In a straight line it is only a mile from Sauveterre to Valpinson; but that mile is as long as two elsewhere. M. Seneschal, however, had a good horse, “the best perhaps in the county,” he said, as he got into his carriage. In ten minutes they had overtaken the firemen, who had left some time before them. And yet these good people, all of them master workmen of Sauveterre, masons, carpenters, and tilers, hurried along as fast as they could. They had half a dozen smoking torches with them to light them on the way: they walked, puffing and groaning, on the bad road, and pulling the two engines, together with the heavy cart on which they had piled up their ladders and other tools.
“Keep up, my friends!” said the mayor as he passed them,—“keep up!” Three minutes farther on, a peasant on horseback appeared in the dark, riding along like a forlorn knight in a romance. M. Daubigeon ordered him to halt. He stopped.
“You come from Valpinson?” asked M. Seneschal.
“Yes,” replied the peasant.
“How is the count?”
“He has come to at last.”
“What does the doctor say?”
“He says he will live. I am going to the druggist to get some medicines.” M. Galpin, to hear better, was leaning out of the carriage. He asked,—
“Do they accuse any one?”
“And the fire?”
“They have water enough,” replied the peasant, “but no engines: so what can they do? And the wind is rising again! Oh, what a misfortune!”
He rode off as fast as he could, while M. Seneschal was whipping his poor horse, which, unaccustomed as it was to such treatment, instead of going any faster, only reared, and jumped from side to side. The excellent man was in despair. He looked upon this crime as if it had been committed on purpose to disgrace him, and to do the greatest possible injury to his administration.
“For after all,” he said, for the tenth time to his companions, “is it natural, I ask you, is it sensible, that a man should think of attacking the Count and the Countess Claudieuse, the most distinguished and the most esteemed people in the whole county, and especially a lady whose name is synonymous with virtue and charity?”
And, without minding the ruts and the stones in the road, M. Seneschal went on repeating all he knew about the owners of Valpinson.
Count Trivulce Claudieuse was the last scion of one of the oldest families of the county. At sixteen, about 1829, he had entered the navy as an ensign, and for many years he had appeared at Sauveterre only rarely, and at long intervals. In 1859 he had become a captain, and was on the point of being made admiral, when he had all of a sudden sent in his resignation, and taken up his residence at the Castle of Valpinson, although the house had nothing to show of its former splendor but two towers falling to pieces, and an immense mass of ruin and rubbish. For two years he had lived here alone, busy with building up the old house as well as it could be done, and by great energy and incessant labor restoring it to some of its former splendor. It was thought he would finish his days in this way, when one day the report arose that he was going to be married. The report, for once, proved true.