The Duc de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de Courtornieu had more time before them than they supposed.
The rebels were advancing, but not so rapidly as Chupin had said.
Two circumstances, which it was impossible to foresee, disarranged Lacheneur’s plans.
Standing beside his burning house, Lacheneur counted the signal fires that blazed out in answer to his own.
Their number corresponded to his expectations; he uttered a cry of joy.
“All our friends keep their word!” he exclaimed. “They are ready; they are even now on their way to the rendezvous. Let us start at once, for we must be there first!”
They brought him his horse, and his foot was already in the stirrup, when two men sprang from the neighboring grove and darted toward him. One of them seized the horse by the bridle.
“Abbe Midon!” exclaimed Lacheneur, in profound astonishment; “Monsieur d’Escorval!”
And foreseeing, perhaps, what was to come, he added, in a tone of concentrated fury:
“What do you two men want with me?”
“We wish to prevent the accomplishment of an act of madness!” exclaimed M. d’Escorval. “Hatred has crazed you, Lacheneur!”
“You know nothing of my projects!”
“Do you think that I do not suspect them? You hope to capture Montaignac ——-”
“What does that matter to you?” interrupted Lacheneur, violently.
But M. d’Escorval would not be silenced.
He seized the arm of his former friend, and in a voice loud enough to be heard distinctly by everyone present, he continued:
“Foolish man! You have forgotten that Montaignac is a fortified city, protected by deep moats and high walls! You have forgotten that behind these fortifications is a garrison commanded by a man whose energy and valor are beyond all question — the Duc de Sairmeuse.”
Lacheneur struggled to free himself from his friend’s grasp.
“Everything has been arranged,” he replied, “and they are expecting us at Montaignac. You would be as sure of this as I am myself, if you had seen the light gleaming on the windows of the citadel. And look, you can see it yet. This light tells me that two or three hundred retired officers will come to open the gates of the city for us as soon as we make our appearance.”
“And after that! If you take Montaignac, what will you do then? Do you suppose that the English will give you back your Emperor? Is not Napoleon II. the prisoner of the Austrians? Have you forgotten that the allied sovereigns have left one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers within a day’s march of Paris?”
Sullen murmurs were heard among Lacheneur’s followers.
“But all this is nothing,” continued the baron. “The chief danger lies in the fact that there are as many traitors as dupes in an undertaking of this sort.”
“Whom do you call dupes, Monsieur?”
“All those who take their illusions for realities, as you have done; all those who, because they desire anything very much, really believe that it will come to pass. Do you really suppose that neither the Duc de Sairmeuse nor the Marquis de Courtornieu has been warned of it?”
Lacheneur shrugged his shoulders.
“Who could have warned them?”
But his tranquillity was feigned; the look which he cast upon Jean proved it.
And it was in the coldest possible tone that he added:
“It is probable that at this very hour the duke and the marquis are in the power of our friends.”
The cure now attempted to join his efforts to those of the baron.
“You will not go, Lacheneur,” he said. “You will not remain deaf to the voice of reason. You are an honest man; think of the frightful responsibility you assume! What! upon these frail hopes, you dare to peril the lives of hundreds of brave men? I tell you that you will not succeed; you will be betrayed; I am sure you will be betrayed!”
An expression of horror contracted Lacheneur’s features. It was evident to all that he was deeply moved.
It is impossible to say what might have happened had it not been for the intervention of Chanlouineau.
This sturdy peasant came forward, brandishing his gun.
“We are wasting too much time in foolish prattling,” he exclaimed with a fierce oath.
Lacheneur started as if he had been struck by a whip. He rudely freed himself and leaped into the saddle.
“Forward!” he ordered.
But the baron and the priest did not yet despair; they sprang to the horse’s head.
“Lacheneur,” cried the priest, “beware! The blood you are about to spill will fall upon your head, and upon the heads of your children!”
Appalled by these prophetic words, the little band paused.
Then someone issued from the ranks, clad in the costume of a peasant.
“Marie-Anne!” exclaimed the abbe and the baron in the same breath.
“Yes, I,” responded the young girl, removing the large hat which had partially concealed her face; “I wish to share the dangers of those who are dear to me — share in their victory or their defeat. Your counsel comes too late, gentlemen. Do you see those lights on the horizon? They tell us that the people of these communes are repairing to the cross-roads at the Croix d’Arcy, the general rendezvous. Before two o’clock fifteen hundred men will be gathered there awaiting my father’s commands. Would you have him leave these men, whom he has called from their peaceful firesides, without a leader? Impossible!”
She evidently shared the madness of her lover and father, even if she did not share all their hopes.
“No, there must be no more hesitation, no more parleying,” she continued. “Prudence now would be the height of folly. There is no more danger in a retreat than in an advance. Do not try to detain my father, gentlemen; each moment of delay may, perhaps, cost a man’s life. And now, my friends, forward!”
A loud cheer answered her, and the little band descended the hill.
But M. d’Escorval could not allow his own son, whom he saw in the ranks, to depart thus.
“Maurice!” he cried.
The young man hesitated, but at last approached.
“You will not follow these madmen, Maurice?” said the baron.
“I must follow them, father.”
“I forbid it.”
“Alas! father, I cannot obey you. I have promised — I have sworn. I am second in command.”
His voice was sad, but it was determined.
“My son!” exclaimed M. d’Escorval; “unfortunate child! — it is to certain death that you are marching — to certain death.”
“All the more reason that I should not break my word, father.”
“And your mother, Maurice, the mother whom you forget!”
A tear glistened in the young man’s eye.
“My mother,” he replied, “would rather weep for her dead son than keep him near her dishonored, and branded with the names of coward and traitor. Farewell! my father.”
M. d’Escorval appreciated the nobility of soul that Maurice displayed in his conduct. He extended his arms, and pressed his beloved son convulsively to his heart, feeling that it might be for the last time.
“Farewell!” he faltered, “farewell!”
Maurice soon rejoined his comrades, whose acclamations were growing fainter and fainter in the distance; but the baron stood motionless, overwhelmed with sorrow.
Suddenly he started from his revery.
“A single hope remains, Abbe!” he cried.
“Alas!” murmured the priest.
“Oh — I am not mistaken. Marie-Anne just told us the place of rendezvous. By running to Escorval and harnessing the cabriolet, we might be able to reach the Croix d’Arcy before this party arrive there. Your voice, which touched Lacheneur, will touch the heart of his accomplices. We will persuade these poor, misguided men to return to their homes. Come, Abbe; come quickly!”
And they departed on the run.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50