Never until this evening had Martial supposed he could hate another as he hated these men.
At last, in despair, he threw himself upon his bed, and passed the remainder of the night in thinking over what he should say to Marie-Anne on the morrow, and in seeking some issue from this inextricable labyrinth.
He rose before daybreak, and wandered about the park like a soul in distress, fearing, yet longing, for the hour that would decide his fate. Mme. d’Escorval was obliged to exert all her authority to make him take some nourishment. He had quite forgotten that he had passed twenty-four hours without eating.
When eleven o’clock sounded he left the house.
The lands of the Reche are situated on the other side of the Oiselle. Maurice, to reach his destination, was obliged to cross the river at a ferry only a short distance from his home. When he reached the river-bank he found six or seven peasants who were waiting to cross.
These people did not observe Maurice. They were talking earnestly, and he listened.
“It is certainly true,” said one of the men. “I heard it from Chanlouineau himself only last evening. He was wild with delight. ’I invite you all to the wedding!’ he cried. ’I am betrothed to Monsieur Lacheneur’s daughter; the affair is decided.’”
This astounding news positively stunned Maurice. He was actually unable to think or to move.
“Besides, he has been in love with her for a long time. Everyone knows that. One had only to see his eyes when he met her—coals of fire were nothing to them. But while her father was so rich he did not dare to speak. Now that the old man has met with these reverses, he ventures to offer himself, and is accepted.”
“An unfortunate thing for him,” remarked a little old man.
“If Monsieur Lacheneur is ruined, as they say——”
The others laughed heartily.
“Ruined—Monsieur Lacheneur!” they exclaimed in chorus. “How absurd! He is richer than all of us together. Do you suppose that he has been stupid enough not to have laid anything aside during all these years? He has put this money not in grounds, as he pretends, but somewhere else.”
“You are saying what is untrue!” interrupted Maurice, indignantly. “Monsieur Lacheneur left Sairmeuse as poor as he entered it.”
On recognizing M. d’Escorval’s son, the peasants became extremely cautious. He questioned them, but could obtain only vague and unsatisfactory answers. A peasant, when interrogated, will never give a response which he thinks will be displeasing to his questioner; he is afraid of compromising himself.
The news he had heard, however, caused Maurice to hasten on still more rapidly after crossing the Oiselle.
“Marie-Anne marry Chanlouineau!” he repeated; “it is impossible! it is impossible!”