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Ah! ambition is a fine thing!
The Duc de Sairmeuse and the Marquis de Courtornieu were past middle age; their lives had been marked by many storms and vicissitudes; they were the possessors of millions, and the owners of the most sumptuous residences in the province. Under these circumstances one might have supposed that they would desire to end their days in peace and quietness.
It would have been easy for them to create a life of happiness by doing good to those around them, and by preparing for their last hours a chorus of benedictions and of regrets.
But no. They longed to have a hand in managing the ship of state; they were not content to be simply passengers.
And the duke, appointed to the command of the military forces, and the marquis, made presiding judge of the court at Montaignac, were both obliged to leave their beautiful homes and take up their abode in rather dingy quarters in town.
They did not murmur at the change; their vanity was satisfied.
Louis XVIII. was on the throne; their prejudices were triumphant; they were happy.
It is true that dissatisfaction was rife on every side, but had they not hundreds and thousands of allies at hand to suppress it?
And when wise and thoughtful persons spoke of "discontent," the duke and his associates regarded them as visionaries.
On the 4th of March, 1816, the duke was just sitting down to dinner when a loud noise was heard in the vestibule.
He rose--but at that very instant the door was flung open and a man entered, panting and breathless.
This man was Chupin, the former poacher, whom M. de Sairmeuse had elevated to the position of head gamekeeper.
It was evident that something extraordinary had happened.
"What is it?" inquired the duke.
"They are coming!" cried Chupin; "they are already on the way!"
By way of response, Chupin handed the duke a copy of the letter written by Martial under Chanlouineau's dictation.
M. de Sairmeuse read:
"My dear friend--We are at last agreed, and the marriage is decided. We are now busy in preparing for the wedding, which will take place on the 4th of March."
The date was no longer blank; but still the duke did not comprehend.
"Well, what of it?" he demanded.
Chupin tore his hair.
"They are on the way," he repeated. "I speak of the peasants--they intend to take possession of Montaignac, dethrone Louis XVIII., bring back the Emperor, or at least the son of the Emperor--miserable wretches! they have deceived me. I suspected this outbreak, but I did not think it was so near at hand."
This terrible blow, so entirely unexpected, stupefied the duke for a moment.
"How many are there?" he demanded.
"Ah! how do I know, Monsieur? Two thousand, perhaps--perhaps ten thousand."
"All the towns-people are with us."
"No, Monsieur, no. The rebels have accomplices here. All the retired officers stand ready to assist them."
"Who are the leaders of the movement?"
"Lacheneur, Abbe Midon, Chanlouineau, Baron d'Escorval----"
"Enough!" cried the duke.
Now that danger was certain, his coolness returned; and his herculean form, a trifle bowed by the weight of years, rose to its full height.
He gave the bell-rope a violent pull; a valet appeared.
"My uniform," commanded M. de Sairmeuse; "my pistols! Quick!"
The servant was about to obey, when the duke exclaimed:
"Wait! Let someone take a horse, and go and tell my son to come here without a moment's delay. Take one of the swiftest horses. The messenger ought to go to Sairmeuse and return in two hours."
Chupin endeavored to attract the duke's attention by pulling the skirt of his coat. M. de Sairmeuse turned:
"What is it?"
The old poacher put his finger on his lip, recommending silence, but as soon as the valet had left the room, he said:
"It is useless to send for the marquis."
"And why, you fool?"
"Because, Monsieur, because--excuse me--I----"
"Zounds! will you speak, or will you not?"
Chupin regretted that he had gone so far.
"Because the marquis----"
"He is engaged in it."
The duke overturned the table with a terrible blow of his clinched fist.
"You lie, wretch!" he thundered, with the most horrible oaths.
He was so formidable in his anger that the old poacher sprang to the door and turned the knob, ready to take flight.
"May I lose my head if I do not speak the truth," he insisted. "Ah! Lacheneur's daughter is a regular sorceress. All the gallants of the neighborhood are in the ranks; Chanlouineau, young d'Escorval, your son----"
M. de Sairmeuse was pouring forth a torrent of curses upon Marie-Anne when his valet re-entered the room.
He suddenly checked himself, put on his uniform, and ordering Chupin to follow him, hastened from the house.
He was still hoping that Chupin had exaggerated the danger; but when he reached the Place d'Arms, which commanded an extended view of the surrounding country, his illusions were put to flight.
Signal-lights gleamed upon every side. Montaignac seemed surrounded by a circle of flame.
"These are the signals," murmured Chupin. "The rebels will be here before two o'clock in the morning."
The duke made no response, but hastened to consult M. de Courtornieu.
He was striding toward his friend's house when, on hastily turning a corner, he saw two men talking in a doorway, and on seeing the glittering of the duke's epaulets, both of them took flight.
The duke instinctively started in pursuit, overtook one man, and seizing him by the collar, he asked, sternly:
"Who are you? What is your name?"
The man was silent, and his captor shook him so roughly that two pistols, which had been hidden under his long coat, fell to the ground.
"Ah, brigand!" exclaimed M. de Sairmeuse, "so you are one of the conspirators against the King!"
Then, without another word, he dragged the man to the citadel, gave him in charge of the astonished soldiers, and again started for M. de Courtornieu's house.
He expected the marquis would be terrified; not in the least; he seemed delighted.
"At last there comes an opportunity for us to display our devotion and our zeal--and without danger! We have good walls, strong gates, and three thousand soldiers at our command. These peasants are fools! But be grateful for their folly, my dear duke, and run and order out the Montaignac chasseurs----"
But suddenly a cloud overspread his face; he knit his brows, and added:
"The devil! I am expecting Blanche this evening. She was to leave Courtornieu after dinner. Heaven grant that she may meet with no misfortune on the way!"
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