“Oh,” he replied, “we are not as destitute as I said. I exaggerated our misfortune. We are still landed proprietors. Last year an old cousin, whom I could never induce to come and live at Sairmeuse, died, bequeathing all her property to Marie-Anne. This property consisted of a poor little cottage near the Reche, with a little garden and a few acres of sterile land. In compliance with my daughter’s entreaties, I repaired the cottage, and sent there a few articles of furniture—a table, some chairs, and a couple of beds. My daughter designed it as a home for old Father Guvat and his wife. And I, surrounded by wealth and luxury, said to myself: ’How comfortable those two old people will be there. They will live as snug as a bug in a rug!’ Well, what I thought so comfortable for others, will be good enough for me. I will raise vegetables, and Marie-Anne shall sell them.”
Was he speaking seriously?
Maurice must have supposed so, for he sprang forward.
“This shall not be, Monsieur Lacheneur!” he exclaimed.
“No, this shall not be, for I love Marie-Anne, and I ask you to give her to me for my wife.”
Maurice and Marie-Anne had loved each other for many years.
As children, they had played together in the magnificent grounds surrounding the Chateau de Sairmeuse, and in the park at Escorval.
Together they chased the brilliant butterflies, searched for pebbles on the banks of the river, or rolled in the hay while their mothers sauntered through the meadows bordering the Oiselle.
For their mothers were friends.
Mme. Lacheneur had been reared like other poor peasant girls; that is to say, on the day of her marriage it was only with great difficulty she succeeded in inscribing her name upon the register.
But from the example of her husband she had learned that prosperity, as well as noblesse, entails certain obligations upon one, and with rare courage, crowned with still rarer success, she had undertaken to acquire an education in keeping with her fortune and her new rank.
And the baroness had made no effort to resist the sympathy that attracted her to this meritorious young woman, in whom she had discerned a really superior mind and a truly refined nature.
When Mme. Lacheneur died, Mme. d’Escorval mourned for her as she would have mourned for a favorite sister.
From that moment Maurice’s attachment assumed a more serious character.
Educated in a Parisian lyceum, his teachers sometimes had occasion to complain of his want of application.
“If your professors are not satisfied with you,” said his mother, “you shall not accompany me to Escorval on the coming of your vacation, and you will not see your little friend.”
And this simple threat was always sufficient to make the school-boy resume his studies with redoubled diligence.