If Martial had faithfully reported to Mlle. Blanche all that he heard in the Marquis de Courtornieu’s cabinet, he would probably have astonished her a little.
He, himself, if he had sincerely confessed his impressions and his reflections, would have been obliged to admit that he was greatly amazed.
But this unfortunate man, who, in days to come, would be compelled to reproach himself bitterly for the excess of his fanaticism, refused to confess this truth even to himself. His life was to be spent in defending prejudices which his own reason condemned.
Forced by Mlle. Blanche’s will into the midst of a discussion, he was really disgusted with the ridiculous and intense greediness of M. de Courtornieu’s noble guests.
Decorations, fortune, honors, power — they desired everything.
They were satisfied that their pure devotion deserved the most munificent rewards. It was only the most modest who declared that he would be content with the epaulets of a lieutenant-general.
Many were the recriminations, stinging words, and bitter reproaches.
The Marquis de Courtornieu, who acted as president of the council, was nearly exhausted with exclaiming:
“Be calm, gentlemen, be calm! A little moderation, if you please!”
“All these men are mad,” thought Martial, with difficulty restraining an intense desire to laugh; “they are insane enough to be placed in a mad-house.”
But he was not obliged to render a report of the seance. The deliberations were soon fortunately interrupted by a summons to dinner.
Mlle. Blanche, when the young marquis rejoined her, quite forgot to question him about the doings of the council.
In fact, what did the hopes and plans of these people matter to her.
She cared very little about them or about the people themselves, since they were below her father in rank, and most of them were not as rich.
An absorbing thought — a thought of her future, and of her happiness, filled her mind to the exclusion of all other subjects.
The few moments that she had passed alone, after Marie-Anne’s departure, she had spent in grave reflection.
Martial’s mind and person pleased her. In him were combined all the qualifications which any ambitious woman would desire in a husband — and she decided that he should be her husband. Probably she would not have arrived at this conclusion so quickly, had it not been for the feeling of jealousy aroused in her heart. But from the very moment that she could believe or suspect that another woman was likely to dispute the possession of Martial with her, she desired him.
From that moment she was completely controlled by one of those strange passions in which the heart has no part, but which take entire possession of the brain and lead to the worst of follies.
Let the woman whose pulse has never quickened its beating under the influence of this counterfeit of love, cast the first stone.
That she could be vanquished in this struggle for supremacy; that there could be any doubt of the result, were thoughts which never once entered the mind of Mlle. Blanche.
She had been told so often, it had been repeated again and again, that the man whom she would choose must esteem himself fortunate above all others.
She had seen her father besieged by so many suitors for her hand.
“Besides,” she thought, smiling proudly, as she surveyed her reflection in the large mirrors; “am I not as pretty as Marie-Anne?”
“Far prettier!” murmured the voice of vanity; “and you possess what your rival does not: birth, wit, the genius of coquetry!”
She did, indeed, possess sufficient cleverness and patience to assume and to sustain the character which seemed most likely to dazzle and to fascinate Martial.
As to maintaining this character after marriage, if it did not please her to do so, that was another matter!
The result of all this was that during dinner Mlle. Blanche exercised all her powers of fascination upon the young marquis.
She was so evidently desirous of pleasing him that several of the guests remarked it.
Some were even shocked by such a breach of conventionality. But Blanche de Courtornieu could do as she chose; she was well aware of that. Was she not the richest heiress for miles and miles around? No slander can tarnish the brilliancy of a fortune of more than a million in hard cash.
“Do you know that those two young people will have a joint income of between seven and eight hundred thousand francs!” said one old viscount to his neighbor.
Martial yielded unresistingly to the charm of his position.
How could he suspect unworthy motives in a young girl whose eyes were so pure, whose laugh rang out with the crystalline clearness of childhood!
Involuntarily he compared her with the grave and thoughtful Marie-Anne, and his imagination floated from one to the other, inflamed by the strangeness of the contrast.
He occupied a seat beside Mlle. Blanche at table; and they chatted gayly, amusing themselves at the expense of the other guests, who were again conversing upon political matters, and whose enthusiasm waxed warmer and warmer as course succeeded course.
Champagne was served with the dessert; and the company drank to the allies whose victorious bayonets had forced a passage for the King to return to Paris; they drank to the English, to the Prussians, and to the Russians, whose horses were trampling the crops under foot.
The name of d’Escorval heard, above the clink of the glasses, suddenly aroused Martial from his dream of enchantment.
An old gentleman had just risen, and proposed that active measures should be taken to rid the neighborhood of the Baron d’Escorval.
“The presence of such a man dishonors our country,” said he, “he is a frantic Jacobin, and admitted to be dangerous, since Monsieur Fouche has him upon his list of suspected persons; and he is even now under the surveillance of the police.”
This discourse could not have failed to arouse intense anxiety in M. d’Escorval’s breast had he seen the ferocity expressed on almost every face.
Still no one spoke; hesitation could be read in every eye.
Martial, too, had turned so white that Mlle. Blanche remarked his pallor and thought he was ill.
In fact, a terrible struggle was going on in the soul of the young marquis; a conflict between his honor and passion.
Had he not longed only a few hours before to find some way of driving Maurice from the country?
Ah, well! the opportunity he so ardently desired now presented itself. It was impossible to imagine a better one. If the proposed step was taken the Baron d’Escorval and his family would be forced to leave France forever!
The company hesitated; Martial saw it, and felt that a single word from him, for or against, would decide the matter.
After a few minutes of frightful uncertainty, honor triumphed.
He rose and declared that the proposed measure was bad — impolitic.
“Monsieur d’Escorval,” he remarked, “is one of those men who diffuse around them a perfume of honesty and justice. Have the good sense to respect the consideration which is justly his.”
As he had foreseen, his words decided the matter. The cold and haughty manner which he knew so well how to assume, his few but incisive words, produced a great effect.
“It would evidently be a great mistake!” was the general cry.
Martial reseated himself; Mlle. Blanche leaned toward him.
“You have done well,” she murmured; “you know how to defend your friends.”
“Monsieur d’Escorval is not my friend,” replied Martial, in a voice which revealed the struggle through which he had passed. “The injustice of the proposed measure incensed me, that is all.”
Mlle. de Courtornieu was not to be deceived by an explanation like this. Still she added:
“Then your conduct is all the more grand, Monsieur.”
But such was not the opinion of the Duc de Sairmeuse. On returning to the chateau some hours later he reproached his son for his intervention.
“Why the devil did you meddle with the matter?” inquired the duke. “I would not have liked to take upon myself the odium of the proposition, but since it had been made ——”
“I was anxious to prevent such an act of useless folly!”
“Useless folly! Zounds! Marquis, you carry matters with a high hand. Do you think that this d —— d baron adores you? What would you say if you heard that he was conspiring against us?”
“I should answer with a shrug of the shoulders.”
“You would! Very well; do me the favor to question Chupin.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50