The secret which approaching death had wrestled from Marie-Anne in the fortification at the Croix d’Arcy, Mme. d’Escorval was ignorant of when she joined her entreaties to those of her son to induce the unfortunate girl to remain.
But the fact occasioned Maurice scarcely an uneasiness.
His faith in his mother was complete, absolute; he was sure that she would forgive when she learned the truth.
Loving and chaste wives and mothers are always most indulgent to those who have been led astray by the voice of passion.
Such noble women can, with impunity, despise and brave the prejudices of hypocrites.
These reflections made Maurice feel more tranquil in regard to Marie-Anne’s future, and he now thought only of his father.
Day was breaking; he declared that he would assume some disguise and go to Montaignac at once.
On hearing these words, Mme. d’Escorval turned and hid her face in the sofa-cushions to stifle her sobs.
She was trembling for her husband’s life, and now her son must precipitate himself into danger. Perhaps before the sun sank to rest, she would have neither husband nor son.
And yet she did not say “no.” She felt that Maurice was only fulfilling a sacred duty. She would have loved him less had she supposed him capable of cowardly hesitation. She would have dried her tears, if necessary, to bid him “go.”
Moreover, what was not preferable to the agony of suspense which they had been enduring for hours?
Maurice had reached the door when the abbe stopped him.
“You must go to Montaignac,” said he, “but it would be folly to disguise yourself. You would certainly be recognized, and the saying: ‘He who conceals himself is guilty,’ will assuredly be applied to you. You must go openly, with head erect, and you must even exaggerate the assurance of innocence. Go straight to the Duc de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de Courtornieu. I will accompany you; we will go in the carriage.”
Maurice seemed undecided.
“Obey these counsels, my son,” said Mme. d’Escorval; “the abbe knows much better than we do what is best.”
“I will obey, mother.”
The cure had not waited for this assent to go and give an order for harnessing the horses. Mme. d’Escorval left the room to write a few lines to a lady friend, whose husband exerted considerable influence in Montaignac. Maurice and Marie-Anne were left alone.
It was the first moment of freedom and solitude which they had found since Marie-Anne’s confession.
They stood for a moment, silent and motionless, then Maurice advanced, and clasping her in his arms, he whispered:
“Marie-Anne, my darling, my beloved, I did not know that one could love more fondly than I loved you yesterday; but now — And you — you wish for death when another precious life depends upon yours.”
She shook her head sadly.
“I was terrified,” she faltered. “The future of shame that I saw — that I still — alas! see before me, appalled me. Now I am resigned. I will uncomplainingly endure the punishment for my horrible fault — I will submit to the insults and disgrace that await me!”
“Insults, to you! Ah! woe to who dares! But will you not now be my wife in the sight of men, as you are in the sight of God? The failure of your father’s scheme sets you free!”
“No, no, Maurice, I am not free! Ah! it is you who are pitiless! I see only too well that you curse me, that you curse the day when we met for the first time! Confess it! Say it!”
Marie-Anne lifted her streaming eyes to his.
“Ah! I should lie if I said that. My cowardly heart has not that much courage! I suffer — I am disgraced and humiliated, but ——”
He could not finish; he drew her to him, and their lips and their tears met in one long kiss.
“You love me,” exclaimed Maurice, “you love me in spite of all! We shall succeed. I will save your father, and mine — I will save your brother!”
The horses were neighing and stamping in the courtyard. The abbe cried: “Come, let us start.” Mme. d’Escorval entered with a letter, which she handed to Maurice.
She clasped in a long and convulsive embrace the son whom she feared she should never see again; then, summoning all her courage, she pushed him away, uttering only the single word:
He departed; and when the sound of the carriage-wheels had died away in the distance, Mme. d’Escorval and Marie-Anne fell upon their knees, imploring the mercy and aid of a just God.
They could only pray. The cure and Maurice could act.
Abbe Midon’s plan, which he explained to young d’Escorval, as the horses dashed along, was as simple as the situation was terrible.
“If, by confessing your own guilt, you could save your father, I should tell you to deliver yourself up, and to confess the whole truth. Such would be your duty. But this sacrifice would be not only useless, but dangerous. Your confession of guilt would only implicate your father still more. You would be arrested, but they would not release him, and you would both be tried and convicted. Let us, then, allow — I will not say justice, for that would be blasphemy — but these blood-thirsty men, who call themselves judges, to pursue their course, and attribute all that you have done to your father. When the trial comes, you will prove his innocence, and produce alibis so incontestable, that they will be forced to acquit him. And I understand the people of our country so well, that I am sure not one of them will reveal our stratagem.”
“And if we should not succeed,” asked Maurice, gloomily, “what could I do then?”
The question was so terrible that the priest dared not respond to it. He and Maurice were silent during the remainder of the drive.
They reached the city at last, and Maurice saw how wise the abbe had been in preventing him from assuming a disguise.
Armed with the most absolute power, the Duc de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de Courtornieu had closed all the gates of Montaignac save one.
Through this gate all who desired to leave or enter the city were obliged to pass, and two officers were stationed there to examine all comers and goers, to question them, and to take their name and residence.
At the name “d’Escorval,” the two officers evinced such surprise that Maurice noticed it at once.
“Ah! you know what has become of my father!” he exclaimed.
“The Baron d’Escorval is a prisoner, Monsieur,” replied one of the officers.
Although Maurice had expected this response, he turned pale.
“Is he wounded?” he asked, eagerly.
“He has not a scratch. But enter, sir, and pass on.”
From the anxious looks of these officers one might have supposed that they feared they should compromise themselves by conversing with the son of so great a criminal.
The carriage rolled beneath the gate-way; but it had not traversed two hundred yards of the Grand Rue before the abbe and Maurice had remarked several posters and notices affixed to the walls.
“We must see what this is,” they said, in a breath.
They stopped near one of these notices, before which a reader had already stationed himself; they descended from the carriage, and read the following order:
“article I. — The inmates of the house in which the elder Lacheneur
shall be found will be handed over to a military commission for
“article II. — Whoever shall deliver the body of the elder
Lacheneur, dead or alive, will receive a reward of twenty thousand
This was signed Duc de Sairmeuse.
“God be praised!” exclaimed Maurice, “Marie-Anne’s father has escaped! He had a good horse, and in two hours ——”
A glance and a nudge of the elbow from the abbe checked him.
The abbe drew his attention to the man standing near them. This man was none other than Chupin.
The old scoundrel had also recognized them, for he took off his hat to the cure, and with an expression of intense covetousness in his eyes, he said: “Twenty thousand francs! what a sum! A man could live comfortably all his life on the interest of it.”
The abbe and Maurice shuddered as they re-entered their carriage.
“Lacheneur is lost if this man discovers his retreat,” murmured the priest.
“Fortunately, he must have crossed the frontier before this,” replied Maurice. “A hundred to one he is beyond reach.”
“And if you should be mistaken. What, if wounded and faint from loss of blood, Lacheneur has had only strength to drag himself to the nearest house and ask the hospitality of its inmates?”
“Oh! even in that case he is safe; I know our peasants. There is not one who is capable of selling the life of a proscribed man.”
The noble enthusiasm of youth drew a sad smile from the priest.
“You forget the dangers to be incurred by those who shelter him. Many a man who would not soil his hands with the price of blood might deliver up a fugitive from fear.”
They were passing through the principal street, and they were struck with the mournful aspect of the place — the little city which was ordinarily so bustling and gay — fear and consternation evidently reigned there. The shops were closed; the shutters of the houses had not been opened. A lugubrious silence pervaded the town. One might have supposed that there was general mourning, and that each family had lost one of its members.
The manner of the few persons seen upon the thoroughfare was anxious and singular. They hurried on, casting suspicious glances on every side.
Two or three who were acquaintances of the Baron d’Escorval averted their heads, on seeing his carriage, to avoid the necessity of bowing.
The abbe and Maurice found an explanation of this evident terror on reaching the hotel to which they had ordered the coachman to take them.
They had designated the Hotel de France, where the baron always stopped when he visited Montaignac, and whose proprietor was none other than Laugeron, that friend of Lacheneur, who had been the first to warn him of the arrival of the Duc de Sairmeuse.
This worthy man, on hearing what guests had arrived, went to the court-yard to meet them, with his white cap in his hand.
On such a day politeness was heroism. Was he connected with the conspiracy? It has always been supposed so.
He invited Maurice and the abbe to take some refreshments in a way that made them understand he was anxious to speak with them, and he conducted them to a retired room where he knew they would be secure from observation.
Thanks to one of the Duc de Sairmeuse’s valets de chambre who frequented the house, the host knew as much as the authorities; he knew even more, since he had also received information from the rebels who had escaped capture.
From him the abbe and Maurice received their first positive information.
In the first place, nothing had been heard of Lacheneur, or of his son Jean; thus far they had escaped the most rigorous pursuit.
In the second place, there were, at this moment, two hundred prisoners in the citadel, and among them the Baron d’Escorval and Chanlouineau.
And lastly, since morning there had been at least sixty arrests in Montaignac.
It was generally supposed that these arrests were the work of some traitor, and all the inhabitants were trembling with fear.
But M. Laugeron knew the real cause. It had been confided to him under pledge of secrecy by his guest, the duke’s valet de chambre.
“It is certainly an incredible story, gentlemen,” he said; “nevertheless, it is true. Two officers belonging to the Montaignac militia, on returning from their expedition this morning at daybreak, on passing the Croix d’Arcy, found a man, clad in the uniform of the Emperor’s body-guard, lying dead in the fosse.”
The unfortunate man, he could not doubt, was the brave old soldier who had spoken to Lacheneur.
“Naturally,” pursued M. Laugeron, “the two officers examined the body of the dead man. Between his lips they found a paper, which they opened and read. It was a list of all the conspirators in the village. The brave man, knowing he was mortally wounded, endeavored to destroy this fatal list; but the agonies of death prevented him from swallowing it ——”
But the abbe and Maurice had not time to listen to the commentaries with which the hotel proprietor accompanied his recital.
They despatched a messenger to Mme. d’Escorval and to Marie-Anne, in order to reassure them, and, without losing a moment, and fully determined to brave all, they went to the house occupied by the Duc de Sairmeuse.
A crowd had gathered about the door. At least a hundred persons were standing there; men with anxious faces, women in tears, soliciting, imploring an audience.
They were the friends and relatives of the unfortunate men who had been arrested.
Two footmen, in gorgeous livery and pompous in bearing, had all they could do to keep back the struggling throng.
The abbe, hoping that his priestly dress would win him a hearing, approached and gave his name. But he was repulsed like the others.
“Monsieur le Duc is busy, and can receive no one,” said the servant. “Monsieur le Duc is preparing his report for His Majesty.”
And in support of this assertion, he pointed to the horses, standing saddled in the court-yard, and the couriers who were to bear the despatches.
The priest sadly rejoined his companions.
“We must wait!” said he.
Intentionally or not, the servants were deceiving these poor people. The duke, just then, was not troubling himself about despatches. A violent altercation was going on between the Marquis de Courtornieu and himself.
Each of these noble personages aspired to the leading role — the one which would be most generously rewarded, undoubtedly. It was a conflict of ambitions and of wills.
It had begun by the exchange of a few recriminations, and it quickly reached stinging words, bitter allusions, and at last, even threats.
The marquis declared it necessary to inflict the most frightful — he said the most salutary punishment upon the offender; the duke, on the contrary, was inclined to be indulgent.
The marquis declared that since Lacheneur, the prime mover, and his son, had both eluded pursuit, it was an urgent necessity to arrest Marie-Anne.
The other declared that the arrest and imprisonment of this young girl would be impolitic, that such a course would render the authorities odious, and the rebels more zealous.
As each was firmly wedded to his own opinion, the discussion was heated, but they failed to convince each other.
“These rebels must be put down with a strong hand!” urged M. de Courtornieu.
“I do not wish to exasperate the populace,” replied the duke.
“Bah! what does public sentiment matter?”
“It matters a great deal when you cannot depend upon your soldiers. Do you know what happened last night? There was powder enough burned to win a battle; there were only fifteen peasants wounded. Our men fired in the air. You forget that the Montaignac militia is composed, for the most part, at least of men who formerly fought under Bonaparte, and who are burning to turn their weapons against us.”
But neither the one nor the other dared to tell the real cause of his obstinacy.
Mlle. Blanche had been at Montaignac that morning. She had confided her anxiety and her sufferings to her father; and she made him swear that he would profit by this opportunity to rid her of Marie-Anne.
On his side, the duke, persuaded that Marie-Anne was his son’s mistress, wished, at any cost, to prevent her appearance before the tribunal. At last the marquis yielded.
The duke had said to him: “Very well! let us end this dispute,” at the same time glancing so meaningly at a pair of pistols that the worthy marquis felt a disagreeable chilliness creep up his spine.
They then went together to examine the prisoners, preceded by a detachment of soldiery who drove back the crowd, which gathered again to await the duke’s return. So all day Maurice watched the aerial telegraph established upon the citadel, and whose black arms were moving incessantly.
“What orders are travelling through space?” he said to the abbe; “is it life or is it death?”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08