“Well?” asked the young men, coming up out of breath, and unable to understand the meaning of his inaction.
“Well, I cannot hear the dogs; they and the fox must be all engulfed in this cavern.”
“They were too close up,” said one of the guards, “to have lost scent all at once; besides, we should hear them from one side or another. They must, as Biscarrat says, be in this grotto.”
“But then,” said one of the young men, “why don’t they give tongue?”
“It is strange!” said another.
“Well, but,” said a fourth, “let us go into this grotto. Is it forbidden that we should enter it?”
“No,” replied Biscarrat; “only, as it looks as dark as a wolf’s mouth, we might break our necks in it.”
“Witness the dogs,” said a guard, “who seem to have broken theirs.”
“What the devil can have become of them?” asked the young men, in chorus; and every master called his dog by his name, whistled to him in his favorite note, without a single reply to either the call or the whistle.
“It is perhaps an enchanted grotto,” said Biscarrat. “Let us see”; and jumping from his horse, he made a step into the grotto.
“Stop! stop! I will accompany you,” said one of the guards, on seeing Biscarrat preparing to disappear in the shade of the cavern’s mouth.
“No,” replied Biscarrat,- “there must be something extraordinary in the place; don’t let us risk ourselves all at once. If in ten minutes you do not hear of me, you can come in,- but then all at once.”
“Be it so,” said the young men, who besides did not see that Biscarrat ran much risk in the enterprise, “we will wait for you”; and without dismounting from their horses, they formed a circle round the grotto.
Biscarrat entered then alone, and advanced through the darkness till he came in contact with the muzzle of Porthos’s musket. The resistance against his breast astonished him; he raised his hand and laid hold of the icy barrel. At the same instant Yves lifted a knife against the young man, which was about to fall upon him with all the force of a Breton’s arm, when the iron wrist of Porthos stopped it halfway. Then, like low-muttering thunder, his voice growled in the darkness, “I will not have him killed!” Biscarrat found himself between a protection and a threat,- the one almost as terrible as the other. However brave the young man might be, he could not prevent a cry escaping him, which Aramis immediately suppressed by placing a handkerchief over his mouth. “M. de Biscarrat,” said he, in a low voice, “we mean you no harm, and you must know that if you have recognized us; but at the first word, the first sigh, or the first breath, we shall be forced to kill you as we have killed your dogs.”
“Yes, I recognize you, gentlemen,” said the officer, in a low voice; “but why are you here; what are you doing here? Unfortunate men! I thought you were in the fort.”
“And you, Monsieur,- you were to obtain conditions for us, I think?”
“I did all I could, Messieurs; but-”
“But there are positive orders.”
“To kill us?” Biscarrat made no reply; it would have cost him too much to speak of the cord to gentlemen.
Aramis understood the silence of his prisoner. “M. Biscarrat,” said he, “you would be already dead if we had not had regard for your youth and our ancient association with your father; but you may yet escape from the place by swearing that you will not tell your companions what you have seen.”
“I will not only swear that I will not speak of it,” said Biscarrat, “but I still further swear that I will do everything in the world to prevent my companions from setting foot in the grotto.”
“Biscarrat! Biscarrat!” cried several voices from the outside, coming like a whirlwind into the cave.
“Reply,” said Aramis.
“Here am I!” cried Biscarrat.
“Now go; we depend upon your loyalty”; and he left his hold of the young man, who hastily returned towards the light.
“Biscarrat! Biscarrat!” cried the voices, still nearer; and the shadows of several human forms projected into the interior of the grotto.
Biscarrat rushed to meet his friends in order to stop them, and met them just as they were venturing into the cave. Aramis and Porthos listened with the intense attention of men whose lives depend upon a breath of air.
Biscarrat had regained the entrance to the cave, followed by his friends.
“Oh, oh!” exclaimed one of the guards, as he came to the light, “how pale you are!”
“Pale!” cried another; “you ought to say livid.”
“I?” said the young man, endeavoring to collect his faculties.
“In the name of Heaven, what has happened to you?” exclaimed all voices.
“You have not a drop of blood in your veins, my poor friend,” said one of them, laughing.
“Messieurs, it is serious,” said another. “He is going to faint; does any one of you happen to have any salts?” and they all laughed.
All these interpellations, all these jokes, crossed one another round Biscarrat as the balls cross one another in the fire of a melee. He recovered himself amid a deluge of interrogations. “What do you suppose I have seen?” asked he. “I was too hot when I entered the grotto, and I have been struck with the cold; that is all.”
“But the dogs,- the dogs; have you seen them again; have you heard anything of them; do you know anything about them?”
“I suppose they have gone out by another way.”
“Messieurs,” said one of the young men, “there is in that which is going on, in the paleness and silence of our friend, a mystery which Biscarrat will not or cannot reveal. Only- and that is a certainty- Biscarrat has seen something in the grotto. Well, for my part, I am very curious to see what it is, even if it were the devil. To the grotto, Messieurs! to the grotto!
“To the grotto!” repeated all the voices. And the echo of the cavern carried like a menace to Porthos and Aramis, “To the grotto! to the grotto!” Biscarrat threw himself before his companions. “Messieurs! Messieurs!” cried he, “in the name of Heaven, do not go in!”
“Why, what is there so terrific in the cavern?” asked several at once. “Come, speak, Biscarrat.”
“Decidedly, it is the devil he has seen,” repeated he who had before advanced that hypothesis.
“Well,” said another, “if he has seen him, he need not be selfish; he may as well let us have a look at him in our turns.”
“Messieurs! Messieurs! I beseech you!” urged Biscarrat.
“Nonsense! Let us pass!”
“Messieurs, I implore you not to enter!”
“Why, you went in yourself.”
Then one of the officers who, of a riper age than the others, had till this time remained behind and had said nothing, advanced. “Messieurs,” said he, with a calmness which contrasted with the animation of the young men, “there is down there some person or some thing which is not the devil but which, whatever it may be, has had sufficient power to silence our dogs. We must know who this some one is, or what this something is.”
Biscarrat made a last effort to stop his friends; but it was useless. In vain he threw himself before the most rash; in vain he clung to the rocks to bar the passage; the crowd of young men rushed into the cave in the steps of the officer who had spoken last, but who had sprung in first, sword in hand, to face the unknown danger. Biscarrat, repulsed by his friends, not able to accompany them without passing in the eyes of Porthos and Aramis for a traitor and a perjurer, with attentive ear and still supplicating hands leaned against the rough side of a rock which he thought must be exposed to the fire of the musketeers. As to the guards, they penetrated farther and farther, with cries that grew weaker as they advanced. All at once, a discharge of musketry, growling like thunder, exploded beneath the vault. Two or three balls were flattened against the rock where Biscarrat was leaning. At the same instant cries, howlings, and imprecations burst forth, and the little troop of gentlemen reappeared- some pale, some bleeding- all enveloped in a cloud of smoke, which the outward air seemed to draw from the depths of the cavern. “Biscarrat! Biscarrat!” cried the fugitives, “you knew there was an ambuscade in that cavern, and you have not warned us! Biscarrat, you have caused four of us to be killed! Woe be to you, Biscarrat!”
“You are the cause of my being wounded to death,” said one of the young men, gathering his blood in his hand, and casting it into the face of Biscarrat. “My blood be upon your head!” And he rolled in agony at the feet of the young man.
“But, at least, tell us who is there!” cried several furious voices.
Biscarrat remained silent. “Tell us, or die!” cried the wounded man, raising himself upon one knee, and lifting towards his companion an arm bearing a useless sword. Biscarrat rushed towards him, opening his breast for the blow, but the wounded man fell back not to rise again, uttering a groan which was his last. Biscarrat, with hair on end, haggard eyes, and bewildered head, advanced towards the interior of the cavern, saying, “You are right. Death to me, who have allowed my companions to be assassinated! I am a base wretch!” And throwing away his sword, for he wished to die without defending himself, he rushed head foremost into the cavern. The eleven who remained out of sixteen imitated his example; but they did not go farther than before. A second discharge laid five upon the icy sand; and as it was impossible to see whence this murderous thunder issued, the others fell back with a terror than can be better imagined than described. But, far from flying, as the others had done, Biscarrat remained, safe and sound, seated on a fragment of rock, and waited. There were only six gentlemen left.
“Seriously,” said one of the survivors, “is it the devil?”
“Ma foi! it is much worse,” said another.
“Ask Biscarrat, he knows.”
“Where is Biscarrat?” The young men looked around them and saw that Biscarrat did not answer.
“He is dead!” said two or three voices.
“Oh, no,” replied another; “I saw him through the smoke, sitting quietly on a rock. He is in the cavern; he is waiting for us.”
“He must know who is there.”
“And how should he know them?”
“He was taken prisoner by the rebels.”
“That is true. Well; let us call him, and learn from him with whom we have to deal.” And all voices shouted, “Biscarrat! Biscarrat!” But Biscarrat did not answer.
“Good!” said the officer who had shown so much coolness in the affair. “We have no longer any need of him; here are reinforcements coming.”
In fact, a company of the Guards, left in the rear by their officers, whom the ardor of the chase had carried away,- from seventy-five to eighty men,- arrived in good order, led by their captain and the first lieutenant. The five officers hastened to meet their soldiers; and in a language the eloquence of which may be easily imagined, they related the adventure and asked for aid. The captain interrupted them. “Where are your companions?” demanded he.
“But there were sixteen of you!”
“Ten are dead. Biscarrat is in the cavern, and we are five.”
“Biscarrat is then a prisoner?”
“No,- for here he is; look.” In fact, Biscarrat appeared at the opening of the grotto.
“He makes us a sign to come on,” said the officer. “Come on!”
“Come on!” cried all the troop; and they advanced to meet Biscarrat.
“Monsieur,” said the captain addressing Biscarrat, “I am assured that you know who the men are in that grotto who make such a desperate defence. In the King’s name I command you to declare what you know.”
“Captain,” said Biscarrat, “you have no need to command me. My word has been restored to me this very instant; and I come in the name of these men.”
“To tell me that they surrender?”
“To tell you that they are determined to defend themselves to the death, unless you grant them good terms.”
“How many are there of them, then?”
“There are two,” said Biscarrat.
“There are two- and they want to impose conditions upon us?”
“There are two, and they have already killed ten of our men.”
“What are they,- giants?”
“Better than that. Do you remember the history of the bastion St. Gervais, Captain?”
“Yes; where four musketeers held out against an army.”
“Well, these two men were of those musketeers.”
“And their names?”
“At that period they were called Porthos and Aramis. Now they are styled M. d’Herblay and M. du Vallon.”
“And what interest have they in all this?”
“It is they who held Belle-Isle for M. Fouquet!”
A murmur ran through the ranks of the soldiers on hearing the two words, “Porthos and Aramis.” “The musketeers! the musketeers!” repeated they. And among all these brave men, the idea that they were going to have a struggle against two of the oldest glories of the French army made a shiver, half enthusiasm, half terror, run through them. In fact, those four names- d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis- were venerated among all who wore a sword, as in antiquity the names of Hercules, Theseus, Castor, and Pollux were venerated.
“Two men! and they have killed ten in two discharges! That is impossible, M. Biscarrat!”
“Eh, Captain,” replied the latter, “I do not say that they have not with them two or three men, as the musketeers of the bastion St. Gervais had two or three lackeys. But believe me, Captain, I have seen these men, I have been taken prisoner by them, I know them; they alone would suffice to destroy an army.”
“That we shall see,” said the captain, “and in a moment too. Gentlemen, attention!”
At this reply, no one stirred, and all prepared to obey. Biscarrat alone risked a last attempt. “Monsieur,” said he, in a low voice, “believe me; let us pass on our way. Those two men, those two lions you are going to attack, will defend themselves to the death. They have already killed ten of our men; they will kill double the number, and end by killing themselves rather than surrender. What shall we gain by fighting them?”
“We shall gain the consciousness, Monsieur, of not having made eighty of the King’s Guards retire before two rebels. If I listened to your advice, Monsieur, I should be a dishonored man; and by dishonoring myself I should dishonor the army. Forward, men!”
And he marched first as far as the opening of the grotto. There he halted. The object of this halt was to give to Biscarrat and his companions time to describe to him the interior of the grotto. Then, when he believed he had a sufficient acquaintance with the place, he divided his company into three bodies, which were to enter successively, keeping up a sustained fire in all directions. No doubt in this attack they would lose five more men, perhaps ten; but certainly they must end by taking the rebels, since there was no issue; and at any rate two men could not kill eighty.
“Captain,” said Biscarrat, “I beg to be allowed to march at the head of the first platoon.”
“So be it,” replied the captain; “you have all the honor of it. That is a present I make you.”
“Thanks!” replied the young man, with all the firmness of his race.
“Take your sword, then.”
“I shall go as I am, Captain,” said Biscarrat, “for I do not go to kill, I go to be killed.” And placing himself at the head of the first platoon with his head uncovered and his arms crossed, “March, gentlemen!” said he.
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