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Terrible as Martial imagined the scandal to be which he had created, his conception of it by no means equalled the reality.
Had a thunder-bolt burst beneath that roof, the guests at Sairmeuse could not have been more amazed and horrified.
A shudder passed over the assembly when Martial, terrible in his passion, flung the crumbled letter full in the face of the Marquis de Courtornieu.
And when the marquis sank half-fainting into an arm-chair some young ladies of extreme sensibility could not repress a cry of fear.
For twenty seconds after Martial disappeared with Jean Lacheneur, the guests stood as motionless as statues, pale, mute, stupefied.
It was Blanche who broke the spell.
While the Marquis de Courtornieu was panting for breath--while the Duc de Sairmeuse was trembling and speechless with suppressed anger, the young marquise made an heroic attempt to come to the rescue.
With her hand still aching from Martial's brutal clasp, a heart swelling with rage and hatred, and a face whiter than her bridal veil, she had strength to restrain her tears and to compel her lips to smile.
"Really this is placing too much importance on a trifling misunderstanding which will be explained to-morrow," she said, almost gayly, to those nearest her.
And stepping into the middle of the hall she made a sign to the musicians to play a country-dance.
But when the first measures floated through the air, the company, as if by unanimous consent, hastened toward the door.
One might have supposed the chateau on fire--the guests did not withdraw, they actually fled.
An hour before, the Marquis de Courtornieu and the Duc de Sairmeuse had been overwhelmed with the most obsequious homage and adulation.
But now there was not one in that assembly daring enough to take them openly by the hand.
Just when they believed themselves all-powerful they were rudely precipitated from their lordly eminence. Disgrace and perhaps punishment were to be their portion.
Heroic to the last, the bride endeavored to stay the tide of retreating guests.
Stationing herself near the door, with her most bewitching smile upon her lips, Madame Blanche spared neither flattering words nor entreaties in her efforts to reassure the deserters.
Vain attempt! Useless sacrifice! Many ladies were not sorry of an opportunity to repay the young Marquise de Sairmeuse for the disdain and the caustic words of Blanche de Courtornieu.
Soon all the guests, who had so eagerly presented themselves that morning, had disappeared, and there remained only one old gentleman who, on account of his gout, had deemed it prudent not to mingle with the crowd.
He bowed in passing before the young marquise, and blushing at this insult to a woman, he departed as the others had done.
Blanche was now alone. There was no longer any necessity for constraint. There were no more curious witnesses to enjoy her sufferings and to make comment upon them. With a furious gesture she tore her bridal veil and the wreath of orange flowers from her head, and trampled them under foot.
A servant was passing through the hall; she stopped him.
"Extinguish the lights everywhere!" she ordered, with an angry stamp of her foot as if she had been in her own father's house, and not at Sairmeuse.
He obeyed her, and then, with flashing eyes and dishevelled hair, she hastened to the little salon in which the denouement had taken place.
A crowd of servants surrounded the marquis, who was lying like one stricken with apoplexy.
"All the blood in his body has flown to his head," remarked the duke, with a shrug of his shoulders.
For the duke was furious with his former friends.
He scarcely knew with whom he was most angry, Martial or the Marquis de Courtornieu.
Martial, by this public confession, had certainly imperilled, if he had not ruined, their political future.
But, on the other hand, had not the Marquis de Courtornieu represented a Sairmeuse as being guilty of an act of treason revolting to any honorable heart?
Buried in a large arm-chair, he sat watching, with contracted brows, the movements of the servants, when his daughter-in-law entered the room.
She paused before him, and with arms folded tightly across her breast, she said, angrily:
"Why did you remain here while I was left alone to endure such humiliation? Ah! had I been a man! All our guests have fled, Monsieur --all!"
M. de Sairmeuse sprang up.
"Ah, well! what if they have? Let them go to the devil!"
Of the guests that had just left his house there was not one whom the duke really regretted--not one whom he regarded as an equal. In giving a marriage-feast for his son, he had bidden all the gentry of the neighborhood. They had come--very well! They had fled--bon voyage!
If the duke cared at all for their desertion, it was only because it presaged with terrible eloquence the disgrace that was to come.
Still he tried to deceive himself.
"They will return, Madame; you will see them return, humble and repentant! But where can Martial be?"
The lady's eyes flashed, but she made no reply.
"Did he go away with the son of that rascal, Lacheneur?"
"I believe so."
"It will not be long before he returns----"
"Who can say?"
M. de Sairmeuse struck the marble mantel heavily with his clinched fist.
"My God!" he exclaimed; "this is an overwhelming misfortune."
The young wife believed that he was anxious and angry on her account. But she was mistaken. He was thinking only of his disappointed ambition.
Whatever he might pretend, the duke secretly confessed his son's superiority and his genius for intrigue, and he was now extremely anxious to consult him.
"He has wrought this evil; it is for him to repair it! And he is capable of it if he chooses," he murmured.
Then, aloud, he resumed:
"Martial must be found--he must be found----"
With an angry gesture, Blanche interrupted him.
"You must seek Marie-Anne if you wish to find--my husband."
The duke was of the same opinion, but he dared not avow it.
"Anger leads you astray, Marquise," said he.
"I know what I know."
"Martial will soon make his appearance, believe me. If he went away, he will soon return. They shall go for him at once, or I will go for him myself----"
He left the room with a muttered oath, and Blanche approached her father, who still seemed to be unconscious.
She seized his arm and shook it roughly, saying, in the most peremptory tone:
This voice, which had so often made the Marquis de Courtornieu tremble, was far more efficacious than eau de cologne. He opened one eye the least bit in the world, then quickly closed it; but not so quickly that his daughter failed to discover it.
"I wish to speak with you," she said; "get up."
He dared not disobey, and slowly and with difficulty, he raised himself.
"Ah! how I suffer!" he groaned; "how I suffer!"
His daughter glanced at him scornfully; then, in a tone of bitter irony, she remarked:
"Do you think I am in Paradise?"
"Speak," sighed the marquis. "What do you wish to say?"
The bride turned haughtily to the servants.
"Leave the room!" she said, imperiously.
They obeyed, and, after she had locked the door:
"Let us speak of Martial," she began.
At the sound of this name, the marquis bounded from his chair with clinched fists.
"Ah, the wretch!" he exclaimed.
"Martial is my husband, father."
"And you!--after what he has done--you dare to defend him?"
"I do not defend him; but I do not wish him to be murdered."
At that moment the news of Martial's death would have given the Marquis de Courtornieu infinite satisfaction.
"You heard, father," continued Blanche, "the rendezvous appointed to-morrow, at mid-day, on the Reche. I know Martial; he has been insulted, and he will go there. Will he encounter a loyal adversary? No. He will find a crowd of assassins. You alone can prevent him from being assassinated."
"I! and how?"
"By sending some soldiers to the Reche, with orders to conceal themselves in the grove--with orders to arrest these murderers at the proper moment."
The marquis gravely shook his head.
"If I do that," said he, "Martial is quite capable--"
"Of anything! yes, I know it. But what does it matter to you, since I am willing to assume the responsibility?"
M. de Courtornieu vainly tried to penetrate the bride's real motive.
"The order to Montaignac must be sent at once," she insisted.
Had she been less excited she would have discerned the gleam of malice in her father's eye. He was thinking that this would afford him an ample revenge, since he could bring dishonor upon Martial, who had shown so little regard for the honor of others.
"Very well; since you will have it so," he said, with feigned reluctance.
His daughter made haste to bring him ink and pens, and with trembling hands he prepared a series of minute instructions for the commander at Montaignac.
Blanche herself gave the letter to a servant, with directions to depart at once; and it was not until she had seen him set off on a gallop that she went to her own apartments--the apartments in which Martial had gathered together all that was most beautiful and luxurious.
But this splendor only aggravated the misery of the deserted wife, for that she was deserted she did not doubt for a moment. She was sure that her husband would not return; she did not expect him.
The Duc de Sairmeuse was searching the neighborhood with a party of servants, but she knew that it was labor lost; that they would not encounter Martial.
Where could he be? Near Marie-Anne most assuredly--and at the thought a wild desire to wreak her vengeance on her rival took possession of her heart.
Martial, at Montaignac, had ended by going to sleep.
Blanche, when daylight came, exchanged the snowy bridal robes for a black dress, and wandered about the garden like a restless spirit.
She spent most of the day shut up in her room, refusing to allow the duke, or even her father, to enter.
In the evening, about eight o'clock, they received tidings from Martial.
A servant brought two letters; one, sent by Martial to his father, the other, to his wife.
For a moment or more Blanche hesitated to open the one intended for her. It would determine her destiny; she was afraid; she broke the seal and read:
"Madame la marquise--Between you and me all is ended; reconciliation is impossible.
"From this moment you are free. I esteem you enough to hope that you will respect the name of Sairmeuse, from which I cannot relieve you.
"You will agree with me, I am sure, in thinking a quiet separation preferable to the scandal of a divorce suit.
"My lawyer will pay you an allowance befitting the wife of a man whose income amounts to three hundred thousand francs.
"Martial de Sairmeuse."
Blanche staggered beneath this terrible blow. She was indeed deserted, and deserted, as she supposed, for another.
"Ah!" she exclaimed, "that creature! that creature! I will kill her!"
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