The cottage where M. Lacheneur had taken refuge was situated on a hill overlooking the water.
It was, as he had said, a small and humble dwelling, but it was rather less miserable than the abodes of most of the peasants of the district.
It was only one story high, but it was divided into three rooms, and the roof was covered with thatch.
In front was a tiny garden, in which a few fruit-trees, some withered cabbages, and a vine which covered the cottage to the roof, managed to find subsistence.
This garden was a mere nothing, but even this slight conquest over the sterility of the soil had cost Lacheneur’s deceased aunt almost unlimited courage and patience.
For more than twenty years the poor woman had never, for a single day, failed to throw upon her garden three or four basketfuls of richer soil, which she was obliged to bring more than half a league.
It had been more than a year since she died; but the little pathway which her patient feet had worn in the performance of this daily task was still distinctly visible.
This was the path which M. d’Escorval, faithful to his resolution, took the following day, in the hope of wresting from Marie-Anne’s father the secret of his inexplicable conduct.
He was so engrossed in his own thoughts that he failed to notice the overpowering heat as he climbed the rough hill-side in the full glare of the noonday sun.
When he reached the summit, however, he paused to take breath; and while wiping the perspiration from his brow, he turned to look back on the road which he had traversed.
It was the first time he had visited the spot, and he was surprised at the extent of the landscape which stretched before him.
From this point, which is the most elevated in the surrounding country, one can survey the entire valley of the Oiselle, and discern, in the distance, the redoubtable citadel of Montaignac, built upon an almost inaccessible rock.
This last circumstance, which the baron was afterward doomed to recall in the midst of the most terrible scenes, did not strike him then. Lacheneur’s house absorbed all his attention.
His imagination pictured vividly the sufferings of this unfortunate man, who, only two days before, had relinquished the splendors of the Chateau de Sairmeuse to repair to this wretched abode.
He rapped at the door of the cottage.
“Come in!” said a voice.
The baron lifted the latch and entered.
The room was small, with un-white-washed walls, but with no other floor than the ground; no ceiling save the thatch that formed the roof.
A bed, a table and two wooden benches constituted the entire furniture.
Seated upon a stool, near the tiny window, sat Marie-Anne, busily at work upon a piece of embroidery.
She had abandoned her former mode of dress, and her costume was that worn by the peasant girls.
When M. d’Escorval entered she rose, and for a moment they remained silently standing, face to face, she apparently calm, he visibly agitated.
He was looking at Marie-Anne; and she seemed to him transfigured. She was much paler and considerably thinner; but her beauty had a strange and touching charm — the sublime radiance of heroic resignation and of duty nobly fulfilled.
Still, remembering his son, he was astonished to see this tranquillity.
“You do not ask me for news of Maurice,” he said, reproachfully.
“I had news of him this morning, Monsieur, as I have had every day. I know that he is improving; and that, since day before yesterday, he has been allowed to take a little nourishment.”
“You have not forgotten him, then?”
She trembled; a faint blush suffused throat and forehead, but it was in a calm voice that she replied:
“Maurice knows that it would be impossible for me to forget him, even if I wished to do so.”
“And yet you have told him that you approve your father’s decision!”
“I told him so, Monsieur, and I shall have the courage to repeat it.”
“But you have made Maurice wretched, unhappy, child; he has almost died.”
She raised her head proudly, sought M. d’Escorval’s eyes, and when she had found them:
“Look at me, Monsieur. Do you think that I, too, do not suffer?”
M. d’Escorval was abashed for a moment; but recovering himself, he took Marie-Anne’s hand, and pressing it affectionately, he said:
“So Maurice loves you; you love him; you suffer; he has nearly died, and still you reject him!”
“It must be so, Monsieur.”
“You say this, my dear child — you say this, and you undoubtedly believe it. But I, who have sought to discover the necessity of this immense sacrifice, have failed to find it. Explain to me, then, why this must be so, Marie-Anne. Who knows but you are frightened by chimeras, which my experience can scatter with a breath? Have you no confidence in me? Am I not an old friend? It may be that your father, in his despair, has adopted extreme resolutions. Speak, let us combat them together. Lacheneur knows how devotedly I am attached to him. I will speak to him; he will listen to me.”
“I can tell you nothing, Monsieur.”
“What! you are so cruel as to remain inflexible when a father entreats you on his knees — a father who says to you: ‘Marie-Anne, you hold in your hands the happiness, the life, the reason of my son ——’”
Tears glittered in Marie-Anne’s eyes, but she drew away her hand.
“Ah! it is you who are cruel, Monsieur; it is you who are without pity. Do you not see what I suffer, and that it is impossible for me to endure further torture? No, I have nothing to tell you; there is nothing you can say to my father. Why do you seek to impair my courage when I require it all to struggle against my despair? Maurice must forget me; he must never see me again. This is fate; and he must not fight against it. It would be folly. We are parted forever. Beseech Maurice to leave the country, and if he refuses, you, who are his father, must command him to do so. And you, too, Monsieur, in Heaven’s name, flee from us. We shall bring misfortune upon you. Never return here; our house is accursed. The fate that overshadows us will ruin you also.”
She spoke almost wildly. Her voice was so loud that it penetrated an adjoining room.
The communicating door opened and M. Lacheneur appeared upon the threshold.
At the sight of M. d’Escorval he uttered an oath. But there was more sorrow and anxiety than anger in his manner, as he said:
“You, Monsieur, you here!”
The consternation into which Marie-Anne’s words had thrown M. d’Escorval was so intense that it was with great difficulty he stammered out a response.
“You have abandoned us entirely; I was anxious about you. Have you forgotten our old friendship? I come to you ——”
The brow of the former master of Sairmeuse remained overcast.
“Why did you not inform me of the honor that the baron had done me, Marie-Anne?” he said sternly.
She tried to speak, but could not; and it was the baron who replied:
“Why, I have but just come, my dear friend.”
M. Lacheneur looked suspiciously, first at his daughter, then at the baron.
“What did they say to each other while they were alone?” he was evidently wondering.
But, however great may have been his disquietude, he seemed to master it; and it was with his old-time affability of manner that he invited M. d’Escorval to follow him into the adjoining room.
“It is my reception-room and my cabinet combined,” he said, smiling.
This room, which was much larger than the first, was as scantily furnished; but it contained several piles of small books and an infinite number of tiny packages.
Two men were engaged in arranging and sorting these articles.
One was Chanlouineau.
M. d’Escorval did not remember that he had ever seen the other, who was a young man.
“This is my son, Jean, Monsieur,” said Lacheneur. “He has changed since you last saw him ten years ago.”
It was true. It had been, at least, ten years since the baron had seen Lacheneur’s son.
How time flies! He had left him a boy; he found him a man.
Jean was just twenty; but his haggard features and his precocious beard made him appear much older.
He was tall and well formed, and his face indicated more than average intelligence.
Still he did not impress one favorably. His restless eyes were always invading yours; and his smile betrayed an unusual degree of shrewdness, amounting almost to cunning.
As his father presented him, he bowed profoundly; but he was very evidently out of temper.
M. Lacheneur resumed:
“Having no longer the means to maintain Jean in Paris, I have made him return. My ruin will, perhaps, be a blessing to him. The air of great cities is not good for the son of a peasant. Fools that we are, we send them there to teach them to rise above their fathers. But they do nothing of the kind. They think only of degrading themselves.”
“Father,” interrupted the young man; “father, wait, at least, until we are alone!”
“Monsieur d’Escorval is not a stranger.” Chanlouineau evidently sided with the son, since he made repeated signs to M. Lacheneur to be silent.
Either he did not see them, or he pretended not to see them, for he continued:
“I must have wearied you, Monsieur, by telling you again and again: ‘I am pleased with my son. He has a commendable ambition; he is working faithfully; he will succeed.’ Ah! I was a poor, foolish father! The friend who carried Jean the order to return has enlightened me, to my sorrow. This model young man you see here left the gaming-house only to run to public balls. He was in love with a wretched little ballet-girl in some low theatre; and to please this creature, he also went upon the stage, with his face painted red and white.”
“To appear upon the stage is not a crime.”
“No; but it is a crime to deceive one’s father and to affect virtues which one does not possess! Have I ever refused you money? No. Notwithstanding that, you have contracted debts everywhere, and you owe at least twenty thousand francs.”
Jean hung his head; he was evidently angry, but he feared his father.
“Twenty thousand francs!” repeated M. Lacheneur. “I had them a fortnight ago; now I have nothing. I can hope to obtain this sum only through the generosity of the Duc de Sairmeuse and his son.” These words from Lacheneur’s lips astonished the baron.
Lacheneur perceived it, and it was with every appearance of sincerity and good faith that he resumed:
“Does what I say surprise you? I understand why. My anger at first made me give utterance to all sorts of absurd threats. But I am calm now, and I realize my injustice. What could I expect the duke to do? To make me a present of Sairmeuse? He was a trifle brusque, I confess, but that is his way; at heart he is the best of men.”
“Have you seen him again?”
“No; but I have seen his son. I have even been with him to the chateau to designate the articles which I desire to keep. Oh! he refused me nothing. Everything was placed at my disposal — everything. I selected what I wished — furniture, clothing, linen. It is all to be brought here; and I shall be quite a grand seigneur.”
“Why not seek another house? This ——”
“This pleases me, Monsieur. Its situation suits me perfectly.”
In fact, why should not the Sairmeuse have regretted their odious conduct? Was it impossible that Lacheneur, in spite of his indignation, should conclude to accept honorable separation? Such were M. d’Escorval’s reflections.
“To say that the marquis has been kind is saying too little,” continued Lacheneur. “He has shown us the most delicate attentions. For example, having noticed how much Marie-Anne regrets the loss of her flowers, he has declared that he is going to send her plants to stock our small garden, and that they shall be renewed every month.”
Like all passionate men, M. Lacheneur overdid his part. This last remark was too much; it awakened a sinister suspicion in M. d’Escorval’s mind.
“Good God!” he thought, “does this wretched man meditate some crime?”
He glanced at Chanlouineau, and his anxiety increased. On hearing the names of the marquis and of Marie-Anne, the robust farmer had turned livid. “It is decided,” said Lacheneur, with an air of the lost satisfaction, “that they will give me the ten thousand francs bequeathed to me by Mademoiselle Armande. Moreover, I am to fix upon such a sum as I consider a just recompense for my services. And that is not all; they have offered me the position of manager at Sairmeuse; and I was to be allowed to occupy the gamekeeper’s cottage, where I lived so long. But on reflection I refused this offer. After having enjoyed for so long a time a fortune which did not belong to me, I am anxious to amass a fortune of my own.”
“Would it be indiscreet in me to inquire what you intend to do?”
“Not the least in the world. I am going to turn pedler.”
M. d’Escorval could not believe his ears. “Pedler?” he repeated.
“Yes, Monsieur. Look, there is my pack in that corner.”
“But this is absurd!” exclaimed M. d’Escorval. “People can scarcely earn their daily bread in this way.”
“You are wrong, Monsieur. I have considered the subject carefully; the profits are thirty per cent. And if besides, there will be three of us to sell goods, for I shall confide one pack to my son, and another to Chanlouineau.”
“He has become my partner in the enterprise.”
“And his farm — who will take care of that?”
“He will employ day-laborers.”
And then, as if wishing to make M. d’Escorval understand that his visit had lasted quite long enough, Lacheneur began arranging the little packages which were destined to fill the pack of the travelling merchant.
But the baron was not to be gotten rid of so easily, now that his suspicions had become almost a certainty.
“I must speak with you,” he said, brusquely.
M. Lacheneur turned.
“I am very busy,” he replied, with a very evident reluctance.
“I ask only five minutes. But if you have not the time to spare to-day, I will return to-morrow — day after to-morrow — and every day until I can see you in private.”
Lacheneur saw plainly that it would be impossible to escape this interview, so, with the gesture of a man who resigns himself to a necessity, addressing his son and Chanlouineau, he said:
“Go outside for a few moments.”
They obeyed, and as soon as the door had closed behind them, Lacheneur said:
“I know very well, Monsieur, the arguments you intend to advance; and the reason of your coming. You come to ask me again for Marie-Anne. I know that my refusal has nearly killed Maurice. Believe me, I have suffered cruelly at the thought; but my refusal is none the less irrevocable. There is no power in the world capable of changing my resolution. Do not ask my motives; I shall not reveal them; but rest assured that they are sufficient.”
“Are we not your friends?”
“You, Monsieur!” exclaimed Lacheneur, in tones of the most lively affection, “you! ah! you know it well! You are the best, the only friends, I have here below. I should be the basest and the most miserable of men if I did not guard the recollection of all your kindnesses until my eyes close in death. Yes, you are my friends; yes, I am devoted to you — and it is for that very reason that I answer: no, no, never!”
There could no longer be any doubt. M. d’Escorval seized Lacheneur’s hands, and almost crushing them in his grasp:
“Unfortunate man!” he exclaimed, hoarsely, “what do you intend to do? Of what terrible vengeance are you dreaming?”
“I swear to you ——”
“Oh! do not swear. You cannot deceive a man of my age and of my experience. I divine your intentions — you hate the Sairmeuse family more mortally than ever.”
“Yes, you; and if you pretend to forget it, it is only that they may forget it. These people have offended you too cruelly not to fear you; you understand this, and you are doing all in your power to reassure them. You accept their advances — you kneel before them — why? Because they will be more completely in your power when you have lulled their suspicions to rest, and then you can strike them more surely ——”
He paused; the communicating door opened, and Marie-Anne appeared upon the threshold.
“Father,” said she, “here is the Marquis de Sairmeuse.”
This name, which Marie-Anne uttered in a voice of such perfect composure, in the midst of this excited discussion, possessed such a powerful significance, that M. d’Escorval stood as if petrified.
“He dares to come here!” he thought. “How can it be that he does not fear the walls will fall and crush him?”
M. Lacheneur cast a withering glance at his daughter. He suspected her of a ruse which would force him to reveal his secret. For a second, the most furious passion contracted his features.
But, by a prodigious effort of will, he succeeded in regaining his composure. He sprang to the door, pushed Marie-Anne aside, and leaning out, he said:
“Deign to excuse me, Monsieur, if I take the liberty of asking you to wait a moment; I am just finishing some business, and I will be with you in a moment.”
Neither agitation nor anger could be detected in his voice; but, rather, a respectful deference, and a feeling of profound gratitude.
Having said this, he closed the door and turned to M. d’Escorval.
The baron, still standing with folded arms, had witnessed this scene with the air of a man who distrusts the evidence of his own senses; and yet he understood the meaning of it only too well.
“So this young man comes here?” he said to Lacheneur.
“Almost every day — not at this hour, usually, but a trifle later.”
“And you receive him? you welcome him?”
“Certainly, Monsieur. How can I be insensible to the honor he confers upon me? Moreover, we have subjects of mutual interest to discuss. We are now occupied in legalizing the restitution of Sairmeuse. I can, also, give him much useful information, and many hints regarding the management of the property.”
“And do you expect to make me, your old friend, believe that a man of your superior intelligence is deceived by the excuses the marquis makes for these frequent visits? Look me in the eye, and then tell me, if you dare, that you believe these visits are addressed to you!”
Lacheneur’s eye did not waver.
“To whom else could they be addressed?” he inquired.
This obstinate serenity disappointed the baron’s expectations. He could not have received a heavier blow.
“Take care, Lacheneur,” he said, sternly. “Think of the situation in which you place your daughter, between Chanlouineau, who wishes to make her his wife, and Monsieur de Sairmeuse, who desires to make her ——”
“Who desires to make her his mistress — is that what you mean? Oh, say the word. But what does that matter? I am sure of Marie-Anne.”
M. d’Escorval shuddered.
“In other words,” said he, in bitter indignation, “you make your daughter’s honor and reputation your stake in the game you are playing.”
This was too much. Lacheneur could restrain his furious passion no longer.
“Well, yes!” he exclaimed, with a frightful oath, “yes, you have spoken the truth. Marie-Anne must be, and will be, the instrument of my plans. A man situated as I am is free from the considerations that restrain other men. Fortune, friends, life, honor — I have been forced to sacrifice all. Perish my daughter’s virtue — perish my daughter herself — what do they matter, if I can but succeed?”
He was terrible in his fanaticism; and in his mad excitement he clinched his hands as if he were threatening some invisible enemy; his eyes were wild and bloodshot.
The baron seized him by the coat as if to prevent his escape.
“You admit it, then?” he said. “You wish to revenge yourself on the Sairmeuse family, and you have made Chanlouineau your accomplice?”
But Lacheneur, with a sudden movement, freed himself.
“I admit nothing,” he replied. “And yet I wish to reassure you ——”
He raised his hand as if to take an oath, and in a solemn voice, he said:
“Before God, who hears my words, by all that I hold sacred in this world, by the memory of my sainted wife who lies beneath the sod, I swear that I am plotting nothing against the Sairmeuse family; that I had no thought of touching a hair of their heads. I use them only because they are absolutely indispensable to me. They will aid me without injuring themselves.”
Lacheneur, this time, spoke the truth. His hearer felt it; still he pretended to doubt. He thought by retaining his own self-possession, and exciting the anger of this unfortunate man still more, he might, perhaps, discover his real intentions. So it was with an air of suspicion that he said:
“How can one believe this assurance after the avowal you have just made?”
Lacheneur saw the snare; he regained his self-possession as if by magic.
“So be it, Monsieur, refuse to believe me. But you will wring from me only one more word on this subject. I have said too much already. I know that you are guided solely by friendship for me; my gratitude is great, but I cannot reply to your question. The events of the past few days have dug a deep abyss between you and me. Do not endeavor to pass it. Why should we ever meet again? I must say to you, what I said only yesterday to Abbe Midon. If you are my friend, you will never come here again — never — by night or by day, or under any pretext whatever. Even if they tell you that I am dying, do not come. This house is fatal. And if you meet me, turn away; shun me as you would a pestilence whose touch is deadly!”
The baron was silent. This was in substance what Marie-Anne had said to him, only under another form.
“But there is still a wiser course that you might pursue. Everything here is certain to augment the sorrow and despair which afflicts your son. There is not a path, nor a tree, nor a flower which does not cruelly remind him of his former happiness. Leave this place; take him with you, and go far away.”
“Ah! how can I do this? Fouche has virtually imprisoned me here.”
“All the more reason why you should listen to my advice. You were a friend of the Emperor, hence you are regarded with suspicion; you are surrounded by spies. Your enemies are watching for an opportunity to ruin you. The slightest pretext would suffice to throw you into prison — a letter, a word, an act capable of being misconstrued. The frontier is not far off; go, and wait in a foreign land for happier times.”
“That is something which I will not do,” said M. d’Escorval, proudly.
His words and accent showed the folly of further discussion. Lacheneur understood this only too well, and seemed to despair.
“Ah! you are like Abbe Midon,” he said, sadly; “you will not believe. Who knows how much your coming here this morning will cost you? It is said that no one can escape his destiny. But if some day the hand of the executioner is laid upon your shoulder, remember that I warned you, and do not curse me.”
He paused, and seeing that even this sinister prophecy produced no impression upon the baron, he pressed his hand as if to bid him an eternal farewell, and opened the door to admit the Marquis de Sairmeuse.
Martial was, perhaps, annoyed at meeting M. d’Escorval; but he nevertheless bowed with studied politeness, and began a lively conversation with M. Lacheneur, telling him that the articles he had selected at the chateau were on their way.
M. d’Escorval could do no more. To speak with Marie-Anne was impossible: Chanlouineau and Jean would not let him go out of their sight.
He reluctantly departed, and oppressed by cruel forebodings, he descended the hill which he had climbed an hour before so full of hope.
What should he say to Maurice?
He had reached the little grove of pines when a hurried footstep behind him made him turn.
The Marquis de Sairmeuse was following him, and motioned him to stop. The baron paused, greatly surprised; Martial, with that air of ingenuousness which he knew so well how to assume, and in an almost brusque tone, said:
“I hope, Monsieur, that you will excuse me for having followed you, when you hear what I have to say. I am not of your party; I loathe what you adore; but I have none of the passion nor the malice of your enemies. For this reason I tell you that if I were in your place I would take a journey. The frontier is but a few miles away; a good horse, a short gallop, and you have crossed it. A word to the wise is — salvation!”
And without waiting for any response, he turned and retraced his steps.
M. d’Escorval was amazed and confounded.
“One might suppose there was a conspiracy to drive me away!” he murmured. “But I have good reason to distrust the disinterestedness of this young man.”
Martial was already far off. Had he been less preoccupied, he would have perceived two figures in the wood. Mlle. Blanche de Courtornieu, followed by the inevitable Aunt Medea, had come to play the spy.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08