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Time gradually heals all wounds, and in less than a year it was difficult to discern any trace of the fierce whirlwind of passion which had devastated the peaceful valley of the Oiselle.
What remained to attest the reality of all these events, which, though they were so recent, had already been relegated to the domain of the legendary?
A charred ruin on the Reche.
A grave in the cemetery, upon which was inscribed:
"Marie-Anne Lacheneur, died at the age of twenty. Pray for her!"
Only a few, the oldest men and the politicians of the village, forgot their solicitude in regard to the crops to remember this episode.
Sometimes, during the long winter evenings, when they had gathered at the Boeuf Couronne, they laid down their greasy cards and gravely discussed the events of the past years.
They never failed to remark that almost all the actors in that bloody drama at Montaignac had, in common parlance, "come to a bad end."
Victors and vanquished seemed to be pursued by the same inexorable fatality.
Look at the names already upon the fatal list!
Chupin, the traitor, assassinated.
The Marquis de Courtornieu lived, or rather survived, but death would have seemed a mercy in comparison with such total annihilation of intelligence. He had fallen below the level of the brute, which is, at least, endowed with instinct. Since the departure of his daughter he had been cared for by two servants, who did not allow him to give them much trouble, and when they desired to go out they shut him up, not in his chamber, but in the cellar, to prevent his ravings and shrieks from being heard from without.
If people supposed for awhile that the Sairmeuse would escape the fate of the others, they were mistaken. It was not long before the curse fell upon them.
One fine morning in the month of December, the duke left the chateau to take part in a wolf-hunt in the neighborhood.
At nightfall, his horse returned, panting, covered with foam, and riderless.
What had become of its master?
A search was instituted at once, and all night long twenty men, bearing torches, wandered through the woods, shouting and calling at the top of their voices.
Five days went by, and the search for the missing man was almost abandoned, when a shepherd lad, pale with fear, came to the chateau one morning to tell them that he had discovered, at the base of a precipice, the bloody and mangled body of the Duc de Sairmeuse.
It seemed strange that such an excellent rider should have met with such a fate. There might have been some doubt as to its being an accident, had it not been for the explanation given by the grooms.
"The duke was riding an exceedingly vicious beast," said these men. "She was always taking fright and shying at everything."
The following week Jean Lacheneur left the neighborhood.
The conduct of this singular man had caused much comment. When Marie- Anne died, he at first refused his inheritance.
"I wish nothing that came to her through Chanlouineau!" he said everywhere, thus calumniating the memory of his sister as he had calumniated her when alive.
Then, after a short absence, and without any apparent reason, he suddenly changed his mind.
He not only accepted the property, but made all possible haste to obtain possession of it. He made many excuses; and, if one might believe him, he was not acting in his own interest, but merely conforming to the wishes of his deceased sister; and he declared that not a penny would go into his pockets.
This much is certain, as soon as he obtained legal possession of the estate, he sold all the property, troubling himself but little in regard to the price he received, provided the purchasers paid cash.
He reserved only the furniture of the sumptuously adorned chamber at the Borderie. These articles he burned.
This strange act was the talk of the neighborhood.
"The poor young man has lost his reason!" was the almost universal opinion.
And those who doubted it, doubted it no longer when it became known that Jean Lacheneur had formed an engagement with a company of strolling players who stopped at Montaignac for a few days.
But the young man had not wanted for good advice and kind friends. M. d'Escorval and the abbe had exerted all their eloquence to induce him to return to Paris, and complete his studies; but in vain.
The necessity for concealment no longer existed, either in the case of the baron or the priest.
Thanks to Martial de Sairmeuse they were now installed, the one in the presbytery, the other at Escorval, as in days gone by.
Acquitted at his new trial, restored to the possession of his property, reminded of his frightful fall only by a very slight lameness, the baron would have deemed himself a fortunate man, had it not been for his great anxiety on his son's account.
Poor Maurice! his heart was broken by the sound of the clods of earth falling upon Marie-Anne's coffin; and his very life now seemed dependent upon the hope of finding his child.
Assured of the powerful assistance of Abbe Midon, he had confessed all to his father, and confided his secret to Corporal Bavois, who was an honored guest at Escorval; and these devoted friends had promised him all possible aid.
The task was very difficult, however, and certain resolutions on the part of Maurice greatly diminished the chance of success.
Unlike Jean, he was determined to guard religiously the honor of the dead; and he had made his friends promise that Marie-Anne's name should not be mentioned in prosecuting the search.
"We shall succeed all the same," said the abbe, kindly; "with time and patience any mystery can be solved."
He divided the department into a certain number of districts; then one of the little band went each day from house to house questioning the inmates, but not without extreme caution, for fear of arousing suspicion, for a peasant becomes intractable at once if his suspicions are aroused.
But the weeks went by, and the quest was fruitless. Maurice was deeply discouraged.
"My child died on coming into the world," he said, again and again.
But the abbe reassured him.
"I am morally certain that such was not the case," he replied. "I know, by Marie-Anne's absence, the date of her child's birth. I saw her after her recovery; she was comparatively gay and smiling. Draw your own conclusions."
"And yet there is not a nook or corner for miles around which we have not explored."
"True; but we must extend the circle of our investigations."
The priest, now, was only striving to gain time, knowing full well that it is the sovereign balm for all sorrows.
His confidence, which had been very great at first, had been sensibly diminished by the responses of an old woman, who passed for one of the greatest gossips in the community.
Adroitly interrogated, the worthy dame replied that she knew nothing of such a child, but that there must be one in the neighborhood, since it was the third time she had been questioned on the subject.
Intense as was his surprise, the abbe succeeded in hiding it.
He set the old gossip to talking, and after a two hours' conversation, he arrived at the conclusion that two persons besides Maurice were searching for Marie-Anne's child.
Why, with what aim, and who these persons could be the abbe was unable to ascertain.
"Ah! rascals have their uses after all," he thought. "If we only had a man like Chupin to set upon the track!"
But the old poacher was dead, and his eldest son--the one who knew Blanche de Courtornieu's secret--was in Paris.
Only the widow and the second son remained in Sairmeuse.
They had not, as yet, succeeded in discovering the twenty thousand francs, but the fever for gold was burning in their veins, and they persisted in their search. From morning until night the mother and son toiled on, until the earth around their hut had been explored to the depth of six feet.
A word dropped by a peasant one day put an end to these researches.
"Really, my boy," he said, addressing young Chupin, "I did not suppose you were such a fool as to persist in hunting birds' nests after the birds have flown. Your brother, who is in Paris, can undoubtedly tell you where the treasure was concealed."
The younger Chupin uttered the fierce roar of a wild beast.
"Holy Virgin! you are right!" he exclaimed. "Wait until I get money enough to take me to Paris, and we will see."
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