He bounded back, and breaking his sword over his knee, he hurled the fragments in Martial’s face, saying:
“Here, miserable wretch!”
“Wretch!” repeated Jean and Corporal Bavois, “traitor! coward!”
And they fled, leaving Martial thunderstruck.
He struggled hard to regain his composure. The soldiers were very near; he ran to meet them, and addressing the officer in command, he said, imperiously:
“Do you know who I am?”
“Yes,” replied the sergeant, respectfully, “you are the son of the Duc de Sairmeuse.”
“Very well! I forbid you to follow those men.”
The sergeant hesitated at first; then, in a decided tone, he replied:
“I cannot obey you, sir. I have my orders.”
And addressing his men:
“Forward!” he exclaimed. He was about to set the example, when Martial seized him by the arm.
“At least you will not refuse to tell me who sent you here?”
“Who sent us? The colonel, of course, in obedience to orders from the grand prevot, Monsieur de Courtornieu. He sent the order last night. We have been hidden in that grove since daybreak. But release me—tonnerre! would you have my expedition fail entirely?”
He hurried away, and Martial, staggering like a drunken man, descended the slope, and remounted his horse.
But he did not repair to the Chateau de Sairmeuse; he returned to Montaignac, and passed the remainder of the afternoon in the solitude of his own room.
That evening he sent two letters to Sairmeuse. One to his father, the other to his wife.
Terrible as Martial imagined the scandal to be which he had created, his conception of it by no means equalled the reality.
Had a thunder-bolt burst beneath that roof, the guests at Sairmeuse could not have been more amazed and horrified.
A shudder passed over the assembly when Martial, terrible in his passion, flung the crumbled letter full in the face of the Marquis de Courtornieu.
And when the marquis sank half-fainting into an arm-chair some young ladies of extreme sensibility could not repress a cry of fear.
For twenty seconds after Martial disappeared with Jean Lacheneur, the guests stood as motionless as statues, pale, mute, stupefied.
It was Blanche who broke the spell.
While the Marquis de Courtornieu was panting for breath—while the Duc de Sairmeuse was trembling and speechless with suppressed anger, the young marquise made an heroic attempt to come to the rescue.
With her hand still aching from Martial’s brutal clasp, a heart swelling with rage and hatred, and a face whiter than her bridal veil, she had strength to restrain her tears and to compel her lips to smile.
“Really this is placing too much importance on a trifling misunderstanding which will be explained to-morrow,” she said, almost gayly, to those nearest her.