One must have lived in the country to know with what inconceivable rapidity news flies from mouth to mouth.
Strange as it may seem, the news of the scene at the chateau reached Father Poignot’s farm-house that same evening.
It had not been three hours since Maurice, Jean Lacheneur and Bavois left the house, promising to re-cross the frontier that same night.
Abbe Midon had decided to say nothing to M. d’Escorval of his son’s return, and to conceal Marie-Anne’s presence in the house. The baron’s condition was so critical that the merest trifle might turn the scale.
About ten o’clock the baron fell asleep, and the abbe and Mme. d’Escorval went downstairs to talk with Marie-Anne. As they were sitting there Poignot’s eldest son entered in a state of great excitement.
After supper he had gone with some of his acquaintances to admire the splendors of the fete, and he now came rushing back to relate the strange events of the evening to his father’s guests.
“It is inconceivable!” murmured the abbe.
He knew but too well, and the others comprehended it likewise, that these strange events rendered their situation more perilous than ever.
“I cannot understand how Maurice could commit such an act of folly after what I had just said to him. The baron’s most cruel enemy has been his own son. We must wait until to-morrow before deciding upon anything.”
The next day they heard of the meeting at the Reche. A peasant who, from a distance, had witnessed the preliminaries of the duel which had not been fought, was able to give them the fullest details.
He had seen the two adversaries take their places, then the soldiers run to the spot, and afterward pursue Maurice, Jean and Bavois.
But he was sure that the soldiers had not overtaken them. He had met them five hours afterward, harassed and furious; and the officer in charge of the expedition declared their failure to be the fault of the Marquis de Sairmeuse, who had detained them.
That same day Father Poignot informed the abbe that the Duc de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de Courtornieu were at variance. It was the talk of the country. The marquis had returned to his chateau, accompanied by his daughter, and the duke had gone to Montaignac.
The abbe’s anxiety on receiving this intelligence was so poignant that he could not conceal it from Baron d’Escorval.
“You have heard something, my friend,” said the baron.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
“Some new danger threatens us.”
“None, I swear it.”
The priest’s protestations did not convince the baron.
“Oh, do not deny it!” he exclaimed. “Night before last, when you entered my room after I awoke, you were paler than death, and my wife had certainly been crying. What does all this mean?”
Usually, when the cure did not wish to reply to the sick man’s questions, it was sufficient to tell him that conversation and excitement would retard his recovery; but this time the baron was not so docile.
“It will be very easy for you to restore my tranquillity,” he said. “Confess now, that you are trembling lest they discover my retreat. This fear is torturing me also. Very well, swear to me that you will not allow them to take me alive, and then my mind will be at rest.”
“I cannot take such an oath as that,” said the cure, turning pale.
“And why?” insisted M. d’Escorval. “If I am recaptured, what will happen? They will nurse me, and then, as soon as I can stand upon my feet, they will shoot me down. Would it be a crime to save me from such suffering? You are my best friend; swear to render me this supreme service. Would you have me curse you for saving my life?”
The abbe made no response; but his eye, voluntarily or involuntarily, turned with a peculiar expression to the box of medicine standing upon the table near by.
Did he wish to be understood as saying:
“I will do nothing; but you will find a poison there.”
M. d’Escorval understood it in this way, for it was with an accent of gratitude that he murmured:
Now that he felt that he was master of his life he breathed more freely. From that moment his condition, so long desperate, began to improve.
“I can defy all my enemies from this hour,” he said, with a gayety which certainly was not feigned.
Day after day passed and the abbe’s sinister apprehensions were not realized; he, too, began to regain confidence.
Instead of causing an increase of severity, Maurice’s and Jean Lacheneur’s frightful imprudence had been, as it were, the point of departure for a universal indulgence.
One might reasonably have supposed that the authorities of Montaignac had forgotten, and desired to have forgotten, if that were possible, Lacheneur’s conspiracy, and the abominable slaughter for which it had been made the pretext.
They soon heard at the farm that Maurice and the brave corporal had succeeded in reaching Piedmont.
No allusion was made to Jean Lacheneur, so it was supposed that he had not left the country; but they had no reason to fear for his safety, since he was not upon the proscribed list.
Later, it was rumored that the Marquis de Courtornieu was ill, and that Mme. Blanche did not leave his bedside.
Soon afterward, Father Poignot, on returning from Montaignac, reported that the duke had just passed a week in Paris, and that he was now on his way home with one more decoration — another proof of royal favor — and that he had succeeded in obtaining an order for the release of all the conspirators, who were now in prison.
It was impossible to doubt this intelligence, for the Montaignac papers mentioned this fact, with all the circumstances on the following day.
The abbe attributed this sudden and happy change entirely to the rupture between the duke and the marquis, and this was the universal opinion in the neighborhood. Even the retired officers remarked:
“The duke is decidedly better than he is supposed to be, and if he has been severe, it is only because he was influenced by that odious Marquis de Courtornieu.”
Marie-Anne alone suspected the truth. A secret presentiment told her that it was Martial de Sairmeuse who had shaken off his wonted apathy, and was working these changes and using and abusing his ascendancy over the mind of his father.
“And it is for your sake,” whispered an inward voice, “that Martial is thus working. What does this careless egotist care for these obscure peasants, whose names he does not even know? If he protects them, it is only that he may have a right to protect you, and those whom you love!”
With these thoughts in her mind, she could not but feel her aversion to Martial diminish.
Was not such conduct truly heroic in a man whose dazzling offers she had refused? Was there not real moral grandeur in the feeling that induced Martial to reveal a secret which might ruin the political fortunes of his house, rather than be suspected of an unworthy action? And still the thought of this grande passion which she had inspired in so truly great a man never once made her heart quicken its throbbing.
Alas! nothing was capable of touching her heart now; nothing seemed to reach her through the gloomy sadness that enveloped her.
She was but the ghost of the formerly beautiful and radiant Marie-Anne. Her quick, alert tread had become slow and dragging, often she sat for whole days motionless in her chair, her eyes fixed upon vacancy, her lips contracted as if by a spasm, while great tears rolled silently down her cheeks.
Abbe Midon, who was greatly disquieted on her account, often attempted to question her.
“You are suffering, my child,” he said, kindly. “What is the matter?”
“I am not ill, Monsieur.”
“Why do you not confide in me? Am I not your friend? What do you fear?”
She shook her head sadly and replied:
“I have nothing to confide.”
She said this, and yet she was dying of sorrow and anguish.
Faithful to the promise she had made Maurice, she had said nothing of her condition, or of the marriage solemnized in the little church at Vigano. And she saw with inexpressible terror, the approach of the moment when she could no longer keep her secret. Her agony was frightful; but what could she do!
Fly? but where should she go? And by going, would she not lose all chance of hearing from Maurice, which was the only hope that sustained her in this trying hour?
She had almost determined on flight when circumstances — providentially, it seemed to her — came to her aid.
Money was needed at the farm. The guests were unable to obtain any without betraying their whereabouts, and Father Poignot’s little store was almost exhausted.
Abbe Midon was wondering what they were to do, when Marie-Anne told him of the will which Chanlouineau had made in her favor, and of the money concealed beneath the hearth-stone in the best chamber.
“I might go to the Borderie at night,” suggested Marie-Anne, “enter the house, which is unoccupied, obtain the money and bring it here. I have a right to do so, have I not?”
But the priest did not approve this step.
“You might be seen,” said he, “and who knows — perhaps arrested. If you were questioned, what plausible explanation could you give?”
“What shall I do, then?”
“Act openly; you are not compromised. Make your appearance in Sairmeuse to-morrow as if you had just returned from Piedmont; go to the notary, take possession of your property, and install yourself at the Borderie.”
“Live in Chanlouineau’s house,” she faltered. “I alone!”
“Heaven will protect you, my dear child. I can see only advantages in your installation at the Borderie. It will be easy to communicate with you; and with ordinary precautions there can be no danger. Before your departure we will decide upon a place of rendezvous, and two or three times a week you can meet Father Poignot there. And, in the course of two or three months you can be still more useful to us. When people have become accustomed to your residence at the Borderie, we will take the baron there. His convalescence will be much more rapid there, than here in this cramped and narrow loft, where we are obliged to conceal him now, and where he is really suffering for light and air.”
So it was decided that Father Poignot should accompany Marie-Anne to the frontier that very night; there she would take the diligence that ran between Piedmont and Montaignac, passing through the village of Sairmeuse.
It was with the greatest care that the abbe dictated to Marie-Anne the story she was to tell of her sojourn in foreign lands. All that she said, and all her answers to questions must tend to prove that Baron d’Escorval was concealed near Turin.
The plan was carried out in every particular; and the next day, about eight o’clock, the people of Sairmeuse were greatly astonished to see Marie-Anne alight from the diligence.
“Monsieur Lacheneur’s daughter has returned!”
The words flew from lip to lip with marvellous rapidity, and soon all the inhabitants of the village were gathered at the doors and windows.
They saw the poor girl pay the driver, and enter the inn, followed by a boy bearing a small trunk.
In the city, curiosity has some shame; it hides itself while it spies into the affairs of its neighbors; but in the country it has no such scruples.
When Marie-Anne emerged from the inn, she found a crowd awaiting her with open mouths and staring eyes.
And more than twenty people making all sorts of comments, followed her to the door of the notary.
He was a man of importance, this notary, and he welcomed Marie-Anne with all the deference due an heiress of an unencumbered property, worth from forty to fifty thousand francs.
But jealous of his renown for perspicuity, he gave her clearly to understand that he, being a man of experience, had divined that love alone had dictated Chanlouineau’s last will and testament.
Marie-Anne’s composure and resignation made him really angry.
“You forget what brings me here,” she said; “you do not tell me what I have to do!”
The notary, thus interrupted, made no further attempts at consolation.
“Pestet!“ he thought, “she is in a hurry to get possession of her property — the avaricious creature!”
“The business can be terminated at once, for the justice of the peace is at liberty to-day, and he can go with us to break the seals this afternoon.”
So, before evening, all the legal requirements were complied with, and Marie-Anne was formally installed at the Borderie.
She was alone in Chanlouineau’s house — alone! Night came on and a great terror seized her heart. It seemed to her that the doors were about to open, that this man who had loved her so much would appear before her, and that she would hear his voice as she heard it for the last time in his grim prison-cell.
She fought against these foolish fears, lit a lamp, and went through this house — now hers — in which everything spoke so forcibly of its former owner.
Slowly she examined the different rooms on the lower floor, noting the recent repairs which had been made and the conveniences which had been added, and at last she ascended to that room above which Chanlouineau had made the tabernacle of his passion.
Here, everything was magnificent, far more so than his words had led her to suppose. The poor peasant who made his breakfast off a crust and a bit of onion had lavished a small fortune on the decorations of this apartment, designed as a sanctuary for his idol.
“How he loved me!” murmured Marie-Anne, moved by that emotion, the bare thought of which had awakened the jealousy of Maurice.
But she had neither the time nor the right to yield to her feelings. Father Poignot was doubtless, even then, awaiting her at the rendezvous.
She lifted the hearth-stone, and found the sum of money which Chanlouineau had named.
The next morning, when he awoke, the abbe received the money.
Now, Marie-Anne could breathe freely; and this peace, after so many trials and agitations, seemed to her almost happiness.
Faithful to the abbe’s instructions, she lived alone; but, by frequent visits, she accustomed the people of the neighborhood to her presence.
Yes, she would have been almost happy, could she have had news of Maurice. What had become of him? Why did he give no sign of life? What would she not have given in exchange for some word of counsel and of love from him?
The time was fast approaching when she would require a confidant; and there was no one in whom she could confide.
In this hour of extremity, when she really felt that her reason was failing her, she remembered the old physician at Vigano, who had been one of the witnesses to her marriage.
“He would help me if I called upon him for aid,” she thought.
She had no time to temporize or to reflect; she wrote to him immediately, giving the letter in charge of a youth in the neighborhood.
“The gentleman says you may rely upon him,” said the messenger on his return.
That very evening Marie-Anne heard someone rap at her door. It was the kind-hearted old man who had come to her relief.
He remained at the Borderie nearly a fortnight.
When he departed one morning, before daybreak, he took away with him under his large cloak an infant — a boy — whom he had sworn to cherish as his own child.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54