How was it that Martial had failed to discover or to suspect this state of affairs?
A moment’s reflection will explain this fact which is so extraordinary in appearance, so natural in reality.
The head of a family, whether he dwells in an attic or in a palace, is always the last to know what is going on in his home. What everybody else knows he does not even suspect. The master often sleeps while his house is on fire. Some terrible catastrophe — an explosion — is necessary to arouse him from his fancied security.
The life that Martial led was likely to prevent him from arriving at the truth. He was a stranger to his wife. His manner toward her was perfect, full of deference and chivalrous courtesy; but they had nothing in common except a name and certain interests.
Each lived their own life. They met only at dinner, or at the entertainments which they gave and which were considered the most brilliant in Paris society.
The duchess had her own apartments, her servants, her carriages, her horses, her own table.
At twenty-five, Martial, the last descendant of the great house of Sairmeuse — a man upon whom destiny had apparently lavished every blessing — the possessor of youth, unbounded wealth, and a brilliant intellect, succumbed beneath the burden of an incurable despondency and ennui.
The death of Marie-Anne had destroyed all his hopes of happiness; and realizing the emptiness of his life, he did his best to fill the void with bustle and excitement. He threw himself headlong into politics, striving to find in power and in satisfied ambition some relief from his despondency.
It is only just to say that Mme. Blanche had remained superior to circumstances; and that she had played the role of a happy, contented woman with consummate skill.
Her frightful sufferings and anxiety never marred the haughty serenity of her face. She soon won a place as one of the queens of Parisian society; and plunged into dissipation with a sort of frenzy. Was she endeavoring to divert her mind? Did she hope to overpower thought by excessive fatigue?
To Aunt Medea alone did Blanche reveal her secret heart.
“I am like a culprit who has been bound to the scaffold, and then abandoned by the executioner, who says, as he departs: ‘Live until the axe falls of its own accord.’”
And the axe might fall at any moment. A word, a trifle, an unlucky chance — she dared not say “a decree of Providence,” and Martial would know all.
Such, in all its unspeakable horror, was the position of the beautiful and envied Duchesse de Sairmeuse. “She must be perfectly happy,” said the world; but she felt herself sliding down the precipice to the awful depths below.
Like a shipwrecked mariner clinging to a floating spar, she scanned the horizon with a despairing eye, and saw only angry and threatening clouds.
Time, perhaps, might bring her some relief.
Once it happened that six weeks went by, and she heard nothing from Chupin. A month and a half! What had become of him? To Mme. Blanche this silence was as ominous as the calm that precedes the storm.
A line in a newspaper solved the mystery.
Chupin was in prison.
The wretch, after drinking more heavily than usual one evening, had quarrelled with his brother, and had killed him by a blow upon the head with a piece of iron.
The blood of the betrayed Lacheneur was visited upon the heads of his murderer’s children.
Tried by the Court of Assizes, Chupin was condemned to twenty years of hard labor, and sent to Brest.
But this sentence afforded the duchess no relief. The culprit had written to her from his Paris prison; he wrote to her from Brest.
But he did not send his letters through the post. He confided them to comrades, whose terms of imprisonment had expired, and who came to the Hotel de Sairmeuse demanding an interview with the duchess.
And she received them. They told all the miseries they had endured “out there;” and usually ended by requesting some slight assistance.
One morning, a man whose desperate appearance and manner frightened her, brought the duchess this laconic epistle:
“I am tired of starving here; I wish to make my escape. Come to
Brest; you can visit the prison, and we will decide upon some
plan. If you refuse to do this, I shall apply to the duke, who
will obtain my pardon in exchange of what I will tell him.”
Mme. Blanche was dumb with horror. It was impossible, she thought, to sink lower than this.
“Well!” demanded the man, harshly. “What reply shall I make to my comrade?”
“I will go — tell him that I will go!” she said, driven to desperation.
She made the journey, visited the prison, but did not find Chupin.
The previous week there had been a revolt in the prison, the troops had fired upon the prisoners, and Chupin had been killed instantly.
Still the duchess dared not rejoice.
She feared that her tormentor had told his wife the secret of his power.
“I shall soon know,” she thought.
The widow promptly made her appearance; but her manner was humble and supplicating.
She had often heard her dear, dead husband say that madame was his benefactress, and now she came to beg a little aid to enable her to open a small drinking saloon.
Her son Polyte — ah! such a good son! just eighteen years old, and such a help to his poor mother — had discovered a little house in a good situation for the business, and if they only had three or four hundred francs ——
Mme. Blanche gave her five hundred francs.
“Either her humility is a mask,” she thought, “or her husband has told her nothing.”
Five days later Polyte Chupin presented himself.
They needed three hundred francs more before they could commence business, and he came on behalf of his mother to entreat the kind lady to advance them.
Determined to discover exactly where she stood, the duchess shortly refused, and the young man departed without a word.
Evidently the mother and son were ignorant of the facts. Chupin’s secret had died with him.
This happened early in January. Toward the last of February, Aunt Medea contracted inflammation of the lungs on leaving a fancy ball, which she attended in an absurd costume, in spite of all the attempts which her niece made to dissuade her.
Her passion for dress killed her. Her illness lasted only three days; but her sufferings, physical and mental, were terrible.
Constrained by her fear of death to examine her own conscience, she saw plainly that by profiting by the crime of her niece she had been as culpable as if she had aided her in committing it. She had been very devout in former years, and now her superstitious fears were reawakened and intensified. Her faith returned, accompanied by a cortege of terrors.
“I am lost!” she cried; “I am lost!”
She tossed to and fro upon her bed; she writhed and shrieked as if she already saw hell opening to engulf her.
She called upon the Holy Virgin and upon all the saints to protect her. She entreated God to grant her time for repentance and for expiation. She begged to see a priest, swearing she would make a full confession.
Paler than the dying woman, but implacable, Blanche watched over her, aided by that one of her personal attendants in whom she had most confidence.
“If this lasts long, I shall be ruined,” she thought. “I shall be obliged to call for assistance, and she will betray me.”
It did not last long.
The patient’s delirium was succeeded by such utter prostration that it seemed each moment would be her last.
But toward midnight she appeared to revive a little, and in a voice of intense feeling, she said:
“You have had no pity, Blanche. You have deprived me of all hope in the life to come. God will punish you. You, too, shall die like a dog; alone, without a word of Christian counsel or encouragement. I curse you!”
And she died just as the clock was striking two.
The time when Blanche would have given almost anything to know that Aunt Medea was beneath the sod, had long since passed.
Now, the death of the poor old woman affected her deeply.
She had lost an accomplice who had often consoled her, and she had gained nothing, since one of her maids was now acquainted with the secret of the crime at the Borderie.
Everyone who was intimately acquainted with the Duchesse de Sairmeuse, noticed her dejection, and was astonished by it.
“Is it not strange,” remarked her friends, “that the duchess — such a very superior woman — should grieve so much for that absurd relative of hers?”
But the dejection of Mme. Blanche was due in great measure to the sinister prophecies of the accomplice to whom she had denied the last consolations of religion.
And as her mind reviewed the past she shuddered, as the peasants at Sairmeuse had done, when she thought of the fatality which had pursued the shedders of innocent blood.
What misfortune had attended them all — from the sons of Chupin, the miserable traitor, up to her father, the Marquis de Courtornieu, whose mind had not been illumined by the least gleam of reason for ten long years before his death.
“My turn will come!” she thought.
The Baron and the Baroness d’Escorval, and old Corporal Bavois had departed this life within a month of each other, the previous year, mourned by all.
So that of all the people of diverse condition who had been connected with the troubles at Montaignac, Blanche knew only four who were still alive.
Maurice d’Escorval, who had entered the magistracy, and was now a judge in the tribunal of the Seine; Abbe Midon, who had come to Paris with Maurice, and Martial and herself.
There was another person, the bare recollection of whom made her tremble, and whose name she dared not utter.
Jean Lacheneur, Marie-Anne’s brother.
An inward voice, more powerful than reason, told her that this implacable enemy was still alive, watching for his hour of vengeance.
More troubled by her presentiments now, than she had been by Chupin’s persecutions in days gone by, Mme. de Sairmeuse decided to apply to Chelteux in order to ascertain, if possible, what she had to expect.
Fouche’s former agent had not wavered in his devotion to the duchess. Every three months he presented his bill, which was paid without discussion; and to ease his conscience, he sent one of his men to prowl around Sairmeuse for a while, at least once a year.
Animated by the hope of a magnificent reward, the spy promised his client, and — what was more to the purpose — promised himself, that he would discover this dreaded enemy.
He started in quest of him, and had already begun to collect proofs of Jean’s existence, when his investigations were abruptly terminated.
One morning the body of a man literally hacked in pieces was found in an old well. It was the body of Chelteux.
“A fitting close to the career of such a wretch,” said the Journal des Debats, in noting the event.
When she read this news, Mme. Blanche felt as a culprit would feel on reading his death-warrant.
“The end is near,” she murmured. “Lacheneur is coming!”
The duchess was not mistaken.
Jean had told the truth when he declared that he was not disposing of his sister’s estate for his own benefit. In his opinion, Marie-Anne’s fortune must be consecrated to one sacred purpose; he would not divert the slightest portion of it to his individual needs.
He was absolutely penniless when the manager of a travelling theatrical company engaged him for a consideration of forty-five francs per month.
From that day he lived the precarious life of a strolling player. He was poorly paid, and often reduced to abject poverty by lack of engagements, or by the impecuniosity of managers.
His hatred had lost none of its virulence; but to wreak the desired vengeance upon his enemy, he must have time and money at his disposal.
But how could he accumulate money when he was often too poor to appease his hunger?
Still he did not renounce his hopes. His was a rancor which was only intensified by years. He was biding his time while he watched from the depths of his misery the brilliant fortunes of the house of Sairmeuse.
He had waited sixteen years, when one of his friends procured him an engagement in Russia.
The engagement was nothing; but the poor comedian was afterward fortunate enough to obtain an interest in a theatrical enterprise, from which he realized a fortune of one hundred thousand francs in less than six years.
“Now,” said he, “I can give up this life. I am rich enough, now, to begin the warfare.”
And six weeks later he arrived in his native village.
Before carrying any of his atrocious designs into execution, he went to Sairmeuse to visit Marie-Anne’s grave, in order to obtain there an increase of animosity, as well as the relentless sang-froid of a stern avenger of crime.
That was his only motive in going, but, on the very evening of his arrival, he learned through a garrulous old peasant woman that ever since his departure — that is to say, for a period of twenty years — two parties had been making persistent inquiries for a child which had been placed somewhere in the neighborhood.
Jean knew that it was Marie-Anne’s child they were seeking. Why they had not succeeded in finding it, he knew equally well.
But why were there two persons seeking the child? One was Maurice d’Escorval, of course, but who was the other?
Instead of remaining at Sairmeuse a week, Jean Lacheneur tarried there a month; and by the expiration of that month he had traced these inquiries concerning the child to the agent of Chelteux. Through him, he reached Fouche’s former spy; and, finally, succeeded in discovering that the search had been instituted by no less a person than the Duchesse de Sairmeuse.
This discovery bewildered him. How could Mme. Blanche have known that Marie-Anne had given birth to a child; and knowing it, what possible interest could she have had in finding it?
These two questions tormented Jean’s mind continually; but he could discover no satisfactory answer.
“Chupin’s son could tell me, perhaps,” he thought. “I must pretend to be reconciled to the sons of the wretch who betrayed my father.”
But the traitor’s children had been dead for several years, and after a long search, Jean found only the Widow Chupin and her son, Polyte.
They were keeping a drinking-saloon not far from the Chateau-des-Rentiers; and their establishment, known as the Poivriere, bore anything but an enviable reputation.
Lacheneur questioned the widow and her son in vain; they could give him no information whatever on the subject. He told them his name, but even this did not awaken the slightest recollection in their minds.
Jean was about to take his departure when Mother Chupin, probably in the hope of extracting a few pennies, began to deplore her present misery, which was, she declared, all the harder to bear since she had wanted for nothing during the life of her poor husband, who had always obtained as much money as he wanted from a lady of high degree — the Duchesse de Sairmeuse, in short.
Lacheneur uttered such a terrible oath that the old woman and her son started back in affright.
He saw at once the close connection between the researches of Mme. Blanche and her generosity to Chupin.
“It was she who poisoned Marie-Anne,” he said to himself. “It was through my sister that she became aware of the existence of the child. She loaded Chupin with favors because he knew the crime she had committed — that crime in which his father had been only an accomplice.”
He remembered Martial’s oath at the bedside of the murdered girl, and his heart overflowed with savage exultation. He saw his two enemies, the last of the Sairmeuse and the last of the Courtornieu take in their own hands his work of vengeance.
But this was mere conjecture; he desired to be assured of the correctness of his suppositions.
He drew from his pocket a handful of gold, and, throwing it upon the table, he said:
“I am very rich; if you will obey me and keep my secret, your fortune is made.”
A shrill cry of delight from mother and son outweighed any protestations of obedience.
The Widow Chupin knew how to write, and Lacheneur dictated this letter:
“Madame la Duchesse — I shall expect you at my establishment
to-morrow between twelve and four o’clock. It is on business
connected with the Borderie. If at five o’clock I have not seen
you, I shall carry to the post a letter for the duke.”
“And if she comes what am I to say to her?” asked the astonished widow.
“Nothing; you will merely ask her for money.”
“If she comes, it is as I have guessed,” he reflected.
Hidden in the loft of the Poivriere, Jean, through an opening in the floor, saw the duchess give a banknote to Mother Chupin.
“Now, she is in my power!” he thought exultantly. “Through what sloughs of degradation will I drag her before I deliver her up to her husband’s vengeance!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54