During the decisive moments of life, when one’s entire future depends upon a word, or a gesture, twenty contradictory inspirations can traverse the mind in the time occupied by a flash of lightning.
On the sudden apparition of the young Marquis de Sairmeuse, Maurice d’Escorval’s first thought was this:
“How long has he been there? Has he been playing the spy? Has he been listening to us? What did he hear?”
His first impulse was to spring upon his enemy, to strike him in the face, and compel him to engage in a hand-to-hand struggle.
The thought of Anne-Marie checked him.
He reflected upon the possible, even probable results of a quarrel born of such circumstances. The combat which would ensue would cost this pure young girl her reputation. Martial would talk of it; and country people are pitiless. He saw this girl, whom he looked so devotedly upon, become the talk of the neighborhood; saw the finger of scorn pointed at her, and possessed sufficient self-control to master his anger. All these reflections had occupied only half a second.
Then, politely touching his hat, and stepping toward Martial:
“You are a stranger, Monsieur,” said he, in a voice which was frightfully altered, “and you have doubtless lost your way?” His words were ill-chosen, and defeated his prudent intentions. A curt “Mind your own business” would have been less wounding. He forgot that this word “stranger” was the most deadly insult that one could cast in the face of the former emigres, who had returned with the allied armies.
Still the young marquis did not change his insolently nonchalant attitude.
He touched the visor of his hunting cap with his finger, and replied:
“It is true — I have lost my way.”
Agitated as Marie-Anne was, she could not fail to understand that her presence was all that restrained the hatred of these two young men. Their attitude, the glance with which they measured each other, did not leave the shadow of a doubt on that score. If one was ready to spring upon the other, the other was on the alert, ready to defend himself.
The silence of nearly a moment which followed was as threatening as the profound calm which precedes the storm.
Martial was the first to break it.
“A peasant’s directions are not generally remarkable for their clearness,” he said, lightly; “and for more than an hour I have been seeking the house to which Monsieur Lacheneur has retired.”
“I am sent to him by the Duc de Sairmeuse, my father.”
Knowing what he did, Maurice supposed that these strangely rapacious individuals had some new demand to make.
“I thought,” said he, “that all relations between Monsieur Lacheneur and Monsieur de Sairmeuse were broken off last evening at the house of the abbe.”
This was said in the most provoking manner, and yet Martial never so much as frowned. He had sworn that he would remain calm, and he had strength enough to keep his word.
“If these relations — as God forbid — have been broken off,” he replied, “believe me, Monsieur d’Escorval, it is no fault of ours.”
“Then it is not as people say?”
“What people? Who?”
“The people here in the neighborhood.”
“Ah! And what do these people say?”
“The truth. That you have been guilty of an offence which a man of honor could never forgive nor forget.”
The young marquis shook his head gravely.
“You are quick to condemn, sir,” he said, coldly. “Permit me to hope that Monsieur Lacheneur will be less severe than yourself; and that his resentment — just, I confess, will vanish before”— he hesitated — “before a truthful explanation.”
Such an expression from the lips of this haughty young aristocrat! Was it possible?
Martial profited by the effect he had produced to advance toward Marie-Anne, and, addressing himself exclusively to her, seemed after that to ignore the presence of Maurice completely.
“For there has been a mistake — a misunderstanding, Mademoiselle,” he continued. “Do not doubt it. The Sairmeuse are not ingrates. How could anyone have supposed that we would intentionally give offense to a — devoted friend of our family, and that at a moment when he had rendered us a most signal service! A true gentleman like my father, and a hero of probity like yours, cannot fail to esteem each other. I admit that in the scene of yesterday, Monsieur de Sairmeuse did not appear to advantage; but the step he takes today proves his sincere regret.”
Certainly this was not the cavalier tone which he had employed in addressing Marie-Anne, for the first time, on the square in front of the church.
He had removed his hat, he remained half inclined before her, and he spoke in a tone of profound respect, as though it were a haughty duchess, and not the humble daughter of that “rascal” Lacheneur whom he was addressing.
Was it only a roue’s manoeuvre? Or had he also involuntarily submitted to the power of this beautiful girl? It was both; and it would have been difficult for him to say where the voluntary ended, and where the involuntary began.
“My father is an old man who has suffered cruelly. Exile is hard to bear. But if sorrows and deceptions have embittered his character, they have not changed his heart. His apparent imperiousness and arrogance conceal a kindness of heart which I have often seen degenerate into positive weakness. And — why should I not confess it? — the Duc de Sairmeuse, with his white hair, still retains the illusions of a child. He refuses to believe that the world has progressed during the past twenty years. Moreover, people had deceived him by the most absurd fabrications. To speak plainly, even while we were in Montaignac, Monsieur Lacheneur’s enemies succeeded in prejudicing my father against him.”
One would have sworn that he was speaking the truth, so persuasive was his voice, so entirely did the expression of his face, his glance, and his gestures accord with his words.
And Maurice, who felt — who was certain that the young man was lying, impudently lying, was abashed by this scientific prevarication which is so universally practised in good society, and of which he was entirely ignorant.
But what did the marquis desire here — and why this farce?
“Need I tell you, Mademoiselle,” he resumed, “all that I suffered last evening in the little drawing-room in the presbytery? No, never in my whole life can I recollect such a cruel moment. I understood, and I did honor to Monsieur Lacheneur’s heroism. Hearing of our arrival, he, without hesitation, without delay, hastened to voluntarily surrender a princely fortune — and he was insulted. This excessive injustice horrified me. And if I did not openly protest against it — if I did not show my indignation — it was only because contradiction drives my father to the verge of frenzy. And what good would it have done for me to protest? The filial love and piety which you displayed were far more powerful in their effect than any words of mine would have been. You were scarcely out of the village before Monsieur de Sairmeuse, already ashamed of his injustice, said to me: ‘I have been wrong, but I am an old man; it is hard for me to decide to make the first advance; you, Marquis, go and find Monsieur Lacheneur, and obtain his forgiveness.’”
Marie-Anne, redder than a peony, and terribly embarrassed, lowered her eyes.
“I thank you, Monsieur,” she faltered, “in the name of my father —”
“Oh! do not thank me,” interrupted Martial, earnestly; “it will be my duty, on the contrary, to render you thanks, if you can induce Monsieur Lacheneur to accept the reparation which is due him — and he will accept it, if you will only condescend to plead our cause. Who could resist your sweet voice, your beautiful, beseeching eyes?”
However inexperienced Maurice might be, he could no longer fail to comprehend Martial’s intentions. This man whom he mortally hated already, dared to speak of love to Marie-Anne, and before him, Maurice. In other words, the marquis, not content with having ignored and insulted him, presumed to take an insolent advantage of his supposed simplicity.
The certainty of this insult sent all his blood in a boiling torrent to his brain.
He seized Martial by the arm, and with irresistible power whirled him twice around, then threw him more than ten feet, exclaiming:
“This last is too much, Marquis de Sairmeuse!”
Maurice’s attitude was so threatening that Martial fully expected another attack. The violence of the shock had thrown him down upon one knee; without rising, he lifted his gun, ready to take aim.
It was not from anything like cowardice on the part of the Marquis de Sairmeuse that he decided to fire upon an unarmed foe; but the affront which he had received was so deadly and so ignoble in his opinion, that he would have shot Maurice like a dog, rather than feel the weight of his finger upon him again.
This explosion of anger from Maurice Marie-Anne had been expecting and hoping for every moment.
She was even more inexperienced than her lover; but she was a woman, and could not fail to understand the meaning of the young marquis.
He was evidently “paying his court to her.” And with what intentions! It was only too easy to divine.
Her agitation, while the marquis spoke in a more and more tender voice, changed first to stupor, then to indignation, as she realized his marvellous audacity.
After that, how could she help blessing the violence which put an end to a situation which was so insulting for her, and so humiliating for Maurice?
An ordinary woman would have thrown herself between the two men who were ready to kill each other. Marie-Anne did not move a muscle.
Was it not the duty of Maurice to protect her when she was insulted? Who, then, if not he, should defend her from the insolent gallantry of this libertine? She would have blushed, she who was energy personified, to love a weak and pusillanimous man.
But any intervention was unnecessary. Maurice comprehended that this was one of those affronts which the person insulted must not seem to suspect, under penalty of giving the offending party the advantage.
He felt that Marie-Anne must not be regarded as the cause of the quarrel!
His instant recognition of the situation produced a powerful reaction in his mind; and he recovered, as if by magic, his coolness and the free exercise of his faculties.
“Yes,” he resumed, defiantly, “this is hypocrisy enough. To dare to prate of reparation after the insults that you and yours have inflicted, is adding intentional humiliation to insult — and I will not permit it.”
Martial had thrown aside his gun; he now rose and brushed the knee of his pantaloons, to which a few particles of dust had adhered, with a phlegm whose secret he had learned in England.
He was too discerning not to perceive that Maurice had disguised the true cause of his outburst of passion; but what did it matter to him? Had he avowed it, the marquis would not have been displeased.
Yet it was necessary to make some response, and to preserve the superiority which he imagined he had maintained up to that time.
“You will never know, Monsieur,” he said, glancing alternately at his gun and at Marie-Anne, “all that you owe to Mademoiselle Lacheneur. We shall meet again, I hope —”
“You have made that remark before,” Maurice interrupted, tauntingly. “Nothing is easier than to find me. The first peasant you meet will point out the house of Baron d’Escorval.”
“Eh bien! sir, I cannot promise that you will not see two of my friends.”
“Oh! whenever it may please you!”
“Certainly; but it would gratify me to know by what right you make yourself the judge of Monsieur Lacheneur’s honor, and take it upon yourself to defend what has not been attacked. Who has given you this right?”
From Martial’s sneering tone, Maurice was certain that he had overheard, at least a part of, his conversation with Marie-Anne.
“My right,” he replied, “is that of friendship. If I tell you that your advances are unwelcome, it is because I know that Monsieur Lacheneur will accept nothing from you. No, nothing, under whatever guise you may offer these alms which you tender merely to appease your own conscience. He will never forgive the affront which is his honor and your shame. Ah! you thought to degrade him, Messieurs de Sairmeuse! and you have lifted him far above your mock grandeur. He receive anything from you! Go; learn that your millions will never give you a pleasure equal to the ineffable joy he will feel, when seeing you roll by in your carriage, he says to himself: ‘Those people owe everything to me!’”
His burning words vibrated with such intensity of feeling that Marie-Anne could not resist the impulse to press his hand; and this gesture was his revenge upon Martial, who turned pale with passion.
“But I have still another right,” continued Maurice. “My father yesterday had the honor of asking of Monsieur Lacheneur the hand of his daughter ——”
“And I refused it!” cried a terrible voice.
Marie-Anne and both young men turned with the same movement of alarm and surprise.
M. Lacheneur stood before them, and by his side was Chanlouineau, who surveyed the group with threatening eyes.
“Yes, I refused it,” resumed M. Lacheneur, “and I do not believe that my daughter will marry anyone without my consent. What did you promise me this morning, Marie-Anne? Can it be you, you who grant a rendezvous to gallants in the forest? Return to the house, instantly ——”
“But father ——”
“Return!” he repeated with an oath; “return, I command you.”
She obeyed and departed, not without giving Maurice a look in which he read a farewell that she believed would be eternal.
As soon as she had gone, perhaps twenty paces, M. Lacheneur, with folded arms, confronted Maurice.
“As for you, Monsieur d’Escorval,” said he, rudely, “I hope that you will no longer undertake to prowl around my daughter ——”
“I swear to you, Monsieur —”
“Oh, no oaths, if you please. It is an evil action to endeavor to turn a young girl from her duty, which is obedience. You have broken forever all relations between your family and mine.”
The poor youth tried to excuse himself, but M. Lacheneur interrupted him.
“Enough! enough!” said he; “go back to your home.”
And as Maurice hesitated, he seized him by the collar and dragged him to the little footpath leading through the grove.
It was the work of scarcely ten seconds, and yet, he found time to whisper in the young man’s ear, in his formerly friendly tones:
“Go, you little wretch! do you wish to render all my precautions useless?”
He watched Maurice as he disappeared, bewildered by the scene he had just witnessed, and stupefied by what he had just heard; and it was not until he saw that young d’Escorval was out of hearing that he turned to Martial.
“As I have had the honor of meeting you, Monsieur le Marquis,” said he, “I deem it my duty to inform you that Chupin and his sons are searching for you everywhere. It is at the instance of the duke, your father, who is anxious for you to repair at once to the Chateau de Courtornieu.”
He turned to Chanlouineau, and added:
“We will now proceed on our way.”
But Martial detained him with a gesture.
“I am much surprised to hear that they are seeking me,” said he. “My father knows very well where he sent me; I was going to your house, Monsieur, and at his request.”
“To my house?”
“To your house, yes, Monsieur, to express our sincere regret at the scene which took place at the presbytery last evening.”
And without waiting for any response, Martial, with wonderful cleverness and felicity of expression, began to repeat to the father the story which he had just related to the daughter.
According to his version, his father and himself were in despair. How could M. Lacheneur suppose them guilty of such black ingratitude? Why had he retired so precipitately? The Duc de Sairmeuse held at M. Lacheneur’s disposal any amount which it might please him to mention — sixty, a hundred thousand francs, even more.
But M. Lacheneur did not appear to be dazzled in the least; and when Martial had concluded, he replied, respectfully, but coldly, that he would consider the matter.
This coldness amazed Chanlouineau; he did not conceal the fact when the marquis, after many earnest protestations, at last wended his way homeward.
“We have misjudged these people,” he declared.
But M. Lacheneur shrugged his shoulders.
“And so you are foolish enough to suppose that it was to me that he offered all that money?”
“Zounds! I have ears.”
“Ah, well! my poor boy, you must not believe all they hear, if you have. The truth is, that these large sums were intended to win the favor of my daughter. She has pleased this coxcomb of a marquis; and — he wishes to make her his mistress ——”
Chanlouineau stopped short, with eyes flashing, and hands clinched.
“Good God!” he exclaimed; “prove that, and I am yours, body and soul — to do anything you desire.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54