The abode of the Baron d’Escorval, that brick structure with stone trimmings which was visible from the superb avenue leading to Sairmeuse, was small and unpretentious.
Its chief attraction was a pretty lawn that extended to the banks of the Oiselle, and a small but beautifully shaded park.
It was known as the Chateau d’Escorval, but that appellation was gross flattery. Any petty manufacturer who had amassed a small fortune would have desired a larger, handsomer, and more imposing establishment.
M. d’Escorval — and it will be an eternal honor to him in history — was not rich.
Although he had been intrusted with several of those missions from which generals and diplomats often return laden with millions, M. d’Escorval’s worldly possessions consisted only of the little patrimony bequeathed him by his father: a property which yielded an income of from twenty to twenty-five thousand francs a year.
This modest dwelling, situated about a mile from Sairmeuse, represented the savings of ten years.
He had built it in 1806, from a plan drawn by his own hand; and it was the dearest spot on earth to him.
He always hastened to this retreat when his work allowed him a few days of rest.
But this time he had not come to Escorval of his own free will.
He had been compelled to leave Paris by the proscribed list of the 24th of July — that fatal list which summoned the enthusiastic Labedoyere and the honest and virtuous Drouot before a court-martial.
And even in this solitude, M. d’Escorval’s situation was not without danger.
He was one of those who, some days before the disaster of Waterloo, had strongly urged the Emperor to order the execution of Fouche, the former minister of police.
Now, Fouche knew this counsel; and he was powerful.
“Take care!” M. d’Escorval’s friends wrote him from Paris.
But he put his trust in Providence, and faced the future, threatening though it was, with the unalterable serenity of a pure conscience.
The baron was still young; he was not yet fifty, but anxiety, work, and long nights passed in struggling with the most arduous difficulties of the imperial policy, had made him old before his time.
He was tall, slightly inclined to embonpoint, and stooped a little.
His calm eyes, his serious mouth, his broad, furrowed forehead, and his austere manners inspired respect.
“He must be stern and inflexible,” said those who saw him for the first time.
But they were mistaken.
If, in the exercise of his official duties, this truly great man had the strength to resist all temptations to swerve from the path of right; if, when duty was at stake, he was as rigid as iron, in private life he was as unassuming as a child, and kind and gentle even to the verge of weakness.
To this nobility of character he owed his domestic happiness, that rare and precious happiness which fills one’s existence with a celestial perfume.
During the bloodiest epoch of the Reign of Terror, M. d’Escorval had wrested from the guillotine a young girl named Victoire-Laure d’Alleu, a distant cousin of the Rhetaus of Commarin, as beautiful as an angel, and only three years younger than himself.
He loved her — and though she was an orphan, destitute of fortune, he married her, considering the treasure of her virgin heart of far greater value than the most magnificent dowry.
She was an honest woman, as her husband was an honest man, in the most strict and vigorous sense of the word.
She was seldom seen at the Tuileries, where M. d’Escorval’s worth made him eagerly welcomed. The splendors of the Imperial Court, which at that time surpassed all the pomp of the time of Louis XIV., had no attractions for her.
Grace, beauty, youth and accomplishments — she reserved them all for the adornment of her home.
Her husband was her God. She lived in him and through him. She had not a thought which did not belong to him.
The short time that he could spare from his arduous labors to devote to her were her happiest hours.
And when, in the evening, they sat beside the fire in their modest drawing-room, with their son Maurice playing on the rug at their feet, it seemed to them that they had nothing to wish for here below.
The overthrow of the empire surprised them in the heydey of their happiness.
Surprised them? No. For a long time M. d’Escorval had seen the prodigious edifice erected by the genius whom he had made his idol totter as if about to fall.
Certainly, he felt intense chagrin at this fall, but he was heart-broken at the sight of all the treason and cowardice which followed it. He was indignant and horrified at the rising en masse of the avaricious, who hastened to gorge themselves with the spoil.
Under these circumstances, exile from Paris seemed an actual blessing.
“Besides,” as he remarked to the baroness, “we shall soon be forgotten here.”
But even while he said this he felt many misgivings. Still, by his side, his noble wife presented a tranquil face, even while she trembled for the safety of her adored husband.
On this first Sunday in August, M. d’Escorval and his wife had been unusually sad. A vague presentiment of approaching misfortune weighed heavily upon their hearts.
At the same hour that Lacheneur presented himself at the house of the Abbe Midon, they were seated upon the terrace in front of the house, gazing anxiously at the two roads leading from Escorval to the chateau, and to the village of Sairmeuse.
Warned, that same morning, by his friends in Montaignac of the arrival of the duke, the baron had sent his son to inform M. Lacheneur.
He had requested him to be absent as short a time as possible; but in spite of this fact, the hours were rolling by, and Maurice had not returned.
“What if something has happened to him!” both father and mother were thinking.
No; nothing had happened to him. Only a word from Mlle. Lacheneur had sufficed to make him forget his usual deference to his father’s wishes.
“This evening,” she had said, “I shall certainly know your heart.”
What could this mean? Could she doubt him?
Tortured by the most cruel anxieties, the poor youth could not resolve to go away without an explanation, and he hung around the chateau hoping that Marie-Anne would reappear.
She did reappear at last, but leaning upon the arm of her father.
Young d’Escorval followed them at a distance, and soon saw them enter the parsonage. What were they going to do there? He knew that the duke and his son were within.
The time that they remained there, and which he passed in the public square, seemed more than a century long.
They emerged at last, however, and he was about to join them when he was prevented by the appearance of Martial, whose promises he overheard.
Maurice knew nothing of life; he was as innocent as a child, but he could not mistake the intentions that dictated this step on the part of the Marquis de Sairmeuse.
At the thought that a libertine’s caprice should dare rest for an instant upon the pure and beautiful girl whom he loved with all the strength of his being — whom he had sworn should be his wife — all his blood mounted madly to his brain.
He felt a wild longing to chastise the insolent wretch.
Fortunately — unfortunately, perhaps — his hand was arrested by the recollection of a phrase which he had heard his father repeat a thousand times:
“Calmness and irony are the only weapons worthy of the strong.”
And he possessed sufficient strength of will to appear calm, while, in reality, he was beside himself with passion. It was Martial who lost his self-control, and who threatened him.
“Ah! yes, I will find you again, upstart!” repeated Maurice, through his set teeth as he watched his enemy move away.
For Martial had turned and discovered that Marie-Anne and her father had left him. He saw them standing about a hundred paces from him. Although he was surprised at their indifference, he made haste to join them, and addressed M. Lacheneur.
“We are just going to your father’s house,” was the response he received, in an almost ferocious tone.
A glance from Marie-Anne commanded silence. He obeyed, and walked a few steps behind them, with his head bowed upon his breast, terribly anxious, and seeking vainly to explain what had passed.
His attitude betrayed such intense sorrow that his mother divined it as soon as she caught sight of him.
All the anguish which this courageous woman had hidden for a month, found utterance in a single cry.
“Ah! here is misfortune!” said she, “we shall not escape it.”
It was, indeed, misfortune. One could not doubt it when one saw M. Lacheneur enter the drawing-room.
He advanced with the heavy, uncertain step of a drunken man, his eye void of expression, his features distorted, his lips pale and trembling.
“What has happened?” asked the baron, eagerly.
But the other did not seem to hear him.
“Ah! I warned her,” he murmured, continuing a monologue which had begun before he entered the room. “I told my daughter so.”
Mme. d’Escorval, after kissing Marie-Anne, drew the girl toward her.
“What has happened? For God’s sake, tell me what has happened!” she exclaimed.
With a gesture expressive of the most sorrowful resignation, the girl motioned her to look and to listen to M. Lacheneur.
He had recovered from that stupor — that gift of God — which follows cries that are too terrible for human endurance. Like a sleeper who, on waking, finds his miseries forgotten during his slumber, lying in wait for him, he regained with consciousness the capacity to suffer.
“It is only this, Monsieur le Baron,” replied the unfortunate man in a harsh, unnatural voice: “I rose this morning the richest proprietor in the country, and I shall lay down to-night poorer than the poorest beggar in this commune. I had everything; I no longer have anything — nothing but my two hands. They earned me my bread for twenty-five years; they will earn it for me now until the day of my death. I had a beautiful dream; it is ended.”
Before this outburst of despair, M. d’Escorval turned pale.
“You must exaggerate your misfortune,” he faltered; “explain what has happened.”
Unconscious of what he was doing, M. Lacheneur threw his hat upon a chair, and flinging back his long, gray hair, he said:
“To you I will tell all. I came here for that purpose. I know you; I know your heart. And have you not done me the honor to call me your friend?”
Then, with the cruel exactness of the living, breathing truth, he related the scene which had just taken place at the presbytery.
The baron listened petrified with astonishment, almost doubting the evidence of his own senses. Mme. d’Escorval’s indignant and sorrowful exclamations showed that every noble sentiment in her soul revolted against such injustice.
But there was one auditor, whom Marie-Anne alone observed, who was moved to his very entrails by this recital. This auditor was Maurice.
Leaning against the door, pale as death, he tried most energetically, but in vain, to repress the tears of rage and of sorrow which swelled up in his eyes.
To insult Lacheneur was to insult Marie-Anne — that is to say, to injure, to strike, to outrage him in all that he held most dear in the world.
Ah! it is certain that Martial, had he been within his reach, would have paid dearly for these insults to the father of the girl Maurice loved.
But he swore that this chastisement was only deferred — that it should surely come.
And it was not mere angry boasting. This young man, though so modest and so gentle in manner, had a heart that was inaccessible to fear. His beautiful, dark eyes, which had the trembling timidity of the eyes of a young girl, met the gaze of an enemy without flinching.
When M. Lacheneur had repeated the last words which he had addressed to the Duc de Sairmeuse, M. d’Escorval offered him his hand.
“I have told you already that I was your friend,” he said, in a voice faltering with emotion; “but I must tell you to-day that I am proud of having such a friend as you.”
The unfortunate man trembled at the touch of that loyal hand which clasped his so warmly, and his face betrayed an ineffable satisfaction.
“If my father had not returned it,” murmured the obstinate Marie-Anne, “my father would have been an unfaithful guardian — a thief. He has done only his duty.”
M. d’Escorval turned to the young girl, a little surprised.
“You speak the truth, Mademoiselle,” he said, reproachfully; “but when you are as old as I am, and have had my experience, you will know that the accomplishment of a duty is, under certain circumstances, a heroism of which few persons are capable.”
M. Lacheneur turned to his friend.
“Ah! your words do me good, Monsieur,” said he. “Now, I am content with what I have done.”
The baroness rose, too much the woman to know how to resist the generous dictates of her heart.
“And I, also, Monsieur Lacheneur,” she said, “desire to press your hand. I wish to tell you that I esteem you as much as I despise the ingrates who have sought to humiliate you, when they should have fallen at your feet. They are heartless monsters, the like of whom certainly cannot be found upon the earth.”
“Alas!” sighed the baron, “the allies have brought back others who, like these men, think the world created exclusively for their benefit.”
“And these people wish to be our masters,” growled Lacheneur.
By some strange fatality no one chanced to hear the remark made by M. Lacheneur. Had they overheard and questioned him, he would probably have disclosed some of the projects which were as yet in embryo in his own mind; and in that case what disastrous consequences might have been averted.
M. d’Escorval had regained his usual coolness.
“Now, my dear friend,” he inquired, “what course do you propose to pursue with these members of the Sairmeuse family?”
“They will hear nothing more from me — for some time, at least.”
“What! Shall you not claim the ten thousand francs that they owe you?”
“I shall ask them for nothing.”
“You will be compelled to do so. Since you have alluded to the legacy, your own honor will demand that you insist upon its payment by all legal methods. There are still judges in France.”
M. Lacheneur shook his head.
“The judges will not accord me the justice I desire. I shall not apply to them.”
“No, Monsieur, no. I wish to have nothing to do with these men. I shall not even go to the chateau to remove my clothing nor that of my daughter. If they send it to us — very well. If it pleases them to keep it, so much the better. The more shameful, infamous and odious their conduct appears, the better I shall be satisfied.”
The baron made no reply; but his wife spoke, believing she had a sure means of conquering this incomprehensible obstinacy.
“I should understand your determination if you were alone in the world,” said she, “but you have children.”
“My son is eighteen, Madame; he possesses good health and an excellent education. He can make his own way in Paris, if he chooses to remain there.”
“But your daughter?”
“Marie-Anne will remain with me.”
M. d’Escorval thought it his duty to interfere.
“Take care, my dear friend, that your grief does not overthrow your reason,” said he. “Reflect! What will become of you — your daughter and yourself?”
The wretched man smiled sadly.
“Oh,” he replied, “we are not as destitute as I said. I exaggerated our misfortune. We are still landed proprietors. Last year an old cousin, whom I could never induce to come and live at Sairmeuse, died, bequeathing all her property to Marie-Anne. This property consisted of a poor little cottage near the Reche, with a little garden and a few acres of sterile land. In compliance with my daughter’s entreaties, I repaired the cottage, and sent there a few articles of furniture — a table, some chairs, and a couple of beds. My daughter designed it as a home for old Father Guvat and his wife. And I, surrounded by wealth and luxury, said to myself: ‘How comfortable those two old people will be there. They will live as snug as a bug in a rug!’ Well, what I thought so comfortable for others, will be good enough for me. I will raise vegetables, and Marie-Anne shall sell them.”
Was he speaking seriously?
Maurice must have supposed so, for he sprang forward.
“This shall not be, Monsieur Lacheneur!” he exclaimed.
“No, this shall not be, for I love Marie-Anne, and I ask you to give her to me for my wife.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54