The abbe had been right in feeling he could trust the officers to whose care he had confided Maurice.
Finding their entreaties would not induce him to leave the citadel, they seized him and literally carried him away. He made the most desperate efforts to escape; each step was a struggle.
“Leave me!” he exclaimed; “let me go where duty calls me. You only dishonor me in pretending to save me.”
His agony was terrible. He had thrown himself headlong into this absurd undertaking, and now the responsibility of his acts had fallen upon his father. He, the culprit, would live, and his innocent father would perish on the guillotine. It was to this his love for Marie-Anne had led him, that radiant love which in other days had smiled so joyously.
But our capacity for suffering has its limits.
When they had carried him to the room in the hotel where his mother and Marie-Anne were waiting in agonized surprise, that irresistible torpor which follows suffering too intense for human endurance, crept over him.
“Nothing is decided yet,” the officers answered in response to Mme. d’Escorval’s questions. “The cure will hasten here as soon as the verdict is rendered.”
Then, as they had promised not to lose sight of Maurice, they seated themselves in gloomy silence.
The house was silent. One might have supposed the hotel deserted. At last, a little before four o’clock, the abbe came in, followed by the lawyer to whom the baron had confided his last wishes.
“My husband!” exclaimed Mme. d’Escorval, springing wildly from her chair.
The priest bowed his head; she understood.
“Death!” she faltered. “They have condemned him!”
And overcome by the terrible blow, she sank back, inert, with hanging arms.
But the weakness did not last long; she again sprang up, her eyes brilliant with heroic resolve.
“We must save him!” she exclaimed. “We must wrest him from the scaffold. Up, Maurice! up, Marie-Anne! No more weak lamentations, we must to work! You, also, gentlemen, will aid me. I can count upon your assistance, Monsieur le Cure. What are we going to do? I do not know! But something must be done. The death of this just man would be too great a crime. God will not permit it.”
She suddenly paused, with clasped hands, and eyes uplifted to heaven, as if seeking divine inspiration.
“And the King,” she resumed; “will the King consent to such a crime? No. A king can refuse mercy, but he cannot refuse justice. I will go to him. I will tell him all! Why did not this thought come to me sooner? We must start for Paris without losing an instant. Maurice, you will accompany me. One of you gentlemen will go at once and order post-horses.”
Thinking they would obey her, she hastened into the next room to make preparations for her journey.
“Poor woman!” the lawyer whispered to the abbe, “she does not know that the sentence of a military commission is executed in twenty-four hours.”
“It requires four days to make the journey to Paris.”
He reflected a moment, then added:
“But, after all, to let her go would be an act of mercy. Did not Ney, on the morning of his execution, implore the King to order the removal of his wife who was sobbing and moaning in his cell?”
The abbe shook his head.
“No,” said he; “Madame d’Escorval will never forgive us if we prevent her from receiving her husband’s last farewell.”
She, at that very moment, re-entered the room, and the priest was trying to gather courage to tell her the cruel truth, when someone knocked violently at the door.
One of the officers went to open it, and Bavois, the corporal of grenadiers, entered, his right hand lifted to his cap, as if he were in the presence of his superior officer.
“Is Mademoiselle Lacheneur here?” he demanded.
Marie-Anne came forward.
“I am she, Monsieur,” she replied; “what do you desire of me?”
“I am ordered, Mademoiselle, to conduct you to the citadel.”
“Ah!” exclaimed Maurice, in a ferocious tone; “so they imprison women also!”
The worthy corporal struck himself a heavy blow upon the forehead.
“I am an old stupid!” he exclaimed, “and express myself badly. I meant to say that I came to seek mademoiselle at the request of one of the condemned, a man named Chanlouineau, who desires to speak with her.”
“Impossible, my good man,” said one of the officers; “they would not allow this lady to visit one of the condemned without special permission ——”
“Well, she has this permission,” said the old soldier.
Assuring himself, with a glance, that he had nothing to fear from anyone present, he added, in lower tones:
“This Chanlouineau told me that the cure would understand his reasons.”
Had the brave peasant really found some means of salvation? The abbe almost began to believe it.
“You must go with this worthy man, Marie-Anne,” said he.
The poor girl shuddered at the thought of seeing Chanlouineau again, but the idea of refusing never once occurred to her.
“Let us go,” she said, quietly.
But the corporal did not stir from his place, and winking, according to his habit when he desired to attract the attention of his hearers:
“In one moment,” he said. “This Chanlouineau, who seems to be a shrewd fellow, told me to tell you that all was going well. May I be hung if I can see how! Still such is his opinion. He also told me to tell you not to stir from this place, and not to attempt anything until mademoiselle returns, which will be in less than an hour. He swears to you that he will keep his promise; he only asks you to pledge your word that you will obey him ——”
“We will take no action until an hour has passed,” said the abbe. “I promise that ——”
“That is all. Salute company. And now, Mademoiselle, on the double-quick, march! The poor devil over there must be on coals of fire.”
That a condemned prisoner should be allowed to receive a visit from the daughter of the leader of the rebellion — of that Lacheneur who had succeeded in making his escape — was indeed surprising.
But Chanlouineau had been ingenious enough to discover a means of procuring this special permission.
With this aim in view, when sentence of death was passed upon him, he pretended to be overcome with terror, and to weep piteously.
The soldiers could scarcely believe their eyes when they saw this robust young fellow, who had been so insolent and defiant a few hours before, so overcome that they were obliged to carry him to his cell.
There, his lamentations were redoubled; and he begged the guard to go to the Duc de Sairmeuse, or the Marquis de Courtornieu, and tell them he had revelations of the greatest importance to make.
That potent word “revelations” made M. de Courtornieu hasten to the prisoner’s cell.
He found Chanlouineau on his knees, his features distorted by what was apparently an agony of fear. The man dragged himself toward him, took his hands and kissed them, imploring mercy and forgiveness, swearing that to preserve his life he was ready to do anything, yes, anything, even to deliver up M. Lacheneur.
To capture Lacheneur! Such a prospect had powerful attractions for the Marquis de Courtornieu.
“Do you know, then, where this brigand is concealed?” he inquired.
Chanlouineau admitted that he did not know, but declared that Marie-Anne, Lacheneur’s daughter, knew her father’s hiding-place. She had, he declared, perfect confidence in him; and if they would only send for her, and allow him ten minutes’ private conversation with her, he was sure he could obtain the secret of her father’s place of concealment. So the bargain was quickly concluded.
The prisoner’s life was promised, him in exchange for the life of Lacheneur.
A soldier, who chanced to be Corporal Bavois, was sent to summon Marie-Anne.
And Chanlouineau waited in terrible anxiety. No one had told him what had taken place at Escorval, but he divined it by the aid of that strange prescience which so often illuminates the mind when death is near at hand.
He was almost certain that Mme. d’Escorval was in Montaignac; he was equally certain that Marie-Anne was with her; and if she were, he knew that she would come.
And he waited, counting the seconds by the throbbings of his heart.
He waited, understanding the cause of every sound without, distinguishing with the marvellous acuteness of senses excited to the highest pitch by passion, sounds which would have been inaudible to another person.
At last, at the end of the corridor, he heard the rustling of a dress against the wall.
“It is she,” he murmured.
Footsteps approached; the heavy bolts were drawn back, the door opened, and Marie-Anne entered, accompanied by Corporal Bavois.
“Monsieur de Courtornieu promised me that we should be left alone!” exclaimed Chanlouineau.
“Therefore, I go at once,” replied the old soldier. “But I have orders to return for mademoiselle in half an hour.”
When the door closed behind the worthy corporal, Chanlouineau took Marie-Anne’s hand and drew her to the tiny grafted window.
“Thank you for coming,” said he, “thank you. I can see you and speak to you once more. Now that my hours are numbered, I may reveal the secret of my soul and of my life. Now, I can venture to tell you how ardently I have loved you — how much I still love you.”
Involuntarily Marie-Anne drew away her hand and stepped back.
This outburst of passion, at such a moment, seemed at once unspeakably sad and frightful.
“Have I, then, offended you?” said Chanlouineau, sadly. “Forgive one who is about to die! You cannot refuse to listen to the voice of one, who after tomorrow, will have vanished from earth forever.
“I have loved you for a long time, Marie-Anne, for more than six years. Before I saw you, I loved only my possessions. To raise fine crops, and to amass a fortune, seemed to me, then, the greatest possible happiness here below.
“Why did I meet you? But at that time you were so high, and I, so low, that never in my wildest dreams did I aspire to you. I went to church each Sunday only that I might worship you as peasant women worship the Blessed Virgin; I went home with my eyes and my heart full of you — and that was all.
“Then came the misfortune that brought us nearer to each other; and your father made me as insane, yes, as insane as himself.
“After the insults he received from the Sairmeuse, your father resolved to revenge himself upon these arrogant nobles, and he selected me for his accomplice. He had read my heart. On leaving the house of Baron d’Escorval, on that Sunday evening, which you must remember, the compact that bound me to your father was made.
“‘You love my daughter, my boy,’ said he. ‘Very well, aid me, and I promise you, in case we succeed, she shall be your wife. Only,’ he added, ‘I must warn you that you hazard your life.’
“But what was life in comparison with the hope that dazzled me! From that night I gave body, soul, and fortune to the cause. Others were influenced by hatred, or by ambition; but I was actuated by neither of these motives.
“What did the quarrels of the great matter to me — a simple laborer? I knew that the greatest were powerless to give my crops a drop of rain in season of drought, or a ray of sunshine during the rain.
“I took part in this conspiracy because I loved you ——”
“Ah! you are cruel!” exclaimed Marie-Anne, “you are pitiless!”
It seemed to the poor girl that he was reproaching her for the horrible fate which Lacheneur had brought upon him, and for the terrible part which her father had imposed upon her, and which she had not been strong enough to refuse to perform.
But Chanlouineau scarcely heard Marie-Anne’s exclamation. All the bitterness of the past had mounted to his brain like fumes of alcohol. He was scarcely conscious of his own words.
“But the day soon came,” he continued, “when my foolish illusions were destroyed. You could not be mine since you belonged to another. I might have broken my compact! I thought of doing so, but had not the courage. To see you, to hear your voice, to dwell beneath the same roof with you, was happiness. I longed to see you happy and honored; I fought for the triumph of another, for him whom you had chosen ——”
A sob that had risen in his throat choked his utterance; he buried his face in his hands to hide his tears, and, for a moment, seemed completely overcome.
But he mastered his weakness after a little and in a firm voice, he said:
“We must not linger over the past. Time flies and the future is ominous.”
As he spoke, he went to the door and applied first his eye, then his ear to the opening, to see that there were no spies without.
No one was in the corridor; he could not hear a sound.
He came back to Marie-Anne’s side, and tearing the sleeve of his jacket open with his teeth, he drew from it two letters, wrapped carefully in a piece of cloth.
“Here,” he said, in a low voice, “is a man’s life!”
Marie-Anne knew nothing of Chanlouineau’s promises and hopes, and bewildered by her distress, she did not at first understand.
“This,” she exclaimed, “is a man’s life!”
“Hush, speak lower!” interrupted Chanlouineau. “Yes, one of these letters might perhaps save the life of one who has been condemned to death.”
“Unfortunate man! Why do you not make use of it and save yourself?”
The young man sadly shook his head.
“Is it possible that you could ever love me?” he said, simply. “No, it is not. I have, therefore, no desire to live. Rest beneath the sod is preferable to the misery I am forced to endure. Moreover I was justly condemned. I knew what I was doing when I left the Reche with my gun upon my shoulder, and my sword by my side; I have no right to complain. But those cruel judges have condemned an innocent man ——”
“Yes — the father of — Maurice!”
His voice changed in uttering the name of this man, for whose happiness he would have given ten lives had they been his to give.
“I wish to save him,” he added, “I can do it.”
“Oh! if what you said were true? But you undoubtedly deceive yourself.”
“I know what I am saying.”
Fearing that some spy outside would overhear him, he came close to Marie-Anne and said, rapidly, and in a low voice:
“I never believed in the success of this conspiracy. When I sought for a weapon of defence in case of failure, the Marquis de Sairmeuse furnished it. When it became necessary to send a circular warning our accomplices of the date decided upon for the uprising, I persuaded Monsieur Martial to write a model. He suspected nothing. I told him it was for a wedding; he did what I asked. This letter, which is now in my possession, is the rough draft of the circular; and it was written by the hand of the Marquis de Sairmeuse. It is impossible for him to deny it. There is an erasure on each line. Everyone would regard it as the handiwork of a man who was seeking to convey his real meaning in ambiguous phrases.”
Chanlouineau opened the envelope and showed her the famous letter which he had dictated, and in which the space for the date of the insurrection was left blank.
“My dear friend, we are at last agreed, and the marriage is decided, etc.”
The light that had sparkled in Marie-Anne’s eye was suddenly extinguished.
“And you believe that this letter can be of any service?” she inquired, in evident discouragement.
“I do not believe it!”
With a gesture, he interrupted her.
“We must not lose time in discussion — listen to me. Of itself, this letter might be unimportant, but I have arranged matters in such a way that it will produce a powerful effect. I declared before the commission that the Marquis de Sairmeuse was one of the leaders of the movement. They laughed; and I read incredulity on the faces of the judges. But calumny is never without its effect. When the Duc de Sairmeuse is about to receive a reward for his services, there will be enemies in plenty to remember and to repeat my words. He knew this so well that he was greatly agitated, even while his colleagues sneered at my accusation.”
“To accuse a man falsely is a great crime,” murmured the honest Marie-Anne.
“Yes, but I wish to save my friend, and I cannot choose my means. I was all the more sure of success as I knew that the marquis had been wounded. I declared that he was fighting against the troops by my side; I demanded that he should be summoned before the tribunal; I told them that I had in my possession unquestionable proofs of his complicity.”
“Did you say that the Marquis de Sairmeuse had been wounded?” inquired Marie-Anne.
Chanlouineau’s face betrayed the most intense astonishment.
“What!” he exclaimed, “you do not know ——”
Then after an instant’s reflection:
“Fool that I am!” he resumed. “Who could have told you what had happened? You remember that when we were travelling over the Sairmeuse road on our way to the Croix d’Arcy, and after your father had left us to ride on in advance, Maurice placed himself at the head of one division, and you walked beside him, while your brother Jean and myself stayed behind to urge on the laggards. We were performing our duty conscientiously when suddenly we heard the gallop of a horse behind us. ‘We must know who is coming,’ Jean said to me.
“We paused. The horse soon reached us; we caught the bridle and held him. Can you guess who the rider was? Martial de Sairmeuse.
“To describe your brother’s fury on recognizing the marquis would be impossible.
“‘At last I find you, wretched noble!’ he exclaimed, ‘and now we will settle our account! After reducing my father, who has just given you a fortune, to despair and penury, you have tried to degrade my sister. I will have my revenge! Down, we must fight!’”
Marie-Anne could scarcely tell whether she was awake or dreaming.
“My brother,” she murmured, “has challenged the marquis! Is it possible?”
“Brave as Monsieur Martial is,” pursued Chanlouineau, “he did not seem inclined to accept the invitation. He stammered out something like this: ‘You are mad — you are jesting — have we not always been friends? What does this mean?’
“Jean ground his teeth in rage. ‘This means that we have endured your insulting familiarity long enough,’ he replied, ‘and if you do not dismount and meet me in open combat, I will blow your brains out!’
“Your brother, as he spoke, manipulated his pistol in so threatening a manner that the marquis dismounted, and addressing me:
“‘You see, Chanlouineau,’ he said, ‘I must fight a duel or submit to assassination. If Jean kills me there is no more to be said — but if I kill him, what is to be done?’
“I told him he would be free to depart on condition he would give me his word not to return to Montaignac before two o’clock.
“‘Then I accept the challenge,’ said he; ‘give me a weapon.’
“I gave him my sword, your brother drew his, and they took their places in the middle of the highway.”
The young farmer paused to take breath, then said, more slowly:
“Marie-Anne, your father and I have misjudged your brother. Poor Jean’s appearance is terribly against him. His face indicates a treacherous, cowardly nature, his smile is cunning, and his eyes always shun yours. We have distrusted him, but we should ask his pardon. A man who fights as I saw him fight, is deserving of confidence. For this combat in the public road, and in the darkness of the night, was terrible. They attacked each other silently but furiously. At last Jean fell.”
“Ah! my brother is dead!” exclaimed Marie-Anne.
“No,” responded Chanlouineau; “at least we have reason to hope not; and I know he has not lacked any attention. This duel had another witness, a man named Poignot, whom you must remember; he was one of your father’s tenants. He took Jean, promising me that he would conceal him and care for him.
“As for the marquis, he showed me that he too was wounded, and then he remounted his horse, saying:
“‘What could I do? He would have it so.’”
Marie-Anne understood now.
“Give me the letter,” she said to Chanlouineau, “I will go to the duke. I will find some way to reach him, and then God will tell me what course to pursue.”
The noble peasant handed the girl the tiny scrap of paper which might have been his own salvation.
“On no account,” said he, “must you allow the duke to suppose that you have upon your person the proof with which you threaten him. Who knows of what he might be capable under such circumstances? He will say, at first, that he can do nothing — that he sees no way to save the baron. You will tell him that he must find a means, if he does not wish this letter sent to Paris, to one of his enemies ——”
He paused; he heard the grating of the bolt. Corporal Bavois reappeared.
“The half hour expired ten minutes ago,” he said, sadly. “I have my orders.”
“Coming,” said Chanlouineau; “all is ended!”
And handing Marie-Anne the second letter:
“This is for you,” he added. “You will read it when I am no more. Pray, pray, do not weep thus! Be brave! You will soon be the wife of Maurice. And when you are happy, think sometimes of the poor peasant who loved you so much.”
Marie-Anne could not utter a word, but she lifted her face to his.
“Ah! I dared not ask it!” he exclaimed.
And for the first time he clasped her in his arms and pressed his lips to her pallid cheek.
“Now adieu,” he said once more. “Do not lose a moment. Adieu!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50