After his son’s confession, M. d’Escorval was prudent enough to make no allusion to the hopes he, himself, entertained.
“My poor Maurice,” he thought, “is heart-broken, but resigned. It is better for him to remain without hope than to be exposed to the danger of another disappointment.”
But passion is not always blind. What the baron concealed, Maurice divined; and he clung to this faint hope as tenaciously as a drowning man clings to the plank which is his only hope of salvation.
If he asked his parents no questions it was only because he was convinced that they would not tell him the truth.
But he watched all that went on in the house with that subtleness of penetration which fever so often imparts.
Not one of his father’s movements escaped his vigilant eye and ear.
Consequently, he heard him put on his boots, ask for his hat, and select a cane from among those standing in the vestibule. He also heard the outer gate grate upon its hinges.
“My father is going out,” he said to himself.
And weak as he was, he succeeded in dragging himself to the window in time to satisfy himself of the truth of his conjectures.
“If my father is going out,” he thought, “it can only be to visit Monsieur Lacheneur —-then he has not relinquished all hope.”
An arm-chair was standing nearby; he sank into it, intending to watch for his father’s return; by doing so, he might know his destiny a few moments sooner.
Three long hours passed before the baron returned.
By his father’s dejected manner he plainly saw that all hope was lost. He was sure of it; as sure as the criminal who reads the fatal verdict in the solemn face of the judge.
He had need of all his energy to regain his couch. For a moment he felt that he was dying.
But he was ashamed of this weakness, which he judged unworthy of him. He determined to know what had passed — to know the details.
He rang, and told the servant that he wished to speak to his father. M. d’Escorval promptly made his appearance.
“Well?” cried Maurice.
M. d’Escorval felt that denial was useless.
“Lacheneur is deaf to my remonstrances and to my entreaties,” he replied, sadly. “Nothing remains for you but to submit, my son. I shall not tell you that time will assuage the sorrow that now seems insupportable — you would not believe me. But I do say to you, that you are a man, and that you must prove your courage. I say even more: fight against thoughts of Marie-Anne as a traveller on the verge of a precipice fights against the thought of vertigo.”
“Have you seen Marie-Anne, father? Have you spoken to her?”
“I found her even more inflexible than Lacheneur.”
“They reject me, and they receive Chanlouineau, perhaps.”
“Chanlouineau is living there.”
“My God! And Martial de Sairmeuse?”
“He is their familiar guest. I saw him there.” That each of these responses fell upon Maurice like a thunder-bolt was only too evident.
But M. d’Escorval had armed himself with the impassable courage of a surgeon who does not relax his hold on his instruments because the patient groans and writhes in agony.
M. d’Escorval wished to extinguish the last ray of hope in the heart of his son.
“It is evident that Monsieur Lacheneur has lost his reason!” exclaimed Maurice.
The baron shook his head despondently. “I thought so myself, at first,” he murmured.
“But what does he say in justification of his conduct? He must say something.”
“Nothing; he refuses any explanation.”
“And you, father, with all your knowledge of human nature, with all your wide experience, have not been able to fathom his intentions?”
“I have my suspicions,” M. d’Escorval replied; “but only suspicions. It is possible that Lacheneur, listening to the voice of hatred, is dreaming of a terrible revenge. Who knows if he does not think of organizing some conspiracy, of which he is to be the leader? These suppositions would explain everything. Chanlouineau is his aider and abettor; and he pretends to be reconciled to the Marquis de Sairmeuse in order to get information through him ——”
The blood had returned to the pale cheeks of Maurice.
“Such a conspiracy would not explain Monsieur Lacheneur’s obstinate rejection of my suit.”
“Alas! yes, my poor boy. It is through Marie-Anne that Lacheneur exerts such an influence over Chanlouineau and the Marquis de Sairmeuse. If she became your wife to-day, they would desert him tomorrow. Then, too, it is precisely because he loves us that he is determined we shall not be mixed up in an enterprise the success of which is extremely doubtful. But these are mere conjectures.”
“Then I see that it is necessary to submit, to be resigned; forget, I cannot,” faltered Maurice.
He said this because he wished to reassure his father; but he thought exactly the opposite.
“If Lacheneur is organizing a conspiracy,” he said, to himself, “he must need assistance. Why should I not offer mine? If I aid him in his preparations, if I share his hopes and his dangers, it will be impossible for him to refuse me the hand of his daughter. Whatever he may desire to undertake, I can surely be of greater assistance than Chanlouineau.”
From that moment Maurice thought only of doing everything possible to hasten his convalescence. This was so rapid, so extraordinarily rapid, as to astonish Abbe Midon, who had taken the place of the physician from Montaignac.
“I never would have believed that Maurice could have been thus consoled,” said Mme. d’Escorval, delighted to see her son’s wonderful improvement in health and spirits.
But the baron made no response. He regarded this almost miraculous recovery with distrust; he was assailed by a vague suspicion of the truth.
He questioned his son, but skilfully as he did it, he could draw nothing from him.
Maurice had decided to say nothing to his parents. What good would it do to trouble them? Besides, he feared remonstrance and opposition, and he was resolved to carry out his plans, even if he was compelled to leave the paternal roof.
In the second week of September the abbe declared that Maurice might resume his ordinary life, and that, as the weather was pleasant, it would be well for him to spend much of his time in the open air.
In his delight, Maurice embraced the worthy priest.
“What happiness!” he exclaimed; “then I can hunt once more!”
He really cared but little for the chase; but he deemed it expedient to pretend a great passion for it, since it would furnish him with an excuse for frequent and protracted absences.
Never had he felt more happy than on the morning when, with his gun upon his shoulder, he crossed the Oiselle and started for the abode of M. Lacheneur. On reaching the little grove on the Reche, he paused for a moment at a place which commanded a view of the cottage. While he stood there, he saw Jean Lacheneur and Chanlouineau leave the house, each laden with a pedler’s pack.
Maurice was therefore sure that M. Lacheneur and Marie-Anne were alone in the house.
He hastened to the cottage and entered without stopping to rap.
Marie-Anne and her father were kneeling on the hearth, upon which a huge fire was blazing.
On hearing the door open, they turned; and at the sight of Maurice, they both sprang up, blushing and confused.
“What brings you here?” they exclaimed in the same breath.
Under other circumstances, Maurice d’Escorval would have been dismayed by such a hostile greeting, but now he scarcely noticed it.
“You have no business to return here against my wishes, and after what I have said to you, Monsieur d’Escorval,” said Lacheneur, rudely.
Maurice smiled, he was perfectly cool, and not a detail of the scene before him had escaped his notice. If he had felt any doubts before, they were now dissipated. He saw upon the fire a large kettle of melted lead, and several bullet-moulds stood on the hearth, beside the andirons.
“If I venture to present myself at your house, Monsieur,” said Maurice, gravely and impressively, “it is because I know all. I have discovered your revengeful project. You are looking for men to aid you, are you not? Very well! look me in the face, in the eyes, and tell me if I am not one of those whom a leader is glad to enroll among his followers.”
M. Lacheneur was terribly agitated.
“I do not know what you mean,” he faltered, forgetting his feigned anger; “I have no projects.”
“Would you assert this upon oath? Why are you casting these bullets? You are clumsy conspirators. You should lock your door; someone else might have entered.”
And adding example to precept, he turned and pushed the bolt.
“This is only an imprudence,” he continued; “but to reject a soldier who comes to you voluntarily would be a fault for which your associate would have a right to call you to account. I have no desire, understand me, to force myself into your confidence. No, I give myself to you blindly, body and soul. Whatever your cause may be, I declare it mine; what you wish, I wish; I adopt your plans; your enemies are my enemies; command, I will obey. I ask only one favor, that of fighting, of triumphing, or of dying by your side.”
“Oh! refuse, father!” exclaimed Marie-Anne; “refuse. To accept this offer would be a crime!”
“A crime! And why, if you please?”
“Because our cause is not your cause; because its success is doubtful; because dangers surround us on every side.”
A scornful exclamation from Maurice interrupted her.
“And it is you who think to dissuade me by pointing out the dangers that threaten you, the dangers that you are braving ——”
“So if imminent peril menaced me, instead of coming to my aid you would desert me? You would hide yourself, saying, ‘Let him perish, so that I be saved!’ Speak! Would you do this?”
She averted her face and made no reply. She could not force herself to utter an untruth; and she was unwilling to answer: “I would act as you are acting.” She waited for her father’s decision.
“If I should comply with your request, Maurice,” said M. Lacheneur, “in less than three days you would curse me, and ruin us by some outburst of anger. You love Marie-Anne. Could you see, unmoved, the frightful position in which she is placed? Remember, she must not discourage the addresses either of Chanlouineau or of the Marquis de Sairmeuse. You regard me — oh, I know as well as you do that it is a shameful and odious role that I impose upon her — that she is compelled to play a part in which she will lose a young girl’s most precious possession — her reputation.”
Maurice did not wince. “So be it,” he said, calmly. “Marie-Anne’s fate will be that of all women who have devoted themselves to the political advancement of the man whom they love, be he father, brother, or lover. She will be slandered, insulted, calumniated. What does it matter? She may continue her task. I consent to it, for I shall never doubt her, and I shall know how to hold my peace. If we succeed, she shall be my wife; if we fail ——”
The gesture which concluded the sentence said more strongly than any protestations, that he was ready, resigned to anything.
M. Lacheneur was greatly moved.
“At least give me time for reflection,” said he.
“There is no necessity for further reflection, Monsieur.”
“But you are only a child, Maurice; and your father is my friend.”
“What of that?”
“Rash boy! do you not understand that by compromising yourself you also compromise Baron d’Escorval? You think you are risking only your own head; you are endangering your father’s life ——”
But Maurice violently interrupted him.
“There has been too much parleying already!” he exclaimed; “there have been too many remonstrances. Answer me in a word! Only understand this: if you reject me, I will return to my father’s house, and with this gun which I hold in my hand I will blow out my brains.”
This was no idle threat. It was evident that what he said, that would he do. His listeners were so convinced of this, that Marie-Anne turned to her father with clasped hands and a look of entreaty.
“You are one of us, then,” said M. Lacheneur, sternly; “but do not forget that you forced me to consent by threats; and whatever may happen to you or yours, remember that you would have it so.”
But these gloomy words produced no impression upon Maurice; he was wild with joy.
“Now,” continued M. Lacheneur, “I must tell you my hopes, and acquaint you with the cause for which I am laboring ——”
“What does that matter to me?” Maurice exclaimed, gayly; and, springing toward Marie-Anne, he seized her hand and raised it to his lips, crying, with the joyous laugh of youth:
“My cause — here it is!”
Lacheneur turned away. Perhaps he recollected that a sacrifice of his pride was all that was necessary to assure the happiness of these poor children.
But if a feeling of remorse entered his mind, he drove it away, and with increased sternness, he said:
“Still, Monsieur d’Escorval, it is necessary for you to understand our agreement.”
“Make known your conditions, sir.”
“First, your visits here — after certain rumors that I have put in circulation — would arouse suspicion. You must come here only at night, and then only at hours that have been agreed upon in advance — never when you are not expected.”
The attitude of Maurice expressed his entire consent.
“Moreover, you must find some way to cross the river without having recourse to the ferryman, who is a dangerous fellow.”
“We have an old skiff. I will persuade my father to have it repaired.”
“Very well. Will you also promise me to avoid the Marquis de Sairmeuse?”
“Wait a moment; we must be prepared for any emergency. It may be that, in spite of our precautions, you will meet him here. Monsieur de Sairmeuse is arrogance itself; and he hates you. You detest him, and you are very hasty. Swear to me that if he provokes you, you will ignore his insults.”
“But I should be considered a coward, Monsieur!”
“Probably. Will you swear?”
Maurice hesitated, but an imploring look from Marie-Anne decided him.
“I swear!” he said, gravely.
“As far as Chanlouineau is concerned, it would be better not to let him know of our agreement — but I will take care of this matter.”
M. Lacheneur paused and reflected for a moment, as if striving to discover if he had forgotten anything.
“Nothing remains, Maurice,” he resumed, “but to give you a last and very important piece of advice. Do you know my son?”
“Certainly; we were formerly the best of comrades during our vacations.”
“Very well. When you know my secret — for I shall confide it to you without reserve — beware of Jean.”
“Beware of Jean. I repeat it.”
And he blushed deeply, as he added:
“Ah! it is a painful avowal for a father; but I have no confidence in my own son. He knows no more in regard to my plans than I told him on the day of his arrival. I deceive him, because I fear he might betray us. Perhaps it would be wise to send him away; but in that case, what would people say? Most assuredly they would say that I was very avaricious of my own blood, while I was very ready to risk the lives of others. Still I may be mistaken; I may misjudge him.”
He sighed, and added:
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54