Alone in his cell, Chanlouineau, after Marie-Anne’s departure, abandoned himself to the most frightful despair.
He had just given more than life to the woman he loved so fervently.
For had he not, in the hope of obtaining an interview with her, perilled his honor by simulating the most ignoble fear? While doing so, he thought only of the success of his ruse. But now he knew only too well what those who had witnessed his apparent weakness would say of him.
“This Chanlouineau is only a miserable coward after all,” he fancied he could hear them saying among themselves. “We have seen him on his knees, begging for mercy, and promising to betray his accomplices.”
The thought that his memory would be tarnished with charges of cowardice and treason drove him nearly mad.
He actually longed for death, since it would give him an opportunity to retrieve his honor.
“They shall see, then,” he cried, wrathfully, “if I turn pale and tremble before the soldiers.”
He was in this state of mind when the door opened to admit the Marquis de Courtornieu, who, after seeing Mlle. Lacheneur leave the prison, came to Chanlouineau to ascertain the result of her visit.
“Well, my good fellow —” began the marquis, in his most condescending manner.
“Leave!” cried Chanlouineau, in a fury of passion. “Leave, or ——”
Without waiting to hear the end of the sentence the marquis made his escape, greatly surprised and not a little dismayed by this sudden change.
“What a dangerous and blood-thirsty rascal!” he remarked to the guard. “It would, perhaps, be advisable to put him in a strait-jacket!”
Ah! there was no necessity for that. The heroic peasant had thrown himself upon his straw pallet, oppressed with feverish anxiety.
Would Marie-Anne know how to make the best use of the weapon which he had placed in her hands?
If he hoped so, it was because she would have as her counsellor and guide a man in whose judgment he had the most implicit confidence — Abbe Midon.
“Martial will be afraid of the letter,” he said to himself, again and again; “certainly he will be afraid.”
In this Chanlouineau was entirely mistaken. His discernment and intelligence were certainly above his station, but he was not sufficiently acute to read a character like that of the young Marquis de Sairmeuse.
The document which he had written in a moment of abandon and blindness, was almost without influence in determining his course.
He pretended to be greatly alarmed, in order to frighten his father; but in reality he considered the threat puerile.
Marie-Anne would have obtained the same assistance from him if she had not possessed this letter.
Other influences had decided him: the difficulties and dangers of the undertaking, the risks to be incurred, the prejudices to be braved.
To save the life of Baron d’Escorval — an enemy — to wrest him from the execution on the very steps of the scaffold, as it were, seemed to him a delightful enterprise. And to assure the happiness of the woman he adored by saving the life of an enemy, even after his suit had been refused, seemed a chivalrous act worthy of him.
Besides, what an opportunity it afforded for the exercise of his sang-froid, his diplomatic talent, and the finesse upon which he prided himself!
It was necessary to make his father his dupe. That was an easy task.
It was necessary to impose upon the credulity of the Marquis de Courtornieu. This was a difficult task, yet he succeeded.
But poor Chanlouineau could not conceive of such contradictions, and he was consumed with anxiety.
Willingly would he have consented to be put to the torture before receiving his death-blow, if he might have been allowed to follow Marie-Anne in her undertakings.
What was she doing? How could he ascertain?
A dozen times during the evening he called his guards, under every possible pretext, and tried to compel them to talk with him. He knew very well that these men could be no better informed on the subject than he was himself, that he could place no confidence in their reports — but that made no difference.
The drums beat for the evening roll-call, then for the extinguishment of lights — after that, silence.
Standing at the window of his cell, Chanlouineau concentrated all his faculties in a superhuman effort of attention.
It seemed to him if the baron regained his liberty, he would be warned of it by some sign. Those whom he had saved owed him, he thought, this slight token of gratitude.
A little after two o’clock he heard sounds that made him tremble. There was a great bustle in the corridors; guards running to and fro, and calling each other, a rattling of keys, and the opening and shutting of doors.
The passage was suddenly illuminated; he looked out, and by the uncertain light of the lanterns, he thought he saw Lacheneur, as pale as a ghost, pass the cell, led by some soldiers.
Lacheneur! Could this be possible? He doubted his own eyesight. He thought it must be a vision born of the fever burning in his brain.
Later, he heard a despairing cry. But was it surprising that one should hear such a sound in a prison, where twenty men condemned to death were suffering the agony of that terrible night which precedes the day of execution.
At last, the gray light of early dawn came creeping in through the prison-bars. Chanlouineau was in despair.
“The letter was useless!” he murmured.
Poor generous peasant! His heart would have leaped for joy could he have cast a glance on the courtyard of the citadel.
More than an hour had passed after the sounding of the reveille, when two countrywomen, who were carrying their butter and eggs to market, presented themselves at the gate of the fortress.
They declared that while passing through the fields at the base of the precipitous cliff upon which the citadel was built, they had discovered a rope dangling from the side of the rock. A rope! Then one of the condemned prisoners must have escaped. The guards hastened to Baron d’Escorval’s room — it was empty.
The baron had fled, taking with him the man who had been left to guard him — Corporal Bavois, of the grenadiers.
The amazement was as intense as the indignation, but the fright was still greater.
There was not a single officer who did not tremble on thinking of his responsibility; not one who did not see his hopes of advancement blighted forever.
What should they say to the formidable Duc de Sairmeuse and to the Marquis de Courtornieu, who, in spite of his calm and polished manners, was almost as much to be feared. It was necessary to warn them, however, and a sergeant was despatched with the news.
Soon they made their appearance, accompanied by Martial; all frightfully angry.
M. de Sairmeuse especially seemed beside himself.
He swore at everybody, accused everybody, threatened everybody.
He began by consigning all the keepers and guards to prison; he even talked of demanding the dismissal of all the officers.
“As for that miserable Bavois,” he exclaimed, “as for that cowardly deserter, he shall be shot as soon as we capture him, and we will capture him, you may depend upon it!”
They had hoped to appease the duke’s wrath a little, by informing him of Lacheneur’s arrest; but he knew this already, for Chupin had ventured to awake him in the middle of the night to tell him the great news.
The baron’s escape afforded the duke an opportunity to exalt Chupin’s merits.
“The man who has discovered Lacheneur will know how to find this traitor d’Escorval,” he remarked.
M. de Courtornieu, who was more calm, “took measures for the restoration of a great culprit to the hand of justice,” as he said.
He sent couriers in every direction, ordering them to make close inquiries throughout the neighborhood.
His commands were brief, but to the point; they were to watch the frontier, to submit all travellers to a rigorous examination, to search the house, and to sow the description of d’Escorval broadcast through the land.
But first of all he ordered the arrest both of Abbe Midon — the Cure of Sairmeuse, and of the son of Baron d’Escorval.
Among the officers present there was one, an old lieutenant, medalled and decorated, who had been deeply wounded by imputations uttered by the Duc de Sairmeuse.
He stepped forward with a gloomy air, and said that these measures were doubtless all very well, but the most pressing and urgent duty was to institute an investigation at once, which, while acquainting them with the method of escape, would probably reveal the accomplices.
On hearing the word “investigation,” neither the Duc de Sairmeuse nor the Marquis de Courtornieu could repress a slight shudder.
They could not ignore the fact that their reputations were at stake, and that the merest trifle might disclose the truth. A precaution neglected, the most insignificant detail, a word, a gesture might ruin their ambitious hopes forever.
They trembled to think that this officer might be a man of unusual shrewdness, who had suspected their complicity, and was impatient to verify his presumptions.
No, the old lieutenant had not the slightest suspicion. He had spoken on the impulse of the moment, merely to give vent to his displeasure. He was not even keen enough to remark the rapid glance interchanged between the marquis and the duke.
Martial noticed this look, however, and with a politeness too studied not to be ridicule, he addressed the lieutenant:
“Yes, we must institute an investigation; that suggestion is as shrewd as it is opportune,” he remarked.
The old officer turned away with a muttered oath.
“That coxcomb is poking fun at me,” he thought; “and he and his father and that prig deserve — but what is one to do?”
In spite of his bold remark, Martial felt that he must not incur the slightest risk.
To whom must the charge of this investigation be intrusted? To the duke and to the marquis, of course, since they were the only persons who would know just how much to conceal, and just how much to disclose.
They began their task immediately, with an empressement which could not fail to silence all doubts, in case any existed in the minds of their subordinates.
But who could be suspicious? The success of the plot had been all the more certain from the fact that the baron’s escape seemed likely to injure the interests of the very parties who had favored it.
Martial thought he knew the details of the escape as exactly as the fugitives themselves. He had been the author, even if they had been the actors, of the drama of the preceding night.
He was soon obliged to admit that he was mistaken in this opinion.
The investigation revealed facts which seemed incomprehensible to him.
It was evident that the Baron d’Escorval and Corporal Bavois had been compelled to accomplish two successive descents.
To do this the prisoners had realized (since they had succeeded) the necessity of having two ropes. Martial had provided them; the prisoners must have used them. And yet only one rope could be found — the one which the peasant woman had perceived hanging from the rocky platform, where it was made fast to an iron crowbar.
From the window to the platform, there was no rope.
“This is most extraordinary!” murmured Martial, thoughtfully.
“Very strange!” approved M. de Courtornieu.
“How the devil could they have reached the base of the tower?”
“That is what I cannot understand.”
But Martial found another cause for surprise.
On examining the rope that remained — the one which had been used in making the second descent — he discovered that it was not a single piece. Two pieces had been knotted together. The longest piece had evidently been too short.
How did this happen? Could the duke have made a mistake in the height of the cliff? or had the abbe measured the rope incorrectly?
But Martial had also measured it with his eye, and it had seemed to him that the rope was much longer, fully a third longer, than it now appeared.
“There must have been some accident,” he remarked to his father and to the marquis; “but what?”
“Well, what does it matter?” replied the marquis, “you have the compromising letter, have you not?”
But Martial’s was one of those minds that never rest when confronted by an unsolved problem.
He insisted on going to inspect the rocks at the foot of the precipice.
There they discovered large spots of blood.
“One of the fugitives must have fallen,” said Martial, quickly, “and was dangerously wounded!”
“Upon my word!” exclaimed the Duc de Sairmeuse, “if Baron d’Escorval has broken his neck, I shall be delighted!”
Martial’s face turned crimson, and he looked searchingly at his father.
“I suppose, Monsieur, that you do not mean one word of what you are saying,” Martial said, coldly. “We pledged ourselves, upon the honor of our name, to save Baron d’Escorval. If he has been killed it will be a great misfortune to us, Monsieur, a great misfortune.”
When his son addressed him in his haughty and freezing tone the duke never knew how to reply. He was indignant, but his son’s was the stronger nature.
“Nonsense!” exclaimed M. de Courtornieu; “if the rascal had merely been wounded we should have known it.”
Such was the opinion of Chupin, who had been sent for by the duke, and who had just made his appearance.
But the old scoundrel, who was usually so loquacious and so officious, replied briefly; and, strange to say, did not offer his services.
Of his imperturbable assurance, of his wonted impudence, of his obsequious and cunning smile, absolutely nothing remained.
His restless eyes, the contraction of his features, his gloomy manner, and the occasional shudder which he could not repress, all betrayed his secret perturbation.
So marked was the change that even the Duc de Sairmeuse observed it.
“What calamity has happened to you, Master Chupin?” he inquired.
“This has happened,” he responded, sullenly: “when I was coming here the children of the town threw mud and stones at me, and ran after me, shouting: ‘Traitor! traitor!’”
He clinched his fists; he seemed to be meditating vengeance, and he added:
“The people of Montaignac are pleased. They know that the baron has escaped, and they are rejoicing.”
Alas! this joy was destined to be of short duration, for this was the day appointed for the execution of the conspirators.
It was Wednesday.
At noon the gates of the citadel were closed, and the gloom was profound and universal, when the heavy rolling of drums announced the preparations for the frightful holocaust.
Consternation and fear spread through the town; the silence of death made itself felt on every side; the streets were deserted, and the doors and shutters of every house were closed.
At last, as three o’clock sounded, the gates of the fortress were opened to give passage to fourteen doomed men, each accompanied by a priest.
Fourteen! for seized by remorse or fright at the last moment, M de Courtornieu and the Duc de Sairmeuse had granted a reprieve to six of the prisoners and at that very hour a courier was hastening toward Paris with six petitions for pardons, signed by the Military Commission.
Chanlouineau was not among those for whom royal clemency had been solicited.
When he left his cell, without knowing whether or not his letter had availed, he counted the condemned with poignant anxiety.
His eyes betrayed such an agony of anguish that the priest who accompanied him leaned toward him and whispered:
“For whom are you looking, my son?”
“For Baron d’Escorval.”
“He escaped last night.”
“Ah! now I shall die content!” exclaimed the heroic peasant.
He died as he had sworn he would die, without even changing color — calm and proud, the name of Marie-Anne upon his lips.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54