Chupin’s stupefying revelations and the thought that Martial, the heir of his name and dukedom, should degrade himself so low as to enter into a conspiracy with vulgar peasants, drove the Duc de Sairmeuse nearly wild.
But the Marquis de Courtornieu’s coolness restored the duke’s sang-froid.
He ran to the barracks, and in less than half an hour five hundred foot-soldiers and three hundred of the Montaignac chasseurs were under arms.
With these forces at his disposal it would have been easy enough to suppress this movement without the least bloodshed. It was only necessary to close the gates of the city. It was not with fowling-pieces and clubs that these poor peasants could force an entrance into a fortified town.
But such moderation did not suit a man of the duke’s violent temperament, a man who was ever longing for struggle and excitement, a man whose ambition prompted him to display his zeal.
He had ordered the gate of the citadel to be left open, and had concealed some of his soldiers behind the parapets of the outer fortifications.
He then stationed himself where he could command a view of the approach to the citadel, and deliberately chose his moment for giving the signal to fire.
Still, a strange thing happened. Of four hundred shots, fired into a dense crowd of fifteen hundred men, only three had hit the mark.
More humane than their chief, nearly all the soldiers had fired in the air.
But the duke had not time to investigate this strange occurrence now. He leaped into the saddle, and placing himself at the head of about five hundred men, cavalry and infantry, he started in pursuit of the fugitives.
The peasants had the advantage of their pursuers by about twenty minutes.
Poor simple creatures!
They might easily have made their escape. They had only to disperse, to scatter; but, unfortunately, the thought never once occurred to the majority of them. A few ran across the fields and gained their homes in safety; the others, frantic and despairing, overcome by the strange vertigo that seizes the bravest in moments of panic, fled like a flock of frightened sheep.
Fear lent them wings, for did they not hear each moment shots fired at the laggards?
But there was one man, who, at each of these detonations, received, as it were, his death-wound — this man was Lacheneur.
He had reached the Croix d’Arcy just as the firing at Montaignac began. He listened and waited. No discharge of musketry replied to the first fusillade. There might have been butchery, but combat, no.
Lacheneur understood it all; and he wished that every ball had pierced his own heart.
He put spurs to his horse and galloped to the crossroads. The place was deserted. At the entrance of one of the roads stood the cabriolet which had brought M. d’Escorval and the abbe.
At last M. Lacheneur saw the fugitives approaching in the distance. He dashed forward, to meet them, trying by mingled curses and insults to stay their flight.
“Cowards!” he vociferated, “traitors! You flee — and you are ten against one! Where are you going? To your own homes. Fools! you will find the gendarmes there only awaiting your coming to conduct you to the scaffold. Is it not better to die with your weapons in your hands? Come — right about. Follow me! We may still conquer. Reinforcements are at hand; two thousand men are following me!”
He promised them two thousand men; had he promised them ten thousand, twenty thousand — an army and cannon, it would have made no difference.
Not until they reached the wide-open space of the cross-roads, where they had talked so confidently scarcely an hour before, did the most intelligent of the throng regain their senses, while the others fled in every direction.
About a hundred of the bravest and most determined of the conspirators gathered around M. Lacheneur. In the little crowd was the abbe, gloomy and despondent. He had been separated from the baron. What had been his fate? Had he been killed or taken prisoner? Was it possible that he had made his escape?
The worthy priest dared not go away. He waited, hoping that his companion might rejoin him, and deemed himself fortunate in finding the carriage still there. He was still waiting when the remnant of the column confided to Maurice and Chanlouineau came up.
Of the five hundred men that composed it on its departure from Sairmeuse, only fifteen remained, including the two retired officers.
Marie-Anne was in the centre of this little party.
M. Lacheneur and his friends were trying to decide what course it was best for them to pursue. Should each man go his way? or should they unite, and by an obstinate resistance, give all their comrades time to reach their homes?
The voice of Chanlouineau put an end to all hesitation.
“I have come to fight,” he exclaimed, “and I shall sell my life dearly.”
“We will make a stand then!” cried the others.
But Chanlouineau did not follow them to the spot which they had considered best adapted to the prolonged defence; he called Maurice and drew him a little aside.
“You, Monsieur d’Escorval,” he said, almost roughly, “are going to leave here and at once.”
“I— I came here, Chanlouineau, as you did, to do my duty.”
“Your duty, Monsieur, is to serve Marie-Anne. Go at once, and take her with you.”
“I shall remain,” said Maurice, firmly.
He was going to join his comrades when Chanlouineau stopped him.
“You have no right to sacrifice your life here,” he said, quietly. “Your life belongs to the woman who has given herself to you.”
“Wretch! how dare you!”
Chanlouineau sadly shook his head.
“What is the use of denying it?” said he.
“It was so great a temptation that only an angel could have resisted it. It was not your fault, nor was it hers. Lacheneur was a bad father. There was a day when I wished either to kill myself or to kill you, I knew not which. Ah! only once again will you be as near death as you were that day. You were scarcely five paces from the muzzle of my gun. It was God who stayed my hand by reminding me of her despair. Now that I am to die, as well as Lacheneur, someone must care for Marie-Anne. Swear that you will marry her. You may be involved in some difficulty on account of this affair; but I have here the means of saving you.”
A sound of firing interrupted him; the soldiers of the Duc de Sairmeuse were approaching.
“Good God!” exclaimed Chanlouineau, “and Marie-Anne!”
They rushed in pursuit of her, and Maurice was the first to discover her, standing in the centre of the open space clinging to the neck of her father’s horse. He took her in his arms, trying to drag her away.
“Come!” said he, “come!”
But she refused.
“Leave me, leave me!” she entreated.
“But all is lost!”
“Yes, I know that all is lost — even honor. Leave me here. I must remain; I must die, and thus hide my shame. I must, it shall be so!”
Just then Chanlouineau appeared.
Had he divined the secret of her resistance? Perhaps; but without uttering a word, he lifted her in his strong arms as if she had been a child and bore her to the carriage guarded by Abbe Midon.
“Get in,” he said, addressing the priest, “and quick — take Mademoiselle Lacheneur. Now, Maurice, in your turn!”
But already the duke’s soldiers were masters of the field. Seeing a group in the shadow, at a little distance, they rushed to the spot.
The heroic Chanlouineau seized his gun, and brandishing it like a club, held the enemy at bay, giving Maurice time to spring into the carriage, catch the reins and start the horse off at a gallop.
All the cowardice and all the heroism displayed on that terrible night will never be really known.
Two minutes after the departure of Marie-Anne and of Maurice, Chanlouineau was still battling with the foe.
A dozen or more soldiers were in front of him. Twenty shots had been fired, but not a ball had struck him. His enemies always believed him invulnerable.
“Surrender!” cried the soldiers, amazed by such valor; “surrender!”
He was truly formidable; he brought to the support of his marvellous courage a superhuman strength and agility. No one dared come within reach of those brawny arms that revolved with the power and velocity of the sails of a wind-mill.
Then it was that a soldier, confiding his musket to the care of a companion, threw himself flat upon his belly, and crawling unobserved around behind this obscure hero, seized him by the legs. He tottered like an oak beneath the blow of the axe, struggled furiously, but taken at such a disadvantage was thrown to the ground, crying, as he fell:
“Help! friends, help!”
But no one responded to this appeal.
At the other end of the open space those upon whom he called had, after a desperate struggle, yielded.
The main body of the duke’s infantry was near at hand.
The rebels heard the drums beating the charge; they could see the bayonets gleaming in the sunlight.
Lacheneur, who had remained in the same spot, utterly ignoring the shot that whistled around him, felt that his few remaining comrades were about to be exterminated.
In that supreme moment the whole past was revealed to him as by a flash of lightning. He read and judged his own heart. Hatred had led him to crime. He loathed himself for the humiliation which he had imposed upon his daughter. He cursed himself for the falsehoods by which he had deceived these brave men, for whose death he would be accountable.
Enough blood had flowed; he must save those who remained.
“Cease firing, my friends,” he commanded; “retreat!”
They obeyed — he could see them scatter in every direction.
He too could flee; was he not mounted upon a gallant steed which would bear him beyond the reach of the enemy?
But he had sworn that he would not survive defeat. Maddened with remorse, despair, sorrow, and impotent rage, he saw no refuge save in death.
He had only to wait for it; it was fast approaching; he preferred to rush to meet it. Gathering up the reins, he dashed the rowels in his steed and, alone, charged upon the enemy.
The shock was rude, the ranks opened, there was a moment of confusion.
But Lacheneur’s horse, its chest cut open by the bayonets, reared, beat the air with his hoofs, then fell backward, burying his rider beneath him.
And the soldiers marched on, not suspecting that beneath the body of the horse the brave rider was struggling to free himself.
It was half-past one in the morning — the place was deserted.
Nothing disturbed the silence save the moans of a few wounded men, who called upon their comrades for succor.
But before thinking of the wounded, M. de Sairmeuse must decide upon the course which would be most likely to redound to his advantage and to his political glory.
Now that the insurrection had been suppressed, it was necessary to exaggerate its magnitude as much as possible, in order that his reward should be in proportion to the service supposed to have been rendered.
Some fifteen or twenty rebels had been captured; but that was not a sufficient number to give the victory the eclat which he desired. He must find more culprits to drag before the provost-marshal or before a military commission.
He, therefore, divided his troops into several detachments, and sent them in every direction with orders to explore the villages, search all isolated houses, and arrest all suspected persons.
His task here having been completed, he again recommended the most implacable severity, and started on a brisk trot for Montaignac.
He was delighted; certainly he blessed — as had M. de Courtornieu — these honest and artless conspirators; but one fear, which he vainly tried to dismiss, impaired his satisfaction.
His son, the Marquis de Sairmeuse, was he, or was he not, implicated in this conspiracy?
He could not, he would not, believe it; and yet the recollection of Chupin’s assurance troubled him.
On the other hand, what could have become of Martial? The servant who had been sent to warn him — had he met him? Was the marquis returning? And by which road? Could it be possible that he had fallen into the hands of the peasants?
The duke’s relief was intense when, on returning home, after a conference with M. de Courtornieu, he learned that Martial had arrived about a quarter of an hour before.
“The marquis went at once to his own room on dismounting from his horse,” added the servant.
“Very well,” replied the duke. “I will seek him there.”
Before the servants he said, “Very well;” but secretly, he exclaimed: “Abominable impertinence! What! I am on horseback at the head of my troops, my life imperilled, and my son goes quietly to bed without even assuring himself of my safety!”
He reached his son’s room, but found the door closed and locked on the inside. He rapped.
“Who is there?” demanded Martial.
“It is I; open the door.”
Martial drew the bolt; M. de Sairmeuse entered, but the sight that met his gaze made him tremble.
Upon the table was a basin of blood, and Martial, with chest bared, was bathing a large wound in his right breast.
“You have been fighting!” exclaimed the duke, in a husky voice.
“Ah! then you were, indeed ——”
“I was where? what?”
“At the convocation of these miserable peasants who, in their parricidal folly, have dared to dream of the overthrow of the best of princes!”
Martial’s face betrayed successively profound surprise, and a more violent desire to laugh.
“I think you must be jesting, Monsieur,” he replied.
The young man’s words and manner reassured the duke a little, without entirely dissipating his suspicions.
“Then, these vile rascals attacked you?” he exclaimed.
“Not at all. I have been simply obliged to fight a duel.”
“With whom? Name the scoundrel who has dared to insult you!”
A faint flush tinged Martial’s cheek; but it was in his usual careless tone that he replied:
“Upon my word, no; I shall not give his name. You would trouble him, perhaps; and I really owe the fellow a debt of gratitude. It happened upon the highway; he might have assassinated me without ceremony, but he offered me open combat. Besides, he was wounded far more severely than I.”
All M. de Sairmeuse’s doubts had returned.
“And why, instead of summoning a physician, are you attempting to dress this wound yourself?”
“Because it is a mere trifle, and because I wish to keep it a secret.”
The duke shook his head.
“All this is scarcely plausible,” he remarked, “especially after the assurance of your complicity, which I have received.”
“Ah!” said he; “and from whom? From your spy-in-chief, no doubt — that rascal Chupin. It surprises me to see that you can hesitate for a moment between the word of your son and the stories of such a wretch.”
“Do not speak ill of Chupin, Marquis; he is a very useful man. Had it not been for him, we should have been taken unawares. It was through him that I learned of this vast conspiracy organized by Lacheneur ——”
“What! is it Lacheneur —”
“Who is at the head of the movement? yes, Marquis. Ah! your usual discernment has failed you in this instance. What, you have been a constant visitor at this house, and you have suspected nothing? And you contemplate a diplomatic career! But this is not all. You know now for what purpose the money which you so lavishly bestowed upon them has been employed. They have used it to purchase guns, powder, and ammunition.”
The duke had become satisfied of the injustice of his suspicions; but he was now endeavoring to irritate his son.
It was a fruitless effort. Martial knew very well that he had been duped, but he did not think of resenting it.
“If Lacheneur has been captured,” he thought; “if he should be condemned to death and if I should save him, Marie-Anne would refuse me nothing.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54