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The Marquis de Courtornieu idolized his daughter. Everyone spoke of that as an incontestable and uncontested fact.
When persons spoke to him of his daughter, they always said:
"You, who adore your daughter----"
And when he spoke of himself, he said:
"I who adore Blanche."
The truth was, that he would have given a good deal, even a third of his fortune, to be rid of her.
This smiling young girl, who seemed such an artless child, had gained an absolute control over him. She forced him to bow like a reed to her every caprice--and Heaven knows she had enough of them!
In the hope of making his escape, he had thrown her Aunt Medea; but in less than three months that poor woman had been completely subjugated, and did not serve to divert his daughter's attention from him, even for a moment.
Sometimes the marquis revolted, but nine times out of ten he paid dearly for his attempts at rebellion. When Mlle. Blanche turned her cold and steel-like eyes upon him with a certain peculiar expression, his courage evaporated. Her weapon was irony; and knowing his weak points, she struck with wonderful precision.
It is easy to understand how devoutly he prayed and hoped that some honest young man, by speedily marrying his daughter, would free him from this cruel bondage.
But where was he to find this liberator?
The marquis had announced everywhere his intention of bestowing a dowry of a million upon his daughter. Of course this had brought a host of eager suitors, not only from the immediate neighborhood, but from parts remote.
But, unfortunately, though many of them would have suited M. de Courtornieu well enough, not a single one had been so fortunate as to please Mlle. Blanche.
Her father presented some suitor; she received him graciously, lavished all her charms upon him; but as soon as his back was turned, she disappointed all her father's hopes by rejecting him.
"He is too small," she said, "or too large. His rank is not equal to ours. I think him stupid. He is a fool--his nose is so ugly."
From these summary decisions there was no appeal. Arguments and persuasions were useless. The condemned man no longer existed.
Still, as this view of aspirants to her hand amused her, she encouraged her father in his efforts. He was beginning to despair, when fate dropped the Duc de Sairmeuse and son at his very door. When he saw Martial, he had a presentiment of his approaching release.
"He will be my son-in-law," he thought.
The marquis believed it best to strike the iron while it was hot. So, the very next day, he broached the subject to the duke.
His overtures were favorably received.
Possessed with the desire of transforming Sairmeuse into a little principality, the duke could not fail to be delighted with an alliance with one of the oldest and wealthiest families in the neighborhood.
The conference was short.
"Martial, my son, possesses, in his own right, an income of at least six hundred thousand francs," said the duke.
"I shall give my daughter at least--yes, at least fifteen hundred thousand francs as her marriage portion," declared the marquis.
"His Majesty is favorably disposed toward me. I can obtain any important diplomatic position for Martial."
"In case of trouble, I have many friends among the opposition."
The treaty was thus concluded; but M. de Courtornieu took good care not to speak of it to his daughter. If he told her how much he desired the match, she would be sure to oppose it. Non-interference seemed advisable.
The correctness of his judgment was fully demonstrated. One morning Mlle. Blanche made her appearance in his cabinet.
"Your capricious daughter has decided, papa, that she would like to become the Marquise de Sairmeuse," said she, peremptorily.
It cost M. de Courtornieu quite an effort to conceal his delight; but he feared if she discovered his satisfaction that the game would be lost.
He presented several objections; they were quickly disposed of; and, at last, he ventured to say:
"Then the marriage is half decided; one of the parties consents. It only remains to ascertain if----"
"The other will consent," declared the vain heiress.
And, in fact, for several days Mlle. Blanche had been applying herself assiduously and quite successfully to the work of fascination which was to bring Martial to her feet.
After having made an advance, with studied frankness and simplicity, sure of the effect she had produced, she now proceeded to beat a retreat--a manoeuvre so simple that it was almost sure to succeed.
Until now she had been gay, spirituette, and coquettish; gradually, she became quiet and reserved. The giddy school-girl had given place to the shrinking virgin.
With what perfection she played her part in the divine comedy of first love! Martial could not fail to be fascinated by the modest artlessness and chaste fears of the heart which seemed to be waking for him. When he appeared, Mlle. Blanche blushed and was silent. At a word from him she became confused. He could only occasionally catch a glimpse of her beautiful eyes through the shelter of their long lashes.
Who had taught her this refinement of coquetry? They say that the convent is an excellent teacher.
But what she had not learned was that the most clever often become the dupes of their own imagination; and that great comediennes generally conclude by shedding real tears.
She learned this one evening, when a laughing remark made by the Duc de Sairmeuse revealed the fact that Martial was in the habit of going to Lacheneur's house every day.
What she experienced now could not be compared with the jealousy, or rather anger, which had previously agitated her.
This was an acute, bitter, and intolerable sorrow. Before, she had been able to retain her composure; now, it was impossible.
That she might not betray herself, she left the drawing-room precipitately and hastened to her own room, where she burst into a fit of passionate sobbing.
"Can it be that he does not love me?" she murmured.
This thought made her cold with terror. For the first time this haughty heiress distrusted her own power.
She reflected that Martial's position was so exalted that he could afford to despise rank; that he was so rich that wealth had no attractions for him; and that she herself might not be so pretty and so charming as flatterers had led her to suppose.
Still Martial's conduct during the past week--and Heaven knows with what fidelity her memory recalled each incident--was well calculated to reassure her.
He had not, it is true, formally declared himself, but it was evident that he was paying his addresses to her. His manner was that of the most respectful, but the most infatuated of lovers.
Her reflections were interrupted by the entrance of her maid, bringing a large bouquet of roses which had just been sent by Martial.
She took the flowers, and while arranging them in a large Japanese vase, she bedewed them with the first real sincere tears she had shed since her entrance into the world.
She was so pale and sad, so unlike herself when she appeared the next morning at breakfast, that Aunt Medea was alarmed.
Mlle. Blanche had prepared an excuse, and she uttered it in such sweet tones that the poor lady was as much amazed as if she had witnessed a miracle.
M. de Courtornieu was no less astonished.
"Of what new freak is this doleful face the preface?" he wondered.
He was still more alarmed when, immediately after breakfast, his daughter asked a moment's conversation with him.
She followed him into his study, and as soon as they were alone, without giving her father time to seat himself, Mlle. Blanche entreated him to tell her all that had passed between the Duc de Sairmeuse and himself, and asked if Martial had been informed of the intended alliance, and what he had replied.
Her voice was meek, her eyes tearful; her manner indicated the most intense anxiety.
The marquis was delighted.
"My wilful daughter has been playing with fire," he thought, stroking his chin caressingly; "and upon my word, she has burned herself."
"Yesterday, my child," he replied, "the Duc de Sairmeuse formally demanded your hand on behalf of his son; your consent is all that is lacking. So rest easy, my beautiful, lovelorn damsel--you will be a duchess."
She hid her face in her hands to conceal her blushes.
"You know my decision, father," she faltered, in an almost inaudible voice; "we must make haste."
He started back, thinking he had not heard her words aright.
"Make haste!" he repeated.
"Yes, father. I have fears."
"What fears, in Heaven's name?"
"I will tell you when everything is settled," she replied, as she made her escape from the room.
She did not doubt the reports which had reached her ears, of Martial's frequent visits to Marie-Anne, but she wished to see for herself.
So, as soon as she left her father, she obliged Aunt Medea to dress herself, and without vouchsafing a single word of explanation, took her with her to the Reche, and stationed herself where she could command a view of M. Lacheneur's house.
It chanced to be the very day on which M. d'Escorval came to ask an explanation from his friend. She saw him come; then, after a little, Martial made his appearance.
She had not been mistaken--now she could go home satisfied.
But no. She resolved to count the seconds which Martial passed with Marie-Anne.
M. d'Escorval did not remain long; she saw Martial hasten out after him, and speak to him.
She breathed again. His visit had not lasted a half hour, and doubtless he was going away. Not at all. After a moment's conversation with the baron, he returned to the house.
"What are we doing here?" demanded Aunt Medea.
"Let me alone!" replied Mlle. Blanche, angrily; "hold your tongue!"
She heard the sound of wheels, the tramp of horses' hoofs, blows of the whip, and oaths.
The wagons bearing the furniture and clothing belonging to M. Lacheneur were coming. This noise Martial must have heard within the house, for he came out, and after him came M. Lacheneur, Jean, Chanlouineau, and Marie-Anne.
Everyone was soon busy in unloading the wagons, and positively, from the movements of the young Marquis de Sairmeuse, one would have sworn that he was giving orders; he came and went, hurrying to and fro, talking to everybody, not even disdaining to lend a hand occasionally.
"He, a nobleman, makes himself at home in that wretched hovel!" Mlle. Blanche said to herself. "How horrible! Ah! this dangerous creature will do with him whatever she desires."
All this was nothing compared with what was to come. A third wagon appeared, drawn by a single horse, and laden with pots of flowers and shrubs.
This sight drew a cry of rage from Mlle. de Courtornieu which must have carried terror to Aunt Medea's heart.
"Flowers!" she exclaimed, in a voice hoarse with passion. "He sends flowers to her as he does to me--only he sends me a bouquet, while for her he despoils the gardens of Sairmeuse."
"What are you saying about flowers?" inquired the impoverished relative.
Mlle. Blanche replied that she had not made the slightest allusion to flowers. She was suffocating--and yet she compelled herself to remain there three mortal hours--all the time that was required to unload the furniture.
The wagons had been gone some time, when Martial again appeared upon the threshold.
Marie-Anne had accompanied him to the door, and they were talking together. It seemed impossible for him to make up his mind to depart.
He did so, at last, however; but he left slowly and with evident reluctance. Marie-Anne, remaining in the door, gave him a friendly gesture of farewell.
"I wish to speak to this creature!" exclaimed Mlle. Blanche. "Come, aunt, at once!"
Had Marie-Anne, at that moment, been within the reach of Mlle. de Courtornieu's voice, she would certainly have learned the secret of her former friend's anger and hatred.
But fate willed it otherwise. At least three hundred yards of rough ground separated the place where Mlle. Blanche had stationed herself, from the Lacheneur cottage.
It required a moment to cross this space; and that was time enough to change all the girl's intentions.
She had not traversed a quarter of the distance before she bitterly regretted having shown herself at all. But to retrace her steps now was impossible, for Marie-Anne, who was still standing upon the threshold, had seen her approaching.
There remained barely time to regain her self-control, and to compose her features. She profited by it.
She had her sweetest smile upon her lips as she greeted Marie-Anne. Still she was embarrassed; she did not know what excuse to give for her visit, and to gain time she pretended to be quite out of breath.
"Ah! it is not very easy to reach you, dear Marie-Anne," she said, at last; "you live upon the summit of a veritable mountain."
Mlle. Lacheneur said not a word. She was greatly surprised, and she did not attempt to conceal the fact.
"Aunt Medea pretended to know the road," continued Mlle. Blanche, "but she led me astray; did you not, aunt?"
As usual, the impecunious relative assented, and her niece resumed:
"But at last we are here. I could not, my dearest, resign myself to hearing nothing from you, especially after all your misfortunes. What have you been doing? Did my recommendation procure for you the work you desired?"
Marie-Anne could not fail to be deeply touched by this kindly interest on the part of her former friend. So, with perfect frankness, and without any false shame, she confessed that all her efforts had been fruitless. It had even seemed to her that several ladies had taken pleasure in treating her unkindly.
But Mlle. Blanche was not listening. A few steps from her stood the flowers brought from Sairmeuse; and their perfume rekindled her anger.
"At least," she interrupted, "you have here what will almost make you forget the gardens of Sairmeuse. Who sent you these beautiful flowers?"
Marie-Anne turned crimson. She did not speak for a moment, but at last she replied, or rather stammered:
"It is--an attention from the Marquis de Sairmeuse."
"So she confesses it!" thought Mlle. de Courtornieu, amazed at what she was pleased to consider an outrageous piece of impudence.
But she succeeded in concealing her rage beneath a loud burst of laughter; and it was in a tone of raillery that she said:
"Take care, my dear friend; I am going to call you to account. It is from my fiance that you are accepting flowers."
"What! the Marquis de Sairmeuse?"
"Has demanded the hand of your friend. Yes, my darling; and my father has given it to him. It is a secret as yet; but I see no danger in confiding in your friendship."
She believed that she had inflicted a mortal wound upon Marie-Anne's heart; but though she watched her closely, she failed to detect the slightest trace of emotion upon her face.
"What dissimulation!" she thought. Then aloud, and with affected gayety, she resumed:
"And the country folks will see two weddings at about the same time, since you, also, are going to be married, my dear."
"Yes, you, you little deceiver! Everybody knows that you are engaged to a young man in the neighborhood, named--wait--I know-- Chanlouineau."
Thus the report that annoyed Marie-Anne so much reached her from every side.
"Everybody is for once mistaken," said she, energetically. "I shall never be that young man's wife."
"But why? They speak well of him, personally, and he is quite rich."
"Because," faltered Marie-Anne, "because----"
Maurice d'Escorval's name trembled upon her lips; but unfortunately she did not utter it, prevented by a strange expression on the face of her friend. How often one's destiny depends upon a circumstance apparently as trivial as this!
"Impudent, worthless creature!" thought Mlle. Blanche.
Then, in cold and sneering tones, that betrayed her hatred unmistakably, she said:
"You are wrong, believe me, to refuse this offer. This Chanlouineau will, at all events, save you from the painful necessity of laboring with your own hands, and of going from door to door in quest of work which is refused you. But, no matter; I"--she laid great stress upon this word--"I will be more generous than your old acquaintances. I have a great deal of embroidery to be done. I shall send it to you by my maid, and you two may agree upon the price. We must go. Good-by, my dear. Come, Aunt Medea."
She departed, leaving Marie-Anne petrified with surprise, sorrow, and indignation.
Although less experienced than Mlle. Blanche, she comprehended that this strange visit concealed some mystery--but what?
For more than a minute she stood motionless, gazing after her departing guests; then she started suddenly as a hand was laid gently upon her shoulder.
She trembled, and, turning quickly, found herself face to face with her father.
Lacheneur's face was whiter than his linen, and a sinister light glittered in his eye.
"I was there," said he, pointing to the door, "and--I heard all."
"What! would you try to defend her after she came here to crush you with her insolent good fortune--after she overwhelmed you with her ironical pity and with her scorn? I tell you they are all like this-- these girls, whose heads have been turned by flattery, and who believe that in their veins flows a different blood from ours. But patience! The day of reckoning is near at hand!"
Those whom he threatened would have shuddered had they seen him at that moment, so terrible was the rage revealed by his accent, so formidable did he appear.
"And you, my beloved daughter, my poor Marie-Anne, you did not understand the insults she heaped upon you. You are wondering why she should have treated you with such disdain. Ah, well! I will tell you: she imagines that the Marquis de Sairmeuse is your lover."
Marie-Anne tottered beneath the terrible blow, and a nervous spasm shook her from head to foot.
"Can this be possible?" she exclaimed. "Great God! what shame! what humiliation!"
"And why should this astonish you?" said Lacheneur, coldly. "Have you not expected this ever since the day when you, my devoted daughter, consented, for the sake of my plans, to submit to the attentions of this marquis, whom you loathe as much as I despise?"
"But Maurice! Maurice will despise me! I can bear anything, yes, everything but that."
M. Lacheneur made no reply. Marie-Anne's despair was heart-breaking; he felt that he could not bear to witness it, that it would shake his resolution, and he re-entered the house.
But his penetration was not at fault. While waiting to find a revenge which would be worthy of her, Mlle. Blanche armed herself with a weapon of which jealousy and hatred so often avail themselves-- calumny.
Two or three abominable stories which she concocted, and which she forced Aunt Medea to circulate everywhere, did not produce the desired effect.
Marie-Anne's reputation was, of course, ruined by them; but Martial's visits, instead of ceasing, became longer and more frequent. Dissatisfied with his progress, and fearful that he was being duped, he even watched the house.
So it happened that, one evening, when he was quite sure that Lacheneur, his son, and Chanlouineau were absent, Martial saw a man leave the house and hasten across the fields.
He rushed after him, but the man escaped him.
He believed, however, that he recognized Maurice d'Escorval.
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