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Only those who, in the bright springtime of life, have loved, have been loved in return, and have suddenly seen an impassable gulf open between them and happiness, can realize Maurice d'Escorval's disappointment.
All the dreams of his life, all his future plans, were based upon his love for Marie-Anne.
If this love failed him, the enchanted castle which hope had erected would crumble and fall, burying him in the ruins.
Without Marie-Anne he saw neither aim nor motive in his existence. Still he did not suffer himself to be deluded by false hopes. Although at first, his appointed meeting with Marie-Anne on the following day seemed salvation itself, on reflection he was forced to admit that this interview would change nothing, since everything depended upon the will of another party--the will of M. Lacheneur.
The remainder of the day he passed in mournful silence. The dinner- hour came; he took his seat at the table, but it was impossible for him to swallow a morsel, and he soon requested his parents' permission to withdraw.
M. d'Escorval and the baroness exchanged a sorrowful glance, but did not allow themselves to offer any comment.
They respected his grief. They knew that his was one of those sorrows which are only aggravated by any attempt at consolation.
"Poor Maurice!" murmured Mme. d'Escorval, as soon as her son had left the room. And, as her husband made no reply: "Perhaps," she added, hesitatingly, "perhaps it will not be prudent for us to leave him too entirely to the dictates of his despair."
The baron shuddered. He divined only too well the terrible apprehensions of his wife.
"We have nothing to fear," he replied, quickly; "I heard Marie-Anne promise to meet Maurice to-morrow in the grove on the Reche."
The anxious mother breathed more freely. Her blood had frozen with horror at the thought that her son might, perhaps, be contemplating suicide; but she was a mother, and her husband's assurances did not satisfy her.
She hastily ascended the stairs leading to her son's room, softly opened the door, and looked in. He was so engrossed in his gloomy revery that he had heard nothing, and did not even suspect the presence of the anxious mother who was watching over him.
He was sitting at the window, his elbows resting upon the sill, his head supported by his hands, looking out into the night.
There was no moon, but the night was clear, and over beyond the light fog that indicated the course of the Oiselle one could discern the imposing mass of the Chateau de Sairmeuse, with its towers and fanciful turrets.
More than once he had sat thus silently gazing at this chateau, which sheltered what was dearest and most precious in all the world to him.
From his windows he could see those of the room occupied by Marie- Anne; and his heart always quickened its throbbing when he saw them illuminated.
"She is there," he thought, "in her virgin chamber. She is kneeling to say her prayers. She murmurs my name after that of her father, imploring God's blessing upon us both."
But this evening he was not waiting for a light to gleam through the panes of that dear window.
Marie-Anne was no longer at Sairmeuse--she had been driven away.
Where was she now? She, accustomed to all the luxury that wealth could procure, no longer had any home except a poor thatch-covered hovel, whose walls were not even whitewashed, whose only floor was the earth itself, dusty as the public highway in summer, frozen or muddy in winter.
She was reduced to the necessity of occupying herself the humble abode she, in her charitable heart, had intended as an asylum for one of her pensioners.
What was she doing now? Doubtless she was weeping.
At this thought poor Maurice was heartbroken.
What was his surprise, a little after midnight, to see the chateau brilliantly illuminated.
The duke and his son had repaired to the chateau after the banquet given by the Marquis de Courtornieu was over; and, before going to bed, they made a tour of inspection through this magnificent abode in which their ancestors had lived. They, therefore, might be said to have taken possession of the mansion whose threshold M. de Sairmeuse had not crossed for twenty-two years, and which Martial had never seen.
Maurice saw the lights leap from story to story, from casement to casement, until at last even the windows of Marie-Anne's room were illuminated.
At this sight the unhappy youth could not restrain a cry of rage.
These men, these strangers, dared enter this virgin bower, which he, even in thought, scarcely dared to penetrate.
They trampled carelessly over the delicate carpet with their heavy boots. Maurice trembled in thinking of the liberties which they, in their insolent familiarity, might venture upon. He fancied he could see them examining and handling the thousand petty trifles with which young girls love to surround themselves; they opened the presses, perhaps they were reading an unfinished letter lying upon her writing- desk.
Never until this evening had Martial supposed he could hate another as he hated these men.
At last, in despair, he threw himself upon his bed, and passed the remainder of the night in thinking over what he should say to Marie- Anne on the morrow, and in seeking some issue from this inextricable labyrinth.
He rose before daybreak, and wandered about the park like a soul in distress, fearing, yet longing, for the hour that would decide his fate. Mme. d'Escorval was obliged to exert all her authority to make him take some nourishment. He had quite forgotten that he had passed twenty-four hours without eating.
When eleven o'clock sounded he left the house.
The lands of the Reche are situated on the other side of the Oiselle. Maurice, to reach his destination, was obliged to cross the river at a ferry only a short distance from his home. When he reached the river- bank he found six or seven peasants who were waiting to cross.
These people did not observe Maurice. They were talking earnestly, and he listened.
"It is certainly true," said one of the men. "I heard it from Chanlouineau himself only last evening. He was wild with delight. 'I invite you all to the wedding!' he cried. 'I am betrothed to Monsieur Lacheneur's daughter; the affair is decided.'"
This astounding news positively stunned Maurice. He was actually unable to think or to move.
"Besides, he has been in love with her for a long time. Everyone knows that. One had only to see his eyes when he met her--coals of fire were nothing to them. But while her father was so rich he did not dare to speak. Now that the old man has met with these reverses, he ventures to offer himself, and is accepted."
"An unfortunate thing for him," remarked a little old man.
"If Monsieur Lacheneur is ruined, as they say----"
The others laughed heartily.
"Ruined--Monsieur Lacheneur!" they exclaimed in chorus. "How absurd! He is richer than all of us together. Do you suppose that he has been stupid enough not to have laid anything aside during all these years? He has put this money not in grounds, as he pretends, but somewhere else."
"You are saying what is untrue!" interrupted Maurice, indignantly. "Monsieur Lacheneur left Sairmeuse as poor as he entered it."
On recognizing M. d'Escorval's son, the peasants became extremely cautious. He questioned them, but could obtain only vague and unsatisfactory answers. A peasant, when interrogated, will never give a response which he thinks will be displeasing to his questioner; he is afraid of compromising himself.
The news he had heard, however, caused Maurice to hasten on still more rapidly after crossing the Oiselle.
"Marie-Anne marry Chanlouineau!" he repeated; "it is impossible! it is impossible!"
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