The clock in the tower of Sairmeuse was striking the hour of eight when Lacheneur and his little band of followers left the Reche.
An hour later, at the Chateau de Courtornieu, Mlle. Blanche, after finishing her dinner, ordered the carriage to convey her to Montaignac. Since her father had taken up his abode in town they met only on Sunday; on that day either Blanche went to Montaignac, or the marquis paid a visit to the chateau.
Hence this proposed journey was a deviation from the regular order of things. It was explained, however, by grave circumstances.
It was six days since Martial had presented himself at Courtornieu; and Blanche was half crazed with grief and rage.
What Aunt Medea was forced to endure during this interval, only poor dependents in rich families can understand.
For the first three days Mlle. Blanche succeeded in preserving a semblance of self-control; on the fourth she could endure it no longer, and in spite of the breach of “les convenances“ which it involved, she sent a messenger to Sairmeuse to inquire for Martial. Was he ill — had he gone away?
The messenger was informed that the marquis was perfectly well, but, as he spent the entire day, from early morn to dewy eve, in hunting, he went to bed every evening as soon as supper was over.
What a horrible insult! Still, she was certain that Martial, on hearing what she had done, would hasten to her to make his excuses. Vain hope! He did not come; he did not even condescend to give one sign of life.
“Ah! doubtless he is with her,” she said to Aunt Medea. “He is on his knees before that miserable Marie-Anne — his mistress.”
For she had finished by believing — as is not unfrequently the case — the very calumnies which she herself had invented.
In this extremity she decided to make her father her confidant; and she wrote him a note announcing her coming.
She wished her father to compel Lacheneur to leave the country. This would be an easy matter for him, since he was armed with discretionary authority at an epoch when lukewarm devotion afforded an abundant excuse for sending a man into exile.
Fully decided upon this plan, Blanche became calmer on leaving the chateau; and her hopes overflowed in incoherent phrases, to which poor Aunt Medea listened with her accustomed resignation.
“At last I shall be rid of this shameless creature!” she exclaimed. “We will see if he has the audacity to follow her! Will he follow her? Oh, no; he dare not!”
When the carriage passed through the village of Sairmeuse, Mlle. Blanche noticed an unwonted animation.
There were lights in every house, the saloons seemed full of drinkers, and groups of people were standing upon the public square and upon the doorsteps.
But what did this matter to Mlle. de Courtornieu! It was not until they were a mile or so from Sairmeuse that she was startled from her revery.
“Listen, Aunt Medea,” she said, suddenly. “Do you hear anything?”
The poor dependent listened. Both occupants of the carriage heard shouts that became more and more distinct with each revolution of the wheels.
“Let us find out the meaning of this,” said Mlle. Blanche.
And lowering one of the carriage-windows, she asked the coachman the cause of the disturbance.
“I see a great crowd of peasants on the hill; they have torches and ——”
“Blessed Jesus!” interrupted Aunt Medea, in alarm.
“It must be a wedding,” added the coachman, whipping up his horses.
It was not a wedding, but Lacheneur’s little band, which had been augmented to the number of about five hundred. Lacheneur should have been at the Croix d’Arcy two hours before. But he had shared the fate of most popular chiefs. When an impetus had been given to the movement he was no longer master of it.
Baron d’Escorval had made him lose twenty minutes; he was delayed four times as long in Sairmeuse. When he reached that village, a little behind time, he found the peasants scattered through the wine-shops, drinking to the success of the enterprise.
To tear them from their merry-making was a long and difficult task.
And to crown all, when they were finally induced to resume their line of march, it was impossible to persuade them to extinguish the pine knots which they had lighted to serve as torches.
Prayers and threats were alike unavailing. “They wished to see their way,” they said.
Poor deluded creatures! They had not the slightest conception of the difficulties and the perils of the enterprise they had undertaken.
They were going to capture a fortified city, defended by a numerous garrison, as if they were bound on a pleasure jaunt.
Gay, thoughtless, and animated by the imperturbable confidence of a child, they were marching along, arm in arm, singing patriotic songs.
On horseback, in the centre of the band, M. Lacheneur felt his hair turning white with anguish.
Would not this delay ruin everything? What would the others, who were waiting at the Croix d’Arcy, think! What were they doing at this very moment?
“Onward! onward!” he repeated.
Maurice, Chanlouineau, Jean, Marie-Anne, and about twenty of the old soldiers of the Empire, understood and shared Lacheneur’s despair. They knew the terrible danger they were incurring, and they, too, repeated:
“Faster! Let us march faster!”
Vain exhortation! It pleased these people to go slowly.
Suddenly the entire band stopped. Some of the peasants, chancing to look back, had seen the lamps of Mlle. de Courtornieu’s carriage gleaming in the darkness.
It came rapidly onward, and soon overtook them. The peasants recognized the coachman’s livery, and greeted the vehicle with shouts of derision.
M. de Courtornieu, by his avariciousness, had made even more enemies than the Duc de Sairmeuse; and all the peasants who thought they had more or less reason to complain of his extortions were delighted at this opportunity to frighten him.
For, that they were not thinking of vengeance, is conclusively proved by the sequel.
Hence great was their disappointment when, on opening the carriage-door, they saw within the vehicle only Mlle. Blanche and Aunt Medea, who uttered the most piercing shrieks.
But Mlle. de Courtornieu was a brave woman.
“Who are you?” she demanded, haughtily, “and what do you desire?”
“You will know to-morrow,” replied Chanlouineau. “Until then, you are our prisoner.”
“I see that you do not know who I am, boy.”
“Excuse me. I do know who you are, and, for this very reason, I request you to descend from your carriage. She must leave the carriage, must she not, Monsieur d’Escorval?”
“Very well! I declare that I will not leave my carriage; tear me from it if you dare!”
They would certainly have dared had it not been for Marie-Anne, who checked some peasants as they were springing toward the carriage.
“Let Mademoiselle de Courtornieu pass without hinderance,” said she.
But this permission might produce such serious consequences that Chanlouineau found courage to resist.
“That cannot be, Marie-Anne,” said he; “she will warn her father. We must keep her as a hostage; her life may save the life of our friends.”
Mlle. Blanche had not recognized her former friend, any more than she had suspected the intentions of this crowd of men.
But Marie-Anne’s name, uttered with that of d’Escorval enlightened her at once.
She understood it all, and trembled with rage at the thought that she was at the mercy of her rival. She resolved to place herself under no obligation to Marie-Anne Lacheneur.
“Very well,” said she, “we will descend.”
Her former friend checked her.
“No,” said she, “no! This is not the place for a young girl.”
“For an honest young girl, you should say,” replied Blanche, with a sneer.
Chanlouineau was standing only a few feet from the speaker with his gun in his hand. If a man had uttered those words he would have been instantly killed. Marie-Anne did not deign to notice them.
“Mademoiselle will turn back,” she said, calmly; “and as she can reach Montaignac by the other road, two men will accompany her as far as Courtornieu.”
She was obeyed. The carriage turned and rolled away, but not so quickly that Marie-Anne failed to hear Blanche cry:
“Beware, Marie! I will make you pay dearly for your insulting patronage!”
The hours were flying by. This incident had occupied ten minutes more — ten centuries — and the last trace of order had disappeared.
M. Lacheneur could have wept with rage. He called Maurice and Chanlouineau.
“I place you in command,” said he; “do all that you can to hurry these idiots onward. I will ride as fast as I can to the Croix d’Arcy.”
He started, but he was only a short distance in advance of his followers when he saw two men running toward him at full speed. One was clad in the attire of a well-to-do bourgeois; the other wore the old uniform of captain in the Emperor’s guard.
“What has happened?” Lacheneur cried, in alarm.
“All is discovered!”
“Major Carini has been arrested.”
“By whom? How?”
“Ah! there was a fatality about it! Just as we were perfecting our arrangements to capture the Duc de Sairmeuse, the duke surprised us. We fled, but the cursed noble pursued us, overtook Carini, seized him by the collar, and dragged him to the citadel.”
Lacheneur was overwhelmed; the abbe’s gloomy prophecy again resounded in his ears.
“So I warned my friends, and hastened to warn you,” continued the officer. “The affair is an utter failure!”
He was only too correct; and Lacheneur knew it even better than he did. But, blinded by hatred and anger, he would not acknowledge that the disaster was irreparable.
“Let Mademoiselle de Counornieu pass without hinderance.”
He affected a calmness which he did not in the least feel.
“You are easily discouraged, gentlemen,” he said, bitterly. “There is, at least, one more chance.”
“The devil! Then you have resources of which we are ignorant?”
“Perhaps — that depends. You have just passed the Croix d’Arcy; did you tell any of those people what you have just told me?”
“Not a word.”
“How many men are there at the rendezvous?”
“At least two thousand.”
“And what is their mood?”
“They are burning to begin the struggle. They are cursing our slowness, and told me to entreat you to make haste.”
“In that case our cause is not lost,” said Lacheneur, with a threatening gesture. “Wait here until the peasants come up, and say to them that you were sent to tell them to make haste. Bring them on as quickly as possible, and have confidence in me; I will be responsible for the success of the enterprise.”
He said this, then putting spurs to his horse, galloped away. He had deceived the men. He had no other resources. He did not have the slightest hope of success. It was an abominable falsehood. But, if this edifice, which he had erected with such care and labor, was to totter and fall, he desired to be buried beneath its ruins. They would be defeated; he was sure of it, but what did that matter? In the conflict he would seek death and find it.
Bitter discontent pervaded the crowd at the Croix d’Arcy; and after the passing of the officers, who had hastened to warn Lacheneur of the disaster at Montaignac, the murmurs of dissatisfaction were changed to curses.
These peasants, nearly two thousand in number, were indignant at not finding their leader awaiting them at the rendezvous.
“Where is he?” they asked. “Who knows but he is afraid at the last moment? Perhaps he is concealing himself while we are risking our lives and the bread of our children here.”
And already the epithets of mischief-maker and traitor were flying from lip to lip, and increasing the anger in every breast.
Some were of the opinion that the crowd should disperse; others wished to march against Montaignac without Lacheneur, and that, immediately.
But these deliberations were interrupted by the furious gallop of a horse.
A carriage appeared, and stopped in the centre of the open space.
Two men alighted; Baron d’Escorval and Abbe Midon.
They were in advance of Lacheneur. They thought they had arrived in time.
Alas! here, as on the Reche, all their efforts, all their entreaties, and all their threats were futile.
They had come in the hope of arresting the movement; they only precipitated it.
“We have gone too far to draw back,” exclaimed one of the neighboring farmers, who was the recognized leader in Lacheneur’s absence. “If death is before us, it is also behind us. To attack and conquer — that is our only hope of salvation. Forward, then, at once. That is the only way of disconcerting our enemies. He who hesitates is a coward! Forward!”
A shout of approval from two thousand throats replied:
They unfurled the tri-color, that much regretted flag that reminded them of so much glory, and so many great misfortunes; the drums began to beat, and with shouts of: “Vive Napoleon II.!” the whole column took up its line of march.
Pale, with clothing in disorder, and voices husky with fatigue and emotion, M. d’Escorval and the abbe followed the rebels, imploring them to listen to reason.
They saw the precipice toward which these misguided creatures were rushing, and they prayed God for an inspiration to check them.
In fifty minutes the distance separating the Croix d’Arcy from Montaignac is traversed.
Soon they see the gate of the citadel, which was to have been opened for them by their friends within the walls.
It is eleven o’clock, and yet this gate stands open.
Does not this circumstance prove that their friends are masters of the town, and that they are awaiting them in force?
They advance, so certain of success that those who have guns do not even take the trouble to load them.
M. d’Escorval and the abbe alone foresee the catastrophe.
The leader of the expedition is near them, they entreat him not to neglect the commonest precautions, they implore him to send some two men on in advance to reconnoitre; they, themselves, offer to go, on condition that the peasants will await their return before proceeding farther.
But their prayers are unheeded.
The peasants pass the outer line of fortifications in safety. The head of the advancing column reaches the drawbridge.
The enthusiasm amounts to delirium; who will be the first to enter is the only thought.
Alas! at that very moment a pistol is fired.
It is a signal, for instantly, and on every side, resounds a terrible fusillade.
Three or four peasants fall, mortally wounded. The rest pause, frozen with terror, thinking only of escape.
The indecision is terrible; but the leader encourages his men, there are a few of Napoleon’s old soldiers in the ranks. A struggle begins, all the more frightful by reason of the darkness!
But it is not the cry of “Forward!” that suddenly rends the air.
The voice of a coward sends up the cry of panic:
“We are betrayed! Let him save himself who can!”
This is the end of all order. A wild fear seizes the throng; and these men flee madly, despairingly, scattered as withered leaves are scattered by the power of the tempest.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54