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It was the second day after Marie-Anne's installation at the Borderie.
That event was the general topic of conversation; and Chanlouineau's will was the subject of countless comments.
"Here is Monsieur Lacheneur's daughter with an income of more than two thousand francs, without counting the house," said the old people, gravely.
"An honest girl would have had no such luck as that!" muttered the unattractive maidens who had not been fortunate enough to secure husbands.
This was the great news which Chupin brought to Mme. Blanche.
She listened to it, trembling with anger, her hands so convulsively clinched that the nails penetrated the flesh.
"What audacity!" she exclaimed. "What impudence!"
The old poacher seemed to be of the same opinion.
"If each of her lovers gives her as much she will be richer than a queen. She will have enough to buy both Sairmeuse and Courtornieu, if she chooses," he remarked, maliciously.
If he had desired to augment the rage of Mme. Blanche, he had good reason to be satisfied.
"And this is the woman who has alienated Martial's heart from me!" she exclaimed. "It is for this miserable wretch that he abandons me!"
The unworthiness of the unfortunate girl whom she regarded as her rival, incensed her to such a degree that she entirely forgot Chupin's presence. She made no attempt to restrain herself or to hide the secret of her sufferings.
"Are you sure that what you tell me is true?" she asked.
"As sure as that you stand there."
"Who told you all this?"
"No one--I have eyes. I went to the Borderie yesterday to see for myself, and all the shutters were open. Marie-Anne was leaning out of a window. She does not even wear mourning, the heartless hussy!"
Poor Marie-Anne, indeed, had no dress but the one which Mme. d'Escorval had given her on the night of the insurrection, when she laid aside her masculine habiliments.
Chupin wished to irritate Mme. Blanche still more by other malicious remarks, but she checked him by a gesture.
"So you know the way to the Borderie?" she inquired.
"Where is it?"
"Opposite the mills of the Oiselle, near the river, about a league and a half from here."
"That is true. I remember now. Were you ever in the house?"
"More than a hundred times while Chanlouineau was living."
"Explain the topography of the dwelling!"
Chupin's eyes dilated to their widest extent.
"What do you wish?" he asked, not understanding in the least what was required of him.
"I mean, explain how the house is constructed."
"Ah! now I understand. The house is built upon an open space a little distance from the road. Before it is a small garden, and behind it an orchard enclosed by a hedge. Back of the orchard, to the right, are the vineyards; but on the left side is a small grove that shades a spring."
He paused suddenly, and with a knowing wink, inquired:
"But what use do you expect to make of all this information?"
"What does that matter to you? How is the interior arranged?"
"There are three large square rooms on the ground floor, besides the kitchen and a small dark room."
"Now, what is on the floor above?"
"I have never been up there."
"How are the rooms furnished which you have visited?"
"Like those in any peasant's house."
Certainly no one was aware of the existence of the luxurious apartment which Chanlouineau had intended for Marie-Anne. He had never spoken of it, and had even taken the greatest precautions to prevent anyone from seeing him transport the furniture.
"How many doors are there?" inquired Blanche.
"Three; one opening into the garden, another into the orchard, another communicating with the stables. The staircase leading to the floor above is in the middle room."
"And is Marie-Anne alone at the Borderie?"
"Entirely alone at present; but I suppose it will not be long before her brigand of a brother joins her."
Mme. Blanche fell into a revery so deep and so prolonged that Chupin at last became impatient.
He ventured to touch her upon the arm, and, in a wily voice, he said: "Well, what shall we decide?"
Blanche shuddered like a wounded man on hearing the terrible click of the surgeon's instruments.
"My mind is not yet made up," she replied. "I must reflect--I will see."
And remarking the old poacher's discontented face, she said, vehemently:
"I will do nothing lightly. Do not lose sight of Martial. If he goes to the Borderie, and he will go there, I must be informed of it. If he writes, and he will write, try to procure one of his letters. I must see you every other day. Do not rest! Strive to deserve the good place I am reserving for you at Courtornieu. Go!"
He departed without a word, but also without attempting to conceal his disappointment and chagrin.
"It serves you right for listening to a silly, affected woman," he growled. "She fills the air with her ravings; she wishes to kill everybody, to burn and destroy everything. She only asks for an opportunity. The occasion presents itself, and her heart fails her. She draws back--she is afraid!"
Chupin did Mme. Blanche great injustice. The movement of horror which he had observed was the instinctive revolt of the flesh, and not a faltering of her inflexible will.
Her reflections were not of a nature to appease her rancor.
Whatever Chupin and all Sairmeuse might say to the contrary, Blanche regarded this story of Marie-Anne's travels as a ridiculous fable. In her opinion, Marie-Anne had simply emerged from the retreat where Martial had deemed it prudent to conceal her.
But why this sudden reappearance? The vindictive woman was ready to swear that it was out of mere bravado, and intended only as an insult to her.
"And I will have my revenge," she thought. "I would tear my heart out if it were capable of cowardly weakness under such provocation!"
The voice of conscience was unheard in this tumult of passion. Her sufferings, and Jean Lacheneur's attempt upon her father's life seemed to justify the most extreme measures.
She had plenty of time now to brood over her wrongs, and to concoct schemes of vengeance. Her father no longer required her care. He had passed from the frenzied ravings of insanity and delirium to the stupor of idiocy.
The physician declared his patient cured.
Cured! The body was cured, perhaps, but reason had succumbed. All traces of intelligence had disappeared from this once mobile face, so ready to assume any expression which the most consummate hypocrisy required.
There was no longer a sparkle in the eye which had formerly gleamed with cunning, and the lower lip hung with a terrible expression of stupidity.
And there was no hope of any improvement.
A single passion, the table, took the place of all the passions which had formerly swayed the life of this ambitious man.
The marquis, who had always been temperate in his habits, now ate and drank with the most disgusting voracity, and he was becoming immensely corpulent. A soulless body, he wandered about the chateau and its surroundings without projects, without aim. Self-consciousness, all thought of dignity, knowledge of good and evil, memory--he had lost all these. Even the instinct of self-preservation, the last which dies within us, had departed, and he had to be watched like a child.
Often, as the marquis roamed about the large gardens, his daughter regarded him from her window with a strange terror in her heart.
But this warning of Providence only increased her desire for revenge.
"Who would not prefer death to such a misfortune?" she murmured. "Ah! Jean Lacheneur's revenge is far more terrible than it would have been had his bullet pierced my father's heart. It is a revenge like this that I desire. It is due me; I will have it!"
She saw Chupin every two or three days; sometimes going to the place of meeting alone, sometimes accompanied by Aunt Medea.
The old poacher came punctually, although he was beginning to tire of his task.
"I am risking a great deal," he growled. "I supposed that Jean Lacheneur would go and live at the Borderie with his sister. Then, I should be safe. But no; the brigand continues to prowl around with his gun under his arm, and to sleep in the woods at night. What game is he hunting? Father Chupin, of course. On the other hand, I know that my rascally innkeeper over there has abandoned his inn and mysteriously disappeared. Where is he? Hidden behind one of these trees, perhaps, deciding in which portion of my body he shall plunge his knife."
What irritated the old poacher most of all was, that after two months of surveillance, he had arrived at the conclusion that, whatever might have been the relations existing between Martial and Marie-Anne in the past, all was now over between them.
But Blanche would not admit this.
"Say that they are more cunning than you, Father Chupin."
"Cunning--and how? Since I have been watching the marquis, he has not once passed outside the fortifications. On the other hand, the postman at Sairmeuse, who has been adroitly questioned by my wife, declares that he has not taken a single letter to the Borderie."
Had it not been for the hope of a safe and pleasant retreat at Courtornieu, Chupin would have abandoned his task; and, in spite of the tempting rewards that were promised him, he had relaxed his surveillance.
If he still came to the rendezvous, it was only because he had fallen into the habit of claiming some money for his expenses each time.
And when Mme. Blanche demanded an account of everything that Martial had done, he told her anything that came into his head.
Mme. Blanche soon discovered this. One day, early in September, she interrupted him as he began the same old story, and, looking him steadfastly in the eye, she said:
"Either you are betraying me, or you are a fool. Yesterday Martial and Marie-Anne spent a quarter of an hour together at the Croix d'Arcy."
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