To disturb the merrymaking at the Chateau de Sairmeuse; to change the joy of the bridal-day into sadness; to cast a gloom over the nuptials of Martial and Mlle. Blanche de Courtornieu.
This, in truth, was all that Jean Lacheneur hoped to do.
As for believing that Martial, triumphant and happy, would accept the challenge of Maurice, a miserable outlaw, he did not believe it.
While awaiting Martial in the vestibule of the chateau, he armed himself against the scorn and sneers which he would probably receive from this haughty nobleman whom he had come to insult.
But Martial’s kindly greeting had disconcerted him a little.
But he was reassured when he saw the terrible effect produced upon the marquis by the insulting letter.
“We have cut him to the quick,” he thought.
When Martial seized him by the arm and led him upstairs, he made no resistance.
While they traversed the brightly lighted drawing-rooms and passed through the crowd of astonished guests, Jean thought neither of his heavy shoes nor of his peasant dress.
Breathless with anxiety, he wondered what was to come.
He soon knew.
Leaning against the gilded door-post, he witnessed the terrible scene in the little salon.
He saw Martial de Sairmeuse, frantic with passion, cast into the face of his father-in-law Maurice d’Escorval’s letter.
One might have supposed that all this did not affect him in the least, he stood so cold and unmoved, with compressed lips and downcast eyes; but appearances were deceitful. His heart throbbed with wild exultation; and if he cast down his eyes, it was only to conceal the joy that sparkled there.
He had not hoped for so prompt and so terrible a revenge.
Nor was this all.
After brutally repulsing Blanche, his newly wedded wife, who attempted to detain him, Martial again seized Jean Lacheneur’s arm.
“Now,” said he, “follow me!”
Jean followed him still without a word.
They again crossed the grand hall, but instead of going to the vestibule Martial took a candle that was burning upon a side table, and opened a little door leading to the private staircase.
“Where are you taking me?” inquired Jean Lacheneur.
Martial, who had already ascended two or three steps, turned.
“Are you afraid?” he asked.
The other shrugged his shoulders, and coldly replied:
“If you put it in that way, let us go on.”
They entered the room which Martial had occupied since taking possession of the chateau. It was the same room that had once belonged to Jean Lacheneur; and nothing had been changed. He recognized the brightly flowered curtains, the figures on the carpet, and even an old arm-chair where he had read many a novel in secret.
Martial hastened to a small writing-desk, and took from it a paper which he slipped into his pocket.
“Now,” said he, “let us go. We must avoid another scene. My father and — my wife will be seeking me. I will explain when we are outside.”
They hastily descended the staircase, passed through the gardens, and soon reached the long avenue.
Then Jean Lacheneur suddenly paused.
“To come so far for a simple yes or no is, I think, unnecessary,” said he. “Have you decided? What answer am I to give Maurice d’Escorval?”
“Nothing! You will take me to him. I must see him and speak with him in order to justify myself. Let us proceed!”
But Jean Lacheneur did not move.
“What you ask is impossible!” he replied.
“Because Maurice is pursued. If he is captured, he will be tried and undoubtedly condemned to death. He is now in a safe retreat, and I have no right to disclose it.”
Maurice’s safe retreat was, in fact, only a neighboring wood, where in company with the corporal, he was awaiting Jean’s return.
But Jean could not resist the temptation to make this response, which was far more insulting than if he had simply said:
“We fear informers!”
Strange as it may appear to one who knew Martial’s proud and violent nature, he did not resent the insult.
“So you distrust me!” he said, sadly.
Jean Lacheneur was silent — another insult.
“But,” insisted Martial, “after what you have just seen and heard you can no longer suspect me of having cut the ropes which I carried to the baron.”
“No! I am convinced that you are innocent of that atrocious act.”
“You saw how I punished the man who dared to compromise the honor of the name of Sairmeuse. And this man is the father of the young girl whom I wedded to-day.”
“I have seen all this; but I must still reply: ‘Impossible.’”
Jean was amazed at the patience, we should rather say, the humble resignation displayed by Martial de Sairmeuse.
Instead of rebelling against this manifest injustice, Martial drew from his pocket the paper which he had just taken from his desk, and handing it to Jean:
“Those who have brought upon me the shame of having my word doubted shall be punished for it,” he said grimly. “You do not believe in my sincerity, Jean. Here is a proof, which I expect you to give to Maurice, and which cannot fail to convince even you.”
“What is this proof?”
“The letter written by my hand, in exchange for which my father assisted in the baron’s escape. An inexplicable presentiment prevented me from burning this compromising letter. To-day, I rejoice that such was the case. Take it, and use it as you will.”
Anyone save Jean Lacheneur would have been touched by the generosity of soul. But Jean was implacable. His was a nature which nothing can disarm, which nothing can mollify; hatred in his heart was a passion which, instead of growing weaker with time, increased and became more terrible.
He would have sacrificed anything at that moment for the ineffable joy of seeing this proud and detested marquis at his feet.
“Very well, I will give it to Maurice,” he responded, coldly.
“It should be a bond of alliance, it seems to me,” said Martial, gently.
Jean Lacheneur made a gesture terrible in its irony and menace.
“A bond of alliance!” he exclaimed. “You are too fast, Monsieur le Marquis! Have you forgotten all the blood that flows between us? You did not cut the ropes; but who condemned the innocent Baron d’Escorval to death? Was it not the Duc de Sairmeuse? An alliance! You have forgotten that you and yours sent my father to the scaffold! How have you rewarded the man whose heroic honesty gave you back a fortune? By murdering him, and by ruining the reputation of his daughter.”
“I offered my name and my fortune to your sister.”
“I would have killed her with my own hand had she accepted your offer. Let this prove to you that I do not forget. If any great disgrace ever tarnishes the proud name of Sairmeuse, think of Jean Lacheneur. My hand will be in it.”
He was so frantic with passion that he forgot his usual caution. By a violent effort he recovered his self-possession, and in calmer tones he added:
“And if you are so desirous of seeing Maurice, be at the Reche to-morrow at mid-day. He will be there.”
Having said this, he turned abruptly aside, sprang over the fence skirting the avenue, and disappeared in the darkness.
“Jean,” cried Martial, in almost supplicating tones; “Jean, come back — listen to me!”
A sort of bewilderment had seized the young marquis, and he stood motionless and dazed in the middle of the road.
A horse and rider on their way to Montaignac, that nearly ran over him, aroused him from his stupor, and the consciousness of his acts, which he had lost while reading the letter from Maurice, came back to him.
Now he could judge of his conduct calmly.
Was it indeed he, Martial, the phlegmatic sceptic, the man who boasted of his indifference and his insensibility, who had thus forgotten all self-control?
Alas, yes. And when Blanche de Courtornieu, now and henceforth the Marquise de Sairmeuse, accused Marie-Anne of being the cause of his frenzy, she had not been entirely wrong.
Martial, who regarded the opinion of the entire world with disdain, was rendered frantic by the thought that Marie-Anne despised him, and considered him a traitor and a coward.
It was for her sake, that in his outburst of rage, he resolved upon such a startling justification. And if he besought Jean to lead him to Maurice d’Escorval, it was because he hoped to find Marie-Anne not far off, and to say to her:
“Appearances were against me, but I am innocent; and I have proved it by unmasking the real culprit.”
It was to Marie-Anne that he wished this famous letter to be given, thinking that she, at least, could not fail to be surprised at his generosity.
His expectations had been disappointed; and now he realized what a terrible scandal he had created.
“It will be the devil to arrange!” he explained; “but nonsense! it will be forgotten in a month. The best way will be to face those gossips at once: I will return immediately.”
He said: “I will return,” in the most deliberate manner; but in proportion as he neared the chateau, his courage failed him.
The guests must have departed ere this, and Martial concluded that he would probably find himself alone with his young wife, his father, and the Marquis de Courtornieu. What reproaches, tears, anger and threats he would be obliged to encounter.
“No,” he muttered. “I am not such a fool! Let them have a night to calm themselves. I will not appear until to-morrow.”
But where should he pass the night? He was in evening dress and bareheaded; he began to feel cold. The house belonging to the duke in Montaignac would afford him a refuge.
“I shall find a bed, some servants, a fire, and a change of clothing there — and to-morrow, a horse to return.”
It was quite a distance to walk; but in his present mood this did not displease him.
The servant who came to open the door when he rapped, was speechless with astonishment on recognizing him.
“You, Monsieur!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, it is I. Light a good fire in the drawing-room for me, and bring me a change of clothing.”
The valet obeyed, and soon Martial found himself alone, stretched upon a sofa before the cheerful blaze.
“It would be a good thing to sleep and forget my troubles,” he said to himself.
He tried; but it was not until early morning that he fell into a feverish slumber.
He awoke about nine o’clock, ordered breakfast, concluded to return to Sairmeuse, and he was eating with a good appetite, when suddenly:
“Have a horse saddled instantly!” he exclaimed.
He had just remembered the rendezvous with Maurice. Why should he not go there?
He set out at once, and thanks to a spirited horse, he reached the Reche at half-past eleven o’clock.
The others had not yet arrived; he fastened his horse to a tree near by, and leisurely climbed to the summit of the hill.
This spot had been the site of Lacheneur’s house. The four walls remained standing, blackened by fire.
Martial was contemplating the ruins, not without deep emotion, when he heard a sharp crackling in the underbrush.
He turned; Maurice, Jean, and Corporal Bavois were approaching.
The old soldier carried under his arm a long and narrow package, enveloped in a piece of green serge. It contained the swords which Jean Lacheneur had gone to Montaignac during the night to procure from a retired officer.
“We are sorry to have kept you waiting,” began Maurice, “but you will observe that it is not yet midday. Since we scarcely expected to see you ——”
“I was too anxious to justify myself not to be here early,” interrupted Martial.
Maurice shrugged his shoulders disdainfully.
“It is not a question of self-justification, but of fighting,” he said, in a tone rude even to insolence.
Insulting as were the words and the gesture that accompanied them, Martial never so much as winced.
“Sorrow has rendered you unjust,” said he, gently, “or Monsieur Lacheneur here has told you nothing.”
“Jean has told me all.”
Martial’s coolness drove Maurice frantic.
“Well,” he replied, with extreme violence, “my hatred is unabated even if my scorn is diminished. You have owed me an opportunity to avenge myself, Monsieur, ever since the day we met on the square at Sairmeuse in the presence of Mademoiselle Lacheneur. You said to me on that occasion: ‘We shall meet again.’ Here we stand now face to face. What insults must I heap upon you to decide you to fight?”
A flood of crimson dyed Martial’s face. He seized one of the swords which Bavois offered him, and assumed an attitude of defence.
“You will have it so,” said he in a husky voice. “The thought of Marie-Anne can no longer save you.”
But the blades had scarcely crossed before a cry from Jean and from Corporal Bavois arrested the combat.
“The soldiers!” they exclaimed; “let us fly!”
A dozen soldiers were indeed approaching at the top of their speed.
“Ah! I spoke the truth!” exclaimed Maurice. “The coward came, but the gendarmes accompanied him.”
He bounded back, and breaking his sword over his knee, he hurled the fragments in Martial’s face, saying:
“Here, miserable wretch!”
“Wretch!” repeated Jean and Corporal Bavois, “traitor! coward!”
And they fled, leaving Martial thunderstruck.
He struggled hard to regain his composure. The soldiers were very near; he ran to meet them, and addressing the officer in command, he said, imperiously:
“Do you know who I am?”
“Yes,” replied the sergeant, respectfully, “you are the son of the Duc de Sairmeuse.”
“Very well! I forbid you to follow those men.”
The sergeant hesitated at first; then, in a decided tone, he replied:
“I cannot obey you, sir. I have my orders.”
And addressing his men:
“Forward!” he exclaimed. He was about to set the example, when Martial seized him by the arm.
“At least you will not refuse to tell me who sent you here?”
“Who sent us? The colonel, of course, in obedience to orders from the grand prevot, Monsieur de Courtornieu. He sent the order last night. We have been hidden in that grove since daybreak. But release me — tonnerre! would you have my expedition fail entirely?”
He hurried away, and Martial, staggering like a drunken man, descended the slope, and remounted his horse.
But he did not repair to the Chateau de Sairmeuse; he returned to Montaignac, and passed the remainder of the afternoon in the solitude of his own room.
That evening he sent two letters to Sairmeuse. One to his father, the other to his wife.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50