Having penetrated the mystery that enveloped his son’s frequent absence, the Baron d’Escorval had concealed his fears and his chagrin from his wife.
It was the first time that he had ever had a secret from the faithful and courageous companion of his existence.
Without warning her, he went to beg Abbe Midon to follow him to the Reche, to the house of M. Lacheneur.
The silence, on his part, explains Mme. d’Escorval’s astonishment when, on the arrival of the dinner-hour, neither her son nor her husband appeared.
Maurice was sometimes late; but the baron, like all great workers, was punctuality itself. What extraordinary thing could have happened?
Her surprise became uneasiness when she learned that her husband had departed in company with Abbe Midon. They had harnessed the horse themselves, and instead of driving through the court-yard as usual, they had driven through the stable-yard into a lane leading to the public road.
What did all this mean? Why these strange precautions?
Mme. d’Escorval waited, oppressed by vague forebodings.
The servants shared her anxiety. The baron was so equable in temper, so kind and just to his inferiors, that his servants adored him, and would have gone through a fiery furnace for him.
So, about ten o’clock, they hastened to lead to their mistress a peasant who was returning from Sairmeuse.
This man, who was slightly intoxicated, told the strangest and most incredible stories.
He said that all the peasantry for ten leagues around were under arms, and that the Baron d’Escorval was the leader of the revolt.
He did not doubt the final success of the movement, declaring that Napoleon II., Marie-Louise, and all the marshals of the Empire were concealed in Montaignac.
Alas! it must be confessed that Lacheneur had not hesitated to utter the grossest falsehoods in his anxiety to gain followers.
Mme. d’Escorval could not be deceived by these ridiculous stories, but she could believe, and she did believe that the baron was the prime mover in this insurrection.
And this belief, which would have carried consternation to the hearts of so many women, reassured her.
She had entire, absolute, and unlimited faith in her husband. She believed him superior to all other men — infallible, in short. The moment he said: “This is so!” she believed it implicitly.
Hence, if her husband had organized a movement that movement was right. If he had attempted it, it was because he expected to succeed. Therefore, it was sure to succeed.
Impatient, however, to know the result, she sent the gardener to Sairmeuse with orders to obtain information without awakening suspicion, if possible, and to hasten back as soon as he could learn anything of a positive nature.
He returned in about two hours, pale, frightened, and in tears.
The disaster had already become known, and had been related to him with the most terrible exaggerations. He had been told that hundreds of men had been killed, and that a whole army was scouring the country, massacring defenceless peasants and their families.
While he was telling his story, Mme. d’Escorval felt that she was going mad.
She saw — yes, positively, she saw her son and her husband, dead — or still worse, mortally wounded upon the public highway — they were lying with their arms crossed upon their breasts, livid, bloody, their eyes staring wildly — they were begging for water — a drop of water.
“I will find them!” she exclaimed, in frenzied accents. “I will go to the field of battle, I will seek for them among the dead, until I find them. Light some torches, my friends, and come with me, for you will aid me, will you not? You loved them; they were so good! You would not leave their dead bodies unburied! oh! the wretches! the wretches who have killed them!”
The servants were hastening to obey when the furious gallop of a horse and the sound of carriage-wheels were heard upon the drive.
“Here they are!” exclaimed the gardener; “here they are!”
Mme. d’Escorval, followed by the servants, rushed to the door just in time to see a cabriolet enter the court-yard, and the horse, panting, exhausted, and flecked with foam, miss his footing, and fall.
Abbe Midon and Maurice had already leaped to the ground and were lifting out an apparently lifeless body.
Even Marie-Anne’s great energy had not been able to resist so many successive shocks; the last trial had overwhelmed her. Once in the carriage, all immediate danger having disappeared, the excitement which had sustained her fled. She became unconscious, and all the efforts of Maurice and of the priest had failed to restore her.
But Mme. d’Escorval did not recognize Mlle. Lacheneur in the masculine habiliments in which she was clothed.
She only saw that it was not her husband whom they had brought with them; and a convulsive shudder shook her from head to foot.
“Your father, Maurice!” she exclaimed, in a stifled voice; “and your father!”
The effect was terrible. Until that moment, Maurice and the cure had comforted themselves with the hope that M. d’Escorval would reach home before them.
Maurice tottered, and almost dropped his precious burden. The abbe perceived it, and at a sign from him, two servants gently lifted Marie-Anne, and bore her to the house.
Then the cure approached Mme. d’Escorval.
“Monsieur will soon be here, Madame,” said he, at hazard; “he fled first ——”
“Baron d’Escorval could not have fled,” she interrupted. “A general does not desert when face to face with the enemy. If a panic seizes his soldiers, he rushes to the front, and either leads them back to combat, or takes his own life.”
“Mother!” faltered Maurice; “mother!”
“Oh! do not try to deceive me. My husband was the organizer of this conspiracy — his confederates beaten and dispersed must have proved themselves cowards. God have mercy upon me; my husband is dead!”
In spite of the abbe’s quickness of perception, he could not understand such assertions on the part of the baroness; he thought that sorrow and terror must have destroyed her reason.
“Ah! Madame,” he exclaimed, “the baron had nothing to do with this movement; far from it ——”
He paused; all this was passing in the court-yard, in the glare of the torches which had been lighted up by the servants. Anyone in the public road could hear and see all. He realized the imprudence of which they were guilty.
“Come, Madame,” said he, leading the baroness toward the house; “and you, also, Maurice, come!”
It was with the silent and passive submission of great misery that Mme. d’Escorval obeyed the cure.
Her body alone moved in mechanical obedience; her mind and heart were flying through space to the man who was her all, and whose mind and heart were even then, doubtless, calling to her from the dread abyss into which he had fallen.
But when she had passed the threshold of the drawing-room, she trembled and dropped the priest’s arm, rudely recalled to the present reality.
She recognized Marie-Anne in the lifeless form extended upon the sofa.
“Mademoiselle Lacheneur!” she faltered, “here in this costume — dead!”
One might indeed believe the poor girl dead, to see her lying there rigid, cold, and as white as if the last drop of blood had been drained from her veins. Her beautiful face had the immobility of marble; her half-opened, colorless lips disclosed teeth convulsively clinched, and a large dark-blue circle surrounded her closed eyelids.
Her long black hair, which she had rolled up closely to slip under her peasant’s hat, had become unbound, and flowed down in rich masses over her shoulders and trailed upon the floor.
“She is only in a state of syncope; there is no danger,” declared the abbe, after he had examined Marie-Anne. “It will not be long before she regains consciousness.”
And then, rapidly but clearly, he gave the necessary directions to the servants, who were astonished at their mistress.
Mme. d’Escorval looked on with eyes dilated with terror. She seemed to doubt her own sanity, and incessantly passed her hand across her forehead, thickly beaded with cold sweat.
“What a night!” she murmured. “What a night!”
“I must remind you, Madame,” said the priest, sympathizingly, but firmly, “that reason and duty alike forbid you thus to yield to despair! Wife, where is your energy? Christian, what has become of your confidence in a just and beneficial God?”
“Oh! I have courage, Monsieur,” faltered the wretched woman. “I am brave!”
The abbe led her to a large arm-chair, where he forced her to seat herself, and in a gentler tone, he resumed:
“Besides, why should you despair, Madame? Your son, certainly, is with you in safety. Your husband has not compromised himself; he has done nothing which I myself have not done.”
And briefly, but with rare precision, he explained the part which he and the baron had played during this unfortunate evening.
But this recital, instead of reassuring the baroness, seemed to increase her anxiety.
“I understand you,” she interrupted, “and I believe you. But I also know that all the people in the country round about are convinced that my husband commanded the insurrectionists. They believe it, and they will say it.”
“And what of that?”
“If he has been arrested, as you give me to understand, he will be summoned before a court-martial. Was he not the friend of the Emperor? That is a crime, as you very well know. He will be convicted and sentenced to death.”
“No, Madame, no! Am I not here? I will appear before the tribunal, and I shall say: ‘Here I am! I have seen and I know all.’”
“But they will arrest you, alas, Monsieur, because you are not a priest according to the hearts of these cruel men. They will throw you in prison, and you, will meet him upon the scaffold.”
Maurice had been listening, pale and trembling.
But on hearing these last words, he sank upon his knees, hiding his face in his hands:
“Ah! I have killed my father!” he exclaimed.
“Unhappy child! what do you say?”
The priest motioned him to be silent; but he did not see him, and he pursued:
“My father was ignorant even of the existence of this conspiracy of which Monsieur Lacheneur was the guiding spirit; but I knew it — I wished him to succeed, because on his success depended the happiness of my life. And then — wretch that I was! — when I wished to attract to our ranks some timid or wavering accomplice, I used the loved and respected name of d’Escorval. Ah, I was mad! I was mad!”
Then, with a despairing gesture, he added:
“And yet, even now, I have not the courage to curse my folly! Oh, mother, mother, if you knew ——”
His sobs interrupted him. Just then a faint moan was heard.
Marie-Anne was regaining consciousness. Already she had partially risen from the sofa, and sat regarding this terrible scene with an air of profound wonder, as if she did not understand it in the least.
Slowly and gently she put back her hair from her face, and opened and closed her eyes, which seemed dazzled by the light of the candles.
She endeavored to speak, to ask some question, but Abbe Midon commanded silence by a gesture.
Enlightened by the words of Mme. d’Escorval and by the confession of Maurice, the abbe understood at once the extent of the frightful danger that menaced the baron and his son.
How was this danger to be averted? What must be done?
He had no time for explanation or reflection; with each moment, a chance of salvation fled. He must decide and act without delay.
The abbe was a brave man. He darted to the door, and called the servants who were standing in the hall and on the staircase.
When they were gathered around him:
“Listen to me, intently,” said he, in that quick and imperious voice that impresses one with the certainty of approaching peril, “and remember that your master’s life depends, perhaps, upon your discretion. We can rely upon you, can we not?”
Every hand was raised as if to call upon God to witness their fidelity.
“In less than an hour,” continued the priest, “the soldiers sent in pursuit of the fugitives will be here. Not a word must be uttered in regard to what has passed this evening. Everyone must be led to suppose that I went away with the baron and returned alone. Not one of you must have seen Mademoiselle Lacheneur. We are going to find a place of concealment for her. Remember, my friends, if there is the slightest suspicion of her presence here, all is lost. If the soldiers question you, endeavor to convince them that Monsieur Maurice has not left the house this evening.”
He paused, trying to think if he had forgotten any precaution that human prudence could suggest, then added:
“One word more; to see you standing about at this hour of the night will awaken suspicion at once. But this is what I desire. We will plead in justification, the alarm that you feel at the absence of the baron, and also the indisposition of madame — for madame is going to retire — she will thus escape interrogation. And you, Maurice, run and change your clothes; and, above all, wash your hands, and sprinkle some perfume upon them.”
All present were so impressed with the imminence of the danger, that they were more than willing to obey the priest’s orders.
Marie-Anne, as soon as she could be moved, was carried to a tiny room under the roof. Mme. d’Escorval retired to her own apartment, and the servants went back to the office.
Maurice and the abbe remained alone in the drawing-room, silent and appalled by horrible forebodings.
The unusually calm face of the priest betrayed his terrible anxiety. He now felt convinced that Baron d’Escorval was a prisoner, and all his efforts were now directed toward removing any suspicion of complicity from Maurice.
“This was,” he reflected, “the only way to save the father.”
A violent peal of the bell attached to the gate interrupted his meditations.
He heard the footsteps of the gardener as he hastened to open it, heard the gate turn upon its hinges, then the measured tramp of soldiers in the court-yard.
A loud voice commanded:
The priest looked at Maurice and saw that he was as pale as death.
“Be calm,” he entreated; “do not be alarmed. Do not lose your self-possession — and do not forget my instructions.”
“Let them come,” replied Maurice. “I am prepared!”
The drawing-room door was flung violently open, and a young man, wearing the uniform of a captain of grenadiers, entered. He was scarcely twenty-five years of age, tall, fair-haired, with blue eyes and little waxed mustache. His whole person betokened an excessive elegance exaggerated to the verge of the ridiculous. His face ordinarily must have indicated extreme self-complacency; but at the present moment it wore a really ferocious expression.
Behind him, in the passage, were a number of armed soldiers.
He cast a suspicious glance around the room, then, in a harsh voice:
“Who is the master of this house?” he demanded.
“The Baron d’Escorval, my father, who is absent,” replied Maurice.
“Where is he?”
The abbe, who, until now, had remained seated, rose.
“On hearing of the unfortunate outbreak of this evening,” he replied, “the baron and myself went to these peasants, in the hope of inducing them to relinquish their foolish undertaking. They would not listen to us. In the confusion that ensued, I became separated from the baron; I returned here very anxious, and am now awaiting his return.”
The captain twisted his mustache with a sneering air.
“Not a bad invention!” said he. “Only I do not believe a word of this fiction.”
A light gleamed in the eyes of the priest, his lips trembled, but he held his peace.
“Who are you?” rudely demanded the officer.
“I am the cure of Sairmeuse.”
“Honest men ought to be in bed at this hour. And you are racing about the country after rebellious peasants. Really, I do not know what prevents me from ordering your arrest.”
That which did prevent him was the priestly robe, all powerful under the Restoration. With Maurice he was more at ease.
“How many are there in this family?”
“Three; my father, my mother — ill at this moment — and myself.”
“And how many servants?”
“Seven — four men and three women.”
“You have neither received nor concealed anyone this evening?”
“It will be necessary to prove this,” said the captain. And turning toward the door:
“Corporal Bavois!” he called.
This man was one of those old soldiers who had followed the Emperor over all Europe. Two small, ferocious gray eyes lighted his tanned, weather-beaten face, and an immense hooked nose surmounted a heavy, bristling mustache.
“Bavois,” commanded the officer, “you will take half a dozen men and search this house from top to bottom. You are an old fox that knows a thing or two. If there is any hiding-place here, you will be sure to discover it; if anyone is concealed here, you will bring the person to me. Go, and make haste!”
The corporal departed on his mission; the captain resumed his questions.
“And now,” said he, turning to Maurice, “what have you been doing this evening?”
The young man hesitated for an instant; then, with well-feigned indifference, replied:
“I have not put my head outside the door this evening.”
“Hum! that must be proved. Let me see your hands.”
The soldier’s tone was so offensive that Maurice felt the angry blood mount to his forehead. Fortunately, a warning glance from the abbe made him restrain his wrath.
He offered his hands to the inspection of the captain, who examined them carefully, outside and in, and finally smelled them.
“Ah! these hands are too white and smell too sweet to have been dabbling in powder.”
He was evidently surprised that this young man should have had so little courage as to remain in the shelter of the fireside while his father was leading the peasants on to battle.
“Another thing,” said he, “you must have weapons here.”
“Yes, hunting rifles.”
“Where are they?”
“In a small room on the ground-floor.”
“Take me there.”
They conducted him to the room, and on finding that none of the double-barrelled guns had been used for some days, he seemed considerably annoyed.
He appeared furious when the corporal came and told him that he had searched everywhere, but had found nothing of a suspicious character.
“Send for the servants,” was his next order.
But all the servants faithfully repeated the lesson which the abbe had given them.
The captain saw that he was not likely to discover the mystery, although he was well satisfied that one existed.
Swearing that they should pay dearly for it, if they were deceiving him, he again called Bavois.
“I must continue my search,” said he. “You, with two men, will remain here, and render a strict account of all that you see and hear. If Monsieur d’Escorval returns, bring him to me at once; do not allow him to escape. Keep your eyes open, and good luck to you!”
He added a few words in a low voice, then left the room as abruptly as he had entered it.
The departing footsteps of the soldiers were soon lost in the stillness of the night, and then the corporal gave vent to his disgust in a frightful oath.
“Hein!” said he, to his men, “you have heard that cadet. Listen, watch, arrest, report. So he takes us for spies! Ah! if our old leader knew to what base uses his old soldiers were degraded!”
The two men responded by a sullen growl.
“As for you,” pursued the old trooper, addressing Maurice and the abbe, “I, Bavois, corporal of grenadiers, declare in my name and in that of my two men, that you are as free as birds, and that we shall arrest no one. More than that, if we can aid you in any way, we are at your service. The little fool that commanded us this evening thought we were fighting. Look at my gun; I have not fired a shot from it; and my comrades fired only blank cartridges.”
The man might possibly be sincere, but it was scarcely probable.
“We have nothing to conceal,” replied the cautious priest.
The old corporal gave a knowing wink.
“Ah! you distrust me! You are wrong; and I am going to prove it. Because, you see, though it is easy to gull that fool who just left here, it is not so easy to deceive Corporal Bavois. Very well! it was scarcely prudent to leave in the court-yard a gun that certainly had not been charged for firing at swallows.”
The cure and Maurice exchanged a glance of consternation. Maurice now recollected, for the first time, that when he sprang from the carriage to lift out Marie-Anne, he propped his loaded gun against the wall. It had escaped the notice of the servants.
“Secondly,” pursued Bavois, “there is someone concealed in the attic. I have excellent ears. Thirdly, I arranged it so that no one should enter the sick lady’s room.”
Maurice needed no further proof. He extended his hand to the corporal, and, in a voice trembling with emotion, he said:
“You are a brave man!”
A few moments later, Maurice, the abbe, and Mme. d’Escorval were again assembled in the drawing-room, deliberating upon the measures which must be taken, when Marie-Anne appeared.
She was still frightfully pale; but her step was firm, her manner quiet and composed.
“I must leave this house,” she said to the baroness. “Had I been conscious, I would never have accepted hospitality which is likely to bring dire misfortune on your family. Alas! your acquaintance with me has cost you too many tears and too much sorrow already. Do you understand now why I wished you to regard us as strangers? A presentiment told me that my family would be fatal to yours!”
“Poor child!” exclaimed Mme. d’Escorval; “where will you go?”
Marie-Anne lifted her beautiful eyes to the heaven in which she placed her trust.
“I do not know, Madame,” she replied; “but duty commands me to go. I must learn what has become of my father and my brother, and share their fate.”
“What!” exclaimed Maurice; “still this thought of death. You, who no longer ——”
He paused; a secret which was not his own had almost escaped his lips. But visited by a sudden inspiration, he threw himself at his mother’s feet.
“Oh, my mother! my dearest mother, do not allow her to depart. I may perish in my attempt to save my father. She will be your daughter then — she whom I have loved so much. You will encircle her with your tender and protecting love ——”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08