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THE MIDNIGHT MISSION.
De Catinat in the meanwhile was perfectly aware of the importance of the mission which had been assigned to him. The secrecy which had been enjoined by the king, his evident excitement, and the nature of his orders, all confirmed the rumours which were already beginning to buzz round the court. He knew enough of the intrigues and antagonisms with which the court was full to understand that every precaution was necessary in carrying out his instructions. He waited, therefore, until night had fallen before ordering his soldier-servant to bring round the two horses to one of the less public gates of the grounds. As he and his friend walked together to the spot, he gave the young American a rapid sketch of the situation at the court, and of the chance that this nocturnal ride might be an event which would affect the future history of France.
"I like your king," said Amos Green, "and I am glad to ride in his service. He is a slip of a man to be the head of a great nation, but he has the eye of a chief. If one met him alone in a Maine forest, one would know him as a man who was different to his fellows. Well, I am glad that he is going to marry again, though it's a great house for any woman to have to look after."
De Catinat smiled at his comrade's idea of a queen's duties.
"Are you armed?" he asked. "You have no sword or pistols?"
"No; if I may not carry my gun, I had rather not be troubled by tools that I have never learned to use. I have my knife. But why do you ask?"
"Because there may be danger."
"Many have an interest in stopping this marriage. All the first men of the kingdom are bitterly against it. If they could stop _us_, they would stop _it_, for to-night at least."
"But I thought it was a secret?"
"There is no such thing at a court. There is the dauphin, or the king's brother, either of them, or any of their friends, would be right glad that we should be in the Seine before we reach the archbishop's house this night. But who is this?"
A burly figure had loomed up through the gloom on the path upon which they were going. As it approached, a coloured lamp dangling from one of the trees shone upon the blue and silver of an officer of the guards. It was Major de Brissac, of De Catinat's own regiment.
"Hullo! Whither away?" he asked.
"To Paris, major."
"I go there myself within an hour. Will you not wait, that we may go together?"
"I am sorry, but I ride on a matter of urgency. I must not lose a minute."
"Very good. Good-night, and a pleasant ride."
"Is he a trusty man, our friend the major?" asked Amos Green, glancing back.
"True as steel."
"Then I would have a word with him." The American hurried back along the way they had come, while De Catinat stood chafing at this unnecessary delay. It was a full five minutes before his companion joined him, and the fiery blood of the French soldier was hot with impatience and anger.
"I think that perhaps you had best ride into Paris at your leisure, my friend," said he. "If I go upon the king's service I cannot be delayed whenever the whim takes you."
"I am sorry," answered the other quietly. "I had something to say to your major, and I thought that maybe I might not see him again."
"Well, here are the horses," said the guardsman as he pushed open the postern-gate. "Have you fed an watered them, Jacques?"
"Yes, my captain," answered the man who stood at their head.
"Boot and saddle, then, friend Green, and we shall not draw rein again until we see the lights of Paris in front of us."
The soldier-groom peered through the darkness after them with a sardonic smile upon his face. "You won't draw rein, won't you?" he muttered as he turned away. "Well, we shall see about that, my captain; we shall see about that."
For a mile or more the comrades galloped along, neck to neck and knee to knee. A wind had sprung up from the westward, and the heavens were covered with heavy gray clouds, which drifted swiftly across, a crescent moon peeping fitfully from time to time between the rifts. Even during these moments of brightness the road, shadowed as it was by heavy trees, was very dark, but when the light was shut off it was hard, but for the loom upon either side, to tell where it lay. De Catinat at least found it so, and he peered anxiously over his horse's ears, and stooped his face to the mane in his efforts to see his way.
"What do you make of the road?" he asked at last.
"It looks as if a good many carriage wheels had passed over it to-day."
"What! _Mon Dieu!_ Do you mean to say that you can see carriage wheels there?"
"Certainly. Why not?"
"Why, man, I cannot see the road at all."
Amos Green laughed heartily. "When you have travelled in the woods by night as often as I have," said he, "when to show a light may mean to lose your hair, one comes to learn to use one's eyes."
"Then you had best ride on, and I shall keep just behind you. So! _Hola!_ What is the matter now?"
There had been the sudden sharp snap of something breaking, and the American had reeled for an instant in the saddle.
"It's one of my stirrup leathers. It has fallen."
"Can you find it?"
"Yes; but I can ride as well without it. Let us push on."
"Very good. I can just see you now."
They had galloped for about five minutes in this fashion, De Catinat's horse's head within a few feet of the other's tail, when there was a second snap, and the guardsman rolled out of the saddle on to the ground. He kept his grip of the reins, however, and was up in an instant at his horse's head, sputtering out oaths as only an angry Frenchman can.
"A thousand thunders of heaven!" he cried. "What was it that happened then?"
"Your leather has gone too."
"Two stirrup leathers in five minutes? It is not possible."
"It is not possible that it should be chance," said the American gravely, swinging himself off his horse. "Why, what is this? My other leather is cut, and hangs only by a thread."
"And so does mine. I can feel it when I pass my hand along. Have you a tinder-box? Let us strike a light."
"No, no; the man who is in the dark is in safety. I let the other folk strike lights. We can see all that is needful to us."
"My rein is cut also."
"And so is mine."
"And the girth of my saddle."
"It is a wonder that we came so far with whole bones. Now, who has played us this little trick?"
"Who could it be but that rogue Jacques! He has had the horses in his charge. By my faith, he shall know what the strappado means when I see Versailles again."
"But why should he do it?"
"Ah, he has been set on to it. He has been a tool in the hands of those who wished to hinder our journey."
"Very like. But they must have had some reason behind. They knew well that to cut our straps would not prevent us from reaching Paris, since we could ride bareback, or, for that matter, could run it if need be."
"They hoped to break our necks."
"One neck they might break, but scarce those of two, since the fate of the one would warn the other."
"Well, then, what do you think that they meant?" cried De Catinat impatiently. "For heaven's sake, let us come to some conclusion, for every minute is of importance."
But the other was not to be hurried out of his cool, methodical fashion of speech and of thought.
"They could not have thought to stop us," said he.
"What did they mean, then? They could only have meant to delay us. And why should they wish to delay us? What could it matter to them if we gave our message an hour or two sooner or an hour or two later? It could not matter."
"For heaven's sake--" broke in De Catinat impetuously.
But Amos Green went on hammering the matter slowly out.
"Why should they wish to delay us, then? There's only one reason that I can see. In order to give other folk time to get in front of us and stop us. That is it, captain. I'd lay you a beaver-skin to a rabbit-pelt that I'm on the track. There's been a party of a dozen horsemen along this ground since the dew began to fall. If they were delayed, they would have time to form their plans before we came."
"By my faith, you may be right," said De Catinat thoughtfully. "What would you propose?"
"That we ride back, and go by some less direct way."
"It is impossible. We should have to ride back to Meudon cross-roads, and then it would add ten miles to our journey."
"It is better to get there an hour later than not to get there at all."
"Pshaw! we are surely not to be turned from our path by a mere guess. There is the St. Germain cross-road about a mile below. When we reach it we can strike to the right along the south side of the river, and so change our course."
"But we may not reach it."
"If anyone bars our way we shall know how to treat with them."
"You would fight, then?"
"What! with a dozen of them?"
"A hundred, if we are on the king's errand."
Amos Green shrugged his shoulders.
"You are surely not afraid?"
"Yes, I am, mighty afraid. Fighting's good enough when there's no help for it. But I call it a fool's plan to ride straight into a trap when you might go round it."
"You may do what you like," said De Catinat angrily.
"My father was a gentleman, the owner of a thousand arpents of land, and his son is not going to flinch in the king's service."
"My father," answered Amos Green, "was a merchant, the owner of a thousand skunk-skins, and his son knows a fool when he sees one."
"You are insolent, sir," cried the guardsman. "We can settle this matter at some more fitting opportunity. At present I continue my mission, and you are very welcome to turn back to Versailles if you are so inclined." He raised his hat with punctilious politeness, sprang on to his horse, and rode on down the road.
Amos Green hesitated a little, and then mounting, he soon overtook his companion. The latter, however, was still in no very sweet temper, and rode with a rigid neck, without a glance or a word for his comrade. Suddenly his eyes caught something in the gloom which brought a smile back to his face. Away in front of them, between two dark tree clumps, lay a vast number of shimmering, glittering yellow points, as thick as flowers in a garden. They were the lights of Paris.
"See!" he cried, pointing. "There is the city, and close here must be the St. Germain road. We shall take it, so as to avoid any danger."
"Very good! But you should not ride too fast, when your girth may break at any moment."
"Nay, come on; we are close to our journey's end. The St. Germain road opens just round this corner, and then we shall see our way, for the lights will guide us."
He cut his horse with his whip, and they galloped together round the curve. Next instant they were both down in one wild heap of tossing heads and struggling hoofs, De Catinat partly covered by his horse, and his comrade hurled twenty paces, where he lay silent and motionless in the centre of the road.
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