A gently ascending road, more than two miles in length, shaded by a quadruple row of venerable elms, led from the village to the Chateau de Sairmeuse.
Nothing could be more beautiful than this avenue, a fit approach to a palace; and the stranger who beheld it could understand the naively vain proverb of the country: “He does not know the real beauty of France, who has never seen Sairmeuse nor the Oiselle.”
The Oiselle is the little river which one crosses by means of a wooden bridge on leaving the village, and whose clear and rapid waters give a delicious freshness to the valley.
At every step, as one ascends, the view changes. It is as if an enchanting panorama were being slowly unrolled before one.
On the right you can see the saw-mills of Fereol. On the left, like an ocean of verdure, the forest of Dolomien trembles in the breeze. Those imposing ruins on the other side of the river are all that remain of the feudal manor of the house of Breulh. That red brick mansion, with granite trimmings, half concealed by a bend in the river, belongs to the Baron d’Escorval.
And, if the day is clear, one can easily distinguish the spires of Montaignac in the distance.
This was the path traversed by M. Lacheneur after Chupin had delivered his message.
But what did he care for the beauties of the landscape!
Upon the church porch he had received his death-wound; and now, with a tottering and dragging step, he dragged himself along like one of those poor soldiers, mortally wounded upon the field of battle, who go back, seeking a ditch or quiet spot where they can lie down and die.
He seemed to have lost all thought of his surroundings — all consciousness of previous events. He pursued his way, lost in his reflections, guided only by force of habit.
Two or three times his daughter, Marie-Anne, who was walking by his side, addressed him; but an “Ah! let me alone!” uttered in a harsh tone, was the only response she could draw from him.
Evidently he had received a terrible blow; and undoubtedly, as often happens under such circumstances, the unfortunate man was reviewing all the different phases of his life.
At twenty Lacheneur was only a poor ploughboy in the service of the Sairmeuse family.
His ambition was modest then. When stretched beneath a tree at the hour of noonday rest, his dreams were as simple as those of an infant.
“If I could but amass a hundred pistoles,” he thought, “I would ask Father Barrois for the hand of his daughter Martha; and he would not refuse me.” A hundred pistoles! A thousand francs! — an enormous sum for him who, in two years of toil and privation had only laid by eleven louis, which he had placed carefully in a tiny box and hidden in the depths of his straw mattress.
Still he did not despair. He had read in Martha’s eyes that she would wait.
And Mlle. Armande de Sairmeuse, a rich old maid, was his god-mother; and he thought, if he attacked her adroitly, that he might, perhaps, interest her in his love-affair.
Then the terrible storm of the revolution burst over France.
With the fall of the first thunder-bolts, the Duke of Sairmeuse left France with the Count d’Artois. They took refuge in foreign lands as a passer-by seeks shelter in a doorway from a summer shower, saying to himself: “This will not last long.”
The storm did last, however; and the following year Mlle. Armande, who had remained at Sairmeuse, died.
The chateau was then closed, the president of the district took possession of the keys in the name of the government, and the servants were scattered.
Lacheneur took up his residence in Montaignac.
Young, daring, and personally attractive, blessed with an energetic face, and an intelligence far above his station, it was not long before he became well known in the political clubs.
For three months Lacheneur was the tyrant of Montaignac.
But this metier of public speaker is by no means lucrative, so the surprise throughout the district was immense, when it was ascertained that the former ploughboy had purchased the chateau, and almost all the land belonging to his old master.
It is true that the nation had sold this princely domain for scarcely a twentieth part of its real value. The appraisement was sixty-nine thousand francs. It was giving the property away.
And yet, it was necessary to have this amount, and Lacheneur possessed it, since he had poured it in a flood of beautiful louis d’or into the hands of the receiver of the district.
From that moment his popularity waned. The patriots who had applauded the ploughboy, cursed the capitalist. He discreetly left them to recover from their rage as best they could, and returned to Sairmeuse. There everyone bowed low before Citoyen Lacheneur.
Unlike most people, he did not forget his past hopes at the moment when they might be realized.
He married Martha Barrois, and, leaving the country to work out its own salvation without his assistance, he gave his time and attention to agriculture.
Any close observer, in those days, would have felt certain that the man was bewildered by the sudden change in his situation.
His manner was so troubled and anxious that one, to see him, would have supposed him a servant in constant fear of being detected in some indiscretion.
He did not open the chateau, but installed himself and his young wife in the cottage formerly occupied by the head game-keeper, near the entrance of the park.
But, little by little, with the habit of possession, came assurance.
The Consulate had succeeded the Directory, the Empire succeeded the Consulate, Citoyen Lacheneur became M. Lacheneur.
Appointed mayor two years later, he left the cottage and took possession of the chateau.
The former ploughboy slumbered in the bed of the Ducs de Sairmeuse; he ate from the massive plate, graven with their coat-of-arms; he received his visitors in the magnificent salon in which the Ducs de Sairmeuse had received their friends in years gone by.
To those who had known him in former days, M. Lacheneur had become unrecognizable. He had adapted himself to his lofty station. Blushing at his own ignorance; he had found the courage — wonderful in one of his age — to acquire the education which he lacked.
Then, all his undertakings were successful to such a degree that his good fortune had become proverbial. That he took any part in an enterprise, sufficed to make it turn out well.
His wife had given him two lovely children, a son and a daughter.
His property, managed with a shrewdness and sagacity which the former owners had not possessed, yielded him an income of at least sixty thousand francs.
How many, under similar circumstances, would have lost their heads! But he, M. Lacheneur, had been wise enough to retain his sang-froid.
In spite of the princely luxury that surrounded him, his own habits were simple and frugal. He had never had an attendant for his own person. His large income he consecrated almost entirely to the improvement of his estate or to the purchase of more land. And yet, he was not avaricious. In all that concerned his wife or children, he did not count the cost. His son, Jean, had been educated in Paris; he wished him to be fitted for any position. Unwilling to consent to a separation from his daughter, he had procured a governess to take charge of her education.
Sometimes his friends accused him of an inordinate ambition for his children; but he always shook his head sadly, as he replied:
“If I can only insure them a modest and comfortable future! But what folly it is to count upon the future. Thirty years ago, who could have foreseen that the Sairmeuse family would be deprived of their estates?”
With such opinions he should have been a good master; he was, but no one thought the better of him on that account. His former comrades could not forgive him for his sudden elevation.
They seldom spoke of him without wishing his ruin in ambiguous words.
Alas! the evil days came. Toward the close of the year 1812, he lost his wife, the disasters of the year 1813 swept away a large portion of his personal fortune, which had been invested in a manufacturing enterprise.
Compromised by the first Restoration, he was obliged to conceal himself for a time; and to cap the climax, the conduct of his son, who was still in Paris, caused him serious disquietude.
Only the evening before, he had thought himself the most unfortunate of men.
But here was another misfortune menacing him; a misfortune so terrible that all the others were forgotten.
From the day on which he had purchased Sairmeuse to this fatal Sunday in August, 1815, was an interval of twenty years.
Twenty years! And it seemed to him only yesterday that, blushing and trembling, he had laid those piles of louis d’or upon the desk of the receiver of the district.
Had he dreamed it?
He had not dreamed it. His entire life, with its struggles and its miseries, its hopes and its fears, its unexpected joys and its blighted hopes, all passed before him.
Lost in these memories, he had quite forgotten the present situation, when a commonplace incident, more powerful than the voice of his daughter, brought him back to the terrible reality. The gate leading to the Chateau de Sairmeuse, to his chateau, was found to be locked.
He shook it with a sort of rage; and, being unable to break the fastening, he found some relief in breaking the bell.
On hearing the noise, the gardener came running to the scene of action.
“Why is this gate closed?” demanded M. Lacheneur, with unwonted violence of manner. “By what right do you barricade my house when I, the master, am without?”
The gardener tried to make some excuse.
“Hold your tongue!” interrupted M. Lacheneur. “I dismiss you; you are no longer in my service.”
He passed on, leaving the gardener petrified with astonishment, crossed the court-yard — a court-yard worthy of the mansion, bordered with velvet turf, with flowers, and with dense shrubbery.
In the vestibule, inlaid with marble, three of his tenants sat awaiting him, for it was on Sunday that he always received the workmen who desired to confer with him.
They rose at his approach, and removed their hats deferentially. But he did not give them time to utter a word.
“Who permitted you to enter here?” he said, savagely, “and what do you desire? They sent you to play the spy on me, did they? Leave, I tell you!”
The three farmers were even more bewildered and dismayed than the gardener had been, and their remarks must have been interesting.
But M. Lacheneur could not hear them. He had opened the door of the grand salon, and dashed in, followed by his frightened daughter.
Never had Marie-Anne seen her father in such a mood; and she trembled, her heart torn by the most frightful presentiments.
She had heard it said that oftentimes, under the influence of some dire calamity, unfortunate men have suddenly lost their reason entirely; and she was wondering if her father had become insane.
It would seem, indeed, that such was the case. His eyes flashed, convulsive shudders shook his whole body, a white foam gathered on his lips.
He made the circuit of the room as a wild beast makes the circuit of his cage, uttering harsh imprecations and making frenzied gestures.
His actions were strange, incomprehensible. Sometimes he seemed to be trying the thickness of the carpet with the toe of his boot; sometimes he threw himself upon a sofa or a chair, as if to test its softness.
Occasionally, he paused abruptly before some one of the valuable pictures that covered the walls, or before a bronze. One might have supposed that he was taking an inventory, and appraising all the magnificent and costly articles which decorated this apartment, the most sumptuous in the chateau.
“And I must renounce all this!” he exclaimed, at last.
These words explained everything.
“No, never!” he resumed, in a transport of rage; “never! never! I cannot! I will not!”
Now Marie-Anne understood it all. But what was passing in her father’s mind? She wished to know; and, leaving the low chair in which she had been seated, she went to her father’s side.
“Are you ill, father?” she asked, in her sweet voice; “what is the matter? What do you fear? Why do you not confide in me? — Am I not your daughter? Do you no longer love me?”
At the sound of this dear voice, M. Lacheneur trembled like a sleeper suddenly aroused from the terrors of a nightmare, and he cast an indescribable glance upon his daughter.
“Did you not hear what Chupin said to me?” he replied, slowly. “The Duc de Sairmeuse is at Montaignac; he will soon be here; and we are dwelling in the chateau of his fathers, and his domain has become ours!”
The vexed question regarding the national lands, which agitated France for thirty years, Marie understood, for she had heard it discussed a thousand times.
“Ah, well, dear father,” said she, “what does that matter, even if we do hold the property? You have bought it and paid for it, have you not? So it is rightfully and lawfully ours.”
M. Lacheneur hesitated a moment before replying.
But his secret suffocated him. He was in one of those crises in which a man, however strong he may be, totters and seeks some support, however fragile.
“You would be right, my daughter,” he murmured, with drooping head, “if the money that I gave in exchange for Sairmeuse had really belonged to me.”
At this strange avowal the young girl turned pale and recoiled a step.
“What?” she faltered; “this gold was not yours, my father? To whom did it belong? From whence did it come?”
The unhappy man had gone too far to retract.
“I will tell you all, my daughter,” he replied, “and you shall judge. You shall decide. When the Sairmeuse family fled from France, I had only my hands to depend upon, and as it was almost impossible to obtain work, I wondered if starvation were not near at hand.
“Such was my condition when someone came after me one evening to tell me that Mademoiselle Armande de Sairmeuse, my godmother, was dying, and wished to speak with me. I ran to the chateau.
“The messenger had told the truth. Mademoiselle Armande was sick unto death. I felt this on seeing her upon her bed, whiter than wax.
“Ah! if I were to live a hundred years, never should I forget her face as it looked at that moment. It was expressive of a strength of will and an energy that would hold death at bay until the task upon which she had determined was performed.
“When I entered the room I saw a look of relief appear upon her countenance.
“‘How long you were in coming!’ she murmured faintly.
“I was about to make some excuse, when she motioned me to pause, and ordered the women who surrounded her to leave the room.
“As soon as we were alone:
“‘You are an honest boy,’, said she, ‘and I am about to give you a proof of my confidence. People believe me to be poor, but they are mistaken. While my relatives were gayly ruining themselves, I was saving the five hundred louis which the duke, my brother, gave me each year.’
“She motioned me to come nearer, and to kneel beside her bed.
“I obeyed, and Mademoiselle Armande leaned toward me, almost glued her lips to my ear, and added:
“‘I possess eighty thousand francs.’
“I felt a sudden giddiness, but my godmother did not notice it.
“‘This amount,’ she continued, ‘is not a quarter part of the former income from our family estates. But now, who knows but it will, one day, be the only resource of the Sairmeuse? I am going to place it in your charge, Lacheneur. I confide it to your honor and to your devotion. The estates belonging to the emigrants are to be sold, I hear. If such an act of injustice is committed, you will probably be able to purchase our property for seventy thousand francs. If the property is sold by the government, purchase it; if the lands belonging to the emigrants are not sold, take that amount to the duke, my brother, who is with the Count d’Artois. The surplus, that is to say, the ten thousand francs remaining, I give to you — they are yours.’
“She seemed to recover her strength. She raised herself in bed, and, holding the crucifix attached to her rosary to my lips, she said:
“‘Swear by the image of our Saviour, that you will faithfully execute the last will of your dying godmother.’
“I took the required oath, and an expression of satisfaction overspread her features.
“‘That is well,’ she said; ‘I shall die content. You will have a protector on high. But this is not all. In times like these in which we live, this gold will not be safe in your hands unless those about you are ignorant that you possess it. I have been endeavoring to discover some way by which you could remove it from my room, and from the chateau, without the knowledge of anyone; and I have found a way. The gold is here in this cupboard, at the head of my bed, in a stout oaken chest. You must find strength to move the chest — you must. You can fasten a sheet around it and let it down gently from the window into the garden. You will then leave the house as you entered it, and as soon as you are outside, you must take the chest and carry it to your home. The night is very dark, and no one will see you, if you are careful. But make haste; my strength is nearly gone.’
“The chest was heavy, but I was very strong.
“In less than ten minutes the task of removing the chest from the chateau was accomplished, without a single sound that would betray us. As I closed the window, I said:
“‘It is done, godmother.’
“‘God be praised!’ she whispered; ‘Sairmeuse is saved!’
“I heard a deep sigh. I turned; she was dead.”
This scene that M. Lacheneur was relating rose vividly before him.
To feign, to disguise the truth, or to conceal any portion of it was an impossibility.
He forgot himself and his daughter; he thought only of the dead woman, of Mlle. Armande de Sairmeuse.
And he shuddered on pronouncing the words: “She was dead.” It seemed to him that she was about to speak, and to insist upon the fulfilment of his pledge.
After a moment’s silence, he resumed, in a hollow voice:
“I called for aid; it came. Mademoiselle Armande was adored by everyone; there was great lamentation, and a half hour of indescribable confusion followed her death. I was able to withdraw, unnoticed, to run into the garden, and to carry away the oaken chest. An hour later, it was concealed in the miserable hovel in which I dwelt. The following year I purchased Sairmeuse.”
He had confessed all; and he paused, trembling, trying to read his sentence in the eyes of his daughter.
“And can you hesitate?” she demanded.
“Ah! you do not know ——”
“I know that Sairmeuse must be given up.”
This was the decree of his own conscience, that faint voice which speaks only in a whisper, but which all the tumult on earth cannot overpower.
“No one saw me take away the chest,” he faltered. “If anyone suspected it, there is not a single proof against me. But no one does suspect it.”
Marie-Anne rose, her eyes flashed with generous indignation.
“My father!” she exclaimed; “oh! my father!”
Then, in a calmer tone, she added:
“If others know nothing of this, can you forget it?”
M. Lacheneur appeared almost ready to succumb to the torture of the terrible conflict raging in his soul.
“Return!” he exclaimed. “What shall I return? That which I have received? So be it. I consent. I will give the duke the eighty thousand francs; to this amount I will add the interest on this sum since I have had it, and — we shall be free of all obligation.”
The girl sadly shook her head.
“Why do you resort to subterfuges which are so unworthy of you?” she asked, gently. “You know perfectly well that it was Sairmeuse which Mademoiselle Armande intended to intrust to the servant of her house. And it is Sairmeuse which must be returned.”
The word “servant” was revolting to a man, who, at least, while the empire endured, had been a power in the land.
“Ah! you are cruel, my daughter,” he said, with intense bitterness; “as cruel as a child who has never suffered — as cruel as one who, having never himself been tempted, is without mercy for those who have yielded to temptation.
“It is one of those acts which God alone can judge, since God alone can read the depths of one’s secret soul.
“I am only a depositary, you tell me. It was, indeed, in this light that I formerly regarded myself.
“If your poor sainted mother was still alive, she would tell you the anxiety and anguish I felt on being made the master of riches which were not mine. I trembled lest I should yield to their seductions; I was afraid of myself. I felt as a gambler might feel who had the winnings of others confided to his care; as a drunkard might feel who had been placed in charge of a quantity of the most delicious wines.
“Your mother would tell you that I moved heaven and earth to find the Duc de Sairmeuse. But he had left the Count d’Artois, and no one knew where he had gone or what had become of him. Ten years passed before I could make up my mind to inhabit the chateau — yes, ten years — during which I had the furniture dusted each morning as if the master was to return that evening.
“At last I ventured. I had heard Monsieur d’Escorval declare that the duke had been killed in battle. I took up my abode here. And from day to day, in proportion as the domain of Sairmeuse became more beautiful and extensive beneath my care, I felt myself more and more its rightful owner.”
But this despairing pleading in behalf of a bad cause produced no impression upon Marie-Anne’s loyal heart.
“Restitution must be made,” she repeated. M. Lacheneur wrung his hands.
“Implacable!” he exclaimed; “she is implacable. Unfortunate girl! does she not understand that it is for her sake I wish to remain where I am? I am old, and I am familiar with toil and poverty; idleness has not removed the callosities from my hands. What do I require to keep me alive until the day comes for me to take my place in the graveyard? A crust of bread and an onion in the morning, a porringer of soup in the evening, and for the night a bundle of straw. I could easily earn that. But you, unhappy child! and your brother, what will become of you?”
“We must not discuss nor haggle with duty, my father. I think, however, that you are needlessly alarmed. I believe the duke is too noble-hearted ever to allow you to suffer want after the immense service you have rendered him.”
The old servitor of the house of Sairmeuse laughed a loud, bitter laugh.
“You believe that!” said he; “then you do not know the nobles who have been our masters for ages. ‘A., you are a worthy fellow!’— very coldly said — will be the only recompense I shall receive; and you will see us, me, at my plough; you, out at service. And if I venture to speak of the ten thousand francs that were given me, I shall be treated as an impostor, as an impudent fool. By the holy name of God this shall not be!”
“Oh, my father!”
“No! this shall not be. And I realize — as you cannot realize — the disgrace of such a fall. You think you are beloved in Sairmeuse? You are mistaken. We have been too fortunate not to be the victims of hatred and jealousy. If I fall to-morrow, you will see all who kissed your hands to-day fall upon you to tear you to pieces!”
His eye glittered; he believed he had found a victorious argument.
“And then you, yourself, will realize the horror of the disgrace. It will cost you the deadly anguish of a separation from him whom your heart has chosen.”
He had spoken truly, for Marie-Anne’s beautiful eyes filled with tears.
“If what you say proves true, father,” she murmured, in an altered voice, “I may, perhaps, die of sorrow; but I cannot fail to realize that my confidence and my love has been misplaced.”
“And you still insist upon my returning Sairmeuse to its former owner?”
“Honor speaks, my father.”
M. Lacheneur made the arm-chair in which he was seated tremble by a violent blow of his fist.
“And if I am just as obstinate,” he exclaimed —“if I keep the property — what will you do?”
“I shall say to myself, father, that honest poverty is better than stolen wealth. I shall leave this chateau, which belongs to the Duc de Sairmeuse, and I shall seek a situation as a servant in the neighborhood.”
M. Lacheneur sank back in his arm-chair sobbing. He knew his daughter’s nature well enough to be assured that what she said, that she would do.
But he was conquered; his daughter had won the battle. He had decided to make the heroic sacrifice.
“I will relinquish Sairmeuse,” he faltered, “come what may ——”
He paused suddenly; a visitor was entering the room.
It was a young man about twenty years of age, of distinguished appearance, but with a rather melancholy and gentle manner.
His eyes when he entered the apartment encountered those of Marie-Anne; he blushed slightly, and the girl half turned away, crimsoning to the roots of her hair.
“Monsieur,” said the young man, “my father sends me to inform you that the Duc de Sairmeuse and his son have just arrived. They have asked the hospitality of our cure.”
M. Lacheneur rose, unable to conceal his frightful agitation.
“You will thank the Baron d’Escorval for his attention, my dear Maurice,” he responded. “I shall have the honor of seeing him to-day, after a very momentous step which we are about to take, my daughter and I.”
Young d’Escorval had seen, at the first glance, that his presence was inopportune, so he remained only a few moments.
But as he was taking leave, Marie-Anne found time to say, in a low voice:
“I think I know your heart, Maurice; this evening I shall know it certainly.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54