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That Martial de Sairmeuse was to marry Mlle. Blanche de Courtornieu did not surprise the inhabitants of Montaignac in the least.
But spreading such a report, with Lacheneur's execution fresh in the minds of everyone, could not fail to bring odium upon these men who had held absolute power, and who had exercised it so mercilessly.
Heaven knows that M. de Courtornieu and the Duc de Sairmeuse were now doing their best to make the people of Montaignac forget the atrocious cruelty of which they had been guilty during their dictatorship.
Of the hundred or more who were confined in the citadel, only eighteen or twenty were tried, and they received only some very slight punishment; the others were released.
Major Carini, the leader of the conspirators in Montaignac, who had expected to lose his head, heard himself, with astonishment, sentenced to two years' imprisonment.
But there are crimes which nothing can efface or extenuate. Public opinion attributed this sudden clemency on the part of the duke and the marquis to fear.
People execrated them for their cruelty, and despised them for their apparent cowardice.
They were ignorant of this, however, and hastened forward the preparations for the nuptials of their children, without suspecting that the marriage was considered a shameless defiance of public sentiment on their part.
The 17th of April was the day which had been appointed for the bridal, and the wedding-feast was to be held at the Chateau de Sairmeuse, which, at a great expense, had been transformed into a fairy palace for the occasion.
It was in the church of the little village of Sairmeuse, on the loveliest of spring days, that this marriage ceremony was performed by the cure who had taken the place of poor Abbe Midon.
At the close of the address to the newly wedded pair, the priest uttered these words, which he believed prophetic:
"You will be, you must be happy!"
Who would not have believed as he did? Where could two young people be found more richly dowered with all the attributes likely to produce happiness, i.e., youth, rank, health, and riches.
But though an intense joy sparkled in the eyes of the new Marquise de Sairmeuse, there were those among the guests who observed the bridegroom's preoccupation. One might have supposed that he was making an effort to drive away some gloomy thought.
At the moment when his young wife hung upon his arm, proud and radiant, a vision of Marie-Anne rose before him, more life-like, more potent than ever.
What had become of her that she had not been seen at the time of her father's execution? Courageous as he knew her to be, if she had made no attempt to see her father, it must have been because she was ignorant of his approaching doom.
"Ah! if she had but loved him," Martial thought, "what happiness would have been his. But, now he was bound for life to a woman whom he did not love."
At dinner, however, he succeeded in shaking off the sadness that oppressed him, and when the guests rose to repair to the drawing- rooms, he had almost forgotten his dark forebodings. He was rising in his turn, when a servant approached him with a mysterious air.
"Someone desires to see the marquis," whispered the valet.
"A young peasant who will not give his name."
"On one's wedding-day, one must grant an audience to everybody," said Martial.
And gay and smiling he descended the staircase.
In the vestibule, lined with rare and fragrant plants, stood a young man. He was very pale, and his eyes glittered with feverish brilliancy.
On recognizing him Martial could not restrain an exclamation of surprise.
"Jean Lacheneur!" he exclaimed; "imprudent man!"
The young man stepped forward.
"You believed that you were rid of me," he said, bitterly. "Instead, I return from afar. You can have your people arrest me if you choose."
Martial's face crimsoned at the insult; but he retained his composure.
"What do you desire?" he asked, coldly.
Jean drew from his pocket a folded letter.
"I am to give you this on behalf of Maurice d'Escorval."
With an eager hand, Martial broke the seal. He glanced over the letter, turned as pale as death, staggered and said only one word.
"What must I say to Maurice?" insisted Jean. "What do you intend to do?"
With a terrible effort Martial had conquered his weakness. He seemed to deliberate for ten seconds, then seizing Jean's arm, he dragged him up the staircase, saying:
"Come--you shall see."
Martial's countenance had changed so much during the three minutes he had been absent that there was an exclamation of terror when he reappeared, holding an open letter in one hand and leading with the other a young peasant whom no one recognized.
"Where is my father?" he demanded, in a husky voice; "where is the Marquis de Courtornieu?"
The duke and the marquis were with Mme. Blanche in the little salon at the end of the main hall.
Martial hastened there, followed by a crowd of wondering guests, who, foreseeing a stormy scene, were determined not to lose a syllable.
He walked directly to M. de Courtornieu, who was standing by the fireplace, and handing him the letter:
"Read!" said he, in a terrible voice.
M. de Courtornieu obeyed. He became livid; the paper trembled in his hands; his eyes fell, and he was obliged to lean against the marble mantel for support.
"I do not understand," he stammered: "no, I do not understand."
The duke and Mme. Blanche both sprang forward.
"What is it?" they asked in a breath; "what has happened?"
With a rapid movement, Martial tore the paper from the hands of the Marquis de Courtornieu, and addressing his father:
"Listen to this letter," he said, imperiously.
Three hundred people were assembled there, but the silence was so profound that the voice of the young marquis penetrated to the farthest extremity of the hall as he read:
"Monsieur le marquis--In exchange for a dozen lines that threatened you with ruin, you promised us, upon the honor of your name, the life of Baron d'Escorval.
"You did, indeed, bring the ropes by which he was to make his escape, but they had been previously cut, and my father was precipitated to the rocks below.
"You have forfeited your honor, Monsieur. You have soiled your name with ineffaceable opprobrium. While so much as a drop of blood remains in my veins, I will leave no means untried to punish you for your cowardice and vile treason.
"By killing me you would, it is true, escape the chastisement I am reserving for you. Consent to fight with me. Shall I await you to-morrow on the Reche? At what hour? With what weapons?
"If you are the vilest of men, you can appoint a rendezvous, and then send your gendarmes to arrest me. That would be an act worthy of you.
The duke was in despair. He saw the secret of the baron's flight made public--his political prospects ruined.
"Hush!" he said, hurriedly, and in a low voice; "hush, wretched man, you will ruin us!"
But Martial seemed not even to hear him. When he had finished his reading:
"Now, what do you think?" he demanded, looking the Marquis de Courtornieu full in the face.
"I am still unable to comprehend," said the old nobleman, coldly.
Martial lifted his hand; everyone believed that he was about to strike the man who had been his father-in-law only a few hours.
"Very well! I comprehend!" he exclaimed. "I know now who that officer was who entered the room in which I had deposited the ropes--and I know what took him there."
He crumbled the letter between his hands and threw it in M. de Courtornieu's face, saying:
"Here is your reward--coward!"
Overwhelmed by this denouement the marquis sank into an arm-chair, and Martial, still holding Jean Lacheneur by the arm, was leaving the room, when his young wife, wild with despair, tried to detain him.
"You shall not go!" she exclaimed, intensely exasperated; "you shall not! Where are you going? To rejoin the sister of the man, whom I now recognize?"
Beside himself, Martial pushed his wife roughly aside.
"Wretch!" said he, "how dare you insult the noblest and purest of women? Ah, well--yes--I am going to find Marie-Anne. Farewell!"
And he passed on.
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