from this spot; I will come back again.” Then pressing
the frightened spinster’s arm she left her alone and went into the
cottage.

Marie-Anne, on going out, had left a candle burning on the table in the
front room. Blanche seized it and boldly began an exploration of the
dwelling. Owing to Chupin’s description, she was tolerably familiar with
the arrangements on the ground floor, and yet the aspect of the rooms
surprised her. They were roughly floored with tiles, and the walls were
poorly whitewashed. A massive linen press, a couple of heavy tables, and
a few clumsy chairs, constituted the only furniture in the front
apartment, while from the beams above hung numerous bags of grain and
bunches of dried herbs. Marie-Anne evidently slept in the back room,
which contained an old-fashioned country bedstead very high and broad,
and the tall fluted posts of which were draped with green serge
curtains, sliding on iron rings. Fastened to the wall at the head of the
bed was a receptacle for holy water. Blanche dipped her finger in the
bowl, and found it full to the brim. Then beside the window on a wooden
shelf she espied a jug and basin of common earthenware. “It must be
confessed that my husband doesn’t provide his idol with a very sumptuous
abode,” she muttered with a sneer. And for a moment, indeed, she was
almost on the point of asking herself if jealousy had not led her
astray. Remembering Martial’s fastidious tastes, she failed to reconcile
them with these meager surroundings. The presence of the holy water,
moreover, seemed incompatible with her suspicions. But the latter
revived again when she entered the kitchen. A savoury soup was bubbling
in a pot over the fire, and fragrant stews were simmering in two or
three saucepans. Such preparations could not be made for Marie-Anne
alone. Who then were they for? At this moment Blanche remembered the
ruddy glow which she had noticed through the windows on the floor above.
Hastily leaving the kitchen she climbed the stairs and opened a door she
found in front of her. A cry of mingled anger and surprise escaped her
lips. She stood on the threshold of the room which Chanlouineau in the
boldness of his passion had designed to be the sanctuary of his love.
Here every thing was beautiful and luxurious: “Ah, so after all it’s
true,” exclaimed Blanche in a paroxysm of jealousy. “And I was fancying
that everything was too meager and too poor. Down stairs everything is
so arranged that visitors may not suspect the truth! Ah, now I recognise
Martial’s astonishing talent for dissimulation, he is so infatuated with
this creature that he is even anxious to shield her reputation. He keeps
his visits secret and hides himself up here. Yes, here it is that they
laugh at me the deluded forsaken wife whose marriage was but a
mockery!”

She had wished to know the truth, and now she felt she knew it.
Certainty was less cruel than everlasting suspicion, and she even took a
bitter delight in examining the appointments of the apartment, which to
her mind proved how deeply Martial must be infatuated. She felt the
heavy curtains of brocaded silken stuff with trembling hands; she tested
the thickness of the rich carpet with her feet; the embroidered coverlid
on the palissandre bedstead, the mirrors, the hundred knicknacks on the
tables and the mantleshelf--all in turn met with her attentive scrutiny.
Everything indicated that some one was expected--the bright fire--the
cosy arm-chair beside it, the slippers on the rug. And who would
Marie-Anne expect but Martial? No doubt the man whom Blanche had seen
arriving had come to announce the marquis’s approach, and Marie-Anne had
gone to meet him.

Curiously enough, on the hearth stood a bowl of soup, still warm, and
which Marie-Anne had evidently been about to drink when she heard the
messenger’s signal. Blanche was still wondering how she could profit of
her discoveries, when she espied a chest of polished oak standing open
on a table near a glass door leading into an adjoining dressing room.
She walked towards it and perceived that it contained a number of tiny
vials and boxes. It was indeed the Abbe Midon’s medicine chest, which
Marie-Anne had placed here in readiness, should it be needed when the
baron arrived, weak from his nocturnal journey. Blanche was examining
the contents when suddenly she noticed two bottles of blue glass, on
which “poison” was inscribed. “Poison!”--the word seemed to fascinate
her, and by a diabolical inspiration she associated these vials with the
bowl of soup standing on the hearth. “And why not?” she muttered. “I
could escape afterwards.” Another thought made her pause, however.
Martial would no doubt return with Marie-Anne, and perhaps he would
drink this broth. She hesitated for a moment, and then took one of the
vials in her hand, murmuring as she did so, “God will decide; it is
better he should die than belong to another.” She had hitherto acted
like one bewildered, but this act, simple in its performance, but
terrible in its import, seemed to restore all her presence of mind.
“What poison is it,” thought she, “ought I to administer a large or a
small dose?” With some little difficulty she opened the bottle and
poured a small portion of its contents into the palm of her hand. The
poison was a fine, white powder, glistening like pulverized glass. “Can
it really be sugar?” thought Blanche; and with the view of making sure
she moistened a finger tip, and gathered on it a few atoms of the
powder, which she applied to her tongue. Its taste was not unlike that
of an apple. She wiped her tongue with her handkerchief, and then
without hesitation or remorse, without even turning pale, she poured the
entire contents of the bottle into the bowl. Her self-possession was so
perfect that she even stirred the broth, so that the powder might more
rapidly dissolve. She next tasted it, and found that it had a slightly
bitter flavour--not sufficiently perceptible, however, to awaken
distrust. All that now remained was to escape, and she was already
walking towards the door when, to her horror, she heard some one coming
up the stairs. What should she do? where could she conceal herself? She
now felt so sure that she would be detected that she almost decided to
throw the contents of the bowl into the fire, and then face the
intruders. But no--a chance remained--the dressing-room! She darted into
it, without daring, however, to close the door, for the least click of
the lock might betray her.

Immediately afterwards Marie-Anne entered the apartment, followed by a
peasant carrying a large bundle. “Ah! here is my candle!” she exclaimed,
as she crossed the threshold. “Joy must be making me lose my wits! I
could have sworn that I left it on the table down-stairs.”

Blanche shuddered. She had not thought of this circumstance before.

“Where shall I put these clothes?” asked the peasant.

“Lay them down here. I will arrange them by and by,” replied Marie-Anne.

The youth dropped his heavy burden with a sigh of relief. “That’s the
last,” he exclaimed. “Now our gentleman can come.”

“At what o’clock will he start?” inquired Marie-Anne.

“At eleven. It will be nearly midnight when he gets here.”

Marie-Anne glanced at the magnificent timepiece on the mantelshelf. “I
have still three hours before me,” said she; “more time than I need.
Supper is ready, I am going to set the table here by the fire. Tell him
to bring a good appetite with him.”

“I won’t forget, mademoiselle; thank you for having come to meet me. The
load wasn’t so very heavy, but it was awkward to handle.”

“Won’t you take a glass of wine?”

“No, thanks. I must make haste back, Mademoiselle Lacheneur.”

“Good night, Poignot.”

Blanche had never heard this name of Poignot before; it had no meaning
for her. Ah, if she had heard M. d’Escorval or the abbe mentioned, she
might perhaps have doubted the truth; her resolution might have wavered
and--who knows? But unfortunately, young Poignot, in referring to the
baron, had spoken of him as “our gentleman,” while Marie-Anne said,
“he.” And to Blanche’s mind they both of them referred to Martial. Yes,
unquestionably it must be the Marquis de Sairmeuse, who would arrive at
midnight. She was sure of it. It was he who had sent this messenger with
a parcel of clothes--a proceeding which could only mean that he was
going to establish himself at the Borderie. Perhaps he would cast aside
all secrecy and live there openly, regardless of his rank, his dignity,
and duties; forgetful even of his prejudices as well. These conjectures
could only fire Blanche’s jealous fury. Why should she hesitate or
tremble after that? The only thing she had to fear now was that
Marie-Anne might enter the dressing-room and find her there. She had but
little anxiety concerning Aunt Medea, who, it is true, was still in the
garden; but after the orders she had received the poor dependent would
remain as still as a stone behind the lilac bushes, and, if needs be,
during the whole night. On the other hand, Marie-Anne would remain alone
in the house during another two hours and a half, and Blanche reflected
that this would give her ample time to watch the effects of the poison
on her hated rival. When the crime was discovered she would be far away.
No one knew she was not at Courtornieu; no one had seen her leave the
chateau; Aunt Medea would be as silent as the grave. And, besides, who
would dare to accuse the Marchioness de Sairmeuse, _nee_ Blanche de
Courtornieu, of murder? One thing that worried Blanche was that
Marie-Anne seemed to pay no attention to the broth. She had, in fact,
forgotten it. She had opened the bundle of clothes, and was now busily
arranging them in a wardrobe near the bed. Who talks of presentiments!
She was as gay and vivacious as in her happiest days; and while she
folded the clothes hummed an air that Maurice had often sung. She felt
that her troubles were nearly over, for her friends would soon be round
her, and a brighter time seemed near at hand. When she had put all the
clothes away, she shut the wardrobe and drew a small table up before the
fire. It was not till then that she noticed the bowl standing on the
hearth. “How stupid I am!” she said, with a laugh; and taking the bowl
in her hands, she raised it to her lips.

Blanche heard Marie-Anne’s exclamation plainly enough; she saw what she
was doing; and yet she never felt the slightest remorse. However,
Marie-Anne drank but one mouthful, and then, in evident disgust, she set
the bowl down. A horrible dread made the watcher’s heart stand still,
and she wondered whether her victim had detected any peculiar taste in
the soup. No, she had not; but, owing to the fire having fallen low, it
had grown nearly cold, and a slight coating of grease floated on its
surface. Taking a spoon Marie-Anne skimmed the broth carefully, and
stirred it up. Then, being thirsty, she drank the liquid almost at one
draught, laid the bowl on the mantelpiece, and resumed her work.

The crime was perpetrated. The future no longer depended on Blanche de
Courtornieu’s will. Come what would, she was a murderess. But though she
was conscious of her crime, the excess of her jealous hatred prevented
her from realizing its enormity. She said to herself that she had only
accomplished an act of justice, that in reality her vengeance was
scarcely cruel enough for the wrongs she had suffered, and that nothing
could indeed fully atone for the tortures inflicted on her. But in a few
moments grievous misgivings took possession of her mind. Her knowledge
of the effects of poison was extremely limited. She had expected to see
Marie-Anne fall dead before her, as if stricken down by a thunderbolt.
But no, several minutes passed, and Marie-Anne continued her
preparations for supper as if nothing had occurred. She spread a white
cloth over the table, smoothed it with her hands, and placed a
cruet-stand and salt-cellar on it. Blanche’s heart was beating so
violently that she could scarcely realise why its throbbings were not
heard in the adjoining room. Her assurance had been great, but now the
fear of punishment which usually precedes remorse crept over her mind;
and the idea that her victim might enter the dressing-room made her turn
pale with fear. At last she saw Marie-Anne take the light and go
down-stairs. Blanche was left alone, and the thought of escaping again
occurred to her; but how could she possibly leave the house without
being seen? Must she wait there, hidden in that nook for ever? “That
couldn’t have been poison. It doesn’t act,” she muttered in a rage.

Alas! it did act as she herself perceived when Marie-Anne re-entered the
room. The latter had changed frightfully during the brief interval she
had spent on the ground floor. Her face was livid and mottled with
purple spots, her distended eyes glittered with a strange brilliancy,
and she let a pile of plates she carried fall on the table with a crash.

“The poison! it begins to act at last!” thought Blanche.

Marie-Anne stood on the hearth-rug, gazing wildly round her, as if
seeking for the cause of her incomprehensible sufferings. She passed and
repassed her hand across her forehead, which was bathed in cold sweat;
she gasped for breath, and then suddenly overcome with nausea, she
staggered, pressed her hands convulsively to her breast, and sank into
the arm-chair, crying: “Oh, God! how I suffer!”

Kneeling by the door of the dressing-room which was only partly closed,
Blanche eagerly watched the workings of the poison she had administered.
She was so near her victim that she could distinguish the throbbing of
her temples, and sometimes she fancied she could feel on her own cheek
her rival’s breath, scorching her like flame. An utter prostration
followed Marie-Anne’s paroxysm of agony; and if it had not been for the
convulsive working of her mouth and laboured breathing, it might have
been supposed that she was dead. But soon the nausea returned, and she
was seized with vomiting. Each effort seemed to contract her body; and
gradually a ghastly tint crept over her face, the spots on her cheeks
became of a deeper tint, her eyes seemed as if they were about to burst
from their sockets, and great drops of perspiration rolled down her
cheeks. Her sufferings must have been intolerable. She moaned feebly at
times, and at intervals gave vent to truly heart-rending shrieks. Then
she faltered fragmentary sentences; she begged piteously for water, or
entreated heaven to shorten her tortures. “Ah, it is horrible! I suffer
too much! My God! grant me death!” She invoked all the friends she had
ever known, calling for aid in a despairing voice. She called on Madame
d’Escorval, the abbe, Maurice, her brother, Chanlouineau, and Martial!

Martial!--that name more than sufficed to chase all pity from Blanche’s
heart. “Go on! call your lover, call!” she said to herself, bitterly.
“He will come too late.” And as Marie-Anne repeated the name, in a tone
of agonized entreaty: “Suffer!” continued Blanche, “suffer, you deserve
it! You imparted to Martial the courage to forsake me, his wife, like a
drunken lacquey would abandon the lowest of degraded creatures! Die, and
my husband will return to me repentant.” No, she had no pity. She felt a
difficulty in breathing, but that merely resulted from the instinctive
horror which the sufferings of others inspire--a purely physical
impression, which is adorned with the fine name of sensibility, but
which is, in reality, the grossest selfishness.

And yet, Marie-Anne was sinking perceptibly. She had fallen on to the
floor, during one of her attacks of sickness, and now she even seemed
unable to moan; her eyes closed, and after a spasm which brought a
bloody foam to her lips, her head sank back, and she lay motionless on
the hearth-rug.

“It is over,” murmured Blanche, rising to her feet. To her surprise her
own limbs trembled so acutely, that she could scarcely stand. Her will
was still firm and implacable; but her flesh failed her. She had never
even imagined a scene like that she had just witnessed. She knew that
poison caused death; but she had not suspected the agony of such a
death. She no longer thought of increasing her victim’s sufferings by
upbraiding her. Her only desire now was to leave the house, the very
floor of which seemed to scorch her feet. A strange, inexplicable
sensation was creeping over her; it was not yet fright, but rather the
stupor that follows the perpetration of a terrible crime. Still, she
compelled herself to wait a few moments longer; then seeing that
Marie-Anne still remained motionless, with closed eyes, she ventured to
open the door softly, and enter the room in which her victim was lying.
But she had not taken three steps forward before Marie-Anne, as if she
had been galvanized by an electric battery, suddenly rose and extended
her arms to bar her enemy’s passage. This movement was so unexpected and
so appalling that Blanche recoiled. “The Marchioness de Sairmeuse,”
faltered Marie-Anne. “You, Blanche--here!” And finding an explanation of
her sufferings in the presence of this young woman, who once had been
her friend, but who was now her bitterest enemy, she exclaimed: “It is
you who have murdered me!”

Blanche de Courtornieu’s nature was one of those that break, but never
bend. Since she had been detected, nothing in the world would induce her
to deny her guilt. She advanced boldly, and in a firm voice replied:
“Yes, I have taken my revenge. Do you think I didn’t suffer that evening
when you sent your brother to take my newly-wedded husband away, so that
I have never since gazed upon his face?”

“Your husband! I sent my brother to take him away! I do not understand
you.”

“Do you dare deny, then, that you are not Martial’s mistress!”

“The Marquis de Sairmeuse’s mistress! why I saw him yesterday for the
first time since the Baron d’Escorval’s escape.” The effort which
Marie-Anne had made to rise and speak had exhausted her strength. She
fell back in the arm-chair.

But Blanche was pitiless. “You only saw Martial then,” she said. “Pray,
tell me, who gave you this costly furniture, these silk hangings, all
the luxury that surrounds you?”

“Chanlouineau.”

Blanche shrugged her shoulders. “So be it,” she said, with an ironical
smile. “But you are not waiting for Chanlouineau this evening? Have you
warmed these slippers and laid this table for Chanlouineau? Was it
Chanlouineau who sent his clothes by a peasant named Poignot? You see
that I know everything?” She paused for some reply; but her victim was
silent. “Who are you waiting for?” insisted Blanche. “Answer me!”

“I cannot!”

“Ah, of course not, because you know that it is your lover who is
coming, you wretched woman--my husband, Martial!”

Marie-Anne was considering the situation as well as her intolerable
sufferings and troubled mind would permit. Could she name the persons
she was expecting? Would not any mention of the Baron d’Escorval to
Blanche ruin and betray him? They were hoping for a letter of licence
for a revision of judgment, but he was none the less under sentence of
death, and liable to be executed in twenty-four hours.

“So you refuse to tell me whom you expect here--at midnight,” repeated
the marchioness.

“I refuse,” gasped Marie-Anne; but at the same time she was seized with
a sudden impulse. Although the slightest movement caused her intolerable
agony, she tore her dress open, and drew a folded paper from her bosom.
“I am not the Marquis de Sairmeuse’s mistress,” she said, in an almost
inaudible voice. “I am Maurice d’Escorval’s wife. Here is the
proof--read.”

Blanche had scarcely glanced at the paper than she turned as pale as her
victim. Her sight failed her; there was a strange ringing in her ears,
and a cold sweat started from every pore in her skin. This paper was the
marriage certificate of Maurice d’Escorval and Marie-Anne Lacheneur,
drawn up by the cure of Vigano, witnessed by the old physician and
Bavois, and sealed with the parish seal. The proof was indisputable. She
had committed a useless crime; she had murdered an innocent woman. The
first good impulse of her life made her heart beat more quickly. She did
not stop to consider; she forgot the danger to which she exposed
herself, and in a ringing voice she cried; “Help! help!”

Eleven o’clock was just striking in the country; every one was naturally
abed, and, moreover, the nearest farm-house was half a league away.
Blanche’s shout was apparently lost in the stillness of the night. In
the garden below Aunt Medea perhaps heard it; but she would have allowed
herself to be cut to pieces rather than stir from her place. And yet
there was one other who heard that cry of distress. Had Blanche and her
victim been less overwhelmed with despair, they would have heard a noise
on the stairs, which at that very moment were creaking under the tread
of a man, who was cautiously climbing them. But he was not a saviour,
for he did not answer the appeal. However, even if there had been help
at hand, it would now have come too late.

Marie-Anne felt that there was no longer any hope for her, and that it
was the chill of death which was creeping towards her heart. She felt
that her life was fast ebbing away. So, when Blanche turned as if to
rush out in search of assistance, she detained her with a gesture, and
gently called her by her name. The murderess paused. “Do not summon any
one,” murmured Marie-Anne; “It would do no good. Let me at least die in
peace. It will not be long now.”

“Hush! do not speak so. You must not--you shall not die! If you should
die--great God! what would my life be afterwards!”

Marie-Anne made no reply. The poison was rapidly completing its work.
The sufferer’s breath literally whistled as it forced its way through
her inflamed throat. When she moved her tongue, it scorched her palate
as if it had been a piece of hot iron; her lips were parched and
swollen; and her hands, inert and paralysed, would no longer obey her
will.

But the horror of the situation restored Blanche’s calmness. “All is not
yet lost,” she exclaimed. “It was in that great box there on the table
that I found the white powder I poured into the bowl. You must know what
it is; you must know the antidote.”

Marie-Anne sadly shook her head. “Nothing can save me now,” she
murmured, in an almost inaudible voice; “but I don’t complain. Who knows
the misery from which death may preserve me? I don’t crave life; I have
suffered so much during the past year; I have endured such humiliation;
I have wept so much! A curse was on me!” She was suddenly endowed with
that clearness of mental vision so often granted to the dying. She saw
how she had wrought her own undoing by consenting to play the perfidious
part her father had assigned her, and how she herself had paved the way
for the slander, crimes, and misfortunes of which she had been the
victim.

Her voice grew fainter and fainter. Worn out with suffering, a sensation
of drowsiness stole over her. She was falling asleep in the arms of
death. But suddenly such a terrible thought found its way into her
failing mind that she gasped with agony, “My child!” And then,
regaining, by a superhuman effort as much will, energy, and strength, as
the poison would allow her, she straitened herself in the arm-chair, and
though her features were contracted by mortal anguish, yet with an
energy of which no one would have supposed her capable, she exclaimed,
“Blanche, listen to me. It is the secret of my life which I am going to
reveal to you; no one suspects it. I have a son by Maurice. Alas! many
months have elapsed since my husband disappeared. If he is dead, what
will become of my child? Blanche, you, who have killed me, swear to me
that you will be a mother to my child!”

Blanche was utterly overcome. “I swear!” she sobbed; “I swear!”

“On that condition, but on that condition alone, I pardon you. But take
care! Do not forget your oath! Blanche, heaven sometimes allows the dead
to avenge themselves. You have sworn, remember. My spirit will allow you
no rest if you do not fulfil your vow!”

“I will remember,” sobbed Blanche; “I will remember. But the child----”

“Ah! I was afraid--cowardly creature that I was! I dreaded the
shame--then Maurice insisted--I sent my child away--your jealousy and my
death are the punishment of my weakness. Poor child! abandoned to
strangers! Wretched woman that I am! Ah! this suffering is too horrible.
Blanche, remember----”

She spoke again, but her words were indistinct, inaudible. Blanche
frantically seized the dying woman’s arm, and endeavoured to arouse her.
“To whom have you confided your child?” she repeated; “to whom?
Marie-Anne--a word more--a single word--a name, Marie-Anne!”

The unfortunate woman’s lips moved, but the death-rattle already sounded
in her throat; a terrible convulsion shook her frame; she slid down from
the chair, and fell full length upon the floor. Marie-Anne was
dead--dead, and she had not disclosed the name of the old physician at
Vigano to whom she had entrusted her child. She was dead, and the
terrified murderess stood in the middle of the room as rigid and
motionless as a statue. It seemed to her that madness--a madness like
that which had stricken her father--was working in her brain. She forgot
everything; she forgot that some one was expected at midnight; that time
was flying, and that she would surely be discovered if she did not fly.
But the man who had entered the house when she cried for help was
watching over her. As soon as he saw that Marie-Anne had breathed her
last, he pushed against the door, and thrust his leering face into the
room.

“Chupin!” faltered Blanche.

“In the flesh,” he responded. “This was a grand chance for you. Ah, ha!
The business riled your stomach a little; but nonsense! that will soon
pass off. But we must not dawdle here: some one may come in. Let us make
haste.”

Mechanically the murderess stepped forward, but Marie-Anne’s dead body
lay between her and the door, barring the passage. To leave the room it
was necessary to step over her victim’s lifeless form. She had not
courage to do so, and recoiled with a shudder. But Chupin was troubled
by no such scruples. He sprang across the body, lifted Blanche as if she
had been a child, and carried her out of the house. He was intoxicated
with joy. He need have no fears for the future now; for Blanche was
bound to him by the strongest of chains--complicity in crime. He saw
himself on the threshold of a life of constant revelry. All remorse
anent Lacheneur’s betrayal had departed. He would be sumptuously fed,
lodged, and clothed; and, above all, effectually protected by an army of
servants.

While these agreeable thoughts were darting through his mind, the cool
night air was reviving the terror-stricken Marchioness de Sairmeuse. She
intimated that she should prefer to walk, and accordingly Chupin
deposited her on her feet some twenty paces from the house. Aunt Medea
was already with them after the fashion of a dog left at the door by its
master while the latter goes into a house. She had instinctively
followed her niece, when she perceived the old poacher carrying her out
of the cottage.

“We must not stop to talk,” said Chupin. “Come, I will lead the way.”
And taking Blanche by the arm, he hastened towards the grove. “Ah! so
Marie-Anne had a child,” he remarked, as they hurried on. “She pretended
to be such a saint! But where the deuce has she placed it?”

“I shall find it,” replied Blanche.

“Hum! that is easier said than done,” quoth the old poacher,
thoughtfully.

Scarcely had he spoken than a shrill laugh resounded in the darkness. In
the twinkling of an eye Chupin had released his hold on Blanche’s arm,
and assumed an attitude of defence. The precaution was fruitless; for at
the same moment a man concealed among the trees bounded upon him from
behind, and, plunging a knife four times into his writhing body,
exclaimed, “Holy Virgin! now is my vow fulfilled! I shall no longer have
to eat with my fingers!”

“Balstain! the innkeeper!” groaned the wounded man, sinking to the
ground.

Blanche seemed rooted to the spot with horror; but Aunt Medea for once
in her life had some energy in her fear. “Come!” she shrieked, dragging
her niece away “Come--he is dead!”

Not quite, for the old traitor had sufficient strength remaining to
crawl home and knock at the door. His wife and youngest boy were
sleeping soundly, and it was his eldest son, who had just returned home,
who opened the door. Seeing his father prostrate on the ground, the
young man thought he was intoxicated, and tried to lift him and carry
him into the house, but the old poacher begged him to desist. “Don’t
touch me,” said he. “It is all over with me! but listen: Lacheneur’s
daughter has just been poisoned by Madame Blanche. It was to tell you
this that I dragged myself here. This knowledge is worth a fortune, my
boy, if you are not a fool!” And then he died without being able to tell
his family where he had concealed the price of Lacheneur’s blood.



XXXIII.


It will be recollected that of all those who witnessed the Baron
d’Escorval’s terrible fall over the precipice below the citadel of
Montaignac, the Abbe Midon was the only one who did not despair. He set
about his task with more than courage, with a reverent faith in the
protection of providence, remembering Ambroise Pare’s sublime phrase--”I
dress the wound--God heals it.” That he was right to hope was
conclusively shown by the fact that after six months sojourn in Father
Poignot’s house, the baron was able to sit up and even to limp about
with the aid of crutches. On reaching this stage of recovery, however,
when it was essential he should take some little exercise, he was
seriously inconvenienced by the diminutive proportions of Poignot’s
loft, so that he welcomed with intense delight the prospect of taking up
his abode at the Borderie with Marie-Anne; and when indeed the abbe
fixed the day for moving, he grew as impatient for it to arrive, as a
schoolboy is for the holidays. “I am suffocating here,” he said to his
wife, “literally suffocating. The time passes so slowly. When will the
happy day come!”

It came at last. The morning was spent in packing up such things as they
had managed to procure, during their stay at the farm; and soon after
nightfall Poignot’s elder son began carrying them away. “Everything is
at the Borderie,” said the honest fellow, on returning from his last
trip, “and Mademoiselle Lacheneur bids the baron bring a good appetite.”

“I shall have one, never fear!” responded M. d’Escorval gaily. “We shall
all have one.”

Father Poignot himself was busy harnessing his best horse to the cart
which was to convey the baron to his new home. The worthy man felt sad
as he thought that these guests, for whose sake he had incurred such
danger, were now going to leave him. He felt he should acutely miss
them, that the house would seem gloomy and deserted after they had left.
He would allow no one else to arrange the mattress intended for M.
d’Escorval comfortably in the cart; and when he had done this to his
satisfaction, he murmured, with a sigh, “It’s time to start!” and turned
to climb the narrow staircase leading to the loft.

M. d’Escorval with a patient’s natural egotism had not thought of the
parting. But when he saw the honest farmer, coming to bid him good-bye,
with signs of deep emotion on his face, he forgot all the comforts that
awaited him at the Borderie, in the remembrance of the royal and
courageous hospitality he had received in the house he was about to
leave. The tears sprang to his eyes. “You have rendered me a service
which nothing can repay, Father Poignot,” he said, with intense feeling.
“You have saved my life.”

“Oh! we won’t talk of that, baron. In my place, you would have done the
same--neither more nor less.”

“I shall not attempt to express my thanks, but I hope to live long
enough to show my gratitude.”

The staircase was so narrow that they had considerable difficulty in
carrying the baron down; but finally they had him stretched comfortably
on his mattress in the cart; a few handfuls of straw being scattered
over his limbs so as to hide him from the gaze of any inquisitive
passers-by. The latter was scarcely to be expected it is true, for it
was now fully eleven o’clock at night. Parting greetings were exchanged,
and then the cart which young Poignot drove with the utmost caution
started slowly on its way.

On foot, some twenty paces in the rear came Madame d’Escorval, leaning
on the abbe’s arm. It was very dark, but even if they had been in the
full sunshine, the former cure of Sairmeuse might have encountered any
of his old parishioners without the least danger of detection. He had
allowed his hair and beard to grow; his tonsure had entirely
disappeared, and his sedentary life had caused him to become much
stouter. He was clad like all the well-to-do peasants of the
neighbourhood, his face being partially hidden by a large slouch hat. He
had not felt so much at ease for months past. Obstacles which had
originally seemed to him insurmountable, had now vanished, and in the
near future he saw the baron’s innocence proclaimed by an impartial
tribunal, while he himself was re-installed in the parsonage of
Sairmeuse. If it had not been for his recollection of Maurice he would
have had nothing to trouble his mind. Why had young d’Escorval given no
sign of life? It seemed impossible for him to have met with any
misfortune without hearing of it, for there was brave old Corporal
Bavois who would have risked anything to come and warn them, if Maurice
had been in danger. The abbe was so absorbed in these reflections, that
he did not notice Madame d’Escorval was leaning more heavily on his arm
and gradually slackening her pace. “I am ashamed to confess it,” she
said at last, “but I can go no farther. It is so long since I was out
of doors, that I have almost forgotten how to walk.”

“Fortunately we are almost there,” replied the priest; and indeed a
moment afterwards young Poignot drew up at the corner of the foot-path
leading to the Borderie. Telling the baron that the journey was ended he
gave a low whistle, like that which had warned Marie-Anne of his arrival
a few hours before. No one appeared or replied, so he whistled again, in
a louder key, and then a third time with all his might--still there was
no response. Madame d’Escorval and the abbe had now overtaken the cart,
“It’s very strange that Marie-Anne doesn’t hear me,” remarked young
Poignot, turning to them. “We can’t take the baron to the house until we
have seen her. She knows that very well. Shall I run up and warn her?”

“She’s asleep, perhaps,” replied the abbe; “stay with your horse, my
boy, and I’ll go and wake her.”

He certainly did not feel the least uneasiness. All was calm and still
outside, and a bright light shone through the windows of the upper
floor. Still, when he perceived the open door, a vague presentiment of
evil stirred his heart. “What can this mean?” he thought. There was no
light in the lower rooms, and he had to feel for the staircase with his
hands. At last he found it and went up. Another open door was in front
of him; he stepped forward and reached the threshold. Then, so suddenly
that he almost fell backward--he paused horror-stricken at the sight
before him. Poor Marie-Anne was lying on the floor. Her eyes, which were
wide open, were covered with a white film; her tongue was hanging black
and swollen from her mouth. “Dead!” faltered the priest; “dead!” But
this could not be. The abbe conquered his weakness, and approaching the
poor girl, he took her by the hand. It was icy cold; and her arm was as
rigid as iron. “Poisoned!” he murmured: “poisoned with arsenic.” He rose
to his feet, and was casting a bewildered glance around the room, when
his eyes fell on his medicine chest, standing open on a side-table. He
rushed towards it, took out a vial, uncorked it, and turned it over on
the palm of his hand--it was empty. “I was not mistaken!” he exclaimed.

But he had no time to lose in conjectures. The first thing to be done
was to induce the baron to return to the farm-house without telling him
of the terrible misfortune which had occurred. It would not be very
difficult to find a pretext. Summoning all his courage the priest
hastened back to the waggon, and with well-affected calmness told M.
d’Escorval that it would be impossible for him to take up his abode at
the Borderie at present, that several suspicious-looking characters had
been seen prowling about, and that they must be more prudent than ever
now, so as not to render Martial’s intervention useless. At last, but
not without considerable reluctance, the baron yielded. “As you desire
it, cure,” he sighed, “I must obey. Come, Poignot, my boy, drive me back
to your father’s house.”

Madame d’Escorval took a seat in her cart beside her husband. The priest
stood watching them as they drove off, and it was not until the sound of
the wheels had died away in the distance that he ventured to return to
the Borderie. He was climbing the stairs again when he heard a faint
moan in the room where Marie-Anne was lying. The sound sent all his
blood wildly rushing to his heart, and with one bound he had reached the
upper floor. Beside the corpse a young man was kneeling, weeping
bitterly. The expression of his face, his attitude, his sobs betrayed
the wildest despair. He was so lost in grief that he did not observe the
abbe’s entrance. Who was this mourner who had found his way to the house
of death? At last, however, though he did not recognize him, the priest
divined who he must be. “Jean!” he cried, “Jean Lacheneur!” The young
fellow sprang to his feet with a pale face and threatening look. “Who
are you?” he asked vehemently. “What are you doing here? What do you
want with me?”

The former cure of Sairmeuse was so effectually disguised by his peasant
dress and long beard, that he had to name himself. “You, Monsieur abbe,”
exclaimed Jean. “It is God who has sent you here! Marie-Anne cannot be
dead! You, who have saved so many others, will save her.” But as the
priest sadly pointed to heaven, the young fellow paused, and his face
became most ghastly looking than before. He understood now that there
was no hope. “Ah!” he murmured in a desponding tone, “fate shows us no
mercy. I have been watching over Marie-Anne, from a distance; and this
evening I was coming to warn her to be cautious, for I knew she was in
great danger. An hour ago, while I was eating my supper in a wine-shop
at Sairmeuse, Grollet’s son came in. ‘Is that you, Jean?’ said he. ‘I
just saw Chupin hiding near your sister’s house; when he observed me he
slunk away.’ When I heard that, I hastened here like a crazy man. I ran,
but when fate is against you, what can you do? I arrived too late!”

The abbe reflected for a moment. “Then you suppose it was Chupin?” he
asked.

“I don’t suppose; I feel certain that it was he--the miserable
traitor!--who committed this foul deed.”

“Still, what motive could he have had?”

With a discordant laugh that almost seemed a yell, Jean answered: “Oh,
you may be certain that the daughter’s blood will yield him a richer
reward than did the father’s. Chupin has been the instrument; but it was
not he who conceived the crime. You will have to seek higher for the
culprit, much higher, in the finest chateau of the country, in the midst
of an army of retainers at Sairmeuse.”

“Wretched man, what do you mean?”

“What I say.” And he coldly added: “Martial de Sairmeuse is the
assassin.”

The priest recoiled. “You are mad!” he said severely.

But Jean gravely shook his head. “If I seem so to you, sir,” he replied,
“it is only because you are ignorant of Martial’s wild passion for
Marie-Anne. He wanted to make her his mistress. She had the audacity to
refuse the honour; and that was a crime for which she must be punished.
When the Marquis de Sairmeuse became convinced that Lacheneur’s daughter
would never be his, he poisoned her that she might not belong to any one
else.” All efforts to convince Jean of the folly of his accusations
would at that moment have been vain. No proofs would have convinced him.
He would have closed his eyes to all evidence.

“To-morrow, when he is more calm, I will reason with him,” thought the
abbe; and then he added aloud: “We can’t allow the poor girl’s body to
remain here on the floor. Help me, and we will place it on the bed.”

Jean trembled from head to foot, and his hesitation was perceptible; but
at last, after a severe struggle, he complied. No one had ever yet slept
on this bed which Chanlouineau had destined for Marie-Anne, saying to
himself that it should be for her, or for no one. And Marie-Anne it was
who rested there the first--sleeping the sleep of death. When the sad
task was accomplished, Jean threw himself into the same arm-chair in
which Marie-Anne had breathed her last, and with his face buried in his
hands, and his elbows resting on his knees, he sat there as silent and
motionless as the statues of sorrow placed above the last resting places
of the dead.

In the meanwhile, the abbe knelt by the bed-side, and began reciting the
prayers for the departed, entreating God to grant peace and happiness in
heaven to her who had suffered so much on earth. But he prayed only with
his lips, for in spite of all his efforts, his mind would persist in
wandering. He was striving to solve the mystery that enshrouded
Marie-Anne’s death. Had she been murdered? Was it possible that she had
committed suicide? The latter idea occurred to him without his having
any great faith in it; but, on the other hand, how could her death
possibly be the result of crime? He had carefully examined the room, and
had discovered nothing that betrayed a stranger’s visit. All he could
prove was that his vial of arsenic was empty, and that Marie-Anne had
been poisoned by absorbing it in the broth a few drops of which were
left in the bowl standing on the mantelpiece. “When morning comes,”
thought the abbe, “I will look outside.”

Accordingly, at daybreak he went into the garden, and made a careful
examination of the premises. At first he saw nothing that gave him the
least clue, and he was about to abandon his investigations, when on
entering the little grove, he espied a large dark stain on the grass a
few paces off. He went nearer--it was blood! In a state of great
excitement, he summoned Jean to inform him of the discovery.

“Some one has been murdered here,” said young Lacheneur; “and only last
night, for the blood has scarcely had time to dry.”

“The victim must have lost a great deal of blood,” remarked the priest;
“it might be possible to discover who he was by following these stains.”

“Yes, I will try,” replied Jean with alacrity. “Go into the house, sir;
I will soon be back again.”

A child might have followed the trail of the wounded man, for the blood
stains left along his line of route were so frequent and distinct. These
tell-tale marks led to Chupin’s hovel, the door of which was closed.
Jean rapped, however, without the slightest hesitation, and when the old
poacher’s eldest son opened the door, he perceived a very singular
spectacle. The dead body had been thrown on to the ground, in a corner
of the hut, the bedstead was overturned and broken, all the straw had
been torn from the mattress, and the dead man’s wife and sons armed with
spades and pick-axes were wildly overturning the beaten soil that formed
the hovel’s only floor. They were seeking for the hidden treasure, for
the 20,000 francs in gold, paid for Lacheneur’s betrayal! “What do you
want?” asked the widow, roughly.

“I want to see Father Chupin.”

“Can’t you see that he’s been murdered,” replied one of the sons. And
brandishing his pick close to Jean’s head, he added: “And you’re the
murderer, perhaps. But that’s for justice to determine. Now, decamp; if
you don’t want me to do for you.”

Jean could scarcely restrain himself from punishing young Chupin for his
threat, but under the circumstances a conflict was scarcely permissible.
Accordingly, he turned without another word hastened back to the
Borderie. Chupin’s death upset all his plans, and greatly irritated him.
“I swore that the wretch who betrayed my father should perish by my
hand,” he murmured; “and now I am deprived of my vengeance. Some one has
cheated me out of it. Who could it be? Can Martial have assassinated
Chupin after he murdered Marie-Anne? The best way to assure one’s self
of an accomplice’s silence is certainly to kill him.”

Jean had reached the Borderie, and was on the point of going up-stairs,
when he fancied he heard some one talking in the back room. “That’s
strange,” he said to himself. “Who can it be?” And yielding to the
impulse of curiosity, he tapped against the communicating door.

The abbe instantly made his appearance, hurriedly closing the door
behind him. He was very pale and agitated.

“Who’s there?” inquired Jean, eagerly.

“Why, Maurice d’Escorval and Corporal Bavois.”

“My God!”

“And it’s a miracle that Maurice has not been up stairs.”

“But whence does he come from? Why have we had no news of him?”

“I don’t know. He has only been here five minutes. Poor boy! after I
told him his father was safe, his first words were: ‘And Marie-Anne!’ He
loves her more devotedly than ever. He comes home with his heart full of
her, confident and hopeful; and I tremble--I fear to tell him the
truth.”

“Yes, it’s really too terrible!”

“Now I have warned you; be prudent--and come in.” They entered the room
together; and both Maurice and the old soldier greeted Jean warmly. They
had not seen one another since the duel at La Reche, interrupted by the
arrival of the soldiers; and when they separated that day they scarcely
expected to meet again.

Now Maurice, however, was in the best of spirits, and it was with a
smile on his face that he remarked: “I am glad you’ve come. There’s
nothing to fear now.” Then turning to the abbe, he remarked: “But I just
promised to let you know the reason of my long silence. Three days after
we crossed the frontier--Corporal Bavois and I--we reached Turin. We
were tired out. We went to a small inn, and they gave us a room with two
beds. While we were undressing, the corporal said to me: ‘I am quite
capable of sleeping two whole days without waking,’ while I promised
myself at least a good twelve hours’ rest; but we reckoned without our
host, as you’ll see. It was scarcely daybreak when we were suddenly woke
up. There were a dozen men in our room, one or two of them in some
official costume. They spoke to us in Italian, and ordered us to dress
ourselves. They were so numerous that resistance was useless, so we
obeyed; and an hour after we were both in prison, confined in the same
cell. You may well imagine what our thoughts were. The corporal remarked
to me, in that cool way of his: ‘It will require four days to obtain our
extradition, and three days to take us back to Montaignac--that’s seven,
then there’ll be one day more to try us, so we’ve in all just eight days
to live.’ Bavois said that at least a hundred times during the first
five or six days of our confinement, but five months passed by, and
every night we went to bed expecting they’d come for us on the following
morning. But they didn’t come. We were kindly treated. They did not take
away my money; and they willingly sold us various little luxuries. We
were allowed two hours of exercise every day in the courtyard, and the
keepers even lent us several books to read. In short, I shouldn’t have
had any particular cause for complaint, if I had only been allowed to
receive or to forward letters, or if I had been able to communicate with
my father or Marie-Anne. But we were in the secret cells, and were not
allowed to have any intercourse with the other prisoners. At length our
detention seemed so strange and became so insupportable that we resolved
to obtain some explanation of it at any cost. We changed our tactics. We
had hitherto been quiet and submissive: but now we became as violent and
unmanageable as possible. The whole prison resounded with our cries and
protestations; we were continually sending for the superintendent, and
claiming the intervention of the French ambassador. These proceedings at
last had the desired effect. One fine afternoon the governor of the jail
released us, not without expressing his regret at being deprived of the
society of such amiable and charming guests. Our first act, as you may
suppose, was to hasten to the ambassador. We didn’t see that dignitary,
but his secretary received us. He knit his brows when I told my story,
and became excessively grave. I remember each word of his reply. ‘Sir,’
said he, ‘I can assure you most positively that any proceedings
instituted against you in France have had nothing whatever to do with
your detention here.’ And I expressed my astonishment frankly. ‘One
moment,’ he added, ‘I will give you my opinion. One of your enemies--I
leave you to discover which--must exert a powerful influence in Turin.
You were in his way, perhaps, and he had you imprisoned by the
Piedmontese police.”

Jean Lacheneur struck the table beside him with his clenched fist. “Ah!
the secretary was right!” he exclaimed. “Maurice, it was Martial de
Sairmeuse who caused your arrest----”

“Or the Marquis de Courtornieu,” interrupted the abbe, with a warning
glance at Jean.

In a moment Maurice’s eyes gleamed brilliantly, then, shrugging his
shoulders carelessly, he said, “Never mind; I don’t wish to trouble
myself any more about the past. My father is well again--that is the
main thing. We can easily find some way of getting him safely across the
frontier. And then Marie-Anne and I--we will tend him so devotedly that
he will soon forget it was my rashness that almost cost him his life. He
is so good, so indulgent for the faults of others. We will go and reside
in Italy or Switzerland, and you shall accompany us, Monsieur the Abbe,
and you as well, Jean. As for you, corporal, it’s already decided that
you belong to our family.”

While Maurice spoke in this fashion, so hopefully, so confidently, Jean
and the abbe, realising the bitter truth, sought to avert their faces;
but they could not conceal their agitation from young D’Escorval’s
searching glance. “What is the matter?” he asked, with evident surprise.

They trembled, hung their heads, but did not say a word. Maurice’s
astonishment changed to a vague, inexpressible fear. He enumerated all
the misfortunes which could possibly have befallen him.

“What has happened?” he asked in a husky voice. “My father is safe is he
not? You said that my mother would want nothing more, if I were only by
her side again. Is it Marie-Anne then----” He hesitated.

“Courage, Maurice,” murmured the abbe. “Courage!”

The young fellow tottered as if he were about to fall. He had turned
intensely pale. “Marie-Anne is dead!” he exclaimed.

Jean and the abbe were silent.

“Dead!” repeated Maurice; “and no secret voice warned me! Dead! When?”

“She died only last night,” replied Jean.

Maurice rose. “Last night?” said he. “In that case, then, she is still
here. Where?--upstairs?” And without waiting for a reply, he darted
toward the staircase so quickly that neither Jean nor the abbe had time
to intercept him. With three bounds he reached the room above; he walked
straight to the bed, and with a firm hand turned back the sheet that hid
his loved one’s face. But at the same moment he recoiled with a
heart-broken cry. What! was this the beautiful, the radiant
Marie-Anne--she whom he had loved so fervently! He did not recognize
her. He could not recognize these distorted features--that swollen,
discoloured face--these eyes, now almost hidden by the purple swelling
round them. When Jean and the priest entered the room they found him
standing with his head thrown back, his eyes dilated with terror, his
right arm rigidly extended toward the corpse. “Maurice,” said the
priest, gently, “be calm. Courage!”

The young fellow turned with an expression of complete bewilderment upon
his features. “Yes,” he faltered; “that is what I need--courage!” He
staggered as he spoke, and they were obliged to support him to an
arm-chair.

“Be a man,” continued the priest. “Where is your energy? To live is to
suffer.”

He listened, but did not seem to understand. “Live!” he murmured; “why
should I live since she is dead?”

His eyes gleamed so strangely that the abbe was alarmed. “If he does not
weep, he will most certainly lose his reason!” thought the priest. Then
in a commanding voice he added aloud, “You have no right to despair; you
owe a sacred duty to your child.”

The same remembrance which had given Marie-Anne strength to hold even
death itself at bay for a moment, saved Maurice from the dangerous
trance into which he was sinking. He shuddered as if he had received an
electric shock, and springing from his chair, “That is true,” he cried.
“Take me to my child!”

“Not just now, Maurice; wait a little.”

“Where is it? Tell me where it is.”

“I cannot; I do not know.”

An expression of unspeakable anguish stole over Maurice’s face, and in a
broken voice he said: “What! you don’t know? Did she not confide in
you?”

“No. I suspected her secret. I, alone----”

“You, alone! Then the child is perhaps dead. Even if it is living, who
can tell where it is?”

“We shall no doubt find a clue.”

“You are right,” faltered Maurice. “When Marie-Anne knew that her life
was in danger, she could not have forgotten her little one. Those who
cared for her in her last moments must have received some message for
me. I must see those who watched over her. Who were they?” The priest
averted his face. “I asked you who was with her when she died,”
repeated Maurice, in a sort of frenzy. And, as the abbe remained silent,
a terrible light dawned on the young fellow’s mind. He understood the
cause of Marie-Anne’s distorted features now. “She perished the victim
of a crime!” he exclaimed. “Some monster killed her. If she died such a
death, our child is lost for ever! And it was I who recommended, who
commanded the greatest precautions! Ah! we are all of us cursed!” He
sank back in his chair, overwhelmed with sorrow and remorse, and with
big tears rolling slowly down his cheeks.

“He is saved!” thought the abbe, whose heart bled at the sight of such
intense sorrow.

Jean Lacheneur stood by the priest’s side with gloom upon his face.
Suddenly he drew the Abbe Midon towards one of the windows: “What is
this about a child?” he enquired, harshly.

The priest’s face flushed. “You have heard,” he answered, laconically.

“Am I to understand that Marie-Anne was Maurice’s mistress, and that she
had a child by him? Is that the case? I won’t, I can’t believe it! She
whom I revered as a saint! What! you would have me believe that her eyes
lied--her eyes so chaste, so pure? And he--Maurice--he whom I loved as a
brother! So his friendship was only a cloak which he assumed so as to
rob us of our honour!” Jean hissed these words through his set teeth in
such low tones that Maurice, absorbed in his agony of grief, did not
overhear him. “But how did she conceal her shame?” he continued. “No one
suspected it--absolutely no one. And what has she done with her child?
Did the thought of disgrace frighten her? Did she follow the example of
so many ruined and forsaken women? Did she murder her own child? Ah, if
it be alive I will find it, and in any case Maurice shall be punished
for his perfidy as he deserves.” He paused; the window was open, and the
sound of galloping horses could be plainly heard approaching along the
adjacent highway. Both Jean and the abbe leant forward and looked out.
Two horsemen were riding toward the Borderie--the first some ten yards
in advance of the other. The former halted at the corner of the garden
path, threw his reins to his follower--a groom--and then strode on foot
toward the house. On recognizing this visitor, Jean bounded from the
window with a yell. He clutched Maurice by the shoulders, and, shaking
him violently, exclaimed, “Up! here comes Martial, Marie-Anne’s
murderer! Up! he is coming! He is at our mercy!”

Maurice sprang to his feet, infuriated; but the abbe darted to the door
and intercepted both young fellows as they were about to leave the room.
“Not a word! not a threat!” he said, imperiously. “I forbid it. At least
respect the presence of death!” He spoke with such authority, and his
glance was so commanding, that both Jean and Maurice involuntarily
paused. Before the priest had time to add another word, Martial was
there. He did not cross the threshold. One look and he realised the
situation. He turned very pale, but not a word escaped his lips.
Wonderful as was his usual power of self-control he could not articulate
a syllable; and it was only by pointing to the bed on which Marie-Anne’s
lifeless form was reposing that he asked for an explanation.

“She was infamously poisoned last evening,” sadly replied the abbe.

Then Maurice, forgetting the priest’s demands, stepped forward. “She was
alone and defenseless,” he said vehemently. “I have only been at liberty
during the last two days. But I know the name of the man who had me
arrested at Turin, and thrown into prison. They told me the coward’s
name! Yes, it was you, you infamous wretch! Ah! you dare not deny it;
you confess your guilt, you scoundrel!”

Once again the abbe interposed; He threw himself between the rivals,
fearing lest they should come to blows. But the Marquis de Sairmeuse had
already resumed his usual haughty and indifferent manner. He took a
bulky envelope from his pocket, and threw it on the table. “This,” said
he coldly, “is what I was bringing to Mademoiselle Lacheneur. It
contains, first of all, royal letters of licence from his majesty for
the Baron d’Escorval, who is now at liberty to return to his old home.
He is, in fact, free and saved, for he is granted a new trial, and there
can be no doubt of his acquittal. In the same envelope you will also
find a decree of noncomplicity rendered in favour of the Abbe Midon, and
an order from the bishop of the diocese, reinstating him as cure of
Sairmeuse; and, finally, Corporal Bavois’ discharge from the service,
drawn up in proper form, with the needful memorandum securing his right
to a pension.”

He paused, and as his hearers stood motionless with wonder, he turned
and approached Marie-Anne’s bedside. Then, with his hand raised to
heaven over the lifeless form of her whom he had loved, and in a voice
that would have made the murderess tremble in her innermost soul, he
solemnly exclaimed: “I swear to you, Marie-Anne, that I will avenge
you!” For a few seconds he stood motionless, then suddenly he stooped,
pressed a kiss on the dead girl’s brow, and left the room.

“And you think that man can be guilty!” exclaimed the abbe. “You see,
Jean, that you are mad!”

“And this last insult to my dead sister is an honour, I suppose,” said
Jean, with a furious gesture.

“And the wretch binds my hands by saving my father!” exclaimed Maurice.

From his place by the window, the abbe saw Martial vault into the
saddle. But the marquis did not take the road to Montaignac. It was
towards the Chateau de Courtornieu that he now hastened.



XXXIV.


Blanche’s reason had sustained a frightful shock, when Chupin was
obliged to lift and carry her out of Marie-Anne’s room. But she
well-nigh lost consciousness altogether when she saw the old poacher
struck down by her side. However, as will be remembered, Aunt Medea, at
least, had some energy in her fright. She seized her bewildered niece’s
arm, and by dint of dragging and pushing had her back at the chateau in
much less time than it had taken them to reach the Borderie. It was
half-past one in the morning when they reached the little garden-gate,
by which they had left the grounds. No one in the chateau had noticed
their long absence. This was due to several different circumstances.
First of all, to the precautions which Blanche herself had taken in
giving orders, before going out, that no one should come to her room, on
any pretext whatever, unless she rang. Then it also chanced to be the
birthday of the marquis’s valet de chambre, and the servants had dined
more sumptuously than usual. They had toasts and songs over their
dessert; and at the finish of the repast, they amused themselves with an
improvised ball. They were still dancing when Blanche and her aunt
returned. None of the doors had yet been secured for the night, and the
pair succeeded in reaching Blanche’s room without being observed. When
the door had been securely closed, and there was no longer any fear of
listeners, Aunt Medea attacked her niece.

“Now, will you explain what happened at the Borderie; and what you were
doing there?” she inquired, in a tone of unusual authority.

Blanche shuddered. “Why do you wish to know?” she asked.

“Because I suffered agony during the hours I was waiting for you in the
garden. What was the meaning of those dreadful cries I heard? Why did
you call for help? I heard a death-rattle that made my hair stand on end
with terror. Why did Chupin have to bring you out in his arms?” She
paused for a moment, and then finding that Blanche did not reply. “You
don’t answer me!” she exclaimed.

The young marchioness was longing to annihilate her dependent relative,
who might ruin her by a thoughtless word, and whom she would ever have
beside her--a living memento of her crime. However, what should she say?
Would it be better to reveal the truth, horrible as it was, or to invent
some plausible explanation? If she confessed everything she would place
herself at Aunt Medea’s mercy. But, on the other hand, if she deceived
her aunt, it was more than probable that the latter would betray her by
some involuntary remark when she heard of the crime committed at the
Borderie. Hence, under the circumstances, the wisest plan, perhaps,
would be to speak out frankly, to teach her relative her lesson, and try
and imbue her with some firmness. Having come to this conclusion,
Blanche disdained all concealment. “Ah, well!” she said, “I was jealous
of Marie-Anne. I thought she was Martial’s mistress. I was half-crazed,
and I poisoned her.”

She expected a despairing cry, or even a fainting fit, but, to her
surprise, Aunt Medea merely shed a few tears--such as she often wept for
any trifle--and exclaimed: “How terrible. What if it should be
discovered?” In point of fact, stupid as the neglected spinster might
be, she had guessed the truth before she questioned her niece. And not
merely was she prepared for some such answer, but the tyranny she had
endured for years had well-nigh destroyed all the real moral sensibility
she had ever possessed.

On noting her aunt’s comparative composure, Blanche breathed more
freely. She never imagined that her impoverished relative was already
meditating some sort of revenge for all the slights heaped on her in
past years; but felt quite convinced that she could count on Aunt
Medea’s absolute silence and submission. With this idea in her head she
began to relate all the circumstances of the frightful drama enacted at
the Borderie. In so doing she yielded to a desire stronger than her own
will: to the wild longing that often seizes the most hardened criminal,
and forces--irresistibly impels him to talk of his crimes, even when he
distrusts his confidant. But when she came to speak of the proofs which
had convinced her of her lamentable mistake, she suddenly paused in
dismay.

What had she done with the marriage certificate signed by the cure of
Vigano, and which she remembered holding in her hands? She sprang up,
and felt in the pocket of her dress. Ah, she had it safe. It was there.
Without again unfolding it she threw into a drawer, and turned the key.

Aunt Medea wished to retire to her own room, but Blanche entreated her
to remain. She was unwilling to be left alone--she dared not--she was
afraid. And as if she desired to silence the inward voice tormenting
her, she talked on with extreme volubility, repeating again and again
that she was ready to do anything in expiation of her crime, and vowing
that she would overcome all impossibilities in her quest for
Marie-Anne’s child. The task was both a difficult and dangerous one, for
an open search for the child would be equivalent to a confession of
guilt. Hence, she must act secretly, and with great caution. “But I
shall succeed,” she said. “I will spare no expense.” And remembering her
vow, and her dying victim’s threats, she added: “I must succeed. I swore
to do so, and I was forgiven under those conditions.”

In the meanwhile, Aunt Medea sat listening in astonishment. It was
incomprehensible to her, that her niece, with her dreadful crime still
fresh in her mind, could coolly reason, deliberate, and make plans for
the future. “What an iron will!” thought the dependent relative; but in
her bewilderment she quite overlooked one or two circumstances that
would have enlightened any ordinary observer.

Blanche was seated on her bed with her hair unbound; her eyes were
glistening with delirium, and her incoherent words and excited gestures
betrayed the frightful anxiety that was torturing her. And she talked
and talked, now narrating, and now questioning Aunt Medea, and forcing
her to reply, only that she might escape from her own thoughts. Morning
had already dawned, and the servants could be heard bustling about the
chateau, while Blanche, oblivious of everything around her, was still
explaining how, in less than a year, she could hope to restore
Marie-Anne’s child to Maurice d’Escorval. She paused abruptly in the
middle of a sentence. Instinct had suddenly warned her of the danger she
incurred in making the slightest change in her habits. Accordingly, she
sent Aunt Medea away, then, at the usual hour, rang for her maid. It was
nearly eleven o’clock, and she was just completing her toilette, when
the ring of the outer bell announced a visitor. Almost immediately her
maid, who had just previously left her, returned, evidently in a state
of great excitement.

“What is the matter?” inquired Blanche, eagerly. “Who has come?”

“Ah, madame--that is, mademoiselle, if you only knew----”

“Will you speak?”

“The Marquis de Sairmeuse is downstairs in the blue drawing-room; and he
begs mademoiselle to grant him a few minutes’ conversation.”

Had a thunderbolt riven the earth at her feet, the murderess could not
have been more terrified. Her first thought was that everything had been
discovered; for what else could have brought Martial there? She almost
decided to send word that she was not at home, or that she was extremely
ill; when reason told her that she was perhaps alarming herself
needlessly, and that in any case the worst was preferable to suspense.
“Tell the marquis that I will be with him in a moment,” she at last
replied.

She desired a few minutes solitude to compose her features, to regain
her self-possession, if possible, and conquer the nervous trembling
that made her shake like a leaf. But in the midst of her uneasiness a
sudden inspiration brought a malicious smile to her lip. “Ah!” she
thought, “my agitation will seem perfectly natural. It may even be of
service.” And yet as she descended the grand staircase, she could not
help saying to herself: “Martial’s presence here is incomprehensible.”

It was certainly very extraordinary; and he himself had not come to
Courtornieu without considerable hesitation. But it was the only means
he had of procuring several important documents which were indispensable
in the revision of M. d’Escorval’s case. These documents, after the
baron’s condemnation, had been left in the Marquis de Courtornieu’s
hands. Now that the latter had gone out of his mind, it was impossible
to ask him for them; and Martial was obliged to apply to his wife for
permission to search for them among her father’s papers. He had said to
himself that morning: “I will carry the baron’s letters of licence to
Marie-Anne, and then I will push on to Courtornieu.”

He arrived at the Borderie gay and confident, his heart full of hope;
and found that Marie-Anne was dead. The discovery had been a terrible
blow for Martial; and his conscience told him that he was not free from
blame; that he had, at least, facilitated the perpetration of the crime.
For it was indeed he who, by an abuse of influence, had caused Maurice’s
arrest at Turin. But though he was capable of the basest perfidy when
his love was at stake, he was incapable of virulent animosity.
Marie-Anne was dead; he had it in his power to revoke the benefits he
had conferred, but the thought of doing so never once occurred to him.
And when Jean and Maurice upbraided him, his only revenge was to
overwhelm them by his magnanimity. When he left the Borderie, pale as a
ghost, his lips still cold from the kiss still printed on the dead
girl’s brow, he said to himself: “For her sake, I will go to
Courtornieu. In memory of her, the baron must be saved.”

By the expression of the servants’ faces as he leapt from the saddle in
the courtyard of the chateau and asked to see Madame Blanche, he was
again reminded of the sensation which this unexpected visit would
necessarily cause. However, he cared little for it. He was passing
through a crisis in which the mind can conceive no further misfortune,
and becomes indifferent to everything. Still he trembled slightly when
they ushered him into the blue drawing-room. He remembered the room
well, for it was here that Blanche had been wont to receive him in days
gone by, when his fancy was wavering between her and Marie-Anne. How
many pleasant hours they had passed together here! He seemed to see
Blanche again, as she was then, radiant with youth, gay and smiling. Her
manner was affected, perhaps, but still it had seemed charming at the
time.

At this very moment, Blanche entered the room. She looked so sad and
careworn that her husband scarcely knew her. His heart was touched by
the look of patient sorrow seemingly stamped upon her features. “How
much you must have suffered, Blanche,” he murmured, scarcely knowing
what he said.

It cost her an effort to repress her secret joy. She at once realised
that he knew nothing of her crime; and noting his emotion, she perceived
the profit she might derive from it. “I can never cease to regret having
displeased you,” she replied, in a sad humble voice. “I shall never be
consoled.”

She had touched the vulnerable spot in every man’s heart. For there is
no man so sceptical, so cold, or so heartless but his vanity is not
flattered with the thought that a woman is dying for his sake. There is
no man who is not moved by such a flattering idea; and who is not ready
and willing to give, at least, a tender pity in exchange for such
devotion.

“Is it possible that you could forgive me?” stammered Martial. The wily
enchantress averted her face as if to prevent him from reading in her
eyes a weakness of which she felt ashamed. This simple gesture was the
most eloquent of answers. But Martial said no more on this subject. He
asked for permission to inspect M. de Courtornieu’s papers with the view
of finding the documents he required for M. d’Escorval’s case, and
Blanche readily complied with his request. He then turned to take his
leave, and fearing perhaps the consequences of too formal a promise he
merely added: “Since you don’t forbid it, Blanche, I will
return--to-morrow--another day.” However, as he rode back to Montaignac,
his thoughts were busy. “She really loves me,” he mused; “that pallor,
that weariness could not be feigned. Poor girl! she is my wife, after
all. The reasons that influenced me in my quarrel with her father exist
no longer, for the Marquis de Courtornieu may be considered as dead.”

All the inhabitants of Sairmeuse were congregated on the market-place
when Martial rode through the village. They have just heard of the
murder at the Borderie, and the abbe was now closeted with the
magistrate, relating as far as he could the circumstances of the crime.
After a prolonged enquiry, it was eventually reported that a man known
as Chupin, a notoriously bad character, had entered the house of
Marie-Anne Lacheneur, and taken advantage of her absence to mingle
poison with her food; and the said Chupin had been himself assassinated
soon after his crime, by a certain Balstain, whose whereabouts were
unknown.

However, this affair soon interested the district far less than the
constant visits which Martial was paying to Madame Blanche. Shortly
afterwards it was rumoured that the Marquis and the Marchioness de
Sairmeuse were reconciled; and indeed a few weeks later, they left for
Paris with an intention of residing there permanently. A day or two
after their departure, the eldest of the Chupins also announced his
determination of taking up his abode in the same great city. Some of his
friends endeavoured to dissuade him, assuring him that he would
certainly die of starvation; but with singular assurance, he replied:
“On the contrary, I have an idea that I shan’t want for anything so long
as I live there.”



XXXV.


Time gradually heals all wounds; and its effacing fingers spare but few
traces of events; which in their season may have absorbed the attention
of many thousand minds. What remained to attest the reality of that
fierce whirlwind of passion which had swept over the peaceful valley of
the Oiselle? Only a charred ruin on La Reche, and a grave in the
cemetery, on which was inscribed: “Marie-Anne Lacheneur, died at the age
of twenty. Pray for her!” Recent as were the events of which that ruin
and that grave stone seemed as it were the prologue and the epilogue,
they were already relegated to the legendary past. The peasantry of
Sairmeuse had other things to think about--the harvest, the weather,
their sheep and cattle, and it was only a few old men, the politicians
of the village, who at times turned their attention from agricultural
incidents to remember the rising of Montaignac. Sometimes, during the
long winter evenings, when they were gathered together at the local
hostelry of the Boeuf Couronne, they would lay down their greasy cards
and gravely discuss the events of the past year. And they never failed
to remark that almost all the actors in that bloody drama at Montaignac
had in common parlance, “come to a bad end.” The victors and the
vanquished seemed to encounter the same fate. Lacheneur had been
beheaded; Chanlouineau, shot; Marie-Anne, poisoned, and Chupin, the
traitor, the Duke de Sairmeuse’s spy, stabbed to death. It was true that
the Marquis de Courtornieu lived, or rather survived, but death would
have seemed a mercy in comparison with such a total annihilation of
intelligence. He had fallen below the level of a brute beast, which at
least is endowed with instinct. Since his daughter’s departure he had
been ostensibly cared for by two servants, who did not allow him to give
them much trouble, for whenever they wished to go out they complacently
confined him, not in his room, but in the back cellar, so as to prevent
his shrieks and ravings from being heard outside. If some folks supposed
for awhile that the Sairmeuses would escape the fate of the others, they
were grievously mistaken, for it was not long before the curse fell upon
them as well.

One fine December morning, the Duke left the chateau to take part in a
wolf-hunt in the neighbourhood. At nightfall, his horse returned,
panting, covered with foam, and riderless. What had become of his
master? A search was instituted at once, and all night long a score of
men, carrying torches, wandered through the woods, shouting and calling
at the top of their voices. Five days went by, and the search for the
missing man was almost abandoned, when a shepherd lad, pale with fear,
came to the chateau to tell the steward that he had discovered the Duke
de Sairmeuse’s body--lying all bloody and mangled at the foot of a
precipice. It seemed strange that so excellent a rider should have met
with such a fate; and there might have been some doubt as to its being
an accident, had it not been for the explanation given by several of his
grace’s grooms. “The duke was riding an exceedingly vicious beast,”
these men remarked. “She was always taking fright and shying at
everything.”

A few days after this occurrence Jean Lacheneur left the neighbourhood.
This singular fellow’s conduct had caused considerable comment. When
Marie-Anne died, although he was her natural heir, he at first refused
to have anything to do with her property. “I don’t want to take anything
that came to her through Chanlouineau,” he said to every one right and
left, thus slandering his sister’s memory, as he had slandered her when
alive. Then, after a short absence from the district, and without any
apparent reason, he suddenly changed his mind. He not only accepted the
property, but made all possible haste to obtain possession of it. He
excused his past conduct as best he could; but if he was to be believed,
instead of acting in his own interest, he was merely carrying his
sister’s wishes into effect, for he over and over again declared that
whatever price her property might fetch not a sou of its value would go
into his own pockets. This much is certain, as soon as he obtained legal
possession of the estate, he sold it, troubling himself but little as to
the price he received, provided the purchasers paid cash. However, he
reserved the sumptuous furniture of the room on the upper floor of the
Borderie and burnt it--from the bed-stead to the curtains and the
carpet--one evening in the little garden in front of the house. This
singular act became the talk of the neighbourhood, and the villagers
universally opined that Jean had lost his head. Those who hesitated to
agree with this opinion, expressed it a short time afterwards, when it
became known that Jean Lacheneur had engaged himself with a company of
strolling players who stopped at Montaignac for a few days. The young
fellow had both good advice and kind friends. M. d’Escorval and the abbe
had exerted all their eloquence to induce him to return to Paris, and
complete his studies; but in vain.

The priest and the baron no longer had to conceal themselves. Thanks to
Martial de Sairmeuse they were now installed, the former at the
parsonage and the latter at Escorval, as in days gone by. Acquitted at
his new trial, re-installed in possession of his property, reminded of
his frightful fall only by a slight limp, the baron would have deemed
himself a fortunate man had it not been for his great anxiety on his
son’s account. Poor Maurice! The nails that secured Marie-Anne’s coffin
ere it was lowered into the sod seemed to have pierced his heart; and
his very life now seemed dependent on the hope of finding his child.
Relying already on the Abbe Midon’s protection and assistance, he had
confessed everything to his father, and had even confided his secret to
Corporal Bavois, who was now an honoured guest at Escorval; and all
three had promised him their best assistance. But the task was a
difficult one and such chances of success as might have existed were
greatly diminished by Maurice’s determination that Marie-Anne’s name
should not be mentioned in prosecuting the search. In this he acted very
differently to Jean. The latter slandered his murdered sister right and
left, while Maurice sedulously sought to prevent her memory being
tarnished.

The Abbe Midon did not seek to turn Maurice from his idea. “We shall
succeed all the same,” he said kindly, “with time and patience any
mystery can be solved.” He divided the department into a certain number
of districts; and one of the little band went day by day from house to
house questioning the inmates, in the most cautious manner, for fear of
arousing suspicion; for a peasant becomes intractable if his suspicions
are but once aroused. However, weeks went by, and still the quest was
fruitless. Maurice was losing all hope. “My child must have died on
coming into the world,” he said, again and again.

But the abbe re-assured him. “I am morally certain that such was not the
case,” he replied. “By Marie-Anne’s absence I can tell pretty nearly the
date of her child’s birth. I saw her after her recovery; she was
comparatively gay and smiling. Draw your own conclusions.”

“And yet there isn’t a nook or corner for miles round which we haven’t
explored.”

“True; but we must extend the circle of our investigations.”

The priest was now only striving to gain time, which as he knew full
well is the sovereign balm for sorrow. His confidence had been very
great at first, but it had sensibly diminished since he had questioned
an old woman, who had the reputation of being one of the greatest
gossips of the community. On being skilfully catechised by the abbe,
this worthy dame replied that she knew nothing of such a child, but that
there must be one in the neighbourhood, as this was the third time she
had been questioned on the subject. Intense as was his surprise, the
abbe succeeded in concealing it. He set the old gossip talking, and
after two hours’ conversation, he arrived at the conclusion that two
persons in addition to Maurice were searching for Marie-Anne’s child.
Who these persons were and what their aim was, were points which the
abbe failed to elucidate. “Ah” thought he, “after all, rascals have
their use on earth. If we only had a man like Chupin to set on the
trail!”

The old poacher was dead, however, and his eldest son--the one who knew
Blanche’s secret--was in Paris. Only the widow and the second son
remained at Sairmeuse. They had not, as yet, succeeded in discovering
the twenty thousand francs, but the fever for gold was still burning in
their veins, and they persisted in their search. From morn till night
the mother and son toiled on, until the earth round their hut had been
fully explored to the depth of six feet. However, a peasant passed by
one day and made a remark which suddenly caused them to abandon their
search. “Really, my boy,” he said, addressing young Chupin, “I didn’t
think you were such a fool as to persist in bird’s nesting after the
chick was hatched and had flown. Your brother in Paris can no doubt tell
you where the treasure was concealed.”

“Holy Virgin! you’re right!” cried the younger Chupin. “Wait till I get
money enough to take me to Paris, and we’ll see.”



XXXVI.


Martial De Sairmeuse’s unexpected visit to the Chateau de Courtornieu
had alarmed Aunt Medea even more than it had alarmed Blanche. In five
minutes, more ideas passed through the dependent relative’s mind than
during the last five years. In fancy she already saw the gendarmes at
the chateau; her niece arrested, confined in the Montaignac prison, and
brought before the Assize Court. She might herself remain quiet if that
were all there was to fear! But suppose she were compromised, suspected
of complicity as well, dragged before the judges, and even accused of
being the only culprit! At this thought her anxiety reached a climax,
and finding the suspense intolerable, she ventured downstairs. She stole
on tiptoe into the great ball room, and applying her ear to the keyhole
of the door leading into the blue salon, she listened attentively to
Blanche and Martial’s conversation. What she heard convinced her that
her fears were groundless. She drew a long breath, as if a mighty burden
had been lifted from her breast. But a new idea, which was to grow,
flourish, and bear fruit, had just taken root in her mind. When Martial
left the room, she at once opened the door by which she had been
standing, and entered the blue reception room, thus admitting as it were
that she had been a listener. Twenty-four hours earlier she would not
even have dreamed of committing such an audacious act. “Well,” she
exclaimed, “Blanche, we were frightened for nothing.”

Blanche did not reply. The young marchioness was weighing in her mind
the probable consequences of all these events which had succeeded each
other with such marvellous rapidity. “Perhaps the hour of my revenge is
nigh,” she murmured, as if communing with herself.

“What do you say?” inquired Aunt Medea, with evident curiosity.

“I say, aunt, that in less than a month I shall be the Marchioness de
Sairmeuse in reality as well as in name. My husband will return to me,
and then--oh! then.”

“God grant it!” said Aunt Medea, hypocritically. In her secret heart she
had but scant faith in this prediction, and cared very little whether it
was realized or not. However, in that low tone which accomplices
habitually employ, she ventured to add: “If what you say proves true, it
will only be another proof that your jealousy led you astray; and
that--that what you did at the Borderie was a perfectly unnecessary
act.”

Such had indeed been Blanche’s opinion; but now she shook her head, and
gloomily replied: “You are wrong; what took place at the Borderie has
brought my husband back to me again. I understand everything now. It is
true that Marie-Anne was not his mistress; but he loved her. He loved
her, and her repulses only increased his passion. It was for her sake
that he abandoned me; and while she lived he would never have thought of
me. His emotion on seeing me was the remnant of an emotion which she had
awakened. His tenderness was only the expression of his grief. Whatever
happens, I shall only have her leavings--the leavings of what she
disdained!” The young marchioness spoke bitterly, her eyes flashed, and
she stamped her foot as she added: “So I shan’t regret what I have done!
no, never--never!” As she spoke she felt herself again brave and
determined.

But horrible fears assailed her when the enquiry into the circumstances
of the murder commenced. Officials had been sent from Montaignac to
investigate the affair. They examined a host of witnesses, and there was
even some talk of sending to Paris for one of those detectives skilled
in unravelling all the mysteries of crime. This prospect quite terrified
Aunt Medea; and her fear was so apparent that it caused Blanche great
anxiety. “You will end by betraying us,” she remarked, one evening.

“Ah! I can’t control my fears.”

“If that is the case, don’t leave your room.”

“It would be more prudent, certainly.”

“You can say you are not well; your meals shall be served you upstairs.”

Aunt Medea’s face brightened. In her heart, she was delighted. It had
long been her dream and ambition to have her meals served in her own
room, in bed in the morning and on a little table by the fire in the
evening; but as yet she had never been able to realise this fancy. On
two or three occasions, feeling slightly indisposed, she had asked to
have her breakfast brought to her room, but her request had each time
been harshly refused. “If Aunt Medea is hungry, she will come
downstairs, and take her place at the table as usual,” had been
Blanche’s imperious reply.

It was hard, indeed, to be treated in this way in a chateau where there
were always a dozen servants idling about. But now, in obedience to the
young marchioness’s formal orders, the head cook himself came up every
morning into Aunt Medea’s room, to receive her instructions; and she
was at perfect liberty to dictate each day’s bill of fare, and to order
the particular dishes she preferred. This change in the dependent
relative’s situation awakened many strange thoughts in her mind, and
stifled such regret as she had felt for the crime at Borderie. Still
both she and her niece followed the enquiry which had been set on foot
with a keen interest. They obtained all the latest information
concerning the investigation through the butler of the chateau, who
seemed much interested in the case, and who had won the goodwill of the
Montaignac police agents, by making them familiar with the contents of
his wine cellar. It was from this major-domo that Blanche and her aunt
learned that all suspicions pointed to the deceased Chupin, who had been
seen prowling round about the Borderie on the very night the crime was
committed. This testimony was given by the same young peasant who had
warned Jean Lacheneur of the old poacher’s doings. As regards the motive
of the crime, fully a score of persons had heard Chupin declare that he
should never enjoy any piece of mind as long as a single Lacheneur was
left on earth. So thus it happened that the very incidents which might
have ruined Blanche, saved her; and she really came to consider the old
poacher’s death as a providential occurrence, for she at least had no
reason to suspect that he had revealed her secret before expiring. When
the butler told her that the magistrate and the police agents had
returned to Montaignac, she could scarcely conceal her joy; and drawing
a long breath of relief, she turned towards Aunt Medea with the remark:
“Ah, now there’s nothing more to be feared.”

She had, indeed, escaped the justice of man; but the justice of God
remained. A few weeks previously the thought of divine retribution would
perhaps have made Blanche smile, for she then considered the punishment
of providence as an imaginary evil, invented to hold timorous minds in
check. On the morning that followed her crime, and after her long random
talk with Aunt Medea, she almost shrugged her shoulders at the thought
of Marie-Anne’s dying threats. She remembered her promise; and yet,
despite all she had said, she did not intend to fulfil it. After careful
consideration, she had come to the conclusion that in trying to find the
missing child she would expose herself to terrible risks; and on the
other hand, she felt certain that the child’s father would discover it.
So she dismissed the matter from her mind, and chiefly busied herself
with what Martial had said during his visit, and the prospect that
presented itself of a reconciliation.

But she was destined to realize the power of her victim’s threats that
same night. Worn out with fatigue, she retired to her room at an early
hour, and jumped into bed, exclaiming; “I must sleep!” But sleep had
fled. Her crime was over in her thoughts; and rose before her in all its
horror and atrocity. She knew that she was lying on her bed, at
Courtornieu; and yet it seemed as if she were still in Chanlouineau’s
house, first pouring out the poison, and then watching its effects,
while concealed in the dressing-room. She was struggling against the
idea; exerting all her strength of will to drive away these terrible
memories, when she imagined she heard the key turn in the lock. Raising
her head from the pillow with a start, she fancied she could perceive
the door open noiselessly, and then Marie-Anne glided into the room like
a phantom. She seated herself in an arm-chair near the bed, and while
the tears rolled down her cheeks, she looked sadly, yet threateningly
around her. The murderess hid her face under the counterpane. She
shivered with terror, and a cold sweat escaped from every pore in her
skin. For this seemed no mere apparition, but the frightful reality
itself. Blanche did not submit to these tortures without resisting.
Making a vigorous effort, she tried to reason with herself aloud, as if
the sound of her voice would re-assure her. “I am dreaming!” she said.
“The dead don’t return to life? To think that I’m childish enough to be
frightened at phantoms which only exist in my own imagination.”

She said this, but the vision did not fade. When she shut her eyes the
phantom still faced her--even through her closed eyelids, and through
the coverlids drawn up over her face. Say what she would, she did not
succeed in sleeping till daybreak. And, worst of all, night after night,
the same vision haunted her, reviving the terror which she forgot during
the day-time in the broad sunlight. For she would regain her courage and
become sceptical again as soon as the morning broke. “How foolish it is
to be afraid of something that does not exist!” she would remark,
railing at herself. “To-night I will conquer this absurd weakness.” But
when evening came all her resolution vanished, and scarcely had she
retired to her room than the same fears seized hold of her, and the same
phantom rose before her eyes. She fancied that her nocturnal agonies
would cease when the investigation anent the murder was over--that she
would forget both her crime and promise; but the enquiry finished, and
yet the same vision haunted her, and she did not forget. Darwin has
remarked that it is when their safety is assured that great criminals
really feel remorse, and Blanche might have vouched for the truth of
this assertion, made by the deepest thinker and closest observer of the
age.

And yet her sufferings, atrocious as they were, did not induce her for
one moment to abandon the plan she had formed on the occasion of
Martial’s visit. She played her part so well that, moved with pity, if
not with love, he returned to see her frequently, and at last, one day,
besought her to allow him to remain. But even this triumph did not
restore her peace of mind. For between her and her husband rose the
dreadful vision of Marie-Anne’s distorted features. She knew only too
well that Martial had no love to give her, and that she would never have
the slightest influence over him. And to crown her already intolerable
sufferings came an incident which filled her with dismay. Alluding one
evening to Marie-Anne’s death, Martial forgot himself, and spoke of his
oath of vengeance. He deeply regretted that Chupin was dead, he said,
for he should have experienced an intense delight in making the wretch
who murdered her die a lingering death in the midst of the most
frightful tortures. As he spoke his voice vibrated with still powerful
passion, and Blanche, in terror asked herself what would be her fate if
her husband ever discovered that she was the culprit--and he might
discover it. Now it was that she began to regret she had not kept her
promise; and she resolved to commence the search for Marie-Anne’s child.
But to do this effectually it was essential she should be in a large
city--in Paris, for instance--where she could procure discreet and
skilful agents. Thus it was necessary to persuade Martial to remove to
the capital. But with the Duke de Sairmeuse’s assistance she did not
find this a very difficult task; and one morning, with a radiant face,
she informed Aunt Medea that she and her husband would leave
Courtornieu at the end of the coming week.

In the midst of her anxiety, Blanche had failed to notice that Aunt
Medea was no longer the same. The change in the dependent relative’s
tone and manner had, it is true, been a gradual one; it had not struck
the servants, but it was none the less positive and real, and now it
showed itself continually. For instance, the ofttime tyrannized-over
chaperone no longer trembled when any one spoke to her, as formerly had
been her wont, and there was occasionally a decided ring of independence
in her voice. If visitors were present, she had been used to remain
modestly in the background, but now she drew her chair forward, and
unhesitatingly took part in the conversation. At table, she gave free
expression to her preferences and dislikes; and on two or three
occasions she had ventured to differ from her niece in opinion, and had
even been so bold as to question the propriety of some of her orders.
One day, moreover, when Blanche was going out, she asked Aunt Medea to
accompany her; but the latter declared she had a cold, and remained at
home. And, on the following Sunday, although Blanche did not wish to
attend vespers, Aunt Medea declared her intentions of going; and as it
rained she requested the coachman to harness the horses to the carriage,
which was done. All these little incidents could have been nothing
separately, but taken together they plainly showed that the once humble
chaperone’s character had changed. When her niece announced that she and
Martial were about to leave the neighbourhood, Aunt Medea was greatly
surprised, for the project had never been discussed in her presence.
“What! you are going away,” she repeated; “you are leaving Courtornieu?”

“And without regret.”

“And where are you going to, pray?”

“To Paris. We shall reside there permanently; that’s decided. The
capital’s the proper place for my husband, and, with his name, fortune,
talents and the king’s favour, he will secure a high position there. He
will re-purchase the Hotel de Sairmeuse, and furnish it magnificently,
so that we shall have a princely establishment.”

Aunt Medea’s expression plainly indicated that she was suffering all the
torments of envy. “And what is to become of me?” she asked, in plaintive
tones.

“You--aunt! You will remain here; you will be mistress of the chateau. A
trustworthy person must remain to watch over my poor father. You will be
happy and contented here, I hope.”

But no; Aunt Medea did not seem satisfied. “I shall never have courage
to stay all alone in this great chateau,” she whined.

“You foolish woman! won’t you have the servants, the gardeners, and the
concierge to protect you?”

“That makes no difference. I am afraid of insane people. When the
marquis began to rave and howl this evening, I felt as if I should go
mad myself.”

Blanche shrugged her shoulders. “What _do_ you wish, then?” she asked,
sarcastically.

“I thought--I wondered--if you wouldn’t take me with you.”

“To Paris! You are crazy, I do believe. What would you do there?”

“Blanche, I entreat you, I beseech you, to do so!”

“Impossible, aunt, impossible!”

Aunt Medea seemed to be in despair. “And what if I told you that I can’t
remain here--that I dare not--that I should die!”

Blanche flushed with impatience. “You weary me beyond endurance,” she
said, roughly. And with a gesture that increased the harshness of her
words, she added: “If Courtornieu displeases you so much, there is
nothing to prevent you from seeking a home more to your taste. You are
free and of age.”

Aunt Medea turned very pale, and bit her lips. “That is to say,” she
said at last, “that you allow me to take my choice between dying of fear
at Courtornieu and ending my days in a hospital. Thanks, my niece,
thanks. That is like you. I expected nothing less from you. Thanks!” She
raised her head, and her once humble eyes gleamed in a threatening
fashion. “Very well! this decides me,” she continued. “I entreated you,
and you brutally refused my request, so now I command you and I say: ‘I
will go!’ Yes, I intend to go with you to Paris--and I shall go. Ah! so
it surprises you to hear poor, meek, much-abused Aunt Medea speak like
this; but I’ve endured a great deal in silence for a long time, and now
I rebel. My life in this house has been like life in hell. It is true
you’ve given me shelter--fed and lodged me, but you’ve taken my entire
life in exchange. What servant ever endured what I’ve had to endure?
Have you ever treated one of your maids as you have treated me--your own
flesh and blood? And I have had no wages, on the contrary, I was
expected to be grateful since I lived by your tolerance. Ah, you have
made me pay dearly for the crime of being poor. How you have insulted
me--humiliated me--trampled me under foot!”

The rebellious chaperone paused again. The bitter rancour which had been
accumulating in her heart for years fairly choked her; but after a
moment, she resumed in a tone of irony: “You ask me what _I_ should do
in Paris? I should enjoy myself, like you. You will go to court, to the
play--into society, won’t you? Very well, I will accompany you. I will
attend these fetes. I will have handsome toilettes too. I have rarely
seen myself in anything but shabby black woollen dresses. Have you ever
thought of giving me the pleasure of possessing a handsome dress? Twice
a-year, perhaps, you have given me a black silk, recommending me to take
good care of it. But it was not for my sake that you went to this
expense. It was for your own sake, and in order that your poor relation
should do honour to your generosity. You dressed me in it, like you put
your lacqueys in livery, through vanity. And I endured all this; I made
myself insignificant and humble; and when I was buffeted on one cheek, I
offered the other. For after all I must live--I must have food. And you,
Blanche, how often haven’t you said to me so that I might do your
bidding, ‘You must obey me, if you wish to remain at Courtornieu!’ And I
obeyed you--I was forced to obey, as I didn’t know where else to go. Ah!
you have abused my poverty in every way; but now my turn has come!”

Blanche was so amazed that she could scarcely articulate a syllable, and
it was in a scarcely audible voice that at last she faltered: “I don’t
understand you, aunt, I don’t understand you.”

The poor dependent shrugged her shoulders, as her niece had done a few
moments before. “In that case,” said she, slowly, “I may as well tell
you that since you have made me your accomplice against my will, we must
share everything in common. I share the danger; so I will share the
pleasure. Suppose everything should be discovered? Do you ever think of
that? Yes, I’ve no doubt you do, and that’s why you are seeking
diversion. Very well! I desire diversion also, so I shall go to Paris
with you.”

With a desperate effort, Blanche managed to regain some degree of
self-possession. “And if I still said no?” she coldly queried.

“But you won’t say no.”

“And why not, if you please?”

“Because--”

“Will you go to the authorities and denounce me?”

Aunt Medea shook her head. “I am not such a fool,” she retorted. “I
should only compromise myself. No. I shouldn’t do that; but I might,
perhaps, tell your husband what happened at the Borderie.”

Blanche shuddered. No other threat could have had such influence over
her. “You shall accompany us, aunt,” said she: “I promise it.” And then
in a gentle voice, she added: “But it’s quite unnecessary to threaten
me. You have been cruel, aunt, and at the same time unjust. If you have
been unhappy in our house, you have only yourself to blame. Why haven’t
you ever said anything? I attributed your complaisance to your affection
for me. How was I to know that a woman so quiet and modest as yourself
longed for fine dresses. Confess that it was impossible. Had I
known--But rest easy, aunt, I will atone for my neglect.” And as Aunt
Medea, having obtained all she desired, stammered an excuse. “Nonsense!”
rejoined Blanche; “let us forget this foolish quarrel. You forgive me,
don’t you?” And the two ladies embraced each other with the greatest
effusion, like two friends, united after a misunderstanding.

Neither of them, however, was in the least degree deceived by this mock
reconciliation. “It will be best for me to keep on the alert,” thought
the dependent relative. “God only knows with what joy my dear niece
would send me to join Marie-Anne.”

Perhaps a similar thought flitted through Blanche’s mind. “I’m bound to
this dangerous, perfidious creature for ever now,” she reflected. “I’m
no longer my own mistress; I belong to her. When she commands me, I must
obey, no matter what may be her fancy--and she has forty years’
humiliation and servitude to avenge.” The prospect of such a life made
the young marchioness tremble; and she racked her brain to discover some
way of freeing herself from such intolerable thraldom. Would it be
possible to induce Aunt Medea to live independently in her own house,
served by her own servants? Might she succeed in persuading this silly
old woman, who still longed for finery, to marry? A handsome marriage
portion will always attract a husband. However, in either case, Blanche
would require money--a large sum of money, which no one must be in a
position to claim an account of. With this idea she took possession of
over two hundred and fifty thousand francs, in bank notes and coin,
belonging to her father, and put away in one of his private drawers.
This sum represented the Marquis de Courtornieu’s savings during the
past three years. No one knew he had laid it aside, except his daughter;
and now that he had lost his reason, Blanche could take it for her own
use, without the slightest danger. “With this,” thought she, “I can
enrich Aunt Medea whenever I please without having recourse to Martial.”

After these incidents there was a constant exchange of delicate
attentions and fulsome affection between the two ladies. It was “my
dearest little aunt,” and “my dearly beloved niece,” from morning until
night; and the gossips of the neighbourhood, who had often commented on
the haughty disdain with which Blanche treated her relative, would have
found abundant food for comment had they known that during the journey
to Paris, Aunt Medea was protected from the possibility of cold by a
mantle lined with costly fur, exactly like the marchioness’s own, and
that instead of travelling in the cumbersome berline with the servants,
she had a seat in the postchaise with the Marquis de Sairmeuse and his
wife.

Before their departure Martial had noticed the great change which had
come over Aunt Medea and the many attentions which his wife lavished on
her, and one day when he was alone with Blanche, he exclaimed in a tone
of good-natured raillery: “What’s the meaning of all this attachment? We
shall finish by encasing this precious aunt in cotton, shan’t we?”

Blanche trembled, and flushed. “I love good Aunt Medea so much!” said
she. “I never can forget all the affection and devotion she lavished on
me when I was so unhappy.”

It was such a plausible explanation that Martial took no further notice
of the matter; and, indeed, just then his mind was fully occupied. The
agent he had despatched to Paris in advance, to purchase the Hotel de
Sairmeuse, if it were possible, had written asking the marquis to hasten
his journey, as there was some difficulty about concluding the bargain.
“Plague take the fellow!” angrily said Martial, on receiving this news.
“He is quite stupid enough to let this opportunity, which we’ve been
waiting for during the last ten years, slip through his fingers. I
shan’t find any pleasure in Paris, if I can’t own our old residence.”

He was so impatient to reach the capital that, on the second day of
their journey, he declared that if he were alone he would travel all
night. “Do so now,” said Blanche, graciously; “I don’t feel the least
tired, and a night of travel does not frighten me.” So they journeyed on
without stopping, and the next morning at about nine o’clock they
alighted at the Hotel Meurice.

Martial scarcely took time to eat his breakfast. “I must go and see my
agent at once,” he said, as he hurried off. “I will soon be back.” Two
hours afterwards he re-appeared with a radiant face. “My agent was a
simpleton,” he exclaimed. “He was afraid to write me word that a man, on
whom the conclusion of the sale depends, requires a bonus of fifty
thousand francs. He shall have it and welcome.” Then, in a tone of
gallantry, habitual to him whenever he addressed his wife, he added: “It
only remains for me to sign the papers, but I won’t do so unless the
house suits you. If you are not too tired, I would like you to visit it
at once. Time presses, and we have many competitors.”

This visit was, of course, one of pure form; but Blanche would have been
hard to please if she had not been satisfied with this mansion, then one
of the most magnificent in Paris, with a monumental entrance facing the
Rue de Grenelle St. Germain and large umbrageous gardens, extending to
the Rue de Varennes. Unfortunately, this superb dwelling had not been
occupied for several years, and required considerable repair. “It will
take at least six months to restore everything,” said Martial, “perhaps
more; though in three months, possibly, a portion of it might be
arranged very comfortably.”

“It would be living in one’s own house, at least,” observed Blanche,
divining her husband’s wishes.

“Ah! then you agree with me! In that case, you may rest assured that I
will expedite matters as swiftly as possible.”

In spite, or rather by reason of his immense fortune, the Marquis de
Sairmeuse knew that one is never so well, nor so quickly served, as when
one serves one’s self, and so he resolved to take the matter into his
own hands. He conferred with the architect, interviewed the contractors,
and hurried on the workmen. As soon as he was up in the morning he
started out without waiting for breakfast, and seldom returned before
dinner. Although Blanche was compelled to pass most of her time in
doors, on account of the bad weather, she was not inclined to complain.
Her journey, the unaccustomed sights and sounds of Paris, the novelty of
life in a hotel, all combined to divert her thoughts from herself. She
forgot her fears, a sort of haze enveloped the terrible scene at the
Borderie, and the clamours of conscience were sinking into faint
whispers. Indeed, the past seemed fading away, and she was beginning to
entertain hopes of a new and better life, when one day a servant knocked
at the door, and said: “There is a man downstairs who wishes to speak
with madame.”



XXXVII.


Blanche was reclining on a sofa listening to a new book which Aunt Medea
was reading aloud, and she did not even raise her head as the servant
delivered his message. “A man?” she said, carelessly; “what man?” She
was expecting no one; it must be one of the assistants or overseers
employed by Martial.

“I can’t inform madame who he is,” replied the servant. “He is quite
young; he is dressed like a peasant, and is, perhaps, seeking a place.”

“It is probably the marquis he wishes to see.”

“Madame will excuse me, but he particularly said that he wished to speak
with her.”

“Ask his name and business, then. Go on, aunt,” she added: “we have
been interrupted in the most interesting part.”

But Aunt Medea had not time to finish the page before the servant
returned. “The man says madame will understand his business when she
hears his name.”

“And his name?”

“Chupin.”

It seemed as if a bomb-shell had burst into the room. Aunt Medea dropped
her book with a shriek, and sank back, half fainting in her chair.
Blanche sprang up with a face as colourless as her white cashmere
morning dress, her eyes dazed, and her lips trembling. “Chupin,” she
repeated, as if she almost hoped the servant would tell her she had not
understood him correctly; “Chupin!” Then angrily, she added: “Tell this
man I won’t see him, I won’t see him, do you hear?” But before the
servant had time to bow and retire, the young marchioness changed her
mind. “One moment,” said she; “on reflection I think I will see him.
Bring him up.”

The servant then withdrew, and the two ladies looked at each other in
silent consternation. “It must be one of Chupin’s sons,” faltered
Blanche at last.

“No doubt; but what does he desire.”

“Money, probably.”

Aunt Medea raised her eyes to heaven. “God grant that he knows nothing
of your meetings with his father!” said she.

“You are not going to despair in advance, are you, aunt? We shall know
everything in a few minutes. Pray remain calm. Turn your back to us;
look out of the window into the street and don’t let him see your face.”

Blanche was not deceived. This unexpected visitor was indeed Chupin’s
eldest son; the one to whom the dying poacher had confided his secret.
Since his arrival in Paris, the young fellow had been running in every
direction, inquiring everywhere and of everybody for the Marquis de
Sairmeuse’s address. At last he obtained it; and he lost no time in
presenting himself at the Hotel Meurice. He was now awaiting the result
of his application at the entrance down-stairs where he stood whistling,
with his hands in his pockets, when the servant returned, and bade him
follow. Chupin obeyed; but the servant, who was on fire with curiosity,
loitered by the way in hope of obtaining from this country youth some
explanation of the surprise, not to say fright with which Madame de
Sairmeuse had greeted the mention of his name. “I don’t say it to
flatter you, my boy,” he remarked, “but your name produced a great
effect on madame.” The prudent peasant carefully concealed the joy he
felt on receiving this information. “How does she happen to know you?”
continued the servant. “Are you both from the same place?”

“I am her foster-brother.”

The servant did not believe this reply for a moment, and as they had now
reached the marchioness’s apartment, he opened the door and ushered
Chupin into the room. The latter had prepared a little story beforehand,
but he was so dazzled by the magnificence around him that for a moment
he stood motionless with staring eyes and gaping mouth. His wonder was
increased by a large mirror opposite the door, in which he could survey
himself from head to foot, and by the beautiful flowers on the carpet,
which he feared to crush with his heavy shoes.

After a moment, Blanche decided to break the silence. “What do you want
of me,” she asked.

In a rambling fashion young Chupin then explained that he had been
obliged to leave Sairmeuse on account of the numerous enemies he had
there, that he had been unable to find his father’s hidden treasure, and
that he was consequently without resources.

“That’ll do,” interrupted Blanche, and then in far from a friendly
manner, she remarked: “I don’t at all understand why you should apply to
me. You and all the rest of your family have anything but an enviable
reputation at Sairmeuse; still, as you are from that part of the
country, I am willing to aid you a little on condition you don’t apply
to me again.”

Chupin listened to this homily with a half cringing, half impudent air;
but when Blanche had finished he raised his head, and proudly said: “I
don’t ask for alms.”

“What do you ask for, then?”

“My dues.”

Blanche’s heart sank, and yet she had courage enough to glance
disdainfully at Chupin, and reply: “What! do I owe you anything?”

“You don’t owe me anything personally, madame; but you owe a heavy debt
to my deceased father. Whose service did he perish in? Poor old man! he
loved you devotedly. His last words were about you. ‘A terrible thing
has just happened at the Borderie, my boy,’ said he. ‘The young
marchioness hated Marie-Anne, and she has poisoned her. If it hadn’t
been for me she would have been lost. I am about to die, so let the
whole blame rest on me; for it won’t hurt me when I’m under the sod, and
it will save the young lady. And by-and-by she will reward you; so that
as long as you keep the secret you will want for nothing.’” Great as was
young Chupin’s impudence he paused abruptly, amazed by the air of
perfect composure with which Blanche listened to him. In face of such
wonderful dissimulation he almost doubted the truth of his father’s
story.

The marchioness’s self possession was indeed surprising. She felt that
if she once yielded she would always be at this wretch’s mercy, as she
already was at Aunt Medea’s. “In other words,” said she, calmly, “you
accuse me of having murdered Mademoiselle Lacheneur; and you threaten to
denounce me if I don’t yield to your demands.” Chupin nodded his head in
acquiescence. “Very well!” added Blanche; “since that’s the case you may
go.”

It seemed, indeed, that by audacity she might win this dangerous game on
which her future peace depended. Chupin, greatly abashed, was standing
before her undecided what course to pursue, when Aunt Medea, who was
listening by the window, turned in affright, exclaiming, “Blanche! your
husband--Martial! He is coming!”

The game was lost. Blanche fancied her husband entering and finding
Chupin there, conversing with him, and so discovering everything! Her
brain whirled; she yielded. Hastily thrusting her purse into Chupin’s
hand, she dragged him through an inner door to the servants’ staircase.
“Take this,” she said, in a hoarse whisper. “I will see you again. And
not a word--not a word to my husband, remember!”

She had been wise to yield in time. When she returned to the
drawing-room, she found Martial there. He was gazing on the ground, and
held an open letter in his hand. But he raised his head when his wife
entered the room, and she could detect signs of great emotion in his
features. “What has happened?” she faltered.

Martial did not remark her troubled manner. “My father is dead,
Blanche,” he replied.

“The Duke de Sairmeuse! Good heavens! how did it happen?”

“He was thrown from his horse in the forest near the Sanguille rocks.”

“Ah! it was there where my poor father was nearly murdered.”

“Yes, the very place.”

There was a moment’s silence. Martial’s affection for his father had not
been very deep, and he was well aware that the duke had but little love
for him. Hence he was astonished at the bitter grief he felt on hearing
of his death. “From this letter, which was forwarded by a messenger from
Sairmeuse,” he continued, “I gather that everybody believes it to have
been an accident; but I--I----”

“Well?”

“I believe he was murdered.”

An exclamation of horror escaped Aunt Medea, and Blanche turned pale.
“Murder!” she whispered.

“Yes, Blanche; and I could name the murderer. Oh! I am not deceived. My
father’s murderer is the same man who tried to kill the Marquis de
Courtornieu----”

“Jean Lacheneur!”

Martial gravely bowed his head. It was his only reply.

“And will you not denounce him? Will you not demand justice?”

Martial’s face grew gloomy. “What good would it do?” he replied. “I have
no material proofs to furnish, and justice requires unimpeachable
evidence.” Then, as if communing with his own thoughts, rather than
addressing his wife, he added, despondingly, “The Duke de Sairmeuse and
the Marquis de Courtornieu have reaped what they sowed. The blood of
murdered innocence always calls for vengeance. Sooner or later, the
guilty must expiate their crimes.”

Blanche shuddered. Each word found an echo in her own soul. Had her
husband intended his words for her, he would scarcely have expressed
himself differently. “Martial,” said she, trying to arouse him from his
gloomy reverie; “Martial!”

But he did not seem to hear her, and it was in the same tone that he
continued; “These Lacheneurs were happy and honoured before our arrival
at Sairmeuse. Their conduct was above all praise; their probity amounted
to heroism. We might have made them our faithful and devoted friends. It
was our duty, as well as in our interests, to have done so. But we did
not understand it; we humiliated, ruined, exasperated them. It was a
fault for which we must atone. Who knows but what in Jean Lacheneur’s
place I should have done exactly what he has done?” He was again silent
for a moment; then, with one of those sudden inspirations that sometimes
enable one almost to read the future, he resumed: “I know Jean
Lacheneur. I can fathom his hatred, and I know that he lives only in the
hope of vengeance. It is true that we are very high and he is very low,
but that matters little. We have everything to fear. Our millions form a
rampart around us, but he will know how to open a breach. And no
precautions will save us. At the very moment when we feel ourselves
secure, he will be ready to strike. What he will attempt, I don’t know;
but his will be a terrible revenge. Remember my words, Blanche, if ruin
ever overtakes our house, it will be Jean Lacheneur’s work.”

Aunt Medea and her niece were too horror-stricken to articulate a word,
and for five minutes no sound broke the stillness save Martial’s
monotonous tread, as he paced up and down the room. At last he paused
before his wife. “I have just ordered post-horses,” he said. “You will
excuse me for leaving you here alone. I must go to Sairmeuse at once,
but I shall not be absent more than a week.”

He left Paris a few hours later, and Blanche became a prey to the most
intolerable anxiety. She suffered more than she had done during the days
that immediately followed her crime. It was not against phantoms that
she had to shield herself now; Chupin existed, and his voice, even if it
were not as terrible as the voice of conscience, might make itself heard
at any moment. If she had known where to find him, she would have gone
to him, and endeavoured, by the payment of a large sum of money, to
persuade him to leave France. But he had left the hotel without giving
her his address. Then again Martial’s gloomy apprehensions combined to
increase her fears, and the mere thought of Jean Lacheneur made her
shrink with terror. She could not rid herself of the idea that Jean
suspected her guilt, and was watching her, waiting for revenge. Her wish
to find Marie-Anne’s child now became stronger than ever; it seemed to
her that the abandoned infant might be a protection to her some day.
However, where could she find an agent in whom she could confide? At
last she remembered that she had heard her father speak of a detective
named Chefteux as an exceedingly shrewd fellow, capable of anything,
even of honesty if he were well paid. This man was really a perfect
scoundrel, one of Fouche’s vilest instruments, who had served and
betrayed all parties, and who, at last, after the most barefaced
perjury, had been dismissed from the police force. He had then
established a private enquiry office, and after some little search
Blanche ascertained that he lived in the Place Dauphine. One morning,
taking advantage of her husband’s absence, she donned her simplest
dress, and, accompanied by Aunt Medea, repaired to Chefteux’s residence.
He proved to be a middle-aged man of medium height and inoffensive mien,
and he cleverly affected an air of good humour. He ushered his client
into a neatly furnished drawing-room, and Blanche at once told him that
she was a married woman; that she lived with her husband in the Rue St.
Denis; and that one of her sisters who had lately died had been led
astray by a man who had disappeared. A child was living, however, whom
she was very anxious to find. In short, she narrated an elaborate story
which she had prepared in advance, and which, after all, sounded very
plausible. Chefteux, however, did not believe a word of it; for as soon
as it was finished he tapped Blanche familiarly on the shoulder, and
remarked: “In short, my dear, we had our little escapades before our
marriage.”

Blanche shrank back as if some venomous reptile had touched her. To be
treated in this fashion! she--a Courtornieu, now Duchess de Sairmeuse!
“I think you are labouring under a wrong impression,” she haughtily
replied.

He made haste to apologize; but while listening to the further details
he asked for, he could not help remarking to himself; “What eyes! what a
voice!--they can’t belong to a denizen of the Rue Saint-Denis!” His
suspicions were confirmed by the reward of twenty thousand francs, which
Blanche imprudently promised him in case of success, and by the five
hundred francs which she paid in advance. “And where shall I have the
honour of writing to you, madame?” he inquired.

“Nowhere,” replied Blanche. “I shall be passing by here from time to
time, and I will call.”

When the two women left the house, Chefteux followed them. “For once,”
thought he, “I believe that fortune smiles on me.” To discover his new
client’s name and rank was but child’s play for Fouche’s former pupil;
and indeed his task was all the easier since they had no suspicion
whatever of his designs.

Blanche, who had heard his powers of discernment so highly praised, was
confident of success, and all the way back to the hotel she was
congratulating herself on the step she had taken. “In less than a
month,” she said to Aunt Medea, “we shall have the child; and it will be
a protection to us.”

But the following week she realised the extent of her imprudence. On
visiting Chefteux again, she was received with such marks of respect
that she at once saw she was known. Still, she would have made another
attempt to deceive the detective, but he checked her. “First of all,” he
said, with a good-humoured smile, “I ascertain the identity of the
persons who honour me with their confidence. It is a proof of my
ability, which I give gratis. But madame need have no fears. I am
discreet by nature and by profession. Many ladies of the highest rank
are in the position of Madame Duchesse.”

So Chefteux still believed that the Duchess de Sairmeuse was searching
for her own child. She did not try to convince him to the contrary, for
it was better he should believe this than suspect the truth.

Blanche’s position was now truly pitiable. She found herself entangled
in a net, and each movement, far from freeing her, tightened the meshes
round her. Three persons were acquainted with the secret which
threatened her life and honour; and under these circumstances, how could
she hope to prevent it from becoming more widely known? She was,
moreover, at the mercy of three unscrupulous masters; and at a word, a
gesture, or a look from them, her haughty spirit must bow in meek
subservience. And her time, moreover, was no longer at her own disposal,
for Martial had returned, and they had taken up their abode at the
Hotel de Sairmeuse, where the young duchess was compelled to live under
the scrutiny of fifty servants, more or less interested in watching her,
in criticising her acts, and discovering her thoughts. Aunt Medea, it is
true, was of great assistance. Blanche purchased a new dress for her
whenever she bought one for herself, took her about with her on all
occasions, and the dependent relative expressed her satisfaction in the
most enthusiastic terms, declaring her willingness to do anything for
her benefactress. Nor did Chefteux give Blanche much more annoyance.
Every three months he presented a memorandum of investigation expenses,
which usually amounted to some ten thousand francs; and so long as she
paid him it was plain he would be silent. He had given her to
understand, however, that he should expect an annuity of twenty-four
thousand francs; and once, when Blanche remarked that he must abandon
the search if nothing had been discovered at the end of two years.
“Never,” replied he; “I shall continue the search as long as I live.”

In addition to these two there was Chupin, who proved a constant terror.
Blanche had been compelled to give him twenty thousand francs, to begin
with. He declared that his younger brother had come to Paris in pursuit
of him, accusing him of having stolen their father’s hoard, and
demanding his share with his knife in his hand. There had been a battle,
and it was with his head bound up in blood-stained linen, that Chupin
made his appearance before Blanche. “Give me the sum that the old man
buried,” said he, “and I will allow my brother to think I stole it. It
is not very pleasant to be regarded as a thief, when one’s an honest
man, but I will bear it for your sake. If you refuse, however, I shall
be compelled to tell him where I’ve obtained my money, and how.”
Naturally enough Blanche complied with this demand, for how could she do
otherwise?

If her tormentor possessed all his father’s vices, depravity, and
cold-blooded perversity, he had certainly not inherited the parental
intelligence or tact. Instead of taking the precautions which his
interests required, he seemed to find a brutal pleasure in compromising
the duchess. He was a constant visitor at the Hotel de Sairmeuse. He
called at all hours, morning, noon, and night, without in the least
troubling himself about Martial. And the servants were amazed to see
their haughty mistress unhesitatingly leave everything to receive this
suspicious-looking character, who smelt so strongly of tobacco and
alcohol. One evening, while a grand entertainment was progressing at the
Hotel de Sairmeuse, he made his appearance, half drunk, and imperiously
ordered the servants to go and tell Madame Blanche that he was there,
waiting for her. She hastened to him in her magnificent evening dress,
her face white with rage and shame beneath her tiara of diamonds. And
when, in her exasperation, she refused to give the wretch what he
demanded: “So that’s to say I’m to starve while you are revelling here!”
he exclaimed. “I am not such a fool. Give me some money at once, or I
will tell everything I know on the spot!” What could she do? She was
obliged to yield, as she had always done before. And yet he grew more
and more insatiable every day. Money filtered through his fingers as
fast as water filters through a sieve. But he did not think of raising
his vices to the height of the fortune which he squandered. He did not
even provide himself with decent clothing, and from his appearance he
might have been supposed to be a penniless beggar. One night he was
arrested for fomenting a row in a low drinking den, and the police,
surprised at finding so much gold in such a beggarly-looking rascal’s
possession, accused him of being a thief. But he mentioned the name of
the Duchess de Sairmeuse, and on the following morning--Martial
fortunately was in Vienna at the time--an inspector of police presented
himself at the mansion in the Rue de Grenelle, and Blanche had to
undergo the humiliation of confessing that she had given a large sum of
money to this man, whose family she had known, and who, she added, had
once rendered her an important service.

Sometimes her pertinaceous tormentor changed his tactics. For instance,
he declared that he disliked coming to the Hotel de Sairmeuse, as the
servants treated him as if he were a mendicant; so whenever he required
money he would write. And effectively, every week or so, there came a
letter bidding Blanche bring such a sum, to such a place, and at such an
hour. And the proud duchess was always punctual at the rendezvous. Soon
afterwards the rascal met, heaven knows where! a certain Aspasie
Clapard, to whom he took a violent fancy, and although she was much
older than himself, he wished to marry her. It was Blanche who paid for
the wedding feast. Then Chupin again announced his desire of
establishing himself in business, having resolved, he said, to live by
his own exertions. So he purchased a wine merchant’s stock, which the
duchess paid for, and which he drank in no time. Next, his wife gave
birth to a child, and Madame de Sairmeuse must pay for the baptism as
she had paid for the wedding, only too happy that Chupin did not require
her to stand as god-mother to little Polyte, which idea he had at first
entertained. On two occasions Blanche accompanied her husband to Vienna
and to London, where he went on important diplomatic missions. She
remained abroad during three years, and during all that time she
received at least one letter every week from Chupin. Ah! many a time she
envied her victim’s lot! What was Marie-Anne’s death compared with the
life she led! Her sufferings were measured by years, Marie-Anne’s by
minutes; and she said to herself, again and again, that the tortures of
poison could not be so intolerable as was her agony.



XXXVIII.


It may be asked how it was that Martial had failed to discover or to
suspect this singular state of affairs; but a moment’s reflection will
explain his ignorance. 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
own home. He does not even suspect circumstances, with which every one
else is fully acquainted; and, in Martial’s case, the life he led was
scarcely likely to lead him to the truth; for after all, he and his wife
were virtually strangers to one another. His manner towards her was
perfect, full of deference and chivalrous courtesy; but they had nothing
in common except a name and certain interests. Each lived his own life.
They met only at dinner, or at the entertainments they gave--which were
considered the most brilliant of Parisian society. The duchess had her
own apartments, her private servants, carriages, horses, and table. At
five-and-twenty, Martial, the last descendant of the great house of
Sairmeuse--a man on whom destiny had apparently lavished every
blessing--who was young, who possessed unbounded wealth, and a
brilliant intellect, found himself literally overburdened with _ennui_.
Marie-Anne’s death had destroyed all his hopes of happiness; and
realizing the emptiness of his life, he sought to fill the void with
bustle and excitement. He threw himself headlong into politics, striving
to find some relief from his despondency in the pleasures of power and
satisfied ambition.

It is only just to say that Blanche had remained superior to
circumstances; and that she had played the part of a happy, contented
woman with consummate skill. Her frightful sufferings and anxiety never
marred the haughty serenity of her features. She soon won a place as one
of the queens of Parisian society; and plunged into dissipation with a
sort of frenzy. Was she endeavouring 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 abandoned there by the executioner to live, as it were,
till 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 everything. Such, in all its
unspeakable horror, was the position of the beautiful and envied Duchess
de Sairmeuse. “She must be perfectly happy,” said the world; but she
felt herself sliding down the precipice to the awful depths below. Like
a shipwrecked mariner clinging to a floating spar, she scanned the
horizon with a despairing eye, and could only see the threatening clouds
that betokened the coming tempest. Once it happened that six weeks went
by without any news coming from Chupin. A month and a half! What had
become of him? To Madame Blanche this silence was as ominous as the calm
that precedes the storm. A line in a newspaper solved the mystery,
however. Chupin was in prison. After drinking more heavily than usual
one evening, he had quarrelled with his brother, and killed him by a
blow on the head with an iron bar. Lacheneur’s blood was being visited
on his betrayer’s children. Chupin was tried, condemned to twenty year’s
hard labour, and sent to Brest. But this sentence afforded the duchess
no relief. The culprit had written to her from his Paris prison; and he
found the means to write to her from Brest. He confided his letters to
comrades, whose terms of imprisonment had expired, and who came to the
Hotel de Sairmeuse demanding an interview with the duchess. And she
received them. They told her all the miseries they had endured “out
there;” and usually ended by requesting some slight assistance.

One morning, a man whose desperate manner quite frightened her, brought
the duchess this laconic note. “I am tired of starving here; I wish to
make my escape. Come to Brest; you can visit the prison, and we will
decide on some plan. If you refuse to do this, I shall apply to the
duke, who will obtain my pardon in exchange for what I will tell him.”
Blanche was dumb with horror. It was impossible, she thought, to sink
lower than this.

“Well!” said the returned convict, harshly. “What answer shall I take to
my comrade?”

“I will go--tell him I will go!” she said, driven to desperation. And in
fact she made the journey, and visited the prison, but without finding
Chupin. There had been a revolt the previous week, the troops had fired
on the prisoners, and Chupin had been killed. Still the duchess dared
not rejoice, for she feared that her tormentor had told his wife the
secret of his power.

Indeed the widow--the Aspasie Clapard already mentioned, promptly made
her appearance at the house in the Rue de Grenelle; but her manner was
humble and supplicating. She had often heard her dear dead husband say
that madame was his benefactress, and now she came to beg a little aid
to enable her to open a small wine-shop. Her son Polyte--ah! such a good
son! just eighteen years old, and such a help to his poor mother--had
found a little house in a good situation for business, and if they only
had three or four hundred francs---- Blanche cut the story short by
handing her supplicant a five hundred franc note. “Either that woman’s
humility is a mask,” thought the duchess, “or her husband has told her
nothing.”

Five days later Polyte Chupin presented himself. They needed three
hundred francs more before they could commence business, he said, and he
came on behalf of his mother to entreat the kind lady to advance them
that amount. But being determined to discover exactly how she was
situated, with regard to the widow, the duchess curtly refused, and the
young fellow went off without a word. Evidently the mother and son were
ignorant of the facts. Chupin’s secret had died with him.

This happened early in January. Towards the close of February, Aunt
Medea contracted inflammation of the lungs on leaving a fancy ball,
which she attended in an absurd costume, in spite of all the attempts
which her niece made to dissuade her. Her passion for dress killed her.
Her illness lasted only three days; but her sufferings, physical and
mental, were terrible. Constrained by fear of death to examine her own
conscience, she saw plainly enough that profiting by her niece’s crime
had been as culpable as if she had actually aided her in committing it.
Aunt Medea had been very devout in former years, and now her
superstitious fears were reawakened and intensified. Her faith returned,
followed by a train of terrors. “I am lost, I am lost!” she cried,
tossing to and fro on her bed; writhing and shrieking as if she already
saw hell opening to engulf her. She called on the Holy Virgin and all
the saints to protect her. She entreated heaven to grant her time for
repentance and expiation; and she even begged to see a priest, swearing
she would make a full confession.

Paler than the dying woman, but still implacable, Blanche watched over
her, aided by one of her maids in whom she had most confidence. “If this
lasts long, I shall be ruined,” she thought. “I shall be obliged to call
for assistance, and she will betray me.”

But it did not last long. The patient’s delirium was followed by such
utter prostration that it seemed as if each moment would be her last.
But towards midnight she revived a little, and in a voice of intense
feeling, she faltered, “You have had no pity on me, Blanche. You have
deprived me of all hope in the life to come. Heaven will punish you. You
will die like a dog yourself, and alone without a word of Christian
counsel or encouragement. I curse you!” And she expired, just as the
clock was striking two.

The time when Blanche would have given almost anything to know that Aunt
Medea was under the ground had long since passed away. Now the poor old
woman’s death deeply affected her. She had lost an accomplice who had
often consoled her, and she had gained nothing in return. Every one who
was intimately acquainted with the Duchesse de Sairmeuse noticed her
dejection, and was astonished by it. “Is it not strange,” remarked her
friends, “that the duchess--such a very superior woman--should grieve so
much for that absurd relative of hers.” But Blanche’s dejection was due
in great measure to the sinister prophecies faltered by her dying aunt,
to whom for self-protection she had denied the last consolations of
religion. And as her mind reviewed the past she shuddered as the
Sairmeuse peasants had done, when thinking of the fatality which pursued
those who had shed, or helped to shed so much innocent blood. What
misfortunes had overtaken them all--from Chupin’s sons to her father,
the Marquis de Courtornieu, in whose mind not one spark of reason had
gleamed for ten long years before his death. The Baron and the Baroness
d’Escorval, and old Corporal Bavois had departed this life within a
month of each other the previous year, mourned by every one, so that of
all the people of diverse condition who had been connected with the
troubles of Montaignac, Blanche knew of only four who were still alive.
Maurice d’Escorval, who having studied the law was now an investigating
magistrate attached to the tribunal of the Seine; the Abbe Midon, who
had come to Paris with Maurice, and Martial and herself.

There was another person at the recollection of whom she trembled, and
whose name she dared not utter. This was Jean Lacheneur, Marie-Anne’s
brother. He had disappeared, and so completely that it might have been
fancied he was dead, but an inward voice, more powerful than reason,
told Blanche that this enemy was still alive, watching for his hour of
vengeance. More troubled by her presentiments now, than she had been by
Chupin’s persecutions in days gone by, Madame de Sairmeuse decided to
apply to Chefteux in order to ascertain, if possible, what she had to
expect. Fouche’s former agent had not wavered in his devotion to the
duchess. Every three months he presented his bill, which was paid
without discussion; and to ease his conscience, he sent one of his men
two or three times a year to prowl round Sairmeuse for awhile. Animated
by the hope of a magnificent reward, the spy promised his client,
and--what was more to the purpose--promised himself, that he would
discover this dreaded enemy. He started in quest of him, and had already
begun to collect proofs of Jean’s existence, when his investigations
abruptly came to a close. One morning a man’s body, literally hacked to
pieces, was found in an old well not far from Sairmeuse. It was Chefteux
who had been murdered by some one who remained unknown. When Blanche
read this news in a local journal she felt as a culprit might feel on
hearing his death-warrant read. “The end is near,” she murmured.
“Lacheneur is coming.”

The duchess was not mistaken. Jean had told the truth when he declared
that he was not disposing of his sister’s estate for his own benefit. In
his opinion, Marie-Anne’s fortune must be consecrated to one sacred
purpose; and he would not divert the slightest portion of it to his
personal requirements. He was absolutely penniless when the manager of a
travelling theatrical company sojourning at Montaignac engaged him for a
consideration of forty-five francs a month. From that day he lived the
precarious life of a strolling player. He was poorly paid, and often
reduced to abject poverty by lack of engagements, or the impecuniosity
of managers. His hatred had lost none of its virulence; but to wreak the
vengeance he wished to wreak, he must have time and money at his
disposal. But how could he accumulate money when he was often too poor
even to appease his hunger. Still he did not renounce his hopes. His was
a rancour which was only intensified by years. He was biding his time
while he watched from the depths of his misery the brilliant fortunes of
the house of Sairmeuse. He had waited sixteen years, when one of his
friends procured him an engagement in Russia. The engagement was
nothing; but during his stay at St. Petersburg the poor comedian was
fortunate enough to obtain an interest in a theatrical enterprise, from
which he realized a clear profit of a hundred thousand francs in less
than six years. “Now,” said he, “I can give up this life, for I have
money enough to begin the struggle.” And six weeks later he arrived at
his native village.

Before carrying any of his designs into execution, he went to Sairmeuse
to visit Marie-Anne’s grave, the sight of which he felt would fan his
smouldering animosity, and give him all the determination he needed as
the cold stern avenger of crime. This was his only motive in going, but,
on the very evening of his arrival, he learnt through a garrulous old
peasant woman that ever since his departure--that is to say, for a
period of twenty years--two parties had been making persistent inquiries
for a child which had been placed somewhere in the neighbourhood. Jean
knew that it was Marie-Anne’s child they were seeking, and why they had
not succeeded in finding it. But why were there two persons prosecuting
these investigations? One was Maurice d’Escorval, of course, but who was
the other? This information induced Jean to prolong his stay at
Sairmeuse, where he tarried a whole month. By the expiration of that
time he had traced the inquiries, which he could not at first
comprehend, to one of Chefteux’s agents. Through the latter, he reached
Fouche’s former spy himself; and finally succeeded in discovering that
the second search had been instituted by no less a person than the
Duchess de Sairmeuse. This discovery bewildered him. How could Blanche
have known that Marie-Anne had given birth to a child; and, knowing it,
what possible interest could she have had in finding this abandoned
babe, now grown to manhood. These two questions puzzled Jean
considerably, and he could give them no satisfactory answer. “Chupin’s
son could tell me perhaps,” he thought, “but to obtain information from
that quarter, I must pretend to be reconciled to the sons of the wretch
who betrayed my father.”

However, the traitor’s children had been dead for several years, and
after a long search, Jean only found the Widow Chupin, _nee_ Aspasie
Clapard, and her son Polyte. They were keeping a drinking-den not far
from the Rue des Chateau-des-Rentiers; and their establishment, known as
the Poivriere, enjoyed anything but an enviable reputation. Lacheneur
cautiously questioned the widow and her son. He asked them if they knew
of the crime at the Borderie--if they had heard that grandfather Chupin
had committed murder and had been assassinated in his turn--if they had
ever been told of an abandoned child, and of searches prosecuted to find
it. But neither of these two had ever been at Sairmeuse in their lives,
and when Lacheneur mentioned his name in hopes it might recall some
recollection, they declared they had never heard it before. Jean was
about to take his departure, despondently enough, when Mother Chupin,
probably in the hope of pocketing a few pence, began to deplore her
present misery, which was, she declared, all the harder to bear as she
had wanted for nothing during her poor husband’s lifetime, for he had
always obtained as much money as he wanted from a lady of high degree,
called the Duchess de Sairmeuse.

Lacheneur uttered such a frightful oath that the old woman and her son
started back in astonishment. He saw at once the close connection
between Blanche’s search for the child and her generosity to Chupin. “It
was she who poisoned Marie-Anne,” he said to himself. “It must have been
through my sister herself that she became aware of the child’s
existence. She loaded the younger Chupin with favours because he knew
the crime she had committed--that crime in which his father had been
only an accomplice.”

He remembered Martial’s oath at the murdered girl’s bedside, and his
heart overflowed with savage exultation. For he could already see his
two enemies, the last of the Sairmeuses and the last of the Courtornieus
consummating his work of vengeance themselves. However, after all, this
was mere conjecture: he must at any price ascertain whether his
suppositions were correct. Drawing from his pocket several pieces of
gold, and, throwing them on the table, he said: “I am rich; if you will
obey me and keep my secret, your fortune is made.”

A shrill cry of delight from mother and son outweighed any protestations
of obedience. The Widow Chupin knew how to write, and Lacheneur then
dictated this letter to her: “Madame la Duchesse--I shall expect you at
my establishment to-morrow between twelve and four o’clock. It is on
business connected with the Borderie. If at five o’clock I have not seen
you, I shall carry to the post a letter for the duke.”

“And if she comes, what am I to say to her?” asked the astonished widow.

“Nothing; you will merely ask her for money.”

“If she comes, it is as I have guessed,” he reflected.

She came. Hidden in the loft of the Poivriere, Jean, through an opening
in the floor, saw the duchess hand Mother Chupin a bank note. “Now, she
is in my power!” he thought exultantly. “And I will drag her through
sloughs of degradation before I deliver her up to her husband’s
vengeance!”



XXXIX.


A few lines of the article consecrated to Martial in the “General
Biography of Men of the Time,” fittingly epitomize the history of his
public life. “Martial de Sairmeuse,” says the writer, “placed at the
service of his party a highly cultivated intellect, unusual penetration,
and extraordinary abilities. A leader at the time when political passion
was raging highest, he had the courage to assume the sole responsibility
of the most unpopular measures. But the hostility he encountered, the
danger in which he placed the throne, compelled him to retire from
office, leaving behind him animosities which will only be extinguished
with his life.” In thus summing up Martial’s public career, his
biographer omits to say that if the Duke de Sairmeuse was wrong in his
policy--and that depends entirely on the point of view from which his
conduct is regarded--he was doubly wrong, since he was not possessed of
that ardent conviction verging on fanaticism which makes men, fools,
heroes, and martyrs. He was not even truly ambitious. When those
associated with him witnessed his passionate struggles and unceasing
activity, they thought him actuated by an insatiable thirst for power.
But, in reality, he cared little or nothing for it. He considered its
burdens heavy; its compensations slight. His pride was too lofty to feel
any satisfaction in applause; and flattery disgusted him. Often, during
some brilliant fete, his acquaintances and subordinates, finding him
thoughtful and pre-occupied, respectfully refrained from disturbing him.
“His mind is occupied with momentous questions,” they fancied. “Who can
tell what important decisions may result from his reverie.” But in this
surmise they were mistaken. And, indeed, at the very moment when royal
favour filled his rivals’ hearts with envy, when occupying the highest
position a subject can aspire to, and it seemed he could have nothing
left to wish for in this world, Martial was saying to himself, “What an
empty life! What weariness and vexation of spirit! To live for
others--what a mockery!”

He looked at his wife, radiant in her beauty, worshipped like a queen,
and sighed. He thought of her who was dead--Marie-Anne--the only woman
he had ever loved. She was never absent from his mind, and after all
these years he saw her yet, stretched cold, rigid, lifeless, on the
canopied bedstead, in that luxurious room at the Borderie. Time, far
from effacing from his heart the image of the fair girl whose beauty
unwittingly had wrought such woe--had only intensified youthful
impressions, endowing the lost idol with almost superhuman grace of
person and character. Ah! if fate had but given him Marie-Anne for his
wife! Thus said Martial, again and again, picturing the happiness which
then would have been his. They would have remained at Sairmeuse. They
would have had children playing round them! And he would not be
condemned to this continual warfare--to this hollow, unsatisfying
restless life. The truly happy are not those who parade their dignities
and opulence before the eyes of the multitude. They rather hide
themselves from the curious gaze, and they are right; for here on earth
happiness is almost a crime. So thought Martial; and he, the envied
statesman, often said to himself, with a feeling of vexation: “To love,
and to be loved--that is everything! All else is vanity.”

He had really tried to love his wife; he had done his best to
resuscitate the feeling of admiration with which she had inspired him at
their first meeting; but he had not succeeded. It seemed as if there was
between them a wall of ice which nothing could melt, and which only grew
and expanded as time went on. “Why is it?” he wondered, again and again.
“It is incomprehensible. There are days when I could swear she loves me.
Her character, formerly so irritable, is entirely changed; she is
gentleness itself.” But still he could not conquer his aversion; it was
stronger than his own will.

These unavailing regrets, the disappointment and sorrow that preyed upon
his mind undoubtedly aggravated the bitterness and severity of Martial’s
policy. At least he knew how to fall nobly. He passed, even without a
change of countenance, from all but omnipotence to a position so
compromising that his very life was endangered. On perceiving his
ante-chambers, formerly thronged with flatterers and place-hunters, now
empty and deserted, he laughed--naturally, sincerely, without the least
affectation. “The ship is sinking,” said he: “the rats have deserted
it.” He did not even turn pale when the mob gathered outside his house,
hurling stones at his windows, and hooting and cursing the fallen
statesman; and when Otto, his faithful valet de chambre, entreated him
to assume a disguise, and make his escape through the gardens, he
quietly replied, “By no means! I am simply odious; I don’t wish to
become ridiculous!” They could not even dissuade him from going to a
window and looking down on the rabble in the street below. A singular
idea had just occurred to him. “If Jean Lacheneur is still alive,” he
thought, “how much he would enjoy this! And if he is alive, no doubt he
is there in the foremost rank, urging on the crowd.” And he wished to
see. But Jean Lacheneur was in Russia at that epoch.

The excitement eventually subsided; and the Hotel de Sairmeuse was not
seriously threatened. However, Martial realized that it would be better
for him to go away for awhile, and allow people to forget him. He did
not ask the duchess to accompany him. “The fault has been mine
entirely,” he said to her, “and it would be most unjust to make you
suffer for it by condemning you to exile. Remain here; I think it will
be much better for you to remain.” She did not offer to go with him,
although she longed to do so, but then she dared not leave Paris. She
knew that she must remain in order to secure her persecutor’s silence.
On the two occasions when she had left Paris before, everything was near
being discovered, and yet then she had had Aunt Medea to take her place.
Martial went away, accompanied only by his servant, Otto. In
intelligence, this man was decidedly superior to his position; he was
indeed decently off, and he had a hundred reasons--one, by the way, was
a very pretty one--for desiring to remain in Paris; but his master was
in trouble, and so he did not hesitate. During four years the Duke de
Sairmeuse wandered through Europe, always chafing beneath the burden of
a life no longer animated by interest or sustained by hope. He remained
for a time in London, then he went to Vienna, and afterwards to Venice.
One day he was seized by an irresistible desire to see Paris again, and
he returned. It was not a very prudent step, perhaps, for his bitterest
enemies--personal enemies, whom he had mortally offended and
persecuted--were in power; but still he did not hesitate. Besides, how
could they injure him, since he had no favours to ask, no cravings of
ambition to satisfy?

The exile which had weighed so heavily on him, the loneliness he had
endured had softened his nature and inclined his heart to tenderness:
and he returned firmly resolved to overcome his aversion to his wife,
and seek a reconciliation. “Old age is coming,” he thought. “If I have
not the love of youth by my fireside, I may at least have a friend.”
Blanche was astonished by his manner towards her when he returned. She
almost believed she had found again the Martial of the old days at
Courtornieu, but the realisation of the dream, so fondly cherished and
so long deferred, now proved only another torture added to all the
others. Still, Martial was striving to carry his plan into execution,
when one day the following brief note came to him through the post:
“Monsieur le Duc--If I were in your place, I would watch my wife.”

It was only an anonymous letter, and yet on perusing it Martial’s blood
mounted to his forehead. “Can she have a lover?” he thought. Then
reflecting on his own conduct towards his wife since their marriage, he
said to himself: “And if she has, what right have I to complain? Did I
not tacitly give her back her liberty?” However, he was greatly
troubled; and yet he did not once think of playing the spy.

A few mornings afterwards, at about eleven o’clock, he was returning
from a ride on horseback, and was not thirty paces from the Hotel de
Sairmeuse when he suddenly perceived a lady hurriedly emerge from the
house. She was very plainly dressed--entirely in black--but her whole
appearance recalled that of the duchess in a striking fashion. “That’s
certainly my wife,” thought Martial, “but why is she dressed in that
fashion?” Then, yielding to a sudden impulse, he walked his horse up the
Rue de Grenelle behind the woman in black. Blanche it was. She was
tripping swiftly over the pavement, keeping her face shrouded by a thick
veil and she never once turned her head. On reaching the Rue Taranne,
she spoke hurriedly to a cab-driver on the stand, and then sprung into
his vehicle. The Jehu was already on his box and he at once gave his
bony horse such a vigorous cut of the whip that it was evident he had
just been promised a princely gratuity. The cab had already turned into
the Rue du Dragon, and Martial, ashamed of what he had already done and
irresolute as to what he should do now was still tarrying at the corner
of the Rue des Saints-Peres, where he had originally stopped his horse.
Scarcely daring to entertain the suspicions that flitted across his
mind, he tried to deceive himself. “After all,” he muttered, “it is of
no use advancing. The cab’s a long way off by now, and I couldn’t
overtake it.” Still he mechanically gave his horse the rein and when he
reached the Croix Rouge he espied Blanche’s vehicle among a crowd of
others. He recognized it by its green body and wheels striped with
white. This decided him. The cab-driver had just managed to extricate
himself from the block which traffic so frequently causes hereabouts,
and whipping up his horse once more turned literally at a gallop up the
Rue du Vieux Colombier--leading into the Place St. Sulpice. Thence he
took the shortest cut to gain the outer boulevards.

Martial’s thoughts were busy as he trotted along a hundred yards or so
behind the vehicle. “She’s in a terrible hurry,” he said to himself.
“But this is scarcely the quarter for a lover’s rendezvous.” The cab had
indeed now reached the squalid region extending beyond the Place
d’Italie. It turned into the Rue du Chateau-des-Rentiers and soon drew
up before a tract of waste ground. The Duchess de Sairmeuse then hastily
alighted, and, without stopping to look to the right or to the left,
hurried across the open space. Martial had prudently paused in the rear.
Not far from him he espied a man sitting on a block of stone and
apparently immersed in the task of colouring a clay-pipe. “Will you hold
my horse a moment?” inquired Martial.

“Certainly,” answered the man, rising to his feet. He wore a workman’s
blouse and a long beard, and his aspect altogether was scarcely
prepossessing. Had Martial been less pre-occupied, his suspicions might
have been aroused by the malicious smile that curved the fellow’s lips;
and had he scrutinized him closely, he would perhaps have recognized
him. For the seeming vagrant was Jean Lacheneur. Since forwarding that
anonymous letter to the Duke de Sairmeuse, he had compelled the Duchess
to multiply her visits to the Widow Chupin’s den, and on each occasion
he had watched for her arrival. “So, if her husband decides to follow
her I shall know it,” he thought. It was indispensable for the success
of his plans that Blanche should be watched by her husband. For from
among a thousand schemes of revenge, Jean had chosen the most frightful
his fevered brain could conceive. He longed to see the haughty Duchess
de Sairmeuse subjected to the vilest ignominy, and Martial in the hands
of the lowest of the low. He pictured a bloody struggle in this
miserable den; the sudden arrival of the police, summoned by himself,
and the indiscriminate arrest of all the parties present. He gloated
over the thought of a trial in which the crime committed at the Borderie
would be brought to light; he saw the duke and the duchess in prison,
and the great names of Sairmeuse and Courtornieu shrouded in eternal
disgrace. And he believed that nothing was wanting to ensure the success
of his plans. He had two miserable wretches who were capable of any
crime at his disposal; and an unfortunate youth named Gustave, whom
poverty and cowardice had made his willing slave, was intended to play
the part of Marie-Anne’s son. These three accomplices had no suspicions
of Lacheneur’s real intentions, while, as for the Widow Chupin and her
son, if they suspected some infamous plot all they really knew in regard
to it was the duchess’s name. Moreover, Jean held Polyte and his mother
completely under his control by the wealth he had promised them if they
served them faithfully. If Martial decided to follow his wife into the
Poivriere the first time he watched her, Jean had, moreover, so arranged
matters that the duke would at first suppose that Blanche had been led
there by charity. “But he will not go in,” thought the seeming vagrant,
as, holding Martial’s horse some little distance off, he looked in the
direction of the hovel. “Monsieur le Duc is too cunning for that.”

And Martial did not go in. Though he was horrified when he saw his wife
enter so vile a den, as if she were at home there, he said to himself
that he should learn nothing by following her. He, therefore, contented
himself by making a thorough examination of the hovel from outside, and
then remounting his horse and throwing Lacheneur a silver coin he
started back home at a gallop. He was completely mystified: he did not
know what to think, what to imagine, what to believe. But, at the same
time, he was fully resolved to fathom the mystery; and as soon as he
returned home he sent Otto out in search of information. He could
confide everything to this devoted servant from whom he had no secrets.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, the faithful valet de chambre returned
with an expression of consternation on his face. “What is it?” asked
Martial, divining some great misfortune.

“Ah, sir, the mistress of that wretched den is the widow of Chupin’s
son--”

Martial’s face turned ghastly pale. He knew life well enough to
understand that since the duchess had been compelled to submit to these
peoples’ power, they must be masters of some secret which she was
anxious at any price to keep unrevealed. But what secret could it be?
The years which had furrowed Martial’s brow, had not cooled the ardour
of his blood. He was, as he had always been, a man of impulse, and so,
without pausing he rushed to his wife’s apartments.

“Madame has just gone downstairs to receive the Countess de Mussidan and
the Marchioness d’Arlange,” said the maid whom he met on the landing.

“Very well; I will wait for her here. You may retire.”

So saying, Martial entered Blanche’s dressing-room. It was in disorder
for, after returning from the Poivriere, the duchess was still engaged
at her toilette when visitors were announced. The wardrobe-doors stood
open, two or three chairs were encumbered with wearing apparel, and
Blanche’s watch, her purse, and several bunches of keys were lying on
the dressing-table and the mantel-piece. Martial did not sit down. His
self-possession was returning. “I will commit no act of folly,” he
thought, “if I question her, I shall learn nothing. I must be silent and
watchful.”

He was about to retire, when, on glancing round the room, he noticed a
large casket, inlaid with silver, which had belonged to his wife ever
since she was a girl, and which accompanied her everywhere. “That, no
doubt, contains the solution of the mystery,” he said to himself. This
was one of those moments when a man obeys the dictates of passion
without pausing to reflect. Seeing the keys on the mantelpiece, he
seized them, and endeavoured to find one that would fit the lock of the
casket. The fourth key opened it. It was full of papers. With feverish
haste, Martial examined their contents. He had thrown aside several
unimportant letters, when he came to a bill that read as follows:
“Search made for Madame de Sairmeuse’s child. Expenses for the third
quarter of the year 18--.” Martial’s brain reeled. A child! His wife had
a child! But he read on: “For the services of two agents at
Sairmeuse, ----. For expenses attending my own journey, ----. Divers
gratuities, ----. Etc., etc.” The total amounted to six thousand francs;
and it was receipted “Chefteux.” With a sort of cold rage, Martial
continued his examination of the casket’s contents, and found a
miserably-written note, which said; “Two thousand francs this evening,
or I will tell the duke the history of the affair at the Borderie.” Then
there were several more of Chefteux’s bills; next, a letter from Aunt
Medea, in which she spoke of prison and remorse; and, finally, at the
bottom of the casket, he found the marriage certificate of Marie-Anne
Lacheneur and Maurice d’Escorval, drawn up by the cure of Vigano and
signed by the old physician and Corporal Bavois.

The truth was as clear as daylight. Stunned, frozen with horror, Martial
scarcely had strength enough to place the letters in the casket again,
and restore it to its place. Then he tottered back to his own room,
clinging to the walls for support. “It was she who murdered Marie-Anne,”
he murmured. He was confounded, terror-stricken, by the perfidy of this
woman who was his wife--by her criminal audacity, cool calculation and
assurance, and her marvellous powers of dissimulation.

Still he swore he would discover everything, either through the duchess
or through the Widow Chupin; and he ordered Otto to procure him a
costume such as was generally worn by the frequenters of the Poivriere.
He did not know how soon he might have need of it. This happened early
in February, and from that moment Blanche did not take a single step
without being watched. Not a letter reached her that her husband had not
previously read. And she had not the slightest suspicion of the constant
supervision to which she was subjected. Martial did not leave his room;
he pretended to be ill. He felt he could not meet his wife and remain
silent. He remembered the oath of vengeance which he had sworn over
Marie-Anne’s lifeless form only too well. However, the watch which Otto
kept over the duchess, and the perusal of the letters addressed to her,
did not yield any fresh information, and for this reason: Polyte Chupin
had been arrested on a charge of theft, and this accident caused a
delay in the execution of Lacheneur’s plans.

But at last the latter prepared everything for Shrove Sunday, the 20th
of February. On the previous day, in accordance with her instructions,
the Widow Chupin wrote to the duchess that she must come to the
Poivriere on Sunday night at eleven o’clock. On that same evening, Jean
was to meet his accomplices at a ball at the Rainbow--a wine-shop
bearing a very unenviable reputation--and give them their final
instructions. These accomplices were to open the scene; he was only to
appear at the _denouement_. “All is well arranged; the mechanism will
work of its own accord,” he said to himself. But, as is already known,
the “mechanism,” as he styled it, failed to act.

On receiving the Widow Chupin’s summons, Blanche revolted for a moment.
The lateness of the hour, the distance, the isolation of the appointed
meeting place, frightened her. Still, she was obliged to submit, and on
Sunday evening she furtively left the house, accompanied by Camille, the
same maid who had been present when Aunt Medea died. The duchess and
Camille were attired like women of the lowest order, and felt no fear of
being recognized. And yet a man was watching who quickly followed them.
This was Martial. He had perused the note appointing this rendezvous
even before his wife, and had disguised himself in the costume Otto had
procured for him--that of a labourer about the quays. Then, in hope of
making himself absolutely unrecognizable, he had soiled and matted his
hair and beard; his hands were grimed with dirt; and he really seemed to
belong to the class of which he wore the attire. Otto had begged to be
allowed to accompany his master; but the duke refused, remarking that
his revolver would prove quite sufficient protection. He knew Otto well
enough, however, to feel certain he would disobey him.

Ten o’clock was striking when Blanche and Camille left the house, and it
did not take them five minutes to reach the Rue Taranne. There was only
one cab on the stand, which they at once hired. This circumstance drew
from Martial an oath worthy of his costume. But he reflected that, since
he knew where to find his wife, a slight delay in obtaining a vehicle
would not matter. He soon found one, and, thanks to a gratuity of ten
francs, the driver started off to the Rue du Chateau-des-Rentiers as
fast as his horse could go. However, the duke had scarcely alighted
before he heard the rumbling of another vehicle which pulled up abruptly
a little distance behind. “Otto is evidently following me,” he thought.
And he then started across the open space in the direction of the
Poivriere. The prevailing silence and absence of life were rendered
still more oppressive by a chill fog which heralded an approaching thaw.
Martial stumbled and slipped at almost every step he took over the
rough, snow-covered ground; but at last through the mist he
distinguished a building in the distance. This was the Poivriere. The
light burning inside, filtered through the heart-shaped apertures cut in
the upper part of the shutters, and it almost seemed as if a pair of
lurid eyes were striving to peer through the fog.

Could it really be possible that the Duchess de Sairmeuse was there!
Martial cautiously approached the window, and clinging to the hinges of
the shutters, raised himself up so that he could glance through one of
the apertures. Yes, there was no mistake. His wife and Camille were
seated at a table before a large punch-bowl, in the company of two
ragged, leering scoundrels, and a soldier of youthful appearance. In the
centre of the room stood the Widow Chupin, with a small glass in her
hand. She was talking with great volubility, and punctuating her
sentences with occasional sips of brandy. The impression this scene
produced on Martial was so acute that his hold relaxed and he dropped to
the ground. A ray of pity stole into his soul, for he vaguely realized
the frightful suffering which had been the murderess’s chastisement. But
he wished for another glance, and so once more he lifted himself up to
the opening and looked in. The old woman had disappeared; the young
soldier had risen from the table, and was talking and gesticulating
earnestly. Blanche and Camille were listening to him with the closest
attention. The two men who were sitting face to face, with their elbows
on the table, were looking at each other; and Martial saw them exchange
a significant glance. He was not wrong. The scoundrels were plotting “a
rich haul.” Blanche, who had dressed herself with much care, and to
render her disguise perfect had encased her feet in large coarse shoes,
that were causing her well nigh intolerable agony--Blanche had
neglected to remove her superb diamond ear-rings. She had forgotten
them, but Lacheneur’s accomplices had noticed them, and were now
glancing at them with eyes that glittered more brilliantly than the
diamonds themselves. While awaiting Lacheneur’s coming, these wretches
as had been agreed upon, were playing the part which he had imposed upon
them. For this, and their assistance afterwards, they were to receive a
certain sum of money. But they were thinking that this sum did not
represent a quarter of the value of these jewels, and their looks only
too plainly said: “What if we could secure them and go off before
Lacheneur comes!” The temptation was too strong to be resisted. One of
the scoundrels suddenly rose, and, seizing the duchess by the back of
the neck, forced her head down on the table. The diamonds would have
been at once torn from her ears if it had not been for Camille, who
bravely came to her mistress’s assistance. Martial could endure no more.
He sprang to the door of the hovel, opened it, and entered, bolting it
behind him.

“Martial!” “Monsieur le Duc!” cried Blanche and Camille in the same
breath, for, despite his disguise, they had both recognised him. Their
exclamations turned the momentary stupor of their assailants into fury;
and both ruffians precipitated themselves on Martial, determined to kill
him. But, springing on one side, the duke avoided them. He had his
revolver in his hand; he fired twice, and both the scoundrels fell.
However, he was not yet safe, for the young soldier rushed forward and
attempted to disarm him. Then began a furious struggle, in the midst of
which Martial did not leave off crying, in a panting voice, “Fly!
Blanche, fly! Otto is not far off. The name--save the honour of the
name!”

The two women obeyed him, making their escape through the back door,
which opened into the garden; and they had scarcely done so, before a
violent knocking was heard at the front entry. The police were coming!
This increased Martial’s frenzy; and in a supreme effort to free himself
from his assailant, he hurled him backwards so violently, that, striking
his head against a corner of the table, the young soldier fell on to the
floor, and lay there to all appearance dead. In the meanwhile, the
Widow Chupin, who had hastened from the room above on hearing the
uproar, was shrieking on the staircase, while at the front door a voice
was crying: “Open in the name of the law!” Martial might have fled; but
if he fled, the duchess might be captured, for he would certainly be
pursued. He saw the peril at a glance, and determined to remain. Shaking
the Widow Chupin by the arm, he said to her, in an imperious voice: “If
you know how to hold your tongue you shall have a hundred thousand
francs.” Then, drawing a table before the door opening into the back
room, he intrenched himself behind it as behind a rampart, and awaited
the enemy’s approach.

The next moment the door was forced open, and a squad of police agents,
headed by Inspector Gevrol, entered the room. “Surrender!” cried the
inspector.

Martial did not move; his revolver was turned towards the intruders. “If
I can parley with them and hold them in check only two minutes, all may
yet be saved,” he thought. He obtained the required delay; then throwing
his weapon to the ground, he was about to bound through the back door,
when a police agent, who had gone round to the rear of the house, seized
him about the body, and threw him to the floor. From this side he
expected only assistance, hence he exclaimed: “Lost! It is the Prussians
who are coming!”

In the twinkling of an eye he was bound; and two hours later he was an
inmate of the station-house at the Place d’Italie. He had played his
part so perfectly, that he had deceived even Gevrol. His assailants were
dead, and he could rely upon the Widow Chupin. But he knew that the trap
had been set for him by Jean Lacheneur; and he read a whole volume of
suspicion in the eyes of the young officer who had cut off his retreat,
and who was called Lecoq by his companions.



XL.


The Duke de Sairmeuse was one of those men who remain superior to
circumstances. He was possessed of vast experience, and great natural
shrewdness. His mind was quick to act, and fertile in resources. But
when he found himself immured in the damp and loathsome station-house at
the Place d’Italie, after the terrible scene we have just recalled, he
felt inclined to relinquish all hope. He knew that justice does not
trust to appearances, and that when an investigating magistrate finds
himself in presence of a mystery, he does not rest until he has fathomed
it. He knew only too well, moreover, that if his identity was
established, the authorities would endeavour to discover the reason that
had led him to the Poivriere; now he could scarcely doubt but what this
reason would soon be discovered, and, in that case, the crime at the
Borderie, and the duchess’s guilt, would undoubtedly be made public.
This meant the Assize Court for the woman who bore his name--imprisonment,
perhaps execution, at all events, a frightful scandal, dishonour,
eternal disgrace! And the power he had wielded in former days was a
positive disadvantage to him now, when his past position was filled by
his political adversaries. Among them were two personal enemies, whose
vanity he once had wounded, and who had never forgiven him. They would
certainly not neglect the present opportunity for revenge. At the
thought of such an ineffaceable stain on the great name of Sairmeuse,
which was his pride and glory, reason almost forsook him. “My God,
inspire me,” he murmured. “How shall I save the honour of the name?”

He saw but one chance of salvation--death. They now believed him to be
one of the miserable loafers who haunt the suburbs of Paris; if he were
dead they would not trouble themselves about his identity. “It is the
only way!” he thought, and he was indeed endeavouring to find some means
of committing suicide, when suddenly he heard a bustle outside his cell.
A few moments afterwards the door was opened and a man was thrust in--a
man who staggered a few steps, fell heavily on to the floor, and then
began to snore. The new arrival was apparently only some vulgar
drunkard.

A minute or so elapsed, and then a vague, strange hope touched Martial’s
heart--no, he must be mistaken--and yet--yes, certainly this drunkard
was Otto--Otto in disguise, and almost unrecognizable! It was a bold
ruse and no time must be lost in profiting by it. Martial stretched
himself on a bench, as if to sleep, and in such a way that his head was
close to Otto’s. “The duchess is out of danger,” murmured the faithful
servant.

“For to-day, perhaps. But to-morrow, through me everything will be
discovered.”

“Have you told them who you are?”

“No; all the police agents but one took me for a vagabond.”

“You must continue to personate that character.”

“What good will it do? Jean Lacheneur will betray me.” But Martial,
though he little knew it, had no need to fear Lacheneur for the present,
at least. A few hours previously, on his way in the dark from the
Rainbow to to the Poivriere, Jean had fallen to the bottom of a stone
quarry, and fractured his skull. The labourers, on returning to their
work early in the morning, found him lying there senseless; and that
very moment they were carrying him to the hospital.

Although Otto also was ignorant of this circumstances, he did not seem
discouraged. “There will be some way of getting rid of Lacheneur,” said
he, “if you will only sustain your present character. An escape is an
easy matter when a man has millions at his command.”

“They will ask me who I am, where I’ve come from, and how I’ve lived.”

“You speak English and German, don’t you; tell them that you have just
returned from foreign parts; that you were a foundling, and that you
have always lived a roving life.”

“How can I prove that?”

Otto drew a little nearer his master, and said, impressively: “We must
agree on our plans, for success depends on a perfect understanding
between us. I have a sweetheart in Paris--and no one knows of our
connection. She is as sharp as steel. Her name is Milner, and she keeps
the Hotel de Mariembourg, in the Rue Saint-Quentin. You can say that you
arrived here from Leipsic on Sunday; that you went to that hotel, that
you left your trunk there, and that it has a card nailed to the top with
your name--say May, foreign artist.”

“Capital!” said Martial, approvingly. And then, with extraordinary
quickness and precision, they agreed, point by point, on their plan of
defense. When everything had been arranged, Otto pretended to awake from
the heavy sleep of intoxication; he clamoured to be released, and the
keeper finally opened the door and set him at liberty. Before leaving
the station-house, however, he succeeded in throwing a note to the Widow
Chupin, who was imprisoned in the opposite cell. So, when Lecoq, after
his skilful investigations at the Poivriere, rushed to the Place
d’Italie, panting with hope and ambition, he found himself outwitted by
these men, who were inferior to him in penetration, but whose tact was
superior to his own.

Martial’s plans being fully formed, he intended to carry them out with
absolute perfection of detail, and, after his removal to the Depot, he
was preparing himself for the investigating magistrate’s visit, when
Maurice d’Escorval entered his cell. They recognized each other. They
were both terribly agitated, and the examination was an examination only
in name. After Maurice’s departure Martial attempted to destroy himself;
for he had no faith in his former enemy’s generosity. But when he found
M. Segmuller occupying Maurice’s place the next morning, he really
believed that he was saved.

Then began that struggle between the magistrate and Lecoq on one side,
and the prisoner on the other--a struggle in which neither conquered.
Martial knew that Lecoq was the only person he had to fear, still he
bore him no ill-will. Faithful to his nature, which compelled him to be
just even to his enemies, he could not help admiring the astonishing
penetration and perseverance of this young police agent, who, undismayed
by the obstacles surrounding him, struggled on, unassisted, to reach the
truth. But Lecoq was always outwitted by Otto, the mysterious
accomplice, who seemed to know his every movement in advance. At the
Morgue, at the Hotel de Mariembourg, with Toinon, the wife of Polyte
Chupin, as well as with Polyte himself Lecoq was always just a little
too late. He detected the secret correspondence between the prisoner and
his accomplice, and he was even ingenious enough to discover the key to
it, but this served no purpose. A man, who had seen a rival, or rather a
future master in Lecoq--in short, Gevrol--had betrayed him. If his
efforts to arrive at the truth through the jeweller and the Marchioness
d’Arlange had failed, it was only because Blanche had not purchased the
diamond ear-rings she wore at the Poivriere at any shop, but from one of
her friends, the Baroness de Watchau. And finally, if no one in Paris
had missed the Duke de Sairmeuse, it was because--thanks to an
understanding between the duchess, Otto, and Camille--no other inmates
of the Hotel de Sairmeuse suspected his absence. All the servants
supposed that the duke was confined to his room by illness. His
breakfast and dinner were taken up to his private apartments every day;
and soups and tisanes were prepared ostensibly for his benefit.

So the weeks went by, and Martial was expecting to be summoned before
the Assize Court and condemned under the name of May, when he was
afforded an opportunity to escape. Too shrewd not to discern the trap
that had been set for him, it was only after horrible hesitation that he
decided to alight from the prison-van, determined to run the risk, and
commending himself for protection to his lucky star. And he decided
wisely, for that same night he leaped over his own garden wall, leaving
an escaped convict, Joseph Couturier by name, whom he had picked up in a
low eating-house, as a hostage in Lecoq’s hands. Warned by Madame
Milner, thanks to a blunder which Lecoq committed, Otto was waiting for
his master. In the twinkling of an eye Martial’s beard fell under the
razor; he plunged into the bath which was already prepared, and his
clothes were burned. And he it was who, during the search a few minutes
later, had the hardihood to call out: “Otto, by all means allow these
men to do their duty.” But he did not breathe freely until the
police-agents had departed. “At last,” he exclaimed, “honour is saved!
We have outwitted Lecoq!”

He had just left his bath, and assumed a dressing-gown, when Otto handed
him a letter from the duchess. He hastily opened the envelope and read:
“You are safe. You know everything. I am dying. Farewell. I loved you.”

With two bounds he reached his wife’s apartments. The outer door was
locked: he burst it open; but he came to late. Blanche was
dead--poisoned, like Marie-Anne; but she had procured a drug having an
instantaneous effect, and extended on her couch, clad in her wonted
apparel, her hands folded over her breast, she seemed only asleep. A
tear glistened in Martial’s eye. “Poor, unhappy woman!” he murmured;
“may God forgive you as I forgive you--you whose crime has been so
frightfully expiated here below!”



EPILOGUE.


SAFE, in his own princely mansion, and surrounded by an army of
retainers, the Duke de Sairmeuse had triumphantly exclaimed: “We have
outwitted Lecoq!”

In this he was right; for the young detective was certainly nonplussed
for the time being; but when his grace fancied himself for ever beyond
this wily, keen-witted, aspiring agent’s reach, he was most decidedly
wrong. Lecoq was not the man to sit down with folded hands and brood
over the humiliation of defeat. Before he went to old Tabaret, he was
beginning to recover from his despondency; and when he left that
experienced detective’s presence, he had regained his courage, energy,
and command over his faculties. “Well, my worthy friend,” he remarked to
Father Absinthe, who was trotting along by his side, “you heard what the
great Monsieur Tabaret said, didn’t you? So you see I was right.”

But his companion evinced no enthusiasm. “Yes, you were right,” he
responded, in woe-begone tones.

“Do you think we are ruined by two or three mistakes? Nonsense! I will
soon turn to-day’s defeat into a glorious victory.”

“Ah! you might do so perhaps, if--they don’t dismiss us from the force.”

This doleful remark recalled Lecoq to a sense of his present position.
He and Absinthe had allowed a prisoner to slip through their fingers.
That was vexatious, it is true; but, on the other hand, they had
captured a most notorious criminal--Joseph Couturier. Surely there was
some comfort in that. Still, of course, they both might be
dismissed--and yet Lecoq could have borne the prospect, dismal as it
was, if it had not been for the thought that dismissal would for ever
prevent him from following up the Poivriere affair. What would his
superiors say when he told them that May and the Duke de Sairmeuse were
one and the same person. They would, no doubt, shrug their shoulders and
turn up their noses. “Still, M. Segmuller will believe me,” he thought.
“But will he dare to take any action in the matter without patent
evidence before him?”

This was very unlikely, as Lecoq fully realized, and for a moment he
asked himself if he and his fellows could not make a descent on the
Hotel de Sairmeuse, and, on some pretext or other, compel the duke to
show himself. It would then be easy to identify him as the prisoner May.
However, after a little thought he dismissed the idea. “It would be a
stupid expedient!” he exclaimed. “Two such men as the duke and his
accomplice are not likely to be caught napping. They are prepared for
such a visit, and we should only have our labour for our pains.”

He made these reflections in a low tone of voice; and Father Absinthe’s
curiosity was aroused. “Excuse me,” said the old veteran, “I don’t quite
understand you.”

“I say that we must find some tangible proof before asking permission to
proceed further--” Lecoq paused with knitted brows. An idea had occurred
to him. He fancied he could prove complicity between at least one of the
witnesses summoned to give evidence, and some member of the duke’s
household. He was indeed thinking of Madame Milner, the landlady of the
Hotel de Mariembourg, and of his first meeting with her. He saw her
again, in his mind’s eye, standing on a chair, her face on a level with
a cage, covered with a large piece of black silk, while she persistently
repeated three or four German words to a starling, who with equal
persistency retorted: “Camille! Where is Camille?” “One thing is
certain,” exclaimed Lecoq aloud, “if Madame Milner--who is a German, and
who speaks French with the strongest possible German accent--had reared
this bird, it would either have spoken in German or else in French, and
in the latter case with the same accent as its mistress. So it can’t
have been in her possession long; but then who can have given it to
her?”

Father Absinthe was beginning to grow impatient “In sober earnest, what
are you talking about?” he asked, petulantly.

“I say that if there is any one at the Hotel de Sairmeuse named Camille,
I have the proof I wish for. Come, Papa Absinthe, let us hurry on.” And
without another word of explanation, he dragged his companion rapidly
towards the Seine.

When they reached the Rue de Grenelle, Lecoq perceived a commissionaire
leaning against the door of a wine-shop. He walked straight towards him.
“Come, my good fellow,” said he. “I want you to go to the Hotel de
Sairmeuse and ask for Camille. Tell her that her uncle is waiting for
her here.”

“But, sir----”

“What, you haven’t gone yet?”

The messenger started off, and the two police agents entered the
wine-shop, Father Absinthe scarcely having time to swallow a glass of
brandy before the envoy returned. “I was unable to see Mademoiselle
Camille,” said he. “The house is closed from top to bottom. The duchess
died very suddenly this morning.”

“Ah! the wretch!” exclaimed the young police agent. Then controlling
himself, he mentally added: “He must have killed his wife on returning
home, but his fate is sealed. Now, I shall be allowed to continue my
investigations.”

In less than twenty minutes they arrived at the Palais de Justice. M.
Segmuller did not seem to be immoderately surprised by Lecoq’s
revelations, though he listened with evident doubt to the young police
agent’s ingenious deductions; it was the circumstance of the starling
which at last decided him. “Perhaps you are right, my dear Lecoq,” he
said, “and to tell the truth, I quite agree with you. But I can take no
further action in the matter until you can furnish proof so convincing
in its nature that the Duke de Sairmeuse will be unable to think of
denying it.”

“Ah! sir, my superiors won’t allow me--”

“On the contrary,” interrupted the magistrate, “they will allow you the
fullest liberty after I have spoken to them.” Such action on M.
Segmuller’s part, required no little courage; for in official circles
there had been considerable merriment over the magistrate’s mysterious
man with the iron mask, disguised as a mountebank; and the former by his
persistent support of the young detective’s theories, had almost become
an object of ridicule.

“And when will you speak to them?” timidly inquired Lecoq.

“At once.”

The magistrate had already turned towards the door when the young
police agent stopped him. “I have one more favour to ask you, sir,” he
said, entreatingly. “You are so kind, you are the first person who has
given me any encouragement--who has had any faith in me.”

“Speak, my good fellow.”

“Ah! sir, will you give me a message for M. d’Escorval? Any
insignificant message--inform him of the prisoner’s escape. I will take
it myself, and then--Oh! fear nothing, sir; I will be very prudent.”

“Very well!” replied the magistrate, “I will write him a note.”

When he finally left the office, Lecoq was fully authorized to proceed
with his investigations, and he carried in his pocket M. Segmuller’s
letter to M. d’Escorval. His satisfaction was so intense that he did not
deign to notice the sneers bestowed upon him as he passed along the
corridors; but on the threshold downstairs he encountered Gevrol the
general, who was evidently watching for him. “Ah ha!” laughed the
inspector, as Lecoq passed out, “here’s one of those simpletons who fish
for whales and don’t even catch a gudgeon.”

For an instant Lecoq felt angry. He turned round abruptly and looked
Gevrol full in the face. “At all events,” retorted he in the tone of a
man _who_ knows what he’s saying. “That’s better than assisting
prisoners to carry on a surreptitious correspondence with people
outside.”

In his surprise, Gevrol almost lost countenance, and his blush was
equivalent to a confession. But Lecoq did not add another word. What did
it matter to him now if Gevrol had betrayed him! Was he not about to win
a glorious revenge!

He spent the remainder of the day in preparing his plan of action, and
in thinking what he should say when he took M. Segmuller’s note to
Maurice d’Escorval. The next morning at about eleven o’clock he
presented himself at the latter’s house. “M. d’Escorval is in his study
with a young man,” replied the servant to the young detective’s inquiry,
“but, as he gave me no orders to the contrary, you may go in.”

Lecoq entered, but found the study unoccupied. From the adjoining room,
however, only separated from the study by velvet hangings, came a sound
of stifled exclamations, of sobs mingled with kisses. Not knowing
whether to remain or to retire, the young police-agent stood for a
moment undecided; when suddenly he perceived an open letter lying on the
carpet. Impelled by an impulse stronger than his will, Lecoq picked the
letter up, and his eyes meeting the signature, he started back in
surprise. He could not now refrain from reading this missive which ran
as follows:

     “The bearer of this letter is Marie-Anne’s son--your son, Maurice.
     I have given him all the proofs necessary to establish his
     identity. It was to his education that I consecrated poor
     Marie-Anne’s inheritance. Those to whose care I confided him have
     made a noble man of him. If I restore him to you, it is only
     because the life I lead is not a fitting life for him. Yesterday,
     the miserable woman who murdered my sister died from poison
     administered by her own hand. Poor Marie-Anne! she would have been
     far more terribly avenged had not an accident which happened to me
     saved the Duke and the Duchess de Sairmeuse from the snare into
     which I had drawn them.

“JEAN LACHENEUR.”



Lecoq stood as if petrified. Now he understood the terrible drama
enacted in the Widow Chupin’s cabin. “I must go to Sairmeuse at once,”
he said to himself; “there I can discover everything.” He left the room
without seeing M. d’Escorval, and even successfully resisted the
temptation to take Lacheneur’s letter with him.

Exactly a month had transpired since Blanche’s death. His grace the Duke
de Sairmeuse was reclining on a divan in his library, reading one of his
favourite authors, when Otto his valet de chambre came in to inform him
that a messenger was below, charged with delivering into his grace’s own
hands a letter from M. d’Escorval.

Martial sprang to his feet. “It is impossible,” he exclaimed; and then
he quickly added: “Let the messenger come up.”

A tall man, with florid complexion, and red hair and beard, timidly
handed the duke a letter. Martial instantly broke the seal, and read:

     “I saved you, monsieur, by not recognizing the prisoner.

[Illustration: “He began writing without noticing that the messenger was
looking over his shoulder.”]

     May. In your turn assist me. By noon on the day after to-morrow, I
     must have two hundred and sixty thousand francs. I have sufficient
     confidence in your honour to apply to you.

“MAURICE D’ESCORVAL.”



     For a moment Martial stood bewildered, then springing to a table he
     began writing, without noticing that the messenger was looking over
     his shoulder: “Monsieur--Not the day after to-morrow, but this
     evening, what you ask will be at your service. My fortune and my
     life are at your disposal. It is but a slight return for the
     generosity shown by you in withdrawing, when, under the rags of
     May, you recognized your former enemy, but now your devoted friend.

“MARTIAL DE SAIRMEUSE.”



The duke folded this letter with a feverish hand, and giving it to the
messenger with a louis, he said: “Here is the answer, make haste!”

But the messenger did not stir. He slipped the letter into his pocket,
and then hastily cast his red beard and wig on the floor.

“Lecoq!” exclaimed Martial, paler than death.

“Lecoq, yes, sir,” replied the young detective. “I was obliged to take
my revenge; my future depended on it, and so I ventured to imitate M.
d’Escorval’s writing.” And as Martial offered no remark: “I must also
say to Monsieur le Duc,” he continued, “that if your grace will transmit
a confession of your presence at the Poivriere in your own hand-writing
to the investigating magistrate I can and will at the same time furnish
proofs of your grace’s innocence--that you were dragged into a snare,
and that you only acted in self-defense.”

Martial looked up in fair astonishment, but to show that he was
acquainted with everything, Lecoq slowly added: “As madame is dead,
there will be nothing said concerning what took place at the Borderie.”

A week later a private report setting forth that there were no grounds
to proceed against the Duke de Sairmeuse was forwarded by M. Segmuller
to the public prosecutor.

Appointed to the position of inspector, which he coveted. Lecoq had the
good taste, or perhaps, the shrewdness, to wear his honours modestly.
But on the day of his promotion, he ordered a seal, on which was
engraved the exultant rooster, his chosen armorial design, with a motto
to which he ever remained faithful: “_Semper Vigilans_.”

FINIS.

       *       *       *       *       *

Typographical errors corrected by the etext transcriber:

acticles=> acticles {pg 6}

he broached the subject fo the duke=> he broached the subject to the
duke {pg 14}

The Marquise de Sairmeuse will be our spy=> The Marquis de Sairmeuse
will be our spy {pg 31}

exclaimed Lacheneur, in amazment;=> exclaimed Lacheneur, in amazement;
{pg 38}

The last trial had overwhelmd her=> The last trial had overwhelmed her
{pg 58}

Marquis de Courtoruieu had closed=> Marquis de Courtornieu had closed
{pg 69}

Blanche de Courtorneiu had reached Montaignac=> Blanche de Courtornieu
had reached Montaignac {pg 73}

knew of his imfamous intentions=> knew of his infamous intentions {pg
88}

his frequent nocturnal jonrneys=> his frequent nocturnal journeys {pg
89}

looking angrily at the sqectators=> looking angrily at the spectators
{pg 90}

since it it absolutely necessary=> since it is absolutely necessary {pg
91}

as motionless as a statute=> as motionless as a statue {pg 109}

a soldier’s assistence is indispensable=> a soldier’s assistance is
indispensable {pg 112}

The frontior bordering on Savoy=> The frontier bordering on Savoy {pg
127}

the military commision=> the military commission {pg 127}

he could scarely move them=> he could scarcely move them {pg 128}

It wont be easy to save you=> It won’t be easy to save you {pg 134}

Martial turned crimson, and look searchingly=> Martial turned crimson,
and looked searchingly {pg 143}

Peoble told me=> People told me {pg 148}

there was the ask of misleading=> there was the task of misleading {pg
163}

did he breathe freeely=> did he breathe freely {pg 174}

that is not yet noon=> that it is not yet noon {pg 182}

the guards accompained him=> the guards accompanied him {pg 182}

Oh the morrow he scarcely ate=> On the morrow he scarcely ate {pg 188}

The abbe atributed this sudden=> The abbe attributed this sudden {pg
194}

She had commited=> She had committed {pg 234}

assumed and attitude=> assumed an attitude {pg 238}

the Baron d’Escoval’s terrible=> the Baron d’Escorval’s terrible {pg
238}

thay found him standing=> they found him standing {pg 249}

Am I to undersatand that Marie-Anne=> Am I to understand that Marie-Anne
{pg 250}

in the pocket of of her dress=> in the pocket of her dress {pg 254}

after this occurance=> after this occurrence {pg 260}

He has so impatient to reach=> He was so impatient to reach {pg 273}

the clamours of conscience was sinking=> the clamours of conscience were
sinking {pg 274}

The patients delirium => The patient’s delirium {pg 287}

Ducnesse de Sairmeuse=> Duchesse de Sairmeuse {pg 288}

the crime she had commited=> the crime she had committed {pg 291}

the happiness which when would have been his=> the happiness which then
would have been his {pg 293}

formerely so irritably=> formerly so irritably {pg 293}

urging no the crowd=> urging on the crowd {pg 294}

the duke’s houshold=> the duke’s household {pg 309}





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Monsieur Lecoq, v. 2" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home