The demonstrations which had greeted the Duc de Sairmeuse had been correctly reported by Chanlouineau.
Chupin had found the secret of kindling to a white heat the enthusiasm of the cold and calculating peasants who were his neighbors.
He was a dangerous rascal, the old robber, shrewd and cautious; bold, as those who possess nothing can afford to be; as patient as a savage; in short, one of the most consummate scoundrels that ever existed.
The peasants feared him, and yet they had no conception of his real character.
All his resources of mind had, until now, been expended in evading the precipice of the rural code.
To save himself from falling into the hands of the gendarmes, and to steal a few sacks of wheat, he had expended treasures of intrigue which would have made the fortunes of twenty diplomats.
Circumstances, as he always said, had been against him.
So he desperately caught at the first and only opportunity worthy of his talent, which had ever presented itself.
Of course, the wily rustic had said nothing of the true circumstances which attended the restoration of Sairmeuse to its former owner.
From him, the peasants learned only the bare fact; and the news spread rapidly from group to group.
“Monsieur Lacheneur has given up Sairmeuse,” said he. “Chateau, forests, vineyards, fields — he surrenders everything.”
This was enough, and more than enough to terrify every land-owner in the village.
If Lacheneur, this man who was so powerful in their eyes, considered the danger so threatening that he deemed it necessary or advisable to make a complete surrender, what was to become of them — poor devils — without aid, without counsel, without defence?
They were told that the government was about to betray their interests; that a decree was in process of preparation which would render their title-deeds worthless. They could see no hope of salvation, except through the duke’s generosity — that generosity which Chupin painted with the glowing colors of the rainbow.
When one is not strong enough to weather the gale, one must bow like the reed before it and rise again after the storm has passed; such was their conclusion.
And they bowed. And their apparent enthusiasm was all the more vociferous on account of the rage and fear that filled their hearts.
A close observer would have detected an undercurrent of anger and menace in their shouts.
Each man also said to himself:
“What do we risk by crying, ‘Vive le Duc?’ Nothing; absolutely nothing. If he is contented with that as a compensation for his lost property — good! If he is not content, we shall have time afterward to adopt other measures.”
So they shouted themselves hoarse.
And while the duke was sipping his coffee in the little drawing-room of the presbytery, he expressed his lively satisfaction at the scene without.
He, this grand seigneur of times gone by, this man of absurd prejudices and obstinate illusions; the unconquerable, and the incorrigible — he took these acclamations, “truly spurious coin,” as Chateaubriand says, for ready money.
“How you have deceived me, cure,” he was saying to Abbe Midon. “How could you declare that your people were unfavorably disposed toward us? One is compelled to believe that these evil intentions exist only in your own mind and in your own heart.”
Abbe Midon was silent. What could he reply?
He could not understand this sudden revolution in public opinion — this abrupt change from gloom and discontent to excessive gayety.
There is somebody at the bottom of all this, he thought.
It was not long before it became apparent who that somebody was.
Emboldened by his success without, Chupin ventured to present himself at the presbytery.
He entered the drawing-room with his back rounded into a circle, scraping and cringing, an obsequious smile upon his lips.
And through the half-open door one could discern, in the shadows of the passage, the far from reassuring faces of his two sons.
He came as an ambassador, he declared, after an interminable litany of protestations — he came to implore monseigneur to show himself upon the public square.
“Ah, well — yes,” exclaimed the duke, rising; “yes, I will yield to the wishes of these good people. Follow me, Marquis!”
As he appeared at the door of the presbytery, a loud shout rent the air; the rifles were discharged, the guns belched forth their smoke and fire. Never had Sairmeuse heard such a salvo of artillery. Three windows in the Boeuf Couronne were shattered.
A veritable grand seigneur, the Duc de Sairmeuse knew how to preserve an appearance of haughtiness and indifference. Any display of emotion was, in his opinion, vulgar; but, in reality, he was delighted, charmed.
So delighted that he desired to reward his welcomers.
A glance over the deeds handed him by Lacheneur had shown him that Sairmeuse had been restored to him intact.
The portions of the immense domain which had been detached and sold separately were of relatively minor importance.
The duke thought it would be politic, and, at the same time, inexpensive, to abandon all claim to these few acres, which were now shared by forty or fifty peasants.
“My friends,” he exclaimed, in a loud voice, “I renounce, for myself and for my descendants, all claim to the lands belonging to my house which you have purchased. They are yours — I give them to you!”
By this absurd pretence of a gift, M. de Sairmeuse thought to add the finishing touch to his popularity. A great mistake! It simply assured the popularity of Chupin, the organizer of the farce.
And while the duke was promenading through the crowd with a proud and self-satisfied air, the peasants were secretly laughing and jeering at him.
And if they promptly took sides with him against Chanlouineau, it was only because his gift was still fresh in their minds; except for this ——
But the duke had not time to think much about this encounter, which produced a vivid impression upon his son.
One of his former companions in exile, the Marquis de Courtornieu, whom he had informed of his arrival, hastened to welcome him, accompanied by his daughter, Mlle. Blanche.
Martial could do no less than offer his arm to the daughter of his father’s friend; and they took a leisurely promenade in the shade of the lofty trees, while the duke renewed his acquaintance with all the nobility of the neighborhood.
There was not a single nobleman who did not hasten to press the hand of the Duc de Sairmeuse. First, he possessed, it was said, a property of more than twenty millions in England. Then, he was the friend of the King, and each neighbor had some favor to ask for himself, for his relatives, or for his friends.
Poor king! He should have had entire France to divide like a cake between these cormorants, whose voracious appetites it was impossible to satisfy.
That evening, after a grand banquet at the Chateau de Courtornieu, the duke slept in the Chateau de Sairmeuse, in the room which had been occupied by Lacheneur, “like Louis XVIII.,” he laughingly said, “in the chamber of Bonaparte.”
He was gay, chatty, and full of confidence in the future.
“Ah! it is good to be in one’s own house!” he remarked to his son again and again.
But Martial responded only mechanically. His mind was occupied with thoughts of two women who had made a profound impression upon his by no means susceptible heart that day. He was thinking of those two young girls, so utterly unlike. Blanche de Courtornieu — Marie-Anne Lacheneur.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54