When Abbe Midon and Martial de Sairmeuse held their conference, to discuss and to decide upon the arrangements for the Baron d’Escorval’s escape, a difficulty presented itself which threatened to break off the negotiation.
“Return my letter,” said Martial, “and I will save the baron.”
“Save the baron,” replied the abbe, “and your letter shall be returned.”
But Martial’s was one of those natures which become exasperated by the least shadow of suspicion.
The idea that anyone should suppose him influenced by threats, when in reality, he had yielded only to Marie-Anne’s tears, angered him beyond endurance.
“These are my last words, Monsieur,” he said, emphatically. “Restore to me, now, this instant, the letter which was obtained from me by Chanlouineau’s ruse, and I swear to you, by the honor of my name, that all which it is possible for any human being to do to save the baron, I will do. If you distrust my word, good-evening.”
The situation was desperate, the danger imminent, the time limited; Martial’s tone betrayed an inflexible determination.
The abbe could not hesitate. He drew the letter from his pocket and handing it to Martial:
“Here it is, Monsieur,” he said, solemnly, “remember that you have pledged the honor of your name.”
“I will remember it, Monsieur le Cure. Go and obtain the ropes.”
The abbe’s sorrow and amazement were intense, when, after the baron’s terrible fall, Maurice announced that the cord had been cut. And yet he could not make up his mind that Martial was guilty of the execrable act. It betrayed a depth of duplicity and hypocrisy which is rarely found in men under twenty-five years of age. But no one suspected his secret thoughts. It was with the most unalterable sang-froid that he dressed the baron’s wounds and made arrangements for the flight. Not until he saw M. d’Escorval installed in Poignot’s house did he breathe freely.
The fact that the baron had been able to endure the journey, proved that in this poor maimed body remained a power of vitality for which the priest had not dared to hope.
Some way must now be discovered to procure the surgical instruments and the remedies which the condition of the wounded man demanded.
But where and how could he procure them?
The police kept a close watch over the physicians and druggists in Montaignac, in the hope of discovering the wounded conspirators through them.
But the cure, who had been for ten years physician and surgeon for the poor of his parish, had an almost complete set of surgical instruments and a well-filled medicine-chest.
“This evening,” said he, “I will obtain what is needful.”
When night came, he put on a long blue blouse, shaded his face by an immense slouch hat, and directed his steps toward Sairmeuse.
Not a light was visible through the windows of the presbytery; Bibiane, the old housekeeper, must have gone out to gossip with some of the neighbors.
The priest effected an entrance into the house, which had once been his, by forcing the lock of the door opening on the garden; he found the requisite articles, and retired without having been discovered.
That night the abbe hazarded a cruel but indispensable operation. His heart trembled, but not the hand that held the knife, although he had never before attempted so difficult a task.
“It is not upon my weak powers that I rely: I have placed my trust in One who is on High.”
His faith was rewarded. Three days later the wounded man, after quite a comfortable night, seemed to regain consciousness.
His first glance was for his devoted wife, who was seated by his bedside; his first word was for his son.
“Maurice?” he asked.
“Is in safety,” replied the abbe. “He must be on the way to Turin.”
M. d’Escorval’s lips moved as if he were murmuring a prayer; then, in a feeble voice:
“We owe you a debt of gratitude which we can never pay,” he murmured, “for I think I shall pull through.”
He did “pull through,” but not without terrible suffering, not without difficulties that made those around him tremble with anxiety. Jean Lacheneur, more fortunate, was on his feet by the end of the week.
Forty days had passed, when one evening — it was the 17th of April — while the abbe was reading a newspaper to the baron, the door gently opened and one of the Poignot boys put in his head, then quickly withdrew it.
The priest finished the paragraph, laid down the paper, and quietly went out.
“What is it?” he inquired of the young man.
“Ah! Monsieur, Monsieur Maurice, Mademoiselle Lacheneur and the old corporal have just arrived; they wish to come up.”
In three bounds the abbe descended the narrow staircase.
“Unfortunate creatures!” he exclaimed, addressing the three imprudent travellers, “what has induced you to return here?”
Then turning to Maurice:
“Is it not enough that for you, and through you, your father has nearly died? Are you afraid he will not be recaptured, that you return here to set the enemies upon his track? Depart!”
The poor boy, quite overwhelmed, faltered his excuse. Uncertainty seemed to him worse than death; he had heard of M. Lacheneur’s execution; he had not reflected, he would go at once; he asked only to see his father and to embrace his mother.
The priest was inflexible.
“The slightest emotion might kill your father,” he declared; “and to tell your mother of your return, and of the dangers to which you have foolishly exposed yourself, would cause her untold tortures. Go at once. Cross the frontier again this very night.”
Jean Lacheneur, who had witnessed this scene, now approached.
“It is time for me to depart,” said he, “and I entreat you to care for my sister, the place for her is here, not upon the highways.”
The abbe deliberated for a moment, then he said, brusquely:
“So be it; but go at once; your name is not upon the proscribed list. You will not be pursued.”
Thus, suddenly separated from his wife, Maurice wished to confer with her, to give her some parting advice; but the abbe did not allow him an opportunity.
“Go, go at once,” he insisted. “Farewell!”
The good abbe was too hasty.
Just when Maurice stood sorely in need of wise counsel, he was thus delivered over to the influence of Jean Lacheneur’s furious hatred. As soon as they were outside:
“This,” exclaimed Jean, “is the work of the Sairmeuse and the Marquis de Courtornieu! I do not even know where they have thrown the body of my murdered parent; you cannot even embrace the father who has been traitorously assassinated by them!”
He laughed a harsh, discordant, terrible laugh, and continued:
“And yet, if we ascended that hill, we could see the Chateau de Sairmeuse in the distance, brightly illuminated. They are celebrating the marriage of Martial de Sairmeuse and Blanche de Courtornieu. We are homeless wanderers without friends, and without a shelter for our heads: they are feasting and making merry.”
Less than this would have sufficed to rekindle the wrath of Maurice. He forgot everything in saying to himself that to disturb this fete by his appearance would be a vengeance worthy of him.
“I will go and challenge Martial now, on the instant, in the presence of the revellers,” he exclaimed.
But Jean interrupted him.
“No, not that! They are cowards; they would arrest you. Write; I will be the bearer of the letter.”
Corporal Bavois heard them; but he did not oppose their folly. He thought it all perfectly natural, under the circumstances, and esteemed them the more for their rashness.
Forgetful of prudence they entered the first shop, and the challenge was written and confided to Jean Lacheneur.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54