Chupin had not taken time to sleep, nor scarcely time to drink, since that unfortunate morning when the Duc de Sairmeuse ordered affixed to the walls of Montaignac, that decree in which he promised twenty thousand francs to the person who should deliver up Lacheneur, dead or alive.
“Twenty thousand francs,” Chupin muttered gloomily; “twenty sacks with a hundred pistoles in each! Ah! if I could discover Lacheneur; even if he were dead and buried a hundred feet under ground, I should gain the reward.”
The appellation of traitor, which he would receive; the shame and condemnation that would fall upon him and his, did not make him hesitate for a moment.
He saw but one thing — the reward — the blood-money.
Unfortunately, he had nothing whatever to guide him in his researches; no clew, however vague.
All that was known in Montaignac was that M. Lacheneur’s horse was killed at the Croix d’Arcy.
But no one knew whether Lacheneur himself had been wounded, or whether he had escaped from the fray uninjured. Had he reached the frontier? or had he found an asylum in the house of one of his friends?
Chupin was thus hungering for the price of blood, when, on the day of the trial, as he was returning from the citadel, after making his deposition, he entered a drinking saloon. While there he heard the name of Lacheneur uttered in low tones near him.
Two peasants were emptying a bottle of wine, and one of them, an old man, was telling the other that he had come to Montaignac to give Mlle. Lacheneur news of her father.
He said that his son-in-law had met the chief conspirator in the mountains which separate the arrondissement of Montaignac from Savoy. He even mentioned the exact place of meeting, which was near Saint Pavin-des-Gottes, a tiny village of only a few houses.
Certainly the worthy man did not think he was committing a dangerous indiscretion. In his opinion, Lacheneur had, ere this, crossed the frontier, and was out of danger.
In this he was mistaken.
The frontier bordering on Savoy was guarded by soldiers, who had received orders to allow none of the conspirators to pass.
The passage of the frontier, then, presented many great difficulties, and even if a man succeeded in effecting it, he might be arrested and imprisoned on the other side, until the formalities of extradition had been complied with.
Chupin saw his advantage, and instantly decided on his course.
He knew that he had not a moment to lose. He threw a coin down upon the counter, and without waiting for his change, rushed back to the citadel, and asked the sergeant at the gate for pen and paper.
The old rascal generally wrote slowly and painfully; to-day it took him but a moment to trace these lines:
“I know Lacheneur’s retreat, and beg monseigneur to order some
mounted soldiers to accompany me, in order to capture him.
This note was given to one of the guards, with a request to take it to the Duc de Sairmeuse, who was presiding over the military commission.
Five minutes later, the soldier reappeared with the same note.
Upon the margin the duke had written an order, placing at Chupin’s disposal a lieutenant and eight men chosen from the Montaignac chasseurs, who could be relied upon, and who were not suspected (as were the other troops) of sympathizing with the rebels.
Chupin also requested a horse for his own use, and this was accorded him. The duke had just received this note when, with a triumphant air, he abruptly entered the room where Marie-Anne and his son were negotiating for the release of Baron d’Escorval.
It was because he believed in the truth of the rather hazardous assertion made by his spy that he exclaimed, upon the threshold:
“Upon my word! it must be confessed that this Chupin is an incomparable huntsman! Thanks to him ——”
Then he saw Mlle. Lacheneur, and suddenly checked himself.
Unfortunately, neither Martial nor Marie-Anne were in a state of mind to notice this remark and its interruption.
Had he been questioned, the duke would probably have allowed the truth to escape him, and M. Lacheneur might have been saved.
But Lacheneur was one of those unfortunate beings who seem to be pursued by an evil destiny which they can never escape.
Buried beneath his horse, M. Lacheneur had lost consciousness.
When he regained his senses, restored by the fresh morning air, the place was silent and deserted. Not far from him, he saw two dead bodies which had not yet been removed.
It was a terrible moment, and in the depth of his soul he cursed death, which had refused to heed his entreaties. Had he been armed, doubtless, he would have ended by suicide, the most cruel mental torture which man was ever forced to endure — but he had no weapon.
He was obliged to accept the chastisement of life.
Perhaps, too, the voice of honor whispered that it was cowardice to strive to escape the responsibility of one’s acts by death.
At last, he endeavored to draw himself out from beneath the body of his horse.
This proved to be no easy matter, as his foot was still in the stirrup, and his limbs were so badly cramped that he could scarcely move them. He finally succeeded in freeing himself, however, and, on examination, discovered that he, who it would seem ought to have been killed ten times over, had only one hurt — a bayonet-wound in the leg, extending from the ankle almost to the knee.
Such a wound, of course, caused him not a little suffering, and he was trying to bandage it with his handkerchief, when he heard the sound of approaching footsteps.
He had no time for reflection; he sprang into the forest that lies to the left of the Croix d’Arcy.
The troops were returning to Montaignac after pursuing the rebels for more than three miles. There were about two hundred soldiers, and they were bringing back, as prisoners, about twenty peasants.
Hidden by a great oak scarcely fifteen paces from the road, Lacheneur recognized several of the prisoners in the gray light of dawn. It was only by the merest chance that he escaped discovery; and he fully realized how difficult it would be for him to gain the frontier without falling into the hands of the detachment of soldiery, who were doubtless scouring the country in every direction.
Still he did not despair.
The mountains lay only two leagues away; and he firmly believed that he could successfully elude his pursuers as soon as he gained the shelter of the hills.
He began his journey courageously.
Alas! he had not realized how exhausted he had become from the excessive labor and excitement of the past few days, and by the loss of blood from his wound, which he could not stanch.
He tore up a pole in one of the vineyards to serve as a staff, and dragged himself along, keeping in the shelter of the woods as much as possible, and creeping along beside the hedges and in the ditches when he was obliged to traverse an open space.
To the great physical suffering, and the most cruel mental anguish, was now added an agony that momentarily increased — hunger.
He had eaten nothing for thirty hours, and he felt terribly weak from lack of nourishment. This torture soon became so intolerable that he was willing to brave anything to appease it.
At last he perceived the roofs of a tiny hamlet. He decided to enter it and ask for food. He was on the outskirts of the village, when he heard the rolling of a drum. Instinctively he hid behind a wall. But it was only a town-crier beating his drum to call the people together.
And soon a voice rose so clear and penetrating that each word it uttered fell distinctly on Lacheneur’s ears.
“This is to inform you that the authorities of Montaignac promise to give a reward of twenty thousand francs — two thousand pistoles, you understand — to him who will deliver up the man known as Lacheneur, dead or alive. Dead or alive, you understand. If he is dead, the compensation will be the same; twenty thousand francs! It will be paid in gold.”
With a bound, Lacheneur had risen, wild with despair and horror. Though he had believed himself utterly exhausted, he found superhuman strength to flee.
A price had been set upon his head. This frightful thought awakened in his breast the frenzy that renders a hunted wild beast so dangerous.
In all the villages around him he fancied he could hear the rolling of drums, and the voice of the criers proclaiming this infamous edict.
Go where he would now, he was a tempting bait offered to treason and cupidity. In what human creature could he confide? Under what roof could he ask shelter?
And even if he were dead, he would still be worth a fortune.
Though he died from lack of nourishment and exhaustion under a bush by the wayside, his emaciated body would still be worth twenty thousand francs.
And the man who found his corpse would not give it burial. He would place it on his cart and bear it to Montaignac. He would go to the authorities and say: “Here is Lacheneur’s body — give me the reward!”
How long and by what paths he pursued his flight, he could not tell.
But several hours after, as he traversed the wooded hills of Charves, he saw two men, who sprang up and fled at his approach. In a terrible voice, he called after them:
“Eh! you men! do each of you desire a thousand pistoles? I am Lacheneur.”
They paused when they recognized him, and Lacheneur saw that they were two of his followers. They were well-to-do farmers, and it had been very difficult to induce them to take part in the revolt.
These men had part of a loaf of bread and a little brandy. They gave both to the famished man.
They sat down beside him on the grass, and while he was eating they related their misfortunes. Their connection with the conspiracy had been discovered; their houses were full of soldiers, who were hunting for them, but they hoped to reach Italy by the aid of a guide who was waiting for them at an appointed place.
Lacheneur extended his hand to them.
“Then I am saved,” said he. “Weak and wounded as I am, I should perish if I were left alone.”
But the two farmers did not accept the hand he offered.
“We should leave you,” said the younger man, gloomily, “for you are the cause of our misfortunes. You deceived us, Monsieur Lacheneur.”
He dared not protest, so just was the reproach.
“Nonsense! let him come all the same,” said the other, with a peculiar glance at his companion.
So they walked on, and that same evening, after nine hours of travelling on the mountains, they crossed the frontier.
But this long journey was not made without bitter reproaches, and even more bitter recriminations.
Closely questioned by his companions, Lacheneur, exhausted both in mind and body, finally admitted the insincerity of the promises with which he had inflamed the zeal of his followers. He acknowledged that he had spread the report that Marie-Louise and the young King of Rome were concealed in Montaignac, and that this report was a gross falsehood. He confessed that he had given the signal for the revolt without any chance of success, and without means of action, leaving everything to chance. In short, he confessed that nothing was real save his hatred, his implacable hatred of the Sairmeuse family.
A dozen times, at least, during this terrible avowal, the peasants who accompanied him were on the point of hurling him down the precipices upon whose verge they were walking.
“So it was to gratify his own spite,” they thought, quivering with rage, “that he sets everybody to fighting and killing one another — that he ruins us, and drives us into exile. We will see.”
The fugitives went to the nearest house after crossing the frontier.
It was a lonely inn, about a league from the little village of Saint-Jean-de-Coche, and was kept by a man named Balstain.
They rapped, in spite of the lateness of the hour — it was past midnight. They were admitted, and they ordered supper.
But Lacheneur, weak from loss of blood, and exhausted by his long tramp, declared that he would eat no supper.
He threw himself upon a bed in an adjoining room, and was soon asleep.
This was the first time since their meeting with Lacheneur that his companions had found an opportunity to talk together in private.
The same idea had occurred to both of them.
They believed that by delivering up Lacheneur to the authorities, they might obtain pardon for themselves.
Neither of these men would have consented to receive a single sou of the money promised to the betrayer; but to exchange their life and liberty for the life and liberty of Lacheneur did not seem to them a culpable act, under the circumstances.
“For did he not deceive us?” they said to themselves.
They decided, at last, that as soon as they had finished their supper, they would go to Saint-Jean-de-Coche and inform the Piedmontese guards.
But they reckoned without their host.
They had spoken loud enough to be overheard by Balstain, the innkeeper, who had learned, during the day, of the magnificent reward which had been promised to Lacheneur’s captor.
When he heard the name of the guest who was sleeping quietly under his roof, a thirst for gold seized him. He whispered a word to his wife, then escaped through the window to run and summon the gendarmes.
He had been gone half an hour before the peasants left the house; for to muster up courage for the act they were about to commit they had been obliged to drink heavily.
They closed the door so violently on going out that Lacheneur was awakened by the noise. He sprang up, and came out into the adjoining room.
The wife of the innkeeper was there alone.
“Where are my friends?” he asked, anxiously. “Where is your husband?”
Moved by sympathy, the woman tried to falter some excuse, but finding none, she threw herself at his feet, crying:
“Fly, Monsieur, save yourself — you are betrayed!”
Lacheneur rushed back into the other room, seeking a weapon with which he could defend himself, an issue through which he could flee!
He had thought that they might abandon him, but betray him — no, never!
“Who has sold me?” he asked, in a strained, unnatural voice.
“Your friends — the two men who supped there at that table.”
“Impossible, Madame, impossible!”
He did not suspect the designs and hopes of his former comrades; and he could not, he would not believe them capable of ignobly betraying him for gold.
“But,” pleaded the innkeeper’s wife, still on her knees before him, “they have just started for Saint-Jean-de-Coche, where they will denounce you. I heard them say that your life would purchase theirs. They have certainly gone to summon the gendarmes! Is this not enough, or am I obliged to endure the shame of confessing that my own husband, too, has gone to betray you.”
Lacheneur understood it all now! And this supreme misfortune, after all the misery he had endured, broke him down completely.
Great tears gushed from his eyes, and sinking down into a chair, he murmured:
“Let them come; I am ready for them. No, I will not stir from here. My miserable life is not worth such a struggle.”
But the wife of the traitor rose, and grasping the unfortunate man’s clothing, she shook him, she dragged him to the door — she would have carried him had she possessed sufficient strength.
“You shall not remain here,” said she, with extraordinary vehemence. “Fly, save yourself. You shall not be taken here; it will bring misfortune upon our house!”
Bewildered by these violent adjurations, and urged on by the instinct of self-preservation, so powerful in every human heart, Lacheneur stepped out upon the threshold.
The night was very dark, and a chilling fog intensified the gloom.
“See, Madame,” said the poor fugitive gently, “how can I find my way through these mountains, which I do not know, and where there are no roads — where the foot-paths are scarcely discernible.”
With a quick movement Balstain’s wife pushed Lacheneur out, and turning him as one does a blind man to set him on the right track:
“Walk straight before you,” said she, “always against the wind. God will protect you. Farewell!”
He turned to ask further directions, but she had re-entered the house and closed the door.
Upheld by a feverish excitement, he walked for long hours. He soon lost his way, and wandered on through the mountains, benumbed with cold, stumbling over rocks, sometimes falling.
Why he was not precipitated to the depths of some chasm it is difficult to explain.
He lost all idea of his whereabouts, and the sun was high in the heavens when he at last met a human being of whom he could inquire his way.
It was a little shepherd-boy, in pursuit of some stray goats, whom he encountered; but the lad, frightened by the wild and haggard appearance of the stranger, at first refused to approach.
The offer of a piece of money induced him to come a little nearer.
“You are on the summit of the mountain, Monsieur,” said he; “and exactly on the boundary line. Here is France; there is Savoy.”
“And what is the nearest village?”
“On the Savoyard side, Saint-Jean-de-Coche; on the French side, Saint-Pavin.”
So after all his terrible exertions, Lacheneur was not a league from the inn.
Appalled by this discovery, he remained for a moment undecided which course to pursue.
What did it matter? Why should the doomed hesitate? Do not all roads lead to the abyss into which they must sink?
He remembered the gendarmes that the innkeeper’s wife had warned him against, and slowly and with great difficulty descended the steep mountainside leading down to France.
He was near Saint-Pavin, when, before an isolated cottage, he saw a pretty peasant woman spinning in the sunshine.
He dragged himself toward her, and in weak tones begged her hospitality.
On seeing this man, whose face was ghastly pale, and whose clothing was torn and soiled with dust and blood, the woman rose, evidently more surprised than alarmed.
She looked at him closely, and saw that his age, his stature, and his features corresponded with the descriptions of Lacheneur, which had been scattered thickly about the frontier.
“You are the conspirator they are hunting for, and for whom they promise a reward of twenty thousand francs,” she said.
“Yes, I am Lacheneur,” he replied, after a moment’s hesitation; “I am Lacheneur. Betray me, if you will, but in charity’s name give me a morsel of bread, and allow me to rest a little.”
At the words “betray me,” the young woman made a gesture of horror and disgust.
“We betray you, sir!” said she. “Ah! you do not know the Antoines! Enter our house, and lie down upon the bed while I prepare some refreshments for you. When my husband comes home, we will see what can be done.”
It was nearly sunset when the master of the house, a robust mountaineer, with a frank face, returned.
On beholding the stranger seated at his fireside he turned frightfully pale.
“Unfortunate woman!” he whispered to his wife, “do you not know that any man who shelters this fugitive will be shot, and his house levelled to the ground?”
Lacheneur rose with a shudder.
He had not known this. He knew the infamous reward which had been promised to his betrayer; but he had not known the danger his presence brought upon these worthy people. “I will go at once, sir,” said he, gently.
But the peasant placed his large hand kindly upon his guest’s shoulder, and forced him to resume his seat.
“It was not to drive you away that I said what I did,” he remarked. “You are at home, and you shall remain here until I can find some means of insuring your safety.”
The pretty peasant woman flung her arms about her husband’s neck, and in tones of the most ardent affection exclaimed: “Ah! you are a noble man, Antoine.”
He smiled, embraced her tenderly, then, pointing to the open door:
“Watch!” he said. “I feel it my duty to tell you, sir, that it will not be easy to save you,” resumed the honest peasant. “The promises of reward have set all evil-minded people on the alert. They know that you are in the neighborhood. A rascally innkeeper has crossed the frontier for the express purpose of betraying your whereabouts to the French gendarmes.”
“Yes, Balstain; and he is hunting for you now. That is not all. As I passed through Saint-Pavin, on my return, I saw eight mounted soldiers, guided by a peasant, also on horseback. They declared that they knew you were concealed in the village, and they were going to search every house.”
These soldiers were none other than the Montaignac chasseurs, placed at Chupin’s disposal by the Duc de Sairmeuse.
It was indeed as Antoine had said.
The task was certainly not at all to their taste, but they were closely watched by the lieutenant in command, who hoped to receive some substantial reward if the expedition was crowned with success. Antoine, meanwhile, continued his exposition of his hopes and fears.
“Wounded and exhausted as you are,” he was saying to Lacheneur, “you will be in no condition to make a long march in less than a fortnight. Until then you must conceal yourself. Fortunately, I know a safe retreat in the mountain, not far from here. I will take you there to-night, with provisions enough to last you for a week.”
A stifled cry from his wife interrupted him.
He turned, and saw her fall almost fainting against the door, her face whiter than her coif, her finger pointing to the path that led from Saint-Pavin to their cottage.
“The soldiers — they are coming!” she gasped.
Quicker than thought, Lacheneur and the peasant sprang to the door to see for themselves.
The young woman had spoken the truth.
The Montaignac chasseurs were climbing the steep foot-path slowly, but surely.
Chupin walked in advance, urging them on with voice, gesture and example.
An imprudent word from the little shepherd-boy, whom M. Lacheneur had questioned, had decided the fugitive’s fate.
On returning to Saint-Pavin, and hearing that the soldiers were searching for the chief conspirator, the lad chanced to say:
“I met a man just now on the mountain who asked me where he was; and I saw him go down the footpath leading to Antoine’s cottage.”
And in proof of his words, he proudly displayed the piece of silver which Lacheneur had given him.
“One more bold stroke and we have our man!” exclaimed Chupin. “Come, comrades!”
And now the party were not more than two hundred feet from the house in which the proscribed man had found an asylum.
Antoine and his wife looked at each other with anguish in their eyes.
They saw that their visitor was lost.
“We must save him! we must save him!” cried the woman.
“Yes, we must save him!” repeated the husband, gloomily. “They shall kill me before I betray a man in my own house.”
“If he would hide in the stable behind the bundles of straw ——”
“They would find him! These soldiers are worse than tigers, and the wretch who leads them on must have the keen scent of a blood-hound.”
He turned quickly to Lacheneur.
“Come, sir,” said he, “let us leap from the back window and flee to the mountains. They will see us, but no matter! These horsemen are always clumsy runners. If you cannot run, I will carry you. They will probably fire at us, but they will miss us.”
“And your wife?” asked Lacheneur.
The honest mountaineer shuddered; but he said:
“She will join us.”
Lacheneur took his friend’s hand and pressed it tenderly.
“Ah! you are noble people,” he exclaimed, “and God will reward you for your kindness to a poor fugitive. But you have done too much already. I should be the basest of men if I consented to uselessly expose you to danger. I can bear this life no longer; I have no wish to escape.”
He drew the sobbing woman to him and kissed her upon the forehead.
“I have a daughter, young and beautiful like yourself, as generous and proud. Poor Marie-Anne! And I have pitilessly sacrificed her to my hatred! I should not complain; come what may, I have deserved it.”
The sound of approaching footsteps became more and more distinct. Lacheneur straightened himself up, and seemed to be gathering all his energy for the decisive moment.
“Remain inside,” he said, imperiously, to Antoine and his wife. “I am going out; they must not arrest me in your house.”
As he spoke, he stepped outside the door, with a firm tread, a dauntless brow, a calm and assured mien.
The soldiers were but a few feet from him.
“Halt!” he exclaimed, in a strong, ringing voice. “It is Lacheneur you are seeking, is it not? I am he! I surrender myself.”
An unbroken stillness reigned. Not a sound, not a word replied.
The spectre of death that hovered above his head imparted such an imposing majesty to his person that the soldiers paused, silent and awed.
But there was one man who was terrified by this resonant voice, and that was Chupin.
Remorse filled his cowardly heart, and pale and trembling, he tried to hide behind the soldiers.
Lacheneur walked straight to him.
“So it is you who have sold my life, Chupin?” he said, scornfully. “You have not forgotten, I see plainly, how often Marie-Anne has filled your empty larder — and now you take your revenge.”
The miserable wretch seemed crushed. Now that he had done this foul deed, he knew what treason really was.
“So be it,” said M. Lacheneur. “You will receive the price of my blood; but it will not bring you good fortune — traitor!”
But Chupin, indignant with himself for his weakness, was already trying to shake off the fear that mastered him.
“You have conspired against the King,” he stammered. “I have done only my duty in denouncing you.”
And turning to the soldiers, he said:
“As for you, comrades, you may rest assured that the Duc de Sairmeuse will testify his gratitude for your services.”
They had bound Lacheneur’s hands, and the party were about to descend the mountain, when a man appeared, bareheaded, covered with perspiration, and panting for breath.
Twilight was falling, but M. Lacheneur recognized Balstain.
“Ah! you have him!” he exclaimed, as soon as he was within hearing distance, and pointing to the prisoner. “The reward belongs to me — I denounced him first on the other side of the frontier. The gendarmes at Saint-Jean-de-Coche will testify to that. He would have been captured last night in my house, but he ran away in my absence; and I have been following the bandit for sixteen hours.”
He spoke with extraordinary vehemence and volubility, beside himself with fear lest he was about to lose his reward, and lest his treason would bring him nothing save disgrace and obloquy.
“If you have any right to the reward, you must prove it before the proper authorities,” said the officer in command.
“If I have any right!” interrupted Balstain; “who contests my right, then?”
He looked threateningly around, and his eyes fell on Chupin.
“Is it you?” he demanded. “Do you dare to assert that you discovered the brigand?”
“Yes, it was I who discovered his hiding-place.”
“You lie, impostor!” vociferated the innkeeper; “you lie!”
The soldiers did not move. This scene repaid them for the disgust they had experienced during the afternoon.
“But,” continued Balstain, “what else could one expect from a vile knave like Chupin? Everyone knows that he has been obliged to flee from France a dozen times on account of his crimes. Where did you take refuge when you crossed the frontier, Chupin? In my house, in the inn kept by honest Balstain. You were fed and protected there. How many times have I saved you from the gendarmes and from the galleys? More times than I can count. And to reward me, you steal my property; you steal this man who was mine ——”
“He is insane!” said the terrified Chupin, “he is mad!”
Then the innkeeper changed his tactics.
“At least you will be reasonable,” he exclaimed. “Let us see, Chupin, what you will do for an old friend? Divide, will you not? No, you say no? What will you give me, comrade? A third? Is that too much? A quarter, then ——”
Chupin felt that all the soldiers were enjoying his terrible humiliation. They were sneering at him, and only an instant before they had avoided coming in contact with him with evident horror.
Transported with anger, he pushed Balstain violently aside, crying to the soldiers:
“Come — are we going to spend the night here?”
An implacable hatred gleamed in the eye of the Piedmontese.
He drew his knife from his pocket, and making the sign of the cross in the air:
“Saint-Jean-de-Coche,” he exclaimed, in a ringing voice, “and you, Holy Virgin, hear my vow. May my soul burn in hell if I ever use a knife at my repasts until I have plunged this, which I now hold, into the heart of the scoundrel who has defrauded me!”
Having said this, he disappeared in the woods, and the soldiers took up their line of march.
But Chupin was no longer the same. All his accustomed impudence had fled. He walked on with bowed head, a prey to the most sinister presentiments.
He felt assured that an oath like that of Balstain’s, and uttered by such a man, was equivalent to a death-warrant, or at least to a speedy prospect of assassination.
This thought tormented him so much that he would not allow the detachment to spend the night at Saint-Pavin, as had been agreed upon. He was impatient to leave the neighborhood.
After supper Chupin sent for a cart; the prisoner, securely bound, was placed in it, and the party started for Montaignac.
The great bell was striking two when Lacheneur was brought into the citadel.
At that very moment M. d’Escorval and Corporal Bavois were making their preparations for escape.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50