Few of the inhabitants of Sairmeuse knew, except by name, the terrible duke whose arrival had thrown the whole village into commotion.
Some of the oldest residents had a faint recollection of having seen him long ago, before ‘89 indeed, when he came to visit his aunt, Mlle. Armande.
His duties, then, had seldom permitted him to leave the court.
If he had given no sign of life during the empire, it was because he had not been compelled to submit to the humiliations and suffering which so many of the emigrants were obliged to endure in their exile.
On the contrary, he had received, in exchange for the wealth of which he had been deprived by the revolution, a princely fortune.
Taking refuge in London after the defeat of the army of Conde, he had been so fortunate as to please the only daughter of Lord Holland, one of the richest peers in England, and he had married her.
She possessed a fortune of two hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling, more than six million francs.
Still the marriage was not a happy one. The chosen companion of the dissipated and licentious Count d’Artois was not likely to prove a very good husband.
The young duchess was contemplating a separation when she died, in giving birth to a boy, who was baptized under the names of Anne-Marie-Martial.
The loss of his wife did not render the Duc de Sairmeuse inconsolable.
He was free and richer than he had ever been.
As soon as les convenances permitted, he confided his son to the care of a relative of his wife, and began his roving life again.
Rumor had told the truth. He had fought, and that furiously, against France in the Austrian, and then in the Russian ranks.
And he took no pains to conceal the fact; convinced that he had only performed his duty. He considered that he had honestly and loyally gained the rank of general which the Emperor of all the Russias had bestowed upon him.
He had not returned to France during the first Restoration; but his absence had been involuntary. His father-in-law, Lord Holland, had just died, and the duke was detained in London by business connected with his son’s immense inheritance.
Then followed the “Hundred Days.” They exasperated him.
But “the good cause,” as he styled it, having triumphed anew, he hastened to France.
Alas! Lacheneur judged the character of his former master correctly, when he resisted the entreaties of his daughter.
This man, who had been compelled to conceal himself during the first Restoration, knew only too well, that the returned emigres had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
The Duc de Sairmeuse was no exception to the rule.
He thought, and nothing could be more sadly absurd, that a mere act of authority would suffice to suppress forever all the events of the Revolution and of the empire.
When he said: “I do not admit that!” he firmly believed that there was nothing more to be said; that controversy was ended; and that what had been was as if it had never been.
If some, who had seen Louis XVII. at the helm in 1814, assured the duke that France had changed in many respects since 1789, he responded with a shrug of the shoulders:
“Nonsense! As soon as we assert ourselves, all these rascals, whose rebellion alarms you, will quietly sink out of sight.”
Such was really his opinion.
On the way from Montaignac to Sairmeuse, the duke, comfortably ensconced in his berlin, unfolded his theories for the benefit of his son.
“The King has been poorly advised,” he said, in conclusion. “Besides, I am disposed to believe that he inclines too much to Jacobinism. If he would listen to my advice, he would make use of the twelve hundred thousand soldiers which our friends have placed at his disposal, to bring his subjects to a sense of their duty. Twelve hundred thousand bayonets have far more eloquence than the articles of a charter.”
He continued his remarks on this subject until the carriage approached Sairmeuse.
Though but little given to sentiment, he was really affected by the sight of the country in which he was born — where he had played as a child, and of which he had heard nothing since the death of his aunt.
Everything was changed: still the outlines of the landscape remained the same; the valley of the Oiselle was as bright and laughing as in days gone by.
“I recognize it!” he exclaimed, with a delight that made him forget politics. “I recognize it!”
Soon the changes became more striking.
The carriage entered Sairmeuse, and rattled over the stones of the only street in the village.
This street, in former years, had been unpaved, and had always been rendered impassable by wet weather.
“Ah, ha!” murmured the duke, “this is an improvement!”
It was not long before he noticed others. The dilapidated, thatched hovels had given place to pretty and comfortable white cottages with green blinds, and a vine hanging gracefully over the door.
As the carriage passed the public square in front of the church, Martial observed the groups of peasants who were still talking there.
“What do you think of all these peasants?” he inquired of his father. “Do they have the appearance of people who are preparing a triumphal reception for their old masters?”
M. de Sairmeuse shrugged his shoulders. He was not the man to renounce an illusion for such a trifle.
“They do not know that I am in this post-chaise,” he replied. “When they know ——”
Shouts of “Vive Monsieur le Duc de Sairmeuse!” interrupted him.
“Do you hear that, Marquis?” he exclaimed.
And pleased by these cries that proved him in the right, he leaned from the carriage-window, waving his hand to the honest Chupin family, who were running after the vehicle with noisy shouts.
The old rascal, his wife, and his children, all possessed powerful voices; and it was not strange that the duke believed the whole village was welcoming him. He was convinced of it; and when the berlin stopped before the house of the cure, M. de Sairmeuse was persuaded that the prestige of the nobility was greater than ever.
Upon the threshold of the parsonage, Bibiaine, the old housekeeper, was standing. She knew who these guests must be, for the cure’s servants always know what is going on.
“Monsieur has not yet returned from church,” she said, in response to the duke’s inquiry; “but if the gentlemen wish to wait, it will not be long before he comes, for the poor, dear man has not breakfasted yet.”
“Let us go in,” the duke said to his son. And guided by the housekeeper, they entered a sort of drawing-room, where the table was spread.
M. de Sairmeuse took an inventory of the apartment in a single glance. The habits of a house reveal those of its master. This was clean, poor, and bare. The walls were whitewashed; a dozen chairs composed the entire furniture; upon the table, laid with monastic simplicity, were only tin dishes.
This was either the abode of an ambitious man or a saint.
“Will these gentlemen take any refreshments?” inquired Bibiaine.
“Upon my word,” replied Martial, “I must confess that the drive has whetted my appetite amazingly.”
“Blessed Jesus!” exclaimed the old housekeeper, in evident despair. “What am I to do? I, who have nothing! That is to say — yes — I have an old hen left in the coop. Give me time to wring its neck, to pick it, and clean it ——”
She paused to listen, and they heard a step in the passage.
“Ah!” she exclaimed, “here is Monsieur le Cure now!”
The son of a poor farmer in the environs of Montaignac, he owed his Latin and tonsure to the privations of his family.
Tall, angular, and solemn, he was as cold and impassive as the stones of his church.
By what immense efforts of will, at the cost of what torture, had he made himself what he was? One could form some idea of the terrible restraint to which he had subjected himself by looking at his eyes, which occasionally emitted the lightnings of an impassioned soul.
Was he old or young? The most subtle observer would have hesitated to say on seeing this pallid and emaciated face, cut in two by an immense nose — a real eagle’s beak — as thin as the edge of a razor.
He wore a white cassock, which had been patched and darned in numberless places, but which was a marvel of cleanliness, and which hung about his tall, attenuated body like the sails of a disabled vessel.
He was known as the Abbe Midon.
At the sight of the two strangers seated in his drawing-room, he manifested some slight surprise.
The carriage standing before the door had announced the presence of a visitor; but he had expected to find one of his parishioners.
No one had warned him or the sacristan, and he was wondering with whom he had to deal, and what they desired of him.
Mechanically, he turned to Bibiaine, but the old servant had taken flight.
The duke understood his host’s astonishment.
“Upon my word, Abbe!” he said, with the impertinent ease of a grand seigneur who makes himself at home everywhere, “we have taken your house by storm, and hold the position, as you see. I am the Duc de Sairmeuse, and this is my son, the Marquis.”
The priest bowed, but he did not seem very greatly impressed by the exalted rank of his guests.
“It is a great honor for me,” he replied, in a more than reserved tone, “to receive a visit from the former master of this place.”
He emphasized this word “former” in such a manner that it was impossible to doubt his sentiments and his opinions.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “you will not find here the comforts to which you are accustomed, and I fear ——”
“Nonsense!” interrupted the duke. “An old soldier is not fastidious, and what suffices for you, Monsieur Abbe, will suffice for us. And rest assured that we shall amply repay you in one way or another for any inconvenience we may cause you.”
The priest’s eye flashed. This want of tact, this disagreeable familiarity, this last insulting remark, kindled the anger of the man concealed beneath the priest.
“Besides,” added Martial, gayly, “we have been vastly amused by Bibiaine’s anxieties, we already know that there is a chicken in the coop ——”
“That is to say there was one, Monsieur le Marquis.”
The old housekeeper, who suddenly reappeared, explained her master’s response. She seemed overwhelmed with despair.
“Blessed Virgin! Monsieur, what shall I do?” she clamored. “The chicken has disappeared. Someone has certainly stolen it, for the coop is securely closed!”
“Do not accuse your neighbor hastily,” interrupted the cure; “no one has stolen it from us. Bertrande was here this morning to ask alms in the name of her sick daughter. I had no money, and I gave her this fowl that she might make a good bouillon for the sick girl.”
This explanation changed Bibiaine’s consternation to fury.
Planting herself in the centre of the room, one hand upon her hip, and gesticulating wildly with the other, she exclaimed, pointing to her master:
“That is just the sort of man he is; he has less sense than a baby! Any miserable peasant who meets him can make him believe anything he wishes. Any great falsehood brings tears to his eyes, and then they can do what they like with him. In that way they take the very shoes off his feet and the bread from his mouth. Bertrande’s daughter, messieurs, is no more ill than you or I!”
“Enough,” said the priest, sternly, “enough.” Then, knowing by experience that his voice had not the power to check her flood of reproaches, he took her by the arm and led her out into the passage.
M. de Sairmeuse and his son exchanged a glance of consternation.
Was this a comedy that had been prepared for their benefit? Evidently not, since their arrival had not been expected.
But the priest, whose character had been so plainly revealed by this quarrel with his domestic, was not a man to their taste.
At least, he was evidently not the man they had hoped to find — not the auxiliary whose assistance was indispensable to the success of their plans.
Yet they did not exchange a word; they listened.
They heard the sound as of a discussion in the passage. The master spoke in low tones, but with an unmistakable accent of command; the servant uttered an astonished exclamation.
But the listeners could not distinguish a word.
Soon the priest re-entered the apartment.
“I hope, gentlemen,” he said, with a dignity that could not fail to check any attempt at raillery, “that you will excuse this ridiculous scene. The cure of Sairmeuse, thank God! is not so poor as she says.”
Neither the duke nor Martial made any response.
Even their remarkable assurance was very sensibly diminished; and M. de Sairmeuse deemed it advisable to change the subject.
This he did, by relating the events which he had just witnessed in Paris, and by insisting that His Majesty, Louis XVIII., had been welcomed with enthusiasm and transports of affection.
Fortunately, the old housekeeper interrupted this recital.
She entered, loaded with china, silver, and bottles, and behind her came a large man in a white apron, bearing three or four covered dishes in his hands.
It was the order to go and obtain this repast from the village inn which had drawn from Bibiaine so many exclamations of wonder and dismay in the passage.
A moment later the cure and his guests took their places at the table.
Had the much-lamented chicken constituted the dinner the rations would have been “short.” This the worthy woman was obliged to confess, on seeing the terrible appetite evinced by M. de Sairmeuse and his son.
“One would have sworn that they had eaten nothing for a fortnight,” she told her friends, the next day.
Abbe Midon was not hungry, though it was two o’clock, and he had eaten nothing since the previous evening.
The sudden arrival of the former masters of Sairmeuse filled his heart with gloomy forebodings. Their coming, he believed, presaged the greatest misfortunes.
So while he played with his knife and fork, pretending to eat, he was really occupied in watching his guests, and in studying them with all the penetration of a priest, which, by the way, is generally far superior to that of a physician or of a magistrate.
The Duc de Sairmeuse was fifty-seven, but looked considerably younger.
The storms of his youth, the dissipation of his riper years, the great excesses of every kind in which he had indulged, had not impaired his iron constitution in the least.
Of herculean build, he was extremely proud of his strength, and of his hands, which were well-formed, but large, firmly knit and powerful, such hands as rightly belonged to a gentleman whose ancestors had given many a crushing blow with ponderous battle-axe in the crusades.
His face revealed his character. He possessed all the graces and all the vices of a courtier.
He was, at the same time spirituel and ignorant, sceptical and violently imbued with the prejudices of his class.
Though less robust than his father, Martial was a no less distinguished-looking cavalier. It was not strange that women raved over his blue eyes, and the beautiful blond hair which he inherited from his mother.
To his father he owed energy, courage, and, it must also be added, perversity. But he was his superior in education and in intellect. If he shared his father’s prejudices, he had not adopted them without weighing them carefully. What the father might do in a moment of excitement, the son was capable of doing in cold blood.
It was thus that the abbe, with rare sagacity, read the character of his guests.
So it was with great sorrow, but without surprise, that he heard the duke advance, on the questions of the day, the impossible ideas shared by nearly all the emigres.
Knowing the condition of the country, and the state of public opinion, the cure endeavored to convince the obstinate man of his mistake; but upon this subject the duke would not permit contradiction, or even raillery; and he was fast losing his temper, when Bibiaine appeared at the parlor door.
“Monsieur le Duc,” said she, “Monsieur Lacheneur and his daughter are without and desire to speak to you.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50