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To quit Sairmeuse without any display of violence had cost Blanche an almost superhuman effort.
The wildest anger convulsed her soul at the very moment, when, with an assumption of melancholy dignity, she murmured those words of forgiveness.
Ah! had she obeyed the dictates of her resentment!
But her indomitable vanity aroused within her the heroism of a gladiator dying on the arena, with a smile upon his lips.
Falling, she intended to fall gracefully.
"No one shall see me weep; no one shall hear me complain," she said to her despondent father; "try to imitate me."
And on her return to the Chateau de Courtornieu, she was a stoic.
Her face, although pale, was as immobile as marble, beneath the curious gaze of the servants.
"I am to be called mademoiselle as in the past," she said, imperiously. "Anyone forgetting this order will be dismissed."
A maid forgot that very day, and uttered the prohibited word, "madame." The poor girl was instantly dismissed, in spite of her tears and protestations.
All the servants were indignant.
"Does she hope to make us forget that she is married and that her husband has deserted her?" they queried.
Alas! she wished to forget it herself. She wished to annihilate all recollection of that fatal day whose sun had seen her a maiden, a wife, and a widow.
For was she not really a widow?
Only it was not death which had deprived her of her husband, but an odious rival--an infamous and perfidious creature lost to all sense of shame.
And yet, though she had been disdained, abandoned, and repulsed, she was no longer free.
She belonged to the man whose name she bore like a badge of servitude --to the man who hated her, who fled from her.
She was not yet twenty; and this was the end of her youth, of her life, of her hopes, and even of her dreams.
Society condemned her to solitude, while Martial was free to rove wheresoever fancy might lead him.
Now she saw the disadvantage of isolating one's self. She had not been without friends in her school-girl days; but after leaving the convent she had alienated them by her haughtiness, on finding them not as high in rank, nor as rich as herself. She was now reduced to the irritating consolations of Aunt Medea, who was a worthy person, undoubtedly, but her tears flowed quite as freely for the loss of a cat, as for the death of a relative.
But Blanche bravely resolved that she would conceal her grief and despair in the recesses of her own heart.
She drove about the country; she wore the prettiest dresses in her trousseau; she forced herself to appear gay and indifferent.
But on going to attend high mass in Sairmeuse the following Sunday, she realized the futility of her efforts.
People did not look at her haughtily, or even curiously; but they turned away their heads to laugh, and she overheard remarks upon the maiden widow which pierced her very soul.
They mocked her; they ridiculed her!
"Oh! I will have my revenge!" she muttered.
But she had not waited for these insults before thinking of vengeance; and she had found her father quite ready to assist her in her plans.
For the first time the father and the daughter were in accord.
"The Duc de Sairmeuse shall learn what it costs to aid in the escape of a prisoner and to insult a man like me. Fortune, favor, position-- he shall lose all! I hope to see him ruined and dishonored at my feet. You shall see that day! you shall see that day!" said the marquis, vehemently.
But, unfortunately for him and his plans, he was extremely ill for three days, after the scene at Sairmeuse; then he wasted three days more in composing a report, which was intended to crush his former ally.
This delay ruined him, since it gave Martial time to perfect his plans and to send the Duc de Sairmeuse to Paris skilfully indoctrinated.
And what did the duke say to the King, who accorded him such a gracious reception?
He undoubtedly pronounced the first reports false, reduced the Montaignac revolution to its proper proportions, represented Lacheneur as a fool, and his followers as inoffensive idiots.
Perhaps he led the King to suppose that the Marquis de Courtornieu might have provoked the outbreak by undue severity. He had served under Napoleon, and possibly had thought it necessary to make a display of his zeal. There have been such cases.
So far as he himself was concerned, he deeply deplored the mistakes into which he had been led by the ambitious marquis, upon whom he cast most of the responsibility for the blood which had been shed.
The result of all this was, that when the Marquis de Courtornieu's report reached Paris, it was answered by a decree depriving him of the office of grand prevot.
This unexpected blow crushed him.
To think that a man as shrewd, as subtle-minded, as quick-witted, and adroit as himself--a man who had passed through so many troubled epochs, who had served with the same obsequious countenance all the masters who would accept his services--to think that such a man should have been thus duped and betrayed!
"It must be that old imbecile, the Duc de Sairmeuse, who has manoeuvred so skilfully, and with so much address," he said. "But who advised him? I cannot imagine who it could have been."
Who it was Mme. Blanche knew only too well.
She recognized Martial's hand in all this, as Marie-Anne had done.
"Ah! I was not deceived in him," she thought; "he is the great diplomatist I believed him to be. At his age to outwit my father, an old politician of such experience and acknowledged astuteness! And he does all this to please Marie-Anne," she continued, frantic with rage. "It is the first step toward obtaining pardon for the friends of that vile creature. She has unbounded influence over him, and so long as she lives there is no hope for me. But, patience."
She was patient, realizing that he who wishes to surely attain his revenge must wait, dissimulate, prepare an opportunity, but not force it.
What her revenge should be she had not yet decided; but she already had her eye upon a man whom she believed would be a willing instrument in her hands, and capable of doing anything for money.
But how had such a man chanced to cross the path of Mme. Blanche? How did it happen that she was cognizant of the existence of such a person?
It was the result of one of those simple combinations of circumstances which go by the name of chance.
Burdened with remorse, despised and jeered at, and stoned whenever he showed himself upon the street, and horror-stricken whenever he thought of the terrible threats of Balstain, the Piedmontese innkeeper, Chupin left Montaignac and came to beg an asylum at the Chateau de Sairmeuse.
In his ignorance, he thought that the grand seigneur who had employed him, and who had profited by his treason, owed him, over and above the promised reward, aid and protection.
But the servants shunned him. They would not allow him a seat at the kitchen-table, nor would the grooms allow him to sleep in the stables. They threw him a bone, as they would have thrown it to a dog; and he slept where he could.
He bore all this uncomplainingly, deeming himself fortunate in being able to purchase comparative safety at such a price.
But when the duke returned from Paris with a policy of forgetfulness and conciliation in his pocket, he would no longer tolerate the presence of this man, who was the object of universal execration.
He ordered the dismissal of Chupin.
The latter resisted, swearing that he would not leave Sairmeuse unless he was forcibly expelled, or unless he received the order from the lips of the duke himself.
This obstinate resistance was reported to the duke. It made him hesitate; but the necessity of the moment, and a word from Martial, decided him.
He sent for Chupin and told him that he must not visit Sairmeuse again under any pretext whatever, softening the harshness of expulsion, however, by the offer of a small sum of money.
But Chupin sullenly refused the money, gathered his belongings together, and departed, shaking his clinched fist at the chateau, and vowing vengeance on the Sairmeuse family. Then he went to his old home, where his wife and his two boys still lived.
He seldom left the house, and then only to satisfy his passion for hunting. At such times, instead of hiding and surrounding himself with every precaution, as he had done, before shooting a squirrel or a few partridges, in former times, he went boldly to the Sairmeuse or the Courtornieu forests, shot his game, and brought it home openly, almost defiantly.
The rest of the time he spent in a state of semi-intoxication, for he drank constantly and more and more immoderately. When he had taken more than usual, his wife and his sons generally attempted to obtain money from him, and if persuasions failed they resorted to blows.
For he had never given them the reward of his treason. What had he done with the twenty thousand francs in gold which had been paid him? No one knew. His sons believed he had buried it somewhere; but they tried in vain to wrest his secret from him.
All the people in the neighborhood were aware of this state of affairs, and regarded it as a just punishment for the traitor. Mme. Blanche overheard one of the gardeners telling the story to two of his assistants:
"Ah, the man is an old scoundrel!" he said, his face crimson with indignation. "He should be in the galleys, and not at large among respectable people."
"He is a man who would serve your purpose," the voice of hatred whispered in Blanche's ear.
"But how can I find an opportunity to confer with him?" she wondered. Mme. Blanche was too prudent to think of hazarding a visit to his house, but she remembered that he hunted occasionally in the Courtornieu woods, and that it might be possible for her to meet him there.
"It will only require a little perseverance and a few long walks," she said to herself.
But it cost poor Aunt Medea, the inevitable chaperon, two long weeks of almost continued walking.
"Another freak!" groaned the poor relative, overcome with fatigue; "my niece is certainly crazy!"
But one lovely afternoon in May Blanche discovered what she sought.
It was in a sequestered spot near the lake. Chupin was tramping sullenly along with his gun and glancing suspiciously on every side! Not that he feared the game-keeper or a verbal process, but wherever he went, he fancied he saw Balstain walking in his shadow, with that terrible knife in his hand.
Seeing Mme. Blanche he tried to hide himself in the forest, but she prevented it by calling:
He hesitated for a moment, then he paused, dropped his gun, and waited.
Aunt Medea was pale with fright.
"Blessed Jesus!" she murmured, pressing her niece's arm; "why do you call that terrible man?"
"I wish to speak with him."
"What, Blanche, do you dare----"
"No, I cannot allow it. I must not----"
"There, that is enough," said Blanche, with one of those imperious glances that deprive a dependent of all strength and courage; "quite enough."
Then, in gentler tones:
"I must talk with this man," she added.
"You, Aunt Medea, will remain at a little distance. Keep a close watch on every side, and if you see anyone approaching, call me, whoever it may be."
Aunt Medea, submissive as she was ever wont to be, obeyed; and Mme. Blanche advanced toward the old poacher, who stood as motionless as the trunks of the giant trees around him.
"Well, my good Father Chupin, what sort of sport have you had to-day?" she began, when she was a few steps from him.
"What do you want with me?" growled Chupin; "for you do want something, or you would not trouble yourself about such as I."
It required all Blanche's determination to repress a gesture of fright and of disgust; but, in a resolute tone, she replied:
"Yes, it is true that I have a favor to ask you."
"Ah, ha! I supposed so."
"A mere trifle which will cost you no trouble and for which you shall be well paid."
She said this so carelessly that one would really have supposed the service was unimportant; but cleverly as she played her part, Chupin was not deceived.
"No one asks trifling services of a man like me," he said coarsely.
"Since I have served the good cause, at the peril of my life, people seem to suppose that they have a right to come to me with their money in their hands, when they desire any dirty work done. It is true that I was well paid for that other job; but I would like to melt all the gold and pour it down the throats of those who gave it to me.
"Ah! I know what it costs the humble to listen to the words of the great! Go your way; and if you have any wickedness in your head, do it yourself!"
He shouldered his gun and was moving away, when Mme. Blanche said, coldly:
"It was because I knew your wrongs that I stopped you; I thought you would be glad to serve me, because I hate the Sairmeuse."
These words excited the interest of the old poacher, and he paused.
"I know very well that you hate the Sairmeuse now--but----"
"In less than a month you will be reconciled. And you will pay the expenses of the war and of the reconciliation? That old wretch, Chupin----"
"We shall never be reconciled."
"Hum!" he growled, after deliberating awhile. "And if I should aid you, what compensation will you give me?"
"I will give you whatever you desire--money, land, a house----"
"Many thanks. I desire something quite different."
"What? Name your conditions."
Chupin reflected a moment, then he replied:
"This is what I desire. I have enemies--I do not even feel safe in my own house. My sons abuse me when I have been drinking; my wife is quite capable of poisoning my wine; I tremble for my life and for my money. I cannot endure this existence much longer. Promise me an asylum in the Chateau de Courtornieu, and I am yours. In your house I shall be safe. But let it be understood, I will not be ill-treated by the servants as I was at Sairmeuse."
"It shall be as you desire."
"Swear it by your hope of heaven."
There was such an evident sincerity in her accent that Chupin was reassured. He leaned toward her, and said, in a low voice:
"Now tell me your business."
His small gray eyes glittered with a demoniac light; his thin lips were tightly drawn over his sharp teeth; he was evidently expecting some proposition to murder, and he was ready.
His attitude showed this so plainly that Blanche shuddered.
"Really, what I ask of you is almost nothing," she replied. "I only wish you to watch the Marquis de Sairmeuse."
"Yes; my husband. I wish to know what he does, where he goes, and what persons he sees. I wish to know how each moment of his time is spent."
"What! seriously, frankly, is this all that you desire of me?" Chupin asked.
"For the present, yes. My plans are not yet decided. It depends upon circumstances what action I shall take."
"You can rely upon me," he responded; "but I must have a little time."
"Yes, I understand. To-day is Saturday; will you be ready to report on Thursday?"
"In five days? Yes, probably."
"In that case, meet me here on Thursday, at this same hour."
A cry from Aunt Medea interrupted them.
"Someone is coming!" Mme. Blanche exclaimed. "Quick! we must not be seen together. Conceal yourself."
With a bound the old poacher disappeared in the forest.
A servant had approached Aunt Medea, and was speaking to her with great animation.
Blanche hastened toward them.
"Ah! Mademoiselle," exclaimed the servant, "we have been seeking you everywhere for three hours. Your father, monsieur le marquis--mon Dieu! what a misfortune! A physician has been summoned."
"Is my father dead?"
"No, Mademoiselle, no; but--how can I tell you? When the marquis went out this morning his actions were very strange, and--and--when he returned----"
As he spoke the servant tapped his forehead with the end of his forefinger.
"You understand me, Mademoiselle--when he returned, reason had fled!"
Without waiting for her terrified aunt, Blanche darted in the direction of the chateau.
"How is the marquis?" she inquired of the first servant whom she met.
"He is in his room on the bed; he is more quiet now."
She had already reached his room. He was seated upon the bed, and two servants were watching his every movement. His face was livid, and a white foam had gathered upon his lips. Still, he recognized his daughter.
"Here you are," said he. "I was waiting for you."
She remained upon the threshold, quite overcome, although she was neither tender-hearted nor impressionable.
"My father!" she faltered. "Good heavens! what has happened?"
He uttered a discordant laugh.
"Ah, ha!" he exclaimed, "I met him. Do you doubt me? I tell you that I saw the wretch. I know him well; have I not seen his cursed face before my eyes for more than a month--for it never leaves me. I saw him. It was in the forest near the Sanguille rocks. You know the place; it is always dark there, on account of the trees. I was returning slowly, thinking of him, when suddenly he sprang up before me, extending his arms as if to bar my passage.
"'Come,' said he, 'you must come and join me.' He was armed with a gun; he fired----"
The marquis paused, and Blanche summoned sufficient courage to approach him. For more than a minute she fastened upon him that cold and persistent look that is said to exercise such power over those who have lost their reason; then, shaking him energetically by the arm, she said, almost roughly:
"Control yourself, father. You are the victim of an hallucination. It is impossible that you have seen the man of whom you speak."
Who it was that M. de Courtornieu supposed he had seen, Blanche knew only too well; but she dared not, could not, utter the name.
But the marquis had resumed his incoherent narrative.
"Was I dreaming?" he continued. "No, it was certainly Lacheneur who confronted me. I am sure of it, and the proof is, that he reminded me of a circumstance which occurred in my youth, and which was known only to him and me. It happened during the Reign of Terror. He was all- powerful in Montaignac; and I was accused of being in correspondence with the emigres. My property had been confiscated; and every moment I was expecting to feel the hand of the executioner upon my shoulder, when Lacheneur took me into his house. He concealed me; he furnished me with a passport; he saved my money, and he saved my head--I sentenced him to death. That is the reason why I have seen him again. I must rejoin him; he told me so--I am a dying man!"
He fell back upon his pillows, pulled the sheet up over his face, and, lying there, rigid and motionless, one might readily have supposed it was a corpse, whose outlines could be vaguely discerned through the bed-coverings.
Mute with horror, the servants exchanged frightened glances.
Such baseness and ingratitude amazed them. It seemed incomprehensible to them, under such circumstances, that the marquis had not pardoned Lacheneur.
Mme. Blanche alone retained her presence of mind. Turning to her father's valet, she said:
"It is not possible that anyone has attempted to injure my father?"
"I beg your pardon, Mademoiselle, a little more and he would have been killed."
"How do you know this?"
"In undressing the marquis I noticed that he had received a wound in the head. I also examined his hat, and in it I found three holes, which could only have been made by bullets."
The worthy valet de chambre was certainly more agitated than the daughter.
"Then someone must have attempted to assassinate my father," she murmured, "and this attack of delirium has been brought on by fright. How can we find out who the would-be murderer was?"
The servant shook his head.
"I suspect that old poacher, who is always prowling around, is the guilty man--Chupin."
"No, it could not have been he."
"Ah! I am almost sure of it. There is no one else in the neighborhood capable of such an evil deed."
Mme. Blanche could not give her reasons for declaring Chupin innocent. Nothing in the world would have induced her to admit that she had met him, talked with him for more than half an hour, and just parted from him.
She was silent. In a few moments the physician arrived.
He removed the covering from M. de Courtornieu's face--he was almost compelled to use force to do it--examined the patient with evident anxiety, then ordered mustard plasters, applications of ice to the head, leeches, and a potion, for which a servant was to gallop to Montaignac at once. All was bustle and confusion.
When the physician left the sick-room, Mme. Blanche followed him.
"Well, Doctor," she said, with a questioning look.
With considerable hesitation, he replied:
"People sometimes recover from such attacks."
It really mattered little to Blanche whether her father recovered or died, but she felt that an opportunity to recover her lost prestige was now afforded her. If she desired to turn public opinion against Martial, she must improvise for herself an entirely different reputation. If she could erect a pedestal upon which she could pose as a patient victim, her satisfaction would be intense. Such an occasion now offered itself, and she seized it at once.
Never did a devoted daughter lavish more touching and delicate attentions upon a sick father. It was impossible to induce her to leave his bedside for a moment. It was only with great difficulty that they could persuade her to sleep for a couple of hours, in an armchair in the sick-room.
But while she was playing the role of Sister of Charity, which she had imposed upon herself, her thoughts followed Chupin. What was he doing in Montaignac? Was he watching Martial as he had promised? How slow the day appointed for the meeting was in coming!
It came at last, however, and after intrusting her father to the care of Aunt Medea, Blanche made her escape.
The old poacher was awaiting her at the appointed place.
"Speak!" said Mme. Blanche.
"I would do so willingly, only I have nothing to tell you."
"What! you have not watched the marquis?"
"Your husband? Excuse me, I have followed him; like his own shadow. But what would you have me say to you; since the duke left for Paris, your husband has charge of everything. Ah! you would not recognize him! He is always busy now. He is up at cock-crow and he goes to bed with the chickens. He writes letters all the morning. In the afternoon he receives all who call upon him. The retired officers are hand and glove in with him. He has reinstated five or six of them, and he has granted pensions to two others. He seldom goes out, and never in the evening."
He paused and for more than a minute Blanche was silent. She was confused and agitated by the question that rose to her lips. What humiliation! But she conquered her embarrassment, and turning away her head to hide her crimson face, she said:
"But he certainly has a mistress!"
Chupin burst into a noisy laugh.
"Well, we have come to it at last," he said, with an audacious familiarity that made Blanche shudder. "You mean that scoundrel Lacheneur's daughter, do you not? that stuck-up minx, Marie-Anne?"
Blanche felt that denial was useless.
"Yes," she answered; "it is Marie-Anne that I mean."
"Ah, well! she has been neither seen nor heard from. She must have fled with another of her lovers, Maurice d'Escorval."
"You are mistaken."
"Oh, not at all! Of all the Lacheneurs only Jean remains, and he lives like the vagabond that he is, by poaching and stealing. Day and night he rambles through the woods with his gun on his shoulder. He is frightful to look upon, a perfect skeleton, and his eyes glitter like live coals. If he ever meets me, my account will be settled then and there."
Blanche turned pale. It was Jean Lacheneur who had fired at the marquis then. She did not doubt it in the least.
"Very well!" said she, "I, myself, am sure that Marie-Anne is in the neighborhood, concealed in Montaignac, probably. I must know. Endeavor to discover her retreat before Monday, when I will meet you here again."
"I will try," Chupin answered.
He did indeed try; he exerted all his energy and cunning, but in vain. He was fettered by the precautions which he took against Balstain and against Jean Lacheneur. On the other hand, no one in the neighborhood would have consented to give him the least information.
"Still no news!" he said to Mme. Blanche at each interview.
But she would not yield. Jealousy will not yield even to evidence.
Blanche had declared that Marie-Anne had taken her husband from her, that Martial and Marie-Anne loved each other, hence it must be so, all proofs to the contrary notwithstanding.
But one morning she found her spy jubilant.
"Good news!" he cried, as soon as he saw her; "we have caught the minx at last."
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