The Chateau de Courtornieu is, next to Sairmeuse, the most magnificent habitation in the arrondissement of Montaignac.
The approach to the castle was by a long and narrow road, badly paved. When the carriage containing Martial and his father turned from the public highway into this rough road, the jolting aroused the duke from the profound revery into which he had fallen on leaving Sairmeuse.
The marquis thought that he had caused this unusual fit of abstraction.
“It is the result of my adroit manoeuvre,” he said to himself, not without secret satisfaction. “Until the restitution of Sairmeuse is legalized, I can make my father do anything I wish; yes, anything. And if it is necessary, he will even invite Lacheneur and Marie-Anne to his table.”
He was mistaken. The duke had already forgotten the affair; his most vivid impressions lasted no longer than an indentation in the sand.
He lowered the glass in front of the carriage, and, after ordering the coachman to drive more slowly:
“Now,” said he to his son, “let us talk a little. Are you really in love with that little Lacheneur?”
Martial could not repress a start. “Oh! in love,” said he, lightly, “that would perhaps be saying too much. Let me say that she has taken my fancy; that will be sufficient.”
The duke regarded his son with a bantering air.
“Really, you delight me!” he exclaimed. “I feared that this love-affair might derange, at least for the moment, certain plans that I have formed — for I have formed certain plans for you.”
“Yes, I have my plans, and I will communicate them to you later in detail. I will content myself today by recommending you to examine Mademoiselle Blanche de Courtornieu.”
Martial made no reply. This recommendation was entirely unnecessary. If Mlle. Lacheneur had made him forget Mlle. de Courtornieu that morning for some moments, the remembrance of Marie-Anne was now effaced by the radiant image of Blanche.
“Before discussing the daughter,” resumed the duke, “let us speak of the father. He is one of my strongest friends; and I know him thoroughly. You have heard men reproach me for what they style my prejudices, have you not? Well, in comparison with the Marquis de Courtornieu, I am only a Jacobin.”
“Oh! my father!”
“Really, nothing could be more true. If I am behind the age in which I live, he belongs to the reign of Louis XIV. Only — for there is an only — the principles which I openly avow, he keeps locked up in his snuff-box — and trust him for not forgetting to open it at the opportune moment. He has suffered cruelly for his opinions, in the sense of having so often been obliged to conceal them. He concealed them, first, under the consulate, when he returned from exile. He dissimulated them even more courageously under the Empire — for he played the part of a kind of chamberlain to Bonaparte, this dear marquis. But, chut! do not remind him of that proof of heroism; he has deplored it bitterly since the battle of Lutzen.”
This was the tone in which M. de Sairmeuse was accustomed to speak of his best friends.
“The history of his fortune,” he continued, “is the history of his marriages — I say marriages, because he has married a number of times, and always advantageously. Yes, in a period of fifteen years he has had the misfortune of losing three wives, each richer than the other. His daughter is the child of his third and last wife, a Cisse Blossac — she died in 1809. He comforted himself after each bereavement by purchasing a quantity of lands or bonds. So that now he is as rich as you are, Marquis, and his influence is powerful and widespread. I forgot one detail, however, he believes, they tell me, in the growing power of the clergy, and has become very devout.”
He checked himself; the carriage had stopped before the entrance of the Chateau de Courtornieu, and the marquis came forward to receive his guests in person. A nattering distinction, which he seldom lavished upon his visitors. The marquis was long rather than tall, and very solemn in deportment. The head that surmounted his angular form was remarkably small, a characteristic of his race, and covered with thin, glossy black hair, and lighted by cold, round black eyes.
The pride that becomes a gentleman, and the humility that befits a Christian, were continually at war with each other in his countenance.
He pressed the hands of M. de Sairmeuse and Martial, overwhelming them with compliments uttered in a thin, rather nasal voice, which, issuing from his immense body, was as astonishing as the sound of a flute issuing from the pipes of an orphicleide would be.
“At last you have come,” he said; “we were waiting for you before beginning our deliberations upon a very grave, and also very delicate matter. We are thinking of addressing a petition to His Majesty. The nobility, who have suffered so much during the Revolution, have a right to expect ample compensation. Our neighbors, to the number of sixteen, are now assembled in my cabinet, transformed for the time into a council chamber.”
Martial shuddered at the thought of all the ridiculous and tiresome conversation he would probably be obliged to hear; and his father’s recommendation occurred to him.
“Shall we not have the honor of paying our respects to Mademoiselle de Courtornieu?”
“My daughter must be in the drawing-room with our cousin,” replied the marquis, in an indifferent tone; “at least, if she is not in the garden.”
This might be construed into, “Go and look for her if you choose.” At least Martial understood it in that way; and when they entered the hall, he allowed his father and the marquis to go upstairs without him.
A servant opened the door of the drawing-room for him — but it was empty.
“Very well,” said he; “I know my way to the garden.”
But he explored it in vain; no one was to be found.
He decided to return to the house and march bravely into the presence of the dreaded enemy. He had turned to retrace his steps when, through the foliage of a bower of jasmine, he thought he could distinguish a white dress.
He advanced softly, and his heart quickened its throbbing when he saw that he was right.
Mlle. Blanche de Courtornieu was seated on a bench beside an old lady, and was engaged in reading a letter in a low voice.
She must have been greatly preoccupied, since she had not heard Martial’s footsteps approaching.
He was only ten paces from her, so near that he could distinguish the shadow of her long eyelashes. He paused, holding his breath, in a delicious ecstasy.
“Ah! how beautiful she is!” he thought. Beautiful? no. But pretty, yes; as pretty as heart could desire, with her great velvety blue eyes and her pouting lips. She was a blonde, but one of those dazzling and radiant blondes found only in the countries of the sun; and from her hair, drawn high upon the top of her head, escaped a profusion of ravishing, glittering ringlets, which seemed almost to sparkle in the play of the light breeze.
One might, perhaps, have wished her a trifle larger. But she had the winning charm of all delicate and mignonnes women; and her figure was of exquisite roundness, and her dimpled hands were those of an infant.
Alas! these attractive exteriors are often deceitful, as much and even more so, than the appearances of a man like the Marquis de Courtornieu.
The apparently innocent and artless young girl possessed the parched, hollow soul of an experienced woman of the world, or of an old courtier. She had been so petted at the convent, in the capacity of only daughter of a grand seigneur and millionnaire; she had been surrounded by so much adulation, that all her good qualities had been blighted in the bud by the poisonous breath of flattery.
She was only nineteen; and still it was impossible for any person to have been more susceptible to the charms of wealth and of satisfied ambition. She dreamed of a position at court as a school-girl dreams of a lover.
If she had deigned to notice Martial — for she had remarked him — it was only because her father had told her that this young man would lift his wife to the highest sphere of power. Thereupon she had uttered a “very well, we will see!” that would have changed an enamoured suitor’s love into disgust.
Martial advanced a few steps, and Mlle. Blanche, on seeing him, sprang up with a pretty affectation of intense timidity.
Bowing low before her, he said, gently, and with profound deference:
“Monsieur de Courtornieu, Mademoiselle, was so kind as to tell me where I might have the honor of finding you. I had not courage to brave those formidable discussions inside; but ——”
He pointed to the letter the young girl held in her hand, and added:
“But I fear that I am de trap.”
“Oh! not in the least, Monsieur le Marquis, although this letter which I have just been reading has, I confess, interested me deeply. It was written by a poor child in whom I have taken a great interest — whom I have sent for sometimes when I was lonely — Marie-Anne Lacheneur.”
Accustomed from his infancy to the hypocrisy of drawing-rooms, the young marquis had taught his face not to betray his feelings.
He could have laughed gayly with anguish at his heart; he could have preserved the sternest gravity when inwardly convulsed with merriment.
And yet, this name of Marie-Anne upon the lips of Mlle. de Courtornieu, caused his glance to waver.
“They know each other!” he thought.
In an instant he was himself again; but Mlle. Blanche had perceived his momentary agitation.
“What can it mean?” she wondered, much disturbed.
Still, it was with the perfect assumption of innocence that she continued:
“In fact, you must have seen her, this poor Marie-Anne, Monsieur le Marquis, since her father was the guardian of Sairmeuse?”
“Yes, I have seen her, Mademoiselle,” replied Martial, quietly.
“Is she not remarkably beautiful? Her beauty is of an unusual type, it quite takes one by surprise.”
A fool would have protested. The marquis was not guilty of this folly.
“Yes, she is very beautiful,” said he.
This apparent frankness disconcerted Mlle. Blanche a trifle; and it was with an air of hypocritical compassion that she murmured:
“Poor girl! What will become of her? Here is her father, reduced to delving in the ground.”
“Oh! you exaggerate, Mademoiselle; my father will always preserve Lacheneur from anything of that kind.”
“Of course — I might have known that — but where will he find a husband for Marie-Anne?”
“One has been found already. I understand that she is to marry a youth in the neighborhood, who has some property — a certain Chanlouineau.”
The artless school-girl was more cunning than the marquis. She had satisfied herself that she had just grounds for her suspicions; and she experienced a certain anger on finding him so well informed in regard to everything that concerned Mlle. Lacheneur.
“And do you believe that this is the husband of whom she had dreamed? Ah, well! God grant that she may be happy; for we were very fond of her, very — were we not, Aunt Medea?”
Aunt Medea was the old lady seated beside Mlle. Blanche.
“Yes, very,” she replied.
This aunt, or cousin, rather, was a poor relation whom M. de Courtornieu had sheltered, and who was forced to pay dearly for her bread; since Mlle. Blanche compelled her to play the part of echo.
“It grieves me to see these friendly relations, which were so dear to me, broken,” resumed Mlle. de Courtornieu. “But listen to what Marie-Anne has written.”
She drew from her belt where she had placed it, Mlle. Lacheneur’s letter and read:
“‘My dear blanche — You know that the Duc de Sairmeuse has returned.
The news fell upon us like a thunder-bolt. My father and I had
become too much accustomed to regard as our own the deposit which
had been intrusted to our fidelity; we have been punished for it.
At least, we have done our duty, and now all is ended. She whom
you have called your friend, will be, hereafter, only a poor
peasant girl, as her mother was before her.’”
The most subtle observer would have supposed that Mlle. Blanche was experiencing the keenest emotion. One would have sworn that it was only by intense effort that she succeeded in restraining her tears — that they were even trembling behind her long lashes.
The truth was, that she was thinking only of discovering, upon Martial’s face, some indication of his feelings. But now that he was on guard, his features might have been marble for any sign of emotion they betrayed. So she continued:
“‘I should utter an untruth if I said that I have not suffered on
account of this sudden change. But I have courage; I shall learn
how to submit. I shall, I hope, have strength to forget, for I
must forget! The remembrances of past felicity would render my
present misery intolerable.’”
Mlle. de Courtornieu suddenly folded up the letter.
“You have heard it, Monsieur,” said she. “Can you understand such pride as that? And they accuse us, daughters of the nobility, of being proud!”
Martial made no response. He felt that his altered voice would betray him. How much more would he have been moved, if he had been allowed to read the concluding lines:
“One must live, my dear Blanche!” added Marie-Anne, “and I feel no
false shame in asking you to aid me. I sew very nicely, as you
know, and I could earn my livelihood by embroidery if I knew more
people. I will call to-day at Courtornieu to ask you to give me a
list of ladies to whom I can present myself on your
But Mlle. de Courtornieu had taken good care not to allude to the touching request. She had read the letter to Martial as a test. She had not succeeded; so much the worse. She rose and accepted his arm to return to the house.
She seemed to have forgotten her friend, and she was chatting gayly. When they approached the chateau, she was interrupted by a sound of voices raised to the highest pitch.
It was the address to the King which was agitating the council convened in M. de Courtornieu’s cabinet.
Mlle. Blanche paused.
“I am trespassing upon your kindness, Monsieur. I am boring you with my silly chat when you should undoubtedly be up there.”
“Certainly not,” he replied, laughing. “What should I do there? The role of men of action does not begin until the orators have concluded.”
He spoke so energetically, in spite of his jesting tone, that Mlle. de Courtornieu was fascinated. She saw before her, she believed, a man who, as her father had said, would rise to the highest position in the political world.
Unfortunately, her admiration was disturbed by a ring of the great bell that always announces visitors.
She trembled, let go her hold on Martial’s arm, and said, very earnestly:
“Ah, no matter. I wish very much to know what is going on up there. If I ask my father, he will laugh at my curiosity, while you, Monsieur, if you are present at the conference, you will tell me all.”
A wish thus expressed was a command. The marquis bowed and obeyed.
“She dismisses me,” he said to himself as he ascended the staircase, “nothing could be more evident; and that without much ceremony. Why the devil does she wish to get rid of me?”
Why? Because a single peal of the bell announced a visitor for Mlle. Blanche; because she was expecting a visit from her friend; and because she wished at any cost to prevent a meeting between Martial and Marie-Anne.
She did not love him, and yet an agony of jealousy was torturing her. Such was her nature.
Her presentiments were realized. It was, indeed, Mlle. Lacheneur who was awaiting her in the drawing-room.
The poor girl was paler than usual; but nothing in her manner betrayed the frightful anguish she had suffered during the past two or three days.
And her voice, in asking from her former friend a list of “customers,” was as calm and as natural as in other days, when she was asking her to come and spend an afternoon at Sairmeuse.
So, when the two girls embraced each other, their roles were reversed.
It was Marie-Anne who had been crushed by misfortune; it was Mlle. Blanche who wept.
But, while writing a list of the names of persons in the neighborhood with whom she was acquainted, Mlle. de Courtornieu did not neglect this favorable opportunity for verifying the suspicions which had been aroused by Martial’s momentary agitation.
“It is inconceivable,” she remarked to her friend, “that the Duc de Sairmeuse should allow you to be reduced to such an extremity.”
Marie-Anne’s nature was so royal, that she did not wish an unjust accusation to rest even upon the man who had treated her father so cruelly.
“The duke is not to blame,” she replied, gently; “he offered us a very considerable sum, this morning, through his son.”
Mlle. Blanche started as if a viper had stung her.
“So you have seen the marquis, Marie-Anne?”
“Has he been to your house?”
“He was going there, when he met me in the grove on the waste.”
She blushed as she spoke; she turned crimson at the thought of Martial’s impertinent gallantry.
This girl who had just emerged from a convent was terribly experienced; but she misunderstood the cause of Marie-Anne’s confusion. She could dissimulate, however, and when Marie-Anne went away, Mlle. Blanche embraced her with every sign of the most ardent affection. But she was almost suffocated with rage.
“What!” she thought; “they have met but once, and yet they are so strongly impressed with each other. Do they love each other already?”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50