This name Lacheneur awakened no recollection in the mind of the duke.
First, he had never lived at Sairmeuse.
And even if he had, what courtier of the ancien regime ever troubled himself about the individual names of the peasants, whom he regarded with such profound indifference.
When a grand seigneur addressed these people, he said: “Halloo! hi, there! friend, my worthy fellow!”
So it was with the air of a man who is making an effort of memory that the Duc de Sairmeuse repeated:
“Lacheneur — Monsieur Lacheneur ——”
But Martial, a closer observer than his father, had noticed that the priest’s glance wavered at the sound of this name.
“Who is this person, Abbe?” demanded the duke, lightly.
“Monsieur Lacheneur,” replied the priest, with very evident hesitation, “is the present owner of the Chateau de Sairmeuse.”
Martial, the precocious diplomat, could not repress a smile on hearing this response, which he had foreseen. But the duke bounded from his chair.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, “it is the rascal who has had the impudence — Let him come in, old woman, let him come in.”
Bibiaine retired, and the priest’s uneasiness increased.
“Permit me, Monsieur le Duc,” he said, hastily, “to remark that Monsieur Lacheneur exercises a great influence in this region — to offend him would be impolitic ——”
“I understand — you advise me to be conciliatory. Such sentiments are purely Jacobin. If His Majesty listens to the advice of such as you, all these sales of confiscated estates will be ratified. Zounds! our interests are the same. If the Revolution has deprived the nobility of their property, it has also impoverished the clergy.”
“The possessions of a priest are not of this world, Monsieur,” said the cure, coldly.
M. de Sairmeuse was about to make some impertinent response, when M. Lacheneur appeared, followed by his daughter.
The wretched man was ghastly pale, great drops of perspiration stood out upon his temples, his restless, haggard eyes revealed his distress of mind.
Marie-Anne was as pale as her father, but her attitude and the light that burned in her eyes told of invincible energy and determination.
“Ah, well! friend,” said the duke, “so we are the owner of Sairmeuse, it seems.”
This was said with such a careless insolence of manner that the cure blushed that they should thus treat, in his own house, a man whom he considered his equal.
He rose and offered the visitors chairs.
“Will you take a seat, dear Monsieur Lacheneur?” said he, with a politeness intended as a lesson for the duke; “and you, also, Mademoiselle, do me the honor ——”
But the father and the daughter both refused the proffered civility with a motion of the head.
“Monsieur le Duc,” continued Lacheneur, “I am an old servant of your house ——”
“Mademoiselle Armande, your aunt, accorded my poor mother the honor of acting as my godmother ——”
“Ah, yes,” interrupted the duke. “I remember you now. Our family has shown great goodness to you and yours. And it was to prove your gratitude, probably, that you made haste to purchase our estate!”
The former ploughboy was of humble origin, but his heart and his character had developed with his fortunes; he understood his own worth.
Much as he was disliked, and even detested, by his neighbors, everyone respected him.
And here was a man who treated him with undisguised scorn. Why? By what right?
Indignant at the outrage, he made a movement as if to retire.
No one, save his daughter, knew the truth; he had only to keep silence and Sairmeuse remained his.
Yes, he had still the power to keep Sairmeuse, and he knew it, for he did not share the fears of the ignorant rustics. He was too well informed not to be able to distinguish between the hopes of the emigres and the possible. He knew that an abyss separated the dream from the reality.
A beseeching word uttered in a low tone by his daughter, made him turn again to the duke.
“If I purchased Sairmeuse,” he answered, in a voice husky with emotion, “it was in obedience to the command of your dying aunt, and with the money which she gave me for that purpose. If you see me here, it is only because I come to restore to you the deposit confided to my keeping.”
Anyone not belonging to that class of spoiled fools which surround a throne would have been deeply touched.
But the duke thought this grand act of honesty and of generosity the most simple and natural thing in the world.
“That is very well, so far as the principal is concerned,” said he. “Let us speak now of the interest. Sairmeuse, if I remember rightly, yielded an average income of one thousand louis per year. These revenues, well invested, should have amounted to a very considerable amount. Where is this?”
This claim, thus advanced and at such a moment, was so outrageous, that Martial, disgusted, made a sign to his father, which the latter did not see.
But the cure hoping to recall the extortioner to something like a sense of shame, exclaimed:
“Monsieur le Duc! Oh, Monsieur le Duc!”
Lacheneur shrugged his shoulders with an air of resignation.
“The income I have used for my own living expenses, and in educating my children; but most of it has been expended in improving the estate, which today yields an income twice as large as in former years.”
“That is to say, for twenty years, Monsieur Lacheneur has played the part of lord of the manor. A delightful comedy. You are rich now, I suppose.”
“I possess nothing. But I hope you will allow me to take ten thousand francs, which your aunt gave to me.”
“Ah! she gave you ten thousand francs? And when?”
“On the same evening that she gave me the eighty thousand francs intended for the purchase of the estate.”
“Perfect! What proof can you furnish that she gave you this sum?”
Lacheneur stood motionless and speechless. He tried to reply, but he could not. If he opened his lips it would only be to pour forth a torrent of menaces, insults, and invectives.
Marie-Anne stepped quickly forward.
“The proof, Monsieur,” said she, in a clear, ringing voice, “is the word of this man, who, of his own free will, comes to return to you — to give you a fortune.”
As she sprang forward her beautiful dark hair escaped from its confinement, the rich blood crimsoned her cheeks, her dark eyes flashed brilliantly, and sorrow, anger, horror at the humiliation, imparted a sublime expression to her face.
She was so beautiful that Martial regarded her with wonder.
“Lovely!” he murmured, in English; “beautiful as an angel!”
These words, which she understood, abashed Marie-Anne. But she had said enough; her father felt that he was avenged.
He drew from his pocket a roll of papers, and throwing them upon the table: “Here are your titles,” he said, addressing the duke in a tone full of implacable hatred. “Keep the legacy that your aunt gave me, I wish nothing of yours. I shall never set foot in Sairmeuse again. Penniless I entered it, penniless I will leave it!”
He quitted the room with head proudly erect, and when they were outside, he said but one word to his daughter:
“You have done your duty,” she replied; “it is those who have not done it, who are to be pitied!”
She had no opportunity to say more. Martial came running after them, anxious for another chance of seeing this young girl whose beauty had made such an impression upon him.
“I hastened after you,” he said, addressing Marie-Anne, rather than M. Lacheneur, “to reassure you. All this will be arranged, Mademoiselle. Eyes so beautiful as yours should never know tears. I will be your advocate with my father —”
“Mademoiselle Lacheneur has no need of an advocate!” a harsh voice interrupted.
Martial turned, and saw the young man, who, that morning, went to warn M. Lacheneur of the duke’s arrival.
“I am the Marquis de Sairmeuse,” he said, insolently.
“And I,” said the other, quietly, “am Maurice d’Escorval.”
They surveyed each other for a moment; each expecting, perhaps, an insult from the other. Instinctively, they felt that they were to be enemies; and the bitterest animosity spoke in the glances they exchanged. Perhaps they felt a presentiment that they were to be champions of two different principles, as well as rivals.
Martial, remembering his father, yielded.
“We shall meet again, Monsieur d’Escorval,” he said, as he retired. At this threat, Maurice shrugged his shoulders, and said:
“You had better not desire it.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54