Ah, well, there was one woman, a fair young girl, whose heart had not been touched by the sorrowful scenes of which Montaignac had been the theatre.
Mlle. Blanche de Courtornieu smiled as brightly as ever in the midst of a stricken people; and surrounded by mourners, her lovely eyes remained dry.
The daughter of a man who, for a week, exercised the power of a dictator, she did not lift her finger to save a single one of the condemned prisoners from the executioner.
They had stopped her carriage on the public road. This was a crime which Mlle. de Courtornieu could never forget.
She also knew that she owed it to Marie-Anne’s intercession that she had not been held prisoner. This she could never forgive.
So it was with the bitterest resentment that, on the morning following her arrival in Montaignac, she recounted what she styled her “humiliations” to her father, i.e., the inconceivable arrogance of that Lacheneur girl, and the frightful brutality of which the peasants had been guilty.
And when the Marquis de Courtornieu asked if she would consent to testify against Baron d’Escorval, she coldly replied:
“I think that such is my duty, and I shall fulfil it, however painful it may be.”
She knew perfectly well that her deposition would be the baron’s death-warrant; but she persisted in her resolve, veiling her hatred and her insensibility under the name of virtue.
But we must do her the justice to admit that her testimony was sincere.
She really believed that it was Baron d’Escorval who was with the rebels, and whose opinion Chanlouineau had asked.
This error on the part of Mlle. Blanche rose from the custom of designating Maurice by his Christian name, which prevailed in the neighborhood.
In speaking of him everyone said “Monsieur Maurice.” When they said “Monsieur d’Escorval,” they referred to the baron.
After the crushing evidence against the accused had been written and signed in her fine and aristocratic hand-writing, Mlle. de Courtornieu bore herself with partly real and partly affected indifference. She would not, on any account, have had people suppose that anything relating to these plebeians — these low peasants — could possibly disturb her proud serenity. She would not so much as ask a single question on the subject.
But this superb indifference was, in great measure, assumed. In her inmost soul she was blessing this conspiracy which had caused so many tears and so much blood to flow. Had it not removed her rival from her path?
“Now,” she thought, “the marquis will return to me, and I will make him forget the bold creature who has bewitched him!”
Chimeras! The charm had vanished which had once caused the love of Martial de Sairmeuse to oscillate between Mlle. de Courtornieu and the daughter of Lacheneur.
Captivated at first by the charms of Mlle. Blanche, he soon discovered the calculating ambition and the utter worldliness concealed beneath such seeming simplicity and candor. Nor was he long in discerning her intense vanity, her lack of principle, and her unbounded selfishness; and, comparing her with the noble and generous Marie-Anne, his admiration was changed into indifference, or rather repugnance.
He did return to her, however, or at least he seemed to return to her, actuated, perhaps, by that inexplicable sentiment that impels us sometimes to do that which is most distasteful to us, and by a feeling of discouragement and despair, knowing that Marie-Anne was now lost to him forever.
He also said to himself that a pledge had been interchanged between the duke and the Marquis de Courtornieu; that he, too, had given his word, and that Mlle. Blanche was his betrothed.
Was it worth while to break this engagement? Would he not be compelled to marry some day? Why not fulfil the pledge that had been made? He was as willing to marry Mlle. de Courtornieu as anyone else, since he was sure that the only woman whom he had ever truly loved — the only woman whom he ever could love — was never to be his.
Master of himself when near her, and sure that he would ever remain the same, it was easy to play the part of lover with that perfection and that charm which — sad as it is to say it — the real passion seldom or never attains. He was assisted by his self-love, and also by that instinct of duplicity which leads a man to contradict his thoughts by his acts.
But while he seemed to be occupied only with thoughts of his approaching marriage, his mind was full of intense anxiety concerning Baron d’Escorval.
What had become of the baron and of Bavois after their escape? What had become of those who were awaiting them on the rocks — for Martial knew all their plans — Mme. d’Escorval and Marie-Anne, the abbe and Maurice, and the four officers?
There were, then, ten persons in all who had disappeared. And Martial asked himself again and again, how it could be possible for so many individuals to mysteriously disappear, leaving no trace behind them.
“It unquestionably denotes a superior ability,” thought Martial, “I recognize the hand of the priest.”
It was, indeed, remarkable, since the search ordered by the Duc de Sairmeuse and the marquis had been pursued with feverish activity, greatly to the terror of those who had instituted it. Still what could they do? They had imprudently excited the zeal of their subordinates, and now they were unable to moderate it. But fortunately all efforts to discover the fugitives had proved unavailing.
One witness testified, however, that on the morning of the escape, he met, just before daybreak, a party of about a dozen persons, men and women, who seemed to be carrying a dead body.
This circumstance, taken in connection with the broken rope and the blood-stains, made Martial tremble.
He had also been strongly impressed by another circumstance, which was revealed as the investigation progressed.
All the soldiers who were on guard that eventful night were interrogated. One of them testified as follows:
“I was on guard in the corridor communicating with the prisoner’s apartment in the tower, when at about half-past two o’clock, after Lacheneur had been placed in his cell, I saw an officer approaching me. I challenged him; he gave me the countersign, and, naturally, I allowed him to pass. He went down the corridor, and entered the room adjoining that in which Monsieur d’Escorval was confined. He remained there about five minutes.”
“Did you recognize this officer?” Martial eagerly inquired.
And the soldier answered: “No. He wore a large cloak, the collar of which was turned up so high that it covered his face to the very eyes.”
Who could this mysterious officer have been? What was he doing in the room where the ropes had been deposited?
Martial racked his brain to discover an answer to these questions.
The Marquis de Courtornieu himself seemed much disturbed.
“How could you be ignorant that there were many sympathizers with this movement in the garrison?” he said, angrily. “You might have known that this visitor, who concealed his face so carefully, was an accomplice who had been warned by Bavois, and who came to see if he needed a helping hand.”
This was a plausible explanation, still it did not satisfy Martial.
“It is very strange,” he thought, “that Monsieur d’Escorval has not even deigned to let me know he is in safety. The service which I have rendered him deserves that acknowledgment, at least.”
Such was his disquietude that he resolved to apply to Chupin, even though this traitor inspired him with extreme repugnance.
But it was no longer easy to obtain the services of the old spy. Since he had received the price of Lacheneur’s blood — the twenty thousand francs which had so fascinated him — Chupin had deserted the house of the Duc de Sairmeuse.
He had taken up his quarters in a small inn on the outskirts of the town; and he spent his days alone in a large room on the second floor.
At night he barricaded the doors, and drank, drank, drank; and until daybreak they could hear him cursing and singing or struggling against imaginary enemies.
Still he dared not disobey the order brought by a soldier, summoning him to the Hotel de Sairmeuse at once.
“I wish to discover what has become of Baron d’Escorval,” said Martial.
Chupin trembled, he who had formerly been bronze, and a fleeting color dyed his cheeks.
“The Montaignac police are at your disposal,” he answered sulkily. “They, perhaps, can satisfy the curiosity of Monsieur le Marquis. I do not belong to the police.”
Was he in earnest, or was he endeavoring to augment the value of his services by refusing them? Martial inclined to the latter opinion.
“You shall have no reason to complain of my generosity,” said he. “I will pay you well.”
But on hearing the word “pay,” which would have made his eyes gleam with delight a week before, Chupin flew into a furious passion.
“So it was to tempt me again that you summoned me here!” he exclaimed. “You would do better to leave me quietly at my inn.”
“What do you mean, fool?”
But Chupin did not even hear this interruption, and, with increasing fury, he continued:
“They told me that, by betraying Lacheneur, I should be doing my duty and serving the King. I betrayed him, and now I am treated as if I had committed the worst of crimes. Formerly, when I lived by stealing and poaching, they despised me, perhaps; but they did not shun me as they did the pestilence. They called me rascal, robber, and the like; but they would drink with me all the same. To-day I have twenty thousand francs, and I am treated as if I were a venomous beast. If I approach a man, he draws back; if I enter a room, those who are there leave it.”
The recollection of the insults he had received made him more and more frantic with rage.
“Was the act I committed so ignoble and abominable?” he pursued. “Then why did your father propose it? The shame should fall on him. He should not have tempted a poor man with wealth like that. If, on the contrary, I have done well, let them make laws to protect me.”
Martial comprehended the necessity of reassuring his troubled mind.
“Chupin, my boy,” said he, “I do not ask you to discover Monsieur d’Escorval in order to denounce him; far from it — I only desire you to ascertain if anyone at Saint-Pavin, or at Saint-Jean-de-Coche, knows of his having crossed the frontier.”
On hearing the name Saint-Jean-de-Coche, Chupin’s face blanched.
“Do you wish me to be murdered?” he exclaimed, remembering Balstain and his vow. “I would have you know that I value my life, now that I am rich.”
And seized with a sort of panic he fled precipitately. Martial was stupefied with astonishment.
“One might really suppose that the wretch was sorry for what he had done,” he thought.
If that was really the case, Chupin was not alone.
M. de Courtornieu and the Duc de Sairmeuse were secretly blaming themselves for the exaggerations in their first reports, and the manner in which they had magnified the proportions of the rebellion. They accused each other of undue haste, of neglect of the proper forms of procedure, and the injustice of the verdict rendered.
Each endeavored to make the other responsible for the blood which had been spilled; one tried to cast the public odium upon the other.
Meanwhile they were both doing their best to obtain a pardon for the six prisoners who had been reprieved.
They did not succeed.
One night a courier arrived at Montaignac, bearing the following laconic despatch:
“The twenty-one convicted prisoners must be executed.”
That is to say, the Duc de Richelieu, and the council of ministers, headed by M. Decazes, the minister of police, had decided that the petitions for clemency must be refused.
This despatch was a terrible blow to the Duc de Sairmeuse and M. de Courtornieu. They knew, better than anyone else, how little these poor men, whose lives they had tried, too late, to save, deserved death. They knew it would soon be publicly proven that two of the six men had taken no part whatever in the conspiracy.
What was to be done?
Martial desired his father to resign his authority; but the duke had not courage to do it.
M. de Courtornieu encouraged him. He admitted that all this was very unfortunate, but declared, since the wine had been drawn, that it was necessary to drink it, and that one could not draw back now without causing a terrible scandal.
The next day the dismal rolling of drums was again heard, and the six doomed men, two of whom were known to be innocent, were led outside the walls of the citadel and shot, on the same spot where, only a week before, fourteen of their comrades had fallen.
And the prime mover in the conspiracy had not yet been tried.
Confined in the cell next to that which Chanlouineau had occupied, Lacheneur had fallen into a state of gloomy despondency, which lasted during his whole term of imprisonment. He was terribly broken, both in body and in mind.
Once only did the blood mount to his pallid cheek, and that was on the morning when the Duc de Sairmeuse entered the cell to interrogate him.
“It was you who drove me to do what I did,” he said. “God sees us, and judges us!”
Unhappy man! his faults had been great; his chastisement was terrible.
He had sacrificed his children on the altar of his wounded pride; he had not even the consolation of pressing them to his heart and of asking their forgiveness before he died.
Alone in his cell he could not distract his mind from thoughts of his son and of his daughter; but such was the terrible situation in which he had placed himself that he dared not ask what had become of them.
Through a compassionate keeper, he learned that nothing had been heard of Jean, and that it was supposed Marie-Anne had gone to some foreign country with the d’Escorval family.
When summoned before the court for trial, Lacheneur was calm and dignified in manner. He attempted no defence, but responded with perfect frankness. He took all the blame upon himself, and would not give the name of one of his accomplices.
Condemned to be beheaded, he was executed on the following day. In spite of the rain, he desired to walk to the place of execution. When he reached the scaffold, he ascended the steps with a firm tread, and, of his own accord, placed his head upon the block.
A few seconds later, the rebellion of the 4th of March counted its twenty-first victim.
And that same evening the people everywhere were talking of the magnificent rewards which were to be bestowed upon the Duc de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de Courtornieu; and it was also asserted that the nuptials of the children of these great houses were to take place before the close of the week.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54