Athos required no more. He arose, bowed, went out, returned by the same way he came, re-entered the hotel, and went to his apartment.
At daybreak d'Artagnan entered the chamber, and demanded what was to be done.
"To wait," replied Athos.
Some minutes after, the superior of the convent sent to inform the Musketeers that the burial would take place at midday. As to the poisoner, they had heard no tidings of her whatever, only that she must have made her escape through the garden, on the sand of which her footsteps could be traced, and the door of which had been found shut. As to the key, it had disappeared.
At the hour appointed, Lord de Winter and the four friends repaired to the convent; the bells tolled, the chapel was open, the grating of the choir was closed. In the middle of the choir the body of the victim, clothed in her novitiate dress, was exposed. On each side of the choir and behind the gratings opening into the convent was assembled the whole community of the Carmelites, who listened to the divine service, and mingled their chant with the chant of the priests, without seeing the profane, or being seen by them.
At the door of the chapel d'Artagnan felt his courage fall anew, and returned to look for Athos; but Athos had disappeared.
Faithful to his mission of vengeance, Athos had requested to be conducted to the garden; and there upon the sand following the light steps of this woman, who left sharp tracks wherever she went, he advanced toward the gate which led into the wood, and causing it to be opened, he went out into the forest.
Then all his suspicions were confirmed; the road by which the carriage had disappeared encircled the forest. Athos followed the road for some time, his eyes fixed upon the ground; slight stains of blood, which came from the wound inflicted upon the man who accompanied the carriage as a courier, or from one of the horses, dotted the road. At the end of three-quarters of a league, within fifty paces of Festubert, a larger bloodstain appeared; the ground was trampled by horses. Between the forest and this accursed spot, a little behind the trampled ground, was the same track of small feet as in the garden; the carriage had stopped here. At this spot Milady had come out of the wood, and entered the carriage.
Satisfied with this discovery which confirmed all his suspicions, Athos returned to the hotel, and found Planchet impatiently waiting for him.
Everything was as Athos had foreseen.
Planchet had followed the road; like Athos, he had discovered the stains of blood; like Athos, he had noted the spot where the horses had halted. But he had gone farther than Athos—for at the village of Festubert, while drinking at an inn, he had learned without needing to ask a question that the evening before, at half-past eight, a wounded man who accompanied a lady traveling in a post-chaise had been obliged to stop, unable to go further. The accident was set down to the account of robbers, who had stopped the chaise in the wood. The man remained in the village; the woman had had a relay of horses, and continued her journey.
Planchet went in search of the postillion who had driven her, and found him. He had taken the lady as far as Fromelles; and from Fromelles she had set out for Armentieres. Planchet took the crossroad, and by seven o'clock in the morning he was at Armentieres.
There was but one tavern, the Post. Planchet went and presented himself as a lackey out of a place, who was in search of a situation. He had not chatted ten minutes with the people of the tavern before he learned that a woman had come there alone about eleven o'clock the night before, had engaged a chamber, had sent for the master of the hotel, and told him she desired to remain some time in the neighborhood.
Planchet had no need to learn more. He hastened to the rendezvous, found the lackeys at their posts, placed them as sentinels at all the outlets of the hotel, and came to find Athos, who had just received this information when his friends returned.
All their countenances were melancholy and gloomy, even the mild countenance of Aramis.
"What is to be done?" asked d'Artagnan.
"To wait!" replied Athos.
Each retired to his own apartment.
At eight o'clock in the evening Athos ordered the horses to be saddled, and Lord de Winter and his friends notified that they must prepare for the expedition.
In an instant all five were ready. Each examined his arms, and put them in order. Athos came down last, and found d'Artagnan already on horseback, and growing impatient.
"Patience!" cried Athos; "one of our party is still wanting."
The four horsemen looked round them with astonishment, for they sought vainly in their minds to know who this other person could be.
At this moment Planchet brought out Athos's house; the Musketeer leaped lightly into the saddle.
"Wait for me," cried he, "I will soon be back," and he set off at a gallop.
In a quarter of an hour he returned, accompanied by a tall man, masked, and wrapped in a large red cloak.
Lord de Winter and the three Musketeers looked at one another inquiringly. Neither could give the others any information, for all were ignorant who this man could be; nevertheless, they felt convinced that all was as it should be, as it was done by the order of Athos.
At nine o'clock, guided by Planchet, the little cavalcade set out, taking the route the carriage had taken.
It was a melancholy sight—that of these six men, traveling in silence, each plunged in his own thoughts, sad as despair, gloomy as chastisement.
It was a stormy and dark night; vast clouds covered the heavens, concealing the stars; the moon would not rise till midnight.
Occasionally, by the light of a flash of lightning which gleamed along the horizon, the road stretched itself before them, white and solitary; the flash extinct, all remained in darkness.
Every minute Athos was forced to restrain d'Artagnan, constantly in advance of the little troop, and to beg him to keep in the line, which in an instant he again departed from. He had but one thought—to go forward; and he went.
They passed in silence through the little village of Festubert, where the wounded servant was, and then skirted the wood of Richebourg. At Herlier, Planchet, who led the column, turned to the left.
Several times Lord de Winter, Porthos, or Aramis, tried to talk with the man in the red cloak; but to every interrogation which they put to him he bowed, without response. The travelers then comprehended that there must be some reason why the unknown preserved such a silence, and ceased to address themselves to him.
The storm increased, the flashes succeeded one another more rapidly, the thunder began to growl, and the wind, the precursor of a hurricane, whistled in the plumes and the hair of the horsemen.
The cavalcade trotted on more sharply.
A little before they came to Fromelles the storm burst. They spread their cloaks. There remained three leagues to travel, and they did it amid torrents of rain.
D'Artagnan took off his hat, and could not be persuaded to make use of his cloak. He found pleasure in feeling the water trickle over his burning brow and over his body, agitated by feverish shudders.
The moment the little troop passed Goskal and were approaching the Port, a man sheltered beneath a tree detached himself from the trunk with which he had been confounded in the darkness, and advanced into the middle of the road, putting his finger on his lips.
Athos recognized Grimaud.
"What's the manner?" cried Athos. "Has she left Armentieres?"
Grimaud made a sign in the affirmative. D'Artagnan groaned his teeth.
"Silence, d'Artagnan!" said Athos. "I have charged myself with this affair. It is for me, then, to interrogate Grimaud."
"Where is she?" asked Athos.
Grimaud extended his hands in the direction of the Lys. "Far from here?" asked Athos.
Grimaud showed his master his forefinger bent.
"Alone?" asked Athos.
Grimaud made the sign yes.
"Gentlemen," said Athos, "she is alone within half a league of us, in the direction of the river."
"That's well," said d'Artagnan. "Lead us, Grimaud."
Grimaud took his course across the country, and acted as guide to the cavalcade.
At the end of five hundred paces, more or less, they came to a rivulet, which they forded.
By the aid of the lightning they perceived the village of Erquinheim.
"Is she there, Grimaud?" asked Athos.
Grimaud shook his head negatively.
"Silence, then!" cried Athos.
And the troop continued their route.
Another flash illuminated all around them. Grimaud extended his arm, and by the bluish splendor of the fiery serpent they distinguished a little isolated house on the banks of the river, within a hundred paces of a ferry.
One window was lighted.
"Here we are!" said Athos.
At this moment a man who had been crouching in a ditch jumped up and came towards them. It was Mousqueton. He pointed his finger to the lighted window.
"She is there," said he.
"And Bazin?" asked Athos.
"While I watched the window, he guarded the door."
"Good!" said Athos. "You are good and faithful servants."
Athos sprang from his horse, gave the bridle to Grimaud, and advanced toward the window, after having made a sign to the rest of the troop to go toward the door.
The little house was surrounded by a low, quickset hedge, two or three feet high. Athos sprang over the hedge and went up to the window, which was without shutters, but had the half-curtains closely drawn.
He mounted the skirting stone that his eyes might look over the curtain.
By the light of a lamp he saw a woman, wrapped in a dark mantle, seated upon a stool near a dying fire. Her elbows were placed upon a mean table, and she leaned her head upon her two hands, which were white as ivory.
He could not distinguish her countenance, but a sinister smile passed over the lips of Athos. He was not deceived; it was she whom he sought.
At this moment a horse neighed. Milady raised her head, saw close to the panes the pale face of Athos, and screamed.
Athos, perceiving that she knew him, pushed the window with his knee and hand. The window yielded. The squares were broken to shivers; and Athos, like the spectre of vengeance, leaped into the room.
Milady rushed to the door and opened it. More pale and menacing than Athos, d'Artagnan stood on the threshold.
Milady recoiled, uttering a cry. D'Artagnan, believing she might have means of flight and fearing she should escape, drew a pistol from his belt; but Athos raised his hand.
"Put back that weapon, d'Artagnan!" said he; "this woman must be tried, not assassinated. Wait an instant, my friend, and you shall be satisfied. Come in, gentlemen."
D'Artagnan obeyed; for Athos had the solemn voice and the powerful gesture of a judge sent by the Lord himself. Behind d'Artagnan entered Porthos, Aramis, Lord de Winter, and the man in the red cloak.
The four lackeys guarded the door and the window.
Milady had sunk into a chair, with her hands extended, as if to conjure this terrible apparition. Perceiving her brother-in-law, she uttered a terrible cry.
"What do you want?" screamed Milady.
"We want," said Athos, "Charlotte Backson, who first was called Comtesse de la Fere, and afterwards Milady de Winter, Baroness of Sheffield."
"That is I! that is I!" murmured Milady, in extreme terror; "what do you want?"
"We wish to judge you according to your crime," said Athos; "you shall be free to defend yourself. Justify yourself if you can. M. d'Artagnan, it is for you to accuse her first."
"Before God and before men," said he, "I accuse this woman of having poisoned Constance Bonacieux, who died yesterday evening."
He turned towards Porthos and Aramis.
"We bear witness to this," said the two Musketeers, with one voice.
D'Artagnan continued: "Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having attempted to poison me, in wine which she sent me from Villeroy, with a forged letter, as if that wine came from my friends. God preserved me, but a man named Brisemont died in my place."
"We bear witness to this," said Porthos and Aramis, in the same manner as before.
"Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having urged me to the murder of the Baron de Wardes; but as no one else can attest the truth of this accusation, I attest it myself. I have done." And d'Artagnan passed to the other side of the room with Porthos and Aramis.
"Your turn, my Lord," said Athos.
The baron came forward.
"Before God and before men," said he, "I accuse this woman of having caused the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham."
"The Duke of Buckingham assassinated!" cried all present, with one voice.
"Yes," said the baron, "assassinated. On receiving the warning letter you wrote to me, I had this woman arrested, and gave her in charge to a loyal servant. She corrupted this man; she placed the poniard in his hand; she made him kill the duke. And at this moment, perhaps, Felton is paying with his head for the crime of this fury!"
A shudder crept through the judges at the revelation of these unknown crimes.
"That is not all," resumed Lord de Winter. "My brother, who made you his heir, died in three hours of a strange disorder which left livid traces all over the body. My sister, how did your husband die?"
"Horror!" cried Porthos and Aramis.
"Assassin of Buckingham, assassin of Felton, assassin of my brother, I demand justice upon you, and I swear that if it be not granted to me, I will execute it myself."
And Lord de Winter ranged himself by the side of d'Artagnan, leaving the place free for another accuser.
Milady let her head sink between her two hands, and tried to recall her ideas, whirling in a mortal vertigo.
"My turn," said Athos, himself trembling as the lion trembles at the sight of the serpent—"my turn. I married that woman when she was a young girl; I married her in opposition to the wishes of all my family; I gave her my wealth, I gave her my name; and one day I discovered that this woman was branded—this woman was marked with a FLEUR-DE-LIS on her left shoulder."
"Oh," said Milady, raising herself, "I defy you to find any tribunal which pronounced that infamous sentence against me. I defy you to find him who executed it."
"Silence!" said a hollow voice. "It is for me to reply to that!" And the man in the red cloak came forward in his turn.
"What man is that? What man is that?" cried Milady, suffocated by terror, her hair loosening itself, and rising above her livid countenance as if alive.
All eyes were turned towards this man—for to all except Athos he was unknown.
Even Athos looked at him with as much stupefaction as the others, for he knew not how he could in any way find himself mixed up with the horrible drama then unfolded.
After approaching Milady with a slow and solemn step, so that the table alone separated them, the unknown took off his mask.
Milady for some time examined with increasing terror that pale face, framed with black hair and whiskers, the only expression of which was icy impassibility. Then she suddenly cried, "Oh, no, no!" rising and retreating to the very wall. "No, no! it is an infernal apparition! It is not he! Help, help!" screamed she, turning towards the wall, as if she would tear an opening with her hands.
"Who are you, then?" cried all the witnesses of this scene.
"Ask that woman," said the man in the red cloak, "for you may plainly see she knows me!"
"The executioner of Lille, the executioner of Lille!" cried Milady, a prey to insensate terror, and clinging with her hands to the wall to avoid falling.
Every one drew back, and the man in the red cloak remained standing alone in the middle of the room.
"Oh, grace, grace, pardon!" cried the wretch, falling on her knees.
The unknown waited for silence, and then resumed, "I told you well that she would know me. Yes, I am the executioner of Lille, and this is my history."
All eyes were fixed upon this man, whose words were listened to with anxious attention.
"That woman was once a young girl, as beautiful as she is today. She was a nun in the convent of the Benedictines of Templemar. A young priest, with a simple and trustful heart, performed the duties of the church of that convent. She undertook his seduction, and succeeded; she would have seduced a saint.
"Their vows were sacred and irrevocable. Their connection could not last long without ruining both. She prevailed upon him to leave the country; but to leave the country, to fly together, to reach another part of France, where they might live at ease because unknown, money was necessary. Neither had any. The priest stole the sacred vases, and sold them; but as they were preparing to escape together, they were both arrested.
"Eight days later she had seduced the son of the jailer, and escaped. The young priest was condemned to ten years of imprisonment, and to be branded. I was executioner of the city of Lille, as this woman has said. I was obliged to brand the guilty one; and he, gentlemen, was my brother!
"I then swore that this woman who had ruined him, who was more than his accomplice, since she had urged him to the crime, should at least share his punishment. I suspected where she was concealed. I followed her, I caught her, I bound her; and I imprinted the same disgraceful mark upon her that I had imprinted upon my poor brother.
"The day after my return to Lille, my brother in his turn succeeded in making his escape; I was accused of complicity, and was condemned to remain in his place till he should be again a prisoner. My poor brother was ignorant of this sentence. He rejoined this woman; they fled together into Berry, and there he obtained a little curacy. This woman passed for his sister.
"The Lord of the estate on which the chapel of the curacy was situated saw this pretend sister, and became enamoured of her—amorous to such a degree that he proposed to marry her. Then she quitted him she had ruined for him she was destined to ruin, and became the Comtesse de la Fere—"
All eyes were turned towards Athos, whose real name that was, and who made a sign with his head that all was true which the executioner had said.
"Then," resumed he, "mad, desperate, determined to get rid of an existence from which she had stolen everything, honor and happiness, my poor brother returned to Lille, and learning the sentence which had condemned me in his place, surrendered himself, and hanged himself that same night from the iron bar of the loophole of his prison.
"To do justice to them who had condemned me, they kept their word. As soon as the identity of my brother was proved, I was set at liberty.
"That is the crime of which I accuse her; that is the cause for which she was branded."
"Monsieur d'Artagnan," said Athos, "what is the penalty you demand against this woman?"
"The punishment of death," replied d'Artagnan.
"My Lord de Winter," continued Athos, "what is the penalty you demand against this woman?"
"The punishment of death," replied Lord de Winter.
"Messieurs Porthos and Aramis," repeated Athos, "you who are her judges, what is the sentence you pronounce upon this woman?"
"The punishment of death," replied the Musketeers, in a hollow voice.
Milady uttered a frightful shriek, and dragged herself along several paces upon her knees toward her judges.
Athos stretched out his hand toward her.
"Charlotte Backson, Comtesse de la Fere, Milady de Winter," said he, "your crimes have wearied men on earth and God in heaven. If you know a prayer, say it—for you are condemned, and you shall die."
At these words, which left no hope, Milady raised herself in all her pride, and wished to speak; but her strength failed her. She felt that a powerful and implacable hand seized her by the hair, and dragged her away as irrevocably as fatality drags humanity. She did not, therefore, even attempt the least resistance, and went out of the cottage.
Lord de Winter, d'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, went out close behind her. The lackeys followed their masters, and the chamber was left solitary, with its broken window, its open door, and its smoky lamp burning sadly on the table.
It was near midnight; the moon, lessened by its decline, and reddened by the last traces of the storm, arose behind the little town of Armentieres, which showed against its pale light the dark outline of its houses, and the skeleton of its high belfry. In front of them the Lys rolled its waters like a river of molten tin; while on the other side was a black mass of trees, profiled on a stormy sky, invaded by large coppery clouds which created a sort of twilight amid the night. On the left was an old abandoned mill, with its motionless wings, from the ruins of which an owl threw out its shrill, periodical, and monotonous cry. On the right and on the left of the road, which the dismal procession pursued, appeared a few low, stunted trees, which looked like deformed dwarfs crouching down to watch men traveling at this sinister hour.
From time to time a broad sheet of lightning opened the horizon in its whole width, darted like a serpent over the black mass of trees, and like a terrible scimitar divided the heavens and the waters into two parts. Not a breath of wind now disturbed the heavy atmosphere. A deathlike silence oppressed all nature. The soil was humid and glittering with the rain which had recently fallen, and the refreshed herbs sent forth their perfume with additional energy.
Two lackeys dragged Milady, whom each held by one arm. The executioner walked behind them, and Lord de Winter, d'Artagnan, Porthos, and Aramis walked behind the executioner. Planchet and Bazin came last.
The two lackeys conducted Milady to the bank of the river. Her mouth was mute; but her eyes spoke with their inexpressible eloquence, supplicating by turns each of those on whom she looked.
Being a few paces in advance she whispered to the lackeys, "A thousand pistoles to each of you, if you will assist my escape; but if you deliver me up to your masters, I have near at hand avengers who will make you pay dearly for my death."
Grimaud hesitated. Mousqueton trembled in all his members.
Athos, who heard Milady's voice, came sharply up. Lord de Winter did the same.
"Change these lackeys," said he; "she has spoken to them. They are no longer sure."
Planchet and Bazin were called, and took the places of Grimaud and Mousqueton.
On the bank of the river the executioner approached Milady, and bound her hands and feet.
Then she broke the silence to cry out, "You are cowards, miserable assassins—ten men combined to murder one woman. Beware! If I am not saved I shall be avenged."
"You are not a woman," said Athos, coldly and sternly. "You do not belong to the human species; you are a demon escaped from hell, whither we send you back again."
"Ah, you virtuous men!" said Milady; "please to remember that he who shall touch a hair of my head is himself an assassin."
"The executioner may kill, without being on that account an assassin," said the man in the red cloak, rapping upon his immense sword. "This is the last judge; that is all. NACHRICHTER, as say our neighbors, the Germans."
And as he bound her while saying these words, Milady uttered two or three savage cries, which produced a strange and melancholy effect in flying away into the night, and losing themselves in the depths of the woods.
"If I am guilty, if I have committed the crimes you accuse me of," shrieked Milady, "take me before a tribunal. You are not judges! You cannot condemn me!"
"I offered you Tyburn," said Lord de Winter. "Why did you not accept it?"
"Because I am not willing to die!" cried Milady, struggling. "Because I am too young to die!"
"The woman you poisoned at Bethune was still younger than you, madame, and yet she is dead," said d'Artagnan.
"I will enter a cloister; I will become a nun," said Milady.
"You were in a cloister," said the executioner, "and you left it to ruin my brother."
Milady uttered a cry of terror and sank upon her knees. The executioner took her up in his arms and was carrying her toward the boat.
"Oh, my God!" cried she, "my God! are you going to drown me?"
These cries had something so heartrending in them that M. d'Artagnan, who had been at first the most eager in pursuit of Milady, sat down on the stump of a tree and hung his head, covering his ears with the palms of his hands; and yet, notwithstanding, he could still hear her cry and threaten.
D'Artagnan was the youngest of all these men. His heart failed him.
"Oh, I cannot behold this frightful spectacle!" said he. "I cannot consent that this woman should die thus!"
Milady heard these few words and caught at a shadow of hope.
"d'Artagnan, d'Artagnan!" cried she; "remember that I loved you!"
The young man rose and took a step toward her.
But Athos rose likewise, drew his sword, and placed himself in the way.
"If you take one step farther, d'Artagnan," said he, "we shall cross swords together."
D'Artagnan sank on his knees and prayed.
"Come," continued Athos, "executioner, do your duty."
"Willingly, monseigneur," said the executioner; "for as I am a good Catholic, I firmly believe I am acting justly in performing my functions on this woman."
Athos made a step toward Milady.
"I pardon you," said he, "the ill you have done me. I pardon you for my blasted future, my lost honor, my defiled love, and my salvation forever compromised by the despair into which you have cast me. Die in peace!"
Lord de Winter advanced in his turn.
"I pardon you," said he, "for the poisoning of my brother, and the assassination of his Grace, Lord Buckingham. I pardon you for the death of poor Felton; I pardon you for the attempts upon my own person. Die in peace!"
"And I," said M. d'Artagnan. "Pardon me, madame, for having by a trick unworthy of a gentleman provoked your anger; and I, in exchange, pardon you the murder of my poor love and your cruel vengeance against me. I pardon you, and I weep for you. Die in peace!"
"I am lost!" murmured Milady in English. "I must die!"
Then she arose of herself, and cast around her one of those piercing looks which seemed to dart from an eye of flame.
She saw nothing; she listened, and she heard nothing.
"Where am I to die?" said she.
"On the other bank," replied the executioner.
Then he placed her in the boat, and as he was going to set foot in it himself, Athos handed him a sum of silver.
"Here," said he, "is the price of the execution, that it may be plain we act as judges."
"That is correct," said the executioner; "and now in her turn, let this woman see that I am not fulfilling my trade, but my debt."
And he threw the money into the river.
The boat moved off toward the left-hand shore of the Lys, bearing the guilty woman and the executioner; all the others remained on the right-hand bank, where they fell on their knees.
The boat glided along the ferry rope under the shadow of a pale cloud which hung over the water at that moment.
The troop of friends saw it gain the opposite bank; the figures were defined like black shadows on the red-tinted horizon.
Milady, during the passage had contrived to untie the cord which fastened her feet. On coming near the bank, she jumped lightly on shore and took to flight. But the soil was moist; on reaching the top of the bank, she slipped and fell upon her knees.
She was struck, no doubt, with a superstitious idea; she conceived that heaven denied its aid, and she remained in the attitude in which she had fallen, her head drooping and her hands clasped.
Then they saw from the other bank the executioner raise both his arms slowly; a moonbeam fell upon the blade of the large sword. The two arms fell with a sudden force; they heard the hissing of the scimitar and the cry of the victim, then a truncated mass sank beneath the blow.
The executioner then took off his red cloak, spread it upon the ground, laid the body in it, threw in the head, tied all up by the four corners, lifted it on his back, and entered the boat again.
In the middle of the stream he stopped the boat, and suspending his burden over the water cried in a loud voice, "Let the justice of God be done!" and he let the corpse drop into the depths of the waters, which closed over it.
Three days afterward the four Musketeers were in Paris; they had not exceeded their leave of absence, and that same evening they went to pay their customary visit to M. de Treville.
"Well, gentlemen," said the brave captain, "I hope you have been well amused during your excursion."
"Prodigiously," replied Athos in the name of himself and his comrades.
On the sixth of the following month the king, in compliance with the promise he had made the cardinal to return to La Rochelle, left his capital still in amazement at the news which began to spread itself of Buckingham's assassination.
Although warned that the man she had loved so much was in great danger, the queen, when his death was announced to her, would not believe the fact, and even imprudently exclaimed, "it is false; he has just written to me!"
But the next day she was obliged to believe this fatal intelligence; Laporte, detained in England, as everyone else had been, by the orders of Charles I, arrived, and was the bearer of the duke's dying gift to the queen.
The joy of the king was lively. He did not even give himself the trouble to dissemble, and displayed it with affectation before the queen. Louis XIII, like every weak mind, was wanting in generosity.
But the king soon again became dull and indisposed; his brow was not one of those that long remain clear. He felt that in returning to camp he should re-enter slavery; nevertheless, he did return.
The cardinal was for him the fascinating serpent, and himself the bird which flies from branch to branch without power to escape.
The return to La Rochelle, therefore, was profoundly dull. Our four friends, in particular, astonished their comrades; they traveled together, side by side, with sad eyes and heads lowered. Athos alone from time to time raised his expansive brow; a flash kindled in his eyes, and a bitter smile passed over his lips, then, like his comrades, he sank again into reverie.
As soon as the escort arrived in a city, when they had conducted the king to his quarters the four friends either retired to their own or to some secluded cabaret, where they neither drank nor played; they only conversed in a low voice, looking around attentively to see that no one overheard them.
One day, when the king had halted to fly the magpie, and the four friends, according to their custom, instead of following the sport had stopped at a cabaret on the high road, a man coming from la Rochelle on horseback pulled up at the door to drink a glass of wine, and darted a searching glance into the room where the four Musketeers were sitting.
"Holloa, Monsieur d'Artagnan!" said he, "is not that you whom I see yonder?"
D'Artagnan raised his head and uttered a cry of joy. It was the man he called his phantom; it was his stranger of Meung, of the Rue des Fossoyeurs and of Arras.
D'Artagnan drew his sword, and sprang toward the door.
But this time, instead of avoiding him the stranger jumped from his horse, and advanced to meet d'Artagnan.
"Ah, monsieur!" said the young man, "I meet you, then, at last! This time you shall not escape me!"
"Neither is it my intention, monsieur, for this time I was seeking you; in the name of the king, I arrest you."
"How! what do you say?" cried d'Artagnan.
"I say that you must surrender your sword to me, monsieur, and that without resistance. This concerns your head, I warn you."
"Who are you, then?" demanded d'Artagnan, lowering the point of his sword, but without yet surrendering it.
"I am the Chevalier de Rochefort," answered the other, "the equerry of Monsieur le Cardinal Richelieu, and I have orders to conduct you to his Eminence."
"We are returning to his Eminence, monsieur the Chevalier," said Athos, advancing; "and you will please to accept the word of Monsieur d'Artagnan that he will go straight to La Rochelle."
"I must place him in the hands of guards who will take him into camp."
"We will be his guards, monsieur, upon our word as gentlemen; but likewise, upon our word as gentlemen," added Athos, knitting his brow, "Monsieur d'Artagnan shall not leave us."
The Chevalier de Rochefort cast a glance backward, and saw that Porthos and Aramis had placed themselves between him and the gate; he understood that he was completely at the mercy of these four men.
"Gentlemen," said he, "if Monsieur d'Artagnan will surrender his sword to me and join his word to yours, I shall be satisfied with your promise to convey Monsieur d'Artagnan to the quarters of Monseigneur the Cardinal."
"You have my word, monsieur, and here is my sword."
"This suits me the better," said Rochefort, "as I wish to continue my journey."
"If it is for the purpose of rejoining Milady," said Athos, coolly, "it is useless; you will not find her."
"What has become of her, then?" asked Rochefort, eagerly.
"Return to camp and you shall know."
Rochefort remained for a moment in thought; then, as they were only a day's journey from Surgeres, whither the cardinal was to come to meet the king, he resolved to follow the advice of Athos and go with them. Besides, this return offered him the advantage of watching his prisoner.
They resumed their route.
On the morrow, at three o'clock in the afternoon, they arrived at Surgeres. The cardinal there awaited Louis XIII. The minister and the king exchanged numerous caresses, felicitating each other upon the fortunate chance which had freed France from the inveterate enemy who set all Europe against her. After which, the cardinal, who had been informed that d'Artagnan was arrested and who was anxious to see him, took leave of the king, inviting him to come the next day to view the work already done upon the dyke.
On returning in the evening to his quarters at the bridge of La Pierre, the cardinal found, standing before the house he occupied, d'Artagnan, without his sword, and the three Musketeers armed.
This time, as he was well attended, he looked at them sternly, and made a sign with his eye and hand for d'Artagnan to follow him.
"We shall wait for you, d'Artagnan," said Athos, loud enough for the cardinal to hear him.
His Eminence bent his brow, stopped for an instant, and then kept on his way without uttering a single word.
D'Artagnan entered after the cardinal, and behind d'Artagnan the door was guarded.
His Eminence entered the chamber which served him as a study, and made a sign to Rochefort to bring in the young Musketeer.
Rochefort obeyed and retired.
D'Artagnan remained alone in front of the cardinal; this was his second interview with Richelieu, and he afterward confessed that he felt well assured it would be his last.
Richelieu remained standing, leaning against the mantelpiece; a table was between him and d'Artagnan.
"Monsieur," said the cardinal, "you have been arrested by my orders."
"So they tell me, monseigneur."
"Do you know why?"
"No, monseigneur, for the only thing for which I could be arrested is still unknown to your Eminence."
Richelieu looked steadfastly at the young man.
"Holloa!" said he, "what does that mean?"
"If Monseigneur will have the goodness to tell me, in the first place, what crimes are imputed to me, I will then tell him the deeds I have really done."
"Crimes are imputed to you which had brought down far loftier heads than yours, monsieur," said the cardinal.
"What, monseigneur?" said d'Artagnan, with a calmness which astonished the cardinal himself.
"You are charged with having corresponded with the enemies of the kingdom; you are charged with having surprised state secrets; you are charged with having tried to thwart the plans of your general."
"And who charges me with this, monseigneur?" said d'Artagnan, who had no doubt the accusation came from Milady, "a woman branded by the justice of the country; a woman who has espoused one man in France and another in England; a woman who poisoned her second husband and who attempted both to poison and assassinate me!"
"What do you say, monsieur?" cried the cardinal, astonished; "and of what woman are you speaking thus?"
"Of Milady de Winter," replied d'Artagnan, "yes, of Milady de Winter, of whose crimes your Eminence is doubtless ignorant, since you have honored her with your confidence."
"Monsieur," said the cardinal, "if Milady de Winter has committed the crimes you lay to her charge, she shall be punished."
"She has been punished, monseigneur."
"And who has punished her?"
"She is in prison?"
"She is dead."
"Dead!" repeated the cardinal, who could not believe what he heard, "dead! Did you not say she was dead?"
"Three times she attempted to kill me, and I pardoned her; but she murdered the woman I loved. Then my friends and I took her, tried her, and condemned her."
D'Artagnan then related the poisoning of Mme. Bonacieux in the convent of the Carmelites at Bethune, the trial in the isolated house, and the execution on the banks of the Lys.
A shudder crept through the body of the cardinal, who did not shudder readily.
But all at once, as if undergoing the influence of an unspoken thought, the countenance of the cardinal, till then gloomy, cleared up by degrees, and recovered perfect serenity.
"So," said the cardinal, in a tone that contrasted strongly with the severity of his words, "you have constituted yourselves judges, without remembering that they who punish without license to punish are assassins?"
"Monseigneur, I swear to you that I never for an instant had the intention of defending my head against you. I willingly submit to any punishment your Eminence may please to inflict upon me. I do not hold life dear enough to be afraid of death."
"Yes, I know you are a man of a stout heart, monsieur," said the cardinal, with a voice almost affectionate; "I can therefore tell you beforehand you shall be tried, and even condemned."
"Another might reply to your Eminence that he had his pardon in his pocket. I content myself with saying: Command, monseigneur; I am ready."
"Your pardon?" said Richelieu, surprised.
"Yes, monseigneur," said d'Artagnan.
"And signed by whom—by the king?" And the cardinal pronounced these words with a singular expression of contempt.
"No, by your Eminence."
"By me? You are insane, monsieur."
"Monseigneur will doubtless recognize his own handwriting."
And d'Artagnan presented to the cardinal the precious piece of paper which Athos had forced from Milady, and which he had given to d'Artagnan to serve him as a safeguard.
His Eminence took the paper, and read in a slow voice, dwelling upon every syllable:
"Dec. 3, 1627
"It is by my order and for the good of the state that the bearer of this has done what he has done.
The cardinal, after having read these two lines, sank into a profound reverie; but he did not return the paper to d'Artagnan.
"He is meditating by what sort of punishment he shall cause me to die," said the Gascon to himself. "Well, my faith! he shall see how a gentleman can die."
The young Musketeer was in excellent disposition to die heroically.
Richelieu still continued thinking, rolling and unrolling the paper in his hands.
At length he raised his head, fixed his eagle look upon that loyal, open, and intelligent countenance, read upon that face, furrowed with tears, all the sufferings its possessor had endured in the course of a month, and reflected for the third or fourth time how much there was in that youth of twenty-one years before him, and what resources his activity, his courage, and his shrewdness might offer to a good master. On the other side, the crimes, the power, and the infernal genius of Milady had more than once terrified him. He felt something like a secret joy at being forever relieved of this dangerous accomplice.
Richelieu slowly tore the paper which d'Artagnan had generously relinquished.
"I am lost!" said d'Artagnan to himself. And he bowed profoundly before the cardinal, like a man who says, "Lord, Thy will be done!"
The cardinal approached the table, and without sitting down, wrote a few lines upon a parchment of which two-thirds were already filled, and affixed his seal.
"That is my condemnation," thought d'Artagnan; "he will spare me the ENNUI of the Bastille, or the tediousness of a trial. That's very kind of him."
"Here, monsieur," said the cardinal to the young man. "I have taken from you one CARTE BLANCHE to give you another. The name is wanting in this commission; you can write it yourself."
D'Artagnan took the paper hesitatingly and cast his eyes over it; it was a lieutenant's commission in the Musketeers.
D'Artagnan fell at the feet of the cardinal.
"Monseigneur," said he, "my life is yours; henceforth dispose of it. But this favor which you bestow upon me I do not merit. I have three friends who are more meritorious and more worthy—"
"You are a brave youth, d'Artagnan," interrupted the cardinal, tapping him familiarly on the shoulder, charmed at having vanquished this rebellious nature. "Do with this commission what you will; only remember, though the name be blank, it is to you I give it."
"I shall never forget it," replied d'Artagnan. "Your Eminence may be certain of that."
The cardinal turned and said in a loud voice, "Rochefort!" The chevalier, who no doubt was near the door, entered immediately.
"Rochefort," said the cardinal, "you see Monsieur d'Artagnan. I receive him among the number of my friends. Greet each other, then; and be wise if you wish to preserve your heads."
Rochefort and d'Artagnan coolly greeted each other with their lips; but the cardinal was there, observing them with his vigilant eye.
They left the chamber at the same time.
"We shall meet again, shall we not, monsieur?"
"When you please," said d'Artagnan.
"An opportunity will come," replied Rochefort.
"Hey?" said the cardinal, opening the door.
The two men smiled at each other, shook hands, and saluted his Eminence.
"We were beginning to grow impatient," said Athos.
"Here I am, my friends," replied d'Artagnan; "not only free, but in favor."
"Tell us about it."
"This evening; but for the moment, let us separate."
Accordingly, that same evening d'Artagnan repaired to the quarters of Athos, whom he found in a fair way to empty a bottle of Spanish wine—an occupation which he religiously accomplished every night.
D'Artagnan related what had taken place between the cardinal and himself, and drawing the commission from his pocket, said, "Here, my dear Athos, this naturally belongs to you."
Athos smiled with one of his sweet and expressive smiles.
"Friend," said he, "for Athos this is too much; for the Comte de la Fere it is too little. Keep the commission; it is yours. Alas! you have purchased it dearly enough."
D'Artagnan left Athos's chamber and went to that of Porthos. He found him clothed in a magnificent dress covered with splendid embroidery, admiring himself before a glass.
"Ah, ah! is that you, dear friend?" exclaimed Porthos. "How do you think these garments fit me?"
"Wonderfully," said d'Artagnan; "but I come to offer you a dress which will become you still better."
"What?" asked Porthos.
"That of a lieutenant of Musketeers."
D'Artagnan related to Porthos the substance of his interview with the cardinal, and said, taking the commission from his pocket, "Here, my friend, write your name upon it and become my chief."
Porthos cast his eyes over the commission and returned it to d'Artagnan, to the great astonishment of the young man.
"Yes," said he, "yes, that would flatter me very much; but I should not have time enough to enjoy the distinction. During our expedition to Bethune the husband of my duchess died; so, my dear, the coffer of the defunct holding out its arms to me, I shall marry the widow. Look here! I was trying on my wedding suit. Keep the lieutenancy, my dear, keep it."
The young man then entered the apartment of Aramis. He found him kneeling before a PRIEDIEU with his head leaning on an open prayer book.
He described to him his interview with the cardinal, and said, for the third time drawing his commission from his pocket, "You, our friend, our intelligence, our invisible protector, accept this commission. You have merited it more than any of us by your wisdom and your counsels, always followed by such happy results."
"Alas, dear friend!" said Aramis, "our late adventures have disgusted me with military life. This time my determination is irrevocably taken. After the siege I shall enter the house of the Lazarists. Keep the commission, d'Artagnan; the profession of arms suits you. You will be a brave and adventurous captain."
D'Artagnan, his eye moist with gratitude though beaming with joy, went back to Athos, whom he found still at table contemplating the charms of his last glass of Malaga by the light of his lamp.
"Well," said he, "they likewise have refused me."
"That, dear friend, is because nobody is more worthy than yourself."
He took a quill, wrote the name of d'Artagnan in the commission, and returned it to him.
"I shall then have no more friends," said the young man. "Alas! nothing but bitter recollections."
And he let his head sink upon his hands, while two large tears rolled down his cheeks.
"You are young," replied Athos; "and your bitter recollections have time to change themselves into sweet remembrances."
La Rochelle, deprived of the assistance of the English fleet and of the diversion promised by Buckingham, surrendered after a siege of a year. On the twenty-eighth of October, 1628, the capitulation was signed.
The king made his entrance into Paris on the twenty-third of December of the same year. He was received in triumph, as if he came from conquering an enemy and not Frenchmen. He entered by the Faubourg St. Jacques, under verdant arches.
D'Artagnan took possession of his command. Porthos left the service, and in the course of the following year married Mme. Coquenard; the coffer so much coveted contained eight hundred thousand livres.
Mousqueton had a magnificent livery, and enjoyed the satisfaction of which he had been ambitious all his life—that of standing behind a gilded carriage.
Aramis, after a journey into Lorraine, disappeared all at once, and ceased to write to his friends; they learned at a later period through Mme. de Chevreuse, who told it to two or three of her intimates, that, yielding to his vocation, he had retired into a convent—only into which, nobody knew.
Bazin became a lay brother.
Athos remained a Musketeer under the command of d'Artagnan till the year 1633, at which period, after a journey he made to Touraine, he also quit the service, under the pretext of having inherited a small property in Roussillon.
Grimaud followed Athos.
D'Artagnan fought three times with Rochefort, and wounded him three times.
"I shall probably kill you the fourth," said he to him, holding out his hand to assist him to rise.
"It is much better both for you and for me to stop where we are," answered the wounded man. "CORBLEU—I am more your friend than you think—for after our very first encounter, I could by saying a word to the cardinal have had your throat cut!"
They this time embraced heartily, and without retaining any malice.
Planchet obtained from Rochefort the rank of sergeant in the Piedmont regiment.
M. Bonacieux lived on very quietly, wholly ignorant of what had become of his wife, and caring very little about it. One day he had the imprudence to recall himself to the memory of the cardinal. The cardinal had him informed that he would provide for him so that he should never want for anything in future. In fact, M. Bonacieux, having left his house at seven o'clock in the evening to go to the Louvre, never appeared again in the Rue des Fossoyeurs; the opinion of those who seemed to be best informed was that he was fed and lodged in some royal castle, at the expense of his generous Eminence.