The prospect of capturing Lacheneur, the chief conspirator, excited the Marquis de Courtornieu so much that he had not been able to tear himself away from the citadel to return home to his dinner.
Remaining near the entrance of the dark corridor leading to Chanlouineau’s cell, he watched Marie-Anne depart; but as he saw her go out into the twilight with a quick, alert step, he felt a sudden doubt of Chanlouineau’s sincerity.
“Can it be that this miserable peasant has deceived me?” he thought.
So strong was this suspicion that he hastened after her, determined to question her — to ascertain the truth — to arrest her, if necessary.
But he no longer possessed the agility of youth, and when he reached the gateway the guard told him that Mlle. Lacheneur had already passed out. He rushed out after her, looked about on every side, but could see no trace of her. He re-entered the citadel, furious with himself for his own credulity.
“Still, I can visit Chanlouineau,” thought he, “and to-morrow will be time enough to summon this creature and question her.”
“This creature” was even then hastening up the long, ill-paved street that led to the Hotel de France.
Regardless of self, and of the curious gaze of a few passers-by, she ran on, thinking only of shortening the terrible anxiety which her friends at the hotel must be enduring.
“All is not lost!” she exclaimed, on re-entering the room.
“My God, Thou hast heard my prayers!” murmured the baroness.
Then, suddenly seized by a horrible dread, she added:
“Do not attempt to deceive me. Are you not trying to delude me with false hopes? That would be cruel!”
“I am not deceiving you, Madame, Chanlouineau has given me a weapon, which, I hope and believe, places the Duc de Sairmeuse in our power. He is omnipotent in Montaignac; the only man who could oppose him, Monsieur de Courtornieu, is his friend. I believe that Monsieur d’Escorval can be saved.”
“Speak!” cried Maurice; “what must we do?”
“Pray and wait, Maurice. I must act alone in this matter, but be assured that I— the cause of all your misfortune — will leave nothing undone which is possible for mortal to do.”
Absorbed in the task which she had imposed upon herself, Marie-Anne had failed to remark a stranger who had arrived during her absence — an old white-haired peasant.
The abbe called her attention to him.
“Here is a courageous friend,” said he, “who since morning, has been searching for you everywhere, in, order to give you news of your father.”
Marie-Anne was so overcome that she could scarcely falter her gratitude.
“Oh, you need not thank me,” answered the brave peasant. “I said to myself: ‘The poor girl must be terribly anxious. I ought to relieve her of her misery.’ So I came to tell you that Monsieur Lacheneur is safe and well, except for a wound in the leg, which causes him considerable suffering, but which will be healed in two or three weeks. My son-in-law, who was hunting yesterday in the mountains, met him near the frontier in company with two of his friends. By this time he must be in Piedmont, beyond the reach of the gendarmes.”
“Let us hope now,” said the abbe, “that we shall soon hear what has become of Jean.”
“I know, already, Monsieur,” responded Marie-Anne; “my brother has been badly wounded, and he is now under the protection of kind friends.”
She bowed her head, almost crushed beneath her burden of sorrow, but soon rallying, she exclaimed:
“What am I doing! What right have I to think of my friends, when upon my promptness and upon my courage depends the life of an innocent man compromised by them?”
Maurice, the abbe, and the officers surrounded the brave young girl. They wished to know what she was about to attempt, and to dissuade her from incurring useless danger.
She refused to reply to their pressing questions. They wished to accompany her, or, at least, to follow her at a distance, but she declared that she must go alone.
“I will return in less than two hours, and then we can decide what must be done,” said she, as she hastened away.
To obtain an audience with the Duc de Sairmeuse was certainly a difficult matter; Maurice and the abbe had proved that only too well the previous day. Besieged by weeping and heart-broken families, he shut himself up securely, fearing, perhaps, that he might be moved by their entreaties.
Marie-Anne knew this, but it did not alarm her. Chanlouineau had given her a word, the same which he had used; and this word was a key which would unlock the most firmly and obstinately locked doors.
In the vestibule of the house occupied by the Duc de Sairmeuse, three or four valets stood talking.
“I am the daughter of Monsieur Lacheneur,” said Marie-Anne, addressing one of them. “I must speak to the duke at once, on matters connected with the revolt.”
“The duke is absent.”
“I came to make a revelation.”
The servant’s manner suddenly changed.
“In that case follow me, Mademoiselle.”
She followed him up the stairs and through two or three rooms. At last he opened a door, saying, “enter.” She went in.
It was not the Duc de Sairmeuse who was in the room, but his son, Martial.
Stretched upon a sofa, he was reading a paper by the light of a large candelabra.
On seeing Marie-Anne he sprang up, as pale and agitated as if the door had given passage to a spectre.
“You!” he stammered.
But he quickly mastered his emotion, and in a second his quick mind revolved all the possibilities that might have produced this visit:
“Lacheneur has been arrested!” he exclaimed, “and you, wishing to save him from the fate which the military commission will pronounce upon him, have thought of me. Thank you, dearest Marie-Anne, thank you for your confidence. I will not abuse it. Let your heart be reassured. We will save your father, I promise you — I swear it. How, I do not yet know. But what does that matter? It is enough that he shall be saved. I will have it so!”
His voice betrayed the intense passion and joy that was surging in his heart.
“My father has not been arrested,” said Marie-Anne, coldly.
“Then,” said Martial, with some hesitation, “then it is Jean who is a prisoner.”
“My brother is in safety. If he survives his wounds he will escape all attempts at capture.”
From white the Marquis de Sairmeuse had turned as red as fire. By Marie-Anne’s manner he saw that she knew of the duel. He made no attempt to deny it; but he tried to excuse himself.
“It was Jean who challenged me,” said he; “I tried to avoid it. I only defended my own life in fair combat, and with equal weapons ——”
Marie-Anne interrupted him.
“I reproach you for nothing, Monsieur le Marquis,” she said, quietly.
“Ah! Marie-Anne, I am more severe than you. Jean was right to challenge me. I deserved his anger. He knew the baseness of which I had been guilty; but you — you were ignorant of it. Oh! Marie-Anne, if I wronged you in thought it was because I did not know you. Now I know that you, above all others, are pure and chaste.”
He tried to take her hands; she repulsed him with horror; and broke into a fit of passionate sobbing.
Of all the blows she had received this last was most terrible and overwhelming.
What humiliation and shame —! Now, indeed, was her cup of sorrow filled to overflowing. “Chaste and pure!” he had said. Oh, bitter mockery!
But Martial misunderstood the meaning of the poor girl’s gesture.
“Oh! I comprehend your indignation,” he resumed, with growing eagerness. “But if I have injured you even in thought, I now offer you reparation. I have been a fool — a miserable fool — for I love you; I love, and can love you only. I am the Marquis de Sairmeuse. I am the possessor of millions. I entreat you, I implore you to be my wife.”
Marie-Anne listened in utter bewilderment. Vertigo seized her; even reason seemed to totter upon its throne.
But now, it had been Chanlouineau who, in his prison-cell, cried that he died for love of her. Now, it was Martial who avowed his willingness to sacrifice his ambition and his future for her sake.
And the poor peasant condemned to death, and the son of the all-powerful Duc de Sairmeuse, had avowed their passion in almost the very same words.
Martial paused, awaiting some response — a word, a gesture. But Marie-Anne remained mute, motionless, frozen.
“You are silent,” he cried, with increased vehemence. “Do you question my sincerity? No, it is impossible! Then why this silence? Do you fear my father’s opposition? You need not. I know how to gain his consent. Besides, what does his approbation matter to us? Have we any need of him? Am I not my own master? Am I not rich — immensely rich? I should be a miserable fool, a coward, if I hesitated between his stupid prejudices and the happiness of my life.”
He was evidently obliging himself to weigh all the possible objections, in order to answer them and overrule them.
“Is it on account of your family that you hesitate?” he continued. “Your father and brother are pursued, and France is closed against them. Very well, we will leave France, and they shall come and live near you. Jean will no longer dislike me when you are my wife. We will all live in England or in Italy. Now I am grateful for the fortune that will enable me to make life a continual enchantment for you. I love you — and in the happiness and tender love which shall be yours in the future, I will compel you to forget all the bitterness of the past!”
Marie-Anne knew the Marquis de Sairmeuse well enough to understand the intensity of the love revealed by these astounding propositions.
And for that very reason she hesitated to tell him that he had won this triumph over his pride in vain.
She was anxiously wondering to what extremity his wounded vanity would carry him, and if a refusal would not transform him into a bitter enemy.
“Why do you not answer?” asked Martial, with evident anxiety.
She felt that she must reply, that she must speak, say something; but she could not unclose her lips.
“I am only a poor girl, Monsieur le Marquis,” she murmured, at last. “If I accepted your offer, you would regret it continually.”
“But you are no longer free. You have already plighted your troth. Mademoiselle Blanche de Courtornieu is your promised wife.”
“Ah! say one word — only one — and this engagement, which I detest, is broken.”
She was silent. It was evident that her mind was fully made up, and that she refused his offer.
“Do you hate me, then?” asked Martial, sadly.
If she had allowed herself to tell the whole truth Marie-Anne would have answered “Yes.” The Marquis de Sairmeuse did inspire her with an almost insurmountable aversion.
“I no more belong to myself than you belong to yourself, Monsieur,” she faltered.
A gleam of hatred, quickly extinguished, shone in Martial’s eye.
“Always Maurice!” said he.
She expected an angry outburst, but he remained perfectly calm.
“Then,” said he, with a forced smile, “I must believe this and other evidence. I must believe that you have forced me to play a most ridiculous part. Until now I doubted it.”
The poor girl bowed her head, crimsoning with shame to the roots of her hair; but she made no attempt at denial.
“I was not my own mistress,” she stammered; “my father commanded and threatened, and I— I obeyed him.”
“That matters little,” he interrupted; “your role has not been that which a pure young girl should play.”
It was the only reproach he had uttered, and still he regretted it, perhaps because he did not wish her to know how deeply he was wounded, perhaps because — as he afterward declared — he could not overcome his love for Marie-Anne.
“Now,” he resumed, “I understand your presence here. You come to ask mercy for Monsieur d’Escorval.”
“Not mercy, but justice. The baron is innocent.”
Martial approached Marie-Anne, and lowering his voice:
“If the father is innocent,” he whispered, “then it is the son who is guilty.”
She recoiled in terror. He knew the secret which the judges could not, or would not penetrate.
But seeing her anguish, he had pity.
“Another reason,” said he, “for attempting to save the baron! His blood shed upon the guillotine would form an impassable gulf between Maurice and you. I will join my efforts to yours.”
Blushing and embarrassed, Marie-Anne dared not thank him. How was she about to reward his generosity? By vilely traducing him. Ah! she would infinitely have preferred to see him angry and revengeful.
Just then a valet opened the door, and the Duc de Sairmeuse, still in full uniform, entered.
“Upon my word!” he exclaimed, as he crossed the threshold, “I must confess that Chupin is an admirable hunter. Thanks to him ——”
He paused abruptly; he had not perceived Marie-Anne until now.
“The daughter of that scoundrel Lacheneur!” said he, with an air of the utmost surprise. “What does she desire here?”
The decisive moment had come — the life of the baron hung upon Marie-Anne’s courage and address. The consciousness of the terrible responsibility devolving upon her restored her self-control and calmness as if by magic.
“I have a revelation to sell to you, Monsieur,” she said, resolutely.
The duke regarded her with mingled wonder and curiosity; then, laughing heartily, he threw himself upon a sofa, exclaiming:
“Sell it, my pretty one — sell it!”
“I cannot speak until I am alone with you.”
At a sign from his father, Martial left the room.
“You can speak now,” said the duke.
She did not lose a second.
“You must have read, Monsieur,” she began, “the circular convening the conspirators.”
“Certainly; I have a dozen copies in my pocket.”
“By whom do you suppose it was written?”
“By the elder d’Escorval, or by your father.”
“You are mistaken, Monsieur; that letter was the work of the Marquis de Sairmeuse, your son.”
The duke sprang up, fire flashing from his eyes, his face purple with anger.
“Zounds! girl! I advise you to bridle your tongue!”
“The proof of what I have asserted exists.”
“Silence, you hussy, or ——”
“The lady who sends me here, Monsieur, possesses the original of this circular written by the hand of Monsieur Martial, and I am obliged to tell you ——”
She did not have an opportunity to complete the sentence. The duke sprang to the door, and, in a voice of thunder, called his son.
As soon as Martial entered the room:
“Repeat,” said the duke —“repeat before my son what you have just said to me.”
Boldly, with head erect, and clear, firm voice, Marie-Anne repeated her accusation.
She expected, on the part of the marquis, an indignant denial, cruel reproaches, or an angry explanation. Not a word. He listened with a nonchalant air, and she almost believed she could read in his eyes an encouragement to proceed, and a promise of protection.
When she had concluded:
“Well!” demanded the duke, imperiously.
“First,” replied Martial, lightly, “I would like to see this famous circular.”
The duke handed him a copy.
“Here — read it.”
Martial glanced over it, laughed heartily, and exclaimed:
“A clever trick.”
“What do you say?”
“I say that this Chanlouineau is a sly rascal. Who the devil would have thought the fellow so cunning to see his honest face? Another lesson to teach one not to trust to appearances.”
In all his life the Duc de Sairmeuse had never received so severe a shock.
“Chanlouineau was not lying, then,” he said to his son, in a choked, unnatural voice; “you were one of the instigators of this rebellion, then?”
Martial’s face grew dark, and in a tone of disdainful hauteur, he replied:
“This is the fourth time, sir, that you have addressed that question to me, and for the fourth time I answer: ‘No.’ That should suffice. If the fancy had seized me for taking part in this movement, I should frankly confess it. What possible reason could I have for concealing anything from you?”
“The facts!” interrupted the duke, in a frenzy of passion; “the facts!”
“Very well,” rejoined Martial, in his usual indifferent tone; “the fact is that the model of this circular does exist, that it was written in my best hand on a very large sheet of very poor paper. I recollect that in trying to find appropriate expressions I erased and rewrote several words. Did I date this writing? I think I did, but I could not swear to it.”
“How do you reconcile this with your denials?” exclaimed M. de Sairmeuse.
“I can do this easily. Did I not tell you just now that Chanlouineau had made a tool of me?”
The duke no longer knew what to believe; but what exasperated him more than all else was his son’s imperturbable tranquillity.
“Confess, rather, that you have been led into this filth by your mistress,” he retorted, pointing to Marie-Anne.
But this insult Martial would not tolerate.
“Mademoiselle Lacheneur is not my mistress,” he replied, in a tone so imperious that it was a menace. “It is true, however, that it rests only with her to decide whether she will be the Marquise de Sairmeuse tomorrow. Let us abandon these recriminations, they do not further the progress of our business.”
The faint glimmer of reason which still lighted M. de Sairmeuse’s mind, checked the still more insulting reply that rose to his lips. Trembling with suppressed rage, he made the circuit of the room several times, and finally paused before Marie-Anne, who remained in the same place, as motionless as a statue.
“Come, my good girl,” said he, “give me the writing.”
“It is not in my possession, sir.”
“Where is it?”
“In the hands of a person who will give it to you only under certain conditions.”
“Who is this person?”
“I am not at liberty to tell you.”
There was both admiration and jealousy in the look that Martial fixed upon Marie-Anne.
He was amazed by her coolness and presence of mind. Ah! how powerful must be the passion that imparted such a ringing clearness to her voice, such brilliancy to her eyes, such precision to her responses.
“And if I should not accept the — the conditions which are imposed, what then?” asked M. de Sairmeuse.
“In that case the writing will be utilized.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, sir, that early to-morrow morning a trusty messenger will start for Paris, charged with the task of submitting this document to the eyes of certain persons who are not exactly friends of yours. He will show it to Monsieur Laine, for example — or to the Duc de Richelieu; and he will, of course, explain to them its significance and its value. Will this writing prove the complicity of the Marquis de Sairmeuse? Yes, or no? Have you, or have you not, dared to try and to condemn to death the unfortunate men who were only the tools of your son?”
“Ah, wretch! hussy! viper!” interrupted the duke. He was beside himself. A foam gathered upon his lips, his eyes seemed starting from their sockets; he was no longer conscious of what he was saying.
“This,” he exclaimed, with wild gestures, “is enough to appall me! Yes, I have bitter enemies, envious rivals who would give their right hand for this execrable letter. Ah! if they obtain it they will demand an investigation, and then farewell to the rewards due to my services.
“It will be shouted from the house-tops that Chanlouineau, in the presence of the tribunal, declared you, Marquis, his leader and his accomplice. You will be obliged to submit to the scrutiny of physicians, who, seeing a freshly healed wound, will require you to tell where you received it, and why you concealed it.
“Of what shall I not be accused? They will say that I expedited matters in order to silence the voice that had been raised against my son. Perhaps they will even say that I secretly favored the insurrection; I shall be vilified in the journals.
“And who has thus ruined the fortunes of our house, that promised so brilliantly? You, you alone, Marquis.
“You believe in nothing, you doubt everything — you are cold, sceptical, disdainful, blase. But a pretty woman makes her appearance on the scene. You go wild like a school-boy and are ready to commit any act of folly. It is you who I am addressing, Marquis. Do you hear me? Speak! what have you to say?”
Martial had listened to this tirade with unconcealed scorn, and without even attempting to interrupt it.
Now he responded, slowly:
“I think, sir, if Mademoiselle Lacheneur had any doubts of the value of the document she possesses, she has them no longer.”
This response fell upon the duke’s wrath like a bucket of ice-water. He instantly comprehended his folly; and frightened by his own words, he stood stupefied with astonishment.
Without deigning to add another word, the marquis turned to Marie-Anne.
“Will you be so kind as to explain what is required of my father in exchange for this letter?”
“The life and liberty of Monsieur d’Escorval.”
The duke started as if he had received an electric shock.
“Ah!” he exclaimed. “I knew they would ask something that was impossible!”
He sank back in his arm-chair. A profound despair succeeded his frenzy. He buried his face in his hands, evidently seeking some expedient.
“Why did you not come to me before judgment was pronounced?” he murmured. “Then I could have done anything — now, my hands are bound. The commission has spoken; the judgment must be executed ——”
He rose, and in the tone of a man who is resigned to anything, he said:
“Decidedly. I should risk more in attempting to save the baron”— in his anxiety he gave M. d’Escorval his title —“a thousand times more than I have to fear from my enemies. So, Mademoiselle”— he no longer said “my good girl”—“you can utilize your document.”
The duke was about leaving the room, but Martial detained him by a gesture.
“Think again before you decide. Our situation is not without a precedent. A few months ago the Count de Lavalette was condemned to death. The King wished to pardon him, but his ministers and friends opposed it. Though the King was master, what did he do? He seemed to be deaf to all the supplications made in the prisoner’s behalf. The scaffold was erected, and yet Lavalette was saved! And no one was compromised — yes, a jailer lost his position; he is living on his income now.”
Marie-Anne caught eagerly at the idea so cleverly presented by Martial.
“Yes,” she exclaimed, “the Count de Lavalette, protected by royal connivance, succeeded in making his escape.”
The simplicity of the expedient — the authority of the example — seemed to make a vivid impression upon the duke. He was silent for a moment, and Marie-Anne fancied she saw an expression of relief steal over his face.
“Such an attempt would be very hazardous,” he murmured; “yet, with care, and if one were sure that the secret would be kept ——”
“Oh! the secret will be religiously preserved, Monsieur,” interrupted Marie-Anne.
With a glance Martial recommended silence; then turning to his father, he said:
“One can always consider an expedient, and calculate the consequences — that does not bind one. When is this sentence to be carried into execution?”
“To-morrow,” responded the duke.
But even this terrible response did not cause Marie-Anne any alarm. The duke’s anxiety and terror had taught her how much reason she had to hope; and she saw that Martial had openly espoused her cause.
“We have, then, only the night before us,” resumed the marquis. “Fortunately, it is only half-past seven, and until ten o’clock my father can visit the citadel without exciting the slightest suspicion.”
He paused suddenly. His eyes, in which had shone almost absolute confidence, became gloomy. He had just discovered an unexpected and, as it seemed to him, almost insurmountable difficulty.
“Have we any intelligent men in the citadel?” he murmured. “The assistance of a jailer or of a soldier is indispensable.”
He turned to his father, and brusquely asked: “Have you any man in whom you can confide?”
“I have three or four spies — they can be bought.”
“No! the wretch who betrays his comrade for a few sous, will betray you for a few louis. We must have an honest man who sympathizes with the opinions of Baron d’Escorval — an old soldier who fought under Napoleon, if possible.”
A sudden inspiration visited Marie-Anne’s mind.
“I know the man that you require!” she cried.
“Yes, I. At the citadel.”
“Take care! Remember that he must risk much. If this should be discovered, those who take part in it will be sacrificed.”
“He of whom I speak is the man you need. I will be responsible for him.”
“And he is a soldier?”
“He is only an humble corporal; but the nobility of his nature entitles him to the highest rank. Believe me, we can safely confide in him.”
If she spoke thus, she who would willingly have given her life for the baron’s salvation, she must be absolutely certain.
So thought Martial.
“I will confer with this man,” said he. “What is his name?”
“He is called Bavois, and he is a corporal in the first company of grenadiers.”
“Bavois,” repeated Martial, as if to fix the name in his memory; “Bavois. My father will find some pretext for desiring him summoned.”
“It is easy to find a pretext. He was the brave soldier left on guard at Escorval after the troops left the house.”
“This promises well,” said Martial. He had risen and gone to the fireplace in order to be nearer his father.
“I suppose,” he continued, “the baron has been separated from the other prisoners?”
“Yes, he is alone, in a large and very comfortable room.”
“Where is it?”
“On the second story of the corner tower.”
But Martial, who was not so well acquainted with the citadel as his father, was obliged to reflect a moment.
“The corner tower!” said he; “is not that the tall tower which one sees from a distance, and which is built on a spot where the rock is almost perpendicular?”
By the promptness M. de Sairmeuse displayed in replying, it was easy to see that he was ready to risk a good deal to effect the prisoner’s deliverance.
“What kind of a window is that in the baron’s room?” inquired Martial.
“It is quite large and furnished with a double row of iron bars, securely fastened into the stone walls.”
“It is easy enough to cut these bars. On which side does this window look?”
“On the country.”
“That is to say, it overlooks the precipice. The devil! That is a serious difficulty, and yet, in one respect, it is an advantage, for they station no sentinels there, do they?”
“Never. Between the citadel wall and the edge of the precipice there is barely standing-room. The soldiers do not venture there even in the daytime.”
“There is one more important question. What is the distance from Monsieur d’Escorval’s window to the ground?”
“It is about forty feet from the base of the tower.”
“Good! And from the base of the tower to the foot of the precipice — how far is that?”
“Really, I scarcely know. Sixty feet, at least, I should think.”
“Ah, that is high, terribly high. The baron fortunately is still agile and vigorous.” The duke began to be impatient.
“Now,” said he to his son, “will you be so kind as to explain your plan?”
Martial had gradually resumed the careless tone which always exasperated his father.
“He is sure of success,” thought Marie-Anne.
“My plan is simplicity itself,” replied Martial. “Sixty and forty are one hundred. It is necessary to procure one hundred feet of strong rope. It will make a very large bundle; but no matter. I will twist it around me, envelop myself in a large cloak, and accompany you to the citadel. You will send for Corporal Bavois; you will leave me alone with him in a quiet place; I will explain our wishes.”
M. de Sairmeuse shrugged his shoulders.
“And how will you procure a hundred feet of rope at this hour in Montaignac? Will you go about from shop to shop? You might as well trumpet your project at once.”
“I shall attempt nothing of the kind. What I cannot do the friends of the Escorval family will do.”
The duke was about to offer some new objection when his son interrupted him.
“Pray do not forget the danger that threatens us,” he said, earnestly, “nor the little time that is left us. I have committed a fault, leave me to repair it.”
And turning to Marie-Anne:
“You may consider the baron saved,” he pursued; “but it is necessary for me to confer with one of his friends. Return at once to the Hotel de France and tell the cure to meet me on the Place d’Armes, where I go to await him.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54