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So it was really Maurice d'Escorval whom the Marquis de Sairmeuse had seen leaving Lacheneur's house.
Martial was not certain of it, but the very possibility made his heart swell with anger.
"What part am I playing here, then?" he exclaimed, indignantly.
He had been so completely blinded by passion that he would not have been likely to discover the real condition of affairs even if no pains had been taken to deceive him.
Lacheneur's formal courtesy and politeness he regarded as sincere. He believed in the studied respect shown him by Jean; and the almost servile obsequiousness of Chanlouineau did not surprise him in the least.
And since Marie-Anne welcomed him politely, he concluded that his suit was progressing favorably.
Having himself forgotten, he supposed that everyone else had ceased to remember.
Moreover, he was of the opinion that he had acted with great generosity, and that he was entitled to the deep gratitude of the Lacheneur family; for M. Lacheneur had received the legacy bequeathed him by Mlle. Armande, and an indemnity, besides all the furniture he had chosen to take from the chateau, a total of at least sixty thousand francs.
"He must be hard to please, if he is not satisfied!" growled the duke, enraged at such prodigality, though it did not cost him a penny.
Martial had supposed himself the only visitor at the cottage on the Reche; and when he discovered that such was not the case, he became furious.
"Am I, then, the dupe of a shameless girl?" he thought.
He was so incensed, that for more than a week he did not go to Lacheneur's house.
His father concluded that his ill-humor and gloom was caused by some misunderstanding with Marie-Anne; and he took advantage of this opportunity to gain his son's consent to an alliance with Blanche de Courtornieu.
A victim to the most cruel doubts and fears, Martial, goaded to the last extremity, exclaimed:
"Very well! I will marry Mademoiselle Blanche."
The duke did not allow such a good resolution to grow cold.
In less than forty-eight hours the engagement was made public; the marriage contract was drawn up, and it was announced that the wedding would take place early in the spring.
A grand banquet was given at Sairmeuse in honor of the betrothal--a banquet all the more brilliant since there were other victories to be celebrated.
The Duc de Sairmeuse had just received, with his brevet of lieutenant- general, a commission placing him in command of the military department of Montaignac.
The Marquis de Courtornieu had also received an appointment, making him provost-marshal of the same district.
Blanche had triumphed. After this public betrothal Martial was bound to her.
For a fortnight, indeed, he scarcely left her side. In her society there was a charm whose sweetness almost made him forget his love for Marie-Anne.
But unfortunately the haughty heiress could not resist the temptation to make a slighting allusion to Marie-Anne, and to the lowliness of the marquis's former tastes. She found an opportunity to say that she furnished Marie-Anne with work to aid her in earning a living.
Martial forced himself to smile; but the indignity which Marie-Anne had received aroused his sympathy and indignation.
And the next day he went to Lacheneur's house.
In the warmth of the greeting that awaited him there, all his anger vanished, all his suspicions evaporated. Marie-Anne's eyes beamed with joy on seeing him again; he noticed it.
"Oh! I shall win her yet!" he thought.
All the household were really delighted at his return; the son of the commander of the military forces at Montaignac, and the prospective son-in-law of the provost-marshal, Martial was a most valuable instrument.
"Through him, we shall have an eye and an ear in the enemy's camp," said Lacheneur. "The Marquis de Sairmeuse will be our spy."
He was, for he soon resumed his daily visits to the cottage. It was now December, and the roads were terrible; but neither rain, snow, nor mud could keep Martial from the cottage.
He made his appearance generally as early as ten o'clock, seated himself upon a stool in the shadow of a tall fireplace, and he and Marie-Anne talked by the hour.
She seemed greatly interested in matters at Montaignac, and he told her all that he knew in regard to affairs there.
Sometimes they were alone.
Lacheneur, Chanlouineau, and Jean were tramping about the country with their merchandise. Business was prospering so well that M. Lacheneur had purchased a horse in order to extend his journeys.
But Martial's conversation was generally interrupted by visitors. It was really surprising to see how many peasants came to the house to speak to M. Lacheneur. There was an interminable procession of them. And to each of these peasants Marie-Anne had something to say in private. Then she offered each man refreshments--the house seemed almost like a common drinking-saloon.
But what can daunt the courage of a lover? Martial endured all this without a murmur. He laughed and jested with the comers and goers; he shook hands with them; sometimes he even drank with them.
He gave many other proofs of moral courage. He offered to assist M. Lacheneur in making up his accounts; and once--it happened about the middle of February--seeing Chanlouineau worrying over the composition of a letter, he actually offered to act as his amanuensis.
"The d----d letter is not for me, but for an uncle of mine who is about to marry off his daughter," said Chanlouineau.
Martial took a seat at the table, and, at Chanlouineau's dictation, but not without many erasures, indited the following epistle:
"My dear friend--We are at last agreed, and the marriage has been decided upon. We are now busy with preparations for the wedding, which will take place on ----. We invite you to give us the pleasure of your company. We count upon you, and be assured that the more friends you bring with you the better we shall be pleased."
Had Martial seen the smile upon Chanlouineau's lips when he requested him to leave the date for the wedding a blank, he would certainly have suspected that he had been caught in a snare. But he was in love.
"Ah! Marquis," remarked his father one day, "Chupin tells me you are always at Lacheneur's. When will you recover from your penchant for that little girl?"
Martial did not reply. He felt that he was at that "little girl's" mercy. Each glance of hers made his heart throb wildly. By her side he was a willing captive. If she had asked him to make her his wife he would not have said no.
But Marie-Anne had not this ambition. All her thoughts, all her wishes were for her father's success.
Maurice and Marie-Anne had become M. Lacheneur's most intrepid auxiliaries. They were looking forward to such a magnificent reward.
Such feverish activity as Maurice displayed! All day long he hurried from hamlet to hamlet, and in the evening, as soon as dinner was over, he made his escape from the drawing-room, sprang into his boat, and hastened to the Reche.
M. d'Escorval could not fail to remark the long and frequent absences of his son. He watched him, and soon became absolutely certain that Lacheneur had, to use the baron's own expression, seduced him.
Greatly alarmed, he decided to go and see his former friend, and fearing another repulse, he begged Abbe Midon to accompany him.
It was on the 4th of March, at about half-past four o'clock, that M. d'Escorval and the cure started for the Reche. They were so anxious and troubled in mind that they scarcely exchanged a dozen words as they wended their way onward.
A strange sight met their eyes as they emerged from the grove on the Reche.
Night was falling, but it was still light enough for them to distinguish objects only a short distance from them.
Before Lacheneur's house stood a group of about a dozen persons, and M. Lacheneur was speaking and gesticulating excitedly.
What was he saying? Neither the baron nor the priest could distinguish his words, but when he ceased, the most vociferous acclamations rent the air.
Suddenly a match glowed between his fingers; he set fire to a bundle of straw and tossed it upon the thatched roof of his cottage, crying out in a terrible voice:
"The die is cast! This will prove to you that I shall not draw back!"
Five minutes later the house was in flames.
In the distance the baron and his companion saw the windows of the citadel at Montaignac illuminated by a red glare, and upon every hill- side glowed the light of other incendiary fires.
The country was responding to Lacheneur's signal.
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