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The Reche, literally translated the "Waste," where Marie-Anne had promised to meet Maurice, owed its name to the rebellious and sterile character of the soil.
Nature seemed to have laid her curse upon it. Nothing would grow there. The ground was covered with stones, and the sandy soil defied all attempts to enrich it.
A few stunted oaks rose here and there above the thorns and broom- plant.
But on the lowlands of the Reche is a flourishing grove. The firs are straight and strong, for the floods of winter have deposited in some of the clefts of the rock sufficient soil to sustain them and the wild clematis and honeysuckle that cling to their branches.
On reaching this grove, Maurice consulted his watch. It marked the hour of mid-day. He had supposed that he was late, but he was more than an hour in advance of the appointed time.
He seated himself upon a high rock, from which he could survey the entire Reche, and waited.
The day was magnificent; the air intensely hot. The rays of the August sun fell with scorching violence upon the sandy soil, and withered the few plants which had sprung up since the last rain.
The stillness was profound, almost terrible. Not a sound broke the silence, not even the buzzing of an insect, nor a whisper of breeze in the trees. All nature seemed sleeping. And on no side was there anything to remind one of life, motion, or mankind.
This repose of nature, which contrasted so vividly with the tumult raging in his own heart, exerted a beneficial effect upon Maurice. These few moments of solitude afforded him an opportunity to regain his composure, to collect his thoughts scattered by the storm of passion which had swept over his soul, as leaves are scattered by the fierce November gale.
With sorrow comes experience, and that cruel knowledge of life which teaches one to guard one's self against one's hopes.
It was not until he heard the conversation of these peasants that Maurice fully realized the horror of Lacheneur's position. Suddenly precipitated from the social eminence which he had attained, he found, in the valley of humiliations into which he was cast, only hatred, distrust, and scorn. Both factions despised and denied him. Traitor, cried one; thief, cried the other. He no longer held any social status. He was the fallen man, the man who had been, and who was no more.
Was not the excessive misery of such a position a sufficient explanation of the strangest and wildest resolutions?
This thought made Maurice tremble. Connecting the stories of the peasants with the words addressed to Chanlouineau at Escorval by M. Lacheneur on the preceding evening, he arrived at the conclusion that this report of Marie-Anne's approaching marriage to the young fanner was not so improbable as he had at first supposed.
But why should M. Lacheneur give his daughter to an uncultured peasant? From mercenary motives? Certainly not, since he had just refused an alliance of which he had been proud in his days of prosperity. Could it be in order to satisfy his wounded pride, then? Perhaps he did not wish it to be said that he owed anything to a son- in-law.
Maurice was exhausting all his ingenuity and penetration in endeavoring to solve this mystery, when at last, on a foot-path which crosses the waste, a woman appeared--Marie-Anne.
He rose, but fearing observation, did not venture to leave the shelter of the grove.
Marie-Anne must have felt a similar fear, for she hurried on, casting anxious glances on every side as she ran. Maurice remarked, not without surprise, that she was bare-headed, and that she had neither shawl nor scarf about her shoulders.
As she reached the edge of the wood, he sprang toward her, and catching her hand raised it to his lips.
But this hand, which she had so often yielded to him, was now gently withdrawn, with so sad a gesture that he could not help feeling there was no hope.
"I came, Maurice," she began, "because I could not endure the thought of your anxiety. By doing so I have betrayed my father's confidence-- he was obliged to leave home. I hastened here. And yet I promised him, only two hours ago, that I would never see you again. You hear me-- never!"
She spoke hurriedly, but Maurice was appalled by the firmness of her accent.
Had he been less agitated, he would have seen what a terrible effort this semblance of calmness cost the young girl. He would have understood it from her pallor, from the contraction of her lips, from the redness of the eyelids which she had vainly bathed with fresh water, and which betrayed the tears that had fallen during the night.
"If I have come," she continued, "it is only to tell you that, for your own sake, as well as for mine, there must not remain in the secret recesses of your heart even the slightest shadow of a hope. All is over; we are separated forever! Only weak natures revolt against a destiny which they cannot alter. Let us accept our fate uncomplainingly. I wished to see you once more, and to say this: Have courage, Maurice. Go away--leave Escorval--forget me!"
"Forget you, Marie-Anne!" exclaimed the wretched young man, "forget you!"
His eyes met hers, and in a husky voice he added:
"Will you then forget me?"
"I am a woman, Maurice--"
But he interrupted her:
"Ah! I did not expect this," he said, despondently. "Poor fool that I was! I believed that you would find a way to touch your father's heart."
She blushed slightly, hesitated, and said:
"I have thrown myself at my father's feet; he repulsed me."
Maurice was thunderstruck, but recovering himself:
"It was because you did not know how to speak to him!" he exclaimed in a passion of fury; "but I shall know--I will present such arguments that he will be forced to yield. What right has he to ruin my happiness with his caprices? I love you---by right of this love, you are mine--mine rather than his! I will make him understand this, you shall see. Where is he? Where can I find him?"
Already he was starting to go, he knew not where. Marie-Anne caught him by the arm.
"Remain," she commanded, "remain! So you have failed to understand me, Maurice. Ah, well! you must know the truth. I am acquainted now with the reasons of my father's refusal; and though his decision should cost me my life, I approve it. Do not go to find my father. If, moved by your prayers, he gave his consent, I should have the courage to refuse mine!"
Maurice was so beside himself that this reply did not enlighten him. Crazed with anger and despair, and with no remorse for the insult he addressed to this woman whom he loved so deeply, he exclaimed:
"Is it for Chanlouineau, then, that you are reserving your consent? He believes so since he goes about everywhere saying that you will soon be his wife."
Marie-Anne shuddered as if a knife had entered her very heart; and yet there was more sorrow than anger in the glance she cast upon Maurice.
"Must I stoop so low as to defend myself from such an imputation?" she asked, sadly. "Must I declare that if even I suspect such an arrangement between Chanlouineau and my father, I have not been consulted? Must I tell you that there are some sacrifices which are beyond the strength of poor human nature? Understand this: I have found strength to renounce the man I love--I shall never be able to accept another in his place!"
Maurice hung his head, abashed by her earnest words, dazzled by the sublime expression of her face.
Reason returned; he realized the enormity of his suspicions, and was horrified with himself for having dared to give utterance to them.
"Oh! pardon!" he faltered, "pardon!"
What did the mysterious causes of all these events which had so rapidly succeeded each other, or M. Lacheneur's secrets, or Marie- Anne's reticence, matter to him now?
He was seeking some chance of salvation; he believed that he had found it.
"We must fly!" he exclaimed: "fly at once without pausing to look back. Before night we shall have passed the frontier."
He sprang toward her with outstretched arms, as if to seize her and bear her away; but she checked him by a single look.
"Fly!" said she, reproachfully; "fly! and is it you, Maurice, who counsel me thus? What! while misfortune is crushing my poor father to the earth, shall I add despair and shame to his sorrows? His friends have deserted him; shall I, his daughter, also abandon him? Ah! if I did that, I should be the vilest, the most cowardly of creatures! If my father, yesterday, when I believed him the owner of Sairmeuse, had demanded the sacrifice to which I consented last evening, I might, perhaps, have resolved upon the extreme measure you have counselled. In broad daylight I might have left Sairmeuse on the arm of my lover. It is not the world that I fear! But if one might consent to fly from the chateau of a rich and happy father, one cannot consent to desert the poor abode of a despairing and penniless parent. Leave me, Maurice, where honor holds me. It will not be difficult for me, who am the daughter of generations of peasants, to become a peasant. Go! I cannot endure more! Go! and remember that one cannot be utterly wretched if one's conscience is clean, and one's duty fulfilled!"
Maurice was about to reply, when a crackling of dry branches made him turn his head.
Scarcely ten paces off, Martial de Sairmeuse was standing motionless, leaning upon his gun.
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