The Collection of Antiquities/Section 14
Chesnel met his foes in a body as they left du Croisier's house, and began to fear that du Croisier had gone to bed. In his position he was compelled to act quickly, and any delay was a misfortune.
"In the King's name!" he cried, as the man-servant was closing the hall door. He had just brought the King on the scene for the benefit of an ambitious little official, and the word was still on his lips. He fretted and chafed while the door was unbarred; then, swift as a thunderbolt, dashed into the ante-chamber, and spoke to the servant.
"A hundred crowns to you, young man, if you can wake Mme. du Croisier and send her to me this instant. Tell her anything you like."
Chesnel grew cool and composed as he opened the door of the brightly lighted drawing-room, where du Croisier was striding up and down. For a moment the two men scanned each other, with hatred and enmity, twenty years' deep, in their eyes. One of the two had his foot on the heart of the house of d'Esgrignon; the other, with a lion's strength, came forward to pluck it away.
"Your humble servant, sir," said Chesnel. "Have you made the charge?"
"When was it made?"
"Have any steps been taken since the warrant of arrest was issued?"
"I believe so."
"I have come to treat with you."
"Justice must take its course, nothing can stop it, the arrest has been made."
"Never mind that, I am at your orders, at your feet." The old man knelt before du Croisier, and stretched out his hands entreatingly.
"What do you want? Our lands, our castle? Take all; withdraw the charge; leave us nothing but life and honor. And over and besides all this, I will be your servant; command and I will obey."
Du Croisier sat down in an easy-chair and left the old man to kneel.
"You are not vindictive," pleaded Chesnel; "you are good-hearted, you do not bear us such a grudge that you will not listen to terms. Before daylight the young man ought to be at liberty."
"The whole town knows that he has been arrested," returned du Croisier, enjoying his revenge.
"It is a great misfortune, but as there will be neither proofs nor trial, we can easily manage that."
Du Croisier reflected. He seemed to be struggling with self-interest; Chesnel thought that he had gained a hold on his enemy through the great motive of human action. At that supreme moment Mme. du Croisier appeared.
"Come here and help me to soften your dear husband, madame?" said Chesnel, still on his knees. Mme. du Croisier made him rise with every sign of profound astonishment. Chesnel explained his errand; and when she knew it, the generous daughter of the intendants of the Ducs de Alencon turned to du Croisier with tears in her eyes.
"Ah! monsieur, can you hesitate? The d'Esgrignons, the honor of the province!" she said.
"There is more in it than that," exclaimed du Croisier, rising to begin his restless walk again.
"More? What more?" asked Chesnel in amazement.
"France is involved, M. Chesnel! It is a question of the country, of the people, of giving my lords your nobles a lesson, and teaching them that there is such a thing as justice, and law, and a bourgeoisie&mdasha lesser nobility as good as they, and a match for them! There shall be no more trampling down half a score of wheat fields for a single hare; no bringing shame on families by seducing unprotected girls; they shall not look down on others as good as they are, and mock at them for ten whole years, without finding out at last that these things swell into avalanches, and those avalanches will fall and crush and bury my lords the nobles. You want to go back to the old order of things. You want to tear up the social compact, the Charter in which our rights are set forth&mdash-"
"Is it not a sacred mission to open the people's eyes?" cried du Croisier. "Their eyes will be opened to the morality of your party when they see nobles going to be tried at the Assize Court like Pierre and Jacques. They will say, then, that small folk who keep their self-respect are as good as great folk that bring shame on themselves. The Assize Court is a light for all the world. Here, I am the champion of the people, the friend of law. You yourselves twice flung me on the side of the people&mdashonce when you refused an alliance, twice when you put me under the ban of your society. You are reaping as you have sown."
If Chesnel was startled by this outburst, so no less was Mme. du Croisier. To her this was a terrible revelation of her husband's character, a new light not merely on the past but on the future as well. Any capitulation on the part of the colossus was apparently out of the question; but Chesnel in no wise retreated before the impossible.
"What, monsieur?" said Mme. du Croisier. "Would you not forgive? Then you are not a Christian."
"I forgive as God forgives, madame, on certain conditions."
"And what are they?" asked Chesnel, thinking that he saw a ray of hope.
"The elections are coming on; I want the votes at your disposal."
"You shall have them."
"I wish that we, my wife and I, should be received familiarly every evening, with an appearance of friendliness at any rate, by M. le Marquis d'Esgrignon and his circle," continued du Croisier.
"I do not know how we are going to compass it, but you shall be received."
"I wish to have the family bound over by a surety of four hundred thousand francs, and by a written document stating the nature of the compromise, so as to keep a loaded cannon pointed at its heart."
"We agree," said Chesnel, without admitting that the three hundred thousand francs was in his possession; "but the amount must be deposited with a third party and returned to the family after your election and repayment."
"No; after the marriage of my grand-niece, Mlle. Duval. She will very likely have four million francs some day; the reversion of our property (mine and my wife's) shall be settled upon her by her marriage-contract, and you shall arrange a match between her and the young Count."
"Never!" repeated du Croisier, quite intoxicated with triumph. "Good-night!"
"Idiot that I am," thought Chesnel, "why did I shrink from a lie to such a man?"
Du Croisier took himself off; he was pleased with himself; he had enjoyed Chesnel's humiliation; he had held the destinies of a proud house, the representatives of the aristocracy of the province, suspended in his hand; he had set the print of his heel on the very heart of the d'Esgrignons; and, finally, he had broken off the whole negotiation on the score of his wounded pride. He went up to his room, leaving his wife alone with Chesnel. In his intoxication, he saw his victory clear before him. He firmly believed that the three hundred thousand francs had been squandered; the d'Esgrignons must sell or mortgage all that they had to raise the money; the Assize Court was inevitable to his mind.
An affair of forgery can always be settled out of court in France if the missing amount is returned. The losers by the crime are usually well-to-do, and have no wish to blight an imprudent man's character. But du Croisier had no mind to slacken his hold until he knew what he was about. He meditated until he fell asleep on the magnificent manner in which his hopes would be fulfilled by the way of the Assize Court or by marriage. The murmur of voices below, the lamentations of Chesnel and Mme. du Croisier, sounded sweet in his ears.
Mme. du Croisier shared Chesnel's views of the d'Esgrignons. She was a deeply religious woman, a Royalist attached to the noblesse; the interview had been in every way a cruel shock to her feelings. She, a staunch Royalist, had heard the roaring of that Liberalism, which, in her director's opinion, wished to crush the Church. The Left benches for her meant the popular upheaval and the scaffolds of 1793.
"What would your uncle, that sainted man who hears us, say to this?" exclaimed Chesnel. Mme. du Croisier made no reply, but the great tears rolled down her checks.
"You have already been the cause of one poor boy's death; his mother will go mourning all her days," continued Chesnel; he saw how his words told, but he would have struck harder and even broken this woman's heart to save Victurnien. "Do you want to kill Mlle. Armande, for she would not survive the dishonor of the house for a week? Do you wish to be the death of poor Chesnel, your old notary? For I shall kill the Count in prison before they shall bring the charge against him, and take my own life afterwards, before they shall try me for murder in an Assize Court."
"That is enough! that is enough, my friend! I would do anything to put a stop to such an affair; but I never knew M. du Croisier's real character until a few minutes ago. To you I can make the admission: there is nothing to be done."
"But what if there is?"
"I would give half the blood in my veins that it were so," said she, finishing her sentence by a wistful shake of the head.
As the First Consul, beaten on the field of Marengo till five o'clock in the evening, by six o'clock saw the tide of battle turned by Desaix's desperate attack and Kellermann's terrific charge, so Chesnel in the midst of defeat saw the beginnings of victory. No one but a Chesnel, an old notary, an ex-steward of the manor, old Maitre Sorbier's junior clerk, in the sudden flash of lucidity which comes with despair, could rise thus, high as a Napoleon, nay, higher. This was not Marengo, it was Waterloo, and the Prussians had come up; Chesnel saw this, and was determined to beat them off the field.
"Madame," he said, "remember that I have been your man of business for twenty years; remember that if the d'Esgrignons mean the honor of the province, you represent the honor of the bourgeoisie; it rests with you, and you alone, to save the ancient house. Now, answer me; are you going to allow dishonor to fall on the shade of your dead uncle, on the d'Esgrignons, on poor Chesnel? Do you want to kill Mlle. Armande weeping yonder? Or do you wish to expiate wrongs done to others by a deed which will rejoice your ancestors, the intendants of the dukes of Alencon, and bring comfort to the soul of our dear Abbe? If he could rise from his grave, he would command you to do this thing that I beg of you upon my knees."
"What is it?" asked Mme. du Croisier.
"Well. Here are the hundred thousand crowns," said Chesnel, drawing the bundles of notes from his pocket. "Take them, and there will be an end of it."
"If that is all," she began, "and if no harm can come of it to my husband&mdash&mdash"
"Nothing but good," Chesnel replied. "You are saving him from eternal punishment in hell, at the cost of a slight disappointment here below."
"He will not be compromised, will he?" she asked, looking into Chesnel's face.
Then Chesnel read the depths of the poor wife's mind. Mme. du Croisier was hesitating between her two creeds; between wifely obedience to her husband as laid down by the Church, and obedience to the altar and the throne. Her husband, in her eyes, was acting wrongly, but she dared not blame him; she would fain save the d'Esgrignons, but she was loyal to her husband's interests.
"Not in the least," Chesnel answered; "your old notary swears it by the Holy Gospels&mdash&mdash"
He had nothing left to lose for the d'Esgrignons but his soul; he risked it now by this horrible perjury, but Mme. du Croisier must be deceived, there was no other choice but death. Without losing a moment, he dictated a form of receipt by which Mme. du Croisier acknowledged payment of a hundred thousand crowns five days before the fatal letter of exchange appeared; for he recollected that du Croisier was away from home, superintending improvements on his wife's property at the time.
"Now swear to me that you will declare before the examining magistrate that you received the money on that date," he said, when Mme. du Croisier had taken the notes and he held the receipt in his hand.
"It will be a lie, will it not?"
"Venial sin," said Chesnel.
"I could not do it without consulting my director, M. l'Abbe Couturier."
"Very well," said Chesnel, "will you be guided entirely by his advice in this affair?"
"I promise that."
"And you must not give the money to M. du Croisier until you have been before the magistrate."
"No. Ah! God give me strength to appear in a Court of Justice and maintain a lie before men!"
Chesnel kissed Mme. du Croisier's hand, then stood upright, and majestic as one of the prophets that Raphael painted in the Vatican.
"You uncle's soul is thrilled with joy," he said; "you have wiped out for ever the wrong that you did by marrying an enemy of altar and throne"&mdashwords that made a lively impression on Mme. du Croisier's timorous mind.
Then Chesnel all at once bethought himself that he must make sure of the lady's director, the Abbe Couturier. He knew how obstinately devout souls can work for the triumph of their views when once they come forward for their side, and wished to secure the concurrence of the Church as early as possible. So he went to the Hotel d'Esgrignon, roused up Mlle. Armande, gave her an account of that night's work, and sped her to fetch the Bishop himself into the forefront of the battle.
"Ah, God in heaven! Thou must save the house of d'Esgrignon!" he exclaimed, as he went slowly home again. "The affair is developing now into a fight in a Court of Law. We are face to face with men that have passions and interests of their own; we can get anything out of them. This du Croisier has taken advantage of the public prosecutor's absence; the public prosecutor is devoted to us, but since the opening of the Chambers he has gone to Paris. Now, what can they have done to get round his deputy? They have induced him to take up the charge without consulting his chief. This mystery must be looked into, and the ground surveyed to-morrow; and then, perhaps, when I have unraveled this web of theirs, I will go back to Paris to set great powers at work through Mme. de Maufrigneuse."
So he reasoned, poor, aged, clear-sighted wrestler, before he lay down half dead with bearing the weight of so much emotion and fatigue. And yet, before he fell asleep he ran a searching eye over the list of magistrates, taking all their secret ambitions into account, casting about for ways of influencing them, calculating his chances in the coming struggle. Chesnel's prolonged scrutiny of consciences, given in a condensed form, will perhaps serve as a picture of the judicial world in a country town.