And d’Artagnan almost triumphed while speaking these words. This plan was the safety of his friends. The blockade once raised, they might embark immediately, and set sail for England or Spain without fear of being molested. While they were making their escape, d’Artagnan would return to the King, would justify his return by the indignation which the mistrust of Colbert had raised in him; he would be sent back with full powers, and he would take Belle-Isle,- that is to say, the cage, after the birds had flown. But to this plan the officer opposed a second order of the King. It was thus conceived:-
“From the moment M. d’Artagnan shall have manifested the desire of giving in his resignation, he shall no longer be reckoned leader of the expedition, and every officer placed under his orders shall be held no longer to obey him. Moreover, the said M. d’Artagnan, having lost that quality of leader of the army sent against Belle-Isle, shall set out immediately for France, in company with the officer who will have remitted the message to him, who will consider him as a prisoner for whom he is answerable.”
Brave and careless as he was, d’Artagnan turned pale. Everything had been calculated with a depth which for the first time in thirty years recalled to him the solid foresight and the inflexible logic of the great cardinal. He leaned his head on his hand, thoughtful, scarcely breathing. “If I were to put this order in my pocket,” thought he, “who would know it, or who would prevent my doing it? Before the King had had time to be informed, I should have saved those poor fellows yonder. Let us exercise a little audacity! My head is not one of those which the executioner strikes off for disobedience. We will disobey!” But at the moment he was about to adopt this plan, he saw the officers around him reading similar orders which the infernal agent of the thoughts of Colbert had just distributed to them. The case of disobedience had been foreseen as the others had been.
“Monsieur,” said the officer, coming up to him, “I await your good pleasure to depart.”
“I am ready, Monsieur,” replied d’Artagnan, grinding his teeth.
The officer immediately commanded a canoe to receive M. d’Artagnan and himself. At sight of this d’Artagnan became almost mad with rage. “How,” stammered he, “will you carry on the direction of the different corps?”
“When you are gone, Monsieur,” replied the commander of the fleet, “it is to me the direction of the whole is committed.”
“Then, Monsieur,” rejoined Colbert’s man, addressing the new leader, “it is for you that this last order that has been remitted to me is intended. Let us see your powers.”
“Here they are,” said the marine officer, exhibiting a royal signature.
“Here are your instructions,” replied the officer, placing the folded paper in his hands; and turning towards d’Artagnan, “Come, Monsieur,” said he, in an agitated voice (such despair did he behold in that man of iron), “do me the favor to depart at once.”
“Immediately!” articulated d’Artagnan, feebly, subdued, crushed by implacable impossibility.
And he let himself slide down into the little boat, which started, favored by wind and tide, for the coast of France. The King’s Guards embarked with him. The musketeer still preserved the hope of reaching Nantes quickly, and of pleading the cause of his friends eloquently enough to incline the King to mercy. The boat flew like a swallow. D’Artagnan distinctly saw the land of France profiled in black against the white clouds of night.
“Ah, Monsieur,” said he, in a low voice, to the officer, to whom for an hour he had ceased speaking, “what would I give to know the instructions for the new commander! They are all pacific, are they not? and-”
He did not finish; the sound of a distant cannon rolled over the waters, then another, and two or three still louder. D’Artagnan shuddered.
“The fire is opened upon Belle-Isle,” replied the officer. The canoe had just touched the soil of France.
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