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Maurice and Marie-Anne had loved each other for many years.
As children, they had played together in the magnificent grounds surrounding the Chateau de Sairmeuse, and in the park at Escorval.
Together they chased the brilliant butterflies, searched for pebbles on the banks of the river, or rolled in the hay while their mothers sauntered through the meadows bordering the Oiselle.
For their mothers were friends.
Mme. Lacheneur had been reared like other poor peasant girls; that is to say, on the day of her marriage it was only with great difficulty she succeeded in inscribing her name upon the register.
But from the example of her husband she had learned that prosperity, as well as noblesse, entails certain obligations upon one, and with rare courage, crowned with still rarer success, she had undertaken to acquire an education in keeping with her fortune and her new rank.
And the baroness had made no effort to resist the sympathy that attracted her to this meritorious young woman, in whom she had discerned a really superior mind and a truly refined nature.
When Mme. Lacheneur died, Mme. d'Escorval mourned for her as she would have mourned for a favorite sister.
From that moment Maurice's attachment assumed a more serious character.
Educated in a Parisian lyceum, his teachers sometimes had occasion to complain of his want of application.
"If your professors are not satisfied with you," said his mother, "you shall not accompany me to Escorval on the coming of your vacation, and you will not see your little friend."
And this simple threat was always sufficient to make the school-boy resume his studies with redoubled diligence.
So each year, as it passed, strengthened the grande passion which preserved Maurice from the restlessness and the errors of adolescence.
The two children were equally timid and artless, and equally infatuated with each other.
Long walks in the twilight under the eyes of their parents, a glance that revealed their delight at meeting each other, flowers exchanged between them--which were religiously preserved--such were their simple pleasures.
But that magical and sublime word, love--so sweet to utter, and so sweet to hear--had never once dropped from their lips.
The audacity of Maurice had never gone beyond a furtive pressure of the hand.
The parents could not be ignorant of this mutual affection; and if they pretended to shut their eyes, it was only because it did not displease them nor disturb their plans.
M. and Mme. d'Escorval saw no objection to their son's marriage with a young girl whose nobility of character they appreciated, and who was as beautiful as she was good. That she was the richest heiress in all the country round about was naturally no objection.
So far as M. Lacheneur was concerned, he was delighted at the prospect of a marriage which would ally him, a former ploughboy, with an old family whose head was universally respected.
So, although no direct allusion to the subject had ever escaped the lips of the baron or of M. Lacheneur, there was a tacit agreement between the two families.
Yes, the marriage was considered a foregone conclusion.
And yet this impetuous and unexpected declaration by Maurice struck everyone dumb.
In spite of his agitation, the young man perceived the effect produced by his words, and frightened by his own boldness, he turned and looked questioningly at his father.
The baron's face was grave, even sad; but his attitude expressed no displeasure.
This gave renewed courage to the anxious lover.
"You will excuse me, Monsieur," he said, addressing Lacheneur, "for presenting my request in such a manner, and at such a time. But surely, when fate glowers ominously upon you, that is the time when your friends should declare themselves--and deem themselves fortunate if their devotion can make you forget the infamous treatment to which you have been subjected."
As he spoke, he was watching Marie-Anne.
Blushing and embarrassed, she turned away her head, perhaps to conceal the tears which inundated her face--tears of joy and of gratitude.
The love of the man she adored came forth victorious from a test which it would not be prudent for many heiresses to impose.
Now she could truly say that she knew Maurice's heart.
He, however, continued:
"I have not consulted my father, sir; but I know his affection for me and his esteem for you. When the happiness of my life is at stake, he will not oppose me. He, who married my dear mother without a dowry, must understand my feelings."
He was silent, awaiting the verdict.
"I approve your course, my son," said M. d'Escorval, deeply affected; "you have conducted yourself like an honorable man. Certainly you are very young to become the head of a family; but, as you say, circumstances demand it."
He turned to M. Lacheneur, and added:
"My dear friend, I, in my son's behalf, ask the hand of your daughter in marriage."
Maurice had not expected so little opposition.
In his delight he was almost tempted to bless the hateful Duc de Sairmeuse, to whom he would owe his approaching happiness.
He sprang toward his father, and seizing his hands, he raised them to his lips, faltering:
"Thanks! you are so good! I love you! Oh, how happy I am!"
Alas! the poor boy was in too much haste to rejoice.
A gleam of pride flashed in M. Lacheneur's eyes; but his face soon resumed its gloomy expression.
"Believe me, Monsieur le Baron, I am deeply touched by your grandeur of soul--yes, deeply touched. You wish to make me forget my humiliation; but, for this very reason, I should be the most contemptible of men if I did not refuse the great honor you desire to confer upon my daughter."
"What!" exclaimed the baron, in utter astonishment; "you refuse?"
"I am compelled to do so."
Thunderstruck at first, Maurice afterward renewed the attack with an energy which no one had ever suspected in his character before.
"Do you, then, wish to ruin my life, Monsieur?" he exclaimed; "to ruin our life; for if I love Marie-Anne, she also loves me."
It was easy to see that he spoke the truth. The unhappy girl, crimson with happy blushes the moment before, had suddenly become whiter than marble, as she looked imploringly at her father.
"It cannot be," repeated M. Lacheneur; "and the day will come when you will bless the decision I make known at this moment."
Alarmed by her son's evident agony, Mme. d'Escorval interposed:
"You must have reasons for this refusal."
"None that I can disclose, Madame. But never while I live shall my daughter be your son's wife!"
"Ah! it will kill my child!" exclaimed the baroness.
M. Lacheneur shook his head.
"Monsieur Maurice," said he, "is young; he will console himself--he will forget."
"Never!" interrupted the unhappy lover--"never!"
"And your daughter?" inquired the baroness.
Ah! this was the weak spot in his armor; the instinct of a mother was not mistaken. M. Lacheneur hesitated a moment; but he finally conquered the weakness that had threatened to master him.
"Marie-Anne," he replied, slowly, "knows her duty too well not to obey when I command. When I tell her the motive that governs my conduct, she will become resigned; and if she suffers, she will know how to conceal her sufferings."
He paused suddenly. They heard in the distance a firing of musketry, the discharge of rifles, whose sharp ring overpowered even the sullen roar of cannon.
Every face grew pale. Circumstances imparted to these sounds an ominous significance.
With the same anguish clutching the hearts of both, M. d'Escorval and Lacheneur sprang out upon the terrace.
But all was still again. Extended as was the horizon, the eye could discern nothing unusual. The sky was blue; not a particle of smoke hung over the trees.
"It is the enemy," muttered M. Lacheneur, in a tone which told how gladly he would have shouldered his gun, and, with five hundred others, marched against the united allies.
He paused. The explosions were repeated with still greater violence, and for a period of five minutes succeeded each other without cessation.
M. d'Escorval listened with knitted brows.
"That is not the fire of an engagement," he murmured.
To remain long in such a state of uncertainty was out of the question.
"If you will permit me, father," ventured Maurice, "I will go and ascertain----"
"Go," replied the baron, quietly; "but if it is anything, which I doubt, do not expose yourself to danger; return."
"Oh! be prudent!" insisted Mme. d'Escorval, who already saw her son exposed to the most frightful peril.
"Be prudent!" entreated Marie-Anne, who alone understood what attractions danger might have for a despairing and unhappy man.
These precautions were unnecessary. As Maurice was rushing to the door, his father stopped him.
"Wait," said he; "here is someone who can probably give us information."
A man had just appeared around a turn of the road leading to Sairmeuse.
He was advancing bareheaded in the middle of the dusty road, with hurried strides, and occasionally brandishing his stick, as if threatening an enemy visible to himself alone.
Soon they were able to distinguish his features.
"It is Chanlouineau!" exclaimed M. Lacheneur.
"The owner of the vineyards on the Borderie?"
"The same! The handsomest young farmer in the country, and the best also. Ah! he has good blood in his veins; we may well be proud of him."
"Ask him to stop," said M. d'Escorval.
Lacheneur leaned over the balustrade, and, forming a trumpet out of his two hands, he called:
The robust young farmer raised his head.
"Come up," shouted Lacheneur; "the baron wishes to speak with you."
Chanlouineau responded by a gesture of assent. They saw him enter the gate, cross the garden, and at last appear at the door of the drawing- room.
His features were distorted with fury, his disordered clothing gave evidence of a serious conflict. His cravat was gone, and his torn shirt-collar revealed his muscular throat.
"Where is this fighting?" demanded Lacheneur eagerly; "and with whom?"
Chanlouineau gave a nervous laugh which resembled a roar of rage.
"They are not fighting," he replied; "they are amusing themselves. This firing which you hear is in honor of Monsieur le Duc de Sairmeuse."
"I know it very well; and yet, what I have told you is the truth. It is the work of that miserable wretch and thief, Chupin. Ah, canaille! If I ever find him within reach of my arm he will never steal again."
M. Lacheneur was confounded.
"Tell us what has happened," he said, excitedly.
"Oh, it is as clear as daylight. When the duke arrived at Sairmeuse, Chupin, the old scoundrel, with his two rascally boys, and that old hag, his wife, ran after the carriage like beggars after a diligence, crying, 'Vive Monsieur le Duc!' The duke was enchanted, for he doubtless expected a volley of stones, and he placed a six-franc piece in the hand of each of the wretches. This money gave Chupin an appetite for more, so he took it into his head to give this old noble a reception like that which was given to the Emperor. Having learned through Bibiaine, whose tongue is as long as a viper's, all that has passed at the presbytery, between you, Monsieur Lacheneur, and the duke, he came and proclaimed it in the market-place. When they heard it, all who had purchased national lands were frightened. Chupin had counted on this, and soon he began telling the poor fools that they must burn powder under the duke's nose if they wished him to confirm their titles to their property."
"And did they believe him?"
"Implicitly. It did not take them long to make their preparations. They went to the town hall and took the firemen's rifles, and the guns used for firing a salute on fete days; the mayor gave them the powder, and you heard----
"When I left Sairmeuse there were more than two hundred idiots before the presbytery, shouting:
"Vive Monseigneur! Vive le Duc de Sairmeuse!"
It was as d'Escorval had thought.
"The same pitiful farce that was played in Paris, only on a smaller scale," he murmured. "Avarice and human cowardice are the same the world over!"
Meanwhile, Chanlouineau was going on with his recital.
"To make the fete complete, the devil must have warned all the nobility in the neighborhood, for they all came running. They say that Monsieur de Sairmeuse is a favorite with the King, and that he can get anything he wishes. So you can imagine how they all greeted him! I am only a poor peasant, but never would I lie down in the dust before any man as these old nobles who are so haughty with us, did before the duke. They kissed his hands, and he allowed them to do it. He walked about the square with the Marquis de Courtornieu----"
"And his son?" interrupted Maurice.
"The Marquis Martial, is it not? He is also walking before the church with Mademoiselle Blanche de Courtornieu upon his arm. Ah! I do not understand how people can call her pretty--a little bit of a thing, so blond that one might suppose her hair was gray. Ah! how those two laughed and made fun of the peasants. They say they are going to marry each other. And even this evening there is to be a banquet at the Chateau de Courtornieu in honor of the duke."
He had told all he knew. He paused.
"You have forgotten only one thing," said M. Lacheneur; "that is, to tell us how your clothing happened to be torn, as if you had been fighting."
The young farmer hesitated for a moment, then replied, somewhat brusquely:
"I can tell you, all the same. While Chupin was preaching, I also preached, but not in the same strain. The scoundrel reported me. So, in crossing the square, the duke paused before me and remarked: 'So you are an evil-disposed person?' I said no, but that I knew my rights. Then he took me by the coat and shook me, and told me that he would cure me, and that he would take possession of his vineyard again. Saint Dieu! When I felt the old rascal's hand upon me my blood boiled. I pinioned him. Fortunately, six or seven men fell upon me, and compelled me to let him go. But he had better make up his mind not to come prowling around my vineyard!"
He clinched his hands, his eyes blazed ominously, his whole person breathed an intense desire for vengeance.
And M. d'Escorval was silent, fearing to aggravate this hatred, so imprudently kindled, and whose explosion, he believed, would be terrible.
M. Lacheneur had risen from his chair.
"I must go and take possession of my cottage," he remarked to Chanlouineau; "you will accompany me; I have a proposition to make to you."
M. and Mme. d'Escorval endeavored to detain him, but he would not allow himself to be persuaded, and he departed with his daughter.
But Maurice did not despair; Marie-Anne had promised to meet him the following day in the pine-grove near the Reche.
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