“My good friend,” said Porthos, after having respired vigorously, “we are arrived, it seems. But I thought you spoke of three men,- three servants who were to accompany us. I don’t see them; where are they?”
“Why should you see them, dear Porthos?” replied Aramis. “They are certainly waiting for us in the cavern, and, no doubt, are resting for a moment after having accomplished their rough and difficult task.” He stopped Porthos, who was preparing to enter the cavern. “Will you allow me, my friend,” said he to the giant, “to pass in first? I know the signal I have given to these men, who, not hearing it, would be very likely to fire upon you or slash away with their knives in the dark.”
“Go on, then, Aramis; go on,- go first. You are all wisdom and prudence; go on. Ah! there is that fatigue of which I spoke to you. It has just seized me again.”
Aramis left Porthos sitting at the entrance of the grotto, and bowing his head, he penetrated into the interior of the cavern, imitating the cry of the owl. A little plaintive cooing, a scarcely distinct cry, replied from the depths of the cave. Aramis pursued his way cautiously, and soon was stopped by the same kind of cry as he had first uttered, and this cry sounded within ten paces of him.
“Are you there, Yves?” said the bishop.
“Yes, Monseigneur; Goennec is here likewise. His son accompanies us.”
“That is well. Are all things ready?”
“Go to the entrance of the grotto, my good Yves, and you will there find the Seigneur de Pierrefonds, who is resting after the fatigues of our journey; and if he should happen not to be able to walk, lift him up, and bring him here.”
The three men obeyed; but the recommendation Aramis had given to his servants was useless. Porthos, refreshed, had already himself begun the descent, and his heavy step resounded among the cavities formed and supported by columns of silex and granite. As soon as the Seigneur de Bracieux had rejoined the bishop, the Bretons lighted a lantern with which they were furnished, and Porthos assured his friend that he felt as strong as ever.
“Let us visit the canoe,” said Aramis, “and see in the first place what it will hold.”
“Do not go too near with the light,” said the skipper Yves; “for, as you desired me, Monseigneur, I have placed under the bench of the poop, in the coffer you know of, the barrel of powder, and the musket-charges that you sent me from the fort.”
“Very well,” said Aramis; and taking the lantern himself, he examined minutely all parts of the canoe with the precautions of a man who is neither timid nor ignorant in the face of danger. The canoe was long, light, drawing little water, thin of keel,- in short, one of those which have always been so well constructed at Belle-Isle,- a little high in its sides, solid upon the water, very manageable, furnished with planks which in uncertain weather form a sort of bridge over which the waves glide, and which protect the rowers. In two well-closed coffers placed beneath the benches of the prow and the poop, Aramis found bread, biscuit, dried fruits, a quarter of bacon, a good provision of water in leathern bottles,- the whole forming rations sufficient for people who did not mean to quit the coast, and would be able to revictual, if necessity demanded. The arms, eight muskets and as many horse-pistols, were in good condition, and all loaded. There were additional oars, in case of accident, and that little sail called trinquette, which assists the speed of the canoe at the same time the boatmen row, and is so useful when the breeze is slack. When Aramis had seen all these things, and appeared satisfied with the result of his inspection, “Let us consider, Porthos,” said he, “whether to endeavor to get the boat out by the unknown extremity of the grotto, following the descent and the shade of the cavern, or whether it be better to make it slide upon the rollers through the bushes in the open air, levelling the road of the little beach, which is but twenty feet high, and gives at its foot, in the tide, three or four fathoms of good water upon a sound bottom.”
“It must be as you please, Monseigneur,” replied the skipper Yves, respectfully; “but I don’t believe that by the slope of the cavern, and in the dark in which we shall be obliged to manoeuvre our boat, the road will be so convenient as in the open air. I know the beach well, and can certify that it is as smooth as a grass-plot in a garden; the interior of the grotto, on the contrary, is rough,- without again reckoning, Monseigneur, that at the extremity we shall come to the trench which leads into the sea and which perhaps the canoe will not pass.”
“I have made my calculations,” said the bishop, “and I am certain it would pass.”
“So be it; I wish it may, Monseigneur,” the skipper insisted. “But your Greatness knows very well that to make it reach the extremity of the trench, there is an enormous stone to be lifted,- that under which the fox always passes, and which closes the trench like a door.”
“That can be raised,” said Porthos; “that is nothing.”
“Oh! I know that Monseigneur has the strength of ten men,” replied Yves; “but that is giving Monseigneur a great deal of trouble.”
“I think the skipper may be right,” said Aramis; “let us try the open passage.”
“The more so, Monseigneur,” continued the fisherman, “that we should not be able to embark before day, it would require so much labor; and that as soon as daylight appears, a good vedette placed outside the grotto would be necessary, indispensable even, to watch the manoeuvres of the lighters or the cruisers that are upon the lookout for us.”
“Yes, yes, Yves, your reasons are good; we will go by the beach.”
And the three robust Bretons went to the boat, and were beginning to place their rollers underneath it to put it in motion, when the distant barking of dogs was heard, proceeding from the interior of the island.
Aramis darted out of the grotto, followed by Porthos. Dawn just tinted with purple and white the waves and the plain; through the dim light the young melancholy firs waved their tender branches over the pebbles, and long flights of crows were skimming with their black wings over the thin fields of buckwheat. In a quarter of an hour it would be clear daylight; the awakened birds joyously announced it to all nature. The barkings which had been heard, which had stopped the three fishermen engaged in moving the boat, and had brought Aramis and Porthos out of the cavern, were prolonged in a deep gorge within about a league of the grotto.
“It is a pack of hounds,” said Porthos; “the dogs are upon a scent.”
“Who can be hunting at such a moment as this?” said Aramis.
“And this way, particularly,” continued Porthos, “this way, where they may expect the army of the Royalists.”
“The noise comes nearer. Yes, you are right, Porthos, the dogs are on a scent. But, Yves!” cried Aramis, “come here! come here!”
Yves ran towards him, letting fall the cylinder which he was about to place under the boat when the bishop’s call interrupted him.
“What is the meaning of this hunt, Skipper?” said Porthos.
“Eh, Monseigneur, I cannot understand it,” replied the Breton. “It is not at such a moment that the Seigneur de Locmaria would hunt. No; and yet the dogs-”
“Unless they have escaped from the kennel.”
“No,” said Goennec, “they are not the Seigneur de Locmaria’s hounds.”
“In common prudence,” said Aramis, “let us go back into the grotto; the voices evidently draw nearer, we shall soon know what we have to expect.”
They re-entered, but had scarcely proceeded a hundred steps in the darkness when a noise like the hoarse sigh of a creature in distress resounded through the cavern, and breathless, running, terrified, a fox passed like a flash of lightning before the fugitives, leaped over the boat and disappeared, leaving behind it its sour scent, which was perceptible for several seconds under the low vaults of the cave.
“The fox!” cried the Bretons, with the joyous surprise of hunters.
“Accursed chance!” cried the bishop; “our retreat is discovered.”
“How so?” said Porthos; “are we afraid of a fox?”
“Eh, my friend, what do you mean by that, and why do you name the fox? It is not the fox alone, pardieu! But don’t you know, Porthos, that after the fox come hounds, and after the hounds men?”
Porthos hung his head. As if to confirm the words of Aramis they heard the yelping pack coming with frightful swiftness upon the trail of the animal. Six foxhounds burst out at once upon the little heath, with a cry resembling the noise of a triumph.
“There are the dogs plain enough!” said Aramis, posted on the look-out behind a chink between two rocks; “now, who are the huntsmen?”
“If it is the Seigneur de Locmaria’s,” replied the skipper, “he will leave the dogs to hunt the grotto, for he knows them, and will not enter in himself, being quite sure that the fox will come out at the other side; it is there he will go and wait for him.”
“It is not the Seigneur de Locmaria who is hunting,” replied Aramis, turning pale in spite of himself.
“Who is it, then?” said Porthos.
Porthos applied his eye to the slit, and saw at the summit of a hillock a dozen horsemen urging on their horses in the track of the dogs, shouting, “Tally-ho! tally-ho!”
“The Guards!” said he.
“Yes, my friend, the King’s Guards.”
“The King’s Guards, do you say, Monseigneur?” cried the Bretons, becoming pale in their turn.
“And Biscarrat at their head, mounted upon my gray horse,” continued Aramis.
The hounds at the same moment rushed into the grotto like an avalanche, and the depths of the cavern were filled with their deafening cries.
“Ah, the devil!” said Aramis, resuming all his coolness at the sight of this certain, inevitable danger. “I know well we are lost, but we have at least one chance left. If the guards who follow their hounds happen to discover there is an issue to the grotto, there is no more help for us, for on entering they must see both us and our boat. The dogs must not go out of the cavern. The masters must not enter.”
“That is clear,” said Porthos.
“You understand,” added Aramis, with the rapid precision of command; “there are six dogs which will be forced to stop at the great stone under which the fox has glided, but at the too narrow opening of which they shall be themselves stopped and killed.”
The Bretons sprang forward, knife in hand. In a few minutes there was a lamentable concert of growls and mortal howlings, and then- nothing.
“That’s well!” said Aramis, coolly; “now for the masters!”
“What is to be done with them?” said Porthos.
“Wait their arrival, conceal ourselves, and kill them.”
“Kill them!” replied Porthos.
“There are sixteen,” said Aramis,- “at least for the time being.”
“And well armed,” added Porthos, with a smile of consolation.
“It will last about ten minutes,” said Aramis. “To work!” And with a resolute air he took up a musket, and placed his hunting-knife between his teeth. “Yves, Goennec, and his son,” continued he, “will pass the muskets to us. You, Porthos, will fire when they are close. We shall have brought down eight before the others are aware of anything, that is certain; then we all- there are five of us- will despatch the other eight, knife in hand.”
“And poor Biscarrat?” said Porthos.
Aramis reflected a moment. “Biscarrat first of all,” replied he, coolly; “he knows us.”
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