THE HONOR OF THE NAME
By Emile Gaboriau
THE HONOR OF THE NAME
On the first Sunday in the month of August, 1815, at ten o'clock precisely—as on every Sunday morning—the sacristan of the parish church at Sairmeuse sounded the three strokes of the bell which warn the faithful that the priest is ascending the steps of the altar to celebrate high mass.
The church was already more than half full, and from every side little groups of peasants were hurrying into the church-yard. The women were all in their bravest attire, with cunning little fichus crossed upon their breasts, broad-striped, brightly colored skirts, and large white coifs.
Being as economical as they were coquettish, they came barefooted, bringing their shoes in their hands, but put them on reverentially before entering the house of God.
But few of the men entered the church. They remained outside to talk, seating themselves in the porch, or standing about the yard, in the shade of the century-old elms.
For such was the custom in the hamlet of Sairmeuse.
The two hours which the women consecrated to prayer the men employed in discussing the news, the success or the failure of the crops; and, before the service ended, they could generally be found, glass in hand, in the bar-room of the village inn.
For the farmers for a league around, the Sunday mass was only an excuse for a reunion, a sort of weekly bourse.
All the cures who had been successively stationed at Sairmeuse had endeavored to put an end to this scandalous habit, as they termed it; but all their efforts had made no impression upon country obstinacy.
They had succeeded in gaining only one concession. At the moment of the elevation of the Host, voices were hushed, heads uncovered, and a few even bowed the knee and made the sign of the cross.
But this was the affair of an instant only, and conversation was immediately resumed with increased vivacity.
But to-day the usual animation was wanting.
No sounds came from the little knots of men gathered here and there, not an oath, not a laugh. Between buyers and sellers, one did not overhear a single one of those interminable discussions, punctuated with the popular oaths, such as: "By my faith in God!" or "May the devil burn me!"
They were not talking, they were whispering together. A gloomy sadness was visible upon each face; lips were placed cautiously at the listener's ear; anxiety could be read in every eye.
One scented misfortune in the very air. Only a month had elapsed since Louis XVIII. had been, for the second time, installed in the Tuileries by a triumphant coalition.
The earth had not yet had time to swallow the sea of blood that flowed at Waterloo; twelve hundred thousand foreign soldiers desecrated the soil of France; the Prussian General Muffling was Governor of Paris.
And the peasantry of Sairmeuse trembled with indignation and fear.
This king, brought back by the allies, was no less to be dreaded than the allies themselves.
To them this great name of Bourbon signified only a terrible burden of taxation and oppression.
Above all, it signified ruin—for there was scarcely one among them who had not purchased some morsel of government land; and they were assured now that all estates were to be returned to the former proprietors, who had emigrated after the overthrow of the Bourbons.
Hence, it was with a feverish curiosity that most of them clustered around a young man who, only two days before, had returned from the army.
With tears of rage in his eyes, he was recounting the shame and the misery of the invasion.
He told of the pillage at Versailles, the exactions at Orleans, and the pitiless requisitions that had stripped the people of everything.
"And these accursed foreigners to whom the traitors have delivered us, will not go so long as a shilling or a bottle of wine is left in France!" he exclaimed.
As he said this he shook his clinched fist menacingly at a white flag that floated from the tower.
His generous anger won the close attention of his auditors, and they were still listening to him with undiminished interest, when the sound of a horse's hoofs resounded upon the stones of the only street in Sairmeuse.
A shudder traversed the crowd. The same fear stopped the beating of every heart.
Who could say that this rider was not some English or Prussian officer? He had come, perhaps, to announce the arrival of his regiment, and imperiously demand money, clothing, and food for his soldiers.
But the suspense was not of long duration.
The rider proved to be a fellow-countryman, clad in a torn and dirty blue linen blouse. He was urging forward, with repeated blows, a little, bony, nervous mare, fevered with foam.
"Ah! it is Father Chupin," murmured one of the peasants with a sigh of relief.
"The same," observed another. "He seems to be in a terrible hurry."
"The old rascal has probably stolen the horse he is riding."
This last remark disclosed the reputation Father Chupin enjoyed among his neighbors.
He was, indeed, one of those thieves who are the scourge and the terror of the rural districts. He pretended to be a day-laborer, but the truth was, that he held work in holy horror, and spent all his time in sleeping and idling about his hovel. Hence, stealing was the only means of support for himself, his wife, two sons—terrible youths, who, somehow, had escaped the conscription.
They consumed nothing that was not stolen. Wheat, wine, fuel, fruits—all were the rightful property of others. Hunting and fishing at all seasons, and with forbidden appliances, furnished them with ready money.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew this; and yet when Father Chupin was pursued and captured, as he was occasionally, no witness could be found to testify against him.
"He is a hard case," men said; "and if he had a grudge against anyone, he would be quite capable of lying in ambush and shooting him as he would a squirrel."
Meanwhile the rider had drawn rein at the inn of the Boeuf Couronne.
He alighted from his horse, and, crossing the square, approached the church.
He was a large man, about fifty years of age, as gnarled and sinewy as the stem of an old grape-vine. At the first glance one would not have taken him for a scoundrel. His manner was humble, and even gentle; but the restlessness of his eye and the expression of his thin lips betrayed diabolical cunning and the coolest calculation.
At any other time this despised and dreaded individual would have been avoided; but curiosity and anxiety led the crowd toward him.
"Ah, well, Father Chupin!" they cried, as soon as he was within the sound of their voices; "whence do you come in such haste?"
"From the city."
To the inhabitants of Sairmeuse and its environs, "the city" meant the country town of the arrondissement, Montaignac, a charming sub-prefecture of eight thousand souls, about four leagues distant.
"And was it at Montaignac that you bought the horse you were riding just now?"
"I did not buy it; it was loaned to me."
This was such a strange assertion that his listeners could not repress a smile. He did not seem to notice it, however.
"It was loaned me," he continued, "in order that I might bring some great news here the quicker."
Fear resumed possession of the peasantry.
"Is the enemy in the city?" anxiously inquired some of the more timid.
"Yes; but not the enemy you refer to. This is the former lord of the manor, the Duc de Sairmeuse."
"Ah! they said he was dead."
"They were mistaken."
"Have you seen him?"
"No, I have not seen him, but someone else has seen him for me, and has spoken to him. And this someone is Monsieur Laugeron, the proprietor of the Hotel de France at Montaignac. I was passing the house this morning, when he called me. 'Here, old man,' he said, 'do you wish to do me a favor?' Naturally I replied: 'Yes.' Whereupon he placed a coin in my hand and said: 'Well! go and tell them to saddle a horse for you, then gallop to Sairmeuse, and tell my friend Lacheneur that the Duc de Sairmeuse arrived here last night in a post-chaise, with his son, Monsieur Martial, and two servants.'"
Here, in the midst of these peasants, who were listening to him with pale cheeks and set teeth, Father Chupin preserved the subdued mien appropriate to a messenger of misfortune.
But if one had observed him carefully, one would have detected an ironical smile upon his lips and a gleam of malicious joy in his eyes.
He was, in fact, inwardly jubilant. At that moment he had his revenge for all the slights and all the scorn he had been forced to endure. And what a revenge!
And if his words seemed to fall slowly and reluctantly from his lips, it was only because he was trying to prolong the sufferings of his auditors as much as possible.
But a robust young fellow, with an intelligent face, who, perhaps, read Father Chupin's secret heart, brusquely interrupted him:
"What does the presence of the Duc de Sairmeuse at Montaignac matter to us?" he exclaimed. "Let him remain at the Hotel de France as long as he chooses; we shall not go in search of him."
"No! we shall not go in search of him," echoed the other peasants, approvingly.
The old rogue shook his head with affected commiseration.
"Monsieur le Duc will not put you to that trouble," he replied; "he will be here in less than two hours."
"How do you know?"
"I know it through Monsieur Laugeron, who, when I mounted his horse, said to me: 'Above all, old man, explain to my friend Lacheneur that the duke has ordered horses to be in readiness to convey him to Sairmeuse at eleven o'clock.'"
With a common movement, all the peasants who had watches consulted them.
"And what does he want here?" demanded the same young farmer.
"Pardon! he did not tell me," replied Father Chupin; "but one need not be very cunning to guess. He comes to revisit his former estates, and to take them from those who have purchased them, if possible. From you, Rousselet, he will claim the meadows upon the Oiselle, which always yield two crops; from you, Father Gauchais, the ground upon which the Croix-Brulee stands; from you, Chanlouineau, the vineyards on the Borderie——"
Chanlouineau was the impetuous young man who had interrupted Father Chupin twice already.
"Claim the Borderie!" he exclaimed, with even greater violence; "let him try, and we will see. It was waste land when my father bought it—covered with briers; even a goat could not have found pasture there. We have cleared it of stones, we have scratched up the soil with our very nails, we have watered it with our sweat, and now they would try to take it from us! Ah! they shall have my last drop of blood first!"
"I do not say but——"
"But what? Is it any fault of ours that the nobles fled to foreign lands? We have not stolen their lands, have we? The government offered them for sale; we bought them, and paid for them; they are lawfully ours."
"That is true; but Monsieur de Sairmeuse is the great friend of the king."
The young soldier, whose voice had aroused the most noble sentiments only a moment before, was forgotten.
Invaded France, the threatening enemy, were alike forgotten. The all-powerful instinct of avarice was suddenly aroused.
"In my opinion," resumed Chanlouineau, "we should do well to consult the Baron d'Escorval."
"Yes, yes!" exclaimed the peasants; "let us go at once!"
They were starting, when a villager who sometimes read the papers, checked them by saying:
"Take care what you do. Do you not know that since the return of the Bourbons Monsieur d'Escorval is of no account whatever? Fouche has him upon the proscription list, and he is under the surveillance of the police."
This objection dampened the enthusiasm.
"That is true," murmured some of the older men; "a visit to Monsieur d'Escorval would, perhaps, do us more harm than good. And, besides, what advice could he give us?"
Chanlouineau had forgotten all prudence.
"What of that?" he exclaimed. "If Monsieur d'Escorval has no counsel to give us about this matter, he can, perhaps, teach us how to resist and to defend ourselves."
For some moments Father Chupin had been studying, with an impassive countenance, the storm of anger he had aroused. In his secret heart he experienced the satisfaction of the incendiary at the sight of the flames he has kindled.
Perhaps he already had a presentiment of the infamous part he would play a few months later.
Satisfied with his experiment, he assumed, for the time, the role of moderator.
"Wait a little. Do not cry before you are hurt," he exclaimed, in an ironical tone. "Who told you that the Duc de Sairmeuse would trouble you? How much of his former domain do you all own between you? Almost nothing. A few fields and meadows and a hill on the Borderie. All these together did not in former times yield him an income of five thousand francs a year."
"Yes, that is true," replied Chanlouineau; "and if the revenue you mention is quadrupled, it is only because the land is now in the hands of forty proprietors who cultivate it themselves."
"Another reason why the duke will not say a word; he will not wish to set the whole district in commotion. In my opinion, he will dispossess only one of the owners of his former estates, and that is our worthy ex-mayor—Monsieur Lacheneur, in short."
Ah! he knew only too well the egotism of his compatriots. He knew with what complacency and eagerness they would accept an expiatory victim whose sacrifice should be their salvation.
"That is a fact," remarked an old man; "Monsieur Lacheneur owns nearly all the Sairmeuse property."
"Say all, while you are about it," rejoined Father Chupin. "Where does Monsieur Lacheneur live? In that beautiful Chateau de Sairmeuse whose gable we can see there through the trees. He hunts in the forests which once belonged to the Ducs de Sairmeuse; he fishes in their lakes; he drives the horses which once belonged to them, in the carriages upon which one could now see their coat-of-arms, if it had not been painted out.
"Twenty years ago, Lacheneur was a poor devil like myself; now, he is a grand gentleman with fifty thousand livres a year. He wears the finest broadcloth and top-boots like the Baron d'Escorval. He no longer works; he makes others work; and when he passes, everyone must bow to the earth. If you kill so much as a sparrow upon his lands, as he says, he will cast you into prison. Ah, he has been fortunate. The emperor made him mayor. The Bourbons deprived him of his office; but what does that matter to him? He is still the real master here, as the Sairmeuse were in other days. His son is pursuing his studies in Paris, intending to become a notary. As for his daughter, Mademoiselle Marie-Anne—"
"Not a word against her!" exclaimed Chanlouineau; "if she were mistress, there would not be a poor man in the country; and yet, how some of her pensioners abuse her bounty. Ask your wife if this is not so, Father Chupin."
Undoubtedly the impetuous young man spoke at the peril of his life.
But the wicked old Chupin swallowed this affront which he would never forget, and humbly continued:
"I do not say that Mademoiselle Marie-Anne is not generous; but after all her charitable work she has plenty of money left for her fine dresses and her fallals. I think that Monsieur Lacheneur ought to be very well content, even after he has restored to its former owner one-half or even three-quarters of the property he has acquired—no one can tell how. He would have enough left then to grind the poor under foot."
After his appeal to selfishness, Father Chupin appealed to envy. There could be no doubt of his success.
But he had not time to pursue his advantage. The services were over, and the worshippers were leaving the church.
Soon there appeared upon the porch the man in question, with a young girl of dazzling beauty leaning upon his arm.
Father Chupin walked straight toward him, and brusquely delivered his message.
M. Lacheneur staggered beneath the blow. He turned first so red, then so frightfully pale, that those around him thought he was about to fall.
But he quickly recovered his self-possession, and without a word to the messenger, he walked rapidly away, leading his daughter.
Some minutes later an old post-chaise, drawn by four horses, dashed through the village at a gallop, and paused before the house of the village cure.
Then one might have witnessed a singular spectacle.
Father Chupin had gathered his wife and his children together, and the four surrounded the carriage, shouting, with all the power of their lungs:
"Long live the Duc de Sairmeuse!"
A gently ascending road, more than two miles in length, shaded by a quadruple row of venerable elms, led from the village to the Chateau de Sairmeuse.
Nothing could be more beautiful than this avenue, a fit approach to a palace; and the stranger who beheld it could understand the naively vain proverb of the country: "He does not know the real beauty of France, who has never seen Sairmeuse nor the Oiselle."
The Oiselle is the little river which one crosses by means of a wooden bridge on leaving the village, and whose clear and rapid waters give a delicious freshness to the valley.
At every step, as one ascends, the view changes. It is as if an enchanting panorama were being slowly unrolled before one.
On the right you can see the saw-mills of Fereol. On the left, like an ocean of verdure, the forest of Dolomien trembles in the breeze. Those imposing ruins on the other side of the river are all that remain of the feudal manor of the house of Breulh. That red brick mansion, with granite trimmings, half concealed by a bend in the river, belongs to the Baron d'Escorval.
And, if the day is clear, one can easily distinguish the spires of Montaignac in the distance.
This was the path traversed by M. Lacheneur after Chupin had delivered his message.
But what did he care for the beauties of the landscape!
Upon the church porch he had received his death-wound; and now, with a tottering and dragging step, he dragged himself along like one of those poor soldiers, mortally wounded upon the field of battle, who go back, seeking a ditch or quiet spot where they can lie down and die.
He seemed to have lost all thought of his surroundings—all consciousness of previous events. He pursued his way, lost in his reflections, guided only by force of habit.
Two or three times his daughter, Marie-Anne, who was walking by his side, addressed him; but an "Ah! let me alone!" uttered in a harsh tone, was the only response she could draw from him.
Evidently he had received a terrible blow; and undoubtedly, as often happens under such circumstances, the unfortunate man was reviewing all the different phases of his life.
At twenty Lacheneur was only a poor ploughboy in the service of the Sairmeuse family.
His ambition was modest then. When stretched beneath a tree at the hour of noonday rest, his dreams were as simple as those of an infant.
"If I could but amass a hundred pistoles," he thought, "I would ask Father Barrois for the hand of his daughter Martha; and he would not refuse me." A hundred pistoles! A thousand francs!—an enormous sum for him who, in two years of toil and privation had only laid by eleven louis, which he had placed carefully in a tiny box and hidden in the depths of his straw mattress.
Still he did not despair. He had read in Martha's eyes that she would wait.
And Mlle. Armande de Sairmeuse, a rich old maid, was his god-mother; and he thought, if he attacked her adroitly, that he might, perhaps, interest her in his love-affair.
Then the terrible storm of the revolution burst over France.
With the fall of the first thunder-bolts, the Duke of Sairmeuse left France with the Count d'Artois. They took refuge in foreign lands as a passer-by seeks shelter in a doorway from a summer shower, saying to himself: "This will not last long."
The storm did last, however; and the following year Mlle. Armande, who had remained at Sairmeuse, died.
The chateau was then closed, the president of the district took possession of the keys in the name of the government, and the servants were scattered.
Lacheneur took up his residence in Montaignac.
Young, daring, and personally attractive, blessed with an energetic face, and an intelligence far above his station, it was not long before he became well known in the political clubs.
For three months Lacheneur was the tyrant of Montaignac.
But this metier of public speaker is by no means lucrative, so the surprise throughout the district was immense, when it was ascertained that the former ploughboy had purchased the chateau, and almost all the land belonging to his old master.
It is true that the nation had sold this princely domain for scarcely a twentieth part of its real value. The appraisement was sixty-nine thousand francs. It was giving the property away.
And yet, it was necessary to have this amount, and Lacheneur possessed it, since he had poured it in a flood of beautiful louis d'or into the hands of the receiver of the district.
From that moment his popularity waned. The patriots who had applauded the ploughboy, cursed the capitalist. He discreetly left them to recover from their rage as best they could, and returned to Sairmeuse. There everyone bowed low before Citoyen Lacheneur.
Unlike most people, he did not forget his past hopes at the moment when they might be realized.
He married Martha Barrois, and, leaving the country to work out its own salvation without his assistance, he gave his time and attention to agriculture.
Any close observer, in those days, would have felt certain that the man was bewildered by the sudden change in his situation.
His manner was so troubled and anxious that one, to see him, would have supposed him a servant in constant fear of being detected in some indiscretion.
He did not open the chateau, but installed himself and his young wife in the cottage formerly occupied by the head game-keeper, near the entrance of the park.
But, little by little, with the habit of possession, came assurance.
The Consulate had succeeded the Directory, the Empire succeeded the Consulate, Citoyen Lacheneur became M. Lacheneur.
Appointed mayor two years later, he left the cottage and took possession of the chateau.
The former ploughboy slumbered in the bed of the Ducs de Sairmeuse; he ate from the massive plate, graven with their coat-of-arms; he received his visitors in the magnificent salon in which the Ducs de Sairmeuse had received their friends in years gone by.
To those who had known him in former days, M. Lacheneur had become unrecognizable. He had adapted himself to his lofty station. Blushing at his own ignorance; he had found the courage—wonderful in one of his age—to acquire the education which he lacked.
Then, all his undertakings were successful to such a degree that his good fortune had become proverbial. That he took any part in an enterprise, sufficed to make it turn out well.
His wife had given him two lovely children, a son and a daughter.
His property, managed with a shrewdness and sagacity which the former owners had not possessed, yielded him an income of at least sixty thousand francs.
How many, under similar circumstances, would have lost their heads! But he, M. Lacheneur, had been wise enough to retain his sang-froid.
In spite of the princely luxury that surrounded him, his own habits were simple and frugal. He had never had an attendant for his own person. His large income he consecrated almost entirely to the improvement of his estate or to the purchase of more land. And yet, he was not avaricious. In all that concerned his wife or children, he did not count the cost. His son, Jean, had been educated in Paris; he wished him to be fitted for any position. Unwilling to consent to a separation from his daughter, he had procured a governess to take charge of her education.
Sometimes his friends accused him of an inordinate ambition for his children; but he always shook his head sadly, as he replied:
"If I can only insure them a modest and comfortable future! But what folly it is to count upon the future. Thirty years ago, who could have foreseen that the Sairmeuse family would be deprived of their estates?"
With such opinions he should have been a good master; he was, but no one thought the better of him on that account. His former comrades could not forgive him for his sudden elevation.
They seldom spoke of him without wishing his ruin in ambiguous words.
Alas! the evil days came. Toward the close of the year 1812, he lost his wife, the disasters of the year 1813 swept away a large portion of his personal fortune, which had been invested in a manufacturing enterprise.
Compromised by the first Restoration, he was obliged to conceal himself for a time; and to cap the climax, the conduct of his son, who was still in Paris, caused him serious disquietude.
Only the evening before, he had thought himself the most unfortunate of men.
But here was another misfortune menacing him; a misfortune so terrible that all the others were forgotten.
From the day on which he had purchased Sairmeuse to this fatal Sunday in August, 1815, was an interval of twenty years.
Twenty years! And it seemed to him only yesterday that, blushing and trembling, he had laid those piles of louis d'or upon the desk of the receiver of the district.
Had he dreamed it?
He had not dreamed it. His entire life, with its struggles and its miseries, its hopes and its fears, its unexpected joys and its blighted hopes, all passed before him.
Lost in these memories, he had quite forgotten the present situation, when a commonplace incident, more powerful than the voice of his daughter, brought him back to the terrible reality. The gate leading to the Chateau de Sairmeuse, to his chateau, was found to be locked.
He shook it with a sort of rage; and, being unable to break the fastening, he found some relief in breaking the bell.
On hearing the noise, the gardener came running to the scene of action.
"Why is this gate closed?" demanded M. Lacheneur, with unwonted violence of manner. "By what right do you barricade my house when I, the master, am without?"
The gardener tried to make some excuse.
"Hold your tongue!" interrupted M. Lacheneur. "I dismiss you; you are no longer in my service."
He passed on, leaving the gardener petrified with astonishment, crossed the court-yard—a court-yard worthy of the mansion, bordered with velvet turf, with flowers, and with dense shrubbery.
In the vestibule, inlaid with marble, three of his tenants sat awaiting him, for it was on Sunday that he always received the workmen who desired to confer with him.
They rose at his approach, and removed their hats deferentially. But he did not give them time to utter a word.
"Who permitted you to enter here?" he said, savagely, "and what do you desire? They sent you to play the spy on me, did they? Leave, I tell you!"
The three farmers were even more bewildered and dismayed than the gardener had been, and their remarks must have been interesting.
But M. Lacheneur could not hear them. He had opened the door of the grand salon, and dashed in, followed by his frightened daughter.
Never had Marie-Anne seen her father in such a mood; and she trembled, her heart torn by the most frightful presentiments.
She had heard it said that oftentimes, under the influence of some dire calamity, unfortunate men have suddenly lost their reason entirely; and she was wondering if her father had become insane.
It would seem, indeed, that such was the case. His eyes flashed, convulsive shudders shook his whole body, a white foam gathered on his lips.
He made the circuit of the room as a wild beast makes the circuit of his cage, uttering harsh imprecations and making frenzied gestures.
His actions were strange, incomprehensible. Sometimes he seemed to be trying the thickness of the carpet with the toe of his boot; sometimes he threw himself upon a sofa or a chair, as if to test its softness.
Occasionally, he paused abruptly before some one of the valuable pictures that covered the walls, or before a bronze. One might have supposed that he was taking an inventory, and appraising all the magnificent and costly articles which decorated this apartment, the most sumptuous in the chateau.
"And I must renounce all this!" he exclaimed, at last.
These words explained everything.
"No, never!" he resumed, in a transport of rage; "never! never! I cannot! I will not!"
Now Marie-Anne understood it all. But what was passing in her father's mind? She wished to know; and, leaving the low chair in which she had been seated, she went to her father's side.
"Are you ill, father?" she asked, in her sweet voice; "what is the matter? What do you fear? Why do you not confide in me?—Am I not your daughter? Do you no longer love me?"
At the sound of this dear voice, M. Lacheneur trembled like a sleeper suddenly aroused from the terrors of a nightmare, and he cast an indescribable glance upon his daughter.
"Did you not hear what Chupin said to me?" he replied, slowly. "The Duc de Sairmeuse is at Montaignac; he will soon be here; and we are dwelling in the chateau of his fathers, and his domain has become ours!"
The vexed question regarding the national lands, which agitated France for thirty years, Marie understood, for she had heard it discussed a thousand times.
"Ah, well, dear father," said she, "what does that matter, even if we do hold the property? You have bought it and paid for it, have you not? So it is rightfully and lawfully ours."
M. Lacheneur hesitated a moment before replying.
But his secret suffocated him. He was in one of those crises in which a man, however strong he may be, totters and seeks some support, however fragile.
"You would be right, my daughter," he murmured, with drooping head, "if the money that I gave in exchange for Sairmeuse had really belonged to me."
At this strange avowal the young girl turned pale and recoiled a step.
"What?" she faltered; "this gold was not yours, my father? To whom did it belong? From whence did it come?"
The unhappy man had gone too far to retract.
"I will tell you all, my daughter," he replied, "and you shall judge. You shall decide. When the Sairmeuse family fled from France, I had only my hands to depend upon, and as it was almost impossible to obtain work, I wondered if starvation were not near at hand.
"Such was my condition when someone came after me one evening to tell me that Mademoiselle Armande de Sairmeuse, my godmother, was dying, and wished to speak with me. I ran to the chateau.
"The messenger had told the truth. Mademoiselle Armande was sick unto death. I felt this on seeing her upon her bed, whiter than wax.
"Ah! if I were to live a hundred years, never should I forget her face as it looked at that moment. It was expressive of a strength of will and an energy that would hold death at bay until the task upon which she had determined was performed.
"When I entered the room I saw a look of relief appear upon her countenance.
"'How long you were in coming!' she murmured faintly.
"I was about to make some excuse, when she motioned me to pause, and ordered the women who surrounded her to leave the room.
"As soon as we were alone:
"'You are an honest boy,', said she, 'and I am about to give you a proof of my confidence. People believe me to be poor, but they are mistaken. While my relatives were gayly ruining themselves, I was saving the five hundred louis which the duke, my brother, gave me each year.'
"She motioned me to come nearer, and to kneel beside her bed.
"I obeyed, and Mademoiselle Armande leaned toward me, almost glued her lips to my ear, and added:
"'I possess eighty thousand francs.'
"I felt a sudden giddiness, but my godmother did not notice it.
"'This amount,' she continued, 'is not a quarter part of the former income from our family estates. But now, who knows but it will, one day, be the only resource of the Sairmeuse? I am going to place it in your charge, Lacheneur. I confide it to your honor and to your devotion. The estates belonging to the emigrants are to be sold, I hear. If such an act of injustice is committed, you will probably be able to purchase our property for seventy thousand francs. If the property is sold by the government, purchase it; if the lands belonging to the emigrants are not sold, take that amount to the duke, my brother, who is with the Count d'Artois. The surplus, that is to say, the ten thousand francs remaining, I give to you—they are yours.'
"She seemed to recover her strength. She raised herself in bed, and, holding the crucifix attached to her rosary to my lips, she said:
"'Swear by the image of our Saviour, that you will faithfully execute the last will of your dying godmother.'
"I took the required oath, and an expression of satisfaction overspread her features.
"'That is well,' she said; 'I shall die content. You will have a protector on high. But this is not all. In times like these in which we live, this gold will not be safe in your hands unless those about you are ignorant that you possess it. I have been endeavoring to discover some way by which you could remove it from my room, and from the chateau, without the knowledge of anyone; and I have found a way. The gold is here in this cupboard, at the head of my bed, in a stout oaken chest. You must find strength to move the chest—you must. You can fasten a sheet around it and let it down gently from the window into the garden. You will then leave the house as you entered it, and as soon as you are outside, you must take the chest and carry it to your home. The night is very dark, and no one will see you, if you are careful. But make haste; my strength is nearly gone.'
"The chest was heavy, but I was very strong.
"In less than ten minutes the task of removing the chest from the chateau was accomplished, without a single sound that would betray us. As I closed the window, I said:
"'It is done, godmother.'
"'God be praised!' she whispered; 'Sairmeuse is saved!'
"I heard a deep sigh. I turned; she was dead."
This scene that M. Lacheneur was relating rose vividly before him.
To feign, to disguise the truth, or to conceal any portion of it was an impossibility.
He forgot himself and his daughter; he thought only of the dead woman, of Mlle. Armande de Sairmeuse.
And he shuddered on pronouncing the words: "She was dead." It seemed to him that she was about to speak, and to insist upon the fulfilment of his pledge.
After a moment's silence, he resumed, in a hollow voice:
"I called for aid; it came. Mademoiselle Armande was adored by everyone; there was great lamentation, and a half hour of indescribable confusion followed her death. I was able to withdraw, unnoticed, to run into the garden, and to carry away the oaken chest. An hour later, it was concealed in the miserable hovel in which I dwelt. The following year I purchased Sairmeuse."
He had confessed all; and he paused, trembling, trying to read his sentence in the eyes of his daughter.
"And can you hesitate?" she demanded.
"Ah! you do not know——"
"I know that Sairmeuse must be given up."
This was the decree of his own conscience, that faint voice which speaks only in a whisper, but which all the tumult on earth cannot overpower.
"No one saw me take away the chest," he faltered. "If anyone suspected it, there is not a single proof against me. But no one does suspect it."
Marie-Anne rose, her eyes flashed with generous indignation.
"My father!" she exclaimed; "oh! my father!"
Then, in a calmer tone, she added:
"If others know nothing of this, can you forget it?"
M. Lacheneur appeared almost ready to succumb to the torture of the terrible conflict raging in his soul.
"Return!" he exclaimed. "What shall I return? That which I have received? So be it. I consent. I will give the duke the eighty thousand francs; to this amount I will add the interest on this sum since I have had it, and—we shall be free of all obligation."
The girl sadly shook her head.
"Why do you resort to subterfuges which are so unworthy of you?" she asked, gently. "You know perfectly well that it was Sairmeuse which Mademoiselle Armande intended to intrust to the servant of her house. And it is Sairmeuse which must be returned."
The word "servant" was revolting to a man, who, at least, while the empire endured, had been a power in the land.
"Ah! you are cruel, my daughter," he said, with intense bitterness; "as cruel as a child who has never suffered—as cruel as one who, having never himself been tempted, is without mercy for those who have yielded to temptation.
"It is one of those acts which God alone can judge, since God alone can read the depths of one's secret soul.
"I am only a depositary, you tell me. It was, indeed, in this light that I formerly regarded myself.
"If your poor sainted mother was still alive, she would tell you the anxiety and anguish I felt on being made the master of riches which were not mine. I trembled lest I should yield to their seductions; I was afraid of myself. I felt as a gambler might feel who had the winnings of others confided to his care; as a drunkard might feel who had been placed in charge of a quantity of the most delicious wines.
"Your mother would tell you that I moved heaven and earth to find the Duc de Sairmeuse. But he had left the Count d'Artois, and no one knew where he had gone or what had become of him. Ten years passed before I could make up my mind to inhabit the chateau—yes, ten years—during which I had the furniture dusted each morning as if the master was to return that evening.
"At last I ventured. I had heard Monsieur d'Escorval declare that the duke had been killed in battle. I took up my abode here. And from day to day, in proportion as the domain of Sairmeuse became more beautiful and extensive beneath my care, I felt myself more and more its rightful owner."
But this despairing pleading in behalf of a bad cause produced no impression upon Marie-Anne's loyal heart.
"Restitution must be made," she repeated. M. Lacheneur wrung his hands.
"Implacable!" he exclaimed; "she is implacable. Unfortunate girl! does she not understand that it is for her sake I wish to remain where I am? I am old, and I am familiar with toil and poverty; idleness has not removed the callosities from my hands. What do I require to keep me alive until the day comes for me to take my place in the graveyard? A crust of bread and an onion in the morning, a porringer of soup in the evening, and for the night a bundle of straw. I could easily earn that. But you, unhappy child! and your brother, what will become of you?"
"We must not discuss nor haggle with duty, my father. I think, however, that you are needlessly alarmed. I believe the duke is too noble-hearted ever to allow you to suffer want after the immense service you have rendered him."
The old servitor of the house of Sairmeuse laughed a loud, bitter laugh.
"You believe that!" said he; "then you do not know the nobles who have been our masters for ages. 'A., you are a worthy fellow!'—very coldly said—will be the only recompense I shall receive; and you will see us, me, at my plough; you, out at service. And if I venture to speak of the ten thousand francs that were given me, I shall be treated as an impostor, as an impudent fool. By the holy name of God this shall not be!"
"Oh, my father!"
"No! this shall not be. And I realize—as you cannot realize—the disgrace of such a fall. You think you are beloved in Sairmeuse? You are mistaken. We have been too fortunate not to be the victims of hatred and jealousy. If I fall to-morrow, you will see all who kissed your hands to-day fall upon you to tear you to pieces!"
His eye glittered; he believed he had found a victorious argument.
"And then you, yourself, will realize the horror of the disgrace. It will cost you the deadly anguish of a separation from him whom your heart has chosen."
He had spoken truly, for Marie-Anne's beautiful eyes filled with tears.
"If what you say proves true, father," she murmured, in an altered voice, "I may, perhaps, die of sorrow; but I cannot fail to realize that my confidence and my love has been misplaced."
"And you still insist upon my returning Sairmeuse to its former owner?"
"Honor speaks, my father."
M. Lacheneur made the arm-chair in which he was seated tremble by a violent blow of his fist.
"And if I am just as obstinate," he exclaimed—"if I keep the property—what will you do?"
"I shall say to myself, father, that honest poverty is better than stolen wealth. I shall leave this chateau, which belongs to the Duc de Sairmeuse, and I shall seek a situation as a servant in the neighborhood."
M. Lacheneur sank back in his arm-chair sobbing. He knew his daughter's nature well enough to be assured that what she said, that she would do.
But he was conquered; his daughter had won the battle. He had decided to make the heroic sacrifice.
"I will relinquish Sairmeuse," he faltered, "come what may——"
He paused suddenly; a visitor was entering the room.
It was a young man about twenty years of age, of distinguished appearance, but with a rather melancholy and gentle manner.
His eyes when he entered the apartment encountered those of Marie-Anne; he blushed slightly, and the girl half turned away, crimsoning to the roots of her hair.
"Monsieur," said the young man, "my father sends me to inform you that the Duc de Sairmeuse and his son have just arrived. They have asked the hospitality of our cure."
M. Lacheneur rose, unable to conceal his frightful agitation.
"You will thank the Baron d'Escorval for his attention, my dear Maurice," he responded. "I shall have the honor of seeing him to-day, after a very momentous step which we are about to take, my daughter and I."
Young d'Escorval had seen, at the first glance, that his presence was inopportune, so he remained only a few moments.
But as he was taking leave, Marie-Anne found time to say, in a low voice:
"I think I know your heart, Maurice; this evening I shall know it certainly."
Few of the inhabitants of Sairmeuse knew, except by name, the terrible duke whose arrival had thrown the whole village into commotion.
Some of the oldest residents had a faint recollection of having seen him long ago, before '89 indeed, when he came to visit his aunt, Mlle. Armande.
His duties, then, had seldom permitted him to leave the court.
If he had given no sign of life during the empire, it was because he had not been compelled to submit to the humiliations and suffering which so many of the emigrants were obliged to endure in their exile.
On the contrary, he had received, in exchange for the wealth of which he had been deprived by the revolution, a princely fortune.
Taking refuge in London after the defeat of the army of Conde, he had been so fortunate as to please the only daughter of Lord Holland, one of the richest peers in England, and he had married her.
She possessed a fortune of two hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling, more than six million francs.
Still the marriage was not a happy one. The chosen companion of the dissipated and licentious Count d'Artois was not likely to prove a very good husband.
The young duchess was contemplating a separation when she died, in giving birth to a boy, who was baptized under the names of Anne-Marie-Martial.
The loss of his wife did not render the Duc de Sairmeuse inconsolable.
He was free and richer than he had ever been.
As soon as les convenances permitted, he confided his son to the care of a relative of his wife, and began his roving life again.
Rumor had told the truth. He had fought, and that furiously, against France in the Austrian, and then in the Russian ranks.
And he took no pains to conceal the fact; convinced that he had only performed his duty. He considered that he had honestly and loyally gained the rank of general which the Emperor of all the Russias had bestowed upon him.
He had not returned to France during the first Restoration; but his absence had been involuntary. His father-in-law, Lord Holland, had just died, and the duke was detained in London by business connected with his son's immense inheritance.
Then followed the "Hundred Days." They exasperated him.
But "the good cause," as he styled it, having triumphed anew, he hastened to France.
Alas! Lacheneur judged the character of his former master correctly, when he resisted the entreaties of his daughter.
This man, who had been compelled to conceal himself during the first Restoration, knew only too well, that the returned emigres had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
The Duc de Sairmeuse was no exception to the rule.
He thought, and nothing could be more sadly absurd, that a mere act of authority would suffice to suppress forever all the events of the Revolution and of the empire.
When he said: "I do not admit that!" he firmly believed that there was nothing more to be said; that controversy was ended; and that what had been was as if it had never been.
If some, who had seen Louis XVII. at the helm in 1814, assured the duke that France had changed in many respects since 1789, he responded with a shrug of the shoulders:
"Nonsense! As soon as we assert ourselves, all these rascals, whose rebellion alarms you, will quietly sink out of sight."
Such was really his opinion.
On the way from Montaignac to Sairmeuse, the duke, comfortably ensconced in his berlin, unfolded his theories for the benefit of his son.
"The King has been poorly advised," he said, in conclusion. "Besides, I am disposed to believe that he inclines too much to Jacobinism. If he would listen to my advice, he would make use of the twelve hundred thousand soldiers which our friends have placed at his disposal, to bring his subjects to a sense of their duty. Twelve hundred thousand bayonets have far more eloquence than the articles of a charter."
He continued his remarks on this subject until the carriage approached Sairmeuse.
Though but little given to sentiment, he was really affected by the sight of the country in which he was born—where he had played as a child, and of which he had heard nothing since the death of his aunt.
Everything was changed: still the outlines of the landscape remained the same; the valley of the Oiselle was as bright and laughing as in days gone by.
"I recognize it!" he exclaimed, with a delight that made him forget politics. "I recognize it!"
Soon the changes became more striking.
The carriage entered Sairmeuse, and rattled over the stones of the only street in the village.
This street, in former years, had been unpaved, and had always been rendered impassable by wet weather.
"Ah, ha!" murmured the duke, "this is an improvement!"
It was not long before he noticed others. The dilapidated, thatched hovels had given place to pretty and comfortable white cottages with green blinds, and a vine hanging gracefully over the door.
As the carriage passed the public square in front of the church, Martial observed the groups of peasants who were still talking there.
"What do you think of all these peasants?" he inquired of his father. "Do they have the appearance of people who are preparing a triumphal reception for their old masters?"
M. de Sairmeuse shrugged his shoulders. He was not the man to renounce an illusion for such a trifle.
"They do not know that I am in this post-chaise," he replied. "When they know——"
Shouts of "Vive Monsieur le Duc de Sairmeuse!" interrupted him.
"Do you hear that, Marquis?" he exclaimed.
And pleased by these cries that proved him in the right, he leaned from the carriage-window, waving his hand to the honest Chupin family, who were running after the vehicle with noisy shouts.
The old rascal, his wife, and his children, all possessed powerful voices; and it was not strange that the duke believed the whole village was welcoming him. He was convinced of it; and when the berlin stopped before the house of the cure, M. de Sairmeuse was persuaded that the prestige of the nobility was greater than ever.
Upon the threshold of the parsonage, Bibiaine, the old housekeeper, was standing. She knew who these guests must be, for the cure's servants always know what is going on.
"Monsieur has not yet returned from church," she said, in response to the duke's inquiry; "but if the gentlemen wish to wait, it will not be long before he comes, for the poor, dear man has not breakfasted yet."
"Let us go in," the duke said to his son. And guided by the housekeeper, they entered a sort of drawing-room, where the table was spread.
M. de Sairmeuse took an inventory of the apartment in a single glance. The habits of a house reveal those of its master. This was clean, poor, and bare. The walls were whitewashed; a dozen chairs composed the entire furniture; upon the table, laid with monastic simplicity, were only tin dishes.
This was either the abode of an ambitious man or a saint.
"Will these gentlemen take any refreshments?" inquired Bibiaine.
"Upon my word," replied Martial, "I must confess that the drive has whetted my appetite amazingly."
"Blessed Jesus!" exclaimed the old housekeeper, in evident despair. "What am I to do? I, who have nothing! That is to say—yes—I have an old hen left in the coop. Give me time to wring its neck, to pick it, and clean it——"
She paused to listen, and they heard a step in the passage.
"Ah!" she exclaimed, "here is Monsieur le Cure now!"
The son of a poor farmer in the environs of Montaignac, he owed his Latin and tonsure to the privations of his family.
Tall, angular, and solemn, he was as cold and impassive as the stones of his church.
By what immense efforts of will, at the cost of what torture, had he made himself what he was? One could form some idea of the terrible restraint to which he had subjected himself by looking at his eyes, which occasionally emitted the lightnings of an impassioned soul.
Was he old or young? The most subtle observer would have hesitated to say on seeing this pallid and emaciated face, cut in two by an immense nose—a real eagle's beak—as thin as the edge of a razor.
He wore a white cassock, which had been patched and darned in numberless places, but which was a marvel of cleanliness, and which hung about his tall, attenuated body like the sails of a disabled vessel.
He was known as the Abbe Midon.
At the sight of the two strangers seated in his drawing-room, he manifested some slight surprise.
The carriage standing before the door had announced the presence of a visitor; but he had expected to find one of his parishioners.
No one had warned him or the sacristan, and he was wondering with whom he had to deal, and what they desired of him.
Mechanically, he turned to Bibiaine, but the old servant had taken flight.
The duke understood his host's astonishment.
"Upon my word, Abbe!" he said, with the impertinent ease of a grand seigneur who makes himself at home everywhere, "we have taken your house by storm, and hold the position, as you see. I am the Duc de Sairmeuse, and this is my son, the Marquis."
The priest bowed, but he did not seem very greatly impressed by the exalted rank of his guests.
"It is a great honor for me," he replied, in a more than reserved tone, "to receive a visit from the former master of this place."
He emphasized this word "former" in such a manner that it was impossible to doubt his sentiments and his opinions.
"Unfortunately," he continued, "you will not find here the comforts to which you are accustomed, and I fear——"
"Nonsense!" interrupted the duke. "An old soldier is not fastidious, and what suffices for you, Monsieur Abbe, will suffice for us. And rest assured that we shall amply repay you in one way or another for any inconvenience we may cause you."
The priest's eye flashed. This want of tact, this disagreeable familiarity, this last insulting remark, kindled the anger of the man concealed beneath the priest.
"Besides," added Martial, gayly, "we have been vastly amused by Bibiaine's anxieties, we already know that there is a chicken in the coop——"
"That is to say there was one, Monsieur le Marquis."
The old housekeeper, who suddenly reappeared, explained her master's response. She seemed overwhelmed with despair.
"Blessed Virgin! Monsieur, what shall I do?" she clamored. "The chicken has disappeared. Someone has certainly stolen it, for the coop is securely closed!"
"Do not accuse your neighbor hastily," interrupted the cure; "no one has stolen it from us. Bertrande was here this morning to ask alms in the name of her sick daughter. I had no money, and I gave her this fowl that she might make a good bouillon for the sick girl."
This explanation changed Bibiaine's consternation to fury.
Planting herself in the centre of the room, one hand upon her hip, and gesticulating wildly with the other, she exclaimed, pointing to her master:
"That is just the sort of man he is; he has less sense than a baby! Any miserable peasant who meets him can make him believe anything he wishes. Any great falsehood brings tears to his eyes, and then they can do what they like with him. In that way they take the very shoes off his feet and the bread from his mouth. Bertrande's daughter, messieurs, is no more ill than you or I!"
"Enough," said the priest, sternly, "enough." Then, knowing by experience that his voice had not the power to check her flood of reproaches, he took her by the arm and led her out into the passage.
M. de Sairmeuse and his son exchanged a glance of consternation.
Was this a comedy that had been prepared for their benefit? Evidently not, since their arrival had not been expected.
But the priest, whose character had been so plainly revealed by this quarrel with his domestic, was not a man to their taste.
At least, he was evidently not the man they had hoped to find—not the auxiliary whose assistance was indispensable to the success of their plans.
Yet they did not exchange a word; they listened.
They heard the sound as of a discussion in the passage. The master spoke in low tones, but with an unmistakable accent of command; the servant uttered an astonished exclamation.
But the listeners could not distinguish a word.
Soon the priest re-entered the apartment.
"I hope, gentlemen," he said, with a dignity that could not fail to check any attempt at raillery, "that you will excuse this ridiculous scene. The cure of Sairmeuse, thank God! is not so poor as she says."
Neither the duke nor Martial made any response.
Even their remarkable assurance was very sensibly diminished; and M. de Sairmeuse deemed it advisable to change the subject.
This he did, by relating the events which he had just witnessed in Paris, and by insisting that His Majesty, Louis XVIII., had been welcomed with enthusiasm and transports of affection.
Fortunately, the old housekeeper interrupted this recital.
She entered, loaded with china, silver, and bottles, and behind her came a large man in a white apron, bearing three or four covered dishes in his hands.
It was the order to go and obtain this repast from the village inn which had drawn from Bibiaine so many exclamations of wonder and dismay in the passage.
A moment later the cure and his guests took their places at the table.
Had the much-lamented chicken constituted the dinner the rations would have been "short." This the worthy woman was obliged to confess, on seeing the terrible appetite evinced by M. de Sairmeuse and his son.
"One would have sworn that they had eaten nothing for a fortnight," she told her friends, the next day.
Abbe Midon was not hungry, though it was two o'clock, and he had eaten nothing since the previous evening.
The sudden arrival of the former masters of Sairmeuse filled his heart with gloomy forebodings. Their coming, he believed, presaged the greatest misfortunes.
So while he played with his knife and fork, pretending to eat, he was really occupied in watching his guests, and in studying them with all the penetration of a priest, which, by the way, is generally far superior to that of a physician or of a magistrate.
The Duc de Sairmeuse was fifty-seven, but looked considerably younger.
The storms of his youth, the dissipation of his riper years, the great excesses of every kind in which he had indulged, had not impaired his iron constitution in the least.
Of herculean build, he was extremely proud of his strength, and of his hands, which were well-formed, but large, firmly knit and powerful, such hands as rightly belonged to a gentleman whose ancestors had given many a crushing blow with ponderous battle-axe in the crusades.
His face revealed his character. He possessed all the graces and all the vices of a courtier.
He was, at the same time spirituel and ignorant, sceptical and violently imbued with the prejudices of his class.
Though less robust than his father, Martial was a no less distinguished-looking cavalier. It was not strange that women raved over his blue eyes, and the beautiful blond hair which he inherited from his mother.
To his father he owed energy, courage, and, it must also be added, perversity. But he was his superior in education and in intellect. If he shared his father's prejudices, he had not adopted them without weighing them carefully. What the father might do in a moment of excitement, the son was capable of doing in cold blood.
It was thus that the abbe, with rare sagacity, read the character of his guests.
So it was with great sorrow, but without surprise, that he heard the duke advance, on the questions of the day, the impossible ideas shared by nearly all the emigres.
Knowing the condition of the country, and the state of public opinion, the cure endeavored to convince the obstinate man of his mistake; but upon this subject the duke would not permit contradiction, or even raillery; and he was fast losing his temper, when Bibiaine appeared at the parlor door.
"Monsieur le Duc," said she, "Monsieur Lacheneur and his daughter are without and desire to speak to you."
This name Lacheneur awakened no recollection in the mind of the duke.
First, he had never lived at Sairmeuse.
And even if he had, what courtier of the ancien regime ever troubled himself about the individual names of the peasants, whom he regarded with such profound indifference.
When a grand seigneur addressed these people, he said: "Halloo! hi, there! friend, my worthy fellow!"
So it was with the air of a man who is making an effort of memory that the Duc de Sairmeuse repeated:
But Martial, a closer observer than his father, had noticed that the priest's glance wavered at the sound of this name.
"Who is this person, Abbe?" demanded the duke, lightly.
"Monsieur Lacheneur," replied the priest, with very evident hesitation, "is the present owner of the Chateau de Sairmeuse."
Martial, the precocious diplomat, could not repress a smile on hearing this response, which he had foreseen. But the duke bounded from his chair.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "it is the rascal who has had the impudence—Let him come in, old woman, let him come in."
Bibiaine retired, and the priest's uneasiness increased.
"Permit me, Monsieur le Duc," he said, hastily, "to remark that Monsieur Lacheneur exercises a great influence in this region—to offend him would be impolitic——"
"I understand—you advise me to be conciliatory. Such sentiments are purely Jacobin. If His Majesty listens to the advice of such as you, all these sales of confiscated estates will be ratified. Zounds! our interests are the same. If the Revolution has deprived the nobility of their property, it has also impoverished the clergy."
"The possessions of a priest are not of this world, Monsieur," said the cure, coldly.
M. de Sairmeuse was about to make some impertinent response, when M. Lacheneur appeared, followed by his daughter.
The wretched man was ghastly pale, great drops of perspiration stood out upon his temples, his restless, haggard eyes revealed his distress of mind.
Marie-Anne was as pale as her father, but her attitude and the light that burned in her eyes told of invincible energy and determination.
"Ah, well! friend," said the duke, "so we are the owner of Sairmeuse, it seems."
This was said with such a careless insolence of manner that the cure blushed that they should thus treat, in his own house, a man whom he considered his equal.
He rose and offered the visitors chairs.
"Will you take a seat, dear Monsieur Lacheneur?" said he, with a politeness intended as a lesson for the duke; "and you, also, Mademoiselle, do me the honor——"
But the father and the daughter both refused the proffered civility with a motion of the head.
"Monsieur le Duc," continued Lacheneur, "I am an old servant of your house——"
"Mademoiselle Armande, your aunt, accorded my poor mother the honor of acting as my godmother——"
"Ah, yes," interrupted the duke. "I remember you now. Our family has shown great goodness to you and yours. And it was to prove your gratitude, probably, that you made haste to purchase our estate!"
The former ploughboy was of humble origin, but his heart and his character had developed with his fortunes; he understood his own worth.
Much as he was disliked, and even detested, by his neighbors, everyone respected him.
And here was a man who treated him with undisguised scorn. Why? By what right?
Indignant at the outrage, he made a movement as if to retire.
No one, save his daughter, knew the truth; he had only to keep silence and Sairmeuse remained his.
Yes, he had still the power to keep Sairmeuse, and he knew it, for he did not share the fears of the ignorant rustics. He was too well informed not to be able to distinguish between the hopes of the emigres and the possible. He knew that an abyss separated the dream from the reality.
A beseeching word uttered in a low tone by his daughter, made him turn again to the duke.
"If I purchased Sairmeuse," he answered, in a voice husky with emotion, "it was in obedience to the command of your dying aunt, and with the money which she gave me for that purpose. If you see me here, it is only because I come to restore to you the deposit confided to my keeping."
Anyone not belonging to that class of spoiled fools which surround a throne would have been deeply touched.
But the duke thought this grand act of honesty and of generosity the most simple and natural thing in the world.
"That is very well, so far as the principal is concerned," said he. "Let us speak now of the interest. Sairmeuse, if I remember rightly, yielded an average income of one thousand louis per year. These revenues, well invested, should have amounted to a very considerable amount. Where is this?"
This claim, thus advanced and at such a moment, was so outrageous, that Martial, disgusted, made a sign to his father, which the latter did not see.
But the cure hoping to recall the extortioner to something like a sense of shame, exclaimed:
"Monsieur le Duc! Oh, Monsieur le Duc!"
Lacheneur shrugged his shoulders with an air of resignation.
"The income I have used for my own living expenses, and in educating my children; but most of it has been expended in improving the estate, which today yields an income twice as large as in former years."
"That is to say, for twenty years, Monsieur Lacheneur has played the part of lord of the manor. A delightful comedy. You are rich now, I suppose."
"I possess nothing. But I hope you will allow me to take ten thousand francs, which your aunt gave to me."
"Ah! she gave you ten thousand francs? And when?"
"On the same evening that she gave me the eighty thousand francs intended for the purchase of the estate."
"Perfect! What proof can you furnish that she gave you this sum?"
Lacheneur stood motionless and speechless. He tried to reply, but he could not. If he opened his lips it would only be to pour forth a torrent of menaces, insults, and invectives.
Marie-Anne stepped quickly forward.
"The proof, Monsieur," said she, in a clear, ringing voice, "is the word of this man, who, of his own free will, comes to return to you—to give you a fortune."
As she sprang forward her beautiful dark hair escaped from its confinement, the rich blood crimsoned her cheeks, her dark eyes flashed brilliantly, and sorrow, anger, horror at the humiliation, imparted a sublime expression to her face.
She was so beautiful that Martial regarded her with wonder.
"Lovely!" he murmured, in English; "beautiful as an angel!"
These words, which she understood, abashed Marie-Anne. But she had said enough; her father felt that he was avenged.
He drew from his pocket a roll of papers, and throwing them upon the table: "Here are your titles," he said, addressing the duke in a tone full of implacable hatred. "Keep the legacy that your aunt gave me, I wish nothing of yours. I shall never set foot in Sairmeuse again. Penniless I entered it, penniless I will leave it!"
He quitted the room with head proudly erect, and when they were outside, he said but one word to his daughter:
"You have done your duty," she replied; "it is those who have not done it, who are to be pitied!"
She had no opportunity to say more. Martial came running after them, anxious for another chance of seeing this young girl whose beauty had made such an impression upon him.
"I hastened after you," he said, addressing Marie-Anne, rather than M. Lacheneur, "to reassure you. All this will be arranged, Mademoiselle. Eyes so beautiful as yours should never know tears. I will be your advocate with my father—"
"Mademoiselle Lacheneur has no need of an advocate!" a harsh voice interrupted.
Martial turned, and saw the young man, who, that morning, went to warn M. Lacheneur of the duke's arrival.
"I am the Marquis de Sairmeuse," he said, insolently.
"And I," said the other, quietly, "am Maurice d'Escorval."
They surveyed each other for a moment; each expecting, perhaps, an insult from the other. Instinctively, they felt that they were to be enemies; and the bitterest animosity spoke in the glances they exchanged. Perhaps they felt a presentiment that they were to be champions of two different principles, as well as rivals.
Martial, remembering his father, yielded.
"We shall meet again, Monsieur d'Escorval," he said, as he retired. At this threat, Maurice shrugged his shoulders, and said:
"You had better not desire it."
The abode of the Baron d'Escorval, that brick structure with stone trimmings which was visible from the superb avenue leading to Sairmeuse, was small and unpretentious.
Its chief attraction was a pretty lawn that extended to the banks of the Oiselle, and a small but beautifully shaded park.
It was known as the Chateau d'Escorval, but that appellation was gross flattery. Any petty manufacturer who had amassed a small fortune would have desired a larger, handsomer, and more imposing establishment.
M. d'Escorval—and it will be an eternal honor to him in history—was not rich.
Although he had been intrusted with several of those missions from which generals and diplomats often return laden with millions, M. d'Escorval's worldly possessions consisted only of the little patrimony bequeathed him by his father: a property which yielded an income of from twenty to twenty-five thousand francs a year.
This modest dwelling, situated about a mile from Sairmeuse, represented the savings of ten years.
He had built it in 1806, from a plan drawn by his own hand; and it was the dearest spot on earth to him.
He always hastened to this retreat when his work allowed him a few days of rest.
But this time he had not come to Escorval of his own free will.
He had been compelled to leave Paris by the proscribed list of the 24th of July—that fatal list which summoned the enthusiastic Labedoyere and the honest and virtuous Drouot before a court-martial.
And even in this solitude, M. d'Escorval's situation was not without danger.
He was one of those who, some days before the disaster of Waterloo, had strongly urged the Emperor to order the execution of Fouche, the former minister of police.
Now, Fouche knew this counsel; and he was powerful.
"Take care!" M. d'Escorval's friends wrote him from Paris.
But he put his trust in Providence, and faced the future, threatening though it was, with the unalterable serenity of a pure conscience.
The baron was still young; he was not yet fifty, but anxiety, work, and long nights passed in struggling with the most arduous difficulties of the imperial policy, had made him old before his time.
He was tall, slightly inclined to embonpoint, and stooped a little.
His calm eyes, his serious mouth, his broad, furrowed forehead, and his austere manners inspired respect.
"He must be stern and inflexible," said those who saw him for the first time.
But they were mistaken.
If, in the exercise of his official duties, this truly great man had the strength to resist all temptations to swerve from the path of right; if, when duty was at stake, he was as rigid as iron, in private life he was as unassuming as a child, and kind and gentle even to the verge of weakness.
To this nobility of character he owed his domestic happiness, that rare and precious happiness which fills one's existence with a celestial perfume.
During the bloodiest epoch of the Reign of Terror, M. d'Escorval had wrested from the guillotine a young girl named Victoire-Laure d'Alleu, a distant cousin of the Rhetaus of Commarin, as beautiful as an angel, and only three years younger than himself.
He loved her—and though she was an orphan, destitute of fortune, he married her, considering the treasure of her virgin heart of far greater value than the most magnificent dowry.
She was an honest woman, as her husband was an honest man, in the most strict and vigorous sense of the word.
She was seldom seen at the Tuileries, where M. d'Escorval's worth made him eagerly welcomed. The splendors of the Imperial Court, which at that time surpassed all the pomp of the time of Louis XIV., had no attractions for her.
Grace, beauty, youth and accomplishments—she reserved them all for the adornment of her home.
Her husband was her God. She lived in him and through him. She had not a thought which did not belong to him.
The short time that he could spare from his arduous labors to devote to her were her happiest hours.
And when, in the evening, they sat beside the fire in their modest drawing-room, with their son Maurice playing on the rug at their feet, it seemed to them that they had nothing to wish for here below.
The overthrow of the empire surprised them in the heydey of their happiness.
Surprised them? No. For a long time M. d'Escorval had seen the prodigious edifice erected by the genius whom he had made his idol totter as if about to fall.
Certainly, he felt intense chagrin at this fall, but he was heart-broken at the sight of all the treason and cowardice which followed it. He was indignant and horrified at the rising en masse of the avaricious, who hastened to gorge themselves with the spoil.
Under these circumstances, exile from Paris seemed an actual blessing.
"Besides," as he remarked to the baroness, "we shall soon be forgotten here."
But even while he said this he felt many misgivings. Still, by his side, his noble wife presented a tranquil face, even while she trembled for the safety of her adored husband.
On this first Sunday in August, M. d'Escorval and his wife had been unusually sad. A vague presentiment of approaching misfortune weighed heavily upon their hearts.
At the same hour that Lacheneur presented himself at the house of the Abbe Midon, they were seated upon the terrace in front of the house, gazing anxiously at the two roads leading from Escorval to the chateau, and to the village of Sairmeuse.
Warned, that same morning, by his friends in Montaignac of the arrival of the duke, the baron had sent his son to inform M. Lacheneur.
He had requested him to be absent as short a time as possible; but in spite of this fact, the hours were rolling by, and Maurice had not returned.
"What if something has happened to him!" both father and mother were thinking.
No; nothing had happened to him. Only a word from Mlle. Lacheneur had sufficed to make him forget his usual deference to his father's wishes.
"This evening," she had said, "I shall certainly know your heart."
What could this mean? Could she doubt him?
Tortured by the most cruel anxieties, the poor youth could not resolve to go away without an explanation, and he hung around the chateau hoping that Marie-Anne would reappear.
She did reappear at last, but leaning upon the arm of her father.
Young d'Escorval followed them at a distance, and soon saw them enter the parsonage. What were they going to do there? He knew that the duke and his son were within.
The time that they remained there, and which he passed in the public square, seemed more than a century long.
They emerged at last, however, and he was about to join them when he was prevented by the appearance of Martial, whose promises he overheard.
Maurice knew nothing of life; he was as innocent as a child, but he could not mistake the intentions that dictated this step on the part of the Marquis de Sairmeuse.
At the thought that a libertine's caprice should dare rest for an instant upon the pure and beautiful girl whom he loved with all the strength of his being—whom he had sworn should be his wife—all his blood mounted madly to his brain.
He felt a wild longing to chastise the insolent wretch.
Fortunately—unfortunately, perhaps—his hand was arrested by the recollection of a phrase which he had heard his father repeat a thousand times:
"Calmness and irony are the only weapons worthy of the strong."
And he possessed sufficient strength of will to appear calm, while, in reality, he was beside himself with passion. It was Martial who lost his self-control, and who threatened him.
"Ah! yes, I will find you again, upstart!" repeated Maurice, through his set teeth as he watched his enemy move away.
For Martial had turned and discovered that Marie-Anne and her father had left him. He saw them standing about a hundred paces from him. Although he was surprised at their indifference, he made haste to join them, and addressed M. Lacheneur.
"We are just going to your father's house," was the response he received, in an almost ferocious tone.
A glance from Marie-Anne commanded silence. He obeyed, and walked a few steps behind them, with his head bowed upon his breast, terribly anxious, and seeking vainly to explain what had passed.
His attitude betrayed such intense sorrow that his mother divined it as soon as she caught sight of him.
All the anguish which this courageous woman had hidden for a month, found utterance in a single cry.
"Ah! here is misfortune!" said she, "we shall not escape it."
It was, indeed, misfortune. One could not doubt it when one saw M. Lacheneur enter the drawing-room.
He advanced with the heavy, uncertain step of a drunken man, his eye void of expression, his features distorted, his lips pale and trembling.
"What has happened?" asked the baron, eagerly.
But the other did not seem to hear him.
"Ah! I warned her," he murmured, continuing a monologue which had begun before he entered the room. "I told my daughter so."
Mme. d'Escorval, after kissing Marie-Anne, drew the girl toward her.
"What has happened? For God's sake, tell me what has happened!" she exclaimed.
With a gesture expressive of the most sorrowful resignation, the girl motioned her to look and to listen to M. Lacheneur.
He had recovered from that stupor—that gift of God—which follows cries that are too terrible for human endurance. Like a sleeper who, on waking, finds his miseries forgotten during his slumber, lying in wait for him, he regained with consciousness the capacity to suffer.
"It is only this, Monsieur le Baron," replied the unfortunate man in a harsh, unnatural voice: "I rose this morning the richest proprietor in the country, and I shall lay down to-night poorer than the poorest beggar in this commune. I had everything; I no longer have anything—nothing but my two hands. They earned me my bread for twenty-five years; they will earn it for me now until the day of my death. I had a beautiful dream; it is ended."
Before this outburst of despair, M. d'Escorval turned pale.
"You must exaggerate your misfortune," he faltered; "explain what has happened."
Unconscious of what he was doing, M. Lacheneur threw his hat upon a chair, and flinging back his long, gray hair, he said:
"To you I will tell all. I came here for that purpose. I know you; I know your heart. And have you not done me the honor to call me your friend?"
Then, with the cruel exactness of the living, breathing truth, he related the scene which had just taken place at the presbytery.
The baron listened petrified with astonishment, almost doubting the evidence of his own senses. Mme. d'Escorval's indignant and sorrowful exclamations showed that every noble sentiment in her soul revolted against such injustice.
But there was one auditor, whom Marie-Anne alone observed, who was moved to his very entrails by this recital. This auditor was Maurice.
Leaning against the door, pale as death, he tried most energetically, but in vain, to repress the tears of rage and of sorrow which swelled up in his eyes.
To insult Lacheneur was to insult Marie-Anne—that is to say, to injure, to strike, to outrage him in all that he held most dear in the world.
Ah! it is certain that Martial, had he been within his reach, would have paid dearly for these insults to the father of the girl Maurice loved.
But he swore that this chastisement was only deferred—that it should surely come.
And it was not mere angry boasting. This young man, though so modest and so gentle in manner, had a heart that was inaccessible to fear. His beautiful, dark eyes, which had the trembling timidity of the eyes of a young girl, met the gaze of an enemy without flinching.
When M. Lacheneur had repeated the last words which he had addressed to the Duc de Sairmeuse, M. d'Escorval offered him his hand.
"I have told you already that I was your friend," he said, in a voice faltering with emotion; "but I must tell you to-day that I am proud of having such a friend as you."
The unfortunate man trembled at the touch of that loyal hand which clasped his so warmly, and his face betrayed an ineffable satisfaction.
"If my father had not returned it," murmured the obstinate Marie-Anne, "my father would have been an unfaithful guardian—a thief. He has done only his duty."
M. d'Escorval turned to the young girl, a little surprised.
"You speak the truth, Mademoiselle," he said, reproachfully; "but when you are as old as I am, and have had my experience, you will know that the accomplishment of a duty is, under certain circumstances, a heroism of which few persons are capable."
M. Lacheneur turned to his friend.
"Ah! your words do me good, Monsieur," said he. "Now, I am content with what I have done."
The baroness rose, too much the woman to know how to resist the generous dictates of her heart.
"And I, also, Monsieur Lacheneur," she said, "desire to press your hand. I wish to tell you that I esteem you as much as I despise the ingrates who have sought to humiliate you, when they should have fallen at your feet. They are heartless monsters, the like of whom certainly cannot be found upon the earth."
"Alas!" sighed the baron, "the allies have brought back others who, like these men, think the world created exclusively for their benefit."
"And these people wish to be our masters," growled Lacheneur.
By some strange fatality no one chanced to hear the remark made by M. Lacheneur. Had they overheard and questioned him, he would probably have disclosed some of the projects which were as yet in embryo in his own mind; and in that case what disastrous consequences might have been averted.
M. d'Escorval had regained his usual coolness.
"Now, my dear friend," he inquired, "what course do you propose to pursue with these members of the Sairmeuse family?"
"They will hear nothing more from me—for some time, at least."
"What! Shall you not claim the ten thousand francs that they owe you?"
"I shall ask them for nothing."
"You will be compelled to do so. Since you have alluded to the legacy, your own honor will demand that you insist upon its payment by all legal methods. There are still judges in France."
M. Lacheneur shook his head.
"The judges will not accord me the justice I desire. I shall not apply to them."
"No, Monsieur, no. I wish to have nothing to do with these men. I shall not even go to the chateau to remove my clothing nor that of my daughter. If they send it to us—very well. If it pleases them to keep it, so much the better. The more shameful, infamous and odious their conduct appears, the better I shall be satisfied."
The baron made no reply; but his wife spoke, believing she had a sure means of conquering this incomprehensible obstinacy.
"I should understand your determination if you were alone in the world," said she, "but you have children."
"My son is eighteen, Madame; he possesses good health and an excellent education. He can make his own way in Paris, if he chooses to remain there."
"But your daughter?"
"Marie-Anne will remain with me."
M. d'Escorval thought it his duty to interfere.
"Take care, my dear friend, that your grief does not overthrow your reason," said he. "Reflect! What will become of you—your daughter and yourself?"
The wretched man smiled sadly.
"Oh," he replied, "we are not as destitute as I said. I exaggerated our misfortune. We are still landed proprietors. Last year an old cousin, whom I could never induce to come and live at Sairmeuse, died, bequeathing all her property to Marie-Anne. This property consisted of a poor little cottage near the Reche, with a little garden and a few acres of sterile land. In compliance with my daughter's entreaties, I repaired the cottage, and sent there a few articles of furniture—a table, some chairs, and a couple of beds. My daughter designed it as a home for old Father Guvat and his wife. And I, surrounded by wealth and luxury, said to myself: 'How comfortable those two old people will be there. They will live as snug as a bug in a rug!' Well, what I thought so comfortable for others, will be good enough for me. I will raise vegetables, and Marie-Anne shall sell them."
Was he speaking seriously?
Maurice must have supposed so, for he sprang forward.
"This shall not be, Monsieur Lacheneur!" he exclaimed.
"No, this shall not be, for I love Marie-Anne, and I ask you to give her to me for my wife."
Maurice and Marie-Anne had loved each other for many years.
As children, they had played together in the magnificent grounds surrounding the Chateau de Sairmeuse, and in the park at Escorval.
Together they chased the brilliant butterflies, searched for pebbles on the banks of the river, or rolled in the hay while their mothers sauntered through the meadows bordering the Oiselle.
For their mothers were friends.
Mme. Lacheneur had been reared like other poor peasant girls; that is to say, on the day of her marriage it was only with great difficulty she succeeded in inscribing her name upon the register.
But from the example of her husband she had learned that prosperity, as well as noblesse, entails certain obligations upon one, and with rare courage, crowned with still rarer success, she had undertaken to acquire an education in keeping with her fortune and her new rank.
And the baroness had made no effort to resist the sympathy that attracted her to this meritorious young woman, in whom she had discerned a really superior mind and a truly refined nature.
When Mme. Lacheneur died, Mme. d'Escorval mourned for her as she would have mourned for a favorite sister.
From that moment Maurice's attachment assumed a more serious character.
Educated in a Parisian lyceum, his teachers sometimes had occasion to complain of his want of application.
"If your professors are not satisfied with you," said his mother, "you shall not accompany me to Escorval on the coming of your vacation, and you will not see your little friend."
And this simple threat was always sufficient to make the school-boy resume his studies with redoubled diligence.
So each year, as it passed, strengthened the grande passion which preserved Maurice from the restlessness and the errors of adolescence.
The two children were equally timid and artless, and equally infatuated with each other.
Long walks in the twilight under the eyes of their parents, a glance that revealed their delight at meeting each other, flowers exchanged between them—which were religiously preserved—such were their simple pleasures.
But that magical and sublime word, love—so sweet to utter, and so sweet to hear—had never once dropped from their lips.
The audacity of Maurice had never gone beyond a furtive pressure of the hand.
The parents could not be ignorant of this mutual affection; and if they pretended to shut their eyes, it was only because it did not displease them nor disturb their plans.
M. and Mme. d'Escorval saw no objection to their son's marriage with a young girl whose nobility of character they appreciated, and who was as beautiful as she was good. That she was the richest heiress in all the country round about was naturally no objection.
So far as M. Lacheneur was concerned, he was delighted at the prospect of a marriage which would ally him, a former ploughboy, with an old family whose head was universally respected.
So, although no direct allusion to the subject had ever escaped the lips of the baron or of M. Lacheneur, there was a tacit agreement between the two families.
Yes, the marriage was considered a foregone conclusion.
And yet this impetuous and unexpected declaration by Maurice struck everyone dumb.
In spite of his agitation, the young man perceived the effect produced by his words, and frightened by his own boldness, he turned and looked questioningly at his father.
The baron's face was grave, even sad; but his attitude expressed no displeasure.
This gave renewed courage to the anxious lover.
"You will excuse me, Monsieur," he said, addressing Lacheneur, "for presenting my request in such a manner, and at such a time. But surely, when fate glowers ominously upon you, that is the time when your friends should declare themselves—and deem themselves fortunate if their devotion can make you forget the infamous treatment to which you have been subjected."
As he spoke, he was watching Marie-Anne.
Blushing and embarrassed, she turned away her head, perhaps to conceal the tears which inundated her face—tears of joy and of gratitude.
The love of the man she adored came forth victorious from a test which it would not be prudent for many heiresses to impose.
Now she could truly say that she knew Maurice's heart.
He, however, continued:
"I have not consulted my father, sir; but I know his affection for me and his esteem for you. When the happiness of my life is at stake, he will not oppose me. He, who married my dear mother without a dowry, must understand my feelings."
He was silent, awaiting the verdict.
"I approve your course, my son," said M. d'Escorval, deeply affected; "you have conducted yourself like an honorable man. Certainly you are very young to become the head of a family; but, as you say, circumstances demand it."
He turned to M. Lacheneur, and added:
"My dear friend, I, in my son's behalf, ask the hand of your daughter in marriage."
Maurice had not expected so little opposition.
In his delight he was almost tempted to bless the hateful Duc de Sairmeuse, to whom he would owe his approaching happiness.
He sprang toward his father, and seizing his hands, he raised them to his lips, faltering:
"Thanks! you are so good! I love you! Oh, how happy I am!"
Alas! the poor boy was in too much haste to rejoice.
A gleam of pride flashed in M. Lacheneur's eyes; but his face soon resumed its gloomy expression.
"Believe me, Monsieur le Baron, I am deeply touched by your grandeur of soul—yes, deeply touched. You wish to make me forget my humiliation; but, for this very reason, I should be the most contemptible of men if I did not refuse the great honor you desire to confer upon my daughter."
"What!" exclaimed the baron, in utter astonishment; "you refuse?"
"I am compelled to do so."
Thunderstruck at first, Maurice afterward renewed the attack with an energy which no one had ever suspected in his character before.
"Do you, then, wish to ruin my life, Monsieur?" he exclaimed; "to ruin our life; for if I love Marie-Anne, she also loves me."
It was easy to see that he spoke the truth. The unhappy girl, crimson with happy blushes the moment before, had suddenly become whiter than marble, as she looked imploringly at her father.
"It cannot be," repeated M. Lacheneur; "and the day will come when you will bless the decision I make known at this moment."
Alarmed by her son's evident agony, Mme. d'Escorval interposed:
"You must have reasons for this refusal."
"None that I can disclose, Madame. But never while I live shall my daughter be your son's wife!"
"Ah! it will kill my child!" exclaimed the baroness.
M. Lacheneur shook his head.
"Monsieur Maurice," said he, "is young; he will console himself—he will forget."
"Never!" interrupted the unhappy lover—"never!"
"And your daughter?" inquired the baroness.
Ah! this was the weak spot in his armor; the instinct of a mother was not mistaken. M. Lacheneur hesitated a moment; but he finally conquered the weakness that had threatened to master him.
"Marie-Anne," he replied, slowly, "knows her duty too well not to obey when I command. When I tell her the motive that governs my conduct, she will become resigned; and if she suffers, she will know how to conceal her sufferings."
He paused suddenly. They heard in the distance a firing of musketry, the discharge of rifles, whose sharp ring overpowered even the sullen roar of cannon.
Every face grew pale. Circumstances imparted to these sounds an ominous significance.
With the same anguish clutching the hearts of both, M. d'Escorval and Lacheneur sprang out upon the terrace.
But all was still again. Extended as was the horizon, the eye could discern nothing unusual. The sky was blue; not a particle of smoke hung over the trees.
"It is the enemy," muttered M. Lacheneur, in a tone which told how gladly he would have shouldered his gun, and, with five hundred others, marched against the united allies.
He paused. The explosions were repeated with still greater violence, and for a period of five minutes succeeded each other without cessation.
M. d'Escorval listened with knitted brows.
"That is not the fire of an engagement," he murmured.
To remain long in such a state of uncertainty was out of the question.
"If you will permit me, father," ventured Maurice, "I will go and ascertain——"
"Go," replied the baron, quietly; "but if it is anything, which I doubt, do not expose yourself to danger; return."
"Oh! be prudent!" insisted Mme. d'Escorval, who already saw her son exposed to the most frightful peril.
"Be prudent!" entreated Marie-Anne, who alone understood what attractions danger might have for a despairing and unhappy man.
These precautions were unnecessary. As Maurice was rushing to the door, his father stopped him.
"Wait," said he; "here is someone who can probably give us information."
A man had just appeared around a turn of the road leading to Sairmeuse.
He was advancing bareheaded in the middle of the dusty road, with hurried strides, and occasionally brandishing his stick, as if threatening an enemy visible to himself alone.