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The old physician at Vigano, who had come to Marie-Anne's aid, was an honorable man. His intellect was of a superior order, and his heart was equal to his intelligence. He knew life; he had loved and suffered, and he possessed two sublime virtues--forbearance and charity.
It was easy for such a man to read Marie-Anne's character; and while he was at the Borderie he endeavored in every possible way to reassure her, and to restore the self-respect of the unfortunate girl who had confided in him.
Had he succeeded? He certainly hoped so.
But when he departed and Marie-Anne was again left in solitude, she could not overcome the feeling of despondency that stole over her.
Many, in her situation, would have regained their serenity of mind, and even rejoiced. Had she not succeeded in concealing her fault? Who suspected it, except, perhaps, the abbe.
Hence, Marie-Anne had nothing to fear, and everything to hope.
But this conviction did not appease her sorrow. Hers was one of those pure and proud natures that are more sensitive to the whisperings of conscience than to the clamors of the world.
She had been accused of having three lovers--Chanlouineau, Martial, and Maurice. The calumny had not moved her. What tortured her was what these people did not know--the truth.
Nor was this all. The sublime instinct of maternity had been awakened within her. When she saw the physician depart, bearing her child, she felt as if soul and body were being rent asunder. When could she hope to see again this little son who was doubly dear to her by reason of the very sorrow and anguish he had cost her? The tears gushed to her eyes when she thought that his first smile would not be for her.
Ah! had it not been for her promise to Maurice, she would unhesitatingly have braved public opinion, and kept her precious child.
Her brave and honest nature could have endured any humiliation far better than the continual lie she was forced to live.
But she had promised; Maurice was her husband, and reason told her that for his sake she must preserve not her honor, alas! but the semblance of honor.
And when she thought of her brother, her blood froze in her veins.
Having learned that Jean was roving about the country, she sent for him; but it was not without much persuasion that he consented to come to the Borderie.
It was easy to explain Chupin's terror when one saw Jean Lacheneur. His clothing was literally in tatters, his face wore an expression of ferocious despair, and a fierce unextinguishable hatred burned in his eyes.
When he entered the cottage, Marie-Anne recoiled in horror. She did not recognize him until he spoke.
"It is I, sister," he said, gloomily.
"You--my poor Jean! you!"
He surveyed himself from head to foot, and said, with a sneering laugh:
"Really, I should not like to meet myself at dusk in the forest."
Marie-Anne shuddered. She fancied that a threat lurked beneath these ironical words, beneath this mockery of himself.
"What a life yours must be, my poor brother! Why did you not come sooner? Now, I have you here, I shall not let you go. You will not desert me. I need protection and love so much. You will remain with me?"
"It is impossible, Marie-Anne."
A fleeting crimson suffused Jean Lacheneur's cheek; he hesitated for a moment, then:
"Because I have a right to dispose of my own life, but not of yours," he replied. "We can no longer be anything to each other. I deny you to-day, that you may be able to deny me to-morrow. Yes, I renounce you, who are my all--the only person on earth whom I love. Your most cruel enemies have not calumniated you more foully than I----"
He paused an instant, then he added:
"I have said openly, before numerous witnesses, that I would never set foot in a house that had been given you by Chanlouineau."
"Jean! you, my brother! said that?"
"I said it. It must be supposed that there is a deadly feud between us. This must be, in order that neither you nor Maurice d'Escorval can be accused of complicity in any deed of mine."
Marie-Anne stood as if petrified.
"He is mad!" she murmured.
"Do I really have that appearance?"
She shook off the stupor that paralyzed her, and seizing her brother's hands:
"What do you intend to do?" she exclaimed. "What do you intend to do? Tell me; I will know."
"Nothing! let me alone."
"Let me alone," he said, roughly, disengaging himself.
A horrible presentiment crossed Marie-Anne's mind.
She stepped back, and solemnly, entreatingly, she said:
"Take care, take care, my brother. It is not well to tamper with these matters. Leave to God's justice the task of punishing those who have wronged us."
But nothing could move Jean Lacheneur, or divert him from his purpose. He uttered a hoarse, discordant laugh, then striking his gun heavily with his hand, he exclaimed:
"Here is justice!"
Appalled and distressed beyond measure, Marie-Anne sank into a chair. She discerned in her brother's mind the same fixed, fatal idea which had lured her father on to destruction--the idea for which he had sacrificed all--family, friends, fortune, the present and the future-- even his daughter's honor--the idea which had caused so much blood to flow, which had cost the life of so many innocent men, and which had finally conducted him to the scaffold.
"Jean," she murmured, "remember our father."
The young man's face became livid; his hands clinched involuntarily, but he controlled his anger.
Advancing toward his sister, in a cold, quiet tone that added a frightful violence to his threats, he said:
"It is because I remember my father that justice shall be done. Ah! these miserable nobles would not display such audacity if all sons had my resolution. A scoundrel would hesitate before attacking a good man if he was obliged to say to himself: 'I cannot strike this honest man, for though he die, his children will surely call me to account. Their fury will fall on me and mine; they will pursue us sleeping and waking, pursue us without ceasing, everywhere, and pitilessly. Their hatred always on the alert, will accompany us and surround us. It will be an implacable, merciless warfare. I shall never venture forth without fearing a bullet; I shall never lift food to my lips without dread of poison. And until we have succumbed, they will prowl about our house, trying to slip in through tiniest opening, death, dishonor, ruin, infamy, and misery!'"
He paused with a nervous laugh, and then, still more slowly, he added:
"That is what the Sairmeuse and Courtornieu have to expect from me."
It was impossible to mistake the meaning of Jean Lacheneur's words. His threats were not the wild ravings of anger. His quiet manner, his icy tones, his automatic gestures betrayed one of those cold rages which endure so long as the man lives.
He took good care to make himself understood, for between his teeth he added:
"Undoubtedly, these people are very high, and I am very low; but when a tiny worm fastens itself to the roots of a giant oak, that tree is doomed."
Marie-Anne knew all too well the uselessness of prayers and entreaties.
And yet she could not, she must not allow her brother to depart in this mood.
She fell upon her knees, and with clasped hands and supplicating voice:
"Jean," said she, "I implore you to renounce these projects. In the name of our mother, return to your better self. These are crimes which you are meditating!"
With a glance of scorn and a shrug of the shoulders, he replied:
"Have done with this. I was wrong to confide my hopes to you. Do not make me regret that I came here."
Then the sister tried another plan. She rose, forced her lips to smile, and as if nothing unpleasant had passed between them, she begged Jean to remain with her that evening, at least, and share her frugal supper.
"Remain," she entreated; "that is not much to do--and it will make me so happy. And since it will be the last time we shall see each other for years, grant me a few hours. It is so long since we have met. I have suffered so much. I have so many things to tell you! Jean, my dear brother, can it be that you love me no longer?"
One must have been bronze to remain insensible to such prayers. Jean Lacheneur's heart swelled almost to bursting; his stern features relaxed, and a tear trembled in his eye.
Marie-Anne saw that tear. She thought she had conquered, and clapping her hands in delight, she exclaimed:
"Ah! you will remain! you will remain!"
No. Jean had already mastered his momentary weakness, though not without a terrible effort; and in a harsh voice:
"Impossible! impossible!" he repeated.
Then, as his sister clung to him imploringly, he took her in his arms and pressed her to his heart.
"Poor sister--poor Marie-Anne--you will never know what it costs me to refuse you, to separate myself from you. But this must be. In even coming here I have been guilty of an imprudent act. You do not understand to what perils you will be exposed if people suspect any bond between us. I trust you and Maurice may lead a calm and happy life. It would be a crime for me to mix you up with my wild schemes. Think of me sometimes, but do not try to see me, or even to learn what has become of me. A man like me struggles, triumphs, or perishes alone."
He kissed Marie-Anne passionately, then lifted her, placed her in a chair, and freed himself from her detaining hands.
"Adieu!" he cried; "when you see me again, our father will be avenged!"
She sprang up to rush after him and to call him back. Too late!
He had fled.
"It is over," murmured the wretched girl; "my brother is lost. Nothing will restrain him now."
A vague, inexplicable, but horrible fear, contracted her heart. She felt that she was being slowly but surely drawn into a whirlpool of passion, rancor, vengeance, and crime, and a voice whispered that she would be crushed.
But other thoughts soon replaced these gloomy presentiments.
One evening, while she was preparing her little table, she heard a rustling sound at the door. She turned and looked; someone had slipped a letter under the door.
Courageously, and without an instant's hesitation, she sprang to the door and opened it. No one was there!
The night was dark, and she could distinguish nothing in the gloom without. She listened; not a sound broke the stillness.
Agitated and trembling she picked up the letter, approached the light, and looked at the address.
"The Marquis de Sairmeuse!" she exclaimed, in amazement.
She recognized Martial's handwriting. So he had written to her! He had dared to write to her!
Her first impulse was to burn the letter; she held it to the flame, then the thought of her friends concealed at Father Poignot's farm made her withdraw it. "For their sake," she thought, "I must read it." She broke the seal with the arms of the De Sairmeuse family inscribed upon it, and read:
"My dear Marie-Anne--Perhaps you have suspected who it is that has given an entirely new, and certainly surprising, direction to events.
"Perhaps you have also understood the motives that guided him. In that case I am amply repaid for my efforts, for you cannot refuse me your friendship and your esteem.
"But my work of reparation is not yet accomplished. I have prepared everything for a revision of the judgment that condemned Baron d'Escorval to death, or for procuring a pardon.
"You must know where the baron is concealed. Acquaint him with my plans and ascertain whether he prefers a revision of judgment, or a simple pardon.
"If he desires a new trial, I will give him a letter of license from the King.
"I await your reply before acting.
"Martial de Sairmeuse."
Marie-Anne's head whirled.
This was the second time that Martial had astonished her by the grandeur of his passion.
How noble the two men who had loved her and whom she had rejected, had proved themselves to be.
One, Chanlouineau, after dying for her sake, protected her still.
Martial de Sairmeuse had sacrificed the convictions of his life and the prejudice of his race for her sake; and, with a noble recklessness, hazarded for her the political fortunes of his house.
And yet the man whom she had chosen, the father of her child, Maurice d'Escorval, had not given a sign of life since he quitted her, five months before.
But suddenly, and without reason, Marie-Anne passed from the most profound admiration to the deepest distrust.
"What if Martial's offer is only a trap?" This was the suspicion that darted through her mind.
"Ah!" she thought, "the Marquis de Sairmeuse would be a hero if he were sincere!"
And she did not wish him to be a hero.
The result of these suspicions was that she hesitated five days before repairing to the rendezvous where Father Poignot usually awaited her.
When she did go, she found, not the worthy farmer, but Abbe Midon, who had been greatly alarmed by her long absence.
It was night, but Marie-Anne, fortunately, knew Martial's letter by heart.
The abbe made her repeat it twice, the second time very slowly, and when she had concluded:
"This young man," said the priest, "has the voice and the prejudices of his rank and of his education; but his heart is noble and generous."
And when Marie-Anne disclosed her suspicions:
"You are wrong, my child," said he; "the Marquis is certainly sincere. It would be wrong not to take advantage of his generosity. Such, at least, is my opinion. Intrust this letter to me. I will consult the baron, and to-morrow I will tell you our decision."
The abbe was awaiting her with feverish impatience on the same spot, when she rejoined him twenty-four hours later.
"Monsieur d'Escorval agrees with me that we must trust ourselves to the Marquis de Sairmeuse. Only the baron, being innocent, cannot, will not, accept a pardon. He demands a revision of the iniquitous judgment which condemned him."
Although she must have foreseen this determination, Marie-Anne seemed stupefied.
"What!" said she. "Monsieur d'Escorval will give himself up to his enemies? Does not the Marquis de Sairmeuse promise him a letter of license, a safe-conduct from the King?"
She could find no objection, so in a submissive tone, she said:
"In this case, Monsieur, I must ask you for a rough draft of the letter I am to write to the marquis."
The priest did not reply for a moment. It was evident that he felt some misgivings. At last, summoning all his courage, he said:
"It would be better not to write."
"It is not that I distrust the marquis, not by any means, but a letter is dangerous; it does not always reach the person to whom it is addressed. You must see Monsieur de Sairmeuse."
Marie-Anne recoiled in horror.
"Never! never!" she exclaimed.
The abbe did not seem surprised.
"I understand your repugnance, my child," he said, gently; "your reputation has suffered greatly through the attentions of the marquis."
"Oh! sir, I entreat you."
"But one should not hesitate, my child, when duty speaks. You owe this sacrifice to an innocent man who has been ruined through your father."
He explained to her all that she must say, and did not leave her until she had promised to see the marquis in person. But the cause of her repugnance was not what the abbe supposed. Her reputation! Alas! she knew that was lost forever. No, it was not that.
A fortnight before she would not have been disquieted by the prospect of this interview. Then, though she no longer hated Martial, he was perfectly indifferent to her, while now----
Perhaps in choosing the Croix d'Arcy for the place of meeting, she hoped that this spot, haunted by so many cruel memories, would restore her former aversion.
On pursuing the path leading to the place of rendezvous, she said to herself that Martial would undoubtedly wound her by the tone of careless gallantry which was habitual to him.
But in this she was mistaken. Martial was greatly agitated, but he did not utter a word that was not connected with the baron.
It was only when the conference was ended, and he had consented to all the conditions, that he said, sadly:
"We are friends, are we not?"
In an almost inaudible voice she answered:
And that was all. He remounted his horse which had been held by a servant, and departed in the direction of Montaignac.
Breathless, with cheeks on fire, Marie-Anne watched him as he disappeared; and then her inmost heart was revealed as by a lightning flash.
"Mon Dieu! wretch that I am!" she exclaimed. "Do I not love? is it possible that I could ever love any other than Maurice, my husband, the father of my child?"
Her voice was still trembling with emotion when she recounted the details of the interview to the abbe. But he did not perceive it. He was thinking only of the baron.
"I was sure that Martial would agree to everything; I was so certain of it that I have made all the arrangements for the baron to leave the farm. He will await, at your house, a safe-conduct from His Majesty.
"The close air and the heat of the loft are retarding the baron's recovery," the abbe pursued, "so be prepared for his coming to-morrow evening. One of the Poignot boys will bring over all our baggage. About eleven o'clock we will put Monsieur d'Escorval in a carriage; and we will all sup together at the Borderie."
"Heaven comes to my aid!" thought Marie-Anne as she walked homeward.
She thought that she would no longer be alone, that Mme. d'Escorval would be with her to talk to her of Maurice, and that all the friends who would surround her would aid her in driving away the thoughts of Martial, which haunted her.
So the next day she was more cheerful than she had been for months, and once, while putting her little house in order, she was surprised to find herself singing at her work.
Eight o'clock was sounding when she heard a peculiar whistle.
It was the signal of the younger Poignot, who came bringing an arm- chair for the sick man, the abbe's box of medicine, and a bag of books.
These articles Marie-Anne deposited in the room which Chanlouineau had adorned for her, and which she intended for the baron. After arranging them to her satisfaction she went out to meet young Poignot, who had told her that he would soon return with other articles.
The night was very dark, and Marie-Anne, as she hastened on, did not notice two motionless figures in the shadow of a clump of lilacs in her little garden.
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