A few lines of the article consecrated to Martial de Sairmeuse in the “General Biography of the Men of the Century,” give the history of his life after his marriage.
“Martial de Sairmeuse,” it says there, “brought to the service of
his party a brilliant intellect and admirable endowments. Called
to the front at the moment when political strife was raging with
the utmost violence, he had courage to assume the sole
responsibility of the most extreme measures.
“Compelled by almost universal opprobrium to retire from office, he
left behind him animosities which will be extinguished only with
But what this article does not state is this: if Martial was wrong — and that depends entirely upon the point of view from which his conduct is regarded — he was doubly wrong, since he was not possessed of those ardent convictions verging upon fanaticism which make men fools, heroes, and martyrs.
He was not even ambitious.
Those associated with him, witnessing his passionate struggle and his unceasing activity, thought him actuated by an insatiable thirst for power.
He cared little or nothing for it. He considered its burdens heavy; its compensations small. His pride was too lofty to feel any satisfaction in the applause that delights the vain, and flattery disgusted him. Often, in his princely drawing-rooms, during some brilliant fete, his acquaintances noticed a shade of gloom steal over his features, and seeing him thus thoughtful and preoccupied, they respectfully refrained from disturbing him.
“His mind is occupied with momentous questions,” they thought. “Who can tell what important decisions may result from this revery?”
They were mistaken.
At the very moment when his brilliant success made his rivals pale with envy — when it would seem that he had nothing left to wish for in this world, Martial was saying to himself:
“What an empty life! What weariness and vexation of spirit! To live for others — what a mockery!”
He looked at his wife, radiant in her beauty, worshipped like a queen, and he sighed.
He thought of her who was dead — Marie-Anne — the only woman whom he had ever loved.
She was never absent from his mind. After all these years he saw her yet, cold, rigid, lifeless, in that luxurious room at the Borderie; and time, far from effacing the image of the fair girl who had won his youthful heart, made it still more radiant and endowed his lost idol with almost superhuman grace of person and of character.
If fate had but given him Marie-Anne for his wife! He said this to himself again and again, picturing the exquisite happiness which a life with her would have afforded him.
They would have remained at Sairmeuse. They would have had lovely children playing around them! He would not be condemned to this continual warfare — to this hollow, unsatisfying, restless life.
The truly happy are not those who parade their satisfaction and good fortune before the eyes of the multitude. The truly happy hide themselves from the curious gaze, and they are right; happiness is almost a crime.
So thought Martial; and he, the great statesman, often said to himself, in a sort of rage:
“To love, and to be loved — that is everything! All else is vanity.”
He had really tried to love his wife; he had done his best to rekindle the admiration with which she had inspired him at their first meeting. He had not succeeded.
Between them there seemed to be a wall of ice which nothing could melt, and which was constantly increasing in height and thickness.
“Why is it?” he wondered, again and again. “It is incomprehensible. There are days when I could swear that she loved me. Her character, formerly so irritable, is entirely changed; she is gentleness itself.”
But he could not conquer his aversion; it was stronger than his own will.
These unavailing regrets, and the disappointments and sorrow that preyed upon him, undoubtedly aggravated the bitterness and severity of Martial’s policy.
But he, at least, knew how to fall nobly.
He passed, without even a change of countenance, from almost omnipotence to a position so compromising that his very life was endangered.
On seeing his ante-chambers, formerly thronged with flatterers and office-seekers, empty and deserted, he laughed, and his laugh was unaffected.
“The ship is sinking,” said he; “the rats have deserted it.”
He did not even pale when the noisy crowd came to hoot and curse and hurl stones at his windows; and when Otto, his faithful valet de chambre, entreated him to assume a disguise and make his escape through the gardens, he responded:
“By no means! I am simply odious; I do not wish to become ridiculous!”
They could not even dissuade him from going to a window and looking down upon the rabble in the street below.
A singular idea had just occurred to him.
“If Jean Lacheneur is still alive,” he thought, “how much he would enjoy this! And if he is alive, he is undoubtedly there in the foremost rank, urging on the crowd.”
And he wished to see.
But Jean Lacheneur was in Russia at that epoch. The excitement subsided; the Hotel de Sairmeuse was not seriously threatened. Still Martial realized that it would be better for him to go away for a while, and allow people to forget him.
He did not ask the duchess to accompany him.
“The fault has been mine entirely,” he said to her, “and to make you suffer for it by condemning you to exile would be unjust. Remain here; I think it will be much better for you to remain here.”
She did not offer to go with him. It would have been a pleasure to her, but she dared not leave Paris. She knew that she must remain in order to insure the silence of her persecutors. Both times she had left Paris before, all came near being discovered, and yet she had Aunt Medea, then, to take her place.
Martial went away, accompanied only by his devoted servant, Otto. In intelligence, this man was decidedly superior to his position; he possessed an independent fortune, and he had a hundred reasons — one, by the way, was a very pretty one — for desiring to remain in Paris; but his master was in trouble, and he did not hesitate.
For four years the Duc de Sairmeuse wandered over Europe, ever accompanied by his ennui and his dejection, and chafing beneath the burden of a life no longer animated by interest or sustained by hope.
He remained awhile in London, then he went to Vienna, afterward to Venice. One day he was seized by an irresistible desire to see Paris again, and he returned.
It was not a very prudent step, perhaps. His bitterest enemies — personal enemies, whom he had mortally offended and persecuted — were in power; but he did not hesitate. Besides, how could they injure him, since he had no favors to ask, no cravings of ambition to satisfy?
The exile which had weighed so heavily upon him, the sorrow, the disappointments and loneliness he had endured had softened his nature and inclined his heart to tenderness; and he returned firmly resolved to overcome his aversion to his wife, and seek a reconciliation.
“Old age is approaching,” he thought. “If I have not a beloved wife at my fireside, I may at least have a friend.”
His manner toward her, on his return, astonished Mme. Blanche. She almost believed she saw again the Martial of the little blue salon at Courtornieu; but the realization of her cherished dream was now only another torture added to all the others.
Martial was striving to carry his plan into execution, when the following laconic epistle came to him one day through the post:
“Monsieur le Duc — I, if I were in your place, would watch my wife.”
It was only an anonymous letter, but Martial’s blood mounted to his forehead.
“Can it be that she has a lover?” he thought.
Then reflecting on his own conduct toward his wife since their marriage, he said to himself:
“And if she has, have I any right to complain? Did I not tacitly give her back her liberty?”
He was greatly troubled, and yet he would not have degraded himself so much as to play the spy, had it not been for one of those trifling circumstances which so often decide a man’s destiny.
He was returning from a ride on horseback one morning about eleven o’clock, and he was not thirty paces from the Hotel de Sairmeuse when he saw a lady hurriedly emerge from the house. She was very plainly dressed — entirely in black — but her whole appearance was strikingly that of the duchess.
“It is certainly my wife; but why is she dressed in such a fashion?” he thought.
Had he been on foot he would certainly have entered the house; as it was, he slowly followed Mme. Blanche, who was going up the Rue Crenelle. She walked very quickly, and without turning her head, and kept her face persistently shrouded in a very thick veil.
When she reached the Rue Taranne, she threw herself into one of the fiacres at the carriage-stand.
The coachman came to the door to speak to her; then nimbly sprang upon the box, and gave his bony horses one of those cuts of the whip that announce a princely pourboire.
The carriage had already turned the corner of the Rue du Dragon, and Martial, ashamed and irresolute, had not moved from the place where he had stopped his horse, just around the corner of the Rue Saint Pares.
Not daring to admit his suspicions, he tried to deceive himself.
“Nonsense!” he thought, giving the reins to his horse, “what do I risk in advancing? The carriage is a long way off by this time, and I shall not overtake it.”
He did overtake it, however, on reaching the intersection of the Croix-Rouge, where there was, as usual, a crowd of vehicles.
It was the same fiacre; Martial recognized it by its green body, and its wheels striped with white.
Emerging from the crowd of carriages, the driver whipped up his horses, and it was at a gallop that they flew up the Rue du Vieux Columbier — the narrowest street that borders the Place Saint Sulpice — and gained the outer boulevards.
Martial’s thoughts were busy as he trotted along about a hundred yards behind the vehicle.
“She is in a terrible hurry,” he said to himself. “This, however, is scarcely the quarter for a lover’s rendezvous.”
The carriage had passed the Place d’Italie. It entered the Rue du Chateau-des-Rentiers and soon paused before a tract of unoccupied ground.
The door was at once opened, and the Duchesse de Sairmeuse hastily alighted.
Without stopping to look to the right or to the left, she hurried across the open space.
A man, by no means prepossessing in appearance, with a long beard, and with a pipe in his mouth, and clad in a workman’s blouse, was seated upon a large block of stone not far off.
“Will you hold my horse a moment?” inquired Martial.
“Certainly,” answered the man.
Had Martial been less preoccupied, his suspicions might have been aroused by the malicious smile that curved the man’s lips; and had he examined his features closely, he would perhaps have recognized him.
For it was Jean Lacheneur.
Since addressing that anonymous letter to the Duc de Sairmeuse, he had made the duchess multiply her visits to the Widow Chupin; and each time he had watched for her coming.
“So, if her husband decides to follow her I shall know it,” he thought.
It was indispensable for the success of his plans that Mme. Blanche should be watched by her husband.
For Jean Lacheneur had decided upon his course. From a thousand schemes for revenge he had chosen the most frightful and ignoble that a brain maddened and enfevered by hatred could possibly conceive.
He longed to see the haughty Duchesse de Sairmeuse subjected to the vilest ignominy, Martial in the hands of the lowest of the low. He pictured a bloody struggle in this miserable den; the sudden arrival of the police, summoned by himself, who would arrest all the parties indiscriminately. He gloated over the thought of a trial in which the crime committed at the Borderie would be brought to light; he saw the duke and the duchess in prison, and the great names of Sairmeuse and of Courtornieu shrouded in eternal disgrace.
And he believed that nothing was wanting to insure the success of his plans. He had at his disposal two miserable wretches who were capable of any crime; and an unfortunate youth named Gustave, made his willing slave by poverty and cowardice, was intended to play the part of Marie-Anne’s son.
These three accomplices had no suspicion of his real intentions. As for the Widow Chupin and her son, if they suspected some infamous plot, the name of the duchess was all they really knew in regard to it. Moreover, Jean held Polyte and his mother completely under his control by the wealth which he had promised them if they served him docilely.
And if Martial followed his wife into the Poivriere, Jean had so arranged matters that the duke would at first suppose that she had been led there by charity.
“But he will not go in,” thought Lacheneur, whose heart throbbed wildly with sinister joy as he held Martial’s horse. “Monsieur le Duc is too fine for that.”
And Martial did not go in. Though he was horrified when he saw his wife enter that vile den, as if she were at home there, he said to himself that he should learn nothing by following her.
He, therefore, contented himself by making a thorough examination of the outside of the house; then, remounting his horse, he departed on a gallop. He was completely mystified; he did not know what to think, what to imagine, what to believe.
But he was fully resolved to fathom this mystery and as soon as he returned home he sent Otto out in search of information. He could confide everything to this devoted servant; he had no secrets from him.
About four o’clock his faithful valet de chambre returned, an expression of profound consternation visible upon his countenance.
“What is it?” asked Martial, divining some great misfortune.
“Ah, sir, the mistress of that wretched den is the widow of Chupin’s son ——”
Martial’s face became as white as his linen.
He knew life too well not to understand that since the duchess had been compelled to submit to the power of these people, they must be masters of some secret which she was willing to make any sacrifice to preserve. But what secret?
The years which had silvered Martial’s hair, had not cooled the ardor of his blood. He was, as he had always been, a man of impulses.
He rushed to his wife’s apartments.
“Madame has just gone down to receive the Countess de Mussidan and the Marquise d’Arlange,” said the maid.
“Very well; I will wait for her here. Retire.”
And Martial entered the chamber of Mme. Blanche.
The room was in disorder, for the duchess, after returning from the Poivriere, was still engaged in her toilet when the visitors were announced.
The wardrobe-doors were open, the chairs were encumbered with wearing apparel, the articles which Mme. Blanche used daily — her watch, her purse, and several bunches of keys — were lying upon the dressing-table and mantel.
Martial did not sit down. His self-possession was returning.
“No folly,” he thought, “if I question her, I shall learn nothing. I must be silent and watchful.”
He was about to retire, when, on glancing about the room, his eyes fell upon a large casket, inlaid with silver, which had belonged to his wife ever since she was a young girl, and which accompanied her everywhere.
“That, doubtless, holds the solution of the mystery,” he said to himself.
It was one of those moments when a man obeys the dictates of passion without pausing to reflect. He saw the keys upon the mantel; he seized them, and endeavored to find one that would fit the lock of the casket. The fourth key opened it. It was full of papers.
With feverish haste, Martial examined the contents. He had thrown aside several unimportant letters, when he came to a bill that read as follows:
“Search for the child of Madame de Sairmeuse. Expenses for the third quarter of the year 18 —.”
Martial’s brain reeled.
A child! His wife had a child!
He read on: “For services of two agents at Sairmeuse, ——. For expenses attending my own journey, ——. Divers gratuities, ——. Etc., etc.” The total amounted to six thousand francs. The bill was signed “Chelteux.”
With a sort of cold rage, Martial continued his examination of the contents of the casket, and found a note written in a miserable hand, that said: “Two thousand francs this evening, or I will tell the duke the history of the affair at the Borderie.” Then several more bills from Chelteux; then a letter from Aunt Medea in which she spoke of prison and of remorse. And finally, at the bottom of the casket, he found the marriage-certificate of Marie-Anne Lacheneur and Maurice d’Escorval, drawn up by the Cure of Vigano and signed by the old physician and Corporal Bavois.
The truth was as clear as daylight.
Stunned, frozen with horror, Martial scarcely had strength to return the letters to the casket and restore it to its place.
Then he tottered back to his own room, clinging to the walls for support.
“It was she who murdered Marie-Anne,” he murmured.
He was confounded, terror-stricken by the perfidy and baseness of this woman who was his wife — by her criminal audacity, by her cool calculation and assurance, by her marvellous powers of dissimulation.
He swore he would discover all, either through the duchess or through the Widow Chupin; and he ordered Otto to procure a costume for him such as was generally worn by the habitues of the Poivriere. He did not know how soon he might have use for it.
This happened early in February, and from that moment Mme. Blanche did not take a single step without being watched. Not a letter reached her that her husband had not previously read.
And she had not the slightest suspicion of the constant espionage to which she was subjected.
Martial did not leave his room; he pretended to be ill. To meet his wife and be silent, was beyond his powers. He remembered the oath of vengeance which he had pronounced over Marie-Anne’s lifeless form too well.
But there were no new revelations, and for this reason: Polyte Chupin had been arrested under charge of theft, and this accident caused a delay in the execution of Lacheneur’s plans. But, at last, he judged that all would be in readiness on the 20th of February, Shrove Sunday.
The evening before the Widow Chupin, in conformance with his instructions, wrote to the duchess that she must come to the Poivriere Sunday evening at eleven o’clock.
On that same evening Jean was to meet his accomplices at a ball at the Rainbow — a public-house bearing a very unenviable reputation — and give them their last instructions.
These accomplices were to open the scene; he was to appear only in the denouement.
“All is well arranged; the mechanism will work of its own accord,” he said to himself.
But the “mechanism,” as he styled it, failed to work.
Mme. Blanche, on receiving the Widow Chupin’s summons, revolted for a moment. The lateness of the hour, the isolation of the spot designated, frightened her.
But she was obliged to submit, and on the appointed evening she furtively left the house, accompanied by Camille, the same servant who had witnessed Aunt Medea’s last agony.
The duchess and her maid were attired like women of the very lowest order, and felt no fear of being seen or recognized.
And yet a man was watching them, and he quickly followed them. It was Martial.
Knowing of this rendezvous even before his wife, he had disguised himself in the costume Otto had procured for him, which was that of a laborer about the quays; and, as he was a man who did perfectly whatever he attempted to do, he had succeeded in rendering himself unrecognizable. His hair and beard were rough and matted; his hands were soiled and grimed with dirt; he was really the abject wretch whose rags he wore.
Otto had begged to be allowed to accompany him; but the duke refused, saying that the revolver which he would take with him would be sufficient protection. He knew Otto well enough, however, to be certain he would disobey him.
Ten o’clock was sounding when Mme. Blanche and Camille left the house, and it did not take them five minutes to reach the Rue Taranne.
There was one fiacre on the stand — one only.
They entered it and it drove away.
This circumstance drew from Martial an oath worthy of his costume. Then he reflected that, since he knew where to find his wife, a slight delay in finding a carriage did not matter.
He soon obtained one; and the coachman, thanks to a pourboire of ten francs, drove to the Rue du Chateau-des-Rentiers as fast as his horses could go.
But the duke had scarcely set foot on the ground before he heard the rumbling of another carriage which stopped abruptly at a little distance.
“Otto is evidently following me,” he thought.
And he started across the open space in the direction of the Poivriere.
Gloom and silence prevailed on every side, and were made still more oppressive by a chill fog that heralded an approaching thaw. Martial stumbled and slipped at almost every step upon the rough, snow-covered ground.
It was not long before he could distinguish a dark mass in the midst of the fog. It was the Poivriere. The light within filtered through the heart-shaped openings in the blinds, looking at a distance like lurid eyes gleaming in the darkness.
Could it really be possible that the Duchesse de Sairmeuse was there!
Martial cautiously approached the window, and clinging to the hinges of one of the shutters, he lifted himself up so he could peer through the opening.
Yes, his wife was indeed there in that vile den.
She and Camille were seated at a table before a large punch-bowl, and in company with two ragged, leering scoundrels, and a soldier, quite youthful in appearance.
In the centre of the room stood the Widow Chupin, with a small glass in her hand, talking volubly and punctuating her sentences by copious draughts of brandy.
The impression produced upon Martial was so terrible that his hold relaxed and he dropped to the ground.
A ray of pity penetrated his soul, for he vaguely realized the frightful suffering which had been the chastisement of the murderess.
But he desired another glance at the interior of the hovel, and he again lifted himself up to the opening and looked in.
The old woman had disappeared; the young soldier had risen from the table and was talking and gesticulating earnestly. Mme. Blanche and Camille were listening to him with the closest attention.
The two men who were sitting face to face, with their elbows upon the table, were looking at each other; and Martial saw them exchange a significant glance.
He was not wrong. The scoundrels were plotting “a rich haul.”
Mme. Blanche, who had dressed herself with such care, that to render her disguise perfect she had encased her feet in large, coarse shoes that were almost killing her — Mme. Blanche had forgotten to remove her superb diamond ear-rings.
She had forgotten them, but Lacheneur’s accomplices had noticed them, and were now regarding them with eyes that glittered more brilliantly than the diamonds themselves.
While awaiting Lacheneur’s coming, these wretches, as had been agreed upon, were playing the part which he had imposed upon them. For this, and their assistance afterward, they were to receive a certain sum of money.
But they were thinking that this sum was not, perhaps, a quarter part of the value of these jewels, and they exchanged glances that said:
“Ah! if we could only get them and make our escape before Lacheneur comes!”
The temptation was too strong to be resisted.
One of them rose suddenly, and, seizing the duchess by the back of the neck, he forced her head down upon the table.
The diamonds would have been torn from the ears of Mme. Blanche had it not been for Camille, who bravely came to the aid of her mistress.
Martial could endure no more. He sprang to the door of the hovel, opened it, and entered, bolting it behind him.
“Monsieur le Duc!”
These cries escaping the lips of Mme. Blanche and Camille in the same breath, changed the momentary stupor of their assailants into fury; and they both precipitated themselves upon Martial, determined to kill him.
With a spring to one side, Martial avoided them. He had his revolver in his hand; he fired twice and the wretches fell. But he was not yet safe, for the young soldier threw himself upon him, and attempted to disarm him.
Through all the furious struggle, Martial did not cease crying, in a panting voice:
“Fly! Blanche, fly! Otto is not far off. The name — save the honor of the name!”
The two women obeyed, making their escape through the back door, which opened upon the garden; and they had scarcely done so, before a violent knocking was heard at the front door.
The police were coming! This increased Martial’s frenzy; and with one supreme effort to free himself from his assailant, he gave him such a violent push that his adversary fell, striking his head against the corner of the table, after which he lay like one dead.
But the Widow Chupin, who had come downstairs on hearing the uproar, was shrieking upon the stairs. At the door someone was crying: “Open in the name of the law!”
Martial might have fled; but if he fled, the duchess might be captured, for he would certainly be pursued. He saw the peril at a glance, and his decision was made.
He shook the Widow Chupin violently by the arm, and said, in an imperious voice:
“If you know how to hold your tongue you shall have one hundred thousand francs.”
Then, drawing a table before the door opening into the adjoining room, he intrenched himself behind it as behind a rampart, and awaited the approach of the enemy.
The next moment the door was forced open, and a squad of police, under the command of Inspector Gevrol, entered the room.
“Surrender!” cried the inspector.
Martial did not move; his pistol was turned upon the intruder.
“If I can parley with them, and hold them in check only two minutes, all may yet be saved,” he thought.
He obtained the wished-for delay; then he threw his weapon to the ground, and was about to bound through the back-door, when a policeman, who had gone round to the rear of the house, seized him about the body, and threw him to the floor.
From this side he expected only assistance, so he cried:
“Lost! It is the Prussians who are coming!”
In the twinkling of an eye he was bound; and two hours later he was an inmate of the station-house at the Place d’Italie.
He had played his part so perfectly, that he had deceived even Gevrol. The other participants in the broil were dead, and he could rely upon the Widow Chupin. But he knew that the trap had been set for him by Jean Lacheneur; and he read a whole volume of suspicion in the eyes of the young officer who had cut off his retreat, and who was called Lecoq by his companions.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54